October 2018: 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 Madeleine (Mindl) Cohen.


Madeleine (Mindl) is the director of translation and collections initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center. Mindl has a PhD in Comparative Literature with an emphasis in Jewish Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She is a western Massachusetts native; she grew up in Greenfield and attended Hampshire College, where her studies focused on German and German-Jewish literature. As an undergraduate, Mindl participated in the Yiddish Book Center's Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, which set her on the path of Yiddish Studies, and more recently she was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow. Before coming (back) to the Center, she worked as the Editor-in-Chief for In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies and taught Yiddish language at Harvard University.

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

"Moyshe Kulbak taught at my school"

To watch one brilliant light of Yiddish and Jewish studies, Binyomin Harshav, who has inspired so many students, discuss how the great poet Moyshe Kulbak inspired him as a student in Vilne—it doesn't get better. 

"Rokhl Korn in conversation with Avrom Tabachnik"

Tabachnik recorded a number of conversations with Yiddish poets and writers in the 1950s, in which they also read a number of their works. The recordings are full of the background noises of the New York neighborhood where the conversations take place—it makes you feel like you're sitting there with them.

Excerpt from Pioneers: The First Breach by S. Ansky, translated by Rose Waldman

S. Ansky, most famous for his play The Dybbuk, wrote two novellas based on his own adolescent experience of becoming a Maskil, an adherent of the Jewish enlightenment, and his early—mostly failed—attempts to bring modern thought and science to the Jewish shtetl. I love imagining the elegant Ansky as this gangly youth, uncomfortable in his short coat. 

Mayn Leksikon, Melekh Ravitch

Melekh Ravitch's four volume series, My Lexicon, offers "intimate portraits," in his words, of basically every person Ravitch knew who was involved with Yiddish culture. Published beginning in 1945, the volumes are a very personal, and at the same time exhaustive, memorial to pre-war Yiddish culture. The portraits of Yiddish writers in Poland contained in the first volume offer the kind of idiosyncratic details so often lost in scholarly biography. For example, my favorite portrait, of Ravitch's close friend Alter Kacyzne, teases the subject mercilessly for his vegetarianism—even though Ravitch himself was also a vegetarian.

"Celia Dropkin's Paintings" by Mikhl Yashinsky and Eitan Kensky

The piece published in the From the Vault series showcases the paintings that poet Celia Dropkin took up later in life. Published separately, they nevertheless share the same name as her sole published collection of poems, "In heysn vint," inviting us to "read" these paintings alongside her poems. 

Q&A

Mindl Cohen speaks with Lisa Newman, the Yiddish Book Center's director of communications, about her Handpicked selections.

Lisa Newman: Interesting mix of choices. Seems that you found your way to—or were drawn to—content that provides us with backstories to many Yiddish personalities?

Mindl Cohen: Yes, with so many resources available across the Center’s collections, I focused on a few I have come across that offer some kind of personal insight into a writer’s life or personality. Resources that help you get a sense of the person. There is so much rich material about the lives of Yiddish cultural producers, but you have to look for it, and you often find it by accident and maybe not at a moment when you can fully appreciate it. I love finding and returning to these reminders that the writers I study are more than just their printed works.

LN: Thank you for finding your way to the Melekh Ravitch lexicon. Would that I could read it… what sent you in search of it? The other day, we passed in the hallway and chatted enthusiastically about our collective love of lexicons. Share a bit about lexicons and why they are so utterly wonderful one can get lost in them.

MC: This is a work I’ve known about for a long time, but had never really taken the time to appreciate until this year. I was doing research on Alter Kacyzne and looking for Yiddish language biographical material, because there is not much about him in English. Melekh Ravitch wrote a wonderful biographical essay about Kacyzne as an introduction to a postwar edition of Kacyzne’s novel (published in the series Dos Poylishe Yidntum), so that gave me the idea to go look at what else Ravitch had written about him. And I rediscovered his lexicon. What is magical to me and something I am so grateful for when it comes to lexicons in Yiddish is that there are so many: the people who were creating Yiddish culture knew that they also had to document their work and create records of it. This is especially powerful today, because often we hear people lamenting the lost world of Yiddish, but in fact there are these great reference works available and waiting for students, researchers, and the curious.

"There is so much rich material about the lives of Yiddish cultural producers, but you have to look for it, and you often find it by accident and maybe not at a moment when you can fully appreciate it. I love finding and returning to these reminders that the writers I study are more than just their printed works."

LN: Okay, I have to ask, as the non-Yiddish speaker, can you share a few choice exchanges from the conversation between Rokhl Korn and Abraham Tabachnik?

MC: Tabachnik almost always starts these conversations by asking the poet to answer an impossible question along the lines of, “what is poetry?” The poets also almost always hem and haw about the impossibility of saying, and then go on to share very eloquent thoughts. Tabachnik asks Korn not only “what is poetry” and “what role does it play today,” but also, “how do you measure what is true poetry?” Her first enigmatic answer is that poetry is like the prince who awakens the princess from a death-like sleep; poetry notices that which is hidden or ignored, and uncovers it, and brings it to life. He presses her, but what criteria does she as a reader use to judge, to “measure” what is good or bad poetry? Korn answers: “I don’t measure them, I feel them. With all of my senses I take them in."