Reading and Listening Recommendations from Yiddish Book Center Fellows, Past and Present
Sophia Shoulson (Steiner Summer Yiddish Program '17, Yiddish Book Center Fellow 2018–19, Yiddish Book Center's 2019–2020 Richard S. Herman Fellow)
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas
If you have ever enjoyed a book by Dara Horn, you will probably enjoy this novel. It's about the Cairo geniza; it weaves together three different storylines taking place at three different moments in the geniza's history. Not sure what else to say about it without giving too much away, but it's a very quick read. I think I read it in one sitting this past winter!
Sacred Trash by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole
If you, like me, finish The Last Watchman and immediately want to know more about the Cairo geniza (and are curious how much of Lukas' historical fiction is history and how much is fiction), might I recommend this book as an excellent follow up? The true story of the Cairo geniza has a little bit of everything: mystery, clue trails, infuriating bureaucracy, and 19th century Jewish and women scholars teaming up to accomplish groundbreaking work despite being shut out of the Academy.
Finally, here's a quick, 30-minute podcast about Jewish languages from the AJS's podcast. I won't lie—I was a bit dubious when my dad sent this to me, but other than the very beginning, it's an interesting listen! The three languages they discuss in detail are Judeo-Tat, Judeo-Tajik, and Jewish English. This link goes to an online version of the podcast, but it can also be found on iTunes, Spotify, etc. (If you want to skip most of the slightly annoying introduction, go to about 3 to 3 ½ minutes in.)
Abigail Weaver (Steiner Summer Yiddish Program '18, Yiddish Book Center Fellow 2019–20)
Note: The selections from our website were chosen by Abigail for her April 2020 Handpicked recommendations.
"The Cleaver’s Daughter" by Avrom Sutzkever
Avrom Sutzkever is remembered as one of the greatest Yiddish poets of the 20th century, and the poetic voice of the world-altering events he lived through, but his prose is sometimes overlooked. This story, from the collection Messiah’s Diary, is, like all of his work, both antirealist and transcendent. The sensory delight of the language, the supersaturated descriptions of nature, and the bloody twist at the end all point to a Pagan sort of influence, a story deeply rooted in the Lithuanian landscape of Sutzkever’s youth.
Tseshotene Kreln by Rivka Basman
Poet Rivka Basman recently celebrated her 95th birthday—biz hundert & tsvantsik! Born in Lithuania, she survived as a teenager in the Vilna Ghetto and Kaiserwald Camp, where she began to write poetry to lift the spirits of the other prisoners, smuggling her poems under her tongue during liquidation. After she moved to Israel in 1947, she joined the Yiddish literary circle Yung Yisroel—a group mentored by Avrom Sutzkever and including poet Rokhl Fishman, writer Yosl Birshteyn, and other luminaries who worked to combat the negation of Yiddish by the emerging Zionist-Hebraist culture. Basman’s sparse, modernist poems are relentlessly beautiful, blending human emotion and the natural world.
I work in the translation department of the Yiddish Book Center, and my earliest exposure to Yiddish literature was in translation, so I find Larry Rosenwald’s arguments on what makes a good translation very interesting. If you are not someone who has ever really thought about the translation before, this is a great introduction to some of the debates and difficult choices that are constant companions to the craft of translation.
Abba Kovner was a Hebrew poet and Socialist-Zionist leader who grew up in Vilna and moved to Israel in 1947—so hearing him give this 1972 speech in Yiddish may come as a surprise to those who associate his legacy with Zionism and Hebrew. Known as a fiery speaker, and the subject of a great deal of controversy throughout his life, this speech contrarily shows a more reflective inward orientation. Hear him discuss loneliness, generational responsibility, and what it means to be a Jewish writer.
Shabse Tsvi by Sholem Asch
Lately a good deal of attention has been given to the plays of Sholem Asch. Shabse Tsvi is based on the true story of the false prophet Shabbtai Tzvi, who’s movement brought about one of the greatest upheavals in Jewish history. Asch’s drama is of apocalyptic proportions; nature itself is plunged into chaos along with the characters. Written in a beautiful highly poetic register, this is the perfect play for the new decade.
A few additional recommendations:
"Meditations in an Emergency" by Ari M. Brostoff, a 2019 article from Jewish Currents.
Shelf Life, a 2020 short film written and directed by former Yiddish Book Center staffer Liz Walber, with costume design by Abigail.
Adah Hetko (Steiner Summer Yiddish Program '17, Yiddish Book Center Fellow 2018–19 )
Note: Adah's recommendations are from summer 2019 but still very relevant.
Hannah Selin’s Six Narratives: A song cycle for six vocalists and chamber orchestra, based on poems by Adrienne Rich
This piece, by Brooklyn-based contemporary composer Hannah Selin, debuted in May 2019 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Selin, who is also vocalist, violist, and bandleader for the excellent jazz/pop/soul band GADADU, lends her characteristically magical approach to the interweaving of text and music. A recording of the debut performance is accessible on Soundcloud.
Klezmer clarinetist and composer Michael Winograd’s new album, Kosher Style, is hot off the press (or the grill?). The album, which features an all-star band is at once lyrical, intense, traditionally-rooted and experimental. I’d recommend it for long car rides, study sessions, kitchen dance parties, and more.
Ultraviolet is the debut album of Farnakht, a virtuosic duo composed of Zoë Aqua on violin and Mattias Kaufmann on button accordion. Farnakht delivers their repertoire, a mix of klezmer and other Eastern European styles, with haunting precision and power. Listening to Ultraviolet is a bit like being transported into an Angela Carter short story or a Tim Burton film—more than a little dark, beautifully fantastical and utterly captivating.