“Conversion through language”: Mo Pareles on Yiddish, Old English, and the Temporal Other

Sarah Ellen Zarrow


When the editors of In geveb encountered Mo Pareles’s work on The Awl, we were curious: Pareles is a medievalist whose research focuses on English religious literature—and not a Yiddishist—yet she uses Yiddish in her work. We were pleasantly surprised, we admit, to discover such a serious treatment of Yiddish by someone outside the field. We knew we had to learn more, so editorial Board member Sarah Zarrow sat down (virtually) with Pareles for a chat about translation, teaching, and the uses of a Yiddish-language New Testament.

Sarah Zarrow: I’m thinking about us being a digital publication, and seeing an article about you online, and then neither of us having a good internet connection! So: I’m glad you could join us, and I’m glad your move went well. Or at least, was successful.

Mo Pareles: Thanks! And thanks for inviting me to do this.

SZ: I came across you in The Awl; I’ve been enjoying their new higher-ed column.

MP: Me too. Jo Livingstone [who writes about academia for The Awl] is a genius, and also a friend.

SZ: Ah, that’s great. I can’t get enough of good writing about our weird world. I was enjoying the piece, and then the fact that you had worked with Yiddish popped out at me—I think that we often (we at In geveb at least) see people who work with Yiddish day-in, day-out. Can you talk a little bit about how you utilize(d) Yiddish in your work? It’s not what you do primarily, right?

MP: No, it’s not at all what I do primarily. I took a course in grad school outside my field and had the freedom to pursue this question I’d had for a while (Was there a Yiddish New Testament? What were the exorcisms like?) and then when I wanted to try to get an article published there was this very self-contained project ready to revise. And then weirdly this [article about a Yiddish translation of the New Testament] is the first thing I published. Even though I’m a medievalist. But that piece was really, really important to my thinking about my book (or, at the time, my dissertation) because it allowed me to work through some ideas about Jewish-Christian translation that I thought might apply in an Old English context.

SZ: That’s interesting. Can you say more about the translation? Who was the translator? When and where was it published?

MP: It was published by a press that was founded specifically to publish this book, I believe, but has since published some other Christian texts for Jews. The translator was Henry Einspruch, a Galician-born Jewish convert to Christianity, and it was published in 1941 in Baltimore. Einspruch was a Yiddish-speaker and he was really embarrassed by the previous translations of the New Testament he’d seen. He wanted other Jews to encounter Christianity and be attracted to it through an elegant literary translation.

SZ: And does his translation live up to what he hoped?

MP: I think so, yeah. Naomi Seidman has written a bit about this, too. Obviously there are a few different ways to look at this. It definitely has literary merit. My argument was that it was pretty clever theologically, that it framed Christian concepts in a way that demonstrated (linguistically and culturally) their connection to Judaism. Was it effective in converting people? No.

SZ: But a good attempt.

MP: Yeah. And it’s not Einspruch’s fault. For one thing, the need he perceived was not really there anymore.

SZ: So why in Yiddish? Because it would reach Yiddish-speakers particularly? Or was using Yiddish part and parcel of his project?

MP: Yeah, exactly. To reach Yiddish-speakers. This is all before 1941. After the Holocaust, and after a generation or two of Ashkenazi assimilation in the US and other English-speaking countries, there is not much of an exclusively Yiddish-reading population anymore.

SZ: I am also wondering now if the copies of the New Testament I saw in the Yiddish Book Center, as an intern in 2001, were his translation. Probably?

MP: Maybe. There’s also a decent translation by Bergmann that I think (I’m not sure about this) was probably in equal circulation.

SZ: You said you were looking for how the NT treated exorcism; is there anything in particular, considering the Yiddish, that stood out for you? Either about exorcism or some other theological issue.

MP: Yeah, I am really, really interested in how the Jewish concept of uncleanness translates.

That’s a lot of what I work on in medieval Christian translation. And that was what I thought was so clever about the Einspruch—he uses the word “tome,” which Jews would recognize as meaning ritually unclean, for the Christian concept of spiritual uncleanness. It’s a really important theological point in the New Testament, that the system of ritual purity in Judaism becomes interpreted as a system of spiritual purity under Christ. Einspruch totally got that, and he performs the same conversion through language. But at the same time that he’s translating (I’ll say this in English) “unclean spirit” as “tome gayst” to make this theological point.

