August 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 Sophia Shoulson..

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Sophia Shoulson is an alumna of several Yiddish Book Center programs. She was a 2018–2019 Yiddish Book Center Fellow and was the Center's 2019–2020 Richard S. Herman Fellow.​ Sophia will be entering the doctoral program in modern languages and literatures at Johns Hopkins University in the fall of 2020. 

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

Glückel of Hameln: The Life of an Early Modern Jewish Woman, Teacher Resource Kit

Julie Rezmovic-Tonti and Jessica Kirzane's resource kit provides some excellent background and guidance for reading the memoirs of Glückel of Hameln. Glückel's memoirs are a true treasure trove of information about Jewish women's lives in 17th century Europe, which are further enriched by the inclusion of resources such as the excerpt from Zohar Weiman-Kelman's oral history.

The Yiddish Torah, from the Unquiet Pages Online Exhibit

I'm very excited about the Center's new Unquiet Pages exhibit, which provides more opportunities to access some of the Yiddish Book Center's resources remotely. The relationship between Yiddish and the Torah is fascinating and particularly rich for someone like me, whose interests have been trending earlier and earlier in the history of the Yiddish language.

Burning Lights Reading Resources

Bella Chagall's memoir recalling her childhood in Vitebsk is thoroughly enhanced by Sarah Quiat's excellent reading guide. And if, after you've finished reading the book and its supplementary resources, you'd like more insight into the Chagalls, I also recommend listening to Benjamin Harshav's lecture on "Yiddish in the Masterworks of Marc Chagall."

"Love! Vengeance! Espionage!" Shund Stories Escape a Fire, By Elissa Sperling

When Elissa Sperling recounts the history of a selection of shund (pulp) stories that survived a fire and made their way to our collection, I think she points to an interesting question about the relativity of value. Shund literature was mass produced cheaply and generally derided by the intelligentsia. Now it's one of the rarest genres in our collection.​

Miriam Karpilove's FOMO

I feel obligated to include at least one post from our Bronx Bohemians blog, and, for me, Jessica Kirzane's guest contribution is the obvious choice. Her translations of the two letters sent to Bertha Kling by Miriam Karpilove demonstrate the deep sense of sisterhood felt by both women, as well as Karpilove's feeling of missing out on the action when she was stuck in Bridgeport, Connecticut, so far from the Bronx.


Sophia Shoulson talks to the Yiddish Book Center’s communications editor, Faune Albert, about her Handpicked choices:

Faune Albert: You’ve chosen two sets of very different reading resources here—one is directed more toward teachers and one was originally created for readers in the Great Jewish Books Book Club. I’m wondering if you could talk about the potential value in looking at these resource pages even if you haven't actually read the two works at the center of them (the Glückel of Hameln memoir and Bella Chagall’s memoir)?

Sophia Shoulson: I appreciate the ways that these resource kits allow readers to approach memoirs like Glückel’s and Bella’s as both texts and historical artifacts. By reading Glückel’s memoir as a self-contained whole, we can immerse ourselves in her life experiences. But by reading the excerpts in the resource kit in conjunction with the discussion questions and additional resources, we can achieve a better understanding of the way the memoir as a historical object influences the people who have read it in the centuries between Glückel’s lifetime and our own. And for Burning Lights, by Bella Chagall, I think the resource kit is actually most helpful in reframing our perspective of Marc Chagall to include his relationship with Bella. Though Bella has been greatly overshadowed by her husband, I think our appreciation of either can be enhanced greatly by an understanding of the other.

FA: In a piece by Yiddish critic Chil Aronson, translated by Ri Turner for the fall 2019 issue of Pakn Treger, Aronson describes Bella Chagall’s memoirs as a “revelation” for him, writing “I never imagined that Bella possessed such a rich, juicy Yiddish or that she was such a mature, evocative craftswoman of the Yiddish word.” I’m wondering how this description squares with your own experience of reading her memoirs. What was that like? What stood out to you?

SS: Burning Lights is an excellent example of the “Yiddish word” as encompassing both the vocabulary used and how it is put to use. For Bella, as a child in Vitebsk, the passage of time was significant primarily as it pertained to the cycle of Jewish holidays, so the memoir is organized using that cycle, which, in turn, draws attention to the fact that the Yiddish language also developed around that cycle; the words for specific dates and times of day derive from the Jewish rituals that occur at those specific times.

