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 Ilan Stavans.
As the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, Ilan Stavans' work focuses on language, identity, politics, and history in English, Spanish, Yiddish, Ladino, and, in particular, Spanglish—but that only scratches the surface of the scope of his work and research interests. Internationally known as an award-winning cultural critic, linguist, translator, public speaker, editor, short-story writer, and radio and TV host, Ilan has collaborated with musicians, opera composers, cartoonists, philosophers, journalists, actors, filmmakers, translators, educators, and politicians in a variety of media. His work has been translated in fifteen languages.
Born in Mexico into a Jewish family with roots in Eastern Europe, Ilan was raised in a multilingual environment, an experience he detailed in his 2001 memoir, On Borrowed Words. In 2003, he published Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language, which includes a lexicon of approximately 6,000 terms. In addition, he is the author of The Disappearance, an award-winning collection of short stories, as well as the children's story Golemito. As an anthologist, he served as the editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, as well as the editor for the centennial edition of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda and the three-volume Library of America edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Collected Stories.
A frequent collaborator with the Yiddish Book Center, we were delighted when Ilan agreed to share some of his highlights from our collections. A conversation about Ilan's selections follows.
After delving into his selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Ilan about his choices.
Gezamelte shriften (Collected Works)
I'm a long-time admirer of Shloyme Zanvil Rappoport, aka Ansky. I never tire of re-reading The Dybbuk: or, Between Two Worlds, and I often delve into his multivolume The Destruction of Galicia (1914), an ethnographic survey of Podolia and Volhynia between 1911 and 1914. Inspired by it, I have recently traveled extensively throughout Jewish Latin America to survey the landscape, writing a travelogue with my impressions.
Di etik dervizn oyf a geometrishn oyfn: in finf teyln (Ethics, a Geometric Proof: In Five Parts)
In its heyday, Yiddish sought to become a truly universal language, not only producing first-rate literature but bringing into it an infinite number of masterpieces, which appeared in lucid translations. This is a rendition of The Ethics by Spinoza, arguably the most important Renaissance thinker and a Jew whose dissident ideas brought him a herem from the intolerant Jewish community in Amsterdam. For years I have taught The Ethics, which was published posthumously. I am always amazed by Spinoza's daring capacity to catalog human emotions, which, on face value, are anything but manageable.
Di geshikhte fun mayn toybnshlak un andere dertseylungen (The Story of My Dovecot and Other Stories)
Along with Franz Kafka and Bruno Schultz, Isaac Babel is the best and most influential Jewish writer of the first half of the twentieth century. His work, having entered public domain, has had an assortment of translations into English, from which readers are fortunately able to draw insightful comparisons. Yiddish only produced one rendition of Babel's "Story of My Dovecot"—it's by Gitl Meisel, and it's inspiring.
Bontsye shvayg redaktirt far der yugnt (Bontshe for the Silent, Edited for Young Adults)
For a long time I have dreamt of adapting this famous I.L. Peretz story, which I first read in Mexico City when I was fifteen years old, to a contemporary graphic novel. It's the tale of a deaf Hispanic man in Brooklyn who, after losing his way, ends up embraced as a messiah by a Hasidic community. This adaptation for children proves how versatile Peretz was. Someday I will conclude the task I set for myself.
"The Religious Dimension of Judaism"
This audio recording of a lecture delivered in Santa Barbara, California, by multilingual scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem is a jewel. Listen to him not only juxtapose autobiography with research but present complex thoughts in his fifth language, English (after German, Hebrew, French, and Latin).
Di mishpokhe karnovski (The Family Carnovsky)
I.J. Singer was Isaac Bashevis Singer's older brother—and he was also a far more accomplished novelist. The Family Carnovsky (1943), a sprawling narrative about anti-Semitism and Jewish resilience as seen through the prism of a single family, left a deep impression in me when I read it in high school, so much so that I knew the day I finished it that I wanted to be a writer. The audio recording in Yiddish would have moved my Yiddish teacher to the core.
My Grandfather's Best Joke
In just about three minutes, the late actor Fyvush Finkel explains how a single joke about an impoverished minyan on Wednesday serves as the glue that links two generations of Yiddish speakers. Finkel's facial gestures alone are enough to make one laugh.
Ilan Stavans talks to Lisa Newman, director of communications at the Yiddish Book Center, about his choices.
