May 19, 2021
Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature, edited and translated by Miriam Udel, with illustrations by Paula Cohen and the original illustrators, and a foreword by Jack Zipes. (NYU Press, 2020), $29.95.
This rightly named treasury, Miriam Udel’s Honey on the Page, features almost fifty literary works, ranging from folktales to poetry, and from an entertaining story about the angry alef-beys to fascinating historical accounts and the adventures of Khaver Paver’s Labzik the clever pup. For the reader who chooses not to jump straight in, the book also includes a foreword by the scholar Jack Zipes, along with a note “to the young reader” and an introduction from Miriam Udel, the book’s editor and translator, who not only selected and translated all the material herself but also pitched the project to publishers, eventually finding a fine home for the book at New York University Press. In addition, Udel researched each of the authors and provides biographies at the beginning of each contribution, which lend both color and context and are often as interesting as the literature featured in the book.
I’ll say it up front: this is one of the most impressive books I’ve read in a long time. As a translator with a love of both the Yiddish language and children’s literature, there were so many points of connection for me in Honey on the Page that I found it hard to find a particular focus for this review. I read the anthology as someone with an interest in translation, children’s literature, and the Yiddish language; additionally, this book also has something to offer the academic, the student of history, and more.
So who is the book for? Miriam Udel writes in her introduction that as she selected and translated the pieces, she “envisioned a child reading, with sympathetic and curious adults nearby” (4) However, she also had in mind adult readers, perhaps parents or teachers looking to read stories with their children, perhaps with the aim of addressing particular subjects. The book should also appeal to students, both of “the modern Jewish experience” and children’s literature, and Udel mentions contemporary children’s authors as some of the book’s biggest fans, who are “looking for inspiration in authentic Jewish storytelling of fifty and a hundred years ago as they create new cultural artifacts for today” (4). For her, it was essential to seek out “materials that would represent their times and places of origin, but principally, I looked for work that would feel relevant to today’s young readers, their families, and their caregivers.” She is very much aware of the importance of the book’s contents for scholars, and intends to produce a companion volume to Honey on the Page: a critical study of Yiddish children’s literature. This is a book that is aimed at—and deserves—a wide readership.
Honey on the Page has eight main sections, running from (1) Jewish holidays, to
(2) Jewish history and heroes, (3) folktales, fairy tales, wonder tales, (4) wise fools, (5) allegories, parables, and fables, (6) school days, (7) in life’s classroom, and (8) Jewish families, here and there.
The material comes from all over the Yiddish-speaking world, from Eastern Europe to North and South America, and spans a period from the 1910s to the 1970s. It features a wide range of subjects and a large number of authors. Some of the names that appeared were familiar to me, such as Sholem Asch or Kadya Molodowsky, and Max and Uriel Weinreich (refreshingly, mentioned here in the context of a woman, in the biography of Regine-Rokhl Shabad, Max’s wife and Uriel’s mother), but most were new.
When selecting these stories, Udel laudably aimed to create something approaching a gender balance. While parity was impossible to achieve, she has compensated for this in part by providing a longer novella by Zina Rabinowitz.
As a translator, I was interested to read Udel’s “confession” that she felt largely unable to do justice to a particular set of stories and poems, those designed to teach the alef-beys, with their rhymes and wordplay. She also admits that she was careful in her selection of rhyming verse, “given its demands on the translator” (17). Indeed, retaining puns and rhymes in translations can prove challenging; there were, however, many instances of such language use in Honey on the Page that made me smile and nod appreciatively and wonder exactly what the translator had been confronted with in the original text and what paths she had taken to arrive at such neat solutions. For instance, I was curious about the Yiddish original that inspired the rhyme in “A Snow Grandma” by Benjamin Gutyanski: “She has a crooked little nose/But where her ears are, heaven knows!” (191).
I was often itching to know just what were the original words behind such clearly inventive and creative solutions. In her translation of Moyshe Shifris’s “The Alphabet Gets Angry,” Udel comes up with a fun and inventive rhyme, making the personified final nun ask:
And when you’re alone
Are you too little-kid-ish
To pick up a story
And read it in Yiddish? (244)
This question might, of course, be adapted to apply to Udel’s wonderful English translation.
Other linguistic issues of interest to the translator that Udel mentions in her introduction include “rather wooden” dialogue in the surviving Yiddish plays, which led her to reject them, and also the “lofty vocabulary” of “a great deal of Yiddish children’s literature,” which meant that she had “to strike a balance between simplifying some of the diction and remaining faithful to the tone of the original texts” (17). She listened with a modern ear to “the surfeit of reflexively (and sometimes gratuitously) masculine language” and explains that she came up with certain solutions, such as, in Judah Steinberg’s tale “Roses and Emeralds”, choosing to write in the second person “rather than defaulting to the third-person masculine”. Such explanations are intriguing—and slightly frustrating—to a fellow translator, providing insight into some of the choices while also prompting many questions. Semi-seriously, I wonder if Udel might consider writing another companion volume, maybe even with parallel texts, devoted entirely to translation issues.