FA: Most interesting thing you learned from the Glückel of Hameln resource kit? If you were going to teach these memoirs, what resource/s would you be most excited to use?

SS: This is a little embarrassing to admit, but I actually didn’t initially know that Glückel had written her memoirs in (Old Western) Yiddish! I was first introduced to Glückel’s memoirs in German while studying in Hamburg, another city in the northern part of Germany that used to have a large Jewish community. I knew that German Jews had been speaking German for a long time, and Yiddish was not something I was actively thinking about at that point in my life, so I just assumed she had written in German. I learned otherwise before reading through this resource kit, but it seems entirely possible that someone else will make that discovery with its help!

I would be most excited to have students participate in the manuscript copying activity. I think it’s a great way to broaden students’ understanding of the memoir, which, as I mentioned before, is both a text and a historical artifact. This manuscript is especially interesting because it is not in Glückel’s own hand but that of her grandson!

FA: Nice to see that you’re enjoying the Unquiet Pages online exhibit. Have you gotten a chance to explore other items in that series? Since you pointed to the section on the Torah, can you tell us anything more about the Tsene-rene, often called the “women’s bible”?

SS: I have been perusing the rest of the online exhibit, yes! I nearly chose to highlight the page on the founders of YIVO, who, though flawed, are still heroes of mine. I have also perused the Tsene-rene, though I have certainly not read it cover-to-cover. It was written for the purposes of Jews who could not read Hebrew and Aramaic, languages necessary to read Jewish religious and legal texts in the original. I say “written” instead of “translated,” because it is an adaptation and discussion of biblical stories rather than a direct translation. Although there were Jews of all ages and genders who could not read Hebrew and Aramaic, the Tsene-rene is called the “women’s bible” because women were most consciously and systematically denied the privilege of religious Jewish learning. Consequently, women are often made to represent a demographic that also included children and many men.

FA: Can you speak more to why shund literature is one of the rarest forms of literature in our collections? What kinds of things can this type of literature tell us that maybe more canonical or classical literature isn’t able to?

SS: Shund literature was produced to be disposable! It was written and produced as quickly and as cheaply as possible because its purpose was to be affordable and easy to read. But for that same reason, it can be enormously helpful in understanding the people who read it. In order to understand the totality of a culture, it is crucial to view it from all angles, not just that of the intellectual elite. It would be ridiculous, for example, to say that the Marvel cinematic universe is not a cultural phenomenon simply because the movies are formulaic and flashy. To ignore shund’s impact, one would need to ignore all of the people who were talking about it and spending money on it.

FA: I love the piece on Miriam Karpilove’s FOMO that you highlight here. It feels both relatable (especially in this moment, when loneliness is perhaps at an all-time high) and also a little sad. Can you give us more of a sense of how common these kind of epistolary correspondences (or friendships) were and what role they played in the Yiddish literary scene?

SS: There are many scholars much more qualified to answer this question than I am, but from what I can tell, these kinds of relationships were both very common and very necessary. Another example frequently highlighted by my fellow Handpicked curators is the exchange between writers Blume Lempel and Chava Rosenfarb in the 2019 Pakn Treger Digital Translation Issue, translated by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub. Beginning in the first half of the twentieth century and particularly after World War II, the Yiddish-speaking world was becoming increasingly dispersed, and relationships like this helped create and maintain a global community. And women writers would have experienced an added layer of isolation because even those who found themselves in communities of fellow writers rarely spent time with many other women writers. But these relationships also had practical benefits in addition to the psychological ones. Our Bertha Kling archive contains a series of letters from the writer Itzik Manger to Bertha begging her to distribute his new book in the United States!

FA: You're an emerging translator of Yiddish literature and have translated a handful of selections for our website over the past year. Do you have anything you're working on right now, or any dream translation projects you're thinking of for the future?

SS: Wow, this is a very flattering question because I certainly don’t think of myself as a translator. The past few months have been quite busy for me, and I haven’t begun any new projects, but I would love to translate the stories collected by Shmuel Lehman in Ganovim un ganeyve [explored in my undergraduate thesis] at some point. I think I may also find my way back to the rest of the short stories in Arn Mayzl’s collection where I found “The White Bear.” I like the idea of translating a series of vignettes or short stories rather than one long work because I enjoy the challenge of homing in on the unique tone of an individual piece of writing, and I think I would enjoy doing that more than once within the same project.