Jerold C. Frakes: Early Yiddish Epic

Rachel Wamsley

Jerold C. Frakes, Early Yiddish Epic (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014), 520 pages, $59.95

A PDF of this review can be downloaded here.

The epic Book of Samuel [Seyfer Shmuel or Shmuel bukh], in Jerold Frakes’ anthology Early Yiddish Epic (Syracuse UP, 2014), concludes like nearly all other early Ashkenazic books—that is to say, with a prayer: “Praised be God, who has given me energy and strength to begin and to end this work: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Who helped David in all his adversity, Who will also send me His aid, so that in His work I have success in printing other holy books, even more than I have thus far” (148). I might echo these sentiments for the sake of Frakes himself, who has already, to our great good fortune, devoted himself to supplying the most fundamental of the many scholarly desiderata in the field of early Yiddish. His monumental anthology Early Yiddish Texts 1100-1750 (Oxford University Press, 2004, rev. ed. 2008) transcribed an eclectic and historically ambitious cross-section of Yiddish works of all genres, accompanied by detailed bibliographies of secondary and primary sources for each entry. It was followed by his translation of Jean Baumgarten’s Introduction to Old Yiddish Literature (Oxford University Press, 2005), which made the major contours of the field available to an Anglophone audience for the very first time. The present anthology, similarly, offers the general reader a sampling of ten texts drawn from the entire ambit of early Yiddish epic. Close on its heels, we can look forward to the very first textbook of Old Yiddish grammar, the lack of which is currently the single greatest obstacle to the growth of the field. Frakes has, over the course of the last decade, shouldered the immense and perhaps thankless burden of making the most essential resources for the study of early Yiddish accessible to all comers. It is thanks to this effort, I believe, that the field may expand, transform, and flourish in the coming years among specialists and lay readers alike.

If Frakes had only made an initial attempt at this daunting task, however cursory or flawed, it would have been enough. But I must say that in spite of the remarkable speed with which all these projects have appeared, their critical and editorial quality is exemplary. With his medievalist’s background in paleography, codicology, and material bibliography, Frakes renders both text and textual history with a considered lucidity that should satisfy the curiosity of the general reader as well as the keen eye of the scholar. The anthology consists of a critical introduction, Frakes’ unabridged English prose translations of eight of the most prominent Yiddish epics, and two appendices consisting of translated excerpts from Seyfer melokhim, an epic based on the Book of Kings, and the entirety of the secular romance, Briyo ve-Zimro. Brief but highly informative introductions preface each epic in turn, providing a fine-grained guide to textual history, poetic form, and essential secondary reading. The epics themselves Frakes divides into two broad categories, “midrashic” (comprising Avrom ovinu, Yousef ha-tsadik, Seyfer Shmuel, Akeydas Yitskhok) and “secular” (Dukus Horant, Vidvilt, Bovo d’Antona, Pariz un Viene). Although the early Yiddish texts do not appear alongside their translations, stanza or verse numbers are given in parentheses throughout, so that the anthology serves as a highly navigable companion to the original works.

Frakes’ critical introduction to the volume is as wide-ranging and thorough an entree to the genre and its complex history as one could hope for in a scant fifty pages. With admirable economy, Frakes lays out the dominant concerns of early Yiddish epic, its cultural contexts, poetic forms, historical evolution, and the controversies that have shaped its reception by modern scholars. One of the greatest strengths of the introduction is that Frakes takes comparatism seriously. To understand the early Yiddish epic, he insists, we must attend to the many discrete Jewish engagements with non-Jewish epic poetry over multiple eras. He pushes back against Frank Moore Cross’s famous argument for an “epic cycle” embedded in the Hebrew Bible, and stresses instead that Jewish literature has connected with the epic traditions of its various co-territorial literatures sporadically and in ways that differed widely by cultural context and historical moment (xvii-iii). Thus, he rightly stresses the contribution made by the exploratory humanism of the Italian Renaissance to the free spirit of literary experimentation which became so characteristic of the secular Yiddish epics like Bovo of Antona [Bove bukh] or Pariz and Viene. At the same time, he contextualizes the genre amid the intersecting, pan-European traditions of chivalric romance, Arthurian myth, heroic lay, and so on. The reader thus encounters each Yiddish epic as a single node in a cross-cultural and transhistorical network of literary creativity. Given that the study of European Jewry is often segregated from the history of the West in general, and that Yiddish literature, and early Yiddish literature even more so, goes all but ignored by comparatists outside of Jewish Studies, this is a vital intervention.