SZ: That’s so interesting. Of course, you’d have to really reach your audience, not just in their language but in their worldview.

MP: So at the same time, he’s also translating (again, I’ll say this in English) “demon” as “shed,” which is just a standard Jewish word for the demons of folklore and literature, so he makes that cultural connection as well.

SZ: So I’m really curious—we often interview folks for whom Yiddish—translation, literature, music, whatever—is really their primary professional habitat. Am I correct in thinking that for you, it’s not? How did the work in Yiddish get started?

MP: So my work is in Old and Middle English, and I’m in an English Department, but I have some reading knowledge of a bunch of languages, enough to do research in. And one of them is Yiddish. It’s my mom’s first language—that is, she was raised bilingually, so I took a course in college and it was easy to learn because I’d heard it a lot.

SZ: Ah, it all makes sense. Or more sense.

MP: Yeah, my spoken Yiddish is pretty negligible, but it was easy to learn to, for instance, read the newspaper.

SZ: I think one of the things that made us say, “we should talk to this person,” is that the connection wasn’t obvious—I’m a historian who works on Jewish life in interwar Poland, so of course I need to know how to use Yiddish in my work, it’s crucial. I think Yiddish is one of those subjects where people ask a lot, “okay, so what do you do with it?”

MP: Oh, but there’s so much to do with it!

SZ: I think so as well—but I guess for medievalists, the connection isn’t obvious, unless you’re working with Old Yiddish.

MP: Well, but it’s very similar to Old English. As it would be—I mean, they are both Germanic languages that became distinct in the medieval period. I do teach one piece of medieval Yiddish literature, “Joseph the Righteous.”

SZ: Ah, very cool! How did you teach it?

MP: I taught that text, “Joseph the Righteous,” in my Medieval Masculinities class at NYU alongside Daniel Boyarin’s work on Jewish masculinities. It’s about a virtuous Jewish man as the object of a lustful feminine gaze—he’s so beautiful that women come to harm looking at him. It’s a nice illustration of the way certain qualities coded as feminine in the dominant Christian medieval culture—modesty, beauty, piety—can be understood by a Jewish audience as ideal, even highly sexually attractive, masculine qualities (Boyarin talks about this). So that the sexual scripts in Yiddish literature feel totally different from (and are sometimes written in opposition to) the valorization of masculine sexual aggressiveness in the dominant (Christian) culture.

SZ: And the students, how did they react?

MP: That was a lot of fun for the class. They loved it and totally got it. At the same time, my students know that representing female desire is not automatically radical or feminist in a medieval text—the stereotype that women are not sexual is pretty modern and medieval Christians actually thought, for the most part, that women had more sexual desire than men and had to be kept on a shorter leash for that reason. So the students were able to see other things at work here—like the fact that the female gaze here is non-Jewish and largely illicit. So that was a cool discussion.

SZ: What made you choose that text particularly?

MP: My friend Anna Torres, who is a serious Yiddishist at the University of Chicago, turned me onto that text. She came over to my house in Brooklyn in late winter and I was very happy to see her, because my son wouldn’t put on his jacket so we were kind of stuck at home, and I hadn’t seen her in years, actually, because she was in Berkeley getting her PhD, and then she was telling me all this brilliant and fascinating stuff about her research—Yiddish modernists writing about Sacco and Vanzetti, and their ideas of temporality—and I was telling her about my research, and then I was feeding my kid and I thought he was having an allergic reaction because his face was getting red, so I was holding him on my lap and forcing Benadryl into his mouth, and she was like, “Do you want me to leave?” and I was like, “No, no, stay until I’m sure he’s okay, if you don’t mind,” and he was running around in his diaper and I was half-watching him in a panic to see if he was going to get any redder (he didn’t), and half-talking to Anna (who was keeping totally cool and pretending my life was normal) about my Medieval Masculinities class, and she was like, “Oh, you have to read this thing, ‘Joseph the Righteous,’ in the Frakes anthology.” So I did. What a wonderful scholar she is. That’s the whole story.

SZ: An excellent story! We were also curious, thinking about both the humanities in general and the fate of the humanities, what political and cultural connections you see between your work and the world today.

