Feb 09, 2023
A note from the writers: On October 28 and 29, 1995, a landmark conference, “Di froyen: Women and Yiddish, Tribute to the Past, Directions for the Future,” was held at Hunter College and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. The conference, sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Resource Center (JWRC), National Council of Jewish Women New York Section (NCJW), was a symposium dedicated to Yiddish women’s writing. In early November, the Yiddish Book Center, in a weekend program organized in partnership with In geveb, paid homage to the original “Di froyen” conference with a multi-day event filled with discussions, workshops, and performances, with many of the original event’s writers, translators, and scholars in attendance. We are both first year students at Mount Holyoke College, and were invited to the conference, along with the rest of our class, by our Gender of Yiddish Professor and Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center, Mindl Cohen. As students, many of whom weren’t even born at the time of the 1995 conference, we found ourselves in a unique position to learn from experts in the field that we normally would not have access to.
1. A brief introduction of who we are and why we’re interested in Yiddish
Olive: Though I’m Ashkenazi Jewish, my family is not particularly observant, and I had virtually no exposure to Yiddish before taking Professor Cohen’s class. I began at Mount Holyoke as a prospective Psychology major with no interest whatsoever in pursuing Jewish studies, and as far as I can remember, the first time I heard about the language might as well have been when I read its course description while searching for something to replace an inconveniently timed Gender Studies class. Seeing that the class had space, was cross listed for Gender and Jewish Studies, and was starting in less than 10 minutes, I quite literally jumped from my computer and ran for the classroom, asking the first upperclassman I spotted about the social appropriateness of showing up for a class you’re not registered for along my way.
Now, with a full schedule of Jewish Studies courses planned for the upcoming semester, it’s hard to see myself as the same Olive who was more motivated by the promise of a Gender Studies credit than by learning about Yiddish, but it’s true! The course “Gender of Yiddish” really is what got me interested in learning about and connecting with my mostly lost Jewish culture through academia, and I am so glad it did.
Naomi: I came to Mount Holyoke as a prospective Politics and French major, but my true passion is Jewish Studies and Yiddish. Like Olive, I didn’t expect to end up in the class, since I was waitlisted, but as luck would have it, we both made it in! I began studying Yiddish before MHC through the language learning program at the YIVO Institute. I took three semesters of Yiddish there during the height of the pandemic, and wanted to continue to study it in college, which led me to the class I’m in now. Initially, I was inspired to begin studying Yiddish to try and contribute to its revival. Like many other American Jews, my great grandparents’ generation were the last to have been taught Yiddish by their parents and I felt that I was missing a large part of my identity. Language is such a powerful tool to reconnect with one’s heritage that had been lost to assimilation.
2. Our initial impressions of the YBC
Olive: The first thing I noticed upon entering the Yiddish Book Center lobby, after taking in how beautiful the space is, was that they had Eleanor Reissa’s book, The Letters Project, on display at the giftshop! A few weeks before, I had the privilege of working with her on Hershey Felder’s The Assembly, a film that explores the way that new generations relate to the Holocaust, which also meant that I got to talk to her about my Yiddish class. As I mingled with Di froyen attendees at the Yiddish Book Center who were waiting for the event to begin, who were all kind and open to conversation, I very quickly learned that among Yiddishists, having performed with Eleanor Reissa is much more of a ‘flex’ than I had thought.
Naomi: I had not previously stepped foot in Massachusetts before visiting Mount Holyoke, so I was not sure what to expect coming to the Yiddish Book Center. Entering and peering down to the first floor, one can see rows upon rows of Yiddish novels, poetry collections, biographies, and more, which could keep me occupied for days. In addition to being a library, the YBC had a very cool exhibit that displayed the lost synagogues of Europe through a collection of postcards.
Olive: My favorite exhibit was Debra Olin’s “Every Protection: Exploring Pregnancy and Childbirth in the Jewish Pale of Settlement,” which draws on questions relating to superstitions and beliefs about women’s duties of pregnancy and childbirth from an ethnographic questionnaire sent to Jewish towns in the early 1900s. The exhibit poses these questions, and seems to answer them through art, in the form of beautiful monoprint collages. We had talked about a similar questionnaire in class, so it was so interesting to see it represented in art — the first of many connections between our Di Froyen experience and our class’s content.
