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 com­piled into the book Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn and Oth­er Sto­ries. Ellen and Yer­miyahu will be guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all Week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

We had no idea what we were get­ting our­selves into when a book with a plain gray cov­er came our way some years ago.

The vol­ume was a gift from an elder­ly teacher of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture. Signed by the author, it had been pub­lished in Yid­dish in Tel Aviv in 1981. We did not know much about Blume Lem­pel, beyond the fact that she’d been born in 1907 in what is now Ukraine, had man­aged to flee to New York just before World War II, and had con­tin­ued writ­ing in Yid­dish into the 1990s. 

We learned that she had spent ten years in Paris before the war, par­tic­i­pat­ing in the flour­ish­ing Jew­ish cul­tur­al life there. She was lat­er pub­lished through­out the world in the post­war Yid­dish press and gar­nered numer­ous prizes, and admired by lead­ing Yid­dish writ­ers, includ­ing Yonia Fain, Chaim Grade, Mal­ka Heifetz-Tuss­man, Cha­va Rosen­farb, and Osh­er Jaime Schuchin­s­ki. She died in 1999.

With­in the cov­ers of this lit­tle grey book, we dis­cov­ered big sur­pris­es, a wide range of sub­jects explored through an aston­ish­ing poet­ic style and unortho­dox nar­ra­tive tech­niques. Our amaze­ment only grew when we came to the sto­ry called Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn,” which we select­ed as the title sto­ry for our collection. 

Lempel’s long­time edi­tor, Abra­ham Sutzkev­er, who pub­lished many of her sto­ries in the pres­ti­gious Yid­dish lit­er­ary jour­nal Di gold­ene keyt, refused to touch Oedi­pus.” Too shock­ing, he said. Lem­pel had to wait sev­er­al years before it appeared in print in her first col­lec­tion, the book with the plain gray cover. 

Shock­ing? Maybe. But in Lempel’s hands, the sto­ry is nei­ther sen­sa­tion­al, tawdry, nor played for laughs. Her account of a con­tem­po­rary woman involved in a trans­gres­sive rela­tion­ship with her son is mas­ter­ful­ly com­pas­sion­ate and com­pelling. Step by step, Lem­pel fear­less­ly leads the read­er into the heart of dark­ness. She tells of the car acci­dent that kills the father and blinds the son, of the grow­ing close­ness between moth­er and son, of their increas­ing iso­la­tion. Final­ly, the two leave the famil­iar streets of Brook­lyn and move to Flori­da, a per­fect back­drop of hor­ror for the advanc­ing tragedy:

A blind­ing haze hung in the air like car­bon fumes. The earth was scorched, the water­ways dried up, the white egrets dis­ap­peared. The roots of the man­grove trees, naked and greedy, wait­ed for a drop of water. Creep­ing insects of all kinds eked out their slith­ery exis­tence, leav­ing behind sil­ver threads of slime on the des­ic­cat­ed waterbed.

Only the sea in its sto­ic indif­fer­ence did not cease its end­less song. 

By the story’s end, the read­er has come to under­stand and per­haps even sym­pa­thize with the plight of moth­er and son alike. 

If Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn” is unmatched in its bold­ness, oth­er sto­ries by Lem­pel also break new ground. Again and again, as she explores the lives of a broad range of most­ly female char­ac­ters, Lem­pel takes up sub­jects con­sid­ered untouch­able by oth­er writ­ers. We lis­ten to the furi­ous inner thoughts of a woman push­ing a vac­u­um clean­er. We sense the melan­choly of a woman knit­ting. We meet a glam­orous woman work­ing under­cov­er as an anti-Nazi spy, a pros­ti­tute, a lone­ly lit­tle girl, a mad­woman who dances in the mar­ket­place, a moth­er hid­ing in the for­est with her fer­al son. We accom­pa­ny a tart-tongued woman on a trip to Flori­da with her tac­i­turn hus­band and a woman fly­ing to Reno for a divorce. We befriend a home­less woman in the ladies’ room at New York’s Penn Sta­tion, a woman prac­tic­ing Zen med­i­ta­tion, a drug addict com­muning with the flow­ers in her garden.

Blume Lem­pel was unques­tion­ably one-of-a-kind. Asked by an inter­view­er which writ­ers had influ­enced her, she men­tioned Sig­mund Freud, the father of psy­cho­analy­sis, and the philoso­phers Spin­oza and Berg­son, but only in passing. 

And all this in Yid­dish. Cov­er to cov­er, Blume Lem­pel is nev­er any­thing less than sur­pris­ing. We have yet to encounter any­one like her, in any language. 

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.