Holy Tongue: On Translating Yenta Mash

By Ellen Cassedy


Image: From From Land to Land by Todros Geller, 1926. From the Yiddish Book Center’s Spielberg Digitial Yiddish Library. 

Ellen Cassedy’s translation of Yenta Mash’s “Ingathering of Exiles” appears in the September 2016 feature of Words without Borders: Contemporary Yiddish Literature on Three Continents.

Many writers of modern Yiddish literature grew up in small Eastern European towns, immersed from an early age in intensive Jewish education and fervently observed religious and cultural traditions. Later, many of these writers left that world behind—whether by choice or by force. Some moved to big cities where they joined lively intellectual circles. Some fled across oceans.  Some were deported or imprisoned. By the end of World War II, those small-town Jewish environments were almost entirely gone. 

But wherever they went, those who chose to write in Yiddish brought their beginnings with them—because the Yiddish language itself carries within itself an enduring cultural legacy

A Germanic language containing a generous dollop of Slavic words, Yiddish is a solidly European language. Yet it’s written in the Hebrew alphabet, and embedded within it are words of ancient origin—Hebrew and Aramaic words, which are known as loshn koydesh, or “holy tongue.” 

Unlike “regular” Yiddish words, which are spelled phonetically, loshn koydesh words (like words in Hebrew proper) are short on vowels. As with many words in  English, the only way to know how to pronounce them is, well, to know how to pronounce them. It can be hard to predict which ideas will be expressed in loshn koydesh words and which will not. The moon, yes—the sun, no. The landlord, yes—the tenant, no. The particulars of Jewish faith and observance, generally yes.

While it’s possible to speak Yiddish without using a lot of loshn koydesh, no Yiddish writer can get by without them. The juxtaposition of loshn koydesh and “regular” words gives Yiddish literature its unique flavor, its richness, its capacity for wit, irony, and lightning-fast changes of register. 

From this juxtaposition flow the joys and challenges of Yiddish translation. Yenta Mash’s story “Ingathering of Exiles” is a case in point. 

Like so many other Yiddish writers, Yenta Mash (1922–2013) had a traditional upbringing that was followed by repeated uprootings. She was born and raised in a tiny town in the region once known as Bessarabia (today Moldova). In 1941, at the age of nineteen, she was exiled to the Siberian gulag, where she endured extreme hunger and punishing hard labor. After seven years, she made her way to Kishinev (Chișinău), the capital of the Soviet republic of Moldavia. In 1977, in her fifties, she immigrated to Israel, and there, at last, she began to write. Her short stories, published between 1990 and 2007, won immediate acclaim.   

“Ingathering of Exiles” takes us on a chatty stroll through an open-air market in the city of Haifa, Israel. The first-person narrator is intimate, vigorous, opinionated. She talks your ear off—a friendly Haifa-in-Your-Pocket

But “Ingathering of Exiles” is far more than a simple travel guide. It has a profound theme. One clue to Mash’s serious intent is that she opens the story in a Biblical vein, with mention of the Creation and the Ten Commandments. The term “ingathering of exiles” itself comes from Deuteronomy. All of these concepts are expressed, of course, in loshn koydesh

Having opened on a note of Biblical awe, however, Mash makes a quick switch—the kind that comes so easily in Yiddish. No more loshn koydesh. Now we plunge into the hustle and bustle of the street: crowds, traffic, a Babel of languages. Instead of marveling over antiquity, we talk about antiquing. We’re surrounded by human antiques, too—elderly shopkeepers, remnants of Eastern Europe, some the worse for wear, others proudly dapper, all holding tight to their precarious perch within modern Israeli society.

Look here, Mash urges, at the young bigshots who control the teeming commerce. Check out the piles of old clothes and kitchen utensils. Don’t miss the everyday frictions and dealings that cohere into a fragile, hard-won harmony. 

But then comes another switch. As we descend deeper and deeper into the bowels of the market, an elderly couple dies, and the street—the relentless machine that is modern-day Israel—instantly ingests their belongings. Now, once more, Mash freights her sentences with Biblical references. As the human souls ascend to the Heavenly Throne in the World to Come, they are tenderly cloaked in loshn koydesh.

For me, Yiddish as a language is a holy tongue. My work as a translator feels like sacred work.  As a translator of this story, my task was to give each element its proper place—to allow the Biblical language to sound its note of reverence while enabling the earthy, charming voice of the narrator to lead us toward the deeply chilling place Mash wants us to see: a place, as she says, “not only of beginnings but also of endings.”  


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