January 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 Jessica Kirzane.

Jessica Kirzane is an assistant instructional professor of Yiddish at the University of Chicago and the editor-in-chief of In geveb. She holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University, where her research focused on American Yiddish and English-Jewish prose fiction and representations of race, gender, and intermarriage. She is an alumna of the Yiddish Book Center several times over: her very first foray into Yiddish was as a 2007 Steiner intern, and she has also been a Translation Fellow in 2017 and a Pedagogy Fellow in 2018. She also served as an editor for the Teach Great Jewish Books website of the Yiddish Book Center in 2017. She is the translator of Miriam Karpilove's Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love (Syracuse UP, 2019).

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

"In Which I Hate It and Can't Stand It and Don't Want to and Have No Patience at All" Der Tunkeler monologue, translated by Ri Turner

This translation made me laugh out loud, and I keep returning to it over and over again. It brightens up every grouchy day to read this comic temper tantrum.

Maeera Schreiber's Resource Kit on Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus?"

I worked as an editor on the Teach Great Jewish Books website and compiled resource kits, and I have taught with this one several times. I love the way it draws connections within Jewish history and culture and also outside of it—this is a compact poem with an enormous cultural impact and one that many people are familiar with but have not taken the time to unpack and consider as a work of poetry rather than a cultural symbol. This kit gives teachers room to do all of this work.

Dina Halpern word concert

Dina Halpern (1909–1989) lived in Chicago—where I now live and teach—and I hear people speaking fondly of her as a cultural force in this city. Here, Halpern declaims a "word concert" in her clear and resonant voice. She draws on a repertoire of classic Yiddish writers and interprets them with enormous artistry and force. Listening to the recording brings to life Yiddish theater and her love for and pleasure from the Yiddish language. In particular, make sure you listen to her interpretation of In yidishn vort by Dovid Hofshteyn.

Yiddish Primers

As a Yiddish language teacher, I'm always interested in poking into histories and traditions of teaching Yiddish language. This collection of primers shows the variety and creativity of writers and illustrators working to transmit Yiddish to a new generation.

Modne menshn by Rachel Luria

Rachel Luria (1882–1929) was a modernist Yiddish writer, born in Worzshan, Lithuania, who came to the United States at the age of twelve and worked in clothing shops and as a nurse in addition to writing. Her stories are jarring, unsettling, surprising, and *ahem* untranslated. (Are there any future Translation Fellowship holders willing to take them on?)

"Letters to the Editor" By Yente Serdatsky, translated by Cady Vishniac

These biting and hilarious, resentful and convincing letters show the resilience of Serdatsky, as well as the obstacles in the way of women who wrote in Yiddish.

Feygl in der luftn by Shemuel Tsesler (Samuel Chessler)

Feygl in der luftn is a treasure chest for Yiddish teachers—a collection of games and stories for children from a Yiddish shule in Tucman, Argentina in 1939, written by Samuel Chessler, who had only recently immigrated to Argentina from near Bialystok. The poems are full of vibrant images and dramatic stories. My personal favorite are the circle games—rhymes with actions that Yiddish students can recite and act out in sing-song voices, helping them to playfully internalize complicated grammatical forms and a broad and colorful vocabulary while reliving the silliness of early childhood.


Jessica Kirzane speaks with Lisa Newman, the Yiddish Book Center's director of communications, about her Handpicked selections.

Lisa Newman:  I'm curious to know the students' reactions/takeaways when Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus" is taught. It's so iconic and powerful and yet, as you point out, most of us have never really unpacked the work.

Jessica Kirzane: One of the most exciting pieces of this kit for students is that it asks them to compare the Colossus of Rhodes to the Statue of Liberty. Her poem "The New Colossus" places the Statue of Liberty in direct contrast with this more bellicose, male ancient statue, and by thinking about the two statues together students get a better understanding of what Lazarus suggests is new about America in relationship with the ancient world, and the promise she sees for America as a place of refuge and welcome. This is often a revelation, as students tend to be more familiar with the end of the poem, which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, and haven't given a thought to its title and the explicit contrast Lazarus was making. 

LN: Chicago has a rich Yiddish history—maybe lesser-known than New York? Do you know much about the Yiddish world Dina Halpern was part of in Chicago? And please, can you help us with the term "word concert"? 

