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Translating and Teaching Yiddish Prose by Women

Anita Norich

One of the exciting things about Yiddish literary study is how it seems to renew itself constantly by disrupting notions of a canon. Who’s in and who’s out changes with each new translation, each deep dive into the archives, each new course syllabus. I have always included women in courses on Yiddish or Jewish literature (except when I teach di klasikers, a course I have taught frequently and enthusiastically), but only recently have I begun to teach courses exclusively devoted to literature by women. Part of me wishes I didn’t feel the need to do this, that it was so obvious that women belonged in Yiddish literature courses that no one needed to belabor the point. But belabor it we still must.

I recently translated Kadya Molodovsky’s novel Fun Lublin biz Nyu York [A Jewish Refugee in New York], and it made me want to know more about Yiddish novel writing by women. Thanks to the NEH and the Center for Jewish History, I was fortunate enough to spend a year looking for such novels. I had read and heard and, I am now embarrassed to say, once accepted the “fact” that women wrote poetry in Yiddish, and some wrote short stories, but very few wrote novels. And if they did write novels, they were about domestic life, or they were autobiographical. At some point it occurred to me that this was an urban legend and that I didn’t actually know why or how this “fact” was known. Although I had a hunch that the rumor wasn’t true, it’s hard to argue about the significance of the absence of novels by women if you have never actually looked for them. So I went looking. I combed through card catalogues (yes, they’re still out there), bibliographies, archives, and literary biographical encyclopedias looking for women’s names and then seeing if they had written novels. And there were scores of them.

Molodovsky wrote three more novels: one published as a book, one serialized in Der morgn zhurnal, and one unfinished. (And, of course, the difficulty of finding serialized novels is legion in Yiddish studies.) There was prose fiction by Shira Gorshman, a Soviet Communist writer who immigrated to Israel and wrote about Crimean collectives and social justice. Golda Gutman-Krimer wrote in Argentina about Birobidzhan, Ahad Ha’am, and romantic entanglements. Rokhl Faygenberg, living in Israel, wrote about the short-lived pleasure of illicit sexual relationships. Blume Lempel wrote about a Jewish woman who sleeps with a Nazi and then kills him. Miriam Raskin, a New York Bundist, wrote about the attempt to merge the personal and political without diminishing either one. Rashel Veprinski wrote a roman à clef about di yunge. Women were publishing fiction in Eastern Europe in the 1880s and 1890s. One of them wrote about the social conditions of Eastern European Jewry under the name Izabella. She was Beyle Friedberg, Mordkhe Spektor’s first wife, who lived for a time in Constantinople and became a Baha’i follower. And there are many more. Women wrote about the need for abortions. They reveled in the body, in physical desires that were considered taboo – premarital sex, extramarital sex, attraction to non-Jewish men, to women. To say that women wrote about the issues of the day—the issues about which men wrote too—is not surprising. They may be said to have written domestic novels if by “domestic” we mean the desire to find or rebuild a home in the face of revolution, war, economic challenges, and misogyny, to name a few of the topics that concerned them.

A particularly nasty book by a literary scholar who has been working in the field for decades was published last year. (I am not naming it. This is a blog, not an academic paper and, frankly, I don’t want to draw more attention to the book than I think it deserves.) The book seeks to reframe Jewish feminism, and one of the ways in which it does so is by attacking nearly every significant work in Jewish gender studies of the past thirty years. (I should say that one of the books with which this author takes considerable issue is one I co-edited over 25 years ago.) A major attack in that author’s book is against those who seem to do no more than “add women and stir.” I’m puzzled by this particular attack, especially since “just add x and stir” is the most frequent charge brought against attempts to add new voices to old conversations. What changes if you add women into Jewish Studies or, one might ask, what happens when you add Jews into the study of culture or history?

The familiar “add women and stir” critique is meant—quite explicitly—to suggest that those who seek to expand the canon are not doing the serious political work of challenging and overturning the terms of analysis; they/we are not rejecting the disciplinary practices of literature, history, philosophy, etc. but merely asking to be included in the pot that is being stirred. In other words, this criticism says that adding women is liberalism at its worst when what is really needed is the breaking of the vessels, the rejection of the false gods of scholarship whose disciplinary practices we have inherited. This is not a critique we should ignore. But it is also more polemical than practical. As anyone who has ever stirred a pot knows, if you add new ingredients you inevitably change the mix. What we get by adding women is similar to what we get by adding Jews: another perspective, a fuller picture. What is added does not disappear, swallowed up by what’s already there (as in the melting pot image); nor does it keep each ingredient recognizably distinct (as in the salad bowl). Rather, it creates something different.

