April 2020: 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 Abigail Weaver.
Abigail is a 2019-2020 Yiddish Book Center Fellow and a graduate of Smith College, where she completed a double major in theatre and Jewish studies with a particular focus in Yiddish poetry and theater. She's also a costume designer, playwright, translator, banjo player, and a 2018 alum of the Yiddish Book Center's Steiner Summer Yiddish Program.
After delving into her selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Abigail about her choices.
"The Cleaver's Daughter," By Avrom Sutzkever, translated by Zackary Sholem Berger
Avrom Sutzkever is remembered as one of the greatest Yiddish poets of the twentieth century, and the poetic voice of the world-altering events he lived through, but his prose is sometimes overlooked. I find this story, from the collection Messiah's Diary, to be, like much of his work, both antirealist and transcendent, and 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. Basman's sparse, modernist poems are relentlessly beautiful, blending human emotion and the natural world.
"Four Theses on Translating Yiddish Literature"
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.
"The Ordeal of an Individual and a Generation"
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.
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 and is a drama 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.
Though Pesach may be over, you can still practice your Yiddish with this seasonally appropriate resource—and there are additional Yiddish worksheets on the Yiddish Book Center website as well, including a spring-themed one.
Abigail Weaver talks to the Yiddish Book Center's director of communications, Lisa Newman, about her Handpicked choices:
Lisa Newman: You've certainly curated an interesting mix. You seem to delve deep into each of the works in terms of trying to unravel and consider the many layers in the work. Yes?
Abigail Weaver: I guess it's an eclectic mix, but there are interesting connections between these works. Three of these authors—Sutzkever, Kovner, and Basman—have roots in Lithuania, survived the Vilna Ghetto, and emigrated to Israel. Sutzkever's "The Cleaver's Daughter" is a paean to love and life, death and youth, in the Lithuanian forest—an intensity of longing echoed in Kovner's speech "The Ordeal of an Individual and a Generation." Kovner's reflections on solitude and longing appear in Rivka Basman's poetry, as does the theme of rain—a perfect meditation as Pesach marks our goodbye to the rainy season. Students can enjoy the Pesach-themed Yiddish worksheet and appreciate the holiday's connection to nature. And of course reading "The Cleaver's Daughter" after reading Rosenwald's "Four Theses on Translation" gives the reader a better understanding of the difficult choices at work in that and any other translation. As for Shabse tsvi, the sweeping, apocalyptic chaos of the world it presents feels eerily contemporary.
LN: Did you find your way to Rivka Basman's work first, or did your exploration of the Yiddish literary circle Yung Yisroel introduce you to the poet?
AW: I wound up with Rivka Basman's book Di shtilkeyt brent (The Burning Silence) because Itzik Gottesman was giving away a lot of his books this summer, and I asked for women poets. So my introduction to Rivka Basman was not via Yung Yisroel, but rather alongside other female Israeli Yiddish poets of her generation—like Rokhl Kramf, who I've translated some of, and Rokhl Fishman, who was also in Yung Yisroel. All three of them have this very subtle yet striking modern style, which I love to read. Something I noticed about Rivka Basman's poetry is how attentive she is to nature and how she explores themes of silence and solitude. One of my favorite poems in "Tseshotene kreln" is "To Emily Dickinson" on page 24—an ode to a fellow poetess of solitude (and a local celebrity to us here in Amherst). This poem especially may speak to people who are feeling alone right now. I really recommend Basman's poems to Yiddish students. The poems tend to be short so they're not so intimidating to language learners, but the complex emotional truths they explore will have readers of all levels delighting in this book.
LN: Larry Rosenwald's piece, which was his keynote address at our Translation Summit in 2012, must provide you with much to mull in regard to your work with translation. Do you find that you come back to it to reread and reconsider as you further your immersion in the work of translating? One particular takeaway for you?
AW: I first read this essay soon after I started work in the translation department here at the Center, and I've reread it several times since—something different always jumps out, probably depending on what I'm editing at the time. Sometimes I find that I disagree with one of his points that I previously agreed with, or vice versa—Rosenwald says himself here that, "Translation is too much of an art, and too little of a science, to be reducible to rules." This is a great piece because Rosenwald so clearly identifies and pushes back against some of the stuffier trends of Yiddish-to-English translation of the past century and lays out issues of responsibility to the text and the audience that translators must confront. I'm pleased when I see newer translations from Yiddish engaging with these challenges and taking experimental approaches to produce incredible results. The work of not only textual analysis but also self reflection on the part of the translator is often invisible in the result—so if I were to make a syllabus on literary translation, I would definitely assign this.
LN: The archival recordings are real treasures—to hear the voices of the writers whose names we may know, or whose work we may have read, brings us closer to the individual. After listening to the Abba Kovner recording do you see or read into the work differently?
AW: At first it's disorienting to try to merge Abba Kovner the poet with Abba Kovner the historical and political figure. His poems so often are expressions of intense despair and suffering. But as he illustrates in his speech, the personal grief expressed in his poems is inseparable from the universal and the ancestral. In this speech, he defends his belief that a writer, and a Jewish writer especially, is never alone because everyone who comes before them and everyone who will come after them is with them in their writing. This of course adds an intensity to his poems, reframing them as a sort of cosmic mission to raise the dead. And it certainly is a treasure to hear this spoken aloud. Kovner was known as an incredible speaker throughout his activities as a ghetto underground leader, partisan commander, and Eichmann Trial witness. Listening to this recording, I wonder at how very few times in my life I've heard such rhetorical skill in person; maybe never. I think it's a vanishing art. This speech is one of many such speeches in the Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library, which are so precious in that they allow us to know a little more of who these writers were outside of ink and paper.
LN: What are your reading/translating currently?
AW: I'm reading a lot of fantasy and speculative fiction right now, and I think everyone should be. (Have you ever noticed how many words that ought to mean "fantastic storyteller" mean "liar" instead? For example, fabulist, mythomaniac, even talebearer—it's realist hegemony! These words must be reclaimed . . .) Not only is it a comforting way to escape the day-to-day pandemic anxiety, it's very important to exercise the imagination so we can envision the world we want to come out on the other side of this. M Archive by Alexis Pauline Gumbs is nourishing me at the moment. I've just finished reading Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik—classic high fantasy but rooted in Jewish culture. As for translating, I'm working on some poems by Bertha Kling, a singer and poet, of the Yiddish scene in the Bronx. Her poems are so heartfelt and rhythmic—I think they would be great set to music someday. Meanwhile, I'm working with my dad to do some tag-team translations of creepy short stories by Warsaw writer Shloyme Gilbert.
LN: And, I'm curious to ask you, if you could have dinner with one Yiddish writer who would that be?
AW: I would have a delicious vegetarian feast with the fabulist talebearer of Yiddish literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer.