April 2017: Handpicked

Each month, the Yiddish Book Center asks a member of our staff or a special friend to select favorite stories, books, interviews, or articles from our online collections. This month, we’re excited to share with you picks by Sebastian Schulman.

Sebastian Schulman just can't stay away from the Yiddish Book Center—a Center summer intern in 2004, he later served as director of its translation program before leaving to work on his dissertation in Jewish history. He recently returned in the dual role of development officer and translation fellowship director. Here, Seb shares some of his favorite items from the Center's collections. 

After delving into his selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Seb about his choices.

Alter Esselin: Craftsman of Woods and Words

A short feature produced by the Wexler Oral History Project on the life and works of Milwaukee Yiddish poet Alter Esselin (1889-1974), incorporating archival footage, rare audio of the poet reciting his own fine verses, and excerpts from a longer interview with his son and translator Joe (Yosl) Esselin, z"l. Uncannily, the interview was recorded shortly before Joe's passing. In honor of his father's legacy, Joe Esselin left his estate to the Yiddish Book Center as part of our Yerushe Society. 

Yorn un reges (Years and Moments)

This 1973 book is brimming with miniatures, short stories, and novellas by the master prose stylist Yekhiel Shraybman (1913-2005). Exuberant, bittersweet, and full of color, the pieces in this book focus sharply on the minutiae of everyday Jewish life in Bessarabia and then Soviet Moldova before, during, and mostly after the Second World War. Shraybman was a beloved figure in his community and fervently dedicated to Yiddish culture. Many of today's leading Yiddish writers outside of the Hasidic world got their start with his mentorship and encouragement. 

"Di letste libe" ("Last Love")

Originally published in the prestigious literary journal Di goldene keyt in 1983, Chava Rosenfarb's (1923-2011) short story "Di letste libe" ("Last Love") is one of the author's most powerful tales about the lives and struggles of Holocaust survivors after the war. In this work, a dying survivor named Amalia has one final request of her husband—to take her to Paris and find her a younger lover. A gripping, frank, and unusual narrative of psychological depth, its images will stay with you for a long time to come. Perhaps best of all, this audiobook from our Sami Rohr Library of Recorded Yiddish Books is read by the author herself, in her rich native Lodz dialect—a rare opportunity to hear one of the most acclaimed Yiddish writers of the postwar period declaim her own work. 

Gut morgn dir, velt! (Good Morning to You, World!)

So robust was the network of Yiddish schools in Montreal in the early twentieth century that it boasted what were then some of the only published Yiddish literati born in North America. The crown prince of a local Yiddishist dynasty of educators and activisits, thirteen-year-old (!) Arn Krishtalka depicts the snowspaces of his native city, protests the Korean War, images the shtetl, and burns off some teenage angst, all in verse, in this 1953 collection. How's that for a bar mitzvah project? Added bonus: the copy of this book in our digital collection bears the ex libris from the "Petalume yidishe kehile," the famed colony of leftist Jewish chicken farmers in Northern California.

"A Post-WWII Tragedy: The Challenge to Find Good Yiddish Editors and Translators"

In this short, sharp oral history excerpt, Rivka Augenfeld, a pillar of Montreal's Yiddish community today, asks the all-important but oft-forgotten question of postwar Yiddish literature: how does a literature survive without its editors?

Simkhele Shoykhet

Although quite popular in her day, Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn (1905-1975) remains almost completely unknown to contemporary readers and students of Yiddish literature. A native of Poland, Hamer-Jacklyn settled first in Toronto, where she was active in the city's Yiddish theater scene, before eventually moving to New York. Frequently published in the Forverts and elsewhere, her short stories depict the lives of Jews in the shtetl and in America with lively characters and rich detail, often told from a child's point of view. In this story, translated by former Center graduate fellow Allison Posner and published in the 2013 Pakn Treger Translation Issue, Hamer-Jacklyn crafts a disturbing tale, combining themes of childhood rebellion, sibling rivalry, and interethnic strife. 

"Between Midnight and 6 a.m."

