Yid­dish poster adver­tis­ing King Lear, cir­ca 1898

Sev­en­ty-five years after the Holo­caust, Yid­dish shows extra­or­di­nary resilience. Aside from its dai­ly use by the ultra-Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty world­wide, col­lege cours­es, music and lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals, movies and pub­li­ca­tions, the hit Broad­way ver­sion of Fid­dler on the Roof, and an agri­cul­tur­al move­ment with Yid­dish as its mis­sion are all proof of its strength. Ilan Sta­vans, Lewis-Sebring Pro­fes­sor of Human­i­ties, Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no Cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege, and Josh Lam­bert, Aca­d­e­m­ic Direc­tor of the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter in Amherst, Mass­a­chu­setts, a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion work­ing to recov­er, cel­e­brate, and regen­er­ate Yid­dish and mod­ern Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture, which in 2020 cel­e­brates its 40th anniver­sary, worked togeth­er to curate an anthol­o­gy cel­e­brat­ing its rich his­to­ry. The result, How Yid­dish Changed Amer­i­ca and How Amer­i­ca Changed Yid­dish, has just been pub­lished by Rest­less Books. Paper Brigade invit­ed them to dis­cuss the anthol­o­gy and their own rela­tion­ships with Yiddish. 

Ilan Sta­vans: Yid­dish has per­formed a mirac­u­lous rever­sal. Sev­en­ty-five years after the Holo­caust, its renewed vital­i­ty is some­thing to behold.

Josh Lam­bert: I agree that Yid­dish is hav­ing a pow­er­ful moment right now: it’s won­der­ful, for one thing, that dur­ing the time we worked on this book, there was a Yid­dish-lan­guage pro­duc­tion of Fid­dler on the Roof win­ning rave reviews on Broad­way. But what’s fun­ny is that despite every­thing we can say about the trag­ic loss of Yid­dish speak­ers in the 20th cen­tu­ry in Europe, and the rejec­tion of the lan­guage by many peo­ple here in Amer­i­ca, Yid­dish was aston­ish­ing­ly vital in the U.S. through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry. It was just vital in dif­fer­ent ways, and always chang­ing — you just have to know where to look. That was cer­tain­ly some­thing I felt as we start­ed comb­ing through the back issues of Pakn Treger—the mag­a­zine of the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter — as part of our work on this project. Were there things in those back issues of the mag­a­zine that sur­prised you?

IS: Yid­dish is the lan­guage of my edu­ca­tion. From kinder­garten to high school, I attend­ed the Yidishe Shule in Mex­i­co. As an ado­les­cent, I remem­ber being unhap­py about it. Why had my par­ents sent me to a school where a dying lan­guage was, along with Span­ish, the pri­ma­ry con­duit of instruc­tion? I rebelled against it. But even­tu­al­ly I came to real­ize how essen­tial it was to the for­ma­tion of my Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. I see the world through the prism of a besieged minor­i­ty insis­tent on keep­ing its val­ues. In my last year of high school, I wrote a play in Yid­dish. It was staged to much fan­fare. It was enough to kin­dle my lit­er­ary ambi­tions. From then on — and unlike much of the con­stituen­cy in my school — I have not only kept loy­al to Yid­dish; I have turned it into a plat­form to appre­ci­ate the role of Jew­ish lan­guages across the diasporas.

I moved to Amherst in 1993. Part of the rea­son was the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter. I want­ed to be near it, active­ly engaged in its activ­i­ties. It has been an exhil­a­rat­ing ride and our anthol­o­gy is to me a prize. Reread­ing old issues of Pakn Treger allowed me to dis­cov­er unique voic­es I had either not known or for­got­ten about. The anthol­o­gy was also an invi­ta­tion to return to the works of the clas­sics: Abra­ham Cahan, Jacob Glat­stein, Celia Drop­kin, Anna Mar­golin, Peretz Hir­sh­bein, Lamed Shapiro, and, of course, Isaac Bashe­vis Singer, on whose oeu­vre I have worked over the years. The occa­sion also helped me appre­ci­ate the rever­ber­a­tions of Yid­dish in Amer­i­ca through the labor-relat­ed work of Emma Gold­man, Mor­ris Rosen­feld, and oth­ers. It was a joy. Yid­dish defies expec­ta­tions. It remains a cul­tur­al engine, with sta­mi­na to spare.

JL: It occurred to me the oth­er day that this book we worked on togeth­er has Amer­i­ca” in its title not once but twice, and it was edit­ed by two immi­grants to the U.S., you from Mex­i­co and me from Cana­da. Maybe that’s not a coincidence.

