[Mendele] MENDELE Personal Notices & Announcements--Article by Bennett Muraskin on Yiddish Literature in Translation

Victor Bers victor.bers at yale.edu
Mon Apr 6 13:37:36 EDT 2009

MENDELE Yiddish Language and Literature
Personal Notices and Announcements

April 6, 2009

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Date: Thu, 02 Apr 2009 18:22:05 -0400
From: Bennett Muraskin <bmuraskin at optonline.net>
Subject: Article on Yiddish literature in English translation

[The untershames regrets that this very useful contribution was lost in 
his cybernetic *keler* for several weeks. As penance, he will send anyone 
who requests it an aesthetically superior version in Word.]

Yiddish Literature in English Translation: An American Tale
Bennett Muraskin

      Modern Yiddish literature is a prime expression of Jewish humanism. 
Its creators were typically rebels against authority and proponents of 
universal ideals of freedom of thought, social justice and human dignity. 
Yiddish authors did not write for the educated elite, but for the average 
Jew. They formed a special bond with their readers, which gave Yiddish 
literature a popular character. Although rooted in the religious 
tradition, they were, with few exceptions, decidedly secular in their 
outlook, and often sympathetic to radical movements of the left. It should 
therefore come as no surprise that secular Jewish leftists have 
historically taken the lead in preserving and translating this literature 
and incorporating into it their concept of Jewish culture (yidishkayt). It 
can almost be said that Yiddish literature served as the secular Jewish 

 	Leftists were not the first American Jews to produce translations, 
however. That honor belongs to Leo Wiener, a Harvard professor and 
immigrant from Poland, who was so impressed with Morris Rosenfeld's poetry 
that he translated selections and published them as Songs of the Ghetto 
(1898). The following year, Wiener's The History of Yiddish Literature in 
the Nineteenth Century appeared, with selections from Yiddish writers and 

 	Most other early translations of Yiddish literature into English in the 
U.S. were published by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), a non-profit 
membership organization founded by German Jews that is the oldest Jewish 
publisher in the land. JPS's earliest translations were of Peretz's 
Stories and Pictures (1904) and Yiddish Tales (1912), both translated by 
Helena Frank, a non-Jew from Great Britain. The JPS also issued two Sholem 
Asch novels, Kiddush Ha-Shem (1912, translated by Rufus Learsi) and 
Sabbatai Zevi (1930); A.S. Sachs' elegy to Jewish life in Lithuania, 
Worlds That Passed (1928, translated by Harold Berman); and three books by 
Joseph Opatoshu, including the novels In Polish Woods (1938, Isaac 
Goldberg) and The Last Revolt (1952, Moshe Spiegel), as well as the short 
story collection A Day in Regensburg (1968, Joseph Sloan). In 1967, JPS 
published Chaim Grade's The Well (Ruth Wisse); in 1969, the Anthology of 
Holocaust Literature, with many excerpts translated from Yiddish; in 1979, 
a new edition of Ruth Rubin's Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish 
Folksong; in 1985, I.B. Singer's short story collection, Gifts. Now in its 
121st year, JPS has established a distinguished record of publishing 
Yiddish literature in translation. This record extends to pre-modern 
Yiddish literature as well: In 1934, JPS published the two-volume classic 
Ma'aseh (mayse) Bukh, edited by Moses Gaster, consisting of Yiddish 
folktales from the Middle Ages.

 	A less likely promoter of yidishkayt, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius (1889-1951), 
was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants who rejected Judaism and became 
a free-thinking Debsian socialist.        He was best known as editor of 
the popular socialist journal, Appeal to Reason, from his base in Girard, 
Kansas, hardly a bastion of Yiddishhkayt. To make both literary classics 
and socialist tracts available to the "masses" in inexpensive paperback 
editions, he founded Little Blue Books, and among the thousands of titles 
he published were Asch's God of Vengeance (1918, Isaac Goldberg), Yiddish 
Short Stories (1923, edited and likely translated by Goldberg) and Great 
Yiddish Poetry (1924).