In my own case, adding women has led me to what I hope will be decades of translating women’s prose and to creating new syllabi chosen from among the resources available in English translation. Translations of women’s works is a fairly recent phenomenon, begun in earnest just twenty years ago. But it is now possible to choose from a range of texts and to consider different approaches to organizing a syllabus. One might proceed chronologically, or geographically, or by pairing prose and poetry by the same author to tease out questions of modernist aesthetics. One might organize the course thematically: e.g., migration, the body, labor, voice, education, protest, politics, etc. I think of creating syllabi as a kind of personal journal, a set of questions uppermost in a teacher’s mind. In that spirit, I offer the following list of Yiddish prose works (in chronological order of their publication in English). It is time to stop lamenting the paucity of available works and, instead, to translate more and to use the wealth of material that is already available.

ANTHOLOGIES OF STORIES BY YIDDISH WOMEN WRITERS:

  • (1986) The Tribe of Dina, edited by Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz (has some work by Yiddish writers)
  • (1994) Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers, ed. by Frieda Forman, et al.
  • (2002) No Star too Beautiful, ed. By Joachim Neugroshel (has some stories by women)
  • (2003) Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars, ed. by Sandra Bark
  • (2007) Arguing With the Storm: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers, ed. by Rhea Tregebov
  • (2013) The Exile Book of Yiddish Women Writers, ed. by Frieda Forman
  • (2016) Have I Got A Story for You, ed. by Ezra Glinter (has several stories by women)
  • (2017) Pakn Treger collection of newly translated Yiddish works by women writers, online at https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/sites/default/fi…
  • Pakn Treger’s yearly anthology of newly translated works (beginning in 2013) has several short stories by women: https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/language-literat…
  • And, if you’re reading this blog, you no doubt know that In geveb regularly publishes new translations: https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations

YIDDISH NOVELS BY WOMEN TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH INCLUDE:

  • (1954) Blanche (Blume) Lempel, Storm over Paris, (Yiddish: Tsvishn Tsvey Veltn), by the author
  • (1946, 1983) Esther Singer Kreitman, Deborah (reissued in 2009 as The Dance of the Demons), translated by Maurice Carr
  • (1976) Bella Goldworth, The Unknown Relative, translated by Max Rosenfeld
  • (1985) Chava Rosenfarb, The Tree of Life, 3 volumes translated by the author
  • (2000) Chava Rosenfarb, Bociany and Of Lodz and Love, translated by the author
  • (2007) Rokhl Faygenberg, Strange Ways (translated by Robert and Golda Werman)
  • (2009) Esther Singer Kreitman, Diamonds, translated by Heather Valencia
  • (2019) Kadya Molodovsky, A Jewish Refugee in New York, translated by Anita Norich
  • (2020) Miriam Karpilove, Diary of a Young Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love, translated by Jessica Kirzane

SINGLE AUTHOR SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS BY WOMEN INCLUDE:

  • (1971) Bella Goldworth, Across the Border, translated by Max Rosenfeld
  • (1976) (2004) Chava Rosenfarb, Survivors, translated by Goldie Morgentaler
  • (1980) Adele Mondry, Wyszkowo, A Shtetl on the Bug River, translated by Moshe Spiegel
  • (2006) Kadya Molodowsky, A House with Seven Stories, translated by Leah Schoolnik
  • (2016) Blume Lempel, Oedipus in Brooklyn translated by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
  • (2018) Yenta Mash, On the Landing, translated by Ellen Cassedy
MLA STYLE
Norich , Anita . “Translating and Teaching Yiddish Prose by Women.” In geveb, April 2020: https://ingeveb.org/blog/translating-and-teaching-yiddish-prose-by-women.
CHICAGO STYLE
Norich , Anita . “Translating and Teaching Yiddish Prose by Women.” In geveb (April 2020): Accessed Oct 24, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anita Norich

Anita Norich is Tikva Frymer-Kensky Collegiate Professor Emerita of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.