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 Lisa Newman.
Lisa Newman is the director of communications and visitor services at the Yiddish Book Center. As a non-Yiddish speaker, she's constantly scouring our website for English-language recordings, lectures, articles, oral histories, and other materials that open up the culture and provide background for her work on Pakn Treger and the Center's podcast, The Schmooze. Here are some of her favorites.
After delving into her selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Lisa about her choices.
"Di Yunge: A Group of American-Jewish Literary Rebels"
In this 1973 recording, Professor Ruth Wisse delivers a lecture in what is described as a packed lecture hall at the Montreal Jewish Library. Drawing from the writers' memoirs and accounts, Wisse talks about the challenges these newly arrived young Yiddish writers faced as they tried to "Americanize."
"Delving into the Life and Work of Itzik Manger"
Professor Efrat Gal-Ed, author of a biography on Itzik Manger, joined Aaron Lansky for a podcast about the modernist Yiddish writer. Gal-Ed shares the insights she discovered in her research and stories that inform our understanding of Manger's world and work.
"Why Read Yehoash?"
Peter Manseau makes the case for reading the Yiddish-language poet, scholar, and Bible translator, "a man whose own life crossed borders of language and homelands, [who] reminds us that the map of Jewish literature is still being drawn."
Dan Opatoshu's Oral History
This interview with Dan Opatoshu, grandson of the Yiddish writer Yosef Opatoshu, provides a personal portrait of the writer. Opatoshu's recollection of listening to his grandfather read classic comic books in Yiddish—causing the child to think that Little Lulu actually spoke Yiddish—is just wonderful.
"My Life as a Yiddish Writer"
In this archival recording, we hear Chava Rosenfarb describe her connection to Yiddish and the world that informed her writing.
"Love! Vengeance! Espionage!"
A wonderful piece about a lesser-known genre of Yiddish literature. There was the "high culture" of Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz, and the "low culture" of shund.
"The Claim of the Jewish Eye"
Alan Trachtenberg considers the unique lens of the Jewish photographer in this 2003 article from Pakn Treger.
Lisa Newman talks to Eitan Kensky, the Yiddish Book Center’s director of collections initiatives, about her Handpicked choices.
Eitan Kensky: Tell us a little more about how you made your selections. Were these items—stories, lectures, oral histories—that you remembered from your work, or were they new discoveries?
Lisa Newman: Apart from the oral history interview, they were all new discoveries. In some cases, research related to my work led me in the right direction. I wish that I could say there was a method to how I discovered all these items, but then you know me well enough to know that I’m not that linear a thinker. So, best answer: curiosity, a desire to explore and unearth accessible items. For me, that’s English-language material.
EK: Do you have any tips or tricks you can recommend for how to search the collections on our website (yiddishbookcenter.org)?
LN: Great question. I wear different hats, as it were, when searching. Sometimes I’m looking for background information for Pakn Treger articles or issue topics. Other times I may be looking to see what’s available to share on our social media pages, or in our e-news. In those cases, I’ll use the search function (the magnifying glass at the top of the webpage) and enter words related to the type of information I’m interested in. For instance, I recently searched the term “youth”—a broad term, I know, but I wanted to see what surfaced that might be relevant for an upcoming issue of Pakn Treger. I encourage users to start searching as you would in a Google search—enter a word or phrase related to what you’re curious about and see what happens. And you can always refine your search by using the nifty “Show me just. . .” filter.
EK: I know that your initial goal was to highlight English-language sources, but what you've put together actually is much larger than that: a syllabus in Yiddish literature and Yiddish culture. Was your goal to provide a comprehensive background?
LN: Hmm . . . the honest answer is that I didn’t have a goal in mind. I was simply curious to see what my search results returned in English-language recordings, oral histories, articles. I’m always trying to learn more about modern Jewish literature and culture. I approached this as someone who is a “culturally curious” website user. It’s like entering a library or a bookstore and browsing with no expectation of what you’ll unearth.
EK: What drew you to the oral history with Dan Opatoshu? Are there particular stories that really spoke to you?
LN: Yes! Midway into the interview, Dan recalls spending weekends with his grandparents at their country house, and he shares a story about sitting on Yosef Opatoshu’s lap while his grandfather read comic books aloud to him in Yiddish. At the time, Dan was too young to read, so he never realized that these comics were written in English, not Yiddish. This story was charming, but for me it had a personal resonance, too, since my father wrote several of the comic books that Opatoshu read aloud. I know my father would have loved that story.
EK: I never knew that your father wrote comics! What comics did he write? What publishers did he work for? Do you have any favorite stories about the comic book industry?
LN: Yup, my father wrote comic books, comic strips, and books. His career spanned the 1940s to the 1990s, and he’s credited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific comic-book writer, with more than 4,100 published stories totaling approximately 36,000 pages. He’s best-known for scripting the comic-book series Turok for twenty-six years. He wrote for DC Comics, Western Publishing, and Gold Key Comics, and he wrote the weekly Lone Ranger comic strip. I do have some favorite stories, but I’m afraid that would be telling tales out of school—interesting things happened when comic book writers and illustrators visited our house. Suffice to say, it made for a fun childhood. My brother and I were the envy of the neighborhood, because every Thursday a package containing the newest comic books would arrive in our mailbox, and our parents let us read them all.
EK: One of your selections is an autobiographical lecture by the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb. Her book Survivors was our most recent Great Jewish Books Book Club selection. What was it like to learn about her life, especially while reading those stories?
LN: In a word, amazing. To hear Rosenfarb’s voice speaking of her life, her time in the ghetto, all the experiences that informed her writing. She talks about how vital a part of her life Yiddish is—for her it was the only means of expression. I think that speaks volumes.
EK: Your selections cover Yiddish literature and the worlds of Yiddish with one exception: "The Claim of the Jewish Eye" by Alan Trachtenberg, about Jewish photography. What drew you to that Pakn Treger story? Do you have a special love for photography?
LN: I think colleagues would agree that I’m a visual thinker—and a lover of art. I stumbled upon that article while searching for items related to modern Jewish culture—another lucky discovery. I’m always interested in considering the roots of Jewishness, as it were, in art.
EK: What did you learn? Did you get any answers, or were you left with new questions?
LN: I was introduced to a few new photographers. It was interesting to consider the idea of the “Jewish photographer”—not just their “lens” but also how they were considering and pushing photography in many of the same ways their non-Jewish contemporaries were.
EK: It strikes me that you personally know a number of these authors—Peter Manseau, Ruth Wisse, and our own Elissa Sperling. What has it been like to work with them over the years?
LN: It’s one of the many, many great perks of my job. I sometimes liken these introductions and the resulting conversations—and exposure to their work—as my “graduate degree in Jewish studies.” Personally and professionally, they’ve enriched my understanding of my Jewish heritage, continually opening up Yiddish and modern Jewish culture for me in surprising ways.
EK: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned in a conversation with one of our authors?
LN: Each has introduced me to aspects of modern Jewish literature that I hadn’t encountered or considered before. I’d read Bellow, Malamud, Roth, Paley, and others, but knew little if anything about Yiddish literature. They’ve certainly influenced my reading in the past six years—I have a mountain of books on my nightstand that I’m happily working my way through.