October 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 Faune Albert.
Faune Albert is the communications content editor at the Yiddish Book Center. She holds a PhD in English literature, with a focus in women's writing and US Southern literature, and she is currently working on a novel about her hometown in Arkansas. In her role as communications editor, she is constantly combing through the Center's various digital collections looking for special finds to share. Below are a few of her all-time favorites.
This translation by former Yiddish Book Center fellow Sophia Shoulson was one of our featured short translations this past summer. It's a story told from the perspective of a polar bear adrift in the Arctic, and I believe that when we first published it we had noted its thematics of isolation and loneliness, which of course resonate for many of us during this time. But it's also just beautifully rendered (which is a credit to the writer as well as the translator); the language is poetic and evocative. And perhaps my favorite thing is that Sophia changed the gender of the bear, who was originally gendered male, to be female. Though I haven't read the original, to me this changes the entire tenor of the short story, making it that much more fierce, powerful, and resonant. It also speaks to the incredible possibilities of literary translation.
I've long loved modernist writing, so when I came to work at the Center and was introduced to Yiddish writers for the first time (yes, the first time!), I was instinctively drawn to the Yiddish modernists, and particularly to the work of Dvoyre Fogel, who has been called the “wandering star of Polish and Yiddish modernisms." Fogel studied philosophy and Polish literature, receiving her PhD and later teaching psychology, though her life was tragically cut short when she was killed in the Lwów Ghetto in 1942—she would have been just around age 40. Her poetry is innovative and experimental, and this poem, translated by Anna Torres, is about interior and exterior spaces. It’s familiar and strange, both concrete and ephemeral, and it makes me want to know her.
This page is an extension of the Weekly Reader issue we put out in the wake of the George Floyd murder this past summer and the racial justice protests that immediately followed it. As a non-Yiddish speaker, I don't have much access to the untranslated Yiddish works in our collection, and I hadn't previously been aware of the ways in which Yiddish authors were engaging with race and racism in the US in the early to mid-twentieth century. So it was especially eye-opening to learn about these different texts and to get a window into this area, both fruitful and fraught, of cultural exchange. There's a lot to think about in terms of what our study of these texts and others like them can teach us.
Last month, our bibliographer, David Mazower, chose for one of his Handpicked selections an excerpt by Rokhl Faygnberg from a Pakn Treger issue on Jewish women's memoirs. I absolutely adore that excerpt and all three of the memoir excerpts from that issue that we later posted to our website, which is why I'm highlighting another of those, this one from the memoir of Jewish revolutionary Klara Klebanova, translated by the inimitable Caraid O’Brien. It's about a journey on a train, and Klebanova’s writing voice pulls you in and makes you feel like you're there with her. It's personal and full of feeling and provides such a unique window onto the life of a female revolutionary in Russia during that time. Another reason to check this out: the Yiddish Book Center just began a 12-episode radiocast with Caraid reading sections of the full, translated memoir aloud—so read this excerpt as an introduction and then stay tuned for the radiocast each week!
I've never met Jessica Kirzane, though I almost feel like I have through encountering her and her work in various forms on our website (she's an alumna of three of our educational programs and a Yiddish teacher and translator). This clip is short, but it says so much and really communicates in a powerful way the amazing possibilities of studying and translating Yiddish—what it means to unearth, through the work of literary translation, writing that has heretofore been inaccessible to English speakers and to bring to life the work of writers who might otherwise have been forgotten, especially women writers of Yiddish. As someone who did their PhD in English, it kinda makes me wish I could go back ten years and study Yiddish instead—though I suppose it's never too late!
While my introduction to Yiddish culture was only just a tad over a year ago when I began working at the Center, I immediately fell in love with Rokhl Kafrissen’s work the first time I read one of her “Rokhl's Golden City” columns for Tablet. In particular, I admire the deftness with which she weaves together Yiddish-related topics in history, literature, psychology, and a myriad of other fields. So it was really fun to listen to this interview with her. I especially enjoyed hearing about her new play (the opening I believe has had to be postponed due to the pandemic), which involves Yiddish "fakelore" and a play within a play.
Faune Albert talks to the Yiddish Book Center’s director of communications, Lisa Newman, about her Handpicked choices:
Lisa Newman: I'm curious to ask, what surprises you the most when you read these works in translation—as a writer, reader, and someone who would otherwise not be able to read the literature in the original?
Faune Albert: Before coming to work at the Center, as I mentioned above, I had virtually no knowledge of Yiddish literature and thought of it, as many mistakenly do, as more or less a dead language. I didn't even know my own grandparents had spoken Yiddish! I had also spent very little time considering Jewish literature, even as I was raised on the songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. So one thing that has surprised me in reading these works is the familiarity and connection that I feel to them, which may be due to the sensibility I inherited both from my Jewish father and the Jewish artists that I grew up with—a sensibility I had never thought about before as Jewish. Part of that sensibility, too, I think, is connected to the particular type of humor that infuses so many of