February 2018: 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 Josh Lambert.

Josh Lambert is no stranger to Yiddish Book Center emails. The dynamo director of our dynamic education programs, Josh always has something new to announce: a title for the book club, a second series of workshops for writers of children’s books, an entirely new four-week program for Jewish day school teachers to immerse themselves in modern Jewish literature. If there is a program to invent, Josh Lambert will invent it.

By training, Josh is a scholar of American Jewish Literature, and in the early years of the Yiddish Book Center’s podcast, The Shmooze, he spoke at length with some of the best writers of modern Jewish fiction: Peter ManseauSana Krasikov, and Ilan Stavans. The interviews are smart, perceptive, and demonstrate a rich mode of thinking about questions of texts and identity. Yet the real highlight of Josh’s appearances on The Shmooze is an interview with the legendary scholar of American Jewish Literature and pioneer of the study of multiethnic American literature, Jules Chametzky. It’s a masterclass on Chametzky’s approach to studying literature, and his scholarly background, filled with beautiful stories of his life and upbringing. For me, it’s a delight to hear Josh’s questions, which betray his excitement at being near Chametzky. He, too, is a student.

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

Handpicked: 

“Hop! Mayne Hamentashen”
Are you ready for the holiday of Purim? Prepare by learning an amusing little song, “Hop! Mayne Homentashn,” which has been sung by at least two interviewees of the Wexler Oral History Project, Sue Ehrlich and Alice Ahart.

Listen to Sue and listen to Alice

Nisht Geferlach Klezmer Band
It’s a riff on a Talmudic phrase: “Mi sh’nikhnas Adar, marbim b’simcha” [MR1]. When it’s the month of Adar (which starts on February 15), you’ve got to get happy! What better way than with a 30-year-old klezmer concert, recorded live in Montreal?

Mordecai Richler reading excerpts from St. Urbain's Horseman
Speaking of Montreal, as a Canadian Jew I’m contractually required to promote the work of Mordecai Richler. It’s amazing to hear him read from his classic novel, St. Urbain’s Horseman, then still in progress, in 1969, and introduced by Professor Ruth Wisse.

Geyt a hindele keyn Bronzvil (A Little Hen Goes to Brownsville)
I’m looking forward to Tent: Children’s Literature, a residency for authors of books for children, which the Center will be hosting a second time later this spring. One of the Yiddish children’s books I most love to show people is the beautifully illustrated Geyt a hindele keyn Bronzvil (A Little Hen Goes to Brownsville), in which a plucky hen defies the police and courts to deliver free eggs to the poor children of Brooklyn.

Di brider Ashkenazi (The Brothers Ashkenazi)
Right now, hundreds of Yiddish Book Center members are busy reading and discussing I. J. Singer’s masterful novel of Lodz, The Brothers Ashkenazi, as part of our Great Jewish Books Book Club. For those who can read in Yiddish, the original, in three volumes (1, 2, 3), is ready and waiting, as is the Yiddish audiobook.

Q&A

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

Eitan Kensky: One of your selections, I.J. Singer's Di Brider Ashkenazi (The Brothers Ashkenazi), is this quarter's book club selection. Take us behind the scenes. How do you pick the books? What led you to I. J. Singer?

Josh Lambert: There's not an especially juicy story there. Last year, we piloted the Book Club and picked a bunch of different kinds of work to see what would resonate. It was clear, from the feedback we heard, that readers really love a good novel. And so we figured that Singer's book—which, after all, was a New York Times bestseller in the 1930s—would go over well. And it seems to be really resonating for the members of the club so far.

EK: What kinds of things are people saying about it, how are they responding?

JL: Well, we're just getting started, but people love the epic scope, the way the novel very deliberately establishes itself as chronicling the history of Lodz, in general, as well as the stories of a few individuals. And it's been fun to compare the translation we're reading to the original, to see what choices the translator (Singer's son) made.

EK: What percentage of Book Club members know Yiddish? Or, maybe another way to put it: how many active Book Club members are also active Yiddish readers?

JL: I'm not sure, and I don't know if we have concrete figures. All Book Club members receive the English translations (and can access the Yiddish originals on our website, usually). Anecdotally, there are certainly a few people who read in Yiddish, but most of the Book Club members read in English, and, if they can, check in on the Yiddish text for comparison's sake (which is what I'm doing, too).

EK: Are you finding any really interesting translation decisions?

JL: Some weird ones, but not necessarily atypical. The two most interesting ones to come up—and we've only been discussing the book in earnest for about a week—are one passage when the narrator notes that a non-Jew entering a Jewish home during Passover could render it "impure"; in the original Yiddish, it's not really impurity but "khometzdik," which I find a pretty difficult concept to translate ("in the state of being connected to the leavening process"?).

The other was just pointed out by our colleague Sami, who runs the Yiddish Book Center's bookstore—she noted the use of the phrase "strange fruit" as a metaphor, which is of course striking because of the song Billie Holiday made famous. The phrase isn't there in the original Yiddish, but it turns out that song originated as a poem written in 1937, around the time The Brothers Ashkenazi was on the bestseller list. So now it seems that maybe this is a little wink by the translator to the novel's historical context.

EK: That's pretty neat—and surprising in a way that shouldn't be surprising. It's translated in America by an American. Translators live in a space and time.

JL: Of course! In general, checking the translations isn't for "gotchas"—to show the translator screwed up or was too creative or something—it's just a way of digging deeper into the book we're reading.

EK: Do you find that you read these books differently than when you teach college students, or than when you teach high school students during Great Jewish Books?

