November 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 Sylvia Peterson.


Sylvia Peterson is an education program manager at the Yiddish Book Center. Prior to joining the Center, she interned and worked at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Sylvia holds a degree in classics from Mount Holyoke College and has a passion for language, art history, and museum studies. When asked to curate a Handpicked, Sylvia responded that choosing just a few items from our collections felt like "fishing in a wide ocean." So she decided to theme her selections accordingly. Here are some of her fish-themed favorites.

Eating the Archives

Former Yiddish Book Center fellow Mikhl Yashinsky finds a mysterious paper bag of old recipes and takes us on a culinary journey, making his own semon roust, a large matzo-meal salmon cake molded in the shape of a fish. I remember when Mikhl was working on this project and asked around the office whether any of us had a fish-shaped pan, and I just love how deeply he committed to researching and recreating these recipes in order to understand their history.

A Carp in the Bathtub

I'm charmed by this anecdote from Alice Ahart, who recalls from her youth the live carp kept in her bathtub, a more common household tradition than she had realized as a child.

Fish-Fang: Fartsaykhenungen fun a fish-fang libhober

If you're an angler, you may delight in this Yiddish fisherman's guide, Fishing: Notes from a Lover of Fishing. I'm no fishing aficionado, but I am a beginning student of Yiddish who gets a thrill from being able to pick out sentences such as "It is commonly known that fish become afraid and swim away when they catch sight of the shadow of a hand or feel the tiniest movement" (page 91).

Well-Said: Beser gefilte fish eyder gefilte tsores (Better Stuffed Fish than Stuffed Troubles)

Asya Vaisman Schulman's essay about the (d)evolution of gefilte fish, from freshly made to jarred, makes me long to try homemade gefilte fish. I'm also fascinated by the "gefilte fish line," which divides the geographical regions of sweet- and savory-gefilte-fish-eaters and coincides with the dividing line between Yiddish dialects.

"Triolet" and "On Hearing Chopin"

These two poems by Israel Emiot are beautifully translated by Leah Zazulyer, whom I've had the pleasure of meeting at many of our weekend programs. The first poem, about a little goldfish, somehow fills me with optimism despite being so tragic. The second poem (not fish-related) echoes the mellifluous notes of Chopin in a lyrical ode to his music.

"Erev shabes on a New York Trolley"

This chapter from Joseph Opatoshu's novel Hibru, translated by Shulamith Berger, offers a glimpse into the lives of Jewish immigrants in New York. I was struck by a short passage about the sweet fish eaten at Shabbos dinner—practically a delicacy on the Lower East Side, and a reminder of the comforts of home back in Poland.

A New Take on Gefilte Fish

Any foodie will delight in the story of the Gefilteria, a company which reimagines old world Jewish cuisine, including an Ashkenazi classic: gefilte fish. I'm a big admirer of their mission to attract both younger customers who are unfamiliar with traditional Jewish cooking and older people who can re-experience their favorite dishes—in a way it reminds me of the multigenerational audiences of the Yiddish Book Center.


Sylvia Peterson talks to the Yiddish Book Center's communications editor, Faune Albert, about her Handpicked choices:

Faune Albert: I kind of love this theme you've chosen of "fish" for your selections. You said in your initial email to me that it was a little absurd, and that may be true, but it's also very fun. Can you say more about how you came to this theme?

Sylvia Peterson: I started with the broader topic of "food" because I'm a baker and love connecting to culture though food. But I quickly found that we have a Finding Aid on our website called "A Taste of Yidishkayt," so that made the food search too easy! I then remembered Mikhl's lovely fish-shaped cake (which I had the pleasure of sampling) and Asya's essay on gefilte fish, so I decided to narrow my interest to "fish."

FA: How did you go about finding and choosing selections that dealt with this theme?

SP: I fished around for them! But really, I used our search function with some thematic keywords: "fish," "herring," "carp." I narrowed by books, Pakn Treger articles, oral histories (gefilte fish comes up in a lot of personal narratives!), and webpages, and picked out my favorite and most relevant pieces.

FA: You have a few selections that deal with gefilte fish. I'm curious, are you a big fan of that dish? Have you ever made it? What's your favorite way to eat gefilte fish?

SP: I've only ever tried it jarred, and I must say, I'm not a fan. I'd love to try homemade gefilte fish—and I certainly would need to taste the real deal before daring to make it myself.

FA: On a similar note, you briefly mention that the sweet fish eaten at the Shabbos dinner in the Opatoshu chapter you selected here is a reminder of home in Poland. Can you say more about that?

SP: The story's main character, Mr. Green, is from Poland, and there are some moments that suggest that he misses his home. He's persuaded into going to Shabbos dinner by the promise of this fish, and at the meal he says to the hostess, "To tell you the truth, I haven't eaten a piece of fish like this in a long time." In reading the story, the fish felt significant to me, like a missing piece of his culture. I think I connected with this sentiment because my mother emigrated from Poland, and even though I grew up in America, I understand how food can transport you to your homeland.

FA: You note here that you're a beginning student of Yiddish. How long have you been studying or learning the language? What has been most difficult or challenging? What has been most fun or exciting about the process?

SP: It's been a slow process for me, admittedly. I started self-studying a few years ago using Uriel Weinreich's College Yiddish, which proved difficult; by chapter 20, I was in over my head. I then took an online class for beginners at the Workers Circle and was fortunate to take a second-semester Yiddish class at the Center with Asya [director of the Center's Yiddish Language Institute], which really advanced my progress. Since then I haven't had another opportunity to take a class—it's hard to sit in on a Yiddish class when you're the one staffing the programs! But I'm incredibly excited that the In eynem textbook is out. I have my copy and can pick up where I left off. The most rewarding aspect for me is when I'm able to integrate it into my work at the Center, either by speaking with students or simply reading the Yiddish around the building.

FA: The Israel Emiot poem about the goldfish is indeed a beautiful piece. It has an ephemeral feel to me, though I'll admit I'm not quite sure what to make of it. You say that it fills you with optimism despite it being so tragic?

SP: I can't really explain it—there's something so hopeful to me about the image of a little goldfish swimming toward the light. I know it doesn't end well for her, but I just believe in that little fish. Maybe it's the way the first line repeats itself at the end—almost as if it gives the fish a second chance.

FA: I was recently reading that fish are one of the most widely used symbols in Jewish folk art, symbolizing fertility and abundance—which certainly seems fitting with Thanksgiving this past week. After your Handpicked exploration and curation, did you reach any new conclusions about fish in Yiddish or Jewish culture?

SP: How interesting! A living fish, like the carp in the bathtub, strikes me as a beautiful symbol of good fortune, freshness—perhaps the innocence of the youth who want to rescue it from its fate. And then there's prepared fish, which is such a staple of Jewish cuisine and conjures this warm, heymish feeling. When I first thought up the theme of "fish," it felt like a silly topic. But it seems our scaly friends actually carry cultural significance in a variety of ways.