Jacob and Estelle Apelberg

Coming Back to Yiddish

As a child in Poland and, later, the Soviet Union, where his family fled to escape German occupation, Jacob Apelberg spoke Yiddish as his mame-loshn—his mother tongue. But over the decades—years that saw him return to Poland, live for a time in Germany and Israel, and eventually settle in Baltimore—his Yiddish became rusty.

Still, friends and acquaintances would sometimes turn to Apelberg for help in translating bits of Yiddish—old family letters or documents, for instance. One day he was asked to translate something more challenging: the Yiddish writer Chaim Grade’s poem “The Pillar of Fire that Remained After My Rabbi’s Death.”

It was not easy work. Apelberg has a degree in Hebrew language and literature, and he has published poems and books in Hebrew and in English, but he’s never had formal training in Yiddish. Translating the thousand-word Grade poem, he says, took him three months (the task was made harder by the fact that the original he was working from was from an old newspaper clipping). The work he put into the translation was worth it not only for its literary value but also for a personal reason: “I came back to Yiddish with this translation,” Apelberg says. “I recalled all my past.” He’s continued his work, most recently translating two poems by Kadia Molodowsky.

Translating the thousand-word Grade poem took him three months. But the work he put into the translation was worth it.

Apelberg’s wife, Estelle, who grew up in Baltimore and recently retired after a career in public health, says Yiddish was an integral part of her childhood as well. While her Yiddish-speaking parents didn’t pass on the language to the next generation—like many immigrants of their era, they wanted their children to speak English—she recalls hearing the adults in her extended family speak it at family get-togethers, where she picked up some words and phrases.

Those connections to a Yiddish past have inspired the Apelbergs’ longtime support of the Yiddish Book Center. Members since 1994, the couple has made the trip from Baltimore to Amherst to attend a weekend course on Soviet Yiddish culture and, this past summer, Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music. The Apelbergs also have established a joint charitable gift annuity, or CGA, with the Center. In return for their donation, they will receive a guaranteed fixed income for the rest of their lives (part of each payment is tax-free, increasing its after-tax value). At the end of the annuity term, the balance will go to the Center.

“I’m glad to support the Yiddish Book Center, because they have great programs,” Estelle says. Her relationship with the Center is as a way to “go back to my childhood and reestablish my relationship with Yiddish. It brings me back to earlier times.” And, she adds, she appreciates the Center’s work to keep Yiddish alive for new generations as well.

Jacob, too, values the Center’s role in preserving and sharing the culture. “These are my roots. Yiddish and the Jewish people are my roots.”

To learn how you can establish a charitable gift annuity to support the Yiddish Book Center, please email or call Zvi Jankelowitz at 413-256-4900, ext. 117.

From Kvel, the newsletter of the Yiddish Book Center (Fall 2015)

The following is an excerpt from Jacob Apelberg’s interview for the Wexler Oral History Project. View the full-length interview.

Translating from the Soul: Coming back to Yiddish through Translating a Poem