In September 1976, Commentary printed the letters of three novelists who had taken umbrage at appraisals of their work, in a previous issue, by a relatively unknown Yiddish professor named Ruth Wisse. Cynthia Ozick, the most fervent of the respondents, judged Wisse guilty of a “fundamental (and, for a good reader, unforgivable) critical error”: confusing literature with sociology.
Each month, a handful of New York feminists, who are also students of Yiddish, get together in each other’s homes to read the work of Yiddish women writers. Several writers, a couple of filmmakers and librarians, a culinary scholar and a singer/songwriter form the core of the group. Our population, however, expands and contracts, following cycles of visiting researchers, friends and the occasional curious academic.
Let’s say you’re raising your children in Yiddish and you want to buy them some books. What do you do? If you walk into the children’s section of any bookstore, you’ll be deluged with a huge number of engaging, beautifully illustrated books, from board books to chapter books to beautifully rendered pop-ups. But none of these books is written in Yiddish — right?
There are many bilingual Jewish books in which the two languages are dependent on each other. The Gemara is a mostly Aramaic reworking of the Hebrew-language Mishnah. The stories of Reb Nachman of Breslov were told in Yiddish, but their first written versions were in Hebrew. The majority of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work is now best known not in the original Yiddish, but in the English into which Singer reworked his stories.
Long faced with extinction, Yiddish literature has been preserved for the digital age with a newly activated online archive.
If the classic Yiddish imprecation has an inverse, it is the Irish blessing. While the Gaelic bards gaily start benedictions with “May…” before politely wishing their recipient good fortune (“May the wind be always at your back; May the sun shine warm upon your face”), the Yiddish curse is a spell of invective, typically cast with the conditional “You should…” prior to the litany of ill tidings (“You should get windburn and a melanoma”).
‘Wandering Stars,” Yiddish master Sholom Aleichem’s comic novel about the Yiddish theater, has just been published in a new translation by Aliza Shevrin. The novel tells the story of Leibl and Reizel, two talented teenagers who flee their backwater shtetl with the help of a traveling Yiddish theater troupe. Sweethearts separated by corrupt theater companies, they each achieve their own successes in European cities and eventually in New York. But while Leibl devotes his talents to the Yiddish stage, Reizel becomes a star of the gentile theater — and always remains one city beyond his reach.
Heard any good Yiddish folksongs lately? Chances are good that the answer is “no.” Not because there aren’t any good Yiddish folksongs to be heard; for generations, the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe sang innumerable songs about love and loss, death and marriage. They sang to their children to soothe them to sleep, and they sang at work to relieve the drudgery of menial labor.
Renowned scholar David G. Roskies is the Sol and Evelyn Henkind chair in Yiddish literature and culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The following excerpt is from his forthcoming memoir, “Yiddishlands” (Wayne State University Press). In the work, Roskies discusses his life and the life of his mother, and explores the Yiddish experience and historical events of the last century.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I’m personally indebted to Yale Strom.