Ear­li­er this week Ellen Cassedy and Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub wrote about their dis­cov­ery of Blume Lempel’s trans­gres­sive Yid­dish fic­tion, now trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish as the col­lec­tion Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn and Oth­er Sto­ries. Ellen and Yer­miyahu are guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all Week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Ele­na Fer­rante may or may not be a cer­tain Rome-based edi­tor and trans­la­tor, as has recent­ly been alleged. What is clear is that who­ev­er this writer is, they pre­fer to remain anony­mous, to let the writ­ing speak for itself. 

Though Fer­rante insists on remain­ing pri­vate as a per­son, her work reveals star­tling­ly inti­mate truths about women’s lives. In this, the Ital­ian writer has much in com­mon with Blume Lem­pel, the author of the remark­able work we trans­lat­ed for the new col­lec­tion Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn and Oth­er Sto­ries. While Lem­pel used her own name for most of her career she, too, opt­ed for an unusu­al mea­sure of per­son­al pri­va­cy while reach­ing for an uncom­mon can­dor on the page. 

Lem­pel was born in East­ern Europe at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry in a white-washed room by the banks of a riv­er that had no name.” She lived in Paris for ten years before flee­ing to the Unit­ed States with the rise of Hitler. She set­tled in New York, where she turned out a prodi­gious amount of won­der­ful­ly orig­i­nal fic­tion until her death in the 1990s. 

Like Ferrante’s, Lempel’s work was sur­pris­ing­ly frank and often undaunt­ed by taboo. But even as she broke new ground in what she shared in her writ­ing, she fierce­ly guard­ed her per­son­al pri­va­cy. I hide my lit­er­ary exis­tence under my apron,” she told an inter­view­er at her home on Long Island. If you asked my neigh­bors about my writ­ing, they’d look at you and think you were crazy.” 

Would Lem­pel have been able to exer­cise the same artis­tic free­dom if her neigh­bors had known she was writ­ing about rape, incest, abor­tion, and the erot­ic imag­in­ings of a mid­dle-aged women, nurs­ing moth­ers, and elder­ly wid­ows? Prob­a­bly not. Per­haps the con­ceal­ing apron” helped lib­er­ate her to explore such taboo themes. 

Lempel’s deci­sion to con­tin­ue writ­ing in Yid­dish into the 1990s, even as the num­ber of Yid­dish read­ers dwin­dled year by year, also helped her con­trol over what was pub­lic and what was not. Lem­pel was pub­lished in Yid­dish pub­li­ca­tions through­out the world. She received mul­ti­ple prizes and was admired by Yid­dish writ­ers and read­ers alike. Indeed, she sought out that recog­ni­tion; at the same time, how­ev­er, in many ways she held her­self apart, pur­su­ing her sin­gu­lar lit­er­ary vision on her own terms. 

Hid­ing is a recur­rent theme in Lempel’s work. In one sto­ry, she writes about a moth­er and son liv­ing among the ani­mals in the for­est dur­ing the Holo­caust; the account is so vivid that crit­ics assumed it was drawn from per­son­al expe­ri­ence, though it was in fact entire­ly the prod­uct of her extra­or­di­nary imag­i­na­tion and rare pow­ers of empa­thy. In anoth­er sto­ry, a woman who has been raped and impreg­nat­ed by her peas­ant res­cuer dur­ing the Holo­caust peeks out of the barn through a crack in the attic wall. I live on the side­lines,” a dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tor reflects, like a stranger in my own world.” In yet anoth­er sto­ry, a Jew­ish woman in Ger­man-occu­pied Paris works for the Resis­tance behind a care­ful­ly applied mask of glamour. 

In prepar­ing Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn for pub­li­ca­tion, we spent many hours inter­view­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers and read­ing Lempel’s cor­re­spon­dence and per­son­al papers. We were curi­ous about her artis­tic process, the rhythm of her days, and her rea­sons for choos­ing her sub­jects. Still, as an indi­vid­ual she remained mys­te­ri­ous to us — just as, it seems, she wished. 

The para­dox of pri­va­cy cou­pled with out­spo­ken lit­er­ary expres­sion is hard­ly unique to Blume Lem­pel or Ele­na Fer­rante. In fact, it is at the heart of the lit­er­ary enter­prise for many writ­ers. What is notable for these two writ­ers, how­ev­er, is the stark­ness of the divide. Dur­ing her life­time, Lempel’s dream of an Eng­lish-lan­guage read­er­ship for the most part elud­ed her. It’s a joy for us now to help her unre­al­ized dream come true. 

As we peel back the veil” of Yid­dish, allow­ing Eng­lish-lan­guage read­ers gain access to Lempel’s daz­zling prose and her bold approach to sto­ry­telling, we hope we enable this extra­or­di­nary writer to be known in the way she want­ed to be known. 

Ellen Cassedy and Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub received the Yid­dish Book Center’s 2012 Trans­la­tion Prize for their work on the fic­tion of Blume Lem­pel, now avail­able to Eng­lish read­ers in their col­lec­tion Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn and Oth­er Sto­ries.

Relat­ed Content:

Ellen Cassedy, the trans­la­tor of On the Land­ing: Sto­ries by Yen­ta Mash (2018), received a PEN/​Heim trans­la­tion grant and a Hadas­sah Bran­deis Insti­tute fel­low­ship for her work on Mash. She was the co-trans­la­tor, with Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub, of Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn and Oth­er Sto­ries by Blume Lem­pel (2016), award­ed the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter Trans­la­tion Prize. She is the author of We Are Here: Mem­o­ries of the Lithuan­ian Holo­caust (2012), which won sev­er­al nation­al awards and was short­list­ed for the William Saroy­an Inter­na­tion­al Prize for Writing.

Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub is the author of six books of poet­ry: The Edu­ca­tion of a Daf­fodil: Prose Poems/​Di bil­dung fun a geln nart­sis: prozelid­er, A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-krat­sers: gek­libene Yidishe lider/​A Mouse Among Tot­ter­ing Sky­scrap­ers: Select­ed Yid­dish Poems, Prayers of a Heretic/​Tfiles fun an apikoyres, Uncle Feygele, What Still­ness Illuminated/​Vos shtilka­yt hot baloykhtn, and The Insa­tiable Psalm. Tsug­reyt­ndik zikh tsu tantsn: naye Yidishe lider/​Preparing to Dance: New Yid­dish songs, a CD of nine of his Yid­dish poems set to music, was released in 2014. He was hon­ored by the Muse­um of Jew­ish Her­itage as one of New York’s best emerg­ing Jew­ish artists and has been nom­i­nat­ed four times for a Push­cart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award.