Complementing his comparative perspective, Frakes positions early Yiddish epic in relation to other Jewish experiments with the form: barely-surviving fragments of Judeo-Hellenic epics from the Late Antique Mediterranean, Hebrew epic poetry in the High Middle Ages, and the much-neglected medieval Judeo-Persian epics. Yet rather than overstate the case for a tradition of Jewish epic poetry, Frakes soberly reminds us that “examples of epic … do not themselves constitute a tradition of epic poetry as such but remain scattered ‘orphans’ of such an elusive genre” (xx). The notion of orphanhood is a powerful one. First, it allows for the disconnected and sporadic reception of the genre among Jews in various times and places, and thus encourages us to resist homogenizing works that are in fact highly idiosyncratic and diverse. At the same time, the image of the orphan reminds us that many of these texts are surviving witnesses of what were likely much more expansive textual corpora. By emphasizing the fragmented nature of the texts that have come down to us, Frakes draws our attention to the specificity of the early Yiddish epic, the unique circumstances of its production, local context, and audience. The introduction provides a pliable framework for the interpretation of early Yiddish epic. It neither bears down too hard on the surviving evidence nor does it concentrate myopic attention on the Yiddish case to the exclusion of compelling points of intersection.

In the course of the introduction Frakes also tackles a number of long-lived misconceptions about early Yiddish epic, the errors of which are not immediately obvious to the non-specialist. The first of these is the so-called “shpilman theory” which argued for the oral composition and dissemination of the early Yiddish epics via itinerant Jewish troubadours over the course of the High Middle Ages. I will not rehearse the whole of the controversy here; suffice it to say that the hypothesis was thoroughly dismissed by later literary historians, most prominently Chone Shmeruk in his groundbreaking essay, “Tsi ken der keymbridzher manuskript shtitsn di shpilman-teorye in der yidisher literatur?” (“Does the Cambridge Manuscript Support the Shpilman Theory in Yiddish Literature?”) Here, Frakes gives a concise genealogy of the theory, the mid-century reaction against it, and the substantial evidence on which current understanding rests. Perhaps most importantly, this section is relevant not only to Old Yiddish, but to Yiddish studies more generally, in drawing a number of distinctions important for the historicization of modern Yiddish literary genres and performance practices.

A second significant misconception that Frakes addresses has to do with the geographic origins of the epics, and of early Yiddish literature more generally. It has often been assumed that Yiddish literature, like Yiddish language, first emerged in the Rhineland and was then ‘exported’ in the course of a series of demographic migrations to Eastern Europe and beyond. Yet as Frakes points out, the context in which Yiddish literature first begins to flourish is not Germanic, but markedly Italian. The present volume is “in a significant sense a collection of works of Italian literature [in the sense that these] Yiddish language texts were composed, copied, and/or published either for the first time or very early in their history in northern Italy, more often than not in Venice and the Veneto” (xxxv). Logically, the primary consumers of this literature were Ashkenazic Jews, who lived in Italy during a period of remarkable cultural mobility and interpenetration. Renaissance humanism, Christian Hebraism, the transformation of the book market with the advent of print, and the intimate coexistence of Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and native “Italkian” Jewish populations in northern Italy all conspired to create an unparalleled atmosphere of cultural cross-pollination. Frakes argues, following Jean Baumgarten and others, that it is in Italy that early Yiddish literature becomes most demonstrably a “fusion literature,” in the sense Max Weinreich intended when he dubbed Rhineland Yiddish a “fusion language” (xxi).

As with any project of this sort and scope, Frakes was faced with the translator’s Scylla and Charybdis: Form or content? Style or substance? Letter or spirit? Ever a mindful reader of the Homeric tradition, Frakes charts a judicious course between the two. He devotes a substantial portion of the introduction to a frank articulation of the ultimate purpose of translation as he understands it. Whatever your personal philosophy of literary translation, this rare commitment to transparency about the consequences of the translator’s choices is refreshing (though this section may lag for the non-specialist). Frakes explains that “the translation is always to be readable and potentially enjoyable for a general reader whose interest may not be (or may not always be) in a translation that is a window onto the linguistic specificities of the original text” (xli). That is, it is meant to appeal to an audience reading for both pleasure and plot. He continues, “At the same time, however, I have never strayed into paraphrase of the original, so even the reader who has the original text alongside the translations should always and easily be able to keep track of where he or she is in the text” (xli). These two aims, readerly enjoyment and comparative study of the original, are the core of Frakes’ policy. When he decides to convey “indelicate” language with unsqueamish English equivalents, to avoid relying on notes by clarifying antiquated or unfamiliar terminology in the body of the text, or to render epic poetry as plain-speaking narrative prose, these two principles are his guiding lights.