 	Before the trauma of World War II, many Yiddish-speaking Jews in North 
America were ambivalent about having Yiddish literature translated into 
English, for fear that it would discourage younger Jews from maintaining 
literacy in the original. Scattered translations of poetry and prose 
nevertheless appeared in the Jewish Frontier, the journal of the Labor 
Zionist movement; the Menorah Journal, a Jewish humanist journal; the 
Jewish Spectator, published and edited by the iconoclastic Trude Weiss 
Rosmarin; and Congress Weekly, the magazine of the American Jewish 
Congress. After the loss of so many Yiddish writers and readers in the 
Holocaust, occasional Yiddish translations and articles about Yiddish 
continued to appear in these periodicals and newer Jewish magazines, 
notably Commentary, founded as a liberal magazine in 1946, and Midstream, 
a Zionist magazine begun in 1955. Many of these writings were about the 
Holocaust. Then a major new player joined the translation scene: 
pro-Soviet Jewish communists, represented by such institutions as the 
Jewish People's Fraternal Order (JPFO), Jewish Currents magazine, the 
Yidisher Kultur Farband (YKUF, the Yiddish Cultural Alliance) and the 
Zhitlovsky Foundation.

      In 1947, for example, the JPFO published a short collection of 
translated stories by I.L. Peretz. Yiddish prose and poetry in translation 
became a regular feature of Jewish Life, established in 1946, and its 
successor, Jewish Currents, which began publication in 1958.  The 
translators were either Henry Goodman or Max Rosenfeld.  In more recent 
years, this role has been fulfilled by Gerald Stillman, who has also 
translated many of the works of Mendele Mokher-Sforim and is currently 
working on translations of two Joseph Opatoshu novels.

 	YKUF, founded in 1937, published an enormous amount of Yiddish literature 
before venturing into English translation in 1961 with The New Country, a 
large collection of Yiddish short stories about Jewish life in America. 
This was followed by a 1964 collection of Morris Rosenfeld's poetry and 
prose, an Isaac Raboy novel, Nine Brothers (1968), and a 1974 collection 
of stories by Chaver Paver (Gerson Einbinder). Again, Goodman and 
Rosenfeld provided the translations..

 	Itche Goldberg's Yiddish Stories For Young People (1966, mostly Benjamin 
Efron and Henry Goodman) probably remains the best collection of 
translated Yiddish short stories for children. Editor of Yidishe Kultur, a 
widely admired Yiddish literary journal, until his death in 2006, Goldberg 
was long associated with the institutions of the old Jewish left. The 
Zhitlovsky Foundation for Jewish Culture, which he headed, helped fund A 
Century of Yiddish Poetry (1989), an anthology edited and translated by 
Aaron Kramer, who made it a point to include the "Proletpen" poets of the 
communist movement. In 1991, the Zhitlovsky Foundation also published a 
bilingual collection of Peretz's stories, edited and translated by Eli 

  It should go without saying that all these institutions disavowed Soviet 
communism, a process that began in 1956, with Khrushchev's denunciation of 
Stalin, and culminated in 1967-68, when the Soviet Union sided with the 
Arab states in the Six Day War and Poland launched an anti-Semitic 
campaign under the guise of  "anti-Zionism."   But they retained a left 
wing orientation.

      In 1967 and 1995 respectively, the Sholem Aleichem Club of 
Philadelphia, an educational and cultural organization with roots in the 
old Jewish left, published two volumes of Max Rosenfeld's translations of 
Yiddish short stories about Jewish life in America, Pushcarts and Dreamers 
and New Yorkish, the latter in partnership with the Congress of Secular 
Jewish Organizations (CSJO), a network of progressive secular Jewish 
Sunday schools and adult societies founded in 1970.  The CSJO, a small 
entity with meager resources, nevertheless published Apples and Honey: 
Music and Readings for a Secular Jewish Observance of the Jewish New Year 
Festival (1995), which includes a range of humanistic Yiddish poems in 
English translation. In 1997, the CSJO published my pamphlet, A Yiddish 
Short Story Sampler, an annotated bibliography of selected Yiddish short 
stories in English translation. To the best of my knowledge, no other 
resource of this nature exists.

 	In Canada, the Jewish leftist magazine Outlook, established in 1963 as 
Canadian Jewish Outlook, continues to feature Yiddish poetry and prose in 
translation and the original Yiddish. Other Canadian periodicals have 
published Yiddish translations, but none with the consistency or passion 
of Outlook.

 	Nathan Ausubel broke ranks with the Communist Party only a few years 
after the 1948 publication of his classic A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, 
much of which came from Yiddish sources. This extraordinarily popular book 
is still in print sixty years later. Ruth Rubin, another product of the 
old Jewish left, who remained within its orbit her entire life, became 
North America's foremost collector of Yiddish folksongs, writing A 
Treasury of Yiddish Folksongs (1950) and Voices of a People (1963).

