Oct 06, 2019
Kadya Molodovsky, A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivke Zilberg’s Journal. Translated and with an Introduction by Anita Norich (Indiana University Press, 2019), 172 pp, $24.00
Anita Norich’s translation of Molodovsky’s forgotten novel Fun Lublin biz Nyu-York: Togbukh fun Rivke Zilberg (translated here as A Jewish Refugee in New York) is both an extraordinary act of detective work and an intervention into and corrective to what are still largely unexamined assumptions about Yiddish literary production in the United States. Molodovsky serialized her novel daily in the pages of the Morgn-zhurnal from May 30, 1941 through August 11, 1941, and it appeared in book form in 1942, published by the press Molodovsky and her husband Simcha Lev operated in New York, where they had settled in the 1930s (Molodovsky was able to leave Poland in 1935; her husband joined her three years later). Written in the fictional voice of a young woman who has fled Nazi-occupied Poland to join relatives in New York, Fun Lublin biz Nyu-York was only one of many literary efforts by Molodovsky to grapple with the horrors emerging from Europe during the Nazi genocide. As Norich notes, “El khanun” (“God of Mercy”), still one of Molodovsky’s most frequently translated and anthologized poems, was published in 1944. But as Norich notes, in addition to her poetry (for which she is likely more recognized), Molodovsky wrote two more novels in the 1940s, which, because they were serialized in Yiddish periodicals and not published in book form, remain virtually unknown. As Norich wrote in Pakn Treger in 2017, describing the fragments of manuscripts in Molodovsky’s archive that eventually led Norich to discover the serialized novels in microfilm,
[t]he fact that there are more of these novels than we knew about is equally significant. Everyone who has ever read, researched, or written about Yiddish literature knows that there are a disheartening number of authors and texts published in the pages of Yiddish periodicals but now largely unknown. The only way to find them is by searching in archives and by turning the pages (or scrolling through the microfilm) of scores of periodicals. It is a frustrating, tedious, and incredibly exciting task, where you feel like a combination of sleuth, explorer, archaeologist, and obsessive. Finds like these demonstrate the vital importance of archival and bibliographical research and the importance of translation projects. 1 1 Anita Norich, “Kadya Molodovsky: A Woman Novelist Rediscovered,” Pakntreger, issue 76: Winter 2017. https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/language-literat…
These two additional novels, one titled Di yerushe (the Inheritance) and the other titled Zeydes un eyniklekh (Grandfathers and grandchildren), also take place in New York and feature characters who, like Rivke Zilberg, are refugees and survivors who have lost their homes and families to the Nazi onslaught. In all three novels, these characters encounter and interact with American Jews whose reactions to their experiences are marked, in Norich’s words, by both “sorrow and a rather condescending pity” (Introduction, xi). Thus, A Jewish Refugee in New York is at once a chronicle of exile and trauma, a critique of American Jewish culture, and a meditation on the unique ways in which women experience both these phenomena.
Narrated in the form of Rivke’s journal, the novel’s first entry is dated December 15, 1939 (“My First Day in New York”) and its last October 6 (“Who Knows?”). Challenging any clear boundaries of genre, the “diary” titles each of its entries like chapters (or dates each of its chapters like diary entries). Rivke arrives in New York grieving her dead mother and unsure of the fates of her father, brothers, boyfriend, or home in Lublin. She is taken in by her mother’s sister and her family, which includes cousins her age, whose Yiddish is so broken that they can barely communicate with her. As if her unbearable grief were not enough, they laugh at her clothes and talk about her in English, which she cannot understand. When the neighbors come over later to meet her, they want to hear about the “old country” and share their own stories of migration, unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that Rivke is not an immigrant but a refugee, a word that Rivke herself pauses on: “What a horrible word: refugee. The word is a curse. It probably comes from refuse, garbage. A refugee is truly cursed, discarded, and worthless” (4).
The Americanized and American-born Jews with whom Rivke interacts are drawn with a sharp and painful satirical edge. Rivke’s peers are enchanted with the most superficial aspects of American culture, preoccupied with movies, music, fashion, and material success. They don’t speak or even understand Yiddish. Their refusal to see the horrors unfolding across the ocean (horrors that they have escaped only by an accident of birth) is nothing short of tragic. In contrast, Rivke finds some more sympathetic interlocutors in her aunt and uncle’s generation, but their engagement with the “old country” is also played as farce. The Purim Ball fundraiser to aid refugees, put on by the Lublin Ladies’ Society, is a particularly ironic chapter, as Rivke details the competitions, feuds, jealousies, and flirtations that obscure the ball’s original purpose. Towards the end of the evening,
…Mr. Shamut announced that the ball had brought in $350, and everyone applauded happily. They applaud everything here.
