Nov 22, 2020
One day when my son was three years old, we were driving in the car talking about superheroes and he piped up from his carseat, “Mommy, what’s your superpower?” I thought for a minute and then said, “I can turn Yiddish words into English words.” The answer seemed to satisfy him and I had a good laugh about it with my husband when I got home. But somehow I couldn’t let go of the idea of infusing magic into the work of translation that I find so meaningful, that has taken on a spiritual as well as an academic importance for me.
I wrote this story in honor of that magic.
I also wrote it because I have been feeling a need for a story like this one, about a family like mine. I have deep respect and admiration for parents who raise their children to speak Yiddish outside of Hasidic environments. I see how hard it is to find books and resources as well as other Yiddish speaking children to create a social world in the language. It is not a choice I have made. I have sometimes been made to feel ashamed in Yiddishist circles for not raising my children to speak Yiddish, and I understand that there are good reasons for others to feel a sense of loss over the children of a Yiddish speaker not being raised in the language. A friend of mine, also a Yiddish speaker who is not raising her children to speak Yiddish, once admonished me that I needed to let go of my self-judgement and angst over this choice and instead celebrate what I am teaching my children by dedicating my life and work to the language: that Yiddish is something I respect and love.
I wrote this story in honor of that celebration.
Ezra loved books. In his bedroom there was a bookshelf full of books of every shape and size. There was a big, thick encyclopedia of dinosaurs, a chunky touch-and-feel book about fluffy animals, a chapter book filled with big words and exciting adventures, and even a blank notebook for Ezra to fill with his own ideas. Ezra liked to take the books off his shelf and turn the pages, to sound out the words or make up stories to go with the pictures. He loved the crisp snapping sound of pages turning quickly and the pleasant thump of a hard cover shutting when he reached the end. He especially loved the shapes of the letters evenly spaced and laid out in straight lines like busy workers bustling across the page.
Ezra’s Mommy loved books, too. They were in heaps by her bed and stacks on her desk. She kept books in the living room, beside her favorite reading chair, and she kept books in her purse in case she had time to read on the go. She even kept books in the kitchen so she could read while dinner was in the oven.
But some of Mommy’s books were strange to Ezra. They were hardcover books with old cloth covers and browning pages. Their fronts were where the backs should be, and they began where other books ended. The letters in the book looked like plump little boxes peppered with marks above and below.
One day, Ezra walked into Mommy’s office, where she was writing something in a notebook, and asked her about the books. “They’re in Yiddish,” she explained, pushing her notebook aside so she was looking only at him.
Ezra had heard Mommy talking about Yiddish before, but he didn’t know why she liked all those odd-sounding words or why she spent so much time with letters that looked different from the ones he was learning in school. “What’s Yiddish?” Ezra asked.
Mommy lifted Ezra onto her lap and answered with the slow, careful voice she used when she was explaining things. “Yiddish is a language many Jewish people have been speaking for more than a thousand years. It has its own letters and its own words,” Mommy said, pointing to the bold, dark letters on the heavy pages of a book lying open on her desk. “It’s a language full of interesting feelings and ideas.”
Ezra leaned his head on Mommy’s shoulder and twisted her hair around his finger. “Why do you read Yiddish stories?” he asked her.
Mommy smiled. “I love Yiddish stories,” she explained, “because many of them are about people who try to understand the world even while they watch it change. Sometimes they write during times that are scary, even dangerous, but they write anyway because they hope someday someone will care enough to read what they have to say.”
Mommy lifted Ezra off her lap and placed him on the ground where he sat cross legged. She picked up the book from her desk and placed it in his hands so he could run his finger along the taut cloth cover and feel the grooves where the title was impressed with decorative flourishes. Mommy continued, “When I read a Yiddish book, I feel like I’m doing something important. I had to work hard to learn Yiddish, and I don’t know a lot of people who can read these books, so reading Yiddish makes me grateful and proud.”
Ezra listened to his Mommy with excitement, thinking that Yiddish books were a whole new kind of books he’d never explored before. He opened the book and peered into it. But then he felt sad. “But Mommy,” he sighed, “I can’t read any Yiddish. How can I read your important books?”
With a twinkle in her eye, Mommy sat down beside Ezra and placed her hand on top of his, which was resting on the hundredth page of the poem-filled volume. “This is a book by a woman named Kadya Molodovsky who wrote poems for children and for grown ups,” she explained. “Kadya was a teacher and a writer. She believed Yiddish was precious and people should pay attention to it and take care of it.” Mommy read:
עפֿנט דעם טױער, עפֿנט אים ברײט
עס װאָלט דאָרכגײן אַ גאָלדען קײט
אױף אַ גאָלדענעם שליטן
Efnt dem toyer, efnt im breyt
Es vet dorkhgeyn a golden keyt:
Oyf a goldenem shlitn.
The room quivered as the lamplight gleamed. Ezra’s eyes opened wide with surprise. He saw the letters in the books lift right off the page and begin to fly into the air above him. Black as ink they glinted and shimmered, swirling before his eyes. Then Mommy smiled at Ezra. “Would you like to know what it means in English?” she asked. Ezra nodded.
“Open the gates, open them wide
A golden chain will enter inside
And a groom and a bride
On a golden sleigh-ride.”
As Mommy spoke, the Yiddish letters lined up like voyagers disembarking from ships. Then one by one, twisting and turning and changing shape, they fluttered down onto the pages of a notebook that lay on Mommy’s desk. Ezra carefully set Mommy’s Yiddish book down beside him on the floor and then jumped up and looked in her notebook. He gasped. The Yiddish letters had been transformed into English ones, written in his Mommy’s handwriting.
“Can I touch it?” he asked.
“Of course,” said Mommy. “It’s your book now. This is called a translation. It’s still the words Kadya wrote, but it’s also my words too. Now you can read Kadya’s book the way I read it. Even if you can’t read in Yiddish, now you can enjoy stories that come from Yiddish, stories that I love.”
Ezra took the notebook in one hand and picked up the Yiddish book in the other, and looked from one to the other. He saw the strong, bold lines of the printed letters in the Yiddish book and the familiar English letters in Mommy’s slanted, curvy handwriting, and he thought both were beautiful. Then he handed the Yiddish book to Mommy, who returned it to her desk. Ezra went to his bedroom and placed the notebook on his shelf next to the others, hoping Mommy would read it to him at bedtime.