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Be Yourself! (with a little help): Creating the First Yiddish LGBTQ Youth Guide

Jonathan Branfman and Eli Rosen

INTRODUCTION

Although I don’t speak Yid­dish, I knew that trans­lat­ing my children’s book You Be You! into Yid­dish would take a mae­stro. This all-in-one LGBTQ youth guide intro­duces a wide range of top­ics: it defines LGBTQ iden­ti­ties like trans­gen­der” and asex­u­al,” it decon­structs the gen­der bina­ry to affirm peo­ple who don’t fit gen­der stereo­types, it cel­e­brates LGBTQ fam­i­lies, and it explains how to stand up against queer­pho­bic dis­crim­i­na­tion. I wrote You Be You! while com­plet­ing my doc­tor­ate in Women’s, Gen­der & Sex­u­al­i­ty Stud­ies, as a nat­ur­al expres­sion of my research and teach­ing. Teach­ing WGSS cours­es usu­al­ly involves help­ing stu­dents unlearn 18+ years of harm­ful het­er­nor­ma­tive myths, like the notion that every­one has to be a man or a woman” or that only straight peo­ple can raise healthy chil­dren.” Although that work is valu­able and reward­ing, I often find myself think­ing, Wouldn’t it be great if every­one learned about gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty, and fam­i­ly in truth­ful, des­tig­ma­tiz­ing ways right from the begin­ning, rather than unlearn­ing harm­ful myths lat­er on?” That thought led me to write You Be You! While the book address­es chil­dren aged 7 – 12, it can also serve adults new to these sub­jects. Using approach­able lan­guage, the book defus­es com­mon anx­i­eties about these tough top­ics,” and makes LGBTQ edu­ca­tion an easy, wel­com­ing expe­ri­ence for all ages. I hope read­ers of the book will walk away with many new insights: how to respect­ful­ly name LGBTQ iden­ti­ties, how to cel­e­brate diverse gen­der expres­sions and diverse fam­i­ly struc­tures, and how to chal­lenge dis­crim­i­na­tion in every­day life.

Such com­pre­hen­sive guides are still uncom­mon in Eng­lish and nonex­is­tent in many oth­er lan­guages. To make LGBTQ edu­ca­tion more wide­ly acces­si­ble, I have part­nered with many col­leagues to cre­ate 22 trans­la­tions, includ­ing Hebrew, Ara­bic, Chi­nese, and Faroese. For a long time, I have also want­ed to cre­ate a Yid­dish edi­tion to serve at least three goals: 1) to make LGBTQ edu­ca­tion acces­si­ble to those who seek it with­in ultra-Ortho­dox Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties; 2) to con­tribute to the grow­ing sec­u­lar Yid­dish cul­tur­al revival, exem­pli­fied by projects like In geveb and like Sandy Fox’s fem­i­nist Yid­dish pod­cast, Vay­ber­taysh; and 3) to pro­vide LGBTQ-inclu­sive mate­ri­als for aca­d­e­m­ic Yid­dish classrooms.

It is no small task to cre­ate the world’s first Yid­dish LGBTQ youth guide in a for­mat that both ultra-Ortho­dox native speak­ers and aca­d­e­m­ic Yid­dishists can smooth­ly enjoy. That’s why I was thrilled to con­nect with Eli Rosen in Octo­ber 2020: Jor­dan Kutzik of Kinder Loshn kind­ly intro­duced us, and after we spoke on Zoom, Eli kind­ly signed on as trans­la­tor. Eli is an accom­plished trans­la­tor; for instance, In geveb has pre­vi­ous­ly cov­ered their trans­la­tion of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhi­noc­er­os. Eli has now near­ly com­plet­ed You Be Yous Yid­dish trans­la­tion, titled Zikh Aleyn Zay Getray. Here we talk about the lin­guis­tic, cul­tur­al, and per­son­al dimen­sions of this trans­la­tion project.

Jonathan Branfman: Eli, what drew you to this project? And what do you hope this book can accomplish for readers in both Hasidic and secular communities?

Eli Rosen: There are so many things about this project that I find compelling both personally and professionally. For one thing, the treatment of women and LGBTQ+ people in the Hasidic community has always been a real issue for me that eventually led me to explore other communities and lifestyles. It is no secret that my work on Unorthodox highlights some of those issues and precipitated a very important conversation that’s still ongoing. But also, as a lifelong fan of the language, I felt that it is absolutely vital to move Yiddish in its most popular vernacular forms into the 21st century, in the hope that “if you build it, they will come.”

JB: Some people ask me, “Why did you use a dialect that’s accessible to Hasidic communities for this book? No Hasidim would read an LGBTQ youth guide.” How would you respond?

