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Focus On Can Visual Art be “Yiddish?”

When it comes to the visual arts it’s often difficult to explain how or if there’s anything “Yiddish” about them. A Yiddish book or play is Yiddish. A Yiddish theater song or klezmer tune is Yiddish. But is a painting or a photograph “Yiddish”? While the specifics can sometimes be difficult to parse, in general the answer is yes—visual arts have been a part of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, just as they have been everywhere else. And while this conversation often pertains to painting, it also applies to photography, perhaps the ultimate modern medium. On June 16, the Yiddish Book Center will be opening Harvey Wang’s New York, an exhibition featuring the work of celebrated photographer and filmmaker Harvey Wang. Personally, I love Wang’s work and encourage you all to come see the exhibition if you can. In the meantime, let’s take a broader look at the role photography has played in Yiddish culture.

אויסגעקליבן Handpicked Josh Lambert

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Each month, the Yiddish Book Center asks a member of our staff or a friend to select favorite stories, books, interviews, or articles from our online collections. This month, we’re excited to share with you picks by Josh Lambert, the Sophia Moses Robison Professor of Jewish Studies and English and director of the Jewish Studies Program at Wellesley College, and a member of the Center’s Board of Directors. 

Larry Rosenwald’s Oral History

Among many other things, Lawrence Rosenwald has been an inventive and committed translator of Yiddish literature; a pacifist critic and thinker; and, very briefly, my colleague at Wellesley College (I was hired there shortly before he retired). Long before any of that, he was a student at Columbia University during the unrest in 1968. The protests he took part in back then have been in the news lately because of the campus protests happening now. You can get a good sense of who Rosenwald is, and why so many students adored him, from a moment in his oral history from 2018 when he interrupts his recollection of his college days to share a literary quotation: “Wordsworth says about the French Revolution, ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven,’ and that’s what I felt like.”

“The New Jewish Woman in America,” lecture by Paula Hyman

One of the pleasures of poking through the Yiddish Book Center’s website, for me, is that I can often hear the voices of great writers and scholars whose books I’ve read but who I never had the opportunity to meet. A wonderful example is a series of three lectures by the historian Paula Hyman, of Yale University, given at the Center in 1999 on the subject of “The New Jewish Woman in America.” The talks are as excellent as I’d expect—on the basis of my reading of Hyman’s extraordinary book Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History, as well as Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, which she co-edited with Deborah Dash Moore—but what charms me the most is that, by way of getting started, Hyman mentions her efforts to get Yiddish taught at Yale. It took time, but that’s certainly happening now.

Gerechtigkeit (Justice)

A relatively new (or at least new to me) resource on the Center’s site is a digitized newspaper, Gerechtigkeit (Justice), the official organ of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which was published in English, Italian, Spanish, and Yiddish in the early 20th century. One of the first issues in the collection, from May 14, 1919, announces a “dzheneral strayk”/“general strike”/“sciopero generale” on its front page, but what caught my eye, unsurprisingly, was a cartoon, near the end of the issue, by the terrific American Yiddish cartoonist Sam Zagat, in which the advancement of cloakmakers’ rights is presented in a very on-the-nose allegory: a cloakmaker throwing off his old overalls in favor of a snappy “1919 style” suit.

Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, Resource Kit by Debra Caplan

One of my favorite Yiddish plays to teach, Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, is famous not least for the controversy it occasioned. Among the resources that the scholar Debra Caplan has helpfully gathered for those of us who teach the play is a New York Times report, from May 24, 1923, on the guilty verdict rendered against “the owner and twelve members of the cast” under a law against “giving an immoral performance.” What resonated for me, rereading this primary source recently, was the fact that a non-Jewish judge, John McIntyre, justified the conviction as a way of protecting Jewish people from offense, noting that “the play was a desecration of the sacred scrolls of the Torah” and failing to mention that most or all of the people convicted in his courtroom were themselves Jews.

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