In prioritizing narrative content and linguistic fidelity, Frakes also makes some implicit decisions about audience. On the one hand, he imagines a lay reader who may not know any Jewish languages, but who has a general interest in Jewish literature. Frakes’ other reader, however, is a specialist: she has (at least some) access to the original Old or Middle Yiddish and in all likelihood, a scholarly background in Jewish studies. She turns to this volume for the perspective early Yiddish epic might offer on a related topic, perhaps in cultural history or religious studies. Surprisingly perhaps, both these readers’ needs are largely the same: clarity in content, directness in syntax and vocabulary, factual accuracy about the origins of the texts translated, and so forth. And though never mentioned explicitly, Frakes has in mind a third sort of reader who straddles both these categories, namely, the college student. Though a student-reader may have little preparation, she benefits from the presence of an instructor (who may not have access to the original language either). With this balance between technical rigor and accessibility, the volume (or selections from it) would fit well on the syllabus of an introduction to Jewish cultures class, an advanced Yiddish language or literature course, or as a complement to Homer, Ovid, Dante, and Milton in a survey of the epic. In-class instruction could then offer a deeper contextualization of the text targeted to the specifics of the course. In this sense, the anthology functions not only as casual reading or scholarly resource, but also as a highly adaptable textbook, suited to a range of interests both within and beyond Jewish Studies: comparative literature, religious studies, Germanic literatures and linguistics, medieval and early modern studies.

Frakes’ translation policy is designed to court the general reader, the student, and the academic, promising an informative and engaging encounter with materials that would otherwise be inaccessible. This he achieves with grace and good sense. If there is any major flaw, it lies in the literary texture of the translations, which trade epic verse for minimalist prose. Frakes is quite up-front about this when he writes that “the goal in the various translations included in this volume is … to convey in English prose a clear sense of the stylistic register (not the poetic form) of the original Yiddish poetry” (xli). Thus he admits a certain degree of archaism in the English, pointing out that the epics’ language was high-register and slightly antiquated even in their own time. He also insists that bowdlerizing the texts by expunging off-color language and substituting polite euphemisms would distort their substance as much as any other intervention in word-choice or syntax. This effort at a “congruence” between text and translation does not privilege substance over style, but understands them as co-creators of cultural meaning. It is for this reason, I think, that Frakes is not cavalier about his choice to turn away from poetry and translate into prose. He gravely explains that “Prose was chosen as the form for these translations not simply because of my own lack of poetic skill, but also because it seemed to me necessary that the first collective volume of translations of early Yiddish epic be in straightforward and idiomatic prose suitable for a broad readership” (xli). This is certainly true, and probably wisely done. He even has some support from Shmuel bukh’s printer, who shrugs in the course of his coda: “after all, making it rhyme isn’t that important to me” (148).

Indeed Frakes’ choice to render these epics in prose translation can hardly be called anachronistic, for Shmuel bukh’s printer was not the only writer of his moment uncertain about the centrality of poetic form. By the mid-sixteenth century, the very period when early Yiddish epic reached its peak, humanist scholars were hard at work translating the classics, from Greek into Latin, from Latin into the European vernaculars. This process in turn engendered a fierce debate over the relative merits of poetic or prose translation. Those humanists concerned with resurrecting the classical past were naturally inclined to favor fidelity to the wording of the original over grace in the target language. Around the same time, the European book market was adapting to a growing preference among aristocratic recreational readers for more novelistic genres. As a result, traditionally poetic materials such as the chivalric romances began to appear “translated” into prose narrative. Despite these trends toward prose, early modernity also witnessed a wide range of experimentation with poetic translation of the classics. The Bible, too, was rapidly incorporated into this project, and provided a similar challenge to translators, who sought to capture its anthologic diversity through a variety of genres and forms. One might think of Mary and Philip Sidney’s verse translation of Psalms or of George Chapman’s Homer, which so impressed Keats that he likened the experience of reading Chapman to the discovery and exploration of the New World.

