Mar 23, 2021
Since 1999, Professors Gennady Estraikh (NYU) and Mikhail Krutikov (University of Michigan) have served as editors for Legenda’s Studies in Yiddish series — the only English-language scholarly series dedicated entirely to scholarship in Yiddish Studies. The series has published over a dozen titles in the past twenty years, and several more are forthcoming. Topics explored in different volumes include biographical and literary treatments of major Yiddish literary figures, explorations of gender in Yiddish literature, and Yiddish cultural production in various cities throughout the world, to name a few. Ayelet Brinn recently caught up with Estraikh and Krutikov to discuss their long-running series, and the changes they’ve seen in academic publishing and Yiddish studies over the course of the past twenty years.
Ayelet Brinn: I want to start by asking about the background of this series. How did it first come about? And how did both of you become involved?
Gennady Estraikh: It began with the Oxford Institute for Yiddish Studies, established in 1995. The institute was an ambitious or even khutspedik undertaking underpinned by an entrepreneur’s generous (but, as it turned out, time-sensitive) financial support. The institute had a publishing program, including a monthly Yiddish literary journal, The Pen (Di pen). However, the journal could not get more than 200 subscribers and faced the problem of getting contributions of sufficient quality. Very soon we realized the wisdom of Avrom Sutzkever’s decision to phase out Di goldene keyt.
The main problem was the timing of our publication projects. The 1990s were the years when the older generation of Yiddish literati was disappearing. The number of younger people able and willing to write an academic work in Yiddish was (and is) minuscule. The readership was (and is) minuscule, too. In many cases, it was done “to make a point,” namely that Yiddish remained a language of academic discourse. One more factor: such publications usually would not “count” for people in the process of building an academic career.
Although the journal was discontinued, the new institute continued to run its well-established Yiddish summer program, which attracted a broad variety of students. One of them, Jack Friedman of Texas, was eager to sponsor Yiddish-related academic conferences and books. So, on the basis of his financial support, the first academic conference was organized in 1998 and the first book came out in 1999. Importantly, 1995 was the year when the publishing house Legenda appeared at the University of Oxford. Jack, who saw the Institute as a makeshift body, decided to give an endowment to the university. He was right: the Institute declined seven years later, but the conferences continued to be convened and books continued to be published.
Mikhail Krutikov: As a boy, Jack had been transplanted from a yeshiva in, I believe, Munkacs to a small shtetl in Texas where he worked in a hardware store. He became a successful businessman and retained a deep love for Yiddish, which he believed had therapeutic qualities. He also had great respect for Oxford University. He endowed the semi-annual conference in the memory of his father, Mendel Friedman. Most of the volumes are the outcome of those conferences, but some are not, and the series is open for submissions.
AB: What are the goals of the series?
GE: To be honest, initially it was mainly an act of showing off. The new institute, born out of an external and then an internal conflict, sought to find a place in the international academic landscape and also to show our sponsor that we did not waste his money and deserved his backing. We wanted to contribute to the field of Yiddish studies, which was (and is still) full of undercultivated areas.
MK: Now the goal is to facilitate research in various areas and encourage people to share their work in progress. These collections are not definitive studies on a particular theme; their purpose is to open up a theme and make some inroads into it. Some of our contributors pursue their interest further and publish more substantial monographs — for example, Harriet Murav’s book about Bergelson or Marc Caplan’s new book on Yiddish culture in Weimar Berlin. I think our early collection The Shtetl: Image and Reality (2000) and Yiddish and the Left (2001) did contribute to the growth of interest in these respective areas.
AB: How do you decide which subjects to include? It looks like many of the publications are outgrowths of conferences and other collaborative enterprises, so I’d be especially interested to hear about publishing as a collaborative process.
GE: We chose what we considered to be interesting and useful. As you can see from the titles, the series has a Soviet bent, which reflects our background. Probably, more intuitively than consciously, we tried to modify the Cold War-period portrait of Soviet Yiddish literary life created (mainly) by those Polish Yiddish writers who survived World War II in the Soviet Union.
For instance, in Polish writers’ memoirs the Soviet colleagues often appear categorized as “maranos.” David Bergelson’s widow was outraged with the suggestion that her husband was a “secret Jew,” because it implied that he simply played the role of a devoted Soviet citizen and thus “justified” the deeds of those people who murdered him and his colleagues. Also, [these memoirs often presented] a historically questionable hierarchy of “conformist” and “nonconformist” writers.
