Jun 14, 2016
Though I’d been reading Yiddish stories since childhood, not until I spent a day browsing my college library did I discover that a radical short story like “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” existed alongside the tales for younger readers with which I was familiar, like “Hershel of Ostropol” and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Fools of Chelm.” On reading, I immediately fell in love with Yentl, and with Bashevis’ raw, observant writing—and five years later, as a children’s librarian at a Jewish day school in Miami, I am still reading, discussing, and treating my bug for Bashevis. Maybe it’s my prerogative. I’m living on Bashevis’ old stomping ground, and not many Yiddish speakers today can say that. I pass the University of Miami where Bashevis lectured in the School of Arts and Sciences on my daily commute, but I’m thirty-seven years too late. I’m too late for the Miami with signs in Yiddish, endless kosher delicatessens, fresh copies of the Forverts, and condominium residents sporting babushkas in the summer heat; and of course I’m too late to register for Isaac Bashevis Singer’s writing seminar for graduate students.
Colleagues tell me half-jokingly, “You’re from another time.”
But how can I step back into time? Even more, how can I bring the Yiddish ghosts of Miami back to life when every time I read a story about shabes—rather than Shabbat—my students sneer? My only remedy is the archive.
On Miami’s sunniest February morning, I took the elevator up to the eighth floor of the University of Miami’s Richter Library. Waiting for me there in Special Collections was a single box of Bashevis papers. I wondered what I might find: forgotten manuscripts, unearthed secret love letters, course syllabi? I’d have been happy to find a receipt for Tylenol. I’d tell the world, “Bashevis prefers Tylenol to Advil just like me!”
Sifting through the Bashevis box, I was transported to 1978, the year the great Yiddish writer won the Nobel Prize for Literature. There were newspaper clippings, financial papers, correspondence with translators, and piles of fan mail. To my surprise, the fan mail, which came from the United States, Europe, and Israel, drew my attention. Compared to the obscure and fragmented ephemera you often find in an archive, the letters were easily digestible—brief, legible, whole. (And who wouldn’t want to read other people’s intimate thoughts!) In each letter I was comforted by readers, school kids, churchgoers, and aspiring writers who reminded me that through Bashevis’ stories it was possible to find a familiar, historic Yiddish world beyond the pages of the Forverts. Some letters were three pages long, others only two sentences, but each more telling than the next. Who knew it would be writing by fans, not Bashevis, that would help a librarian find solace in literature all over again?
My own Bashevis to-read list grew as I sifted through the fan mail. Lori from New York City wrote after reading Short Friday, “Perhaps the sole purpose I am fascinated by your stories and have felt I have learned something is this: we sometimes ask ourselves, ‘are we normal, or are others, who may seem deviant to us, normal?’” Matt, a 16-year-old from Teaneck, NJ wrote, “I wish every kid in school had a copy of Getzel the Monkey.” Ruth from Switzerland wrote, “It is your fault that I slept very badly during several weeks,” as she couldn’t put down The Manor.
Other fans demonstrated that Bashevis’ stories connected Jewish readers with their old-world Yiddish past. Abigail, a reader from rural Winnfield, Louisiana wrote, “I am Jewish, and your writings re-affirm the beauty and love of the culture, for which I thank you.” Shelley from Toronto wrote, “A friend of mine, Roman Catholic, introduced me to your books. Since then I have learned a great deal about what it means to be a Jew and have begun to practice Judaism for the first time. I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity.”
There were letters from children that filled me with hope. Dexter wrote, “I played Schlemiel and got myself a standing ovation. It was exceptionally amusing for me to be a Jew in a shtetl, since I am black and Christian.” Tiana from New York City sent Bashevis a thank you card for her Christmas present, When Schlemiel Goes to Warsaw. She wrote, “My 4-year-old sister adds a more confusing touch to Schlemiel which gives us an extra stitch in the side.”
I want my students to admire Bashevis too. Now when I’m asked, “Ms. Winter, do you have any scary books in the library?” I always lead my students to Bashevis’ The Fearsome Inn, a story of Kabbalah and witches. During Monday Night Chai, an after-school program I teach for Jewish high schoolers, our class read Gimpel the Fool out loud so we could carefully consider each Yiddishism.
I have found between the dusty archival folders an immortal community that existed before Meetup and Facebook groups. I want to applaud the Shreveport, Louisiana reader who put the first Bashevis book in the public library, and encourage Esther, President of the Palo Alto Yiddish Club to continue protecting Yiddish. Not that she needs it; she wrote to Bashevis, “If anyone ever says to me again that Yiddish is a dying language, I’ll vehemently spit in their eye.”
Many of the fan letters read like something I could have written. In her letter, fellow librarian Susan of Deerfield, Illinois treated Bashevis as if he were her own family member. She wrote, “We have spoken so much of you and your books that friends called to congratulate us on your receiving the well deserved Nobel Prize.” (Did I mention that I have a picture of Bashevis hanging in my living room as if I were an old world great-grandparent?) I actually got in touch with Susan through the library association of which we are both members; while trying to coordinate plans to meet up, she wrote me, “I always thought there was some connection between Mr. Singer and me because his books and his speaking engagements seemed directed to me . . . You probably feel that way, as well.” We have yet to meet up, but she’s exactly right; I do.