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What Remains Is Revolutionary: Unboxing Norma Fain Pratt’s Library

Charlotte Apter, Joseph Reisberg and Caleb Sher


I

On a rainy Friday in late October 2022, twenty-three boxes of books arrived unannounced at the Yiddish Book Center. Unpacking this anonymous donation was low on the bibliography department’s to-do list. In a few days, dozens of scholars and students would be arriving for the Di froyen conference, an homage to the original conference celebrating women’s writing in Yiddish, which was held at Hunter College and sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary twenty-seven years ago. We were too preoccupied to pay these boxes much attention.

The boxes, stamped with California return addresses, were swiftly stacked on a cart to await shelving. One box, however, which had been dampened from the rain, was set aside for us to open that afternoon—if we left it too long, we’d risk the books getting moldy. Typically, unboxing donations is a collective activity at the Yiddish Book Center, as we admire each new addition to the Center’s core collection. Yet that day, for some reason, Charlotte Apter, a Yiddish Book Center Fellow, shouldered the task alone, hoping to get it quickly out of the way.

Peeling apart the damp cardboard, she braced herself for dusty editions of Sholem Aleichem that would leave her hands stained and mildewy. Instead, nestled on top was a signed 1930 edition of Celia Dropkin’s In heysn vint. Fool’s gold, she thought. How could such a highly sought after Yiddish book be the first one she pulled out? But each title thereafter, about twenty in that first box, proved to be of the same caliber. These books—each in pristine condition, written by women both acclaimed and unknown, many inscribed by the authors themselves—were donated by Adam Stern; a name, suddenly, of extreme intrigue.

The damp box now emptied and in the trash, and its twenty-two other counterparts were stacked on a cart in anticipation. Charlotte walked into bibliographer David Mazower’s office. She said to him: “I don’t want to be an alarmist, but you have to come see what just arrived.”

Charlotte immediately called the phone number Adam had left in the box, eager to learn more about what would become one of the most significant donations to ever arrive unannounced at the Yiddish Book Center’s doorstep. She got him on the phone, but he was on his way out the door and couldn’t talk. “My mother is a scholar of Yiddish. Her name is Norma Fain Pratt,” he said. “Sorry I didn’t let you guys know before I shipped the books; I offered them to a bunch of different places, but no one seemed to want them. I can’t read Yiddish, but I knew I couldn’t throw them away.”

They spoke on the phone again the following day. She told him that one box alone contained what many would identify as a whole syllabus of women’s writing in Yiddish. And that was just the first box. Charlotte told him that the Yiddish Book Center was thrilled to receive this donation, and urged that she and him ought to be back in touch soon for further questions. Adam seemed delighted that his mother’s books found a good home.

Still, twenty-one boxes of books remained.

Over the next two weeks, Fellows Charlotte Apter, Joseph Reisberg, and Caleb Sher, together with bibliographer David Mazower, unpacked this historic donation one box at a time until all 500 or so titles, spanning several shelves, stood prominently once more as Norma Fain Pratt’s collection. Tucked inside the books were remnants of her scholarship—handwritten notes in M. Bassin’s Antologye finf hundert yor yiddshe poezye, tape recordings of interviews with writers like Rachelle Veprinski and Bella Goldvirt, correspondence between Fain Pratt and Hinde Zaretski. Clearly Fain Pratt was committed to the work of women writing in Yiddish, and with a little more research we learned she is a visionary in the field.

It was bashert: this donation arrived right before Di froyen, when dozens of scholars, artists, and community members gathered at the Center to celebrate and continue the important work done by scholars like Norma Fain Pratt. So, we’d like to offer a window into Fain Pratt’s life and work in an attempt to make sense of her vast collection of Yiddish books which both delighted and inspired us.


II

Norma Fain Pratt was born to Polish Jewish parents in New York City in 1937. Her son, Adam, describes the family as a “tough, cantankerous bunch of Jews.” Her father owned a millinery shop in Manhattan, and later was partial owner of the Westover Hotel. In her book Taking It Personally, Fain Pratt describes a summer when she went to work at the millinery with her father while a strike was underway—she was amazed by the women marching as one all day in the heat, but was also ashamed to walk past them with her father, the boss.

