[Mendele] Mendele Vol. 18.024

Victor Bers victor.bers at yale.edu
Mon Apr 13 16:05:03 EDT 2009

Mendele: Yiddish literature and language

Contents of Vol. 18.024
April 13, 2009

1) Yiddish Literature in English Translation (Bennett Muraskin)

Date: April 13, 2009

Subject: Bennett Muraskin on
Yiddish Literature in English Translation: An American Tale

[Note from the untershames: I posted this as a Personal Notice item, but 
soon realized that that was not its proper home; moreover it provoked a 
number of comments that merit publication in Mendele itself. -V.B.]

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 "Bible."

   	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 poets.

   	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 Katz.

    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 

   	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 

        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 Hameln.

   	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 
   	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.

End of Mendele Vol. 18.024

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