JL: Ah, they're almost always different books. I've never taught The Brothers Ashkenazi in college or residential programs at the Center, because it's 400+ pages long. Usually in a college course I'd teach one or two short stories by an author, whereas in the Book Club we'll read a whole collection. In a college class, we can read very, very deeply in short texts. At the Center, I can sometimes spend an hour on a single poem, twenty lines long, with a group of teenagers. One of the pleasures of the Book Club is that we get to read things that are way too long to put on most syllabi. It’s an opportunity to read broader.

"Last year, at our first residency for children's authors, the excitement about the archive of Yiddish children's books was ferocious—though it's important to keep in mind how ideologically intense a lot of that older Yiddish children's literature was."

EK: Tell me about Mordecai Richler and what he means to you, and to Canadian Jews. Assume that I am an American Jew from the Midwest who knows the name Richler, and who’s meant to read him, but who has largely missed out on his career. (This is a completely accurate biographical sentence.)

JL: Okay, first, in the most concrete terms: I cannot remember a time when I didn't know what the spine of Richler's St. Urbain's Horseman looked like. It was just always there.

I often talk about how, at my high school, a Jewish day school in Toronto, we didn't read, say, Philip Roth or Cynthia Ozick. Which is true. We also didn't read Richler. But it was assumed that everyone would read Richler, sooner or later. When Barney's Version came out in 1997—that was the year I graduated high school—it was a big deal in my community. Everybody read it.

Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here is probably the great Canadian Jewish novel, but really he's got a fairly deep catalog of work that is what we, as Canadian Jews, so desperately wanted: literature that reflected our very particular experiences.

EK: Do you think that the Roth comparison is fair, or that Richler is somehow more unique?

JL: I think it's more than fair. Richler:Montreal::Roth:Newark. Both of them get a little zany at times (we just maybe tend to forgive or forget Roth's zaniest stuff more easily than Richler's), and Roth is probably a slightly finer craftsman. We're lucky to have both of them—and Canadian Jews, who, as a smaller group always feel like they're playing catch up, are especially lucky to have a writer as strong as Richler.

EK: Are there any heirs to Richler within Canadian Jewish literature? If not in literature, what about other media? Perhaps this is my awkward way of asking: is there a line from Richler to Jonathan Goldstein of This American Life, WireTap, and Heavyweight?

JL: The answer to your question is yes. Goldstein's WireTap is as loyal and fitting an heir as Richler could've asked for. But other writers—and not just Canadians—have appreciated Richler. Gary Shteyngart spent a weekend or so in Montreal, retracing Richler's footsteps, and that felt especially appropriate. Shteyngart's biting satire, combined with a loving sentimentality, plus his appetites—it's all very Richler. He wrote it up for Slate.

EK: What was it like to find a recording of him in our collection?

JL: As you said earlier, it shouldn't have been a surprise. Of course he would've done events at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. But it's just such a delight to have this historical event—Richler and Ruth Wisse, together on stage—two clicks away.

EK: The thing that's so amazing to me about the Frances Brandt archive is what it reveals about the community, and the role of the library within it. It was so essential to the cultural fabric of the Jewish community, bridging generations and populations and languages.

JL: Absolutely. I wish that every Jewish community in North America, or the world, could have the equivalent—and that, if they did, they would be as committed as the JPL has been to making and archiving recordings of their programs.

EK: It's terrific, also, that the library sponsored so many musical programs. The last time we talked about selections, you got to ask me about the Jack Cohen Whistling Concert. Now you got to introduce me to the Nisht Geferlach Klezmer Band. It's a pretty fun performance.

JL: The truth is, I don't have much to say about that one. I don't know anything, really, about the band or the event. I just know that the sound quality is pretty good, and that it's fun to listen to. I don't know if there are places to trade bootleg tapes of klezmer concerts, but, if so, I hope those folks are all over this one.

EK: Well, I guess it's a part of thinking seasonally. You also picked "Hop! Mayne Hamentashen." Have you played that for your kids?

JL: No, can't say that I have. I should, this year. It's always easier to introduce a piece of Jewish culture when there's a cookie involved.

EK: That seems like really terrific advice. My son only sometimes wants sweets. I need more Jewish holidays that involve mango puree.

JL:  Aside from Yom Kippur, I can't think of a Jewish holiday in which mango puree wouldn't be appropriate.

EK: Your last pick is a classic of Yiddish children's literature. It seems like there's a growing interest in Yiddish children's literature: Miriam Udel is working on a translated anthology, and there were beautiful Yiddish children's books produced in Poland a few years ago. Do you think we'll see some new, English board books made from classic Yiddish children's lit?

JL: That's my hope. Last year, at our first residency for children's authors, the excitement about the archive of Yiddish children's books was ferocious—though it's important to keep in mind how ideologically intense a lot of that older Yiddish children's literature was. I don't think the orthodox Stalinist ones are likely to have wide audiences these days, whereas the gentle socialism of "Geyt a hindele" seems just right.

EK: Well, a lot of popular board books incline to the political: A is for Activist comes to mind. Maybe there's an untapped market for anti-capitalist translations of Yiddish children's literature.

JL: Sure. There's definitely a market.

EK: We should start a publishing company, launch an ICO, and distribute through the blockchain.

JL: I haven't been into an Urban Outfitters in years (do they still exist?), but I feel like there's a table up front in every one of those stores where such books would very happily find their place.

But I guess that's pretty 1990s. Your proposal's more 2018.