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 Michael Yashinsky.
Yiddish Book Center Education Specialist Michael Yashinsky is a consummate Yiddishist—in addition to his work at the Center teaching Yiddish and creating educational resource kits and materials for the Center’s forthcoming Yiddish textbook, he is also a stage director, playwright, and actor. He has worked at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna and Michigan Opera Theatre in his hometown of Detroit, where he directed a production of Brundibár featuring a survivor of the cast from the opera’s Holocaust-era performances at Theresienstadt. And most recently Michael made his New York stage debut in the title role of the classic Yiddish operetta Di kishef-makherin (The Sorceress), produced by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.
With a curriculum vitae like this, Michael seemed the perfect person to help us welcome long-awaited spring with a range of floral offerings from our collection. His inspiration? That magical transition from the barrenness of winter to the warmth and color of April and May. Or, as he puts it: “The last of the nor’easters is but a misty memory here in the Connecticut River Valley, as the frightful white of snow is replaced by the blush of the first mayflowers, and the frozen maples thaw, letting flow their precious liquor.”
After delving into his selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Michael about his choices.
The poet Bertha Kling sings, in simple but thrilling unaccompanied fashion, this haunting folk-song by her friend and fellow poet Mani Leib. After the performance, she recounts the occasion on which Mani Leib burst into her Bronx home and sang this very song for her. It is a rare tune—see if it becomes one of your favorites, as it has for me.
More renowned for the poetic imagery she created with her pen, later in her life poet Celia Dropkin took up the paintbrush. Flip through the slideshow of a few of her oils and watercolors, and watch as two snowy scenes in Harrisburg and Amherst (yes, that would be our Amherst!) give way to a picture of a jug exploding with wildflowers and riotous color.
Ezra Korman, Detroit’s dean of Yiddish letters, wrote this melodious paean to spring in the city. A ben-ir of Korman’s, I can attest to the joy of his words, the joy of lilacs and sunshine after the unrelenting Midwestern winter. It is an excitement I tried to capture in my translation, the first of his poems to appear in this article about the writer.
A translation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1907 essay, originally in French (there, “L'Intelligence des fleurs,” here, “Di inteligents fun blumen”), which rhapsodizes on flowers’ capacity for thought and understanding. Maeterlinck, by way of one equally enthused Y. Rapaport, kindly declares that, though there be some “umgeshikte, shlimazldike” (awkward and unfortunate) flowers in the world, there are none entirely lacking in “klugshaft un derfinderishkayt” (wisdom and ingenuity). May it also be said of us shlimazls!
I have romantic tendencies, and feel myself getting overheated; Dvoyre Fogel’s “azaleas the color of lox” are the proper antidote. The seventh section of her prose-poem excerpted here, translated with blissfully little regard for clearing up ambiguity in the writer’s winding and unwieldy lines, features a shop in Paris selling just such a group of blooms “that have no fragrance, as if they had tried on all possible fragrances.” A springtime poem for those who have winter in their hearts.
Even if you lack the interest to read these fine—and frankly funny—children’s poems by Leah Kapelovitch Hoffman, published by a league of reading circles in Detroit, do at least check out the collaged cover. The photographed faces of smiling boys and girls appear to be growing out of a flower stem, like the best of blossoms.
Michael Yashinsky talks to Lisa Newman, the Yiddish Book Center's director of communications, about his Handpicked chocies.
Lisa Newman: What led you in the direction of a curated selection of spring-related content?
Michael Yashinsky: Well, of course, spring is finally here. We seem to have waited a long time for it. It was a dreary winter with a lot of snow, which is good for snow days, but not good for getting a chance to be outside and to see all the wonders of nature in western Massachusetts. Being here in this lovely area, I guess I was looking forward to the warm, fragrant, floral times ahead.
LN: I was amused and intrigued by what you found in the collections. Tell me, how did you search and how much did you find?
MY: Yes. The title, I think, is particularly relevant to this collection, “Handpicked.” I sort of had a feeling that I was picking flowers for my basket of poems and songs and stories and pictures. A few of them, I was already familiar with.
One of the poems, I translated for the website: “Friling-dzhez” (“Springtime Jazz”) by Ezra Korman of Detroit, my hometown. For another web story, I had written this piece about the pictures painted by the poet Celia Dropkin, together with our Director of Collections Initiatives Eitan Kensky. One of Dropkin's pictures is of a vase overflowing with blooms in yellow, pink, periwinkle, and violet, bright white and sky blue.
The song “Flantst mayn shvesterl a gortn” (“My Little Sister Plants a Garden”) we have in the Center's forthcoming textbook. It's a simple tune with mysterious lyrics and a glorious refrain of “hoy, hoy!”—and incidentally, good for teaching dependent and independent clauses!