3. Reflections from the panels we attended
Note: Naomi attended several panels on Saturday and Sunday, while Olive attended the entirety of the program.
Olive: Di Froyen opened with a presentation of a video interview in which Irena Klepfisz reflected on the original 1995 Di Froyen conference, and her view of the progression of Yiddish womens’ prominence since. I was really excited to hear her speak after reading “A Few Words in the Mother Tongue” in class, and I was not disappointed. It was especially refreshing to see how openly Klepfisz credited lesbians and socialists for promoting her work, when few Jewish publications would. Some interesting conversation took place after the talk as well about the differences between the original conference and this reunion of sorts, particularly about the current lack of the more conservative Jewish women who were much better represented at the original conference. At some point during that first panel, I turned around and recognized Allison Schachter from a video we had watched just a few days before in class, and Naomi can attest that I very excitedly told our entire row of students that she was there and she is, in fact, a real person!
Naomi: Speaking of Allison Schachter, I was able to attend the Yiddish Women Writers to Know panel on the second day to hear her speak along with two other translators, Jordan Finkin and Ellen Cassedy. Their work is centered on making famous authors more accessible for non-Yiddish-speaking audiences. I enjoyed Ellen Cassedy’s discussion of her work on Blume Lempel’s stories, particularly “Oedipus in Brooklyn.” She said one of the difficulties of translating Lempel is the many scene changes that, in Yiddish, bridge the divide between old and new world attitudes and livelihoods. However, it can be difficult to translate such abstract shifts in scene into English. In class, we had read some of Lempel’s work like “The Debt,” so I was not shocked to find out through Cassedy’s talk that Lempel covered many other taboo subjects beyond abortion, like incest, sex, and madness. Fellow panelist Allison Schachter spoke about her experience translating Fradel Shtok, another important writer on our class syllabus. Like many other female authors, Shtok was deemed psychotic and ill for taking up art. Despite this label, modern scholars like Schachter have dug deeper into Shtok’s life and work to reveal her true literary brilliance. Schachter said this kind of work is made possible by the Yiddishist community that prioritizes collaboration to make these complex and rich stories more accessible.
Olive: One of my favorite parts of the program was “The Angel of Yiddish Women’s History: Intergenerational Transmission Across Stormy Seas,” a lecture and discussion with Naomi Seidman and Julie Sharff. Much of the lecture focused on a story by Glikl of Hameln, who I was familiar with from our class readings. Glikl’s story involved a father bird teaching his children a lesson, which can be interpreted as that we owe more to our future generations than to our predecessors. This sentiment is particularly relevant to the future of Yiddish womens’ translation, as there is a constant balance to be maintained between embracing unconventional and progressive ideas and trying to make Yiddish accessible to newer generations, and honoring those who came before. Yiddishists’ relationship to Glikl itself exemplifies this dynamic, as although many look up to her as a sort of mother figure, she lived in a very conservative time and likely wouldn’t be entirely pleased with the modern group that looks up to her.
Olive: My very favorite part of Di Froyen, and undeniably the part that I talk most about, was the performance of scenes from Chava Roesenfarb’s “The Bird of the Ghetto.” In my own work as a performer, I’m primarily interested in telling stories of interpersonal conflict and emotional complexity, especially trauma, and I admire writing and performance that explores these topics. I thought that Rosenfarb’s script and Caraid O’Brien and Mark Greenfield’s performance brilliantly captured the tensions of the unconventional relationship between Yakob Gens, the Chief of the Vilna Ghetto police, and his lover Thea, who worked under him as a policewoman and as his secretary. Their relationship was strained and unsettling, and their mutual distaste for each other’s behavior almost seemed to fuel their passion. It was a very interesting look into how people doing despicable things led seemingly normal personal lives, and justified their actions to themselves and those around them. After reading Rosenfarb’s short story “Little Red Bird,” in Goldie Morgenthaler’s translation, a few days ago in class, which similarly captures the complex emotional intersections between trauma and relationships, I have decided that Chava Rosenfarb is my new favorite author/playwright. I can’t wait to read the rest of her work!
