“We Collected Everything”: An Interview with Frieda Johles Forman

Julie Sharff


Frie­da Johles For­man is a pio­neer of fem­i­nist Jew­ish Stud­ies, like­ly best known to In geveb read­ers for her role research­ing, co-edit­ing and as one of the trans­la­tors for the ground­break­ing col­lec­tion of Yid­dish prose fic­tion by women, Found Trea­sures: Sto­ries by Yid­dish Women Writ­ers (1994). Eager to uncov­er the his­to­ry of this lit­er­ary recov­ery, Julie Sharff sat down to inter­view For­man on Decem­ber 14, 2022, in her Toron­to home. Over the course of the inter­view, which was con­duct­ed in Eng­lish, For­man would some­times switch between lan­guages and between tens­es, aspects of the con­ver­sa­tion that have been pre­served in this tran­script. This inter­view has been edit­ed for length and clarity.

This inter­view was con­duct­ed in con­junc­tion with a project to com­pile and share Yid­dish orig­i­nals for the sto­ries in Found Trea­sures. That resource can be found here.

Julie Sharff: Can you tell me about your background?

Frieda Forman: I was born in Vienna, in 1937. My children used to say, “you moved around a lot.” [chuckles] But, we fled. We left Vienna, my family, parents, brother, and some other relatives. We fled to Belgium before it was occupied, and then close to occupation. We took what my brother, olev hasholem, used to describe as the last train out of Belgium to France, Toulouse, and then we moved to Lyon where we lived until we crossed the border to Switzerland. In Lyon, I went to the maternelle, the daycare/kindergarten. So, my languages at that time were Yiddish at home and French in the street.

We ended up in Switzerland. We lived in Geneva for a while, which was French Switzerland. And then came a time when the Swiss didn’t want Jews wandering around the streets “being terrorists,” and so on. So, everybody was assigned to camps. And these were not concentration camps. They were refugee camps — very, very different. And my parents, zikhronem livrokhe, were Orthodox Jews. So, whether this was by chance or intention, we ended up in a French-speaking camp, but it was also Orthodox, in a place called Morgins, which was in the Valasian Alps. It was a former Hotel Resort—a British ski resort. We did not live in terrible quarters. Everybody kept kosher. But to this day, the Swiss don’t allow kosher butchering. We were all vegetarians. So, we’re now at Morgins where it’s French the kids are all speaking. However, for the adults, and for children too, Yiddish is really the lingua franca.

You had Jews from all over Europe, because Switzerland was considered safe—and it was, comparatively speaking. They’re guilty of certain things. Because it [Morgins] was Orthodox, we were steeped in Yiddishkeit. And our teachers were Bais Yaakov girls. They were wonderful, wonderful teachers. They were devoted. It wasn’t just a job.

At this time, there were a lot of kids already whose fathers had been deported. The camp was mainly women, but men were there too. The women took care of the children. It was kibbutz style. Once again, the language of instruction was French. But Yiddish was everywhere. And we studied Hebrew. That was considered part of our education. And because it was Orthodox, you had Shabbat and a drash on Shabbat. It was as close as you could get to maintaining an Orthodox Jewish presence. One of our teachers, for example, whose daughter was a good friend of mine, he appears in my memoir, he was a rabbi, and he was a teacher as well.

I never felt foreign. I felt at home because of French, which I knew from my early days in France and continuing in this camp. I admit, I spoke to my parents in Yiddish. It felt very heymish because if we speak of language as a home, there’s no other way of looking at it. I felt very much at home in Yiddish and in French. That is very interesting and very different from people who come to a foreign country and have to learn a new language. They’re disoriented for good reason. But here [in Morgins], I wasn’t.

Did you feel disoriented when you moved to America?

FF: A little bit, that happened a little, but not too much. Because I lived with people who spoke Yiddish.

JS: The language was grounding for you.

FF: Yeah. And French too. I went to a yeshiva in Boston. It was Soloveitchik, the big one of the science of Jewish scholarship, but his school was a really rotten little school. They weren’t cruel. They [just] weren’t imaginative. We had one principal. He was a Francophile, he loved French. When he heard that I could speak French, he thought I would maybe recite this poem. We used to learn poems, and he thought it would raise the level of the school to have a French speaker. I came and gave this poem, and these kids were bewildered. What was she doing up there, babbling in French? I realized at that time, though I couldn’t articulate it, that language made a difference because I was very conscious, always, of it whether I was speaking [French] or desperately trying to learn English so that I wouldn’t speak with an accent.