Now, as then, the most pressing question remains how best to evoke this new world for a reader without access to the original language. To my mind, something crucial is lost in the transition from poetry to prose. (One cannot help but imagine that Chapman’s substitution of an innovative English poetic form for Homer’s dactylic hexameter helped create the sense of majesty and exhilaration Keats describes.) In Frakes’ aside—“not poetic form”—there lingers a sense of demotion, as though form is superficial (where content is essential), as though we could as well gain a feel for it by reading the technical description: ottava rima, Nibelungenstrophe, blank verse. In their original language, the epics are metrically diverse. They were sung, in their day, to folk melodies so widely known the editor or printer’s preface often identified them by name. Even when this was not the case, the melodic component was taken to be an essential part of the pleasure of the work. Elijah Levita, with good humor, says he sings Bove bukh to an Italian melody you, reader, may not know and so welcomes any man to devise a better one (244). The epics were not (yet) for private, silent reading in the way the modern short story or novel is to us. And while their melodies are often irretrievable now, the metrical schemes are as plain to us as the day they were written, giving the epics their distinctive cadences and aural momentum.

The present translation’s lack of rhyme takes a similar toll. Though end-line rhyme is often a mere necessity of the strophic scheme, it can also produce startling effects that emphasize narrative action. An example appears in Shmuel bukh’s rendering of Saul attempting to murder David with his spear (I Samuel 18:10-12). The biblical prose reads: “Saul had his spear in his hand. And Saul cast the spear; for he said: ‘I will smite David even to the wall.’ And David stepped aside out of his presence twice. And Saul was afraid of David, because the LORD was with him, and was departed from Saul.” In the Yiddish of the epic, rhyme creates a powerful new association:

דער קויניג טרוג איין שפיש אין זיינר האנט [A]
ער װארף אין נוך דָוִד דש ער שטעקט אין דער װאנט [A]
דא ער אין ניט קונט טרעפֿן ער גידוכֿט אין זיינם מוט [B]
איך מיין דש גוֿט יתֿברך דעם קנאבן צייכן טוט [B]

“The king had a spear in his hand. He threw it at David so that it stuck in the wall. Since he did not hit him, he thought to himself, ‘I think that God, blessed be He, has put His mark on the lad.’”

These rhymes are masculine (that is, final stressed syllables). They are the climax to which each line builds. Here, the AA couplet hant-vant lends an almost cinematic quality to the scene: the spear leaves Saul’s hand at the end of one line and arrives at the end of the next, sinking into the wall. Our eyes follow the spear’s flight just as our ears strain forward for the rhyme’s resolution. By aurally cinching origin and destination together, rhyme tightens the action, guides the imagination. Lacking driving rhythm or the tensed expectation of rhyme, the English translation goes slack. It is thanks to their form that the epics hum with a pacing, restless energy, that they are stirring and hilarious by turns, that Rabelaisian vulgarisms spring out as though from the woods along the picaro’s road, that the witch-raised shades of the dead suddenly materialize, that one has the sense of surging, pell-mell, into a pitched battle. Prose slows them down. One is reminded of Mark Rylance’s infamous complaint that today’s actors perform Shakespeare too slowly, too reverently, and thereby rob him of his athletic pacing and quick wit. 1 1“Mark Rylance: the way we do Shakespeare is like rapping in slow motion,” The Guardian, Nov. 21, 2015. Just so, the present translations are diligent and faithful but not fleet.

Frakes made a necessary choice, probably the right one under the circumstances. But Plato was also right to fear the poetic sorcery of the Homeric epics, which could ensnare the mind and sway the sentiments. Such sorcery might be just what we need to convince readers, students especially, to care about early Yiddish literature, even fall in love with it. So in the meantime we’ll have to wait for a poet laureate to come along and do for Yiddish epic what Seamus Heaney did for Beowulf. Or better yet, what Tolkien did: someone to be rigorous linguist, impassioned fantasist, and ingenious poet, all rolled into one. Bimheyro beyomeynu, I suppose.

Wamsley, Rachel. “Jerold C. Frakes: Early Yiddish Epic.” In geveb, October 2016:
Wamsley, Rachel. “Jerold C. Frakes: Early Yiddish Epic.” In geveb (October 2016): Accessed Dec 15, 2018.


Rachel Wamsley

Rachel Wamsley is a postdoctoral fellow in Humanities and Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.