Oct 26, 2022
This August, Naydus Press published Toward Hopeful Skies, a trilingual (Yiddish, Ukrainian, English) volume of two works of children’s poetry, as a benefit volume to support the refugee resettlement agency HIAS’s work with refugees from Ukraine.
The poems in the volume were originally composed in Ukrainian by Yuriy Budiak in the 1920s, and shortly thereafter translated by Yoysef Ravin and republished in Yiddish. Both the Ukrainian and Yiddish versions of the texts were accompanied by illustrations by Y. Leus. These books were printed on thin paper in small, simple, stapled editions. As a result, very few copies have survived. One copy of the Yiddish version of Bushl der vanderer [The Wandering Crane] is housed in the Klau Library of the Hebrew Union College, in Cincinnati, and a copy of the same book, in Ukrainian, Leleke-zdaleka, is located at the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, which also holds a copy of the Yiddish version of Di kukavke tsvitsheravke [The Chirupping Cuckoo]. The present volume includes Yiddish and Ukrainian versions of both texts, as well as English translations by Jordan Finkin and Jessica Kirzane. Ukrainian scholar of Yiddish Oksana Shcherba back-translated Di kukavke tsvitsheravke into Ukrainian for the volume. This Yiddish-to-Ukrainian translation was sponsored by In geveb.
In geveb spoke with Jordan Finkin, one of the translators of the volume and the founder and director of Naydus Press, as well as Rebecca Kirzner, Senior Director of Grassroots Campaigns at HIAS, to learn more about the project.
Jordan, can you start telling us a bit about the book project? Where did the idea come from? What are your goals with the project?
We can all agree that what is going on in Ukraine is in every sense atrocious. With the constant flood of news reports and images I felt an unpleasant powerlessness. But I saw good people and groups, like HIAS, taking action, and that was inspirational. I don’t have a great many skills to offer, but I can translate and I do have a press, so I started thinking about putting those to use in raising money. I’m a librarian by trade, and as it turns out, I cataloged a book some time ago that stuck with me because it was such a charming little thing. A Ukrainian children’s book by Yuriy Budiak translated into Yiddish. When the events began unfolding in Ukraine I posted a picture of the cover on Twitter. Jessica [Kirzane] straightaway posted the picture of the cover of another of Budiak’s children’s books. The wheels started spinning and I approached Jessica about the possibility of our translating the two of them, publishing them with my press, and then donating the proceeds to Ukrainian relief. And that was the germ of this project.
Rebecca, this project is a benefit volume to support HIAS’s refugee aid efforts in Ukraine. Can you tell us about HIAS’s work in Ukraine?
Firstly, I want to thank you both for choosing to support HIAS as we endeavor to aid people who have been forced to flee from Ukraine. HIAS has a long history supporting Ukrainian refugees, having worked to resettle Jewish refugees after World War II, and then after the end of the former Soviet Union. HIAS established an office in Kiev in 2001, which we helped to convert into an independent Ukrainian organization, Right to Protection (R2P) in 2013.
Following the Russian invasion in February 2022, with the support of In geveb readers and many others, we were able to dramatically increase our work in the region.
Within Ukraine, HIAS continues to support R2P, which now has more than 1,200 staff members (160 prior to February 2022) providing aid in multiple cities. HIAS has also begun operations in Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Our response in the region is focused on providing aid to the most vulnerable, including: women and girls, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities, and non-Ukrainian asylum seekers and stateless people. Some of the key components of our response include economic inclusion, gender-based violence prevention, mental health and psycho-social support.
In addition, HIAS is working with the Jewish communities across multiple countries in western Europe and the United States who are sponsoring and supporting people who have fled Ukraine. Across multiple countries, we are supporting “Welcome Circles” primarily composed of volunteers who are helping people to find housing, employment, schools, public benefits, and a range of other needs as they begin their lives in a new place. We are still in need of more Welcome Circles, and would welcome the involvement of In geveb readers who are looking to support people in this manner.
As the situation and needs constantly evolves, HIAS is adapting our response and our advocacy. We are truly grateful for your support of all of that.
Rebecca, to what extent is Jewish/Yiddish history important to you in your work at HIAS?
Much of the work that we do at HIAS originated in Jewish and Yiddish history. We were founded in 1881 to support Jews arriving in New York. We provided translation support into Yiddish on Ellis Island, and supported Yiddish speakers in their first days and weeks in the country, providing shelter, food, and clothing as they started their lives here. HIAS assisted with the relocation of a huge percentage of what is now the American Jewish community: whether they were fleeing pogroms in Russia, genocide in Europe, religious persecution in Cuba, Iran, or the Soviet Union.