JK: I'm not an expert on Chicago Yiddish history—though I'm trying to learn now that I'm here. From what I know, Dina Halpern began her career as a dancer and performed with the Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater. Yiddish Book Center members might know her best for her performance as Frade in the 1937 film The Dybbuk—they also may be familiar with other theatrical members of her family, such as her aunt Esther Rukhl Kaminska and her cousin Ida Kaminska. So she was already famous when she settled in Chicago after the war decimated her home and family. As I understand it, she had come to the US in 1938 for an eight-month contract at the Second Avenue Yiddish Theater in New York and found it impossible to return to Poland because of Hitler. She never saw her family again. She stayed in New York, connected to the world of Yiddish theater, and also toured with theatrical troupes. She met and married publicist, press agent, and theatrical manager Danny Newman in 1948 and settled in Chicago, where she founded and was artistic director of the Chicago Yiddish Theater Association, which presented performances from the classic repertoire of the Yiddish stage from 1960 to 1970. She also performed in the Douglass Park Theater, which was the last Yiddish theater in Chicago. Although Chicago was her home base, I do know that she was very active outside of Chicago as well—she performed at the Public Theater in New York and the Littman Theatre in Detroit, and she starred in serials on WEVD and traveled with troupes across America. She also traveled abroad, performing as a guest star in Yiddish plays around the world in Paris, London, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janiero, São Paulo, Montevideo, Tel Aviv and elsewhere. She received the Manger Prize in 1988.  

As for the Yiddish world of Chicago at that time—Chicago, I think, always saw itself as something of a satellite to New York, but it had its own unique character and community, especially around the Spertus Institute, where Halpern herself studied Hebrew, and communal organizations and publishing ventures. It was a vibrant world of bookstores, newspapers, theaters, and folkshuls. But I'm really only at the beginning of learning about this history—I'm excited to find out more!

Word concerts were solo literary performances—dramatic artistic interpretations of literary works. Halpern was famous for her word concerts, as was Hertz Grossbard. The Yiddish Book Center collections have a word concert by Hadassah Kestin

LN: There's something about primers—is there one in particular that really resonates with you? It's sometimes fun to see the handwriting and doodles in the primers, yes? They seem to tell us a bit about their owners?

JK: I love the illustrations—but in general I think primers give us a window into what learners were assumed to already know about Jewish history and culture, as well as what teachers felt it was essential to convey and teach even at the beginning level. This has changed so much over the years—the fundaments of the language remain the same, but the cultural framework in which they are presented can change quite a bit.

I so appreciate the community of people that I find myself sharing translations with—it's kind of an interlingual book club of sorts.

LN: The Der Tunkeler comic monologue is a really wonderful piece—how'd you find your way to it?   

JK: I noticed it as soon as it was published a few years ago and I saw it on Twitter. I've never met Ri (the translator), but I feel I've gotten to know her over the years, reading some translations, hearing her on the Yiddish Voice podcast, etc., and I so appreciate the community of people that I find myself sharing translations with—it's kind of an interlingual book club of sorts. Anyway, I first read this on a grumpy day when I did not want to send some emails for In geveb and was procrastinating by checking Twitter, so of course this grouchy rant struck the perfect chord for me! 

LN: You're unearthing some real gems, and I know your focus is on women writers. Are you surprised with what you're finding and what set you on the path? 

JK: I'm always surprised, and also always not surprised. I knew so little about Yiddish language and culture when I started out (and still know so little!) that everything can be a revelation, but if there's one thing I've learned it's that Yiddish language and culture is much more capacious than I was taught to imagine it to be.

LN: If you could have dinner with one of these writers, who would it be? I'm sure it's hard to choose just one, but I have to ask . . .  And what would you want to talk to them about? 

JK: I gather that she was a bit of a sourpuss, but I would love to have dinner with Yente Serdatsky—who ran a soup kitchen, so we'd have where to eat, too! I've translated some of her work myself, so I'd love to have her feedback, but mostly I feel she'd have a lot of insider gossip to share about the ins and outs of the world of Yiddish writers and wouldn't shy away from telling me exactly how hard it was to be an under-appreciated woman in this male dominated world.