Apr 05, 2021
In the Fall semester of 2020, I redesigned a course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign originally created by Professor Brett Ashley Kaplan called Jewish American and U.S. Minority Literatures in Dialogue. The subject of the course allows for a wide range of topics to be covered, but early on I decided that refugees and refugeedom would be a core theme of my iteration of the course and adapted the syllabus to reflect this new direction. I wanted to trace loosely how attitudes toward refugees and the valences of the term “refugee” developed in the literary texts I assigned. I hoped that this literary analysis would provide students with tools to better understand contemporary refugee crises around the world today.
Kadya Molodovsky’s novel A Jewish Refugee in New York, newly translated by Anita Norich, presents readers with the journal of young Rivke Zilberg, a recent arrival to New York City from Lublin in the early stages of the Holocaust. Rivke’s journal entries allow readers to enter into an intimate perspective of the life of a Jewish refugee—forcefully uprooted from the world that she knew, torn away from her family, finding refuge in her aunt’s home—who is struggling to fit into and understand American culture. 1 1 It is important to note that while the protagonist’s name, Rivke Zilberg, in A Jewish Refugee in New York matches the pseudonym Molodovsky uses for her Forverts column, also Rivke Zilberg, they are not to be conflated. Norich warns readers in her introduction to the novel, that instead Rivke should be read “as a persona […] rather than [Molodovsky’s] pseudonym” (Norich xvi). Rivke of A Jewish Refugee in New York is alienated from her aunt and her American cousin and often feels isolated as she wonders what happened to her family back in Lublin.
As with most courses taught across campus, my syllabus was restricted by the requirement that all texts be available to students in English whether original or in translation. For this reason, together as a class we read Molodovsky’s novel in translation. I felt that Norich’s translation certainly brought students as close to Molodovsky’s Yiddish as possible in English translation. Norich’s translation is clever and fresh. For instance, she transliterates English that appeared transliterated in the original Yiddish back into English, compelling readers to stumble over the English just as one would while reading the original Yiddish. This mirrors the way Rivke herself stumbles over these new and strange syllables as she begins learning English. The result is that English readers experience the English language through Rivke’s Yiddish perspective, and we feel alienated along with her just as we would were we reading the Yiddish original. For example, in the chapter “English”, we experience how Rivke’s English vocabulary develops as she infers meaning through context in conversations: “I noticed that, here, people talk a lot about their diyet. According to Mrs. Pushcart, if a person wants to be healthy, he must have his diyet. Just as every person must have his own clothing and shoes, he must also have his own diet” (Molodovsky transl. Norich 31). In Norich’s translation “diyet” becomes “diet” where presumably the word in the Yiddish would have gone from transliterated English to Yiddish in the Yiddish original.
Professor Norich generously agreed to visit our class for a lecture and Q&A. She spoke about her translation process and the challenges that she faced, how she first came across Molodovsky’s novel, and Yiddish literature in general. She highlighted the translation process by discussing a particular case of Molodovsky’s play on words: “A shreklekher vort iz dos ‘flikhtling’. Dos vort kumt mistome fun farflukht zayn” (Molodovsky), noting that the play between “flikhtling” [“refugee”] and “farflukht” [“cursed”] did not work in English. As a solution to this problem, Norich created a play between words that was one of our favorite and most noted lines of the translation: “What a horrible word: refugee. The word is a curse. It probably comes from refuse, garbage” (Molodovsky transl. Norich 4). She noted that she hoped that this would be recognized by American readers as a play on Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” which is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Norich noted that she only took liberties at the level of language in her translation, trying to portray Rivke as authentically as Molodovsky had. Norich believes all texts can be translated, pointing out, however, that idioms are notoriously difficult to translate. Norich’s translation of the Yiddish idiom “Hak nit keyn tchaynik” shows her masterful artistry as a translator: “I said, ‘Eddie, let it go. Just let it go.’ What I actually said was, ‘Hak nit keyn tchaynik’—that’s one of Eddie’s few Yiddish expressions. He knows it means I don’t want him to bother me” (Molodovsky transl. Norich 44). The literal translation, “Don’t knock on a teakettle,” would be incomprehensible so she teaches the English reader the meaning behind the idiom while preserving traces of the original Yiddish, bringing her readers as close to Molodovsky’s Yiddish as possible. She wanted the English reader to know and recognize that they are not reading an English work. Norich noted that what initially drew her to the novel was uncovering what it felt like to be reading about the events of the Second World War as it was unfolding, thinking of the novel as a text about the challenges of immigration, but also a novel about the status of refugees, a topic that was both timely and urgent.