 	Socialist opponents of the communist movement also played a significant 
role. Irving Howe, the greatest anthologist of translated Yiddish 
literature (numerous books of short stories, poetry, essays etc.), was a 
committed socialist, and his collaborator, Yiddish poet Eliezer Greenberg, 
made the transition from communist to socialist by the time he began 
working with him.  Howe and Greenberg were also responsible for the 
publication in 1953 of I. B. Singer's now classic "Gimpel the Fool" story 
(translated by a young Saul Bellow) in Partisan Review. Joseph Leftwich, a 
British Jew whose anthologies of literary and scholarly translations from 
the Yiddish, were published in the US, was also a socialist.

 	The organized Jewish social democratic left in the U.S., however, was less 
active. The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring published very little Yiddish 
literature in translation, apart from its noted series of four song books 
compiled by Chana and Joseph Mlotek, which includes many Yiddish poems put 
to music.

 	The only other translations published by The Workmen's Circle are a 
collection of Sholem Aleichem's plays (1967, reissued in 1989); a singly 
published Sholem Aleichem play, "The Jackpot" (Dos Groyse Gevin) published 
in 1989; and The Holocaust in Yiddish Literature (1983), a slender volume 
edited by Yiddish scholar Elias Schulman.

 	Individual members of the organization, however, have been prolific 
translators of Yiddish literature in other publishing venues. In 2005, 
four-time Workmen's Circle President Barnett Zumoff published Songs to a 
Moonstruck Lady: Yiddish Poems by and about Women (Tsar Publications) and 
in 1993, Zumoff's translations of Jacob Glatstein's Holocaust poems, I 
Keep Recalling, was published by KTAV. Marvin Zuckerman, a Workmen's 
Circle leader and Yiddish educator and scholar from Southern California, 
has translated both Mendele and Peretz.

 	In 2005 the Workmen's Circle became the publisher of Jewish Currents, in 
a grand reconciliation between the old Jewish pro-communist and social 
democratic left.  Since 2004, this magazine has included a regular 
bi-lingual Yiddish poetry column, Mamaloshn, conducted by Zumoff, and 
numerous articles about Yiddish. Its special contribution to Yiddish 
literature in translation was the publication in 2007 of a new translation 
of a Sholem Aleichem story, "Pity for Living Creatures," by Gerald 
Stillman, to  accompany a Sholem Aleichem bobble-head doll. This story 
also appeared in the March/April 2009 issue. For financial reasons, 
Workmen's Circle has stopped publishing Jewish Currents.  It will 
re-emerge as an independent magazine with the May/June 2009 issue, its 
devotion to Yiddish culture intact.

      YIVO, the Yiddish Research Institute founded in Vilna in 1925 and 
relocated to New York in 1940, has published outstanding scholarship in 
Yiddish and English, but only two translations of Yiddish fiction: a 
bilingual collection of Peretz stories (1947, Sol Liptzin) and Yiddish 
Folktales (in collaboration with Pantheon Books, 1988, Leonard Wolf). 
Early in its years, YIVO was associated with the socialist Jewish Labor 
Bund and its longtime leader, Max Weinreich (1894-1969), the teacher of a 
generation of new Yiddish speakers and writers in the U.S., was a Bundist 
in his youth and remained the model of a secular Jew.

      One of the greatest proponents of Yiddish literature in translation 
today is the National Yiddish Book Center (NYBC). Every issue of its 
journal, Pakn Treger. includes a bilingual short story. In 1995, in 
collaboration with a California public radio station, the NYBC produced 
Jewish Short Stories From Eastern Europe and Beyond, nine cassette tapes 
(since converted into CDs) that include twenty Yiddish short stories. 
Other projects of this nature have followed, including an English CD of 
Sholem Aleichem's Motl the Cantor's Son. In his superb book, Outwitting 
History, NYBC founder Aaron Lansky reveals that most of  the Center's 
major zamlers (book collectors) and supporters, at least in its formative 
years, were secular leftist Jews.  He aptly describes Yiddish literature 
as "a counterculture" that presents "a challenge to mainstream values."

      Of course, many Jews not identified with the secular Jewish left have 
also produced major translations of Yiddish literature into English. Not 
to be overlooked, Midstream, devoted its entire July/August 2002 issue to 
"Yiddish Culture, Language and Literature," and has since included 
Yiddish-related material, including literary translations, in every 
July/August issue.

      Among commercial publishers involved in translation, Schocken Books 
is in a class by itself. Founded by Salmon Schocken (1877-1959), a secular 
liberal Zionist, its sole mission has been to promote Jewish studies.

