May 12, 2022
Miriam Karpilove, Judith: A Tale of Love and Woe, trans. Jessica Kirzane. (Farlag Press, 2022). 146 pp. $15.00.
It’s a strange delight to receive a letter, these days. I know I’m dating myself here, but as a child of the post-internet world, I’ve never had to write a letter to talk to the people I care about. For me, and many others, letters feel like a relic from the past, touched by a kind of archaic nostalgia. It’s hard to say precisely what past; the letter seems to be as at home in the Renaissance as it does in the 1970s. It spans a huge swath of different cultures, times, and ways of being — one way of overly romanticizing an enormous and nebulous world before the era of cell phones and social media. Letters are intimate and vulnerable, especially in times of crisis — pogroms, wars, revolutions, pandemics — a way of transporting physical touch, from one hand to another, across great distances and times.
The form of the epistolary novel can only benefit from the rarity of letters as a means of communication in the twenty-first century: schooled in Austen, Goethe, and their lasting influence on the development of the genre, readers of epistolary novels in English recognize the openness and melodrama that accompanies this peek into the semi-private, internal worlds and relationships of the letter-writers. As a reader, I feel more open to the overt formality of language that we sometimes associate with the written English of the past when encountering it in an epistolary novel, because letters belong to that same nebulous past.
All of this bursts from the pages of Jessica Kirzane’s translation of Miriam Karpilove’s debut, an epistolary novel:
Full disclosure: Jessica Kirzane is currently the Editor-in-Chief of In geveb. Further disclosure, I was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow with Jessica while she was working on Diary of Lonely Girl.
our writer, Judith, caught in the poetics and raptures of overwhelming, secret, naive, young love, speaks through her letters with an elevated tone and register that might risk feeling stilted or distant. Yet, they are not. Judith is sincere almost to the point of disbelief, but never crosses that line. This balance is a testament to the careful dialogue Kirzane has established between her English translation and Karpilove’s Yiddish: were it not for Kirzane’s deft translation, some of the melodramatic flair and turns of phrase that feel so natural in the Yiddish would feel out of place to a contemporary English-language reader (see 126-9).
Judith, as the title suggests, is a novel of vulnerability and tragic romance. The story is straightforward enough: a momentary encounter between our title character and a young aspiring revolutionary, Joseph, leads to a prolonged, impassioned secret romance played out over five years and two continents through the series of letters that make up the novel. From the moment of its inception, their relationship is fraught — Joseph’s wealthy parents have no interest in a daughter-in-law from a poor family. Given his politics, the irony of an impassable class and wealth barrier seemingly preventing their love from flourishing is not lost on Judith; in fact, through Judith’s calling out Joseph’s inability to apply his revolutionary ideology to his own family life, we see the first cracks begin to appear in Judith’s rose-tinted image of her beloved.
As Joseph becomes increasingly distant and invested in his idealistic revolutionary politics, or at least, the revolutionary politics he espouses (since Judith, and by extension we as readers are never really sure how committed Joseph is to the ideologies he attaches himself to), Judith has to face actual anti-Jewish violence in a pogrom that destroys much of her town and home, and leads to the death of her father. Ultimately, the death of their relationship can in large part be located in a momentary reunion on the Belarusian border, during which Judith’s desire not to “cross the boundaries of love” leads to Joseph’s anger and absurd, extended coldness. Of course, that’s only about a third of the way through the novel, and the beginning of a long and turbulent waxing and waning of Joseph’s affections juxtaposed with Judith’s growing angst, despondency, and disappointment in her distant beloved.
Of course, their romance is doomed from the start: we know this from the novel’s subtitle, A Tale of Love and Woe, we know this from the “Notice” that opens the book (which I discuss below), and everyone reading who still has vivid memories of teenage romance feels it palpably, and painfully, in the very first letter and in the foreboding comparison conjured by the title. In the book’s opening letter, Judith recalls their first meeting:
“You have such a strong profile,” you [Joseph] sighed. “You are like Judith who beheaded Holofernes. Would you have been capable of it?”
“To save my people—yes.”
You said at that moment you felt like falling on your knees before me. I looked holy to you. How swiftly you swept me up and kissed me!”
There’s an impressive universality to the discomfort conjured by this scene, and the pomposity and melodrama of Joseph in his expressions of devotion. It’s unclear here, and throughout, what he is more interested in: Judith herself, or the grandiose figural image of her he creates here and perpetuates through his reading of her letters.