ER: I was a Hasid and read everything I could get my hands on in Yiddish and English on subjects that I wanted to educate myself about. So that argument is demonstrably false. Will it be used as an official study guide in yeshivas? Absolutely not. But will it be used by some Hasidic parents in the privacy of their own homes for their own edification and hopefully for their children’s? I dare to believe that the answer is yes.

JB: Some concepts in this book have no previous translations in Yiddish. Other concepts have approximate translations that carry theological meanings, like “androygenes” as a Mishnaic term for “intersex.” How did you make decisions about coining new terms and incorporating religious terms?

ER: As you know, this is a discussion that is still ongoing and I certainly don’t presume that this book will be the last word on terminology. Innocuous terms are coined and adopted by communities and individuals all the time, only to be hijacked by bigots and eventually fall out of favor; perhaps later, if enough time passes by and the community that it describes decides to reclaim it, they fall into favor again. Words and identities matter. And we must have words to describe who and what we are if we want to raise awareness and foster understanding.

As for the terms in this book, I’ve tried to combine traditional dictionary usages with current proposals being discussed in progressive Yiddish-speaking circles, favoring clarity and comprehension wherever possible. 1 1 E.g. Pawel Ausir’s Yiddish Queer Glossary. Where terms that are already in use in English are easily Yiddishized, without losing their association, I have done so. For example, “nonbinary” becomes “nisht-tsveyig” (note the classic/Hasidic orthography!), “cisgender” becomes “tsis-minig,” and so on. Otherwise, the term is borrowed wholesale from English and international usages. This list includes words like “genderqueer” or “gay.” Other terms are slightly more complicated, such as androygenes, because of its similarity to the English “androgynous,” as well as its clinical Talmudic baggage. On balance, though, I believe that Judaism’s millennia-old tradition of recognizing and addressing genders outside the binary should be highlighted in any literature intended for a more traditional audience. 2 2 See, e.g., Bereishit Rabbah, 8:1 (“Said R’ Yirmiyah ben Elazar: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created him [as] an androgyne/androginos, as it is said, “male and female He created them”); Mishnah Bikkurim 4:1 (“The androginos is in some ways like men, and in other ways like women. In other ways he is like men and women, and in others he is like neither men nor women.”); Yevamot 83a (“As it is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yosei says: An androginos is a creature unto himself, and the Sages did not determine whether he is a male or a female.”); Mishneh Torah, Foreign Worship and Customs of the Nations, 12:4 (“A gynander and androgyne, beings of doubtful sex, have the major responsibilities of both, men and women, of all commandments and are obliged to observe them all; nevertheless, if they violate any of them no stripes are inflicted.”). Sources and translations are from Sefaria.org. I therefore favored the more inclusive universal term “interseks”, while appending “(androygenes)” in parentheses.

JB: The English edition of this book assumes a secular audience, well-accustomed to discussing how straight, cisgender people feel attraction, date, fall in love, and make families. Although an increasing number of families do educate their children about LGBTQ diversity, children still overwhelmingly see pop cultural models (like Disney princes and princesses) who depict heteronormative romance. Therefore, the English edition’s primary challenge is to help readers apply these familiar ideas to LGBTQ people as well.

For instance, most sections of the English edition open by acknowledging a common myth about gender, sexuality, or parenthood that children have likely heard, such as: “Maybe you’ve heard that everyone has to be a boy or a girl. And maybe you’ve heard that every boy grows up to be a man and falls in love with a woman.” Then, each chapter debunks these everyday myths to affirm the diversity of human experience.

However, these approaches to love, courtship, and family (even for straight people) are foreign to many Hasidic readers. For instance, many Hasidic readers do not expect to fall in love before getting married, but instead expect a shadchan to arrange their marriage. So for the Yiddish translation, how did you meet Hasidic readers where they are in explaining these topics?

ER: By trying to be as inclusive as possible, and including their own models of love and relationships as one of many possible forms of romantic relationships. For example, the original version of the book begins with the seemingly simple (hetero-centric) premise that boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, and then proceeds to explain how that model is hardly inclusive and universal. But that premise is entirely foreign to the average Hasidic child growing up in, say, Williamsburg or Monsey, NY. Rather than cutting out that important step of establishing what hetero people and queer people have in common, I simply rendered it in Hasidic terms as becoming of age and being matched by a shadkhn or matchmaker. This serves a dual purpose: It offers context for less “orthodox” relationships and a frame of reference with which to understand them. And it also helps readers understand that there are many ways to do love and marriage and that they are all equally valid and can co-exist side by side.

JB: What techniques did you use to keep the book simultaneously readable for Hasidic and non-Hasidic Yiddish readers?

