Interview

Yiddish Trash: An Interview with Saul Noam Zaritt

Jessica Kirzane

INTRODUCTION

Shund​.org, launched in beta mode on August 9, 2023, is a data­base of pop­u­lar Yid­dish enter­tain­ment lit­er­a­ture, pub­lished as books and pam­phlets and seri­al­ized in the Yid­dish press. The project is direct­ed by Saul Noam Zaritt, one of In gevebs found­ing edi­tors. Jes­si­ca Kirzane sat down with him just days after the ini­tial launch of the project to hear about its ori­gins and how Zaritt envi­sions it can impact the study of Yid­dish literature.



Jessica Kirzane: How did you come to this project?

Saul Noam Zaritt: I had wanted to write about popular Yiddish fiction for a long time. Sholem Aleichem’s invective against his contemporary Shomer—deploring the popularity of one of his chief rivals—is a central text for any graduate student of Yiddish literature. And while I was initially taken in by Sholem Aleichem’s plea for aesthetic standards, I remained curious about all this stuff that didn’t make the cut. Though it was labeled “shund,” or trash, it must have had extraordinary power, given that Yiddish critics continued to fight against it throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But it was hard to satisfy this curiosity because reading popular Yiddish fiction was never part of my training as a Yiddishist, which focused on the klasiker and then various waves of Yiddish modernism. Even as translators and scholars of the past few decades turned to many of the forgotten writers of Yiddish literary history, hardly any turned to Yiddish’s most read—but least reread—texts.

When we started In geveb it became a personal goal of mine to get a sensational romance translated for the journal. Daniel Kennedy’s translation of Di vilde tsilke (Tsilke the Wild) by Zusman Segalovitsh is a direct result of those efforts. It’s a great little novel and a spirited translation, but I recall after its publication feeling like it was just a drop in the bucket. We had brought to light a single novel among the thousands we could have chosen. What was the context for Di vilde tsilke’s popularity? Was the love triangle it depicted typical for the period? Would this novel, by a named writer, be considered differently than a similar text with racier plot lines but published pseudonymously? Why did this novel come out as a book while so many others were only serialized in the daily Yiddish press? I didn’t even know where to begin to answer these questions. I had no handle on the corpus. It was difficult to even estimate how many thousands of novels and other works of fiction were buried in the Yiddish press and other publications. While the Yiddish Book Center could boast an archive of over 11,000 books, I remain struck by the notion that it was likely only a small fraction of Yiddish literature.

With the slow expansion of the Historical Jewish Press project and the digitization of the central Yiddish newspapers, many of these texts eventually became accessible, though not in any straightforward or clear way. You had to know where to look and you had to know what you were looking for. And even then it still felt like a partial picture, and one that you could see only by laboriously scrolling through page after page or by relying on random searches with the site’s shaky OCR. The JPress website, while amazing and even revolutionary for much of Jewish studies as we know it, simply doesn’t have the metadata to make much of its material legible and properly sortable.

So I found myself trying to read a novel by Sarah B. Smith, whom Irving Howe dubbed the “queen of the shundroman” and along the way trying to assemble some kind of bibliography of everything she had published in Der tog over the four decades she worked at the newspaper. The task felt impossible. For just this one writer—a forgotten celebrity—I had an overflowing word document with links to tens of novels and hundreds of short stories. And even then I knew it wasn’t comprehensive. She published fiction in multiple genres several times a week—daily when a novel was being serialized. How could I make sense of all of it, much less read it all? And where would all this data I had collected about her be stored? And why just about Sarah Smith? What about all the other writers for Der tog and and the writers for the many other newspapers? Who would surface their writing and to what end? So I started to think about what it would take to actually build a database for shund and what the stakes of such a project would be.

In both examples you gave — Daniel Kennedy’s Segalovich translation and your reading of Sarah B. Smith’s novel — you weren’t content to ask questions of the text in isolation, in a close reading approach. You wanted to have a birds’ eye view and “make sense of all of it” — and these questions that are larger in scope lend themselves to digital humanities approaches. Are these the kinds of questions scholars before you have asked, but without the technological resources now available to us? Or do you think our digital moment is what enables you to even ask these questions in the first place?

