Nov 07, 2022
For the final project in my L2 Yiddish class (elementary) at Yale, our instructor Dr. Josh Price gave us an open-concept assignment: choose a short piece of children’s literature, and then apply your creativity to it. He suggested that we might do translations, written riffs, comics, or video or audio interpretations. I was drawn to visual media — I am a cartoonist for the Yale Daily News, and I created advertisement posters for Yiddish courses when they started being offered for language credit.
With Dr. Price’s help, I narrowed down short story options and settled on Ya’akov Fichmann’s story “Shabes in vald” [Shabbat in the forest] from B. Ostrovsky’s textbook Idish. Fichmann divided the story into six sections, so I decided to make six corresponding watercolor paintings.
In addition to allowing us to freely develop our creative projects, Dr. Price made pedagogy part of the fun. He had us create short lesson plans and implement them by teaching our projects to the class. This way, we got to see our classmates’ work while also having to think comprehensively about the aims of our own projects and how to communicate them effectively. For my final presentation, which was partly over Zoom, I gave some background context on Fichmann and the main characters of the story. Then, I had my classmates arrange the paintings on a presentation slide in the order they thought the story might follow. I then showed them a small glossary and described the correct sequence of events. Finally, I discussed symbols from “Shabes in vald” and connected them to what I had read about Fichmann’s general style and themes. These are the paintings with corresponding descriptions summarizing the story’s plot:
Fichmann first describes how the protagonist, Lipa the Tailor, works hard all week so that he can come home to spend Shabbat with his family. Thus, my illustration has six boxes on top for the six work days, with the largest box at the bottom representing Shabbat. I had the idea to have each panel be different stages of making a coat — the cloth ties each panel together and ends with the finished coat surrounding and warming the family for Shabbat. In laying out the piece in pencil, I realized I needed to “think Yiddish” — that is, from right to left, the way Yiddish reads. I was pleased that the Yiddishkeit of the story could play a role in the formal composition of the piece and not just the meaning of the images or the words.
In the second part of the story, Lipa sets out for home on a Friday afternoon during a snowstorm. A Gentile expresses his worry, but ultimately lets Lipa go — Lipa trusts God to protect him. The Gentile says to his wife that he hopes God takes pity on Lipa. I tried to capture this moment in my painting, leaving softer, warmer grays indoors and framing Lipa in harsh white and black outside. Again, I worked from right to left, and I played with the shapes for ornamentation.
This painting shows Lipa in a relatively still forest — he stumbled in and could not find his way out. He realizes he should stop carrying his bag since it is nearly time to daven Mincha, which he does. In laying out this drawing, I left the borders open to give a greater sense that Lipa is outside. I also drew several figures of Lipa without separating panels — I wanted the image to be a little disorienting, like the blurring together of shots in a movie. This effect also emphasizes that he is the only thing moving in the forest.
As Lipa finishes praying, a fire appears. He follows it until he stands before a beautiful marble palace. He goes in and walks through six decadent rooms filled with food and drink but without a soul inside. Here, I stacked the rooms and focused each panel on a different object Fichmann describes. I also began using more elaborate borders, aspiring toward the style of a ketubah or title page in a Yiddish book. This is a departure from my usual manga-esque style, but I really enjoyed focusing on small ornamentations and hidden details.
Suddenly, Lipa hears a bird singing a powerful nign (melody). The melody, which seems strangely similar to one he heard at his bes-medresh (Jewish prayer and study house), fills all of the rooms. As Lipa stands entranced, an old man comes through the door and invites him to daven Ma’ariv and then eat Shabbat dinner with the Tzadikim. The fish they serve tastes oddly similar to the fish Lipa’s wife cooks.
In this illustration, I represented the birdsong with a dove carrying a ribbon with an actual nign on it. The corners show the events leading up to the large image in the center. Throughout the paintings, I use radiating lines to indicate holiness — thus, the faces of the (hidden) Tzadikim are rays of light, and in the first illustration, the simple Lipa and his Shabbat candles are surrounded by light.
Lipa realizes the mysterious experience he is having has echoes of his regular life — hence the rays of light emanating from his wife and her fish (“The fish have a taste of the Garden of Eden!” she exclaims). Lipa, inextricably at home after the Shabbat dinner in the palace, continues to work hard and enjoy future Shabbatot with his family. For the final painting, I wanted to make the most pleasing frame, and I gave it a little bit of a Yiddish theater flavor with the layers of curtains. As a moral at the end, I hand-lettered the last line of the Kiddush (which happens to be my favorite brokhe) at the bottom of the page: “Blessed are You, HaShem, Who sanctifies the Shabbat.” Though I veered into incorporating Hebrew, I added the nekudes for Yiddishists like myself who struggle with Hebrew vowels.
Overall, I think this project was a nice change of pace from a translation or an essay. I still had to focus on details from the story in order to represent it accurately, and I was able to share the images in my head with my class. It also made me feel that I was participating in a vibrant Yiddish culture with space for artwork as well as language, a present-day world of Yiddish as vibrant as the historical Yiddish children’s books we read in class.
A note from the In geveb editors: In addition to the lesson plan Truong describes, Yiddish teachers may wish to use the images and story in their classrooms for pedagogical purposes in the following manner:
- Read the story with the pictures projected to help aid comprehension
- Have students predict what will happen in the story based on the illustrations and then see how that matches the story itself
- Have students describe the pictures in detail in order to practice descriptive vocabulary or to explain how specific aspects of the illustration contribute to Truong’s interpretation of the text (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)
- Have students make their own illustrations and discuss how their depictions differ from Giovanna Truong’s
- Miriam Udel’s translation of this story can be found in Honey on the Page. Lessons like the one above can be done with English-speaking children reading the English translation. Yiddish students may benefit from translating the story and comparing their translations to Miriam Udel’s, and discussing how Truong’s visuals differently suit their or Udel’s translations.
Please remember to credit the artist should you use the images in your class.