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 Elissa Sperling.
Elissa Sperling is a Yiddish Book Center 2016–2017 Fellow. She was first exposed to Yiddish through her zeyde, who spoke it as his first language. She's used that background, plus a degree in library science, to help with cataloging the Yiddish Book Center's collections during her fellowship. Elissa is constantly sharing her interesting finds with us. Here are a few of her favorites.
After delving into her selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Elissa about her choices.
Leyb Kvitko was born in the 1890s near Odessa and was murdered on Stalin's orders in 1952. He was orphaned at a young age and later became a teacher in a Jewish orphanage. Kvitko became an acclaimed Yiddish author and was especially famous for his children's books, which were translated extensively into Russian. Both his Yiddish and Russian editions are beautifully illustrated, and the books themselves are works of art. This collection of poems and stories includes many wonderful tales and is quite approachable to Yiddish-language learners. If you flip to page 182, there is a poem about wild animals, and the plate between pages 186 and 187 depicts, in vivid colors, a little boy atop an elephant. An article about another of Kvitko's works can be found here.
While the Yiddish Book Center's collection of original Yiddish-language literature is impressive, I am equally drawn to our holdings of nonfiction works and translations into Yiddish. It is fascinating to see not only what Ashkenazi Jews wrote and the worlds they created—but also what Ashkenazi Jews read and the worlds they chose to visit. One intriguing genre is that of zelbstbildung—literally, "self-education." This particular monography, published in Warsaw as part of the series Folks univerzitet, includes three volumes: the first is on physical sciences, the second on botany, and the third on zoology. The volume on zoology is further divided into three parts: (1) man, (2) mammals and birds, (3) reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, and worms. Even if you don't read Yiddish, the diagrams can guide you.
In the same vein, popular literature, whether originally Yiddish or not, is fascinating from an anthropological standpoint. Although many were not made to last, a few examples have reached us and currently await digitization. In addition to some interwar and mid-twentieth-century pulp novels, which I wrote about, we have received two early-twentieth-century novels, each spanning six volumes and over a hundred installments. Every installment comes with an illustration depicting a highly dramatic scene. We also unpacked a collection of detective stories that a young Isaac Bashevis Singer considered masterpieces: Maks Shpitskopf, der kenig di detektivs: der Viener Sherlok Holmes (Max Shpitzkopf, the king of detectives: the Viennese Sherlock Holmes).
Brandt Lectures: Book History
This Yiddish-language lecture with Brad Hill was recorded at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal in 1987 and is entitled "the first Hebrew and Yiddish printing presses in Eastern Europe." Hill tells the story of Jewish book history, beginning with Gutenberg and following Jewish printing presses from Southern Europe and North Africa to Eastern Europe. He lectures in a Yiddish that is very clear and crisp and easy to follow even for students of Yiddish.
"Experience Through Books," a 1973 Max Dimont Lecture
This is primarily a lecture given at the Jewish Public Library in 1973 on the topic of Jewish history. But what I found to be most interesting is the lecturer's brief introductory spiel (found about ten minutes into the recording). Max Dimont speaks of his family history in a lovely, Yiddish-accented English. He talks about the origin of his surname, a letter from the czar to his father, his teacher's method for instilling knowledge, and how he is related to Greta Garbo. What is delightful about his story is not so much the events themselves, but his charming and humorous tone, typical of Yiddish-speaking immigrants of that era.
From The Schmooze: "Yiddish and Ladino: Understanding Jewish Languages"
In this podcast, Sarah Abrevaya Stein discusses Ladino literature broadly, and more specifically a recently discovered Ladino manuscript. This manuscript turned out to be the earliest known Ladino-language memoir, the long-sought-after autobiography of Sa'adi Besalel Ha-Levi (1820-1903). Stein helped to edit the English translation of the memoir, which sheds light onto Sephardi life in Salonica, then part of the Ottoman Empire.
"Introduction to Communism"
This is a short excerpt from an interview with Bel Kaufman, novelist and granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem. Here she recalls her childhood in Odessa and, as she refers to it, her introduction to communism. It is pretty incredible to watch a recent recording of someone who remembers the Russian Revolution. Besides, it is always a little magical when someone reflects on their childhood after living for over a century.
"'Immodestly Yours...' Sometimes the inscriptions are as interesting as the books themselves"
There are many reasons to fall in love with a book beyond its contents. In this article, book collector David Mazower writes about how it is possible to value books for their inscriptions. Many of the books here at the Yiddish Book Center can similarly inspire bibliophiles. Whether it's their inscriptions, marginalia, bookplates, international stamps, musty perfume, or unique wear and tear, these books have many stories to tell.
Elissa Sperling talks to Eitan Kensky, the Yiddish Book Center’s director of collections initiatives, about her Handpicked choices.
Eitan Kensky: Tell us a little about yourself and how you found your way to Yiddish.
Elissa Sperling: My grandfather's first language was Yiddish. I began to study Yiddish formally in my teens through the Workmen’s Circle and continued studying Yiddish through summer programs in New York City, Vilna, and Warsaw. While an undergrad, I majored in Russian and Eastern European studies. But I did take courses in Ashkenazi history and culture as well. I also studied abroad in Russia (Saint Petersburg and Irkutsk) and later traveled extensively throughout Eastern Europe.
EK: What was Irkutsk like?
ES: Nature there is stunning. The forests are different from here and so beautiful. Lake Baikal is very impressive. Culturally, it contrasts greatly with European Russia. I got to visit Buddhist temples and meet people from the Old Faith. I also had more opportunities to practice my Russian there, as fewer people spoke English.