MK: The “Soviet bias” is a delicate issue. Our choice of Soviet-related subjects is heavily biased toward writers from Ukraine, more specifically, those associated with the Kiev Group and Kultur-Lige. The only Soviet Yiddish author from Belarus, Moyshe Kulbak, appears in the context of Weimar Berlin. In some ways, this project is an attempt to build on the foundation of the Kultur-Lige by generating a diasporic intellectual and scholarly discourse rooted in Yiddish. Challenging the established dualistic Cold-War narrative is also important. For me, there is a ethical problem embedded in this narrative. By trying to read Soviet Yiddish literature “against the grain” in order to identify and highlight specifically “dissident” elements in it, we, perhaps involuntarily, are following in the steps of Soviet ideological censorship. If you read internal documents of the Soviet secret police, you can see that they were quite good at this kind of analysis, too. Their experts were educated and intelligent people and knew their Jewish stuff well. I think the “marano” model is too simplistic and needs to be replaced by something more sophisticated. I don’t believe a Soviet Yiddish writer was able to “smuggle” some subversive content or message and reach out to the broader readership bypassing the censorship. There was a complex triangular relationship between the author, the authorities, and the reader. Most Soviet Yiddish writers wanted to be both Soviet and Yiddish, but their problem was their idea of “Soviet” often was out of sync with the official Party line of that time.
AB: Do you have a sense of how readers have incorporated books from the series into their teaching or research?
GE: The proof of pudding is in the eating, and I can see numerous references to our volumes. Also, libraries continue to purchase the volumes for their collections.
MK: I think the most popular paper is John Klier’s “What Exactly was the Shtetl?” in the second volume.
GE: I agree. Ironically, John Klier’s article—and his academic legacy in general—is important for our understanding of the historical habitat of Yiddish-speakers.
AB: Could you say a bit more about why you find that ironic? Because his reputation is primarily for scholarship on Eastern European History, as opposed to Yiddish Studies specifically?
GE: Yes. In fact, John was not the only outlier among those who contributed to the Legenda volumes. A number of excellent articles have been written by scholars who don’t know Yiddish. In general, there is a lot of space around Yiddish studies.
AB: Yiddish Studies is, by definition, a multilingual and transnational field, as Yiddish culture has been produced and consumed in so many different contexts over time. What are the advantages or challenges of producing a series of English-language Yiddish scholarship?
GE: The real challenge is to produce academic publications in Yiddish. I have firsthand experience preparing such publications. Of course, there are also minor problems associated with writing in English about Yiddish: translation, transliteration, etc. One of the perennial problems is how to render Jewish surnames.
MK: Most of the contributors, including ourselves, are not native English speakers, and I think one can feel it in the books. It has always been important to us to make the work of our European and Israeli colleagues known to the broader world, and English is the only language that allows this. We also encourage people who have just finished or are about to finish their dissertations to share the results of their work.
AB: The series has spanned over twenty years so far, a time that has seen profound changes in the field of Yiddish Studies. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about how the topics covered in your series have changed over time. What trends have you noticed, in terms of subject matter or in terms of the people involved?
GE: There is the question of what to count as Yiddish studies. Does research focused, for instance, on the American labor movement and its Yiddish-language periodicals belong to the field? I believe that, in addition to the rather narrow circle of scholars in “pure” Yiddish philology, more scholars are involved in part time Yiddish studies. The market of academic positions demands combinations of Yiddish with history, sociology, etc.
AB: How have these questions shaped your decisions about what to publish in the series? Have certain topics raised questions for you about the “limits” or “boundaries” of Yiddish Studies, so to speak? Or do you see these boundaries as more fluid and changing over time?
MK: We felt that there were not enough monograph studies about individual authors, especially compared to other literatures. We hope that the volumes on Markish, Bergelson, Der Nister, Opatoshu, and Sholem Aleichem will serve as preliminary stages for more comprehensive studies of those and other writers. One of the next books we publish will be a monograph about the South African Yiddish poet Dovid Fram by the Johannesburg-based scholar Hazel Frankel. Some of the topics are more popular with the readers; others are less so, mostly depending on how appealing they sound to the more general audience. Weimar Berlin has been in fashion for some time, and the volume on Yiddish in Weimar Berlin is quite popular. But Opatoshu, for example, is still waiting to be discovered.
AB: It strikes me that this new volume about Dovid Fram also highlights the fact that the majority of scholarship in Yiddish Studies has focused on Yiddish culture in Europe, the United States, or Israel, and that there are important, understudied authors and publications to explore in areas like Africa and Australia.
MK: You are right, and we would be happy to have more about these regions; I would also add South America. Our colleague Joseph Sherman was perhaps the most knowledgeable person about Yiddish in South Africa, but sadly he passed away. His article about Yiddish literature and apartheid in Yiddish and the Left is an excellent study that seems to remain underappreciated. Twenty years ago there was much less interest in the issues of race among Yiddish scholars, but hopefully Sherman’s article will be rediscovered now when this topic is hot.
AB: What are your hopes for the future of this series? Where do you see Yiddish Studies and publishing going in the near future?
GE: Yiddish is a master key to a very broad range of research topics.
MK: The beauty of Yiddish is that it’s everywhere. You can pick up any topic, and be sure that someone has already said something about it in Yiddish. But this may also be a problem because you can find Yiddish material to support practically any hypothesis. One has to treat Yiddish responsibly.