Others, I just searched on the website for “blumen,” which is “flowers” in Yiddish, and all sorts of wonderful things come up. Then I tried searching different names of flowers, “royzn,” “azalyes,” seeing what I could find.
One of the selections Catherine Madsen showed to me. She was the Center's bibliographer and knew our collection intimately. I was going to give lectures in Detroit about Yiddish in that city. She immediately found this book for me that had been published by a leftist Jewish educational organization. The cover was one of the most notable things about it—the fact that it was published in Detroit, but also this wild cover, which is this fantastic collage of real children's faces growing on a flower stem.
LN: Not as scary as it sounds.
MY: Yeah, it's not as scary as it sounds. It is kind of as absurd-looking as it sounds. I have it printed out here so you can see it.
LN: Ah, the illustration is of poppies, I know that from days working on a garden magazine.
MY: Yeah, that's the title of the book, Mon blumen (Poppies).
LN: I’m always sharing the fact that the search function on our website is a very cool tool. I'm always entering words—not in Yiddish, because I don't have that proficiency like you do—and I'm always surprised, amazed, and intrigued by what I find. Do you want to wax poetic a little bit about that, because as you say, who thinks of entering a search for “azaleas,” in Yiddish no less?
MY: Indeed. You can just enter anything that you're thinking about, any element of life, any color, any kind of food. If you want to know what there is about it in Yiddish literature and Jewish culture, type it in to the little magnifying glass and you'll be surprised by all of the wonders that come up—by all of the people that have translated things, and with all of the thousands of Yiddish books that have been digitized, and the hundreds of oral history interviews, countless things, lectures from Montreal. You're sure to find something that captures your interest.
LN: Yes, the results really show the breadth of this collection, what can surface when you do a search.
MY: Yes, as they say in The Ethics of the Fathers, Pirkey oves, this book of Jewish morality. It says of the Torah, “Turn it over and over for everything is contained in it.” You sort of get that sense of Yiddish literature and the collections of the Yiddish Book Center. As many times as you leaf through them, you're bound to discover a new treasure, a new poppy blossom peeking out over the snow. And in it, the face of a toddler.
LN: Full disclosure, I think that's why we added Handpicked on our website; it provides an opportunity for guest curators like you to surface things that we might never otherwise have unearthed. And in your case, you have the benefit of searching in English or Yiddish.
I believe that you taught yourself Yiddish long before you applied to our Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, yes?
MY: That's true. I entered the program as an intermediate without ever having taken Yiddish classes. I had just been studying on my own.
LN: That's quite an undertaking and a commitment to a language. What drew you to Yiddish?
MY: I'd say, since I'm thinking all about flowers and plants and things, those metaphors are in my head. There's one that Anna Margolin, the poet, uses; she says, Mayn shtam redt, “my ancestors speak.” The word shtam, “ancestry,” can also mean a flower stem, or the trunk of a tree. In her poem, she hears, from the higher branches of her family tree, the various voices of her forefathers and foremothers speaking to her. And some are speaking in Yiddish, of course.
My forefathers and foremothers spoke in this language, too. I always knew that and I heard my grandmothers speaking, all of my grandparents spoke Yiddish. One of them happened to be a truly passionate and committed Yiddishist, who created Jewish art and led Yiddish groups and performed in Yiddish. She came to the Center long before me, in the '90s, for a Yiddish literature course. It was really from her that I discovered the richness and the breadth of this culture, and learned that it was something that could be seriously studied, and that could be a real light in your life.
From this grandmother, Elizabeth Elkin Weiss, I had the inspiration, and I learned a lot from listening to her and borrowing from her treasury of books and movies. I then decided to seriously go down that path myself, as my eldest brother Gabriel, another Yiddish speaker, did before me.
LN: Which, all of the sudden, out of the blue, I'm reminded, Michael, that this is the same grandmother who was a voice actress on The Lone Ranger.
LN: Which connects the two of us in a very odd way, since my father wrote the comic book based on the radio series, and I found out that your grandmother, who I most likely met at a Lone Ranger event, acted on the series. Right?
MY: Yes. That's right. That is an amazing connection. She and my grandfather, Rubin Weiss, both acted on the show when it was a radio serial coming out of Detroit, and it was, of course, broadcast nationally. They were professional actors in Detroit, and they performed on that show and a lot of other radio serials—Challenge of the Yukon, The Green Hornet, and so forth. My grandmother would always say that she often played a damsel in distress in the show, and my grandfather was often the villain. He had a sonorous, low, bass kind of voice, so it was appropriate for those sorts of characters. And she could play anything.
LN: You do them proud.
MY: Oh, thank you, we both do!
LN: You've written a lot of pieces for our website. You just handed in a totally charming and surprising article, a very Michael-esque piece, if you will. I know, that’s not really a word, it's kind of like e. e. cummings with his lower case. There's something completely wonderful about your writing. You unearth these Yiddishly related stories, and you thread them together with research and insight. How do our collections inspire or inform your work?