JS: You obviously accomplished speaking without an accent.

FF: I’ve heard this over and over again, so there must be some truth. They say—if you come to the new country before the age of 10, then your accent generally takes on the host country. If you come at 14 or 15, you still have traces.

JS: You were under 10?

FF: Yeah, I was nine [laughs]. It was very important. You did not want to be seen as a refugee. You didn’t want to be seen as a foreigner, you really wanted to blend in.

JS: That’s a large weight, as a child, to carry with you.

FF: It’s true of everybody who was an immigrant, and we were “not refugees anymore.” The war was over. We were not “fleeing,” but we were immigrants. People tend, especially in Canada, to conflate everything. An immigrant or refugee, a war victim. [They think] they’re all the same, but they’re not.

JS: That’s another layer of your own experiences of how language existed in your home. What was your own responsibility as a polyglot to your parents?

FF: You then become, like all immigrant children, you become the translator for the family because parents take longer to start to learn the language unless they were already educated in that language.

JS: Children just absorb language.

FF: They absorb it, and I read about immigrants, this is a typical route. The child becomes the translator, which gives you a lot of power in the family. So that is an important concept in light of language acquisition, and in the power of language. Interestingly enough, many years later, I did my thesis about Heidegger on language. Now, I’m sorry that I did Heidegger. But it was not one of his ideological pieces, it was on language. And he says that language controls us. It’s not the other way. Language is not a tool. We say we’re going to use language. Not so. And I think there’s a lot that I experienced that kind of… The language determines who we are. Well, Wittgenstein says, language determines my life. And it’s true. When you’re a refugee child, as I was, and then subsequently an immigrant, [this is particularly true]. At the time you don’t realize it, but you look back and you can understand the power of it.

JS: I think one time you mentioned to me that when you got married and started living with your husband, that’s when you stopped having Yiddish in the home?

FF: Yeah, because of my parents. When I went to Hebrew College, I think I began to realize that Yiddish was not a respected language. [My studies there were] all in Hebrew: ivrit b’ivrit [Hebrew in Hebrew]. It was a very brilliant education.

JS: At what point did you go to Hebrew College?

FF: I left yeshiva, fortunately, at the end of grade six, and started going to Hebrew College, for an afternoon program in seventh grade. I also went to a girl’s Latin School. There were Jewish kids. So, I had friends like me who went to girls Latin School, and afterward, we went to Hebrew College. Nobody today would do that. We used to get home at night, we were exhausted. But we didn’t know that there was anything extraordinary [about this]. We had friends who didn’t go to Hebrew college, they came home at four o’clock and did whatever, but we continued another [school]day.

Hebrew College was very good. I loved the fact that it was an ancient language, and something about it just excited me, and I don’t know why it did. I knew French at this point, I still hadn’t forgotten all of it, and Yiddish at home. And then Latin, we started in seventh grade. Once again, very foolishly, the first text they gave us was with Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Now, can you imagine 12-year-old girls studying that? It’s like giving us Virgil like Dido and Aeneas.

I did this language [Latin], then when I got to college, I switched from one school to another. I ended up at City College, which was a wonderful University. And there, I majored in German and philosophy.

JS: Is that where your interest in Heidegger began?

FF: Well, that was in my master’s. Oh, absolutely. And I liked German. I didn’t like the sound of it, but the actual structure and the poetry. City College had a lot of Jewish kids. And a lot of them came from homes where you still had bubbe and zeyde talking Yiddish. And so when they took German, they thought, well, Yiddish and German are the same. So, our teacher was very lovely. She was a young German woman; she was not antisemitic. She said to her Jewish students, “di baba zits,” some sentences that were half-Yiddish half-German. They had to sort of wean themselves from that. But they could see that the language was everywhere. It was so powerful and so significant. And, at times, so intrusive, at times integrative.

You know, Bathurst Street [in Toronto]. It goes right through the city. At the northern end is the Yiddish, the Jewish side in the 1970s and maybe early 80s. There were still a lot of Holocaust survivors. Toronto has a lot of… now they’re dying. I always lived around here [near Bathurst Street, south of the area she just referenced]. Not always, but most of the time. And I would hear Yiddish because they spoke Yiddish to each other. Not so much here but going up towards the Jewish section. This has ceased, but there was still, at Harbord Bakery, next to it was a Harbord Fish. There was a kosher meat market right around Brunswick Avenue and Harbord.

I began to really love the sound of Yiddish. This is where, I don’t know if it was re-awakened or whether maybe I was just another person. I remember at that time I’d worked on this book, I think it had already been published, on women and time [Taking our Time]. I was talking to my daughter, and I said, I really love the sound of Yiddish. I find myself getting on the bus just so I can hear it. So she said, “Well, look, you wrote a book on time. Why don’t you take your time now?”

Timing is so important. Oxford had a month course on Yiddish with Dovid Katz, Yitzhok Niborski, and Dov-Ber Kerler. I happened to pick up a little journal, and there was a piece about the Oxford program. I thought, “Okay, that’s for me!”

At that time, I think I was going to take a leave. I ended up at Oxford for that month. And it changed the direction of my life entirely. Not my whole life, but my public life. I was assigned to level four, which was taught by Dov-Ber Kerler and someone else. And I realized it was too advanced for me because I had no formal Yiddish. Even if you could read Hebrew, it’s not Yiddish. So, they moved me down to the third level. And then I had the two best teachers in the world. Niborski and Katz. I didn’t know either one of them.

When I met Katz we were standing outside. And I said—I’m a little bit embarrassed because my parents are Galitzianer, and I know that Galitzianer Yiddish is not the top. He said, no, there’s no such thing as bad Yiddish or good Yiddish. He said, red yidish vi di tate mame redt. And he liberated me forever.

With Niborski we read literature. There’s wonderful stuff— Zeitlin, whom he loves. And we wrote.

I want to say that, relearning Yiddish, or being reintegrated into Yiddish, changed my whole direction. And this is very important. Being a feminist, which I was by this point, I was working at a women’s center, the women’s Research Centre at OISE, U of T. I began to see the whole world through feminist eyes, but also Yiddish—they were partners.

JS: That’s really beautiful. I’m glad you said that. That also leads back to Canada. I am curious if you had any awareness of Yiddish women’s literature before you did this Oxford Program? Or was this the gateway?

FF: Yeah, if there’s even a stronger word than a gateway. I knew Mendele, more or less, not that I have read much Yiddish period, men or women. But the idea that you had a woman? No, I knew nothing about Yiddish women writers. As a feminist, I began to question this whole thing. That whole year that I took my leave I spent researching Yiddish women writers. I remember I was taking a course with Chava Turniansky. She was super. I’ve had only good teachers. I’ve had good and superb, nothing less than that. I went to ask, I said, I’m beginning to research Yiddish women writers, and it’s not easy information to come to. I asked, what would you suggest? She said, “Freydl, begin with alef and go through taf, go through the Leksikon,” which is what I did. I went through the eight volumes of the Yiddish Leksikon, and when people hear that, they [gasps], but it isn’t that hard, because you’re looking for women’s names. If they’re Moishe and Yisroel you’re looking for Rivke, Sore, and Leye. You find them, and you go very quickly. And that’s where I began with my list of Yiddish women writers. The Leksikon was like a work of art itself. It’s beautifully written. I came back with a whole list. And the question is, how do you find the text, which is what you’re doing now? Right?

JS: Yes.

FF: So, you have names. But where do you find them? It’s not that easy. I began all kinds of searches. I was in New York for a month. And I think I found one or two, but it was a reference library.

I couldn’t really find anything—it’s not that easy. I came back home to Toronto, and back to work. And I decided that you need a group. I like groups, I’ve always worked in groups. So I went to see Sylvia Lustgarten, who’s still in my group, we still are friends, and she’s my translating partner. She was a member of the Committee for Yiddish. So I went to tell her that I want to have a group around Yiddish women writers, and we have to work together. She was not a feminist, but she loved Yiddish. So, if I’d said I wanted to do a Yiddish group with Sholem Aleichem and Peretz, that would have been good, too. But she was not opposed to it. By the time I got home, she had made up a poster. Yeah, she sent it out. And we had a meeting of thirteen people, some of whom objected to the fact that it was just women. And told them, well, “first off, there are no locks on the doors.” Next, I said, “did you ever object that it was only men?” Of course, they didn’t. No one ever objected to that.

