Love and Translation

Mother and Daughter Became Their Own Literary Enterprise

Words That Bind: Chava Rosenfarb relied on her daughter, Goldie Morgentaler, to bring her Yiddish stories to an English-speaking audience.
courtesy of goldie morgentaler
Words That Bind: Chava Rosenfarb relied on her daughter, Goldie Morgentaler, to bring her Yiddish stories to an English-speaking audience.

By Goldie Morgentaler

Published May 13, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

My mother and I used to fight about translation. These were not genteel disagreements but passionate, intemperate shouting matches. She would say: “That’s not what I meant! You twisted my words. Why can’t you just translate what I wrote?” I would say: “Because it’s not English; you can’t say that in English!” Or, “It’s too sentimental, too much mush, too many adjectives.” She would say: “What a cold language English is!”

My mother was the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb; she died in January 2011, at the age of 87. I tell you about our quarrels not to suggest that my mother and I had a quarrelsome relationship. On the contrary, we seldom fought about anything non-literary. Nor do I tell you this because I want to demonstrate that she and I were a team, a translating team, although that is exactly what we were. I tell you this because I want to emphasize just how important writing was to my mother’s life and how much emotion, passion and energy she devoted to it.

The first thing journalists and reviewers usually say when they refer to my mother is that she was a Holocaust survivor, as if this one event defined her for all time. Well, she was a Holocaust survivor, but it was not the essence of her life. When asked what she did, she always replied, “I am a writer.” And she bristled if anyone implied that because she did not leave her house and go to work every day, she had no job. Writing was her job; more than that, writing was her life. She was never more miserable than when she had a writer’s block and never happier than when she had a great idea for a story. When she was elderly and could not write much anymore, she would shake her head and say with regret, “I was happiest when I was writing.”

But writing is a lonely business, and it was especially lonely for someone writing in Yiddish. When her great work, “The Tree of Life,” was first published in Yiddish in 1972, she received letters from readers from all over the world and glowing reviews in the Yiddish press, which acclaimed it as one of the superior literary depictions of the Holocaust. But she could not convince an English-language publisher to take a chance on the novel until 2000.

In the wider world — that is, the English-speaking world — she was unknown, merely another obscure housewife who thought she could write. As she put it in her essay “Confessions of a Yiddish Writer”:

If writing is a lonely profession, then the Yiddish writer’s loneliness has an added dimension. Her readership has perished. Her language has gone up with the smoke of the crematoria. She creates in a vacuum, almost without a readership, out of fidelity to a vanished language; as if to prove that Nazism did not extinguish its last breath, that it is still alive.

She felt, she said, “like an anachronism, wandering across a page of history.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.