It is unsettling that Judith’s sense of self in the opening half of the book seems to depend so intensely on Joseph’s image of her: the letters come to resemble more a diary than reciprocal correspondence, and Judith often writes a letter over several days, and regularly sends two or three without hearing a reply. This entanglement of image and identity heightens both the tension as Judith begins to perceive the insincerity of Joseph’s affections, and the close relationship between her gaining a measure of financial independence in the United States and her increasing unwillingness to take Joseph’s rhetoric at face value.
Names become powerful markers of Judith’s presence and developing autonomy over the course of their relationship, especially after Joseph accidentally (or otherwise) sends her a letter intended for someone else, ostensibly about his relationship with another woman, and Judith begins to sign her letters “J. Lillien” and to address him with the formal “Mr. Goldschmidt,” reminding us just how much of her sense of self as Judith was bound up in that possessive “Your” that appended each preceding letter (90). The sudden shift in naming closely follows, and is intensified by Judith’s most intensely melodramatic claim: “Dead? How often that word came to mind when I thought about my undying love for you! Love is death” (82). We are left, at the novel’s close, despairing at just how much of Judith’s identity was caught up in Joseph’s image of her.
As Kirzane draws our attention to in her “Translator’s Note,” Judith, like the narrators of much of Karpilove’s work, is at odds with herself, and the ferocity of her own declarations of love seems to increase in intensity in order to hide her growing awareness of the dejectedness they hide: “Judith expresses her despair at having been caught up in a love that drains her emotional resources, but she also fights back with barbed comments that suggest she is very much aware of her position as a victim not only of political turmoil and antisemitism, but also of love” (132-3).
Throughout the novel, Judith and Joseph’s confusing romance is a powerful filter for all of the complex social and historical events that unfold over the years of their correspondence. As Kirzane notes, running just beneath the surface of this novel is a whole history of anti-Jewish violence, pogroms, gender politics, precarity, discrimination, and social stigma that Judith lives through and writes against, even as she bemoans Joseph’s naivete and inability to recognize the ways in which his commitment to revolutionary politics seems to systematically exclude both their relationship and her own ability to exist as an independent figure in his ideological world. In some ways it’s this tension that makes Judith so relatable one hundred years later: as much as Judith herself acknowledges and engages with realities of violence she experiences, that’s not the thing that occupies her most in her letters to Joseph. Judith is a novel about the mundanities of life and love that, as perhaps painful and unhealthy as they later turn out to be, persist even as the world around us erupts into violence, and that we carry with us halfway across the world and half a lifetime away.
Kirzane began her translations of Karpilove’s work with Diary of a Lonely Girl,
You can read excerpts of Diaryhere and here, and Faith Jones’ wonderful review here.
and read side-by-side, there is a kind of intimacy to the translation in Judith that feels more pronounced than in Diary. In part, we can ascribe it to the youth and boundless hopefulness of Judith herself, as compared to the unnamed narrator of Karpilove’s earlier novel, and to the fact that, unlike a diary, these letters are meant to be read, and to invoke in their reader, Joseph, a similar outpouring of love and emotion as that which inspired them. More than that, however, Kirzane’s translation of Judith offers an attentiveness to voice, character, and emotional nuance that is the result of the experience of Diary: this translation builds on its predecessor, part of an ongoing conversation between translator and author played out on the page, and laid out clearly and carefully in the post-face translator’s note that follows Judith.
Diary of a Lonely Girl is a novel of courtship and independence, of a woman struggling to retain her autonomy among people who would deny it at every stage, even those who claim to love her. Judith, on the other hand, though no less complex, seems a struggle in many ways against independence: although Judith eventually moves to the United States, gets a good job in a factory, and is able to bring her family to the US as a result, she does so less out of necessity than desire, following a tragic pogrom that leads to her father’s sudden death. With each letter, Judith’s belief in a coming reunion with Joseph seems to fade just a little, though her hope remains steady, or even grows, as if that singular, increasingly unlikely event comes to represent all of her regrets, longings, and hopes for a path other than the one her life has taken.
None of that would have been navigable for an English-language readership without a shift in Kirzane’s own approach to translating this novel from the previous. In Diary, as Faith Jones points out, Kirzane’s translation “feels wonderfully close to [the novel’s original] era, while also feeling free and expressive… [Kirzane’s] clarity in these translation choices creates a seamless reading experience that does not ignore the Yiddish nature of the text.” Judith attends much more intensely to the ear and eye of the contemporary English-language reader, with Kirzane recognizing the extent to which the English language, especially in its relationship to emotional outpourings, has changed dramatically since the novel’s publication in 1911 and perhaps more importantly, since Karpilove’s own unpublished self-translation of Yudis likely from the 1950s (126-8). Kirzane’s translation adds a third voice to the dialogue between Yudis and Karpilove’s translation of it; this third voice is essential in making the novel feel immediate and heartfelt, even a century removed.