So, ten of us [decided to participate], and three decided [the subject] was too limited. We then started going, [but the problem was] where do you find [Yiddish literature by women]? So, at that time, there was a semi-active Jewish public library, up north - the Lipa Green building. It was not a well-run library, but still, they had a basement full of old books. We started going through their shelves. Then one of our translators, Ethel Racius, one of the editors [of Found Treasures] knew people at Baycrest [retirement home] who wanted to get rid of their Yiddish books. In other words, these were not manuscripts, these were all published books. And we collected from there. The old age homes, Aaron Lansky describes this, they were actually treasure houses.

I have a Robarts card, a U of T library card. So, I went to Robarts, and there were a lot [of Yiddish books]. A huge collection, because of Barry Walfish. I at least attributed to him the Judaica library. He was very devoted. We collected everything. The wonderful thing about Robarts is if they don’t have a book, they’ll order it.

Where did we get Rokhl Brokhes? That was very difficult. I spent time at YIVO and Dina Abramovich knew everything. Everybody went to her. And she knew by heart everything. I went, and I said, where would I find some Rokhl Brokhes? She said, I never heard of her. I thought, oy this is not good, if she doesn’t know her. Anyway, she goes to the card catalog, and they still had card catalogs. There was Rokhl Brokhes. We found one book.

And slowly, we were at this point, I think we had seventeen or eighteen [members of the translation collective]. One of them was Margie Wolfe, who was one of the members of the publishing company called Second Story. We were all sisters. This was the height of feminism. Here we were, all Jewish feminists, I mean, I was a feminist. The others were so-so. Margie, she was a daughter of Holocaust survivors. There was another one, Sarah Swartz, who was also a daughter of survivors, and I was a refugee. I didn’t have a contract for this book. So we began, and Margie said she’ll propose it to her board. And she came back and said we had a publisher. And from that point on I read everything. We had, I think, eighteen writers. So that was it. Different people translated different pieces. And then we talked about it in the group.

JS: At what point did you know that the group, where at first you were just collecting these stories, was going to turn into a volume?

I was informed by our stuff. I was a fabrente feminist. Which stories represent the greatest history for Yiddish women or Jewish women? In other words, which stories were the most revealing? For example, the first one is “mayn mames kholem,” which I love. Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn has not gotten her moment. In that story, for example, lemoshl, you have birth, you have the father who was almost ready to give up because he has no son. So, you will learn why they want a son so much, and they keep referring to a kaddish. If you take one story, you can learn so much. In the hands of a good teacher and avid students, you learn about sexual politics, you learn about the training of girls, and what they get trained for, and you will learn about Shabbos when she says to him, “You came home without a guest.” Well, what do you mean by a guest? You learn about, the traditions of the shtetlekh. You had a beautiful disparity—the grandfather is a wonderful person. The little girl goes to him, and she says, “Pray that Mama will have a boy.” He says, “No, we have to pray for her safety.” And he was angry that that [the mother’s safety] should be a concern. Unfortunately, he was right. The mother died in childbirth. You see so much in one story.

Then you have the Fradel Shtock. You see what it means to be a daughter who has no money, there’s no nadin. She has to marry. When she says that the groom was like the malekhamoves, he was the Angel of Death. I could take each one [of the stories from Found Treasures] as far as I’m concerned. You could have one whole class at least, which I did. Eventually, I was giving workshops in New York and here [Toronto]. We looked at each story and asked what does it reveal about Jewish life through the eyes of a woman writer? Is it that anybody can write about women if they want to? Peretz wrote quite beautifully about women, but it’s different. He doesn’t know what childbirth feels like. We worked around that one overarching position of wanting to read Jewish life through women’s eyes.

We were looking for quality, but I think all the writers are, but some are better. I think Brokhes is the genius in the group. But she was murdered, so you don’t have a lot of her work. It was burned by the Nazis or destroyed. There is tragedy. There are also some that we love because they were so eccentric. Rikudah Potash, that’s a wonder. Who knows her? Very few people. In fact, she was a very good and important writer.