You’re right to note that these are not actually new questions. In the end I share many of the same goals as Khone Shmeruk, who called for an account of shund some forty years ago! And there have been scholars in the intervening years who have taken on parts of such a project. I’m thinking here of the immense amount of work that Natan Cohen has done in outlining the reading habits and institutional conditions for Yiddish literature in Eastern Europe, including shund; there’s the work of Eric Goldstein on the American side, in particular about the beginnings of pamphlet literature in the nineteenth century. I have learned a lot from Ayelet Brinn and her forthcoming work on how the American Yiddish newspaper catered to women readers, not to mention Eddy Portnoy’s deep knowledge of all things strange, lewd, and scandalous in the Yiddish press. There are a number of people in Yiddish studies that the rest of us rely on when we have a question about the Yiddish press—we know they have put in the long hours of scrolling through its pages. Notably, the scholars I’ve just mentioned are all historians, and their interest in shund is often something other than aesthetics or form. So we tend to know more about institutional conditions and less about what shund actually does as a cultural object. Ellen Kellman has done some of this work, and I think of this project as in part spurred by her account of the Forverts novel. There are others too who have taken on pieces of the puzzle. But I agree that digital tools allow for a different approach to these challenges. We can bolster the work of these close readers of the Yiddish press by bringing in more text at once, comparing corpuses seamlessly and evenly, and also across time periods. Rather than depending on Eddy’s memory or borrowing another scholar’s hastily scribbled index cards (or perhaps in addition to these time-honored traditions of our profession), we can let technology do more of the heavy lifting.

So let’s say our readers go to shund.org to explore. What will they encounter when they come to the website?

The format of the project is hopefully familiar to anyone who does research in Yiddish. I tried to model the database after the Yiddish Book Center and the Index to Yiddish Periodicals while taking into account the unique challenges of serialized fiction. The main function of the website is the search, where you can filter through thousands of individual works, using keywords, date ranges, names, and titles to shape what portion of the data you want to look at. At the moment the only works in the database come from a forty-year run of the Forverts—we felt this was a good place to test out the project and provide an immediately usable resource for the many people that do research using that prominent newspaper. That means that every entry in the database has a list of installments that link directly to an article in the JPress interface.

In the future though the database will be able to contain all kinds of works, including pamphlets and books, with links to their digitized versions in various repositories. Once we finish cataloging the Forverts we’ll likely move on to Warsaw’s Haynt to get a similarly central newspaper into the database.

How does this differ from searching for these texts using available digital tools like the Historical Jewish Press database?

As I hinted at above, there is no way to differentiate between different kinds of articles in JPress, only separating text from ads. And even then the tagging is not always accurate. Moreover, there isn’t much metadata, even something like author and title. You just have a mass of text with OCR that is only occasionally reliable. In shund.org, data entry is performed manually: researchers who are trained to identify works of fiction scroll through every page of the newspaper. It’s laborious, but it’s also about identifying patterns: for 1920, I know that the daily shund novel is usually on page two or page six during the week, page ten on the weekends; B. Kovner’s sketch is on page three or four; Yenta Serdatsky’s Sunday short story will be on page two, etc. By going through every page we can be sure that we’re getting everything and attaching every work to a host of other data. On top of this basic bibliographic information, the researchers also record what we call “designation”: Forverts editors would mark every piece of fiction with a genre tag—dertseylung (short story): monolog (monologue), mayse (folk tale), skitse (skit), bild (sketch) and many more—so that when you’re searching through the database you can also single out genre. There’s just a much wider web of metadata to work with, and so the texts can be arranged and connected to one another in multiple ways.

I also want to take a moment here to thank my research assistants—primarily Jonah Lubin, A.C. Weaver, and Rachel Cressell, and several others—for scrolling so assiduously and tirelessly through every page of the Forverts.

