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 Susan Bronson.
Susan Bronson, the Yiddish Book Center's executive director, holds a PhD in Russian history and Jewish history from the University of Michigan and has worked in nonprofit culture and higher education for nearly thirty years.
After delving into her selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Susan about her choices.
I find this chapter from Rachel Auerbach's 1974 memoir Varshever tsavoes (Warsaw Testaments) very moving, particularly during these days of pandemic. Auerbach wrote, "It may seem absurd to say that people needed books when they had nothing to eat and their lives were so uncertain . . . There has rarely been such a mass hunger for books as there was in Poland during the German occupation, a hunger stirred partly by the impulse to forget the constant danger, the melancholy reality; partly by the drive to release psychic energies, to strengthen one's fearfully oppressed sense of self . . . And what applies to grown-ups applies even more emphatically to children. Especially to the Jewish child in the ghetto. The ghetto child, robbed of the world--the river, the green trees, freedom of movement--could win all this back through the magic of the printed word." These librarians were true heroes, and literature continues to be a source of strength and meaning.
Ellen Cassedy's newly translated collection of short stories by Yenta Mash is a revelation. These powerful, heartbreaking stories capture the horrors of life in Siberian exile. A product of the Center's Yiddish Translation Fellowship, I highly recommend reading the full collection: On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash.
On a lighter note, one of my very favorite pieces in our "From the Vault" series is this one, wherein our then fellow Mikhl Yashinsky finds a brown paper bag with family recipes in our book vault and proceeds to cook one of the recipes, identify the "Beulah" who wrote the recipe, track down Beulah's daughter, and connect to the family. The story Mikhl tells is both charming and touching.
On a personal note, this podcast makes me feel close to my grandparents through a funny coincidence. On the podcast, Bob Schor chats with The Shmooze about his remarkable aunt Cipe Pineles. Born in Vienna in 1908 to an Orthodox Jewish family, Cipe immigrated to New York in 1923, where she studied art at Pratt Institute and went on to have an amazing career as the first female art director at Condé Nast and the first woman asked to join the legendary Art Directors Club. Her work and illustration continue to influence modern design.
I happened to be walking past Lisa Newman's office and saw a book of Cipe Pineles' illustrations on her desk. The name rang a bell for me, and it turns out that Pineles knew my grandparents and was the designer for their resort in the Adirondacks, Green Mansions. One of her paintings hangs in my kitchen today.
I have many favorite excerpts from our Wexler Oral History Project. This one speaks to me as a New Yorker and because I knew the narrator, Arthur Klein. It captures a particular practice and historical moment in a New York that no longer exists-young men going to the "shvitz" for a sauna (who knew you could spend the night?!). It also illustrates how these oral histories preserve stories of everyday life of a kind that you don't always find in the written record. This is just one small example in the hundreds of hours of personal stories that we have recorded and preserved.
From the Center's site for teachers (and learners!), teachgreatjewishbooks.org—Avrom Sutzkever's "The Lead Plates of the Rom Printers" is a powerful poem offering inspiration for downtrodden readers after the war. It interweaves history with fiction in order to tell the story of Jewish partisan fighters in the Vilna Ghetto, who turn the Hebrew letters of a Jewish printing press into bullets with which they can fight the Nazis. These resource kits provide a range of materials for teachers but are also wonderful just to browse. This one includes an audio recording of Sutzkever himself reading the poem. To me, even if you don't understand the words, hearing the voice of the poet himself reading the poem is very special. Two different translations are also included here, as are other materials providing history and context.
Susan Bronson talks to the Yiddish Book Center's communications editor, Faune Albert, about her Handpicked choices:
Faune Albert: You've chosen quite a diverse selection of items here, from Auerbach's powerful memoir to Yenta Mash's story to the Sutzkever resource kit for teachers. How did you go about finding or choosing these selections? Were you already familiar with many of them or were they new finds?
Susan Bronson: A combination—I was familiar with the Sutzkever resource kit for teachers. I love hearing Sutzkever himself read the poem and the 1939 short film about Jewish life in Vilna. Although this kit and all the others are designed for teachers, I think they are terrific for anyone to explore. The kit on Kadya Molodowsky's "God of Mercy" is another favorite. I found the Auerbach memoir excerpt recently when I was exploring the Pakn Treger Digital Translation Issue focused on Yiddish works by women writers that we published a couple of years ago.
FA: The quote from Auerbach's chapter that you cite here is, as you note, also resonant during this pandemic, when books can help transport us to places or worlds that we're not currently able to visit. I'm curious—are there books or other media (films, TV, podcasts, music, etc.) that you've turned to over these last few months, whether for solace, escape, or just pure entertainment?
SB: I'm not sure I should admit what I've been reading and watching! When we first went into quarantine, I had lofty ideas, probably like many others, of reading all sorts of important works that I hadn't gotten to in the past. That hasn't happened! I've turned to things that are escapist for me—I love mysteries and have pretty much devoured an entire series by Martin Walker set in the French countryside. There are lots of scenes involving incredible meals. I watched a terrific French series on Netflix—Call My Agent—more escapism. I must be on a French kick. But I've also kept up with the Center's Great Jewish Books Book Club reading and really enjoyed re-reading Sholem Aleichem's Motl the Cantor's Son and Enemies, A Love Story by Bashevis Singer.
FA: Mikhl's piece on "Eating the Archives" is such fun and a favorite for many. Do you have any favorite family recipes that have been passed down?
SB: Absolutely! Many. My great-aunt made amazing sweet and sour stuffed cabbage. My mother's brisket is the best. I can't reveal the secret ingredient. In fact, there has been talk about a brisket cook-off at the Center. Perhaps when we are able to gather together again we can make that happen.
FA: Another question inspired by Mikhl's piece: what's the most surprising or most interesting item that you've come across in our collections during your years at the Center?
SB: I don't know that I can think of a single most interesting item. I am most enthralled by some of the incredible illustrations in many of our books.
FA: You hold a PhD in Russian history. Does this background influence the way that you read, interact with, or relate to Yiddish literature and history and the Center's various collections?
SB: I read lots of literature with a historian's sensibility, and my background has given me a deep appreciation for the accessibility of all the materials. I can truly understand the importance of Yiddish OCR for scholars. When I was researching my dissertation in Moscow in 1990, a tool like OCR was beyond imagination! I also feel a particular connection to works by Soviet Yiddish writers because the context feels familiar. I loved reading The Zelmenyaners, by Moyshe Kulbak. It is set in the early Soviet period in Minsk—a funny and tragic family saga.
FA: As executive director of the Center, your work takes you into many different areas. Can you tell us a little bit about how you engage with the website for some of the different aspects of your work?
SB: Unfortunately, I don't spend as much time exploring the site as I would like. Much of my time is spent working with the staff who run all of our projects and programs. I'm envious of those who get to do more research and exploring! But I do spend time looking at all areas of the site for various reasons—often to report to donors or foundations, but also just for fun.
FA: Do you have a favorite Yiddish writer, and if so, what about them speaks to you?
SB: I can't say I have a favorite Yiddish writer, and I've never been able to pick a favorite anything. I really like exploring the new translations that our Translation Fellows have had published recently. I have particularly appreciated "On The Landing" by Yenta Mash, translated by Ellen Cassedy, and Warsaw Stories by Hersh Dovid Nomberg, translated by Daniel Kennedy. It's exciting to read new translations of work by Yiddish women writers who were previously under-appreciated. And I have loved reading some of the work of the best known Yiddish authors like Sholem Aleichem, the Singer brothers, I. L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, and more.