November 2017: 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 Christa Whitney.

Christa Whitney discovered Yiddish while studying comparative literature as an undergraduate at Smith College. She continued her Yiddish language studies at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, the Yiddish Book Center's Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, and was a Yiddish Book Center fellow. In her current position as director of the Center's Wexler Oral History Project, she has helped record more than 700 in-depth video interviews that provide a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience and the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture.

Christa most recently led efforts for a Kickstarter campaign to fund the completion of BEYLE: The Artist and Her Legacy, a documentary short film about the life and legacy of poet, artist, and activist Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. The campaign reached its funding goal at the end of October and the film, which the Wexler Oral History Project has been working on for several years, is moving ahead toward completion.

Christa is constantly exploring the various media collected by the Center; here are a few of her favorite finds.

After delving into her selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Christa about her choices.


Hmuesn mit yidishe shrayber (Chats with Jewish Writers)

In this collection, Jacob Pat gives unique perspective on fourteen Yiddish writers. The conversations Pat renders were informal, often taking place in the writers' own living rooms, but they are not small-talk. The writers open up about their lives, writing, and philosophical outlooks in a way that gives you a sense of who they were as people beyond their books. Those interviewed include some of the biggest names of the American Yiddish scene, such as Yosef Opatoshu, Yankev Glatshteyn, and Itzik Manger. After interviewing several dozen descendants of Yiddish writers, I'm envious of Pat's direct access to the writers and their living rooms.

BEYLE: The Artist and Her Legacy

I'm very excited that the official trailer for this, the Wexler Oral History Project's new documentary short film, is now available. Though the idea for the film was floated not long after I interviewed Yiddish poet, activist, and artist Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman in 2012, it's now becoming a reality as we raise the funds to take us through the final phase of the film's production. The beautiful animation of Beyle's visual art by the film's editor and co-director Liz Walber, along with interviews with descendants, scholars, and friends, create a fresh perspective on this beloved figure of the Yiddish world.

"Beyond Time: The Paintings of Samuel Bak"

Samuel Bak's paintings are evocative, and often haunting. This article from Pakn Treger delves into Bak's backstory, including the amazing story of how two established Yiddish writers recognized him as a child prodigy and fanned his creative spark in the Vilna ghetto, where Bak gave his first exhibition. In the article, Elizabeth Pols explains how Bak's hometown of Vilna, his family, and his miraculous survival of the Holocaust have influenced his work.

Zelmenyaner by Moyshe Kulbak, Read by Leib Tencer

This Yiddish book provides an unusual glimpse into industrialization's impact on traditional Jewish communal life. As the Soviet Union imposes its electricity and work collectives on its population, the Jewish residents of a certain hoyf (courtyard) react in various predictable and unexpected ways. In arguably his best-known novel, Moshe Kulbak (1896-1937) makes you think about Soviet and Jewish history in new ways. Secondarily, this book gives a sense of the way Yiddish literature was serialized in newspapers, each chapter a self-contained story to be savored and considered on its own.

"Yiddish Writer Chaim Grade: The Backstory"

In this episode of the Yiddish Book Center's podcast, hear two lovers of Yiddish literature discuss one of their favorite writers, Chaim Grade. Yiddish Book Center president Aaron Lansky and Smith College professor of Comparative Literature and Jewish Studies Justin Cammy discuss the Vilna-born poet and novelist's biography and work. They touch, too, on Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer—sometimes considered Grade's rival—and Grade's legacy in English translation. 

"Celia Dropkin's Paintings"

Since learning about Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin's switch from pen to paint in her later years, I've become fascinated with the idea of how artistic talent can carry from one medium to another. I've since heard of other Yiddish writers who also painted, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, so this wasn't an isolated phenomenon. But it's the energy and life in Dropkin's paintings themselves that keep me coming back to this article. (My favorites are the snowy scenes.)


Christa Whitney talks to Eitan Kensky, the Yiddish Book Center’s director of collections initiatives, about her Handpicked choices.

Eitan Kensky: Last time we spoke, you were midway through the Kickstarter for the Beyle film. Now, you've done it. Congratulations! How do you feel?

