Oedipus in Brooklyn: Reading Resources

“A Significant Revivification of a Brilliantly Robust Yiddish-American Writer.”

Cynthia Ozick's blurb from the cover of Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub's translation of Blume Lempel's book of short stories says it all, each word perfectly selected to convey a precise meaning. It's less a blurb than a freighted literary argument in miniature: significant for its impact on the canon and our perception of Jewish literature in America; brilliantly robust because of the startle of Lempel's aesthetics; Yiddish-American because Lempel’s variety of Yiddish literature captures the range of the American experience in the second half of the twentieth century; and revivification because not only has Cassedy and Taub’s translation brought back a forgotten literary work, but the very feeling of reading Lempel is one of being alive.

The shock of discovering Lempel is nicely conveyed by Cassedy and Taub in a blog post that the pair wrote for the Jewish Book Council:

"Within the covers of this little grey book, we discovered big surprises, a wide range of subjects explored through an astonishing poetic style and unorthodox narrative techniques. Our amazement only grew when we came to the story called “Oedipus in Brooklyn,” which we selected as the title story for our collection...In Lempel’s hands, the story is neither sensational, tawdry, nor played for laughs. Her account of a contemporary woman involved in a transgressive relationship with her son is masterfully compassionate and compelling. Step by step, Lempel fearlessly leads the reader into the heart of darkness."

It's the first of a series of illuminating blog posts written by her translators that also covers Lempel's private life (they liken her to the famously secretive Elena Ferrante) and the role of nature in her fiction ("Far from serving as a gentle pastoral backdrop, nature is often the site of grave danger, where beauty is intertwined with menace.")

As Jessica Kirzane writes in her thoughtful review of Oedipus in Brooklyn for the Jewish Book Council, Lempel’s stories are international in scope, taking on not only the breadth of her American Jewish immigrant milieu but the larger world: “The pieces, set in Galicia, France, and America, offer a wide array of characters and situations.” This worldliness is perhaps unsurprising given Lempel’s biography: born in Ukraine, she spent nearly a decade in Paris after being diverted from an intended move to Palestine, and ultimately settled in New York. Yet, as Kirzane notes, there is a universality to the stories’ psychological acuity and interest in the dark side of human nature:

“The pieces, set in Galicia, France, and America, offer a wide array of characters and situations, but share in the intimate portrayal of the emotional and psychological experience of knowing that human beings are capable of horrifying acts of violence, and trying to live with that knowledge. Some stories deal more directly with her experience and preoccupations. Others are about the culture of her American surroundings, but harness these new settings to express her primary concerns—a female voice, disempowerment, memory of trauma, emotional survival over human cruelty, faith and doubt.”

Lempel knew this kind of suffering firsthand. Although she left Europe at a crucial moment, in 1939, her brother was not so lucky: he was killed by the Nazis after she had moved to New York. The trauma of being a secondhand survivor lingers throughout her stories. Her championing of the female perspective, too, can be seen to have roots in her biography: although she attended Hebrew folkshul and a girls’ kheder during her childhood in Ukraine (where she was born in 1907), she had no consistent education, because her father believed “a girl needed to know nothing more than how to sew on a patch and cook.” Nevertheless, she educated herself as an adult, attending night school during her stint in Paris and beginning to write despite her brother’s discouragements on the basis that only educated people could write. Happily, she proved them wrong. Upon her death in 1999, the Forverts wrote, "Yiddish literature has lost one of its most remarkable women writers."

On Episode 155 of the Yiddish Book Center’s podcast, The Shmooze, our host speaks with Ellen Cassedy about how she discovered Lempel and decided to translate her work. She describes how her teacher, Max Rosenfeld, went to his bookshelf and gave her “a little grey volume”: A rege fun emes (A Moment of Truth), a volume of short stories by Lempel. In this sense, the journey of Lempel’s stories from Yiddish into English began as a gift, from one person to another. As related in a piece about Lempel and Cassedy on our website, scholar David Roskies encouraged Cassedy to translate them, telling her that doing so would be “a gift to Yiddish literature.”

We might say, too, that Lempel has a “gift” as a writer: she is a talented prose stylist, and Cassedy and Taub’s translation preserves the assuredness and skill of each one of her sentences. Sometimes, the best gifts are unexpected, unrequested, even undeserved; the same could be said for Oedipus in Brooklyn. Lempel’s work did not receive its due in her lifetime—it was unpurchased and it went unnoticed for far too long. In 1992, when Troim Katz Handler interviewed her, her work was “mostly uncollected and untranslated.” But now, thanks to Cassedy and Taub’s translation, an English-language readership has the chance to appreciate Lempel’s fiction in a way that her Yiddish audience did not. It is an undeserved gift, perhaps, but it is a delightful one indeed.

Resources from the Yiddish Book Center’s Collection:

  • Cassedy and Taub’s translations of Blume Lempel received the Yiddish Book Center’s 2012 Translation Prize for the best unpublished translation of Yiddish literature. Their translation of “Neighbors Over the Fence” then appeared in the 2013 Pakn Treger Digital Translation Issue.
  • Lempel’s collection, Balade fun a kholem is available through our Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.
  • Two volumes of Lempel’s short stories are available as audiobooks through our Sami Rohr Collection, Balade fun a kholem and A rege fun emes.
  • PDFs of additional Yiddish short stories translated by Cassedy and Taub are available here.
  • In 1983, Lempel was given the prize in Yiddish Literature at the 13th J.I. Segal Foundation awards. Lempel speaks, in Yiddish, at the beginning of side 2. “Writing was a kind of therapy for me. It alleviated the pressure of feeling guilty. Why was I saved?” she asks.

Other Resources:

—Miranda Cooper and Eitan Kensky