4. Discussion topics that piqued our interest
Naomi: In class prior to coming to Di Froyen, we had discussed the merits of researching female authors’ personal lives when translating. Initially, I thought it would be useful to have such information to better understand where the authors were coming from with their works. However, both in class and at the conference I saw the other side: those trying to discredit women’s writing often say that women can only write about experiences in their own lives because apparently women are not equipped with an imagination. There is extensive debate on the subject, with some saying extensive biographical research isn’t necessary to translate a woman’s work and others arguing it is essential to understanding a writer’s perspective.
Olive: At one of the first Gender of Yiddish classes, there was a discussion about “Burying the Books” by Dvora Baron. The protagonist of the story is a Rabbi’s daughter, and having read a biography that mentioned Baron also being a Rabbi’s daughter, I asked Professor Cohen if it was possible that the story was somewhat autobiographical. She responded with a lecture about how so often, people speculate that womens’ writing must be autobiographical, because they cannot imagine that women have the capacity to write about things they haven’t personally experienced. She asked me to consider if I would’ve asked that question had the author been a man. I thought I must’ve asked the most terrible, offensive question in the entire world! To say I was relieved to see that this is an actual ongoing debate among translators and scholars would be an understatement.
Another controversy that I witnessed was over the merit of footnotes. The “The Bird of the Ghetto” talkback sparked conversation about the many difficulties of translating Lodz Yiddish due its reliance on unique colloquialisms. An academic in the audience suggested that translators just use footnotes, and was met with about as much uproar as is possible at an academic conference.
5. Interesting conversations
Naomi: Another great part about the atmosphere of the event was how willing everyone was to engage in conversation. Though I was a little timid at first, I was encouraged to ask questions of the panelists after the sessions. I was particularly interested in Kathryn Hellerstein’s work as I was moved by her translation of Kadia Molodowsky’s “Merciful God.” Olive and I spoke with her and Miriam Udel after the final panel on Sunday about their work and gained a glimpse into the world of translation. She even gave Olive and I some pretty sweet stickers!
Olive: I am so grateful that I got to meet and talk with Miryem-Khaye Seigel, a panelist who is one of few lesbians in the Yiddish theatre scene. In fact, when I asked her if she knew of any lesbian Yiddish performers, her response was something along the lines of “Well, there’s me, and then there’s her over there!,” as she gestured towards a conference attendee. She also gave me the link to a project she’s working on that documents Yiddish actresses, called “Women on the Yiddish Stage: Primary Sources,” and recommended some memoirs that were already available. The people at Di Froyen were so kind and welcoming, in fact, that I was invited to dinner just by mentioning out loud that I had nowhere to go!
6. Our overall takeaways and how the weekend further inspired both of us to continue studying Yiddish
Naomi: I could not think of a better way to spend a weekend, I got to delve into a new world of translation guided by some of the best in the field. Other than gaining a breadth of knowledge on Yiddish, writing, translating, publishing, and more, I even bought Blume Lempel’s “Oedipus in Brooklyn” translated by one of the panelists, Ellen Cassedy. With my newly acquired knowledge of the translation process, I had a newfound appreciation for the word choices and syntax and their role in my deeper understanding of the stories. I also now know what an amazing resource the Yiddish Book Center is. I will definitely be back for their summer language intensive and any women’s literature related programming they hold in the future, and a trip to the bookstore will be in order for my Chanukah shopping!
Olive: I usually don’t like staying very long at events, but with Di Froyen, I never wanted to leave! I felt so safe and welcome in its group of incredibly kind, intelligent, and extremely qualified Yiddishists! I am so excited to learn more about all of the new topics and ideas I was introduced to, and I’m sure that many of the sources I find will be written under names I can recognize from Di Froyen. I’m also planning on applying to the Yiddish Book Center’s Steiner Summer Program to start learning Yiddish. After the last panel, Ellie Kellman, who befriended me, said that she can’t wait to see me on the Yiddish stage in 10 years, and I really hope that’s true! Even if I don’t end up going far with Yiddish, Di Froyen, and everything else that has come with The Gender of Yiddish, has fully convinced me to start working towards a Jewish Studies minor. I would never have thought that a class I spontaneously joined with minutes to spare would have such an impact on my aspirations, but it’s always funny how life works out.