Christa Whitney: Humbled, exhausted, and excited! Humbled by so many people—friends, family, and many I didn't know—pitching in to support this project. Exhausted after the stress of all the "will we meet the goal?" feelings. And mostly excited to get to work on finishing the film!

EK: What's the next step?

CW: We have a couple more interviews to do with scholars and artists who knew her. (This will add a bit of perspective on her legacy beyond the family.) We also are going to be doing some archival research, as well as a public call for photographs and recordings of Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman that might be used in the film. Then it's integrating all that new material into the narrative we've already worked up and lots of hours of editing, translating, subtitling, and more editing!

EK: One of your selections for this month's handpicked was a book of interviews with Yiddish writers. How closely do they mirror your work as an oral historian? ("Not at all" is an acceptable answer.)

CW: It's very different. These were clearly conversations that happened without recording equipment in the room, with just pen and paper for notes, between two people who seemed to know each other really well. When I do oral history interviews, I follow a very specific methodology, one of the tenets of which is "It's not about you (as the person asking the questions)." As the oral historian, I'm guiding the interview, but not offering my own commentary. Ideally, this allows for the person being interviewed (the "narrator," as we say in oral history-speak) to speak expansively and reflectively with minimal judgement or reaction from the oral historian.

The interviews in the book seem more casual and conversational. But what I love about it is that the writing still manages to convey a sense of the writers’ speaking voices. Sometimes it captures their sense of humor or impatience. Since I've interviewed so many descendants of writers, it's exciting for me to hear the writers themselves in this conversational format. It’s far more spontaneous than their writing.

EK: It really seems as if you drew from the spirit of Beyle in coming up with this list of selections: writing (the interviews; Chaim Grade; Zelmenyaner) and art (Samuel Bak; Celia Dropkin).

CW: I'm fascinated by interdisciplinary artists such as Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, writers who are also visual artists. And they, along with someone like Bak, have gotten me thinking about whether there is such a thing as "Yiddish visual art."

EK: Is there?

CW: It's an open question for me. Are the paintings Celia Dropkin made after she stopped writing "Yiddish art"? Is the art of a Yiddish speaker "Yiddish art" no matter the medium?

EK: It's a really interesting and open question. (It's also something I've written about—shameless plug.) It is certainly true that Yiddish writers trained to think visually write more sumptuously for the inner eye.

CW: I like thinking about the porous boundaries between different forms of art. I'm trained as a dancer, so it's something I've thought about as I've made this transition into film. My hypothesis is that the aesthetic attention of an astute artist remains no matter what the medium. I remember Moyshe-Leyb Halpern's son talking about how Moyshe-Leyb had a different approach to painting vs. writing. That he agonized over words, but was freeer with the visual art. I wonder about that with Celia, Beyle, and others.

"I also enjoyed hearing how Harshav remembered Grade’s mother selling rotten apples in the street. (It’s one of my all-time favorite excerpts.) Grade's religious education, the poverty he grew up in—I guess he symbolizes this lost world of Yiddish-speaking Vilna to me, along with the other members of Yung Vilne."

EK: I never knew about your background in dance. But Dropkin, whose paintings you highlight, wrote maybe the most famous Yiddish poem about dance: "The Circus Dancer." Her poetry is filled with movement and motion, but her painting, by contrast, is still.

CW: Indeed. A lot of her poems have a special attention to the physical body.

EK: One other theme that emerges in your picks: Vilna. Grade. Zelmenyaner. Samuel Bak. Did you consciously choose to highlight Lithuanian Yiddish writers? Do you feel particularly drawn to Vilna?

CW: Oh! Yes, definitely. I spent time in Vilna, where I studied Yiddish at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Also, my college advisor Justin Cammy is a specialist on the Vilna Yiddish artists group Yung Vilne. And then there's the connection to Lithuania in my own family—two of my great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from western Lithuania in the early 20th century. So yeah, I've always been interested in Vilna and, also, its reputation as this intellectual and artistic center... I guess I also sort of identify with those stereotypes of Litvaks as being serious and overly intellectual. I am definitely guilty of these things, too, sometimes...

