Beware: The Cat in the Hat Is Back

By Erica Brody

Published September 05, 2003, issue of September 05, 2003.
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Zackary Sholem Berger is without a doubt a man of many hats. On September 14, he will don his silliest one — a towering red-and-white-striped hat — as he meanders up and down 13th Avenue near Eichler’s Judaica in Boro Park, Brooklyn, selling and signing copies of his new book, a Yiddish version of “The Cat in the Hat.”

With his puckish grin, pert red bow-tie and ever-perky whiskers, the Cat in the Hat is once again on the prowl, ready to rescue children from the doldrums of drizzly afternoons. Thanks to Berger’s translation, Di Kats der Payats makes his entrée into perfectly rhymed Yiddish and is likely to inspire warm, fuzzy feelings for the impish cat — and perhaps for Yiddish itself.

With his wife, Celeste Sollod, who works at a New York publishing house, Berger created Twenty-Fourth Street Books, incorporated in January as an independent publisher specializing in Yiddish books for kids. “Large publishers really aren’t interested” in this kind of project, he said. Why “The Cat in the Hat”? “We really like it,” he said with a laugh — and they wanted “a book that everyone recognized.” Mainly, it seems, they thought it would be fun and would win fans across the religious spectrum, from secular to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Although his father spoke Yiddish, Berger said that it was not until high school in Louisville, Ky., that he began to study mameloshn, following a teacher’s suggestion. As for Sollod, she began taking Yiddish classes after marrying Berger in 2000.

Despite his late start, Berger, who turned 30 in July, is today well respected for his role among the ranks of young, ardent Yiddishists bringing mameloshn into the modern age — the book has its own Web site (www.yiddishcat.com) and Berger has a literary Yiddish Web site, as well as blogs, or Web journals, in English and Yiddish. Berger, an observant Conservative Jew, writes for the Yiddish Forward — and occasionally for the English Forward — and pens poetry and prose, including two novels in the works, one each in English and Yiddish.

Berger is also “very active” in Yugntruf–Youth for Yiddish, he told the Forward, having fathered the Yiddish Communities Project last year. The group awarded three $1,000 stipends last year to cover the moving costs of American Yiddish speakers who relocated in order to be within “walking distance” of another Yiddish speaker. The awardees were in their 20s and 30s.

But such projects are relegated to Berger’s spare time. The Yiddish-lover is in the final stretch of a seven-year M.D.-Ph.D. program in epidemiology at New York University, which he expects to finish next fall. “I do sleep,” he said, despite his busy schedule, which is likely to become far busier — Sollod is five months pregnant.

After describing Leonard Wolf’s translation of A. A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh,”“Vidi-der-pu,” as “extremely well-done,” Berger named Itzik Kipnis’s “Yiddish Children’s Stories” as his favorite Yiddish children’s book. It’s “clever, colloquial and fun,” he said. In his own “Di Kats der Payats,” the Yiddish appears in Hebrew characters, as well as in transliterated Yiddish; for those unfamiliar with the language, there’s a pronunciation chart.

Like the creator of “The Cat in the Hat,” Theodor Seuss Geisel — aka Dr. Seuss, who penned antifascist cartoons during World War II and died in 1991 — Berger keeps abreast of contemporary affairs. He stresses the importance of breathing life into Yiddish. With his “Di Kats der Payats,” he hopes to bring “fun Yiddish reading” into more homes.

On one of his blogs, Berger entreats: “Git do oybn a klik./ Koyfts yidn, un koyft!/ Nisht rut zikh, nor aylt zikh!/ Nisht vart tsu, nor loyft!” He’s provided a translation for his quirky sales pitch: “Support feline Yiddish./ Come buy it! Why not?/ You’ll like it just fine./ You’ll love it a lot.”






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