I’m certainly very familiar with the laborious task of scrolling through microfilm looking for the work of a particular author or on a particular subject, and with trying my luck at the OCR on JPress while knowing the results will not give a full picture. I still have spiral bound printouts of grainy microfilms of novels I’ll never read because the focus was off and the image is so poor it makes me go cross-eyed. Thinking about those experiences, it seems to me there is much to be gained by this data-rich environment: easy and quick access to texts it would, not long ago, have taken days or weeks to uncover. I wonder, though, what is lost when a novel is detached from the newspaper it is in — when you access a pdf of it without the surrounding page of articles or advertisements? Are you worried that researchers using this cleaner, more streamlined interface won’t have the experience of stumbling upon an author or novel they weren’t looking for?

This is precisely why we include two links for every entry! One link takes you to a pdf which isolates the story or installment you’re looking for. The other link takes you to the page of the newspaper with the desired text highlighted but with the rest of the newspaper available to you. I hope that the database can be an entry point for browsing but also allow direct access to texts that can be compiled in a number of different ways.

Let’s talk takhles for a bit — what does putting together such a project entail? What does it require in terms of funding, tech design and support, research assistants, and so forth? How did you pull this all together?

Even though this is a somewhat basic database, it does require a good amount of work. I’m lucky to have a collaborator in Matt Cook, a digital scholarship expert working at Harvard Library, whose job it is to help faculty get these kinds of projects off the ground. I was also able to get generous initial funding from Harvard University, which I used to hire a software development company and, most importantly, pay research assistants to enter data. Going forward though I will need to raise more funds, in order to continue data entry but also to pursue bigger parts of the project: collaborating with other institutions and projects that are working on Yiddish OCR, improving the search function, producing scholarship that makes use of new digital tools, and more.

How did your experience as a founding editor of In geveb inform your work on this project? Do you see these as related in any way?

In some ways this project grew out of an early goal of In geveb’s that ended up not being feasible. David Roskies had always wanted a place for scholars to share texts they had digitized (or in his case photocopied), and he imagined that a part of In geveb would be a repository. When we early editors conceived of the project, though, we felt it would be more important to invest in translation than in housing texts; we wanted to expand the audience for Yiddish beyond Yiddish scholars and we felt that any text that would live on the site had to be translated into English. But now, with shund.org, I am indeed creating a repository of some kind. The other project that inspires this one is the Milgroym Project, which sought to give a more proper accounting of interwar avant-garde journals. In a sense I’ve followed that same logic, only moving from the avant-garde to the popular. Overall I think some of my aims here fit with the In geveb ethos: make something more of Yiddish, expand what we might imagine the culture to be, and to push the boundaries of Yiddish studies.

I imagine some of the practical aspects — working with web developers, raising funds, etc. — drew upon your experiences with In geveb as well. Do you have any background in digital humanities? What makes you inclined toward digital, in addition to more traditionally text-based, projects?

I actually don’t have much training in digital scholarship. I recall joking with Eitan Kensky when we were coming up with models for In geveb that in some sense what we were trying to do, as elderly millennials, was to make an oversized LiveJournal blog about Yiddish. The journal was not going to be a technological innovation so much as make use of what we imagined to be the best parts of the internet. We learned a lot along the way of course, but, at least for me, even the most innovative parts of In geveb feel familiar. With this project I’m trying to venture into a different mode, one less reflective of my own expertise, one I feel somewhat lost in. I know the questions I want to ask, but I’m not entirely sure how to use the technology to answer it—and I remain at times skeptical of all the bells and whistles of digital scholarship that sometimes distract from critical inquiry. In any case, working on this project is making me do a lot of listening. There are whole new vocabularies to learn — and translate. The technologists I’m working with don’t know any Yiddish and don’t have any particular investment in the field. So I trust them to create the right structures for this project but I also need to learn how it all fits together and in a way that meets the specific conditions of Yiddish.

Can you tell me more about your explorations with data visualization software? What do you hope to discover, or what do you think other scholars might be able to do, using data science?