MY: Well, thank you Lisa, that's really nice. I guess, just about my style, I don't know, I've always sort of written this way, but maybe I'm sort of inspired, immersed as I am here in Yiddish literature, by the sort of unabashed-ness of Yiddish writing. Especially, because so much of the stuff we read is from an earlier period when people were maybe a bit bolder in their writing and less afraid of very elaborate turns of phrase, and wild metaphors, and untrammeled adjectives. That's how a lot of Yiddish writers write—in this very expressive way where you can hear their voice through the writing. I love reading that stuff. I aspire to write in an untrammeled way also.
LN: Can I cite an example?
LN: Okay, that you discovered and shared this turn of phrase by the writer Dvoyre Fogel, “azaleas the color of lox.” How can you not fall in love with that? It's so unlikely, and so perfect that she describes the color of azalea as that of lox.
MY: Totally. Yes, that really caught my eye as I was reading this translation by Anastasiya Lyubas.
I was immersed in these very kind of beautiful descriptions of flowers, and poets using the loveliest similes they could find to describe them. And here was Dvoyre Fogel describing flowers the color of lox, azaleas the color of lox. I was curious because laks, in Yiddish, just means salmon. I was curious whether Fogel, in her poem, had just said these flowers were the color of salmon—they were salmon-colored—which is maybe less interesting, or whether she did indeed say they were the color of smoked fish. I looked in the Yiddish, and indeed I found that she had described them as lox, or something like it, and the translator had made an excellent choice.
LN: This is a great example of our translation fellowship and the commitment to literary translation—the fact that you went in and found this to make sure that it wasn't the translator taking license, as it were.
MY: Yeah, they were really being...
MY: Faithful and true, but in a wonderful poetic way.
I just remembered the exact phrase actually. It was that these flowers, “trogn dem kolir fun dem noblen marinirtn laks-fish,” that these flowers “bear the color of the noble, marinated salmon fish.” So “noble, marinated salmon fish” is great, and “fish the color of lox” is great—it all works, but it conveys the sort of melancholy of this shop. You have these very beautiful flowers, but somehow in this poem, it's this very melancholic scene. The flowers are so beautiful, but they are full of sadness, and have no fragrance, and everyone around them is full of blurry longing and thinking, all of this has happened before.
I was thinking, springtime is such a splendid season, an unexpected season. Why is there this sense of everything being the same and everyone being gloomy about it? But maybe it's the fact that they're all in a flower shop looking at flowers behind cellophane and removed from the earth whence they all sprouted. That can maybe feel a bit manufactured or a bit separated from the wildness of nature, the excitement of new and theretofore un-glimpsed opportunities.
LN: I need to know more about “My Little Sister Plants a Garden.” How did you discover this audio recording in our collection?
MY: I came across it when I was helping Eitan put some fragments from the Center's Frances Brandt Yiddish Audio Library online. We were trying to locate some missing ones and make them accessible. This interview with the poet Bertha Kling by her husband was one of them. Her husband interviews her about their home, which was a kind of salon for fellow poets in New York.
She tells a story about the poet Mani Leib bursting in to her house once and singing this song that he had written. She later found the words printed in a book of his and remembered the time he came into her house to sing it. It's this beautiful, heart-wrenching piece, with a folksong-like quality.
The translation of the first verse is, “My little sister plants a garden, and in the garden grow beautiful flowers. When all turns bitter in this difficult life of mine, I will go to that garden and rest beside those flowers, hoy hoy.” And Bertha sings it poignantly and really beautifully. You should definitely check it out.
LN: For those not aware of your talents on the stage, will you talk a little bit about that? Could you have imagined that your Yiddish studies would open up so many possibilities?
MY: No. When I began, I knew what treasures there were in this culture, but I didn't know that I'd have the opportunity of uncovering them and interpreting them and teaching about them—even directing and acting in them. I knew I'd be able to learn about them, but not that I'd be involved someday in helping others discover them, which has been so wonderful and something I hope will continue.
I was in Mexico last summer to sing in this Yiddish Idol event. I realized that, a year before, I'd been in Mexico City, also, for a rescue of Yiddish books. I thought to myself at that time, “I would have never expected, when I began studying Yiddish, that it would take me to Mexico twice in two years for Yiddish purposes.” Or that, a few months later, I'd be performing off-Broadway, playing the traditionally drag title role of Goldfaden's operetta Di kishef-makherin (The Sorceress) with the National Yiddish Folksbiene. But that's what Yiddish has done for me. It doesn't only open up your past, it opens up the present and the future. There's just so much there.
LN: I think that wraps it up.
MY: Thank you! And frilingdike grusn to all, happy spring!