As for my pick of the podcast episode, I loved listening to Aaron and Justin, both of whom are much better read in Yiddish literature than I am, discuss one of their mutual favorite writers: Chaim Grade. They talk about him in the context of all that was happening in that flourishing period of interwar Vilna, and compare him to other contemporary Yiddish writers, too. I learned a lot from that discussion—in addition to the entire weekend course which I attended some of.

There's a lot of drama in Grade's biography—and posthumously, too, with the way his wife was suspiciously protective of his legacy. That's both fascinating and sad, the way the latter kept his work from a wider audience.

EK: Your work puts you in contact with a lot of people who knew Grade and/or his family. Any other favorite stories you heard as part of the oral history project?

CW: Both Binyomen Harshav, z"l, and Liba Augenfeld talked about how Sutzkever and Chaim Grade studied with their fathers. I love that image of these writers I think of as literary giants being curious young students.

These stories give glimpses into how when Grade and those other writers were up-and-coming writers, they had access to a kind of continuity of culture and knowledge that people have to search really hard to find now.

I also enjoyed hearing how Harshav remembered Grade’s mother selling rotten apples in the street. (It’s one of my all-time favorite excerpts.) Grade's religious education, the poverty he grew up in—I guess he symbolizes this lost world of Yiddish-speaking Vilna to me, along with the other members of Yung Vilne.

EK: And that all plays with your love of Vilna.

CW: Guilty as charged. Don't get me wrong: I love stories about Warsaw, harbor a particular love for the Lodzer Yiddish accent, and love hearing stories about places where Yiddish flourished all around the world—and I've been fortunate to hear stories about many, many places where Yiddish flourished (and continues to be spoken).

EK: Do you have any favorite books or stories about Vilna? Fiction or nonfiction?

CW: Hard to choose! I was lucky enough to take an entire course on Yiddish literature set in or about Vilna while I was studying at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. I fell in love with Yiddish through Avrom Sutzkever, who has some beautiful and very moving poems set in Vilna. Kulbak's poems about Vilna are very evocative and hold a special place for me. More recently, I really enjoyed reading Helen Mintz's new translation of Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz. It's all about the Vilna underworld.

[Note: an early version of one of Mintz’s translations was featured in Pakn Treger in 2009 and is available here.]

EK: One thing I've never asked you: how did you get interested in oral history?

CW:  I've always been interested in history and literature. Oral history sort of lands somewhere in between. I didn't know oral history was a distinct methodology until I was a fellow at the Yiddish Book Center and was on the initial team to explore the idea as a potential project for the Center. I soon became the leader of that initiative which would become the Wexler Oral History Project and was very fortunate to work those first few years with amazing mentors, including oral historian Jayne Guberman and ethnographer Hankus Netsky. I was immediately comfortable in the methodology—and loved all the tech stuff I had to learn to set up the project, too. With the advantage of hindsight, I remember that I interviewed family members whenever given the choice in my middle and high school history classes, so that interest was there early.

EK: Can you tell us a little about the technology of oral history and how it's changed in the almost ten years you've been practicing it?

CW: I was extremely lucky to be able to start this project after the advent of digital video recording and the internet, so we have been largely spared the challenges of digitizing. Instead, the main changes in technology that have impacted our work have been with video cameras, software, and digital storage. For example, when we first started the project, we had one kind of camcorder that has a lens built in. Then, the tech geniuses of the world figured out how to make DSLR-type cameras able to record hours of video. (They used to have to stop recording every 8 minutes or so since they would overheat.) Being able to use this kind of camera was a huge jump up in quality for us.

A lot of these changes happen behind the scenes and don't really affect the way visitors to our website view the oral histories. But I'm very excited about how our work as part of the NEH grant will enhance user experience. It's a few years off yet, but you'll be able to search the entire transcript, timecoded keywords, and an index of an interview to find exactly where the topic or terms you're interested in will show up.

EK: It will be an amazing resource for teachers and students. For everyone, really.