May 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 Josh Lambert.
Josh Lambert is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center and a visiting assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The author of several books and numerous articles, he is co-editor of the recent anthology How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish.
After delving into his selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Josh about his choices.
This kit, on the Center's site for teachers, offers resources for teaching a famous and unforgettable poem, "Diving into the Wreck," by Adrienne Rich. As the kit, by Joshua Logan Wall, explains, a few years before she wrote it Rich translated Yiddish women's poetry—and so the poem's description of a salvage operation might even be read as describing her dive into Yiddish literary history.
Yosef Haim Yerushalmi was one of the most influential Jewish historians of recent times, and though I have read his work I had never heard his voice until listening to recordings of his lectures at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. This lecture, telling the life story of the poet Yehuda Ha-Levi, includes as a forshpayz Yerushalmi's explanation of how a New York-born, Ashkenazi Jew like him came to have the name "Yerushalmi."
More than once during the recent months of quarantine have the opening lines of Jacob Glatstein's famous poem "A gute nakht, velt" ("Goodnight, World") been on my mind: "Good night, wide world. / Big, stinking world. / Not you, but I, slam the gate." To read the original, written for a very different moment of historical tragedy and trauma, see Glatstein's 1943 book Gedenkenlider.
Among a trove of recently posted audio recordings of programs from the Yiddish Book Center that took place before my time on staff, this one, featuring the Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scliar is one that popped out at me. I've long admired Scliar's stories in translation from Portuguese, and I had no idea that a few years before I started working at the Center, he dropped by to discuss his work.
Josh Lambert talks to the Yiddish Book Center's communications editor, Faune Albert, about his Handpicked choices:
Faune Albert: Thank you for sending me in the direction of Adrienne Rich's poem "Diving Into the Wreck." I understand your suggestion that "the poem's description of a salvage operation might even be read as describing her dive into Yiddish literary history." But listening to it today, while quarantined at home, the repeated reference to the mask is a reference that two months ago would not have prompted a powerful image. It's interesting how, when, and maybe where we first encounter a poem will prompt different interpretations?
Josh Lambert: Absolutely—and not just for poems. For my teaching I sometimes come back to a novel five or ten years after I first read it, and there's (almost) always something new.
FA: The same could be said for Glatstein's poem—how certain verses, as you point out, can take on new meanings within different contexts, and especially now in our contemporary moment, as we're all dealing with the pandemic. I'm wondering if there's other writing or art that you've come across, whether in or outside of our collections, recent or older, that you feel really resonates, in whatever ways, with this particular moment in our history?
JL: There have been a few, especially as I've been packing up my library at home. I'll mention two: Raymond Federman's Double or Nothing, a novel in which a character prepares to isolate himself for a year and obsessively calculates how much toilet paper and how many boxes of noodles he'll need. (It came out in the early 1970s.) The other I came across unexpectedly, a few days ago, when reading Sydney Taylor's More All-of-a-Kind Family to my daughter; there's a chapter about the 1916 polio/infantile paralysis epidemic in New York that felt a little eerie.
FA: I'm curious—did the experience of listening to Yosef Haim Yerushalmi's voice as he speaks shift your perspective on him or his works?
JL: He was a very learned scholar, and is spoken about with great respect by Jewish studies scholars I've met, and even though he didn't write in an off-putting way, the recording humanizes him for me—it makes it easier to imagine the guy behind the erudition.
FA: You're a literary scholar by training, but I imagine your work often takes you into the realm of history. How do you see these two areas—literature/story and history—working together, both in this recording and in relation to Yiddish?
JL: Yerushalmi was a great historian, but like a lot of historians, also a storyteller, and I love that the story he is telling in this recording is of a poet's life. There are plenty of different ways to approach literature, and a whole school of New Criticism that rejected any discussion of an author's biography, but I've always felt that learning about the contexts in which a piece of literature was written help to make it more (and not less) interesting.
FA: The Moacyr Scliar interview—what a great find! Was there anything that surprised you in that interview? Much of his work centers on Jewish identity in the diaspora, and particularly within the context of Brazil. For those who might be interested in reading more, are there any of his books that you would most recommend?
JL: Frankly, before hearing this, I hadn't realized he spoke English! So, hearing his voice was a surprise in and of itself. His novel The Centaur in the Garden has been taught in some of our education programs—and was included on the "100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature" list that the Center produced around the turn of the millennium—and it generally gets very favorable responses. But the book of his that I enjoyed most, when I read it many years ago, was The Collected Stories of Moacyr Scliar, published by the University of New Mexico Press in a fabulous series of translations of Latin American Jewish literature.