The themes that initially drew Norich to Molodovsky’s novel were very similar to the themes around which I organized my course: the challenges of being an immigrant in America and the development of the status of refugees in America. In my course, to introduce my students to the challenges of immigration, the particular context of Holocaust refugees, 2 2 A term coined by my colleague Andrzej Brylak in his paper “Electric God: Theology of Gulag According to Leo Lipski” on our panel “Literary Tradition after WWII: Polish and Yiddish Writing in the 1940s and ‘50s” at ASEEES 2020. and the status of refugees in America in Rivke’s milieu. I assigned Hannah Arendt’s famous essay “We Refugees” (1943), followed by A Jewish Refugee in New York (1941). Arendt, like Rivke, was herself a Jewish refugee to America living in New York City. Arendt and Molodovsky both teach us that many Jews escaping the Holocaust were ashamed of the marker “refugee” and would claim to have left Europe of their own accord. The stigma attached to the term “refugee” is a key difference between the experiences of refugees and immigrants to the United States, beyond the legal definitions of the term. Through Arendt’s archetypal figure of the refugee, Mr. Cohn, we find that Jewish refugees learn the language and culture of their new country but never fully blend in because of their refugee status. Molodovsky’s Rivke doesn’t hide the fact that she is a refugee despite not being able to find someone to listen to her story: “The women talked a lot about themselves and didn’t give me the slightest opportunity to tell them how I came to be a refugee” (Molodovsky transl. Norich 2). Rivke is further alienated from her family (the aunt, uncle, and cousin she lives with) and community in New York City by the incomprehensible foreign language around her, and she blames this on her refugee status, exclaiming “If only I wasn’t a refugee!” (3). Rivke interacts exclusively with other Jews in the novel, yet being a refugee is what makes her different from those around her. While recounting a meeting with the vice president of the Refugee Aid Society during her job search, a frustrated Rivke remarks, “Mr. Shamut smiled, as if being a refugee was a joyful thing” (20). Rivke eventually assimilates into American culture: she buys white shoes and wears them before her mother’s first yahrzeit—something worn in Lublin only by “the Warsaw mademoiselles” (151); she marries an American and abandons hope of reuniting with her fiancée from Lublin in Palestine; her name is changed —Rivke Zilberg becomes Ray Levitt just as Arendt’s Mr. Cohn, a German Jew, becomes Czech or French or American depending on his circumstance.
Later on in the semester, students read various texts that depict diverse kinds of immigrants and refugees in America such as Anzia Yezierska’s “Children of Loneliness,” Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Séance,” Philip Roth’s “Eli, the Fanatic,” Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera, Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love, Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees, among others. (By no means was this course a comprehensive survey of U.S. minority literatures nor of world refugee literatures; rather, it was a small sampling of both that allowed us to read each text closely and deeply). Close readings of each text gave us a new perspective on the lives of refugees in America: Unlike A Jewish Refugee from New York, “Children of Loneliness” shows us Jewish migrants from the protagonist’s Americanized perspective: they’re dirty, barbaric, superstitious, ignorant, and uneducated. Likewise, Roth’s story shows us the tensions between new refugees and assimilated American Jews. In “The Séance,” Singer introduces us to a refugee experiencing an all-consuming loneliness through Dr. Kalisher, a once-successful academic who is now a lost, lonely, and vulnerable soul wandering New York City. Introducing this work into the syllabus offers some perspective on what happens to refugees who lack the family and community support that Rivke Zilberg benefits from in Molodovsky’s narrative. In Morrison’s Beloved we meet a deep history of displacement as we encounter slavery in America—a trauma on American soil that continues to tear its way into our contemporary moment. Anzaldua teaches us that one can become stateless even in one’s own homeland, and introduces the concepts of “economic refugees,” “illegal refugees,” and undocumented refugees (Anzaldua 33-35), which are imperative to understanding the plight of contemporary refugees. Kraus coins the term "refugenik", which perfectly encompasses Leopold Gursky's plight: he is a Jewish refugee denied an obvious legacy rather than the refusenik denied permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Bui coins the term “refugee reflex,” “the inexplicable need and extraordinary ability to RUN when shit hits the fan” (Bui 305). Nguyen’s The Refugees, a collection of short stories, allows us into the lives of Vietnamese refugees in America, exploring the expectations American and Vietnamese societies place on them, and the diverse ways in which they grapple with their ghosts. As we encounter the works of Nguyen and Anzaldua, the term “refugee” expands past the stereotypes applied to the Holocaust refugees that we meet in the works of Arendt, Molodovsky, Yezierska, Singer, Roth, and Krauss. Anzaldua shows us undocumented refugees from crises elided by authorities, groups who are rejected by society in different but not entirely dissimilar from the ways in which Holocaust refugees were initially treated in America, and in Nguyen’s stories, we meet Vietnamese refugees who likewise experience adversity in America (“greenhorn” becomes “fresh-off-the-boat”).