      With Inside Kasrilevke (1948, Isidor Goldstick), Shocken became the 
third commercial publisher to translate Sholem Aleichem into English. A 
year later, it published Mendele's The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin 
the Third (Moishe Spiegel). Yiddish folksongs were well represented in 
Ruth Rubin's A Treasury of Jewish Folksongs (1950), and Yiddish folktales 
in Louis Newman's Hasidic Anthology (1963). Schocken published I.J. 
Singer's Family Carnovsky (1969, Joseph Singer), and nearly all of Howe 
and Greenberg's translations of Yiddish literature in either hardcover or 
soft cover editions, including the first paperback of the seminal A 
Treasury of Yiddish Short Stories (1973). Schocken also produced the soft 
cover edition of Lucy Dawidowicz's indispensable The Golden Tradition, 
Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe (1967).
In 1987, Schocken published softcover versions of Grade's My Mother's 
Sabbath Days (Chana Kleinerman Goldstein and Inna Hecker Grade) and Rabbis 
and Wives (Harold Rabinowiz and Inna Hecker Grade).  In the same year, it 
inaugurated its "Library of Jewish Classics" with the issuance of Sholem 
Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories (Hillel Halkin), 
followed by The I.L. Peretz Reader (1990, Ruth Wisse) and Ansky's The 
Dybbuk and Other Writings (1992, translated mostly by Golda Werman). In 
1996, Schocken produced Mendele's Tales of Mendele the Book Peddler (Dan 
Miron and Ted Gorelick). In the pre-modern realm, Schocken published a 
1977 soft cover edition of the Yiddish classic, The Memoirs of Glckel of 
Hameln (translated in 1932 by Marvin Lowenthal).

      The New Yiddish Library of the Yale University Press has also issued 
editions of the above-cited Peretz and Ansky titles, as well as a new 
translation of Sholem Aleichem's Letters of Menakhem Mendel and Motl the 
Cantor's Son (2002, Hillel Halkin)) and The World According to Itsik - 
Selected Poetry and Prose of Itsik Manger (2002, Leonard Wolf). In 2007, 
it published a novel, Everyday Jews, by Yehoshue Perle (Maier Deshell and 
Margaret Birstein), and stories by Lamed Shapiro (diverse translators.) 
Both the New Yiddish Library and the Library of Jewish Classics series are 
joint projects of the National Yiddish Book Center and the Fund for the 
Translation of Yiddish Literature, which has received financial support 
from Felix Posen, a British Jewish philanthropist who endows American 
universities to teach courses in secular Judaism.

      Syracuse University has been most active at Yiddish translation among 
university presses, publishing works by Mendele, The Wishing Ring (2003, 
Michael Wex) and Sholem Aleichem, Nineteen to the Dozen: Monologues and 
Bits and Bobs of Other Things, (1998, Ted Gorelnick), and The Further 
Adventures of Menachem Mendel, (2001, Aliza Shevrin). Peretz was added to 
the mix in Syracuse's 2004 anthology, Classic Yiddish Stories (Ken 
Frieden, Ted Gorelick, and Michael Wex). Syracuse has also produced books 
by Ansky (2000, Joachim Neugroschel), Dovid Bergelson (1996, Golda 
Werman), and Kadya Molodowsky (2006, Leah Schoolnik) as well as two books 
by Chava Rosenfarb, Bociany and Lodz and Love (2000, both translated by 
the author). In 2001, Syracuse published a new edition of Henry Goodman's 
The New Country: Stories from the Yiddish About Life in America 
(originally published by YKUF), and in 2003, a bilingual edition of The 
Jewish Book of Fables: The Selected Works of Eliezer Shtaynbarg (Curt 

 	In addition to Schocken, Jewish commercial publishers that have left a 
mark include Thomas Yoseloff, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who 
published a significant number of Yiddish translations under multiple 
imprints, including Peretz (1958 and 1959, translated by Moshe Spiegel and 
Joseph Leftwich, respectively), Sholem Aleichem (1959, Curt Leviant), and 
three Mendele novels: The Nag (1955, Moshe Spiegel) The Parasite (1956, 
Gerald Stillman), and Fishke the Lame (1960, Gerald Stillman). Yoseloff 
also published the original 1963 edition of Ruth Rubin's Voices of a 
People, and an updated version of The Golden Peacock (1961), Joseph 
Leftwich's famous Yiddish poetry anthology, as well as others of 
Leftwich's contributions to Yiddish literature and scholarship. In the 
pre-modern realm, Thomas Yoseloff published a translation (Beth-Zion 
Abrahams, 1963) of Glckel of Hameln's memoirs, The Life of Glckel of 

 	Alfred A. Knopf, the son of German Jews, published the very first 
translation of Sholem Aleichem stories in the U.S., Jewish Children (1920, 
Hannah Berman), and all of I.J. Singer's translated novels, beginning with 
The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936, Maurice Samuel). Knopf also published the 
first I.B. Singer novel that appeared in English, The Family Moskat (1950, 
A.H. Gross), as well as Chaim Grade's My Mother's Sabbath Days (Chana 
Kleinerman Goldstein and Inna Hecker Grade) and Rabbis and Wives (Harold 
Rabinowitz and Inna Hecker Grade) in hardcover during the 1980s.

