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Yiddish Book Center

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Focus On Yiddish in American Theater and Film

May is American Jewish Heritage Month, a time to take note of Jewish contributions to American culture. And if there’s one area where Jews contributed greatly, it’s theater and film. Jewish involvement in Broadway and Hollywood is something of a stereotype, but that association didn’t come out of nowhere. Underlying and preceding Jewish participation in the entertainment industry was the Yiddish theater, with its own constellation of writers, directors, producers, and stars. Some Jewish actors got their start in Yiddish theater before eventually making the jump to the English-language stage and screen. Others foster fond memories of going to see Yiddish plays as children before eventually pursuing creative careers as adults. Here we’ll explore some of those connections, both the immediate and the indirect. For a more in-depth exploration of Yiddish theater, be sure to come see our new permanent exhibition, Yiddish: A Global Culture

אויסגעקליבן Handpicked Margaret Frothingham

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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 Margaret Frothingham, the Yiddish Book Center’s Translation and Education Program Manager.

“Vilde khaye!”: Maurice Sendak’s not-so-cautionary tale

A few months ago, I had the stunning realization that there does not exist (yet!) a biography of one of the greatest picturebook writers of all time, Maurice Sendak. On that same day, I stumbled across this article by Ilan Stavans, hoping there was at least something in our collection about him. His parents most definitely spoke Yiddish—vilde khaye or “wild beast,” was the root inspiration for “wild things”—and I’m so curious to learn more about how the language and culture influenced his work. Stavans’ article does a decent job of highlighting the significance of this book in broader culture and the children’s literature field. I particularly like how he connects Max’s journey to otherness “home and abroad” and the implication that we all, tall or small, have beasts inside.  

A Gift for Jewish Children

I really enjoyed this recent “From the Vault” article by Caleb Sher about the life and work of Moyshe Levin, pen named Ber Sarin. The piece, which centers on Levin’s children’s stories, opens like any good children’s book: “I’m going to tell you a story.” Levin’s life story, while tragic, provides insight into how children’s authors navigate social and political upheaval throughout history. I appreciate how Levin, unlike his peers, was determined to publish children’s literature, even if it meant remaining “apolitical.” Perhaps Levin saw the power of kid lit to influence young minds (after all, children’s literature is one of the most common conduits for propaganda). I’d argue there’s no truly apolitical kid’s book and that publishing children’s books that “inspire a love of Yiddish” was radical in itself. Levin’s stories sound so playful and clever—I only wish I could read them!

Yiddish Illustrations: “From Chagall to Diego Rivera”

All of the illustrations highlighted in David Mazower’s “Personal Top Ten” are beautiful, but my favorite is number 6, Majn Alef Bejs. Ula Palusinska’s bold and inventive illustrations jump off the page and wonderfully depict the equally charming poems about the alef beys by Yiddish writer Yeshoshue Kaminski. Abecedarians, a fancy term for picturebooks that teach the alphabet, are best when words and images work together to communicate concepts. I can personally attest to this, having recently learned the Yiddish alphabet myself. Majn Alef Bejs features bilingual Yiddish and Polish text and, given that it was published in 2012, is a beautiful example of contemporary illustration.

A Room Named Ruth

I found this Pakn Treger article a few years ago after reading Sarah Biskowitz’s thoughtful writeup about Family Snapshots of Yiddish in Cuba. When I saw Ruth Behar’s name pop up in the suggested content, I knew I had to check it out. During the pandemic, when I worked in the Center’s onsite museum store, I read Lucky Broken Girl, a beautiful children’s book by Ruth Behar about a Cuban-Jewish immigrant who learns about her own identity and heritage while convalescing after a horrible accident. Behar’s writing is rich and deeply personal. As a reader it’s easy to feel her sense of longing and her struggle to define home. “A Room Named Ruth” helped me understand more about the history of Jews in Cuba and the complex nature of multicultural identity.

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