May 2021: 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 Seb Schulman.
Sebastian Schulman is the executive director of KlezKanada and a literary translator from Yiddish and other languages. An alum of the Center's summer internship program, for several years he also directed the Center's translation initiatives. He lives in Montréal, Québec.
After delving into his selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Seb about his choices.
Over the years, the Wexler Oral Project has recorded many interviews both at and about the immersive Yiddish culture experience of KlezKanada’s Summer Retreat. This is one of my favorites. Here, longtime faculty member, singer, actor, and activist Joanne Borts shares her thoughts on the rare and radical acceptance of Jewish diversity in the KlezKanada community. She speaks with such warmth that it’s hard not to smile when I watch this!
While my literary tastes have shifted somewhat over the years, I’ll always be drawn back to the ornate symbolist tales of Der Nister (pseudonym of Pinkhes Kahanovitsh, 1884–1950). These richly detailed stories are structured like dreamlike fables, filled with dense and vivid imagery with themes taken from Yiddish folklore. Most alluring, while the tales are composed with a kind of thick and timeless strangeness, they somehow evoke an undeniably modern sensibility that hints at the larger themes and conflicts of the writer’s era.
Can’t get enough of Der Nister? Mikhail Krutikov, of the foremost scholars of Soviet Yiddish culture working today, taught Weekend Course at the Yiddish Book Center a few years ago, entirely on the subject of the writer’s life and work that is now available online.
Ellen Cassedy’s translations of Bessarabian Yiddish writer Yenta Mash (1922–2013) are crafted with a keen attention to register and tone, elegantly rendering Mash’s matter-of-fact style to evoke tragedy, dislocation, and perseverance. In this story, “A Seder in the Taiga,” humor and a certain directness of language allow the reader to both clearly imagine the horrifying circumstances of a Siberian labor camp and marvel at the characters’ ability to adapt to their situation.
This article provides a glimpse into the one of the most remarkable stories of grassroots Yiddish culture in the postwar Soviet Union—the founding of the Keshenever yidisher folks-teater (Kishinev Yiddish People’s Theatre). Begun by a pair of young men barely out of their teens, the group attracted scores of young Jews and the talents of professional writers, musicians, and actors, such as Ruvim Levin (a student of Shloyme Mikhoels himself!) who is profiled here. For a few short, sweet years, the theater fed audiences hungry for Jewish culture and served as a vital link in the goldene keyt, the golden chain of transmission of Yiddish language and culture, for its youthful participants.
Ida Maze’s apartment on Montreal’s avenue de l'Esplanade is one of the most storied locales in contemporary Yiddish literature. A meeting ground for the city’s literati, a haven for newly arrived immigrants, an essential spot for out-of-town guests, and a testing ground for new Yiddish works—this modest home has achieved legendary status in the mythology of Jewish Montreal. This short film provides insight into the woman and the poet who fashioned this unique environment, beautifully blending audio and visual archival material with an in-depth interview with the poet’s son, literary scholar Irving Massey.
We often ask authors about how they come up with ideas for their works, about what influences them, and about what deeper meanings might lie behind their texts. Rarely, however, do we have the chance to see how, on a very practical level, our favorite writers put words on the page. This short piece on Chava Rosenfarb’s “baby” typewriter does just that, giving us a behind the scenes look at the material conditions of artistic creation. How ironic and how astonishing to think that Rosenfarb’s works, so often monumental in scope and so deep in insight, were composed on such a miniature machine!
Esperanto: A laykhte methode tsu lernen di internatsyonale hilfs shprakh on der hilf fun a lehrer (Esperanto: An Easy Method for Learning the International Auxiliary Language Without the Aid of a Teacher) by Yoysef Bresler
The language of Esperanto was invented in 1887 by Jewish eye doctor L. L. Zamenhof as a neutral linguistic tool intended to lessen interethnic conflict and facilitate global communication. In many ways, the story of Esperanto, born out of nineteenth-century Jewish language politics, begins with Yiddish, and indeed there are seemingly endless parallels between the two languages’ histories and contemporary cultures. This short booklet outlines a program of self-study, with grammar and reading comprehension exercises of increasing complexity, so that Yiddish speakers might also become fluent in la internacia lingvo.