A classic Yiddish Book Center story, by Justin Cammy and Rachel Rubinstein, about a book rescue mission in an exotic land. With a bit of family drama and a glimpse into the lives of a couple of young scholars, this short, atmospheric piece brings us to late-night Mexico City. Anyone who's ever studied with Cammy or Rubinstein—a group that includes hundreds of alumni of the Center's Steiner Summer Yiddish Program and other educational programs—can easily imagine the two of them in this scenario. 

Q&A

Sebastian Schulman talks to Eitan Kensky, the Yiddish Book Center’s director of collections initiatives, about his Handpicked choices.

Eitan Kensky: Who is Yekhiel Shraybman? That's not a name that most people—even most people well-versed in Yiddish literature—have heard before.

Sebastian Schulman: Yekhiel Shraybman is one of my favorite Yiddish writers. A real master of short prose and the intricately detailed miniature. He was a prominent Yiddish writer in the Soviet Union after the Second World War, so he’s perhaps best known over there. He lived most of his life in Kishinev (Chisinau) in Moldova—his writing really reflects that particular region.

EK: How so?

SS: Beyond incorporating the history of the area, his style is full of colorful regionalisms, Romanian-derived words, a sort of playfulness that a lot of Bessarabian writers exhibit. “Kolorit,” he calls it in Yiddish, a kind of brightly colored, exuberant style. He's kind of Sholem-Aleichem-meets-Isaac-Babel—but very condensed. You get the feeling he weighed each word very carefully before he put it on the page.

EK: I found it interesting that you highlighted both Shraybman's role in mentoring a generation of writers and also Rivka Augenfeld's oral history, where she discusses the role of editors in building and maintaining Yiddish culture. Is sustaining Yiddish literature a topic that you've given much thought to?

SS:  I guess the places I've spent much of my time Yiddishly—Moldova and Montreal, in particular—are islands of continuity for Yiddish language and culture in all its many messy, wonderful forms. So I've been at the table for these sorts of discussions before. People would usually argue over how to keep things going, but as the outsider I could only see that here was a tradition that was alive and well. In both these places, and elsewhere, I think Yiddish literature is certainly being sustained. Maybe it isn’t always being written davke [precisely] in Yiddish, but Shraybman and Augenfeld, all these people have been able to impart some legacy. I think that's reflected in some of the literature, the music, theater, etc. that is produced in these places. It's deeply, deeply informed by Yiddish, even if it uses a different linguistic medium.

EK: Did the idea of legacy also attract you to the Esselins?

SS: I had the chance to meet Joe before his passing and this was his refrain: How do we keep this all not only from disappearing, but how do we keep it fresh and relevant for the future?

EK: What did you say?

SS: First and foremost: translation! Joe translated his father's poetry with such grace and panache. He and I talked an awful lot about the need to translate this literature—and translate it well—as a way to keep it alive and singing.

EK: Canada in general and Montreal in particular are really featured on this list. I was blown away by Gut morgn dir, velt! How did you find it—and how did you become an expert on Yiddish in Montreal?

SS: I was a student at McGill University in Montreal. It's where I cut my Yiddish eyeteeth, as it were. Montreal is filled with Yiddish institutions: the Jewish Public Library, the Dora Wasserman Theatre, the KlezKanada festival. And I was lucky enough to study with some amazing teachers there—Anna Gonshor, Eugene Orenstein. It was easy to fall tif arayn in that shmaltsgrub [strike it rich]. Because of the interplay between English and French in the city, Yiddish seems a lot more visible and accessible than it does in other places with a lot of Yiddish activity like, say, New York. I'm pretty sure I found Gut morgn dir, velt! while leafing through the Kanadish volume of the Musterverk series, the multi-volume compendium to Yiddish literature that was produced in Argentina. (Multi-volume and multi-colored! Each volume has its own shade or hue. Canada is appropriately the color of silvery snow.)

EK: Two more Canadians on your list: Chava Rosenfarb and Justin Cammy.

SS: And how very different those Canadians are. Chava Rosenfarb is another favorite of mine. That story really punches you in the gut.

EK: Wait, I should have said three Canadians—I forgot the Posner translation. Am I right to think that 2013 was the first Pakn Treger Translation Issue?