I feel I’m very much at the beginning of all this, and I am following the lead of my collaborator Matt Cook. The major idea, for me, is that staring at a spreadsheet is mind-numbing and actually very limiting. It is just one way that our minds process information, and it can be hard to be able to conceive of something when it is contained in columns and rows. When it becomes a 3D object our brains process it differently. Seeing something from the side or seeing it in your peripheral vision, or seeing it in the background as opposed to the foreground—all of these different perspectives allow you to process information differently. For instance, I came up with my idea to compare Asch and Serdatsky’s output in the 1920s not from staring at an Excel sheet but by seeing their publications in 3D, as it were, and to compare them in space, to literally walk through their shared timeline. Just think of how you might orient yourself toward data if you can hold it in your hand, turn it around, toss it up in the air. My sense is that it activates the imagination differently.

Of course 3D visualization is just one of the many tools for working with this data. Getting OCR of these texts and then putting the texts through various software manipulation can reveal patterns we wouldn’t be able to notice otherwise. For instance, Ellen Kellman has done outstanding work on Leon Gottlieb, the main shund writer of the Forverts. She analyzes a few of his novels closely and expertly, arguing that there is a formula behind his writing. I do not doubt that to be true. But he also wrote upwards of thirty novels. What happens when we put all of those texts into one bag of words? What themes might be gleaned from an analysis of them as a whole? How does Gottlieb’s formula change over time?

The term ‘shund’ is somewhat weighty and contested. How are you defining ‘shund’ and what’s at stake for you in gathering texts under that rubric?

I fully understand that shund is a pejorative term and part of my goal in this project is to repurpose the word without making an apologetic argument. The database doesn’t just include texts that a critic—a grumpy critic—would label as trash. The database includes every piece of fiction that appeared in the Forverts, every piece of fiction that appeared in a publication that had commercial and entertainment interests. Certainly Sholem Asch was thought of and thought of himself as a writer of high literary value—a writer of the people but also an artist at home in elite European literary circles. But, he published his work in a publication that was oriented toward mass appeal. His novels helped sell newspapers. His main source of income was not books but his regular Forverts salary. And his writing was not immune to such conditions. His serialized work does not shy away from sentimentality, moments of sensationalism, and techniques of suspense associated with serialization. There is something unavoidably “trashy” about his novels. In this way, I argue, all fiction that appeared in the Forverts is informed by shund. One of the aims of this project is to put forward the sense that the forms of popular literature dictate Yiddish literary history as much, if not more, than the forms of Yiddish modernism. “Trash” is not just a despised corner of Yiddish literature, nor simply an independent branch of the tree; it may very well be the engine of Yiddish culture as we know it.

Thinking of shund in these terms asks us to reconsider some of the assumed narratives of Yiddish studies. Most often we’ve proceeded in an additive manner, following a familiar line in the history of modern Yiddish literature. First there was Sholem Aleichem and he brought Mendele with him, and then, eventually, he added Peretz to the group because he was too famous to avoid. Other nineteenth century writers came along for the ride, with the special addition of Rebbe Nachman at the insistence of Peretz and his folkloric interests. Thereafter, Peretz’s disciples spread across Eastern Europe and then the US creating various modernisms along the way, from the radical expressionism of the Warsaw poets to the “reluctant” socialist orthodoxy of the Soviet writers; from the symbolism and naturalism of the first generations of Yiddish writers in the US to imagism and high modernism and then finally elegy and memorialization. Thereafter, scholars have returned to this scheme to add other writers and movements that fell through the cracks; notably and most importantly women writers like Margolin, Dropkin, Auerbach, Vogel and many more who don’t exactly fit into any of the schools but who became part of Yiddish modernism more broadly defined. There is a temptation to do the same with shund by adding another stage in the Yiddish novel—starting with the didacticism of early Mendele through the trials of Sholem Aleichem’s “Jewish” novel and then arriving at the triumphant, though very different achievements of Bergelson, Opatoshu, Singer, Bashevis, Grade and others who made the European form their own. In this scheme, shund would appear as a glitch in the midst of this march toward cultural recognition, something that was necessary to pay the bills but which does not measure up to these richly rewarded men.

