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from the September 2016 issue

Yiddish Literature and the Transnational Republic of Jewish Letters

What happens to literature when it’s written in a language without a state or a territory to call its own? While there are several examples of literary diasporas—Russian or French language literature, to name two prominent examples, has often been written outside the borders of Russia and France—there are far fewer literary traditions that do not have a concrete homeland on the map, a single point of origin from which the literature comes.

Yiddish literature is one such example of a truly transnational republic of letters, a body of texts that since its earliest days has been written, read, and sung across political boundaries. The language of Eastern European Jews and their descendants across the world, Yiddish has been often dubbed a “fusion language.” A Germanic tongue that incorporates a large Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon overlaid with a semi-Slavic syntax and bits of other languages that Jews picked up through their travels and tribulations, Yiddish has always been in direct conversation and sometimes violent collision with the surrounding cultures. Without the security or stability of state power, but also lacking its restrictions, Yiddish literature occupies the precarious position of an informed outsider. And from that position it tells local stories with a global audience in mind. At once the literature of a specific part of the Jewish people, it also engages in the questions and emotions that we all share. In short, whether it’s been written on the streets of Warsaw, the fields of South Africa, or the pampas of Argentina, Yiddish literature, with its international nature, has always pitted the particular against the universal, the distinct experience of the Jews against common concerns. The result is a literature that is not only of the world, but for the world. Its translation makes it increasingly available to a worldwide audience once more.

In the past several years, the translation of Yiddish literature has taken a dramatic turn. Thanks in part to organizations such as the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, there is now an emerging cadre of new Yiddish literary translators working today. Along with this new institutional support, there has also been a change in the kinds of translations produced. Gone are the days when Yiddish literature was translated in a nostalgic vein, watered down to protect supposedly sensitive Anglophone readers, the grit washed away to preserve the memory of Europe’s murdered, forgotten Jews. Today, as the pieces in this feature show, the moment has arrived for translations that convey all the complexities of the original and challenge the reader.

Before the Second World War, Yiddish was often derided as a mongrel “zhargon,” its very ability to transcend boundaries and absorb cultures taken as evidence of its allegedly corrupt grammar and intrinsically impure nature. Yet rather than be disparaged, the Yiddish literati of the 1920s and ’30s often took these claims as a point of departure and inspiration for their work. Yankev Glatshteyn’s 1929 poem “Sing Ladino,” presented here in Asya Vaisman Schulman’s formidable translation, is one such example of a poem, in the words of scholar Ruth Wisse, that celebrates “the wondrous instability of vernaculars that are too often scorned for their instability and lack of grammar.” Using the exotic image of a deliberately orientalized Ladino—the language of the Jews exiled from Spain in the fifteenth century and their descendants—Glatshteyn mines the richness of Yiddish, pushing its limits. In a paean of Dadaist sound imagery, double entendre, and neologism, the poet crafts a tongue-in-cheek anthem for the borderless commonwealth of the Jewish diaspora.

The destruction wrought upon European Jewry in the middle of the twentieth century did of course have a profound impact upon Yiddish culture. For the survivors of these tragedies, the dislocations of war and the rise of the Cold War’s new political realities meant, among other things, a shifting of Jewish geographies. The life and writing of Yenta Mash, who grew up in Bessarabia (present-day Moldova), suffered in a Siberian gulag, and immigrated to Israel in the 1970s, very much exemplifies these trends. Her story “Ingathering of Exiles,” for example, interrogates the uneasy position of Jewish immigrants in the new state of Israel, a place that ostensibly claimed to be a homeland for the entire Jewish people, but often created as many fissures between groups as the bonds it sought to build. Reflecting the deep ambivalence towards Yiddish and its speakers in Israeli society, translator Ellen Cassedy adeptly brings out the nuances in Mash’s use of tone, shifting between the ethnographic, the exuberant, and ultimately, the Kafkaesque.

The writer Yekhiel Shraybman, who remained in Eastern Europe until his death in 2005, represents another tendency in Yiddish letters. While the characters in Shraybman’s tightly-crafted miniatures are strongly rooted in their landscape, their observations are cut from a more universal cloth. With a good dose of humor and humility, the narrators in these pieces are the proverbial everymen from anywhere. At the same time, the brevity in which they are written invites the reader to fill in the gaps and reinterpret them as products of their local context. Are, for instance, the seedlings shooting up through the concrete in “New Grass” a metaphor for Jewish life in the Soviet Union? For creative expression under communism writ large? Or should these vignettes be more simply taken at face value as meditations on the lives of ordinary people?

The United States has, of course, also been a nexus of Yiddish creativity, a central point on the international map of Yiddish literature. Boris Sandler’s 2012 novel Nomansland, AZ is a recent work that views this country through a distorted mirror, a look at the US through the lens of fantasy and rollicking satire. In the novel, we encounter Eddie Hoffman, a down-on-his-luck traveling salesman hawking his wares in a forgotten desert town at the end of the millennium. A parody of American life and the perennial neuroses of the Jewish diaspora, the book blends elements of postmodernism with language play reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, overlaid with Eastern European folklore. In the chapter presented here in my translation, Hoffman arrives in the town and discovers that its isolated inhabitants dress in primitive clothing and speak a broken language uncannily similar to the half-remembered Yiddish of his youth. Later in the novel, Hoffman is recruited by the very insular “Nor-Folk” of the town to build a wall and keep out their enemies, a sideways comment on the building of the so-called security fence in Israel and a prescient critique of the current Era of Trump. A vision of borders at their most absurd and frightening, the novel again underscores the tensions between local and global, diaspora and homeland, the strange and the settled that run through all of these texts.

Naturally, the works presented in this feature provide only a glimpse at the breadth of modern Yiddish literature. Still absent are communities, such as the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic world, or whole regions, such as Latin America, where Yiddish culture has flourished. Yet the selections here are nevertheless an example of what a literary community might look beyond the confines of the nation-state. As the world struggles to respond to globalization, perhaps Yiddish literature can provide a blueprint for how to struggle and how to create in a world increasingly without borders. 


© 2016 by Sebastian Schulman. All rights reserved.

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