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 Eitan Kensky.
There are few people more uniquely qualified to delve into the Yiddish Book Center's collections than Eitan Kensky. As the Center's director of collections initiatives, Eitan has been instrumental in discovering and curating an expansive range of materials—not just books, but also audio and video recordings, translations, and digital collections. But even more impressive—and perhaps more important—has been his work in making this trove of Yiddish literature and Jewish culture available to ever-expanding audiences throughout the world. From finding innovative ways to share our collections across various digital platforms to partnering with other institutions to expand our digital Yiddish library, Eitan has been instrumental in fully bringing our collections into the twenty-first century. The following are a few of his favorite finds.
After delving into his selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Eitan about his choices.
Is this the most idiosyncratic event in the Frances Brandt archive? It's a student performance of American Yiddish poetry staged at McGill—but that doesn't even begin to describe it. It was a true multimedia event with experimental film and dance: a happening in all senses of the word.
Sholem Aleichem died bringing us this story. It was the last thing that he ever wrote. It's barely more than an initial character sketch, but one that explodes with possibility. Did Sholem Aleichem know the answer to the mystery he had started to develop—or did he pass before he could write his way to an answer?
How do we connect to the past? How do we make it usable, how do we make it relevant and meaningful? These are the philosophical questions behind one of the best things that I worked on at the Yiddish Book Center: Michael Yashinsky's story of finding a bag of Yiddish newspaper recipes in an archival closet.
Moishe Nadir wasn't only one of the funniest Yiddish writers, he was one of the most stylish. A known dandy, yes, but also a literary stylist: his writing is off the charts, and his knowledge of regionalisms, idiolects, and plain-old vocabulary unparalleled.
A beautiful, affecting Yiddish story that moves gloriously from the old to the new. Jessica Kirzane is a rising star of Yiddish literary translation, and Yenta Serdatsky is a revelation.
In addition to being one of the most talented poets of his era, Robert Pinsky is an insightful thinker, a charming speaker, one of the nicest people in America, and, as evidenced by his known-love of the New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge, a connoisseur of fish.
Have you always wanted to learn hypnotism, mentalism, telepathy, or the powers of suggestion? Then this is the book for you!
Eitan Kensky talks to Josh Lambert, the Yiddish Book Center's academic director, about his Handpicked choices.
Josh Lambert: I’m glad that the NSA, if they're reading our chat histories, will think we're friends who once every few months discuss a list of Yiddish cultural objects.
Eitan Kensky: For the sake of national cyber security, we’ll have to maintain this way of communicating.
JL: So, first question: You've done a few Handpicked in the past, what was on your mind as you sat down to put together this one?
EK: This one was definitely autobiographical, with an emphasis on the projects and articles I've worked on at the Center. There's only one item on the list that has no connection to the work that I've done here.
JL: Glad I asked; I hadn't picked up on that. How did it happen, in your work on the Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library, that you discovered "the most idiosyncratic" event in the whole archive? Was it the title that caught your attention?
EK: One of the cool things (as I see it) about the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program is that the intermediate Yiddish students have internships and work on different projects that help them improve their Yiddish skills. As part of that program, we had Steiner students listen to poetry readings in the Frances Brandt Library. We asked them to timecode poetry readings, to record what poem was read, when it was read, and, if possible, to find the original in a book of poetry.
This was one of the events that the students worked on, but there was something weird about it: a lot of empty time between the poems. I went back, listened to the recording, and I heard muffled drum beats, and strange rhythmic music. I found a playbill for the event, and it listed dancers and film. People must have been dancing when that music was playing! It answered questions: this was a student-produced program, with music, dance, and experimental film. I believe that the temporally correct term would have been “a happening.”
But the story gets better. Zeke Levine, one of the current fellows here at the Center, tracked down one of the people who participated at the program, a musician who became a professor of linguistics. Zeke and I arranged to interview him, and he also referred us to another person involved with the performance. Then we interviewed her. Finally, we interviewed one last person involved with it: Ruth Wisse, my former doctoral advisor.
JL: Ah, so at some point you'll be able to tell us more about this event. And for now we can listen to the somewhat mysterious audio.