EK: Did you read the Kvitko book while you were learning Yiddish?
ES: No, I only got into Kvitko here. When our bibliographer, Catherine, was away for a few weeks, I helped with reference questions. One woman gave me a Russian children's poem by Kvitko and asked if I could find her the original Yiddish version. She was hoping to read this poem by Kvitko in English, Russian, and Yiddish at her son's bar-mitzvah. It took some digging to find the Yiddish original, since the Russian translation was so drastically different. But through this search, I became really interested in Kvitko. I also just cataloged a bunch of his books. They are simply gorgeous. The books themselves are pieces of art. You can enjoy them even if you don't know any Yiddish. Soviet children's literature, especially in the 1920s, was particularly beautiful. I picked the Kvitko collection as an example of that.
EK: Another example of beautiful Yiddish illustration, surprisingly, turns out to be shund. Tell us about the drama depicted in the shund illustrations and a bit about the book. How you found it, and what you think is taking place.
ES: That image was pulled from Flora: di bild shehne fabrik-meydel. This novel spans six volumes and over 2,500 pages. I have not yet had a chance to read it. It contains over a hundred hefts (or installments), each with its own cover illustration. The illustrations alone read like a dramatic graphic novel. So, they’re really fun to glance through even if you do not have the time to read a six-volume novel in Yiddish. We have received other works of a similar nature, awaiting digitization as well. These include Leona di yesoyme, oder, Di geheymnis fun Palats Rodenburg, which is also over 2,500 pages and roughly a century old. Additionally, we have some mid-century publications such as Maṭilda-Roḥl (dos S.S.-meydl) and some wonderful detective stories that Isaac Bashevis Singer noted enjoying.
EK: Looking at your selections, it seems as if there are two major themes: Soviet Yiddish and Jewish book history—and also, to use your phrase from earlier, where the two overlap. Did you go into this with any themes in mind, or did you just head where your interests sent you?
ES: I look at so many books each day that it was challenging to choose just a couple of favorites. So, for the books, I tried to narrow it down to genres and then to select one as representative of that genre. While I have studied Yiddish for quite some time, what makes my job here so fascinating is that I get to see what Ashkenazi Jews read. It’s not just the Yiddish classics, which I encountered in various courses and are available in translation. But genres that show what Jews then were interested in reading. I’ve cataloged a great deal of children’s literature, nonfiction, and translations into Yiddish. That is why I chose the Kvitko collection, the science book, and popular literature (some of which are Yiddish originals, but many are translations from other languages). For the other information resources, such as lectures, oral histories, podcasts, and Pakn Treger articles, I just followed whatever sounded most intriguing.
EK: Your love of reading and books really shines through these selections. Is that what led you to David Mazower’s Pakn Treger piece about inscriptions? Do you come across inscriptions regularly?
ES: I liked his article because it shows other ways to look at books outside their content alone. Of course, the Yiddish Book Center's digitization projects make the Yiddish literary corpus accessible to those all over the world, and that's a major feat. But since we scan just one copy of each work, and sometimes not even every edition, by limiting themselves to our digital collections, users are missing those unique details that make poring over books here so much fun. I come across inscriptions all the time. As well as signatures, stains, stamps, bookplates, bookmarks, marginalia, notes, and other artifacts left inside the books.
EK: I often think about ways that we can add some of those nuances to our library. We need to give digital books more texture.
ES: Yes, I’ve been noting my favorites—such as a large cigarette burn in the middle of a Zionist book. Possibly it was an accident… but it looks rather purposeful.
EK: Tell me about the talks you selected from the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. You have a lot of firsthand experience with that library. What's it like hearing those voices from its past?
ES: It was really wonderful to explore that collection. Hearing native speakers’ Yiddish and beautiful Yiddish-accented English from so many decades ago is an amazing experience. I am very happy that the Jewish Public Library preserved these recordings and that the Yiddish Book Center has recently digitized them. The lectures cover a diverse range of topics. I chose a Yiddish-language lecture on Hebrew and Yiddish printing presses in Eastern Europe. I also selected Max Dimont’s English-language lecture, because I found his ten(ish)-minute self-introduction to be highly amusing.
EK: Were there any moments in those lectures that stuck with you?
ES: In the Dimont lecture, I just loved how the speaker described his family background. I wasn't expecting him to speak in such a comical manner when his lecture was on such a serious subject matter, so it was a pleasant surprise. And I adored his accent. It's hard to find a Yiddish accent in English these days. I especially enjoyed the story of the origin of his surname.
EK: The recordings in the Brandt collection are often very intimate.
ES: Yes, they really transport you back to that time and place. You can hear background chatter in the beginning and the speakers adjusting the mics. It feels like you are there with them. And the speakers sound really happy to be there with the audience. They all seem to be having a good time. They joke around and there’s some back and forth between the speaker and audience. They were very lively, much more of a performance and not generally so dry and academic.
EK: Two of our goals with this series are to share highlights of our collections with our readers, and also to give them tips on how to search the collections. Do you have any advice on how to do the latter?
ES: It depends upon what you are searching for, of course. But in general, I think the most important thing to bear in mind when searching our collections is that you should keep searching in different ways. Don't just search once and give up and assume that we don't have it, or it doesn't exist. Try with the Yiddish/Hebrew keyboards, Romanized, different spellings, English-language subject searches, and so on. And if you're really struggling, contact us here at the Yiddish Book Center and try to pick someone’s brain (ideally Catherine's). The more you look, the more you'll find.