My students appreciated A Jewish Refugee from New York: Rivke Zilberg’s Journal, generally finding the text accessible and enjoyable; many chose to write their first essays on the novel out of a selection of prompts on various texts. An international student from China said that he related to Rivke’s feelings of alienation and shock at American culture, confirming to me that Rivke’s story is universal, that it transcends the boundaries of the specific Jewish Holocaust refugee experience. While Borderlands/La Frontera was certainly the most shocking and eye-opening text for students, as it forced them to question the U.S. history they’d learned in high school and through which they had begun to understand the world, each of the texts illuminated a new aspect of the refugee experience and the status of refugees. What most students took from our analyses of various representations of refugee experiences was the realization that each wave of refugees had much in common: crises in their home countries, the dream of finding a safer and more comfortable life, finding surprising adversity along the way to making a home in America. While each minority group’s refugee experience is unique, they had much in common: the struggle to find their place in a new society, the weight of elders’ expectations, the alienation of attempting to function in a society whose language and culture one is learning, the clash between American culture and their own, and being haunted by the memories and traumas of the past. A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivke Zilberg’s Journal was the text that students referred back to the most, finding that many later texts echoed Molodovsky’s.
1. What are Rivke’s impressions of the American women around her? Who are these “American” women? What do we learn about Rivke’s life in Lublin from her impressions? What aspect of her culture shock in America makes her feel the most alienated?
2. How does Rivke use the term “refugee”? How does her use of this term develop and change throughout the text? What does this development tell us about her experience? What does this development tell us about her character arc?
3. Why does Norich choose the title which includes the term “refugee” in it? Why does the term “refugee” imply hope? Hope for what? 3 3 See page viii. Here I asked my students to consider this question in relation to the eternal optimism that Arendt describes of some refugees.
4. How does the theme of yerushe (the legacy of the past) surface in the novel? 4 4 See, for example, pages 17-18 and subtitle on page 35—“I Was Helped Because of the Merit of My Ancestors”. Discuss with students how Rivke’s yikhes (ancestry) is honored in America as it was in Lublin.
5. What is Rivke’s status in her aunt’s home? How is she treated by her aunt? Her cousins? Her uncle? Does her status change once she leaves her aunt’s home? How so?
6. How does Molodovsky portray the feeling of receiving charity? 5 5 See page 124. How can we connect this feeling to that of being a refugee? 6 6 This aspect of the novel also allows for it to be put into conversation with Anzia Yezierska’s “Children of Loneliness”.
7. How are German Jews portrayed in relation to Polish Jews in the novel? What do we learn about the Yiddish language from this interaction? 7 7 See the chapter entitled “A Little Scared” starting on page 43.
8. Rivke is haunted by her past, particularly by the absence of her mother. In fact, ghosts are a prominent motif of the novel. How do ghosts (her mother, her father, Layzer, Mr. Fish (the Messiah), Chatsel, Janet) materialize in the novel? What do they symbolize? What is their role in the novel? How do they develop and change throughout the course of the novel? How does Rivke’s relationship with her ghosts reflect her relationship with Lublin?
9. In her introduction, Norich highlights how Molodovsky “disdained the notion of ‘women’s literature,’ and dismissed the idea that one could discern a ‘woman’s voice’ in literary texts” (Norich xiii). Norich carefully translates “togbukh as journal instead of diary in order to distance the novel from the too-familiar sting of ‘women’s genres’” (xiv). How do genre and content interact in A Jewish Refugee from New York: Rivke’s Zilberg’s Journal? How is the novel similar and different from other texts that you have read in similar forms? Is the novel an epistolary novel? Why or why not?
10. In relation to the previous question, it is important to consider the fact that the only letters that we read in the course of the novel come from a male character, Layzer, Rivke’s fiancée from Lublin who now finds himself in Palestine. Consider the role of Layzer’s letters throughout the novel (33, 102, 118, 171). Do Layzer’s letters function as a literary device? If so, what does Molodovsky articulate through them?
11. In what ways does the Holocaust surface in the course of the novel? How much does Rivke know about what is happening in Lublin? How does she get her information? How can we read the motif of fire that appears throughout the novel?
12. Rivke feels lonely and displaced throughout the novel—stuck between Lublin and New York, Yiddish and English, Old World and New World, black shoes and white shoes, ghosts and New Yorkers (not unlike Yezierska’s Rachel of “Children of Loneliness”!). Where does Rivke belong? Where does she want to be? How can we read the ending of the novel—Particularly the lines that read, “In New York, someone named Ray Levitt will soon be walking around. Rivke Zilberg remained in Lublin. Someone in Palestine is waiting for Rivke Zilberg. And Ray Levitt lives in New York”? (172)
1. Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. 25th Anniversary Edition. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2012.
2. Arendt, Hannah. “We Refugees.” The Jewish Writings. New York: Schocken Books, Reprint 2008. Pg. 264-274.
3. Bui, Thi. “Refugee to Detainee: How the U.S. is Deporting Those Seeking a Safe Haven.” The Nib. Posted: June 13, 2018. Accessed: November 2020. https://thenib.com/refugee-to-...
4. Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2018.
5. Kirzane, Jessica. “A Jewish Refugee in New York by Kadya Molodovsky, trans. Anita Norich, reviewed by Jessica Kirzane.” Empty Mirror. Published: September 6, 2019. Accessed: November 2020. https://www.emptymirrorbooks.c...
6. “Lublin—Local History.” Virtual Shtetl. POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. Accessed 09/03/2020. https://sztetl.org.pl/en/towns/l/264-lublin/96-local-history/68138-local-history (A great resource to learn more about Lublin’s Jewish community. See, in particular, the “Oral History” tab of the page and the mapping of Jewish synagogues, cemeteries, etc. onto the map of contemporary Lublin.)
7. Molodovsky, Kadya. A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivke Zilberg’s Journal. Transl. Anita Norich. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019.
8. Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Refugees. New York: Grove Press, 2017.
9. Norich, Anita. “Reading Discussion Guide for A Jewish Refugee in New York by Kadya Molodovsky.” Yiddish Book Center. Accessed 12/21/2020. https://www.yiddishbookcenter....
10. Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature. Eds. Jules Chametzky, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, Kathryn Hellerstein. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. (Includes short stories listed above by Opatoshu, Singer, Paley, and Roth among others.)
11. Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009.
12. Rubinstein, Rachel. “A Review of A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivke Zilberg’s Journal by Kadya Molodovsky, Translated by Anita Norich.” In geveb. Published: October 6, 2019. Accessed: November 2020. https://ingeveb.org/articles/r...
13. The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. Ed. Viet Thanh Nguyen. New York: Abrams Press, 2018. (Includes, among many other great texts, a wonderful comic by Thi Bui entitled “Perspective” in which she compares her experiences traveling as a refugee to her experiences traveling in 2017.)
14. We Refugees Archive. https://en.we-refugees-archive... (See in particular a film called “Vilnius, Refuge?” for an interesting perspective on pleytim (refugees) from all over Poland fleeing to Vilna in 1939 as Germany began its attack on Poland. Could be connected to Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera as people become displaced within the confines of a country’s borders.)