 	Farrar, Straus and Giroux, another Jewish-owned literary house, published 
nearly the entirety of I.B. Singer's works, while Crown, founded by Nat 
Wartels, also Jewish, published in rapid succession Sholem Aleichem's The 
Old Country (1946, Julius and Frances Butwin), Tevye's Daughters (1949, 
Frances Butwin), and Wandering Star (1952, Frances Butwin), as well as 
Nathan Ausubel's A Treasury of Jewish Folklore (1948). Between 1991 and 
1996, Joseph Simon/Pangloss Press, a small Jewish publisher from 
California, produced a multi-volume series, The Three Great Classic 
Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature, consisting of Selected Works of 
Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Marvin Zuckerman, Gerald Stillman, Marion Herbst), 
Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman (Miriam Katz), and Selected Works of 
I.L. Peretz (Marvin Zuckerman and Marion Herbst).

 	Finally, a non-Jewish publisher, G.P. Putnam's Sons, released nearly all 
of Sholem Asch's novels (the translators included Willa and Edwin Muir, 
Elsa Krauch, A.H. Gross, and Maurice Samuel) and six volumes of Sholem 
Aleichem's novels and short stories, from 1969 to 1985, including The 
Adventures of Menahem-Mendel (Tamara Kahan), Old Country Tales (Curt 
Leviant), and In the Storm (Aliza Shevrin).

 	Yiddish continues to attract Jewish rebels and outsiders. Feminist, gay 
and lesbian Jews, for example, are among today's most passionate advocates 
of Yiddish culture. Irena Klepfisz, a Yiddish poet and translator, is the 
daughter of a Bundist hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. She is a 
graduate of Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring shules and studied under Max 
Weinreich at City College where she earned a degree in Yiddish. A lesbian 
and a feminist, Klepfisz provided the introduction and some of the 
translations for the first anthology of Yiddish women writers, Found 
Treasures (1994), and in 1995 she coordinated a conference entitled "Di 
Froyen (The Women): Women and Yiddish." The lead editor of Found 
Treasures, Frieda Forman, although not secular, considers herself a 
progressive Jewish feminist. Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal, founded 
in 1989, has as its "Yiddish editor" Faith Jones, a lesbian feminist and 
secular Jew, who has translated Yiddish poetry into English and is a 
frequent contributor to Outlook. Rhea Tregebov, editor of the second and 
latest anthology of Yiddish fiction by women, Arguing with the Storm: 
Stories by Yiddish Women Writers (2007), is a secular Jewish leftist and 
feminist from Canada.

 	It is clear that these Jews identify with Yiddish as a source of 
resistance to mainstream culture and politics. So do the editors of the 
three most recent anthologies of Yiddish fiction in translation, Martha 
Bark, Beautiful As the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish 
Stories (2003), Joachim Neugroschel, No Star Too Beautiful: Yiddish 
Stories from 1382 to the Present (2002), and Miriam Weinstein, Prophets 
and Dreamers: A Selection of Great Yiddish Literature (1998).

 	Although literacy in Yiddish is diminishing, there is still considerable 
interest in reading the original among academics, college students and 
Yiddish book clubs/reading circles (leyen krayzn). The International 
Association of Yiddish Clubs, made up mostly of older Jews who read and 
speak Yiddish at various levels of proficiency, still thrives, and pockets 
of younger Jews have been attracted to mameloshn, the mother-tongue of 
their ancestors. Thousands of Yiddish titles can be read free of charge 
through the National Yiddish Book Center website: www.bikher.org.  Di 
Tsukunft (The Future), Afn Shvel (On the Threshold) and Yugntruf (The Call 
of Youth) survive as Yiddish literary magazines.

 	Yiddish literature is our yerushe, our inheritance. As an international 
cultural product, it exists independent of religion or territory. This is 
its source of strength but also weakness, for it means that the language 
requires a lot of nurturing to survive. Translation is part of that 
nurture---to which North American secular Jews, most particularly of the 
left, have made a profound contribution.

  A shorter version of this article appeared in the March/April 2009 issue 
of Jewish Currents magazine.

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