MP: Okay, so right now I’m in Canada, where there is a little more public support for the humanities and, um, human life in general. Western Canada is a very good place for thinking about the connection between the humanities and the fate of, well, people. I’m in a research group called Oecologies that looks at premodern ecological thinking and connects that to our current political and environmental crises. Indigenous studies is very strong here, and one of the things that I work on that shows a strong connection between indigenous studies and medieval Jewish-Christian studies is the problem of temporal othering, which is basically the idea that other people, who live on this planet with you right now, actually exist in some sort of past time, and your culture has replaced their culture, or their culture will evolve into something like your culture.

SZ: You mean like the idea that the Church eclipses the Synagogue?

MP: Yeah, supersession is a good example of that.

SZ: Right, okay. That’s interesting, I think sometimes in Yiddish studies particularly, we look at that with regard to the narrative that Hebrew replaces Yiddish.

MP: Yes! And there is a big problem when the supersessionists (medieval English Christians, or settler colonialists, or right now European secularists) come into contact with their temporal others. They often react with violence. For instance, right now there is a narrative in Europe that religion is medieval and secularism is modern. And when it turns out that Muslims are modern and observance is modern, European secularists really freak out because that challenges their entire historical worldview, and they get to the point where they are stripping a woman on a beach at gunpoint. 1 1 See…

SZ: Yes. I find my students have a hard time with this, the idea that different ideas co-exist and develop with/alongside each other.

MP: Yes! Well, we learn the Whig narrative of history very young.

SZ: Absolutely, and spend the rest of our lives writing against it, it seems. So if we circle back to translation, to using Yiddish, which to some people seems really retrograde, or nostalgic, or backwards-facing … where do we get?

MP: Well, I suspect you’ve thought a lot about this. A lot of living people speak Yiddish, and it’s a myth that it’s a dead language. Hasids count as people.

SZ: You don’t say! Absolutely, you’re right.

MP: Ha! I just mean, I feel that it’s queer to speak it, which is part of my allegiance. But in terms of my work, I feel that studying Yiddish defies the temporal othering that has been performed on it. I agreed totally with Zohar Weiman-Kelman in your recent interview.

SZ: It seems to continue to be queer and an act of resistance to study Yiddish, which defies my idea of what’s cool generally—somehow in fifteen or so years of study, this hasn’t changed. I’m surprised that even amongst my colleagues, there’s a sense that Yiddish is in the past. Explaining this over and over is tiring, it seems, but necessary.

MP: Really? You mean academic colleagues?

SZ: Not always, and it depends on the circle, but occasionally. Like if I bring up that a particular study would be enhanced by using the Yiddish sources, or something. There’s not always the understanding that a Yiddish source should be taken as seriously as an English or German or, in my case, Polish.

MP: Can I tell you this weird thing? I call my child’s body parts by Yiddish names, and so does, like, everyone in my family. I don’t know why! The weird part is that we don’t use those words otherwise. I think because it’s such a gendered language in families, and so familial. “Punim” means “child’s face” to us.

SZ: Now that I think of it … my father knows a little Yiddish and my mom doesn’t, but they definitely used pupik.

MP: Yes! The other day we realized that my kid knows the English words for all his body parts but thighs. He only knows them as pulkes.

SZ: That’s amazing. my parents called them “pokies,” which I’m SURE came from Yiddish and was, I guess, re-lexicalized (?) into English.

MP: I actually saw it on a Chinese menu once. Because—I mean, I am not an expert on this word, but I think it is usually used for meat thighs.

SZ: Ha! So my last question is: Do you think you’ll use Yiddish again academically? Do you hope to?

MP: Yes, definitely. I actually have a project—I think of it as a post-tenure project because it will involve more language study and some research in Germany—on Germanic translations of the Bible and anti-Semitic ideology. Old Saxon, German, Yiddish, Old Norse …

SZ: So fascinating! Well then, we really look forward to you receiving tenure!

Zarrow, Sarah Ellen. ““Conversion through language”: Mo Pareles on Yiddish, Old English, and the Temporal Other.” In geveb, November 2016:
Zarrow, Sarah Ellen. ““Conversion through language”: Mo Pareles on Yiddish, Old English, and the Temporal Other.” In geveb (November 2016): Accessed May 21, 2019.


Sarah Ellen Zarrow

Sarah Zarrow is on the editorial board of In geveb. She is Professor of Jewish History at Western Washington University, where she teaches courses in Jewish history and the Holocaust.