I am named after two of my immigrant great-grandmothers. I was raised to understand that they struggled to reach this country, to learn English, to work in difficult jobs, and to build a better future for their progeny. They are the heroes of my family tree, and I see my work at HIAS as a profound way to honor them and to live up to the legacy of my own name.
Not enough people remember that refugees today are no different. It takes incredible bravery and resilience to start your life again, to make a dangerous journey, to figure out how to survive. Today, it is much harder for refugees to come to the United States. The legal barriers are higher, and the global need is much greater. And yet, HIAS does much the same work that we did “back then” — we just do a lot more of it — in 90+ offices in 17 countries. We help refugees regardless of their nationality, race, religion, or ethnicity. We still show up every day for refugees because we are all human, and every human is equally deserving of human rights, of support, and of welcome.
Jordan, do you see a relationship between the subject of the book, which is children’s poetry about birds, and the relief work it is supporting?
It is fortuitous that the books are about birds. For one, I have loved birds my whole life, so on a very personal level, these books resonated with me. But birds have long embodied the notion of freedom, a powerful figurative representation of transcendence and of hope. That is in many ways the point of relief work—not only to provide for the essential needs of people in dire circumstances, but also in doing so, to offer hope: hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel; hope that there are people in the world who are good and who do good; and hope that we can rise above, in so many senses of that phrase.
Jordan, what were some of the challenges in translating this text? Have you translated poetry before, or children’s literature?
These were deceptively challenging little texts to translate. Jessica and I each tackled one of the books, so I can only speak for myself. But they were most challenging not because they were poetry, though that is always tricky, but rather because they were children’s books. I unfortunately don’t know Ukrainian, so I was working from the Yiddish translations. Luckily, Yoysef Ravin’s Yiddish translations were specifically presented as “free” adaptations. This allowed a certain amount of flexibility in approaching the material. What’s more, while there is a general gist to the books, they are clearly, both in the Yiddish as well as the Ukrainian, in thrall to the sounds of the words and rhymes. The real fun was cobbling together sonorous rhymes that were not awkward and regular rhythms that were not tedious, all the while keeping in mind an audience of children—who are savvy consumers of literature and who would be put off instantly by stilted grammar or abstruse diction. Not to toot our horns, but I feel Jessica and I rose to the challenge. And for my part, it was a great pleasure to give it a go.
Jordan, what do you hope readers will enjoy about the book?
What do I hope readers will enjoy from the book? Several things. The first thing that struck me about the books was the artwork. These images are simply charming. I can find no information about the artist, Ya. Leus, but his work is a testament to the care people took to give children books that were appealing to them in many artistic and intellectual ways. Second, of course, is the playfulness of the language. Budiak and Levin clearly cared about children and about literature and about language. We tried to make an English translation that could wash over a reader and leave them smiling. And finally, its trilingual presentation—and here I have to thank Oksana Shcherba for her fantastic back-translation into Ukrainian, because we had no access to the original of “The Chirruping Cuckoo.” Placing the three languages on the page together is a dramatic graphic representation of coexistence, of sharing. That possibility is a small vision of the hope this book is trying to offer.
Rebecca, how can In geveb readers get more involved in advocating for refugees?
Every single person can play a role in making our world more welcoming for refugees. There are more than 100 million people worldwide who have been displaced from their homes due to violence and persecution - about 1 in every 78 people on earth. It is a staggering number. And yet, Jewish tradition teaches us not to look at it as 100 million - but rather as one person, plus another, plus another. Each person deserving of dignity and rights, each person who needs a pathway to safety, each who could use a friendly face and a little bit of help navigating a new reality.
In geveb readers can make a difference by being in touch with their elected officials to advocate for just and compassionate policies that allow refugees and asylum seekers a chance at a new life. Far too many doors are slammed shut, and we need substantive policy change. In addition, wherever you are, you can provide assistance to refugees arriving in your local area, whether through HIAS or another agency. A list of some of our current recommended actions can be found on the HIAS Take Action Page.
Jordan Finkin is rare book and manuscript librarian at the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He is a scholar of modern Yiddish literature, a literary translator from several languages, as well as the founder and director of Naydus Press, a non-profit publisher of Yiddish literature in English translation.
Rebecca Kirzner is the Senior Director of Grassroots Organizing and Advocacy at HIAS, where she engages the American Jewish community in taking action for refugees. She is also In geveb editor-in-chief Jessica Kirzane’s sister.