I think that in some gen­er­al sense, the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in those two places share com­mon­al­i­ties, but because I’m younger than you I had an entire­ly dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence. My grand­fa­ther came to Cana­da in the 1930s; he was a native Yid­dish speak­er, and I attend­ed Jew­ish day schools from kinder­garten through high school — but Yid­dish was nev­er a part of the cur­ricu­lum at my schools in Toron­to in the 1980s and 1990s. I did­n’t first read Sholem Ale­ichem or I. L. Peretz even in trans­la­tion until I got to col­lege. That lucky expe­ri­ence of a rea­son­ably hap­py child­hood in the suc­cess­ful and con­fi­dent Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Toron­to, and then going to col­lege in an era when Jew­ish Stud­ies was flour­ish­ing, helped me to think of myself not as part of a besieged minor­i­ty,” but a pros­per­ing and priv­i­leged one. And for that rea­son, Yid­dish, when I encoun­tered it, seemed like a mas­sive bonus — a whole rich expanse of cul­ture and expres­sion that com­ple­ment­ed and inter­twined with the rab­binics and mod­ern Hebrew cul­ture I had already been exposed to. It also felt like it filled in the miss­ing pieces of my upbring­ing: I still remem­ber the feel­ing of dis­cov­ery I had in a Yid­dish class when I had learned enough to parse the expres­sion kenene­hore,” which was such a famil­iar but mys­te­ri­ous phrase in my par­ents’ house, as no evil eye.”

I still remem­ber the feel­ing of dis­cov­ery I had in a Yid­dish class when I had learned enough to parse the expres­sion kenene­hore,” which was such a famil­iar but mys­te­ri­ous phrase in my par­ents’ house, as no evil eye.”

IS: I have spent a life­time attempt­ing to use words to describe how exact­ly immi­grants look at things. Or at least, how I do. At this point, age 58, I would sum­ma­rize it in a sim­ple sen­tence: immi­grants see the world just like every­one else, except a lit­tle bit more. In my case, I have also tried to explain that bit more” in dif­fer­ent lan­guages: Yid­dish, Span­ish, Eng­lish, Hebrew, French… In some mys­te­ri­ous fash­ion, lan­guage as a fil­ter ends up col­or­ing every­thing. How we con­ju­gate a verb, what prepo­si­tion we use, where we place an adverb — these aren’t sim­ply struc­tur­al choic­es; they are ways of trans­lat­ing what we know into a nar­ra­tive. I love this quote of the Tal­mud: we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” In my eyes, How Yid­dish Changed Amer­i­ca and How Amer­i­ca Changed Yid­dish is a the­saurus of per­spec­tives. This is the way Yid­dish speak­ers have por­trayed who and how they are: full of twists and turns, joy and hope and suf­fer­ing, truths and fic­tion. This is how a lan­guage that is full of ener­gy, a lan­guage that by def­i­n­i­tion is a hybrid of mul­ti­ple tongues and back­grounds, dances around its own fate, puz­zling its ene­mies, mak­ing room for new futures.

I am a fan of the anthol­o­gy for­mat. Jews spe­cial­ize in cre­at­ing antholo­gies, i.e., com­pact portable libraries. The Bible is an anthol­o­gy and so is the Tal­mud. There have been a hand­ful of superb antholo­gies about Yid­dish, includ­ing A Trea­sury of Yid­dish Sto­ries (1954), edit­ed by Irv­ing Howe and Eliez­er Green­berg, which served as a con­duit for Amer­i­can Jews to recon­nect with the lost land­scape of East­ern Europe. My dream in assem­bling our com­pendi­um was, in Ham­let’s words, to hold a mir­ror up to nature.” As a minor­i­ty, Amer­i­can Jews are extra­or­di­nar­i­ly suc­cess­ful. But they run the risk of for­get­ting their past and, as a result, of con­fus­ing who they are. The Amer­i­can dias­po­ra has already left a deep mark in his­to­ry. Among oth­er con­tri­bu­tions, it has result­ed in assim­i­la­tion to the extent that a large por­tion of the tribe feels lit­tle to no con­nec­tion with its ances­tral core.

How we con­ju­gate a verb, what prepo­si­tion we use, where we place an adverb — these aren’t sim­ply struc­tur­al choic­es; they are ways of trans­lat­ing what we know into a narrative.

JL: As you say, sev­er­al lan­guages have been cru­cial in your work, but so often your stu­dents and read­ers and audi­ences don’t have access to the same lan­guages that you do. Which means that reg­u­lar­ly, as in this anthol­o­gy, you’ve had to work in trans­la­tion in one way or anoth­er. (It’s both strange and total­ly typ­i­cal that in our anthol­o­gy there are few actu­al Yid­dish words or sen­tences at all, but trans­la­tion­sof Yid­dish into Eng­lish.) Do you think it’s pos­si­ble to con­vey the speci­fici­ty of a lan­guage, its unique qual­i­ties as a fil­ter, to peo­ple who don’t speak it? Could I — as some­one who has nev­er learned Span­ish — ever real­ly feel what it’s like to live and love and learn in that lan­guage? What can peo­ple who don’t speak Yid­dish get from read­ing translations?