This feels to me, though a compelling story, so very inadequate to understanding how Yiddish culture works. Shund makes a very different claim on “European” genres—on the romance, on the detective novel, on the sprawling family chronicle—that speaks to a very different kind of mixture of cultural forms. Shund is less interested in longevity, prestige, or in some way producing a “Jewish” novel—it just wants to entertain, and this is part of its power. And this is why it can be so vital for our research, in telling us not what kind of institution or norm a group of men wanted to build but the actual mess of Yiddish cultural life, the partial translations, the insecurities, the aesthetics of hybridity. And that’s why shund is such an important word for me. Because it is the trash that will be as interesting as any kind of canonical success story.

Part of what you’re trying to do is trouble a Great Men of Yiddish Literature narrative and demonstrate that the literature is more fluid and dynamic — and also more female! — than we have led ourselves to believe. To what extent is righting the gender imbalance in Yiddish literary studies a motivating factor for you?

It is central to the shund project. So much of Yiddish literary history is still dictated by the interests of male critics from a century ago. Though Yiddish is stereotyped as “feminine”—and “improperly” feminine—so much of the way the story of Yiddish is told is through a process of normalization, in which an unruly folk literature imagined to be written for women finally becomes a proper vehicle for national desire and modernist achievement on a level with European models and Slavic neighbors. It is as if the literature is imagined to become more masculine over time—and thereby more secure, more legible, even in all of its contradictions and impossibilities. As Allison Schachter argues, for the male critic, “women’s desire limns the fluctuating boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish culture. The erasure of one boundary results in the erasure of the other, and so secular masculinity poses less of a threat to Jewish culture than a secular female sensibility; the former is a productive intellectual project and the latter is an act of conversion and cultural betrayal.” Shund lives right on that boundary, often by following the dictates of women’s reading. Critics abhorred shund precisely because it insisted on occupying a culturally hybrid space associated with women. Of course cultural hybridity is not entirely owned by women—this is just a stereotype. Sholem Aleichem’s work, despite his desire to write the “Jewish” novel, is just as fraught with boundary-crossing. But we can learn so much from letting ourselves begin from the supposedly feminine. Let the hybrid and unstable acts of conversion and betrayal guide our reading rather than the desperate (and failed) attempts to stave off such threats. In this way, the study of shund begins from women’s reading and women’s authorship.

Have you already made discoveries that surprised or excited you?

There is just so much to discover in the database—and that’s the case even though we have cataloged just one newspaper. I’ve already gotten feedback from users who tell me of various amazing finds—from a B. Kovner sketch about the Pancho Villa Expedition in 1916 to your own excitement about more Miriam Karpilove novels.

But for me the most eye-opening thing has been about genre. I went into this project thinking I was working on the novel and that shund meant primarily the shundroman. And certainly the Forverts published novels all the time, at least a chapter a day. But of the nearly 10,000 works currently in the database, there “only” 147 novels. That leaves over 9,600 short stories. What happens to the story of shund, to the story of Yiddish literature, when its measure is the short story? As my teacher David Roskies once argued, “the story is the thing”—what could that argument mean now?

What are your hopes for the future of this project?

In the near future, once we’ve finished with the Forverts, I’m hoping to quickly enter into the database all the books that we associate with shund. This should actually be pretty quick, as these are works that have already been cataloged elsewhere and which have been largely digitized, at the Yiddish Book Center, the National Library of Israel, Harvard Library, and elsewhere. The next thing to do is to secure funding to keep going, both with further cataloging and with improving and expanding the applications of the database. Zol lebn shund, as I always tell my students!

MLA STYLE
Kirzane, Jessica. “Yiddish Trash: An Interview with Saul Noam Zaritt.” In geveb, October 2023: https://ingeveb.org/blog/yiddish-trash-an-interview-with-saul-noam-zaritt.
CHICAGO STYLE
Kirzane, Jessica. “Yiddish Trash: An Interview with Saul Noam Zaritt.” In geveb (October 2023): Accessed Apr 20, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Kirzane

Jessica Kirzane is the assistant instructional professor of Yiddish at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.