If her fiction is any indication, Fain Pratt was contemplating questions of gender and belonging at a very young age. In a semi-autobiographical story, “Scared: Inherited Traits,” Fain Pratt writes about her grandmother, with whom she shared a bedroom in the family’s Bronx home. The story seems to be a corollary to Norma Fain Pratt’s academic work, reclaiming and celebrating the lives of immigrant women, while also addressing the cycles of shame, sexism, and abuse that had stifled their voices. After the narrator (as an adult) asks her mother why her grandmother always called out in her sleep and whispered, “Keep that old man away from me,” her mother curtly answers, “‘My mother was married when she was fourteen. Her husband was twenty-five. Maybe she didn’t like him at first.’” 1 1 Norma Fain Pratt, Taking It Personally (Altadena: Quesadilla Press, 2006): 17

Although her older sister, Marilyn, was fluent in mame-loshn, Fain Pratt was sent to afternoon Yiddish-language shules to brush up on her reading skills. Despite her initial reluctance, Yiddish literature would go on to inform a significant amount of Fain Pratt’s scholarship and creative work, through her fiction and playwriting as well as her career teaching immigration, labor, and women’s history at various institutions around New York and Southern California.

Early in her career, Norma Fain Pratt identified her grandmother’s generation of women as her academic focus, writing articles on their changing religiosity, participation in unions such as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and literary and journalistic output. One writer who had a particularly strong influence on her was the modernist and anarchist poet Anna Margolin, about whom she later wrote and staged a biographical play featuring actors such as Ed Asner. Norma Fain Pratt infuses her academic writing with a warmer kind of scholarship. She writes that Margolin’s work “speaks to my heart.” 2 2 Norma Fain Pratt, “Anna Margolin’s ‘Lider’: A Study in Women’s History, Autobiography, and Poetry,” Studies in American Jewish Literature, no.3 (1983): 11.

In 1980, Norma Fain Pratt’s most-cited article, “Culture and Radical Politics: Yiddish Women Writers, 1890–1940,” appeared in the journal American Jewish History. Scholars have credited this article with breaking the norm of exclusively male Yiddish-to-English translation and anthologization. 3 3 Rosemary Horowitz, “CFP: Critical Essays on Yiddish Women Writers,” Yiddish Sources, 2011. Accessed 27 June 2023.
Many of the authors found in Norma Fain Pratt’s library appear in this article, as well as some writers she interviewed in the ‘70s and ‘80s—women who were born to poor families in late nineteenth century Eastern Europe, immigrated to the United States between 1905 and 1920, published in secular leftist periodicals, and wrote about “female, Jewish, and working class identity.” 4 4 Norma Fain Pratt, “Culture and Radical Politics: Yiddish Women Writers, 1890–1940,” American Jewish History 70, no.1 (1980): 69. Although these writers, such as Zaretski, Veprinski, Rokhl Luria, and Yente Serdatsky, had much in common, they never formed into a coherent group such as the male-dominated Di yunge or In zikhistn of the same era. Fain Pratt examines the barriers preventing these women from forming the kinds of male-dominated canon-building literary circles, from long hours of work and familial responsibility to Zaretski’s poems being confiscated at Ellis Island because they were thought to be too revolutionary.

Women who did not fit a mold of writing “before marriage and after widowhood,” 5 5 Ibid, 81-82. such as Fradl Shtok and Anna Rappaport, were often belittled or excluded. Shtok in particular captured Norma Fain Pratt’s imagination, and she presented her research and close readings of Shtok at the original Di froyen conference in 1995.

Fradl Shtok (under the thinly disguised character of “Ada Fletcher”) also appears in Norma Fain Pratt’s fiction. In one short story published in Lilith magazine in 1987, a narrator remarkably similar to Fain Pratt herself scours the NYPL archives for an article on “Forgotten Yiddish Women Writers Of The Early Twentieth Century.” There she discovers an astonishing author named Ada Fletcher, who disappeared from the public eye after her first English novel was panned by critics. So begins a mysterious literary wild-goose chase, from scouring the fictional “Archives of the Jewish Radical Literary Society” (possibly a stand-in for the Bundist library in New York where many of Fain Pratt’s books came from), to being led by two aging male Yiddish writers to a shuttered mental institution upstate where Fletcher was said to have lived.

The story, fittingly titled “What Remains Is Random,” is a venue for Norma Fain Pratt to express her frustrations with the process of recovering Yiddish women’s writing, a process full of misdirection, misogyny, and dead ends. Upon first meeting the older male writers, she thinks, “‘He’s going to tell me what a good looking woman Ada Fletcher was, how the men were crazy about her, and how she wasted her time dabbling in literary pursuits only to be disappointed and that drove her crazy.’” 6 6 Fain Pratt, Taking It Personally, 138. Fed up with the older writers’ nostalgic, flattening memories of Fletcher, the narrator shouts “You’re full of bullshit ...You never had anything to tell me ... You’re a phoney, a stupid phoney.” 7 7 Ibid, 145.

More than remaining an objective observer, Fain Pratt used her work to talk back and rebel against the destructive, stifling forces of history. In her explosive and groundbreaking writing, she gathers these random remnants of lives and creates order and power from them. As she writes, on reading a Fletcher (Shtok) sonnet: “I cried. I cried with my feminist sensibility and some deep part of me knew I could never rescue Ada from that oblivion into which she had been trapped. Then I thought, gratefully, maybe she has rescued me.” 8 8 Ibid, 148.

Norma Fain Pratt posits that the economic and ethnic insecurity of the early twentieth century prevented the writers she loved from forming a radical feminist consciousness, but through her writing and scholarship she invited these women into her own modern worldview. But as the narrator of “What Remains is Random” learns, this kind of transference is not unidirectional. More than just pushing her grandmother and her generation into a retrospective box of voicelessness, Fain Pratt shows that their hopes and fears, their prayers and picket-line-chants, still have the strength to inspire new generations to struggle and create.

III

Fain Pratt’s own library testifies to a career spent recovering and studying Yiddish women’s literature. For some perspective: most collections that are sent to us are made up of odds and ends. They are the remnants of someone’s (or someone’s parents’ or grandparents’) lifetime of Yiddish reading and collecting: a few half-complete sets of the collected works of the klasikers, another (probably unread) set of Yisroel Tsinberg’s Di geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn, and a handful, or a few shelves-full, of other books, from poetry to history and everything in between. That these books were well-read and well-loved is often without doubt, especially those that are worse for wear. Yet, most days, we’re lucky if a donation we open at the Book Center has even one book written by a woman. So it was all the more remarkable when we discovered that nearly half of the titles among Fain Pratt’s several hundred Yiddish books were penned by women authors.

Fain Pratt’s library is not the largest private collection we’ve ever received—it isn’t even the largest we received in 2022—nor is it necessarily the most representative of Yiddish reader’s preferences and reading habits. What it is, is discerning; a word we rarely get to use to describe the collections sent to us. She collected with a specific purpose, a particular and significant research project in mind. That is, while Fain Pratt did recover women’s writing in Yiddish—literally so, given the rarity of some of the texts in her collection, such as her not one but two copies of Dvoyre Vogel’s Akatsyes blien, both inscribed by Vogel herself—recovery was not the sole aim of her collection and her work. As Allison Schachter writes:

...recovery feels antiquated because it has been achieved in many more mainstream literary fields, even as the work of recovery for Jewish literature is far from over. However, recovery is also inadequate to the task at hand when it merely adds texts to syllabi or single chapters to books about men, rather than transforming the very grounds of our understanding of the past. 9 9 Allison Schachter, Women Writing Jewish Modernity (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2022): 8.

Certainly the span of titles contained in Fain Pratt’s library could complement syllabi and scholarly monographs filled to the brim with male Yiddish writers—it could, in fact, displace these men altogether. To be sure, she subverts the scarcity narrative of women’s writing by reading (and collecting) across the breadth of women’s writing in Yiddish, both geographically and in terms of genre—for example, Rosa Palatnik writing her short stories from Rio de Janeiro; Mina Smoler, based in Los Angeles, describing characters at the margins of society; and Lili Berger, writing for newspapers and radical publications in Paris and beyond.


Norma Fain Pratt collected selectively though diversely among women’s writing in Yiddish, including many books published by informal committees of friends and supporters. As Kathryn Hellerstein notes:

The category of gender is not an end in itself. It is a means to reveal and discuss difference. The real question is not whether there is a single common denominator to all these poets and their works. Instead, the key question is: What were the many different ways to write about Jewish women’s experiences? 10 10 Kathryn Hellerstein, A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014): 7.

Norma Fain Pratt understood this question. She sought to give the whole picture. Her scholarship goes beyond a mere attempt to list the underappreciated women writers she collected. An attention to the intersections of class and gender and to life history underlie Fain Pratt’s presentation of the cultural and aesthetic contributions of American Yiddish women writers in the early twentieth century. In her scholarly and literary work, she began to sketch out the particular hows and whys—the avenues and barriers for publication, in radical circles just as much as in conservative, religious spheres, and the motivations and desires of these writers. These women, Fain Pratt’s research demonstrates, did not write in a vacuum. As a largely working class, immigrant group, studying their work can and does expand our understanding of the social and aesthetic dynamics of their milieu.

Fain Pratt’s library represents a career spent rewriting dominant narratives and highlighting the particular and essential roles of women writers in the history of Yiddish literature. From the lesser-known poet Dora Tsheskis-Bon, whose poetic world telescopes from poems about the H-bomb and the Rosenbergs to wishes for a better future for her grandchildren, to writers more active on an international stage like Gina Medem, or Mimi Pinzon, the Argentinain novelist who frequently contributed stories with sharp social commentary to Buenos Aires’s newspaper Di prese.

When Norma Fain Pratt began looking into Yiddish women’s writing, she noted that most of the women writers and activists she researched were of her grandparents’ generation, the generation of mass emigration from Eastern Europe. Fain Pratt’s work resonates all the more with us as young Yiddishists, since she is from our own grandparents’ generation, born in the years leading up to WWII. She was among the scholars and activists who spearheaded the compilation of and research into Yiddish women’s writing, leading to essential texts such as Found Treasures and Arguing With the Storm. Working in the 1980s and 1990s, these scholars had a unique responsibility to safeguard Yiddish culture while also confronting where the culture clashes with their progressive worldviews. What remains now is for us to carry on the revolutionary work of Norma Fain Pratt: to explore and learn from her curatorial skills, to read more widely, and to add lesser-known writers to our reading lists. We honor her generation, who did the investigative labor into the lives of women writers suppressed even within the marginal field of Yiddish studies, making our work as Yiddishists today immeasurably richer with the wealth of resources they created.

We hope this compendium, containing the names of every woman writer in Norma Fain Pratt’s library and links to their work and biographies, can be another resource for future research and creativity.

MLA STYLE
Apter, Charlotte, Joseph Reisberg, and Caleb Sher. “What Remains Is Revolutionary: Unboxing Norma Fain Pratt’s Library.” In geveb, November 2023: https://ingeveb.org/blog/norma-fain-pratts-library.
CHICAGO STYLE
Apter, Charlotte, Joseph Reisberg, and Caleb Sher. “What Remains Is Revolutionary: Unboxing Norma Fain Pratt’s Library.” In geveb (November 2023): Accessed Apr 19, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Charlotte Apter

Charlotte Apter lives in Brooklyn where she teaches at the Worker’s Circle shules and does freelance Yiddish research at YIVO.

Joseph Reisberg

Joseph Reisberg is currently a PhD student in Jewish languages and literatures at Johns Hopkins University.

Caleb Sher

Caleb Sher is currently the Richard S. Herman Senior Bibliography Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, MA.