Publisher Opens Final Chapter

By Beth Schwartzapfel

Published March 02, 2007, issue of March 02, 2007.
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Last month’s publication of “The Cross and Other Jewish Stories” by Ukrainian-born Yiddish author Lamed Shapiro marks both a new beginning and the beginning of the end for the New Yiddish Library Series.

“The Cross” is the seventh book of the series, a collaborative effort involving the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature, the National Yiddish Book Center and Yale University Press. It is the series’s first publication in five years, and as such is a sign of its rebirth; a half-dozen more books are in the pipeline. But the series has also announced that it will close up shop in the coming year, after those half-dozen books are complete.

The New Yiddish Library Series was established in 1985, with the goal of commissioning new English translations of works of Yiddish literature: novels, novellas and short-story collections. In addition to a new translation, each book has a scholarly critical introduction and a glossary and notes. “There’s a blueprint,” series editor David Roskies told the Forward. “We’re trying to look at all of Yiddish literature and to select that which is the most important and of lasting significance. It’s a matter of covering the major geographical areas, the major writers, the major works.”

The series was the brainchild of scholar and Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz, who in the early 1980s raised a $100,000 endowment to create the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature. “The existing translations were haphazard,” fund director Neil Kozodoy, Dawidowicz’s literary executor, told the Forward. “Some were great, some were bad. The average reader had no way to tell which was which.” Dawidowicz died in 1990, and although Kozodoy has overseen a few other projects that utilized the fund’s resources — such as 1995’s English translation of Israeli scholar Jacob Katz’s autobiography “With My Own Eyes” — the New Yiddish Library Series has been its “main project and the main thing [Dawidowicz] wanted to focus on.”

Schocken Books, a New York-based Jewish publishing house, published the series’s first four volumes, beginning in 1987 with new translations, by Hillel Halkin, of Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman” and “The Railroad Stories.” Over the next 10 years, “Tevye” was followed by a collection of short stories by Polish writer I.L. Peretz, S. Ansky’s classic “The Dybbuk and Other Writings” and “Tales of Mendele the Book Peddler,” a collection of novellas by Belorussian-born author S.Y. Abramovitsch.

The series went shopping for a new publisher when Schocken — which had been acquired by Random House — “lost interest in the series,” Roskies told the Forward. “They just turned down most of what we were interested in publishing, because it was just too obscure for them.” In 1997 the series moved to Yale University Press, whose publisher, Jonathan Brent, told the Forward, “My interest is in de-kitschifying this literature, helping to break it out of the ghetto in which it has largely found a home.” Obscure though the titles may be, Brent said, “that’s what a university press is all about. A university press specializes in lost causes.”

In 2002, Yale re-released the Peretz and Ansky works (Schocken retained the rights to “Tevye” and “Mendele”) and then published a new Sholom Aleichem volume — “Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl and Motl, the Cantor’s Son” — and a volume of poetry and prose by Galician author Itzik Manger, called “The World According to Itzik.”

Up to this point, Roskies said, the series had been a “one-man show”; Roskies (and before him, his sister, the first series editor, Harvard professor of Yiddish literature Ruth Wisse) was “chief cook and bottle washer,” and the series simply published the titles he thought were interesting or important. But a partnership, formed in 2002, with the National Yiddish Book Center changed all that.

In addition to raising tens of thousands of dollars to contribute to Dawidowicz’s endowment, the book center mandated that Roskies assemble a 10-person international editorial board. “The meetings of our board, a cross between a free weekend at Grossinger’s and a Zionist Congress, were especially fruitful,” Roskies said. The board created a list of seven additional titles, which, together with the six already published, represented America, Poland and Russia (“the three centers of Yiddish writing,” according to Roskies), and served as a map for the future of the series. The new Lamed Shapiro volume marks the first result of that effort. Yale redesigned the cover for Shapiro’s book, and the remaining volumes will, similarly, look more commercial than academic. The next volume will be “Everyday Jews,” a novel that Roskies characterizes as “the Polish ‘Call It Sleep.’” It was originally published in 1935 by Yehoshua Perle, a writer whose work has never before been translated into English.

Ultimately, however, “the readership for the series was not as great as we had hoped,” the book center’s executive vice president, Nancy Sherman, told the Forward. Yale’s Brent confirmed that although a number of colleges and universities, including George Washington University, Brandeis University and the University of Oregon, have included some of the volumes on course syllabi, none of the books has sold more than a few hundred copies. Dawidowicz’s endowment is dwindling, and the series cannot sustain itself without continued funding from the book center. As part of its 25th-anniversary restructuring, the book center decided to discontinue the project.

“We’ll remain committed to translating Yiddish books into English, possibly as individual volumes rather than a series, and we will continue to draw upon the same pool of advisers and scholars,” Sherman said.

The remaining six manuscripts on the list will be submitted to Yale in the coming year, and then the New Yiddish Library Series will be complete.

Roskies said he was disappointed by the decision, but he noted that the 13 volumes will ultimately be “a respectable lifespan for a project like this.”

Brent is also heartened by the courses that have adopted the books: “For an 18-year-old kid to be reading this stuff — that’s fabulous. That means that these works are entering a new generation.”

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