Lisa Newman: You picked a number of books from our collection—an interesting selection of works. How’d you go about searching these out? Or did you stumble upon them?
Ilan Stavans: Since the collection is so deep and complex, the task was sheer joy. My first choice was to focus exclusively on Latin America, given how little is known about Yiddish there—even though the region, particularly Buenos Aires, was, like Warsaw and Vilna, a world-class center of Yiddish theater, literature, music, and comedy. Within minutes, though, I realized my focus needed to be much broader. The Yiddish language was omnivorous; in its nervousness, it strove for universality. Isn’t that what Ashkenazi Jews are all about?
LN: Agreed. I certainly think Ansky is an immensely complex individual—his work as an ethnographer always seems to find its way into his writing. To my mind, he’s too often only “known” for the Dybbuk, and readers may lose sight of all that he brings to our understanding of the impact of modernity on Jewish history and culture. Thoughts?
IS: I love Ansky’s quasi-journalistic ethnography, and I've learned enormously from it. He did something that to this day few ethnographers know how to do: write well. His exploration of a corner of the Pale of Settlement as the First World War was under way remains extraordinarily vivid. I ranked it, along with Roman Vishniac’s black-and-white photographs of Eastern European Jews before the Holocaust, as an invaluable window to a vanishing civilization. In my recent work, I have sought to emulate Ansky’s “reportorial” voice.
LN: Were you at all surprised to find that Spinoza was translated into Yiddish?
IS: Not surprised in the least. Shakespeare was translated into Yiddish, the Odyssey, the Arabian Nights, not to mention Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev. Not long ago, a friend of mine sent me a Yiddish translation of some stories by Jorge Luis Borges. Spinoza’s The Ethics must have had a generous following. In fact, among Isaac Bashevis Singer’s many stories is a delightful one called “The Spinoza of Market Street.” It came vividly to my mind upon reading Spinoza in Yiddish.
LN: Like Ansky, there’s a lot to unpack with Babel. While he didn’t write in Yiddish, as you suggest he’s a very Jewish writer. Any thoughts on why more of his work wasn’t translated into Yiddish? Or what makes him a “very” Jewish writer?
IS: Kafka is the ultimate modern Jewish writer, yet the word “Jewish” never shows up in his oeuvre. What makes him Jewish is his unmistakable sensibility, obsessed with guilt and defeatism. Babel is also Jewish, although in dramatically different ways. His tales of Odessa are a sardonic denunciation of Jewish lowlifes, personified in his protagonist, Benya Krik. Babel set the path for Philip Roth’s critique of American-Jewish identity in Goodbye, Columbus. Interestingly, what I found in the collection are Babel’s more delicate stories, which he wrote under the inspiration of Maupassant. I have read these stories in Spanish, English, and Hebrew, and love them dearly. In my opinion, they are among the best written by a Jewish writer in any language.
LN: You’re fluent in many languages; I'm curious to know how this informs—or possibly doesn’t—your choices, or the writers you gravitate towards in general.
IS: I gravitate towards writers connected with larger ideas, whose craft is delivered with linguistic precision. (This makes me somewhat allergic to French literature, for instance.) Then, after I have fallen in love, I seek ways to experience that writer’s work in the original language, in part because I think that translation is—by definition—a form of corruption. And I say that having devoted a generous part of my career to translation. By the way, lately I've been involved in an unusual project: translating from languages I don’t know. I've translated a story from the Russian by Chekhov, a poem written in Georgian, and another poem in Portuguese, which I know only partially.
LN: Many of your choices, including the Fyvush Finkel oral history, seem to address, or at least reflect upon, the intersection of time/generations/moments of transition. Is this something that you’re interested in exploring, or was it just chance that these selections seemed to suggest those themes?
IS: I am indeed fascinated by that topic. I look at words as time capsules—the languages we use have a rich history that has the DNA of our ancestors. We’re just temporary users. The future will look back at how we engaged with the words we used—how we took care of them, how we infused them with new meaning—in the same way that we look at how our ancestors handled them. It’s accidental that we share the stage with our contemporaries; more fitting is to choose who we want to be on it with.
LN: So what’s your next Yiddishly-related project?
IS: I've been working on a biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer for Princeton University Press. Unfortunately I'm a bit late with it, but I should be able to wrap it up soon.
LN: I think I can speak for everyone at the Center when I say that we can't wait for you to finish! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk.
IS: My pleasure.