March 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 Lesley Yalen.
Lesley assists in the development of the Yiddish Book Center's education programs and co-edits the Center's teacher resources at teachgreatjewishbooks.org. She received her BA from Brown University and her MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts.
After delving into her selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Lesley about her choices.
This epistolary exchange between Yiddish writers Blume Lempel and Chava Rosenfarb is full of what I love most about my friendships with women: mutual curiosity, respect, encouragement, and empathy. It's also full of the lost (to me) art of letter-writing and reminds me of how much I used to convey to friends through the mail.
In 2017, the Wexler Oral History Project interviewed renowned cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer. In this excerpt Feiffer compares his creative process to the process of the mid-twentieth century improv comedy duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May. He says he "fell madly in love" when he first saw them perform. I find his being so inspired inspiring.
Grace Paley is one of my favorite fiction writers and in 2006 or 2007, less than a year before she died, my husband and I had to drive her from Amherst to Boston, which is a long story I will never forget. But way back in 2002, she gave a reading at the Yiddish Book Center in which her abundant genius and charm were evident.
Rachel Auerbach's essay "Yizkor, 1943" is a powerful reflection on what was lost with the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, written in the immediate aftermath of the event. Rachel Rothstein's Teach Great Jewish Books resource kit offers a number of audio-visual materials that provide context for and illuminate the essay, including archival photographs and maps and film clips depicting Warsaw on the eve of the war.
I love the images and discussion of Yiddish astrologic practices in this short article by Sadie Gold-Shapiro. While I don't put much stock in astrology, I do put stock in Sadie and their way of always finding what's most intriguing about the Yiddish past for the Yiddish present.
In this excerpt from the Wexler Oral History Project, my Great Aunt Helen talks about working alongside Ethel Rosenberg in a textile factory. I love when she says "We were all very idealistic! We were a little pink."
Lesley Yalen talks to the Yiddish Book Center's director of communications, Lisa Newman, about her Handpicked choices:
Lisa Newman: At last, you've agreed to be a Handpicked curator! I've been hoping to see what you'd select and also was excited to have the chance to ask you about your selections. You use our website source material in so much of your work with educational programs and the teachgreatjewishbooks.org website. How does it all figure into your work?
Lesley Yalen: I love when materials from our collections find their way into our resource kits for teachers at teachgreatjewishbooks.org. Whether it's an audio recording of Avrom Sutzkever reading a poem in Yiddish, or an oral history excerpt with Harold Bloom talking about watching a Yiddish performance of The Merchant of Venice, it's always exciting to uncover materials we can share with teachers.
LN: The Jules Feiffer selection certainly speaks to you as a writer and a visual enthusiast. I imagine you were eager to listen to his oral history—and the excerpt you selected is quite wonderful. I know you've done some interviewing for our Wexler Oral History Project. I'm curious, is there a question you would have loved to have asked him?
LY: I would like to ask him what it's like living on Shelter Island, that bit of land between the North and South Forks of Long Island, where our oral history team interviewed him. How do I get to live somewhere accessible only by ferry?
LN: The letters between Chava Rosenfarb and Blume Lempel are wonderful. When these crossed the desk as submissions it was hard not to get lost in all that was conveyed in the exchanges. I think the modern day equivalent is texting or whatsapping. But honestly, the art of letter is kind of irreplaceable. What did you read into this exchange?
I just love the way the two supported each other so passionately, from afar . . . I'd be interested in reading letters from the end of their friendship, if any exist.
LY: I just love the way the two supported each other so passionately, from afar. I recently learned that they ultimately had a falling out over one of Rosenfarb's stories, which portrayed with some empathy a Jewish woman who had served as a Nazi functionary (kapo) in a concentration camp. I'd be interested in reading letters from the end of their friendship, if any exist.
LN: I've read the translation of Auerbach's "The Librarians"—it's quite a piece, and I attended a one-day conference about her last fall. She was an amazing woman on so many fronts. Were you surprised to find your way to her work, and any thoughts on all that she brings to your educational work-in terms of teaching and the students' takeaways?
LY: I think Auerbach's role as documentarian is crucial. Students are more likely to be exposed to Holocaust memoirs written years after the events or to Holocaust fiction written by people who did not live through it. The fact that this "Yizkor" (memorial service) was written in 1943 by someone who had their feet on the ground and their eyes and ears open makes it very powerful.
LN: I also picked the Grace Paley reading as one of my Handpicked selections. Like minds, we. I think there's so much to unpack in Grace Paley's work—I'm sure that's true for you as an educator and a writer. So, I have to ask—jealousy—what was it like to have the chance to be in the car with Grace Paley. I know you say "long story, I'll never forget"—any chance that you can share something about your car conversation?
LY: It was just months before she died. While she was well enough to have just given a reading at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, she seemed tired and a little disoriented in the car. She talked about the trees she saw out the window, and her fondness for them. What I remember most is how happy her husband, Bob Nichols, was to see her when we delivered her to him in Boston. They had the longest, sweetest hug.