EK: I hope so. Our goal was to make this into a podcast episode, but we haven't been able to track down the key figure of the event: Toby Glasrot. Zeke followed one lead, but the trail ran cold. Toby—if this finds you—contact Zeke!
JL: Well, you've made me curious enough that I'll demand that somebody write something about this one day.
EK: Yes, I mentioned this here so that Zeke would consider it a moral obligation to edit these interviews before the end of his fellowship.
JL: It really is a lovely illustration of how the various ways we connect with the collection can draw our attention to a particular item or text. I assume the Sholem Aleichem bit you picked here came out of your work on the translation fellowship?
EK: For Pakn Treger, actually. One of the roles that I've gotten to play here at the Center is translation editor. The powers-that-be at Pakn Treger came to me looking for a translation for the magazine. It was the 100th yortsayt of Sholem Aleichem, so I suggested running a new translation of the unfinished final chapter of Motl, which wasn’t included in the Hillel Halkin volume.
But I also suggested it because I knew that Larry Rosenwald was working on that chapter. He gave the keynote at a big conference in Tel Aviv about Sholem Aleichem's New York, and that chapter was going to figure in his talk. I knew this because I got to sit and read the chapter and the epilogue as part of a leyenkrayz. It was amazing watching him at work reading a story, teasing out features that never would have struck me as important.
I think that Larry really liked the illustrations, which I also adore.
JL: That's all great, but even for those who don't have the backstory, it's pretty stunning to get Y. D. Berkovitz's memoir of Sholem Aleichem's last days, and to think that what this incredible author was doing, weakened and on the verge of death, was channeling the voice of a young boy, bewildered and excited by the prospect of America.
EK: Absolutely! And I also really want to know: Did Sholem Aleichem know the answer to the riddle he was setting up?
JL: What do you mean, riddle?
EK: What we have is little more than a sketch, but it introduces a key character, "a strange guy," who is absolutely, without question, going to be the center of the drama of this chapter—and maybe others—but then it ends. "Who he is, what he is―we don’t know. Where he lives and what his bizneses are―we don’t know that either."
We're given a series of questions about this man, but no answers. Only a routine.
JL: Yes, it could go in a million directions.
EK: It makes me wonder about Sholem Aleichem's writing process. Did he pose questions to inspire his writing? Now he has to figure out what the strange guy’s "bizneses" are. Think about the comic potential!
JL: But I love how simple it is—it's a vision of the annoying guy who reads the paper at the newsstand, without paying for it. It's lovely, also, to see that you linked to a work of Moshe Nadir's. Do you think there's any chance that contemporary English-speaking readers will come to appreciate him?
EK: That's my dream! He's hard to translate. Humor doesn't translate well. Nadir was great at imitating Yiddish dialects—which doesn't translate well. He's also a difficult writer: his vocabulary is very rich, maybe too rich. That's a hard feature to translate. You would need to use lots of SAT and GRE vocab words, but in a way that feels natural.
JL: That's my sense. But if I'm remembering right, he was somehow kind of popular among English-speaking American bohemians in Greenwich Village in the 1910s and 1920s. Am I remembering right?
EK: Yes! First, I would never question your memory. As far as I can tell, it's infallible. He was very popular with American proletarian authors.
JL: My wife will laugh out loud if she sees anyone say my memory is infallible. How do you account for that, given how difficult he is to translate?
EK: They get the jokes? There's a strong political and class-conscious element to his humor that doesn't translate well because we're not as involved and invested in theories of proletarian realism.
Another reason that his humor doesn’t translate well: it’s very gendered. It's intentional, but it's very, very gendered.
JL: In what sense?
EK: Here's the beginning of a three-paragraph Nadir joke included in this book. It’s a pretty standard Nadir joke:
"Having bought myself a new suit, dressed up, cleaned my fingernails, spread pomade in my hair until it gleamed, I take my walking stick in hand and abandon my married wife."
Then, within the span of two paragraphs, he returns to his wife, because all his former lovers are now married to men who might beat him up and get dirt on his new suit. The story ends with him inconsolable.
JL: Well, that does seem like it is very intentionally making fun of misogyny. Or at least I hope it is?
EK: It's both. This one is more intentional fun than outright misogyny, but we’re talking about tilted scales.
JL: Two of your picks come from remarkable people you've worked with at the Center, Michael Yashinsky and Jessica Kirzane. It must be incredibly rewarding to have that opportunity in your role here, especially since it's not really academic work they're doing—Michael's "Eating the Archives" piece is kind of sui generis.
EK: No question. Getting to work with the fellows—this group of whip-smart post-grads—is incredible. I loved working with Michael on that story. Finding the clippings, talking with him about them. You should be so lucky!
I haven’t worked anywhere nearly as closely with Jessica. It’s been a lot of fun to work with her as an editor, but this story predates that. I read it for the first time when I was preparing our anthology of translations that had appeared in Pakn Treger. It spoke to me immediately. Yet it also shows how much Jessica has grown as a translator. This story is excellent—and well rendered. But her new stuff is infinitely more mature.
JL: That's fascinating. She's doing really incredible work in several different areas; the last resource kit she did for our Great Jewish Books Teacher Resources site, on kneydlekh, was unbelievable.
EK: Kneydlekh are great. I'm definitely #teamknedyl. Lokshn in soup just aren’t as satisfying.
And to say one more thing about Michael’s story, “Eating the Archives”: archives are great because you can eat them. By that I mean, there are so many different ways to interact with the past and to make it come alive, to make it personally relevant. The archival object is a marker, a remnant, a whatever. It's contextual as much as it's textual, and it wants us to engage with it in a way that endows it with transhistorical meaning.
JL: That's a really lovely way of describing what life is like at the Center. Often the best ways to interact with the archive are the ones that surprise even the people who know the archives best. What can you tell me about the relationship between Robert Pinsky and the Center?
EK: I wish I knew!
JL: Me, too. He seems like one of the few poets people ask to speak for poetry in unusual places, such as on The Colbert Report. Why do you think that is? Because he's so nice?
EK: In my limited experience, Robert Pinsky is exactly as he's portrayed on The Simpsons: If you attend one of his readings, and he has nothing to do after, he will go out and get pizza with you.
But I selected this event because of what it represents more broadly. It's part of our project to digitize the recordings of old programs held at the Yiddish Book Center. The lecture was recorded on compact cassette and stored in a cardboard box in the basement, and it was impossible to listen to until last summer when we had the tape digitized. This is a project that means a lot to me, and I wanted to select something that symbolized it.
JL: It's amazing that you pushed so hard to get these materials from the Center's history online and available—so many fascinating events take place here, and have taken place over the years. And you've done a lot to make that visible.
EK: I feel good knowing that these recordings (at least, whatever we discovered) have now been digitized and are on multiple hard drives in our building, and on the vendor’s secure server. I'm excited for them to start being accessioned into our digital collections. There are so many interesting programs—lectures, author talks, concerts. I want to listen to them, and I know that others want to listen to them, and that’s why this project exists.
JL: Now, as for the dark arts, are telepathy and hypnotism useful in your job?
EK: Ha! No, this is another item I selected for autobiographical reasons. I wrote a short post for the Center's website on various "guides," "how-to's," and "manuals" in the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library. This really is a guide to hypnotism, and telepathy for Yiddish speakers. Perhaps it's the best guide to telepathy in existence. But it also just contains good advice for living a professional life.
JL: Like what?
EK: Here is a list of qualities that a hypnotist needs to have:
A talented hypnotist must have cold-bloodedness and patience; be able not only to speak well, but also to listen.
Must in everything be systematic and punctilious.
Be dressed respectably, but not loudly; avoid screaming colors; be dressed purely, beautifully, elegant.
Must demonstrate self-assuredness and boldness in his movements, deeds, and speech.
Never be afraid of anything.
Be helpful, responsible, honest, and serious in dealings with people.
Avoid banal jokes…
JL: Amazing. Let's all "avoid banal jokes," if we can.
EK: It's a sage bit of advice for most any situation.