How Yiddish Scholars Rescue Women's Novels From Obscurity

In “Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love”, an expedition by the socialists, anarchists and intellectuals who populate...

In “Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love”, an expedition by the socialists, anarchists and intellectuals who populated New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century, Miriam Karpilove writes from the perspective of a young sardonic woman frustrated by men’s advocacy of rampant sex and their indifference to the consequences for her.

When a young radical tells the narrator that a woman’s role in his life is to “help me achieve happiness”, she observes aside to the reader: “I didn’t want to help him achieve happiness. I felt like I would feel much better if he was on the other side of the door.

In one review for Tablet magazine, Dara Horn compared the book to “Sex and the City”, “Friends”, and “Pride and Prejudice”. Although it was published by Syracuse University Press in English in 2020, Karpilove, who immigrated to New York from Minsk in 1905, wrote it about a century ago, and it was serialized in a journal Yiddish from 1916.

Jessica Kirzane, an assistant professor of Yiddish education at the University of Chicago who translated the novel, said her students are drawn to its contemporary echoes of men using their power for sexual purposes. “Students are often surprised that this is someone whose experiences are so relevant, even though the writing goes back so long,” she said in an interview.

Yiddish novels written by women have gone largely unrecognized as they have never been translated into English or published as books. Unlike works translated from the language by male writers such as Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Chaim Grade, Yiddish fiction by women has long been dismissed by publishers as insignificant or unmarketable to a wider audience.

But in recent years, there has been a wave of translations of female writers by Yiddish scholars dedicated to keeping literature alive.

Madeleine Cohen, academic director of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., said that counting published or contracted translations, there will have been eight Yiddish titles by women – including novels and collections of stories – translated into English over seven years, more than the number of translations over the previous two decades.

Yiddish professors like Kirzane and Anita Norich, who translated Kadya Molodovsky’s “A Jewish Refugee in New York,” discovered works by perusing microfilms of long-vanished Yiddish newspapers and periodicals that serialized the novels. They combed through catalogs on yellowed index cards in archives such as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Researchresearching the names of women known for their poetry and diaries to see if they also wrote novels.

“This literature hid in plain sight, but we all assumed it wasn’t there,” said Norich, professor emeritus of English and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan. “Novels were written by men while women wrote poetry or memoirs and diaries, but did not have access to the broad worldview that men had. If you’ve always heard that women don’t write novels in Yiddish, why go looking for it?

But look for it, Norich did. It was painstaking, often tedious but also exciting work, allowing Norich to feel, she says, “like a combination of detective, explorer, archaeologist and obsessive”.

“A Jewish Refugee in New York,” serialized in a Yiddish newspaper in 1941, centers on a 20-year-old from Nazi-occupied Poland who escapes to America to live with her aunt and cousins. in the Lower East Side. Instead of offering sympathy, those close to her make fun of her clothes and English malapropisms, pay little heed to her fears about the fate of her European relatives, and attempt to sabotage her budding romances.

Until Norich’s translation was published by Indiana University Press in 2019, there had only been one Yiddish fiction book by an American — Blume Lempel — translated into English, Norich said. (Two non-American writers had been translated: Esther Singer Kreitmanthe sister of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who settled in Britain, and Chava Rosenfarb, a Canadian who translated.)

The new translations spark a shred of optimism among Yiddish scholars and experts for a language whose extinction has long been a concern but never happened. Yiddish is the lingua franca of many Hasidic communities, but their adherents rarely read secular works. And it faded into everyday conversation among the descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Eastern European immigrants who brought the language to the United States in the late 19th century.

The new translations are read by people interested in daily life in Eastern European shtetls and immigrant ghettos in the United States, told from a woman’s perspective. They are also read by students at the two dozen campuses across the country offering programs in Yiddish. “Students have often been surprised at how unsentimental these novelists are, how varied their themes are, and how outspoken they are about female desire,” Norich said.

Thanks to a grant from the Yiddish Book Center, a 42-year-old non-profit organization that seeks to revitalize Yiddish literature and culture, Norich is currently translating a second novel: “Two Feelings”, by Celia Dropkin (1887-1956), a Russian immigrant. who was admired for her erotically charged poems but never known as a novelist.

“Two Feelings” had been serialized in The Yiddish Forward in 1934, then forgotten. It tells the story of a married woman who struggles to reconcile her feelings for, as Norich put it, a “husband whom she loves because he is a good man, and a lover whom she loves because he is a good lover but not a good man.”

A recent volume, “Oedipus in Brooklyn”, is a collection of stories by Blume Lempel (1907-1999), the daughter of a Ukrainian kosher butcher. After spending a decade in Paris, she, her husband and their two children immigrated to New York in 1939, where she began writing for Yiddish newspapers.

In an introduction, her translators, Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, describe Lempel as “drawn to subjects rarely explored by other Yiddish writers of her time: abortion, prostitution, the erotic imagination of women, the incest”. His phrases, they add, “often conjure up an unsettling mix of splendor and menace.”

In the promotional copy of the book, Cynthia Ozick called it a “splendid surprise” and asked, “Why should Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Grade monopolize this rich literary vein?”

Recent books have mostly been published by university presses in short runs, many of which have been funded by scholarships and stipends from the Yiddish Book Center. Despite the contemporary themes of the books, said Cohen, academic director of the center, it has been difficult to persuade mainstream publishers to acquire titles from generally unknown and previously untranslated female writers.

The researchers work independently, although they meet occasionally at conferences and round tables. Their life stories provide a window into the evolution of Yiddish.

Kirzane learned the language not in his childhood home, but at the University of Virginia and through a doctoral program at Columbia University. Norich, the daughter of Yiddish-speaking Polish Holocaust survivors, was born after the war in a displaced persons camp in Bavaria and grew up in the Bronx, continuing to speak Yiddish with her parents and brother.

When her daughter Sara was born, she tried hard to speak only Yiddish to her, but gave up when Sara was 5. “It takes a community to grow a language,” she says.

These translators believe that the novels newly translated by women will enrich the teaching of Yiddish. Yiddish is, after all, called mamaloshen – the mother tongue – and a woman’s perspective, they said, is long gone.

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Newsrust - US Top News: How Yiddish Scholars Rescue Women's Novels From Obscurity
How Yiddish Scholars Rescue Women's Novels From Obscurity
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