I was an ardent feminist, and Irena [Klepfisz] came in to help. In other words, people supported that I was influenced by Irena. Norma Fain Pratt — her name should be emblazoned, because of her article on radical Jewish women, radical Yiddish women writers [Culture and Radical Politics: Yiddish Women Writers, 1890–1940, vol. 70 American Jewish History, (September 1980)]. Her article had 50 names. It was wonderful and I don’t think she’s gotten her full rewards yet. We were friends, we’ve kind of fallen apart, but I revere [both of] them. I never ever speak without mentioning Irena and Norma. The two of them really were the founders of this. Before that, nobody was talking about translating Yiddish women, that I knew of, maybe somebody in Argentina was doing it in Spanish. I don’t know. But in English, absolutely not.

You lead these workshops in Toronto and New York. Can you tell me about what happened in those? Who was taking these classes?

FF: First, I had already had experience teaching as a Hebrew teacher and I liked teaching. Then, with the publication of my books, I did workshops, I didn’t consider myself a teacher. My main thing was to have people read the text together. There was a difference between a workshop and a lecture. I was working with OISE [Ontario Institute for Studies in Education]. And I had the run of the place. We took rooms, and we had a workshop. It had a certain prestige to it because it was part of the Centre for Women’s Studies. I felt it was important to have the text, not just to hear about it. I always provided Yiddish just in case you had a Yiddish speaker. In most cases, it was not necessary because we knew that the workshop was meant for people who did not read Yiddish. It was well received. I always had 15-20 students in a lot of these workshops. And it was wonderful. I loved it. I tried to choose a story that exemplified, something that could be discussed, something that was revealing.

Then when I went to New York for a year, I got in touch with Workmen’s Circle, called Workers’ Circle now. Kolya—he’s the head of it—one division. I said, I’d like to do a workshop. I said look, it doesn’t cost you anything. I don’t charge, by the way. I never charge anytime I do any workshop on Yiddish because you’re not supposed to take money teaching Torah. So this, to me, is my Torah. If someone wanted to pay me I’d ask them to make out the check to the Women’s Centre. I don’t want any money, I’m not a full-time teacher doing this. If you have to get paid for it, you have to. I didn’t.

So, the one in New York was interesting. Workers’ Circle is totally secular, right? It was wonderful. They knew very little about Jewish life. They know a seder on Pesach you go to your bobe’s for Seder, but, they had no grounding at all, most of them, in Jewish education. They knew Yiddish in some cases because their bobe zeyde was still around. It is that kind of secular, and Yiddish was good. I also did a workshop for 10 or 15 weeks with B’nai Jeshurin.

When I came back from New York, I gave some more workshops here at OISE, still under the aegis of the Centre. I thought that Narayever, my shul, was supposed to be so progressive. So I said to the head of adult education, “Look, I’ve just done now two major workshops on Yiddish women writers, I’d like to do it once again,” we’re not talking about a budget. He said to me, we’ve already done one on Yiddish women writers—because before that, I had done one class. I said, “Okay, that was enough. You know, one goes a long way... And that’s it” [facetiously said].

Now, I’ve given myself over much more to publishing. When I came back to Toronto, we worked on The Exile Book, once again because a friend intervened. He was on the board of Exile Editions. Knowing that we have a publisher was very different. For the most recent, forthcoming volume we had to start from the beginning. We started going around [pitching our translations]; it’s not a great feeling. If I were going for tenure, you expect [this kind of process], or a job interview, you have to do it. But I thought, at my age, should I [even] still be writing? But we were lucky to have applied to the New Jewish Press, where Anna’s [Anna Shternshis] on the board. That’s an imprint of U of T Press. I thought it would be good. Anna’s been very encouraging. The press wrote back and said, we want you to be into the core [of U of T Press and not the imprint].

JS: But they liked it?

FF: They liked it. Now I feel bad because I thought, ”Oh, God, what are we going to do with footnotes and endnotes?”That’s all part of scholarly work. We are working with this wonderful editor, Stephen Shapiro, who likes the book. It’s an anthology of the work of Lily Berger, who, once again, she’s not a household word yet, but she should become one because she really is a person of great diversity and temporally.

JS: I’m curious what type of students or classes could you or do you imagine could benefit from a text such as Found Treasures or even the Exile Book or even your forthcoming Lily Berger project?