SS: Yep, 2013 was the first translation issue. I remember we weren't exactly sure how many submissions we'd get and were a bit anxious that we wouldn't have enough material for a whole issue. How wrong we were! We were pleasantly surprised by the number and caliber of the submissions we received.

EK: Besides the story you selected, do you have any favorites from your time working on the translation issues?

SS: Beata Kasiarz's translations of Esther Shumiatcher-Hirschbein's poetry on pregnancy and motherhood were definitely some of my favorites. Oh, and I loved the short description of a salt mine by F. Berye (translated by Sarah Prais) in the 2014 issue.

"It's said that the best translations are those in which the translator is 'invisible,' that the fact that the text comes from another culture is rendered almost unnoticeable. For me, though, the best translations are those that somehow braid the felicity of astoundingly good English together with something from the source culture or writer that pushes the reader or language or culture in a new direction."

EK: You've been a translator and an editor of translation, and you teach translation. So my question to you is, how do you read a translation?

SS: As a reader. Translations have this archaeological quality to them. There are layers upon layers to sift through. Good translations will sing in their new language and sound like a piece of English literature. It's said that the best translations are those in which the translator is "invisible," that the fact that the text comes from another culture is rendered almost unnoticeable. For me, though, the best translations are those that somehow braid the felicity of astoundingly good English together with something from the source culture or writer that pushes the reader or language or culture in a new direction.

EK: Are there any resources on the Yiddish Book Center website that you would recommend for someone just learning Yiddish?

SS: There's a wealth of materials for every level of Yiddish learner. For those who want to plunge right into the literature, I'd recommend perusing our selection of literature in translation. There's often a link to the original Yiddish, so you can follow along. There's also the Noah Cotsen Library of Yiddish Children's Literature. There you'll find so many riches of simple but captivating texts. My daughter and I have read quite a few picks from there already. What's nice about reading children's literature if you only have a semester or two of Yiddish is that while the language is simple, the stories can be complex and gripping, even to an adult.

EK: Any particular children's authors you love?

SS: There are so many! Anything by Chaver Paver! My daughter is a huge fan of anything starring a talking dog. Kadya Molodowsky's stories and poems for kids are fantastic, too. Ida Maze has some wonderful short texts for younger kids. Mani-Leyb wrote some lovely, lyrical poems for kids too. Leyb Kvitko's short stories for children are considered classics throughout the entirety of the former Soviet Union. I'm also obligated to mention Sholem Aleichem, of course, whose children's stories are sometimes so bittersweet. It seems that every Yiddish writer worth his or her salt also wrote for children. And having a Yiddish-speaking five-year-old at home means I'm reading a lot of them all of a sudden.

EK: Yes, I should have asked: who are her favorite Yiddish writers? Does she like the Yiddish translations of classic English kids’ books—Curious George and The Very Hungry Caterpillar—or do you stick to the original Yiddish authors?

SS: We run the gamut. Newer translations of classic English kids’ books alongside older Yiddish originals and even some contemporary children's books in Yiddish from the Hasidic world.

EK: Before we go, tell us a little about your scholarship.

SS: I'm writing my dissertation on Jewish life in Moldova after the Second World War, with focus on religious customs and this legendary figure from the area, the Ribnitser Rebbe. He was the last Hasidic rebbe to leave eastern Europe, staying in the Soviet Union into the 1970s. I use his biography to tell the story of the whole community, where so much of being Jewish runs counter to what we might think of when we discuss Soviet Jewry. In Moldova, Yiddish language, folklore, music, culture, religion was all present. It's been a fascinating and, frankly, pretty fun project to work on.

EK: How much field work did you get to do?

SS: I've been doing interviews and participant observation for the last several years in Moldova, in Israel, and in the States, going into different communities of post-Soviet Jews, Hasidim, and ethnic Moldovans.

EK: Was there a highlight?

SS: Just one? Maybe my very first fieldwork trip in Moldova, when I sat in the rebbe's old chair—a pretty average chair in someone's house, but I was blown away. Or maybe it was going to a late-night Hasidic tish in Jerusalem. Or finding a school named after the Ribnitser in Monsey, New York. Or those days when I went from one community to another in the same day, changing languages, hearing the same stories told in drastically different [ways].