These are rich texts, with plenty of flavor, and Udel appears to retain a tone that must be close to the original phrasing, such as the exclamations in Yaakov Fichmann’s “A Sabbath in the Forest” which lend a fine rhythm to the text:
“He was a simple Jew who barely knew all the prayers, and he was very poor—it shouldn’t happen to anyone. But he managed to earn a crust of bread for himself, his wife, Nechama, and their children, and he never—God forbid!—had to accept charity.”
In Yaakov Fichmann’s “A Sabbath in the Forest,” a repeated rhyme pops up: “He turned and turned, but none was there; no living creature, not hide nor hair!” It’s fun, it works in English, and now I’d really like to know how the original text read.
Udel deals smoothly with wordplay, as can be seen in “How the Birds Learned Bible Stories”, a tale by Eliezer Shteynbarg in the “Allegories, parables and fables” section:
Kra, kra, kra!
“Who makes that sound?”
“And why does the crow scream, ‘kra, kra’? Don’t you know, child? Well, I’ll tell you. In birdspeak, ‘Kra, kra’ sounds like ‘kro, kro,’ which is Hebrew for ‘read, read.’”
“And why does the crow scream, ‘read, read’?”
“Because the crow is the teacher of the birds, and the teacher shouts, ‘Kro, kro! Read, bird, read!’”
“And is that why the crow is also called raven [rov], because rov-the-raven sounds the same as the Yiddish word rov-the-teacher?”
“Yes, yes!” (223)
Some of the stories have a religious foundation, such as Kadya Molodowsky’s “Zelig the Rhymester,” which features both Elijah the Prophet and a bunny whose nose is runny and ears are funny, and Sholem Asch’s “A Village Saint,” about the young Yashek, whose prayer takes the form of a whistle that punctures the heavens and reaches God. This story is clearly aimed at children, with its Sneezy the dog, who, in Yashek’s mind, prays by wagging his tail, and Snowy the lamb, who sticks out her tongue and bleats “maaaaa” to pray. However, the message is clear: “Yashek understood God according to his faculties and felt him in his heart.”
Other tales in the book are more historical in nature, like Isaac Metzker’s “Don Isaac Abravanel,” published during the Holocaust, which focuses on the historical violence against Jews in Europe, providing clear parallels and plenty of food for thought (“‘Papa, what does “freedom of faith” mean?’ he inquired several times, with great curiosity.”). Some, like Solomon Simon’s “A Deal’s a Deal”, with its “hubby dear” and “wifey dear”, are simply good fun: “It was a cold, rainy autumn night in Chelm...” – who doesn’t love a good Chelm story? Or how about Moyshe Shifris’s story about the chickens who wanted to learn Yiddish (complete with a couple of wonderful original illustrations by H. Krukman)?
Some of the pages contain fabulously inviting fairy tales. I can’t resist an opening like that of Solomon Bastomski’s “The King and the Rabbi”: “Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived a king. An old man came to him in a dream and said, ‘Your Royal Highness, something terrible is going to befall you, and the only one who can save you is a man who was born in the same year, in the same month, and on the same day as you.’” (161).
Another stand-out story is Yankev Pat’s “The Magic Lion” (a promising title!), about a rabbi who pauses in the desert to celebrate Shabbos, where he’s joined by a lion who shares his challah and prays with him, before letting the rabbi ride on his back across the desert so that the rabbi can return to his armed caravan. For me, it offers the combination of instruction (the rabbi risks the dangers of the desert to pause for Shabbos) and entertainment (he gets to ride a lion!) that embodies the notion of “honey on the page”.
In her introduction, Miriam Udel writes about how her teacher at Hebrew school used to give the class chocolate candies to make the children’s learning all the sweeter. “She explained that the custom was to smear honey on the page, which students in the olden days would lick up to make the start of learning sweet; since honey was too messy, she was opting for chocolate.”
The sweetness of this glorious treasury offers great complexity and depth. Jack Zipes, in his foreword, picks up on a key uniting theme that runs throughout this book. These stories have an international background and “an ethical storytelling that is closely tied to Judaism and socialism” (xi). As most of the authors have a history of emigration and often persecution, Zipes says that their home “was and is rooted in an ethical belief in social justice that reverberates throughout the tales,” rather than in a particular geographical location.
The biographies also, in passing, paint a picture of Yiddish publishing, of the newspapers, magazines, books, and other publications and outlets for Yiddish writing during this period, reminding us once again how very much was lost. Perhaps this is a subject that Udel will revisit this subject in more detail in the companion volume that she is preparing.
Zipes, however, also picks up on the optimism of much of this writing, the notion that “the sun will always bring truth to light” (xii). He says of these writers: “They did not live lives filled with honey, yet they bravely wrote to make a contribution toward a better world.”(xiii)
We could surely all do with a little more honey and with the thought of a better world to which we might contribute. Honey on the Page offers not only sweetness aplenty, but a variety of flavors for readers of all kinds to enjoy and to savor.