The dance was lively. Everybody seemed to want to get their money’s worth out of their quarter. As they were stomping their feet, I thought of my father lying in Krasulye’s stall, with his back leaning against the wall. He was very cold, and he kept his hands under a mound of straw, just as I had seen him in my dream. I felt faint and sat down. (60)
Rivke’s aunt and cousins are not kind to her, and she finds herself embroiled in a series of jealous love triangles, as first her cousin’s suitor tries to seduce her, and then his friend, abandoning his girlfriend, also begins to court Rivke. She is forced to move out of her aunt’s home, and she finds work in the needle trades as she studies and becomes more proficient in English. Eventually “Red” is successful in his overtures and as the novel ends Rivke, now known as “Ray,” is engaged. One could read this as a variant of a familiar, even archetypal Jewish immigrant story. But Rivke/Ray’s Americanizing trajectory is complicated by the relentless news she encounters in the newspapers about Poland, and by the occasional, terrifying letters she receives from her family. Her boyfriend in Poland has managed to escape to Palestine, and wants her to join him. At the novel’s end, Rivke no longer quite knows who she is:
Red is very good to me. He doesn’t let me worry about anything. “Don’t think so much,” he says.
I wear the engagement ring, and I think that Rivke Zilberg no longer exists. In New York, someone named Ray Levitt will soon be walking around. Rivke Zilberg remained in Lublin. Someone in Palestine is waiting for Rivke Zilberg. And Ray Levitt lives in New York.
Can it be that everyone in the world lives like this? Who knows? (172)
Rivke’s different names and embattled identity underline a major preoccupation of the novel, which is language. The novel is itself multilingual, with English rendered in the Yiddish text much of the time as untranslated, transliterated English. Norich stages this quite skillfully in her translation, continuing a venerable literary tradition of presenting Jewish English in italics and as accented or as dialect, the way that Rivke would likely be hearing it. For an English reader, the defamiliarizing effect of seeing words like kvorl (quarrel) or tekses (taxes), or even what we call “eye dialect” like skool (school) and krayzee (crazy), mirrors Rivke’s disorientation in America as well as the shared experience of dislocation of Molodovsky and her readers (for a discussion of Molodovsky’s own efforts to master English, see Norich’s introduction, pp. xvi-xx). Rivke struggles to express herself in English even as the young Americans around her cannot communicate to her in Yiddish. Rivke cannot grieve, or be angry, because she has quite literally lost her voice. In scene after scene, Rivke masks her internal turmoil with silence.
It is difficult not to read a broader symbolism into the silencing of Rivke in her transition from Yiddish to English. As Allison Schachter has noted in her recent review of On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash (translated by Ellen Cassedy):
In North America, what we know about Yiddish literature—what gets taught, published, and written about—has been shaped by the 1950s translation projects of American Jewish male writers, like Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg. They didn’t invent the narrative of Yiddish as a literature written by men, but they codified that legacy dreamed up by Sholem Aleichem, when he declared Mendele to be “the grandfather” of Yiddish literature. 2 2 Allison Schachter, “Review of On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash, trans. Ellen Cassedy, June 24, 2019 (https://ingeveb.org/articles/review-of-on-the-land…)
And as Norich notes in her introduction, even when women Yiddish writers were recognized in either Yiddish or English, it was largely as poets. Prose fiction, with its robust attention to politics, history, and social upheaval, was assumed to be the province of Yiddish’s male writers. Molodovsky, with her voluminous output of prose as well as poetry, explicitly challenged these assumptions, and a new generation of feminist Yiddish scholars and translators are as well. Ellen Cassedy has translated Moldovan-Israeli Yiddish writer Yenta Mash. Jessica Kirzane’s translation of Miriam Karpilove’s novel Diary of a Lonely Girl will be published in November by Syracuse University Press. I imagine these are but the first of a new wave of excavations and translations of a rich literary trove.
As for Rivke Zilberg, Norich discovered that she was more than just a character for Molodovsky. In 1953 Molodovsky’s dramatic reworking of the novel as a play, A hoyz af grend strit (A House on Grand Street), opened to positive reviews. What is more, careful examination of the archive revealed that between 1954 and 56, Molodovsky adopted Rivke Zilberg as her pen name for a column in the Forverts about famous women. “In using the same name for the young protagonist and the older columnist,” Norich speculates, “Molodovsky seems to hint at what the twenty-year-old refugee might have become ten or fifteen years later: a journalist and an intellectual interested in questions about the condition of women” (xv).
As Schachter urges, it is time to reconsider our received narratives of Yiddish literary history — a literary history, after all, that has been unsettled and contested from its very beginnings. Norich’s important intervention rejects the idea that Yiddish women writers were only poets, and that when they wrote prose fiction it was autobiographical (indeed, both Karpilove’s and Molodovsky’s novels-in-the-forms-of-diaries could be read as subversive and defiant challenges to that expectation). What is more, Molodovsky’s novel adds further dimension to our ever-growing understanding of the diverse ways postwar Jewish literature responded to the destruction of Eastern European Jewish civilization. The “myth of silence” after the Holocaust has been challenged in the last decade by the work of such scholars as Eric Sundquist, Hasia Diner, and Norich herself. That doesn’t mean, however, that Jewish responses across multiple languages were not complex and sometimes contradictory. Molodovsky’s novel was, in its moment, as Norich terms it, “an invocation of the power of memory alongside a call to action” to intervene in the Nazi slaughter (xv). Hopefully it will speak to a new generation of readers in another era of upheaval, displacement, and turmoil.