IS: Trans­la­tion is the crux of every­thing I do and is like­wise at the heart of our anthol­o­gy. With­out trans­la­tion, we would be trapped in our own con­di­tion even more so than we already are. Trans­la­tion is the bridge that links us to oth­ers. But trans­la­tion is also tricky. No two lan­guages are alike; it’s in their dif­fer­ences that their unique­ness is to be found. The mod­ern world is built around trans­la­tion: pol­i­tics, busi­ness, enter­tain­ment, sports, the web. Overt or tac­it­ly, it is every­where. In prin­ci­ple, I believe trans­la­tion is always a form of defeat: so much is left out. Yet since the myth­i­cal Tow­er of Babel, we depend on trans­la­tion, in spite of its short­com­ings. In oth­er words, while the full orig­i­nal mes­sage in nev­er ful­ly con­veyed, we must make do with what actu­al­ly is trans­lat­able, how­ev­er lim­it­ed that con­tent might come to us in fal­si­fied fashion.

Per­haps more than oth­ers, Yid­dish is a lan­guage that is born in and for trans­la­tion. At first it was used by women, chil­dren, and the illit­er­ate, that is, it was the means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion for those exclud­ed from rab­bini­cal knowl­edge. Even­tu­al­ly, Yid­dish became the pri­ma­ry tongue of around 12 mil­lion peo­ple. Great nov­els, poems, essays, mem­oirs, ser­mons, and ped­a­gog­i­cal trea­tis­es were com­posed in it. As impor­tant­ly, a vast amount of world lit­er­a­ture — pri­mar­i­ly West­ern — was trans­lat­ed into Yid­dish: Shake­speare, Spin­oza, Marx, Dos­toyevsky, Flaubert, and so on. From all the Jew­ish lan­guages ever to appear (and there have been close to three dozen), Yid­dish is by far the most cosmopolitan.

Trans­la­tion is the bridge that links us to others.

Iron­i­cal­ly, after the Holo­caust and as a result of the enor­mous migra­tion upheaval that relo­cat­ed the cen­ter of Jew­ish civ­i­liza­tion in the 20th cen­tu­ry from Europe to the Unit­ed States and Israel, Yid­dish itself now depends on trans­la­tion. Isaac Bashe­vis Singer is the per­fect sym­bol of that recon­fig­u­ra­tion. He arrived in New York City in 1935, a few years before the Sec­ond World War broke out. His reac­tion to the Yid­dish spo­ken in Stat­en Island and the Low­er East Side was one of dis­gust, such was its con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed nature. How­ev­er, a decade lat­er Singer real­ized that, in order to become the type of writer he dreamed of, he him­self depend­ed on the audi­ence for whom Yid­dish was reced­ing. Shrewd as he was, he man­u­fac­tured his entire oeu­vre in, for, and about translation.

All this to say that the fact that How Yid­dish Changed Amer­i­ca and How Amer­i­ca Changed Yid­dish is in Eng­lish is, in and of itself, the mes­sage the vol­ume wants to con­vey: Yid­dish is alive and well for a small group of speak­ers but in order to reach a wide audi­ence, it depends on Eng­lish and oth­er lan­guages. In my view, that isn’t a recog­ni­tion of defeat; on the con­trary, it is a state­ment of adaptability.

Ilan Sta­vans is the Pub­lish­er of Rest­less Books and the Lewis-Sebring Pro­fes­sor of Human­i­ties, Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no Cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege. His books include On Bor­rowed Words, Spang­lish, Dic­tio­nary Days, The Dis­ap­pear­ance, and A Critic’s Jour­ney. He has edit­ed The Nor­ton Anthol­o­gy of Lati­no Lit­er­a­ture, the three-vol­ume set Isaac Bashe­vis Singer: Col­lect­ed Sto­ries, The Poet­ry of Pablo Neru­da, among dozens of oth­er vol­umes. He is the recip­i­ent of numer­ous awards and hon­ors, includ­ing a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship, the Mass­a­chu­setts Book Award for Poet­ry, Chile’s Pres­i­den­tial Medal, the Inter­na­tion­al Lati­no Book Award, and the Jew­ish Book Award. Sta­vans’ work, trans­lat­ed into twen­ty lan­guages, has been adapt­ed to the stage and screen. A cofounder of the Great Books Sum­mer Pro­gram at Amherst, Stan­ford, Chica­go, Oxford, and Dublin, he is the host of the NPR pod­cast In Contrast.

Josh Lam­bert is the aca­d­e­m­ic direc­tor of the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter and vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst. He’s the author of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Fic­tion: A JPS Guide (2009) and Unclean Lips: Obscen­i­ty, Jews, and Amer­i­can Cul­ture (2014), which received a Jor­dan Schnitzer Book Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Stud­ies and a Cana­di­an Jew­ish Book Award. His reviews and essays have been pub­lished by the New York Times Book Review, the Los Ange­les Times, the Los Ange­les Review of Books, Haaretz, Tablet, the For­ward, New Eng­land Pub­lic Radio, and many oth­er publications.