FF: It’s wonderful. Because what I’ve learned is that there’s ground for encouragement, and God knows, we need it. You look around, and you think, okay, the time has come. I have had students who are young, young college students, and I’ve had seniors, and everybody loves [these books]. I, for example, went to a class, Sasha Hoffman’s class at U of T. That was two years ago, three years ago. They’re a terrific teacher. They gave a class from the Jewish Committee, which I took. I learned a lot from them. I went to give a guest talk to their class. I found the students so enthusiastic and really committed to [Yiddish]. It was wonderful. Really. When you say mame loshn, it was like, they were gathering for mother’s milk.

And then older people love it because it reminds them some of them know Yiddish enough. If you say a few words, if you read a text a little bit, they understand. I would say the age range [of people interested in Yiddish] is really quite wide.

Who loves Yiddish? There’s, this is another generational thing. My grandson as well, er zol zayn gezint un shtark. When he was getting ready for his bar mitzvah. I was his Hebrew teacher, and he was okay with Hebrew. He said that he loves Yiddish. And he loved Weinreich’s book, the edition, College Yiddish. Yeah. One time we were talking, he said that he was on the subway, he was feeling a little bit down. So he remembered a phrase in di fareniktes htotn voynen asakh yidin, but he said,“veynin asakh yidin.” I told him there’s a difference. Anyways, he said it gave him such comfort in the middle of a kind of a foreign territory to have this phrase that sticks in his mind. I wish he could take the time off and take a good Yiddish course, not just a few words with his grandma. Now my daughter studied with Ruth Wisse. She did it for me. I said, look, I want you to do it for me: take a Yiddish course, and Ruth Wisse was a terrific teacher. What I’m saying is different generations have been attracted to Yiddish. You can’t just say its [only] people who do it for sentimental reasons, they remember their grandmother, di bobe Esther Zemmel. I’ve read a lot of people writing about what it meant to them to study Yiddish. And they say how wonderful it felt to be in a class. And to see these words and to hear them, because Yiddish is a very auditory language. It sounds good.

JS: I’m curious, how do you feel that your project Found Treasures stands up with all of these new translations coming out?

FF: Well, I feel at times that I’ve been sidelined. Not I, but the book. My feelings are not all that warm and embracing. I think people should recognize that with many of the new single-author ones especially, nobody used to know about these people at all. I think this [shift in awareness] should be attributed to Found Treasures, not for me alone. The point is, one has to at least remember the ancestors. If they don’t, it’s a bad trait.

I think they’re very good. I’m very glad that all these books are coming out. I’m delighted. I don’t want them to stay in my basement. Someone writes to me, and she’s doing something on Brokhes. Do I have di zogerin? So, I looked at the basement, it was there. I’m very happy about it. But I don’t like the fact that there’s very little recognition. I’m not depending on recognition for jobs, or for glory. I’m very glad that all these books are out. I’m glad that a lot of new Yiddishists are working on that. I think that’s wonderful, but I also think that there should be a little bit more recognition. Not only me, but also Irena, though now, she’s getting out because her book is published. People have to realize who set the stage. Who was it that brought these women to light. You didn’t get them with your breakfast cereal.

JS: Well, there’s a line that Irena has in her opening remarks to di froyen about through that conference, her aim for that was to prevent future amnesia. It’s this beautiful phrase, and yet...

FF: I feel that had it not been, and there are many factors, had it not been for Margie, who said “Yeah, go ahead!” and gave us our first entree to be able to just do what we wanted, [it couldn’t have happened]. That is really remarkable. And that gave birth. Now it’s very possible that the next year, there would have been someone else. But there hasn’t been. If you look at what’s been published in an anthology, the three anthologies are from Canada. The single authors are widespread, and that’s great. But anthologies are important because they give people a list of names to go on. And Found Treasures is remarkably accurate. There’s publication lists, there’s a bibliography, and biographies. You can take that as a starting point.

Sharff, Julie. ““We Collected Everything”: An Interview with Frieda Johles Forman.” In geveb, June 2023:
Sharff, Julie. ““We Collected Everything”: An Interview with Frieda Johles Forman.” In geveb (June 2023): Accessed May 21, 2024.


Julie Sharff

Julie Sharff is a PhD student in the Department for the Study of Religion and the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.