ER: I combined classic (Hasidic) Yiddish orthography and vocabulary with the grammar and syntax of standard Yiddish, which in my opinion combines the best of both worlds, and is also not all that different from the Oxford Yiddish style. For the non-Hasidic reader, the orthography will be familiar from classic Yiddish texts and not too alienating, while for the Hasidic reader modern orthography can seem very foreign and even unintelligible. Good grammar, on the other hand, is good grammar, and would not alienate the Hasidic reader. As a native Hasidic Yiddish speaker, it has been my admittedly anecdotal experience in code-switching between Hasidic Yiddish and Klal-Yiddish that gendered articles and adjectives account for something like 90% of the grammatical distinctions in everyday speech between the dialects. There is nothing inherently off-putting to the reader about using definite articles and adjectives that match the gender of the nouns that they accompany. Interestingly, since we began this conversation, the new Duolingo Yiddish program has been released to much fanfare and, I think, a very good critical reception. Duolingo has adopted a similar approach and for similar reasons.

JB: Now that the translation is complete, what was the process like for you? What parts of the translation proved most challenging or rewarding?

ER: This was certainly one of my more challenging and exciting projects as a translator, both because of my own strong personal relationship with the Hasidic and LGBTQ+ communities, and because the process really demanded all my skills and creativity as a writer and translator to see it through. The biggest challenge was to come up with language and terminology that would be respectful and validating of all identities, while doing so in terms that Hasidic Yiddish speakers might actually understand, relate to, and come to integrate in their own parlance. If I fail at either of these tasks then I have failed as a translator. And given the fraught relationship most Hasidic Yiddish speakers have with many of these concepts and identities, the risk of failure is great. It is my fervent hope that this book goes a long way toward doing just that by providing Yiddish speakers of all backgrounds the necessary verbal tools to learn and talk about sex and gender in all of its diversity. Of course, without you, none of this would have been possible and I am extremely indebted to you for letting me play in your sandbox, so to speak.

JB: Was translating a children’s book similar/different to your past translation work? How did the young audience shape your choice of terminology and phrasing?

ER: Certainly, in the sense that all translation work is about translating the written work to a different audience so that they can understand it — while preserving the author’s style and voice — you can think of children as simply another audience for which the work is intended. But I would say that there is something special about writing for a younger audience. You are forced to really simplify and hone your message in a way that is more direct and more truthful. It’s almost easier to write for an adult audience because you have so many creative verbal tools at your disposal that allow you to embellish and obfuscate your message in a way that presents you in the best possible light while exposing you to fewer points of critique and attack. But younger audiences will see through all of that, so you are forced to drill the ideas down to their most basic components. In this case, of course, Jonathan has done such an incredible job in speaking to younger audiences without talking down to them, that he has made my job a lot easier in that respect.

The real challenge here was in the inherent uniqueness of contemporary American Hasidic Yiddish and how it is used and spoken among the very young. Because children often learn it at home from their mothers who often don’t really use Yiddish in their everyday lives, the Yiddish that very small children speak is much more limited and much more Americanized and anglicized than that of say, the average yeshiva bochur. The average Hasidic teenage boy would have already been exposed to everything from the very old and daytshmerish khumesh-taytsh that is still taught in kheyder to the rich literary world of Hasidic Yiddish language periodicals and publications in New York that rival their counterparts in, say, 1890s Vilna or 1920s Warsaw. And so I tried as much as possible to use terms and phrases as well as ideas that they might be familiar with.

What is your favorite page, section, or moment in the book?

I really love all of it because it is all so new and fresh and important, but if you force me to pick a moment I’d have to say chapter 9 or intersectionality. Not just because “intersectionality” is a neologism and a beast to write and pronounce in Yiddish! But also because of all of the overlapping identities that we name and recognize in the Jewish diaspora, including those that are so often not seen or recognized as existing in our community. I may have even based one of those examples on real-life friends of mine, which I will neither confirm nor deny!

The Yiddish edition of You Be You, Zikh Aleyn Zay Getray, will be released on January 11, 2022 and is available for pre-order now from Ben Yehuda Press.

MLA STYLE
Branfman, Jonathan, and Eli Rosen. “Be Yourself! (with a little help): Creating the First Yiddish LGBTQ Youth Guide.” In geveb, October 2021: https://ingeveb.org/blog/be-yourself-with-a-little-help.
CHICAGO STYLE
Branfman, Jonathan, and Eli Rosen. “Be Yourself! (with a little help): Creating the First Yiddish LGBTQ Youth Guide.” In geveb (October 2021): Accessed Oct 24, 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Jonathan Branfman

Jonathan Branfman is a visiting assistant professor Jewish Studies and English at Cornell University. His current book project is Queer Glamor: Masculinity, Race & Millennial Jewish Stardom.

Eli Rosen

Eli Rosen, born and raised in the Hasidic community of Boro Park, Brooklyn, is a former attorney-cum-Yiddish consultant who specializes in the Yiddish language and culture of pre-war Eastern European communities and contemporary Hasidic society.