Seb Schulman talks to the Yiddish Book Center’s communications editor, Faune Albert, about his Handpicked choices:
Faune Albert: Joanne Borts is exuberant; one can almost tell she works in theater by the way she speaks! You’re the executive director of KlezKanada. Can you tell us a little bit about your first time attending and what that was like? What are your favorite parts of the festival?
Seb Schulman: My first time at the Retreat was in 2009. I remember being skeptical about how I’d fit in, a non-musician amongst a bunch of klezmorim. But like Joanne, I was immediately struck both by the sheer diversity and ethos of acceptance that the community embodies. Joanne talks about the spectrum of Jewish religious observance she saw at her first KlezKanada experience. I’d add to that how welcoming it seemed to folks who I’d thought shouldn’t get along so well—there was a real mixing of people young and old, queer and straight, politically left and right. And yet, for all the difference, everyone was committed equally and drawn together by a deep engagement with Yiddish culture. I think it was the deepest, most total sort of immersion in “Yiddishland” that I’d ever experienced in North America up to that point.
As for my favorite parts of the festival? I could point to some incredible traditions, to astounding performances, and to times of serious learning and creativity, but I’ll tell you a secret. There’s almost always a moment towards the end of the week when a group of friends and I spontaneously burst out into a round of singing early '90s pop songs. Nothing feels more powerful (and sillier!) than to belt out the soundtrack to one’s childhood while surrounded by the music of one’s ancestors and one’s own adult life. I laugh, I sing, I let go, and let all the streams of history, the personal and the profound, wash over me.
FA: Though I sadly can’t read Yiddish, I’ve been so intrigued by Der Nister and everything I’ve heard about him. Symbolist tales, dreamlike fables, timeless strangeness—these descriptions are evocative and provocative. I’m wondering if you might share a little detail from his stories, perhaps some of your favorite imagery of his or images that really speak to the strangeness he evokes? I’d love to get a more concrete picture of what these works look like.
SS: Trying to draw a “concrete picture” of Der Nister’s prose seems like an impossible task! The paintings of William Blake come to mind, analogous in their paradoxically otherworldly familiarity. Der Nister’s work is filled with wanderers and walkers who travel through endless landscapes, which are sometimes deserts, sometimes thick forests, sometimes high mountains, or even all three in one story. There are large animals, ornately detailed plant life, intricately described fantastical beings, and weather-like phenomena that swoop into these stories. But the eeriness doesn’t just lie in their images. It’s Der Nister’s style that pulls this all together. If I had to draw parallels, I’d say his writing might be considered reminiscent of Hermann Hesse and the Brothers Grimm, but there are some uniquely Yiddish elements too, such as frequent use of repetition and long, meandering sentences that give the stories the quality of the Talmudic tales known in Yiddish as agode.
FA: “Defiance and Death in Kishinev” is a powerful piece. There’s hope and vibrant life there, but the end really got me. What’s your takeaway from this piece? And do you know anything about the other people involved in this theater who are mentioned here? Did any of them continue to work in Yiddish theater or arts?
SS: The story of Soviet Jewry has so often been told from a Cold War perspective, bent to prove some sort of ideological point. What this piece brings home for me is how the complex story of Soviet Jewish life, and the longevity of so many of its traditions and cultural forms that we in the West were led to believe just disappeared, is far richer and more complicated than we might have imagined. This goes especially for those peripheral regions, such as Moldova, where Jews lived in relatively large numbers and dense concentration and quite far from the centers of power. For me, many of the names mentioned in this piece are the stuff of legends, figures I never had the chance to meet, but that I’ve heard countless stories about from friends and colleagues in Moldova’s Jewish community. One name that might be familiar to your readers of someone who participated in this Yiddish theatre as a child, and who is now a star of the Yiddish culture scene is Kishinev/Chisinau’s Efim Chorny. A few years ago he and his partner, Susannah Ghergus, were presented with the Adrienne Cooper Dreaming in Yiddish Award in New York. At the awards ceremony they performed a song that Efim had learned as a child in the theatre, a piece from the Yom Kippur liturgy set to new Yiddish words.
