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Reckoning with American Racism and Racist Violence, af Yiddish

Jessica Kirzane

One hundred years ago, on the evening of May 31 and into the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, a mob of several thousand white people, including the authorities, violently attacked the Black community of the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Over the course of some twelve hours of violence, the mob killed an estimated 300 people and left the community in shambles. Several years later, the Yiddish writer and poet Fradl Shtok wrote a poem describing a lynching scene, one among a number of such poems that have recently received scholarly attention. 1 1 See, for instance, Amelia Glazer, Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine (Harvard UP, 2020). The poem, “Tsaytmotiv”, 2 2 “Tsaytmotiv” can be found in E. Korman, ed. Yidishe dikhterins: antologiye (Chicago: L. M. Shteyn, 1928), 97. Thank you to Hinde Burstin for drawing my attention to this poem. ends:


צעשײַנט זיך פֿרום אַ פּנים
אין פֿינסטרער נאַכט אַרױס,
=װערט אױבען בלײַך דער שטערן
און לעשט צוריק זיך אױס...


A pious face shines
Out in the dark night
The star above grows pale
And is extinguished.

We might ask ourselves what Shtok is suggesting about what the Yiddish reader sees or fails to see as white Americans violently extinguish human lives again and again in the name of white supremacy. What does the Yiddish poem reveal to the reader, and what does the dying starlight obscure? Is this darkness a relinquishing of responsibility as the body fades out of the field of vision? Or does the poet’s attention to the dying victim’s quivering feet render him visible despite an otherwise unseeing night, and perhaps to her otherwise unseeing readers?

For those of us engaging in Yiddish Studies in this time period, these violent events, and the deep-seated animosity and structural inequalities that produced them and that they reinforced, represent a past that we must reckon with. In order to fully understand our subjects and how they interpreted their place in the world, scholars must ask how Yiddish speakers saw themselves in terms of race and racist violence, whether or not they were directly involved in these events themselves, and how they disrupted, supported, benefited from, and operated within global and American understandings of race.

For Yiddish writers, race and racism were wrapped up in Yiddish speakers’ desires for stability and mobility within white America, their own traumatic pasts and presents as victims of baseless hatred, politics of class solidarity, the influence of a white-biased popular culture, and the difficulties of understanding the meaning of race in America across language and cultural barriers. One hundred years later, speakers of Yiddish are still searching for the words to discuss American concepts of race, as a recent conversation published in In geveb about Black Lives Matter vocabulary attests. Yet, despite - or perhaps because of - their being difficult to wrestle with, race and racism were (and continue to be) subjects of deep interest for Yiddish writers both in and outside of America, who left behind an astonishing array of historical and literary artifacts that can help us understand Yiddish perspectives on race, and racist violence, a century ago.

In 2016, when I first approached In geveb with a translation of Joseph Opatoshu’s “A Lynching,” there was a significant behind-the-scenes editorial conversation about what it would mean to make available in English a piece of writing that so unselfconsciously dealt in racist depictions of Black characters and which was exploitative of Black pain. The editors (I was not one at the time) never shied away from publishing what some might see as a damning piece of literature that would seem to make visible the limits of the much-celebrated historical “Black-Jewish alliance.” Rather, they asked what kinds of writing would make legible for today’s readers the political and cultural context in which Opatoshu wrote. As a result, they not only reprinted Marc Caplan’s and my essay analyzing Opatoshu’s story itself with critical lenses toward the solidarity the story tries to achieve and where it fails, but also commissioned pieces by Adam Zachary Newton and Jennifer Young that placed the question of a Black-Jewish political alliance and its limitations under critical historical and literary-historical lenses. When In geveb first gained the capacity to publish special issues, we gathered these pieces together with Eli Rosenblatt’s translation of Isaac Meyer Dik’s introduction to his Yiddish translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and my teaching guide to that introduction, in order to offer a more global lens on Yiddish representations of race. Dik’s introduction situates American chattel slavery in conversation with Russian serfdom, and instrumentalizes Stowe’s novel in support of Dik’s Enlightenment agenda. All of these writings about representations of race in Yiddish were such necessary interventions that they continue to be among the most widely read pieces In geveb has ever published.

But this was only a start, skimming the surface of the enormous amount there is yet to learn about how Yiddish speakers wrote and thought about American racialization and racist violence in the early twentieth century. Therefore, with the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre on the horizon, and with the powerful surge of social and political protests against racially motivated violence and police brutality last summer following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, YIVO and In geveb have partnered to update this special issue in several crucial directions.

On the one hand, we are specifically considering American Yiddish responses to racist violence. Uri Schreter offers a deep dive into Yiddish press coverage of the Tulsa race massacre, with particular attention to how racism shaped Yiddish journalists’ rhetoric and worldviews even in their declarations of solidarity. Josh Parshall’s translation of Yerakhmiel Lazarson’s children’s story, informed by Lazarson’s time as an instructor at the Arbeter Ring schools in Atlanta, demonstrates what racism meant for Jews, sympathetic to questions of economic inequality, who nonetheless lived within Southern systems of race and class from which they benefitted.

On the other hand, we are again considering the transnational, as Andrew Sloin looks at the Scottsboro Trial from the perspective of a Soviet propaganda pamphlet published in Minsk, Eli Rosenblatt presents Harlem Renaissance poetry translated in Yiddish for a 1936 Moscow anthology, and Alyssa Quint introduces an excerpt of Ellen Perecman’s translation of Leyb Malakh’s stage play about the Scottsboro trial staged in Warsaw. Hannah Polin-Galay’s reflections on teaching Joseph Opatoshu’s “A Lynching” in Tel Aviv, together with her compilation of student responses to the story, demonstrates how students in Israel today might think about racial justice questions in their own lives and contexts through reading Yiddish writing on the subject from another time and place.

It is our hope that these pieces taken together will provide a deeper picture of the insidious ways racial ideologies circulate, even within progressive circles, across language and space. Perhaps those writing about racist violence a century ago with shock and despair might rouse us to new action, and perhaps those recycling and recirculating racist tropes — even and sometimes especially when white Jews sought to express solidarity with African American victims of racist violence — might challenge us to examine our own assumptions and complicity today. Like Fradl Shtok, we at YIVO and In geveb aim to shed light on these issues through scholarship, translation, and pedagogy. It is only through reckoning with these histories that we can understand and actively work against their persistence and ongoing legacies.

In conjunction with this publication, YIVO and In geveb also joined together to present a panel , as part of the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation’s 12th Annual Reconciliation in America National Symposium, “The Future of Tulsa’s Past: The Centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre and Beyond.” The panel was held on Friday, May 28.

Thank you to Alex Weiser for all his behind-the-scenes organizational work to make this special issue, and the panel, possible. Thank you also to the Judy and Peter Blum Kovler Foundation for their generous support of this project.

MLA STYLE
Kirzane, Jessica. “Reckoning with American Racism and Racist Violence, af Yiddish.” In geveb, June 2021: https://ingeveb.org/blog/reckoning-with-american-racism-and-racist-violence-af-yiddish.
CHICAGO STYLE
Kirzane, Jessica. “Reckoning with American Racism and Racist Violence, af Yiddish.” In geveb (June 2021): Accessed Sep 28, 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Kirzane

Jessica Kirzane is the assistant instructional professor of Yiddish at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief for In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.