FA: Your selection of the booklet on Esperanto spurred me to read this article from Pakn Treger titled "Esperanto: A Jewish Story," which is quite fascinating. I had admittedly never realized this connection between Yiddish and Esperanto; in fact, most of what I’d known about Esperanto was just that it represented a ‘failed’ attempt to create a universal language. And yet its history is so much more. I’m curious what your experience with Esperanto is—have you ever studied it? And if so what was that like?—and if you could say a little more about the parallels between the histories and cultures of Yiddish and Esperanto.
SS: I discovered Esperanto through my interest in Yiddish and 19th century Jewish language politics in Eastern Europe, in which Zamenhof played a significant role. From there, I discovered a vibrant world of contemporary Esperanto culture and its farflung, diverse community, and was moved to study the language, first online and then at a short summer intensive known as NASK. Esperantists are, in a word, quirky, but in a way that would be entirely heymish to anyone who takes part in Yiddish culture today. Both groups tend to be filled by folks who are idealistic, open-minded, and perhaps more than a little eccentric. Contrary to stereotypes about its artificiality, Esperanto is a rich language with a literature that is captivating and innovative and one that is well deserving of translation into other languages. My time in Esperantujo (a version of that imaginary, extraterritorial everywhere-and-nowhere communal place we might call Yiddishland in other circles) is thus not surprisingly then mostly spent as a voracious reader and a literary translator. More recently, I was invited to join the board of the Esperantic Studies Foundation, which has given me a bird’s eye view of this fascinating world.
Linguistically and, in some ways, even conceptually, Esperanto was built in the image of its creator’s mame-loshn. Like Yiddish, Esperanto is, to steal a phrase from Max Weinreich, very much a “fusion language,” combining elements from many different linguistic sources. Unlike other pretenders to the title of a “universal language,” like Latin or, arguably, today’s Global English, Esperanto was never intended to be language limited to elite discourse. Rather, like Yiddish, it belongs to its masses, its everyday speakers, its folk, spread out across the world. Esther Schor, whose wonderful article you found here, writes beautifully about Esperanto’s deeply Jewish history. I’d heartily recommend her recent memoir-cum-history Bridge of Words to anyone interested more deeply in this topic.
FA: The Ida Maze short documentary provides an intimate portrait of Maze as a writer and as a mother. It certainly makes one think about the struggle to balance different facets of our lives, and perhaps especially for women. As someone who is immersed in the Yiddish culture of Montreal, what was it like for you watching this film? What did you learn that you didn’t already know, and what did you recognize as feeling familiar? Can you say a little bit about your experience with Yiddish Montreal today and how this might be similar or different to Yiddish Montreal in Ida Maze’s time?
SS: The way this film so deftly weaves together so many audio and visual sources along with the frankness of Irving Massey’s interview means that I notice something new every time I see it. It’s remarkable that so many of the institutions, places, and people mentioned, such as the Jewish Public Library, the Laurentian Mountains, and even the memory of Ida Maze herself, are still very much a part of the tapestry of Yiddish Montreal today. What’s striking for me as someone who is both steeped in Yiddish Montreal, but who is many ways still a griner, is the ubiquity of Yiddish in the city. In a way that is palpably different than any other place in North America, Of course, times have changed the role Yiddish plays in Jewish life here, but it is still very much part of its fabric. Walking down the street speaking in Yiddish with my eight-year-old daughter might turn heads, even in a Yiddish center like New York, but here dans la belle ville it’s a natural part of the landscape. Much of that is owed, I’d argue, to Ida Maze herself, who served as a singular sort of guide and host and mentor to newcomers, up-and-comers, and passers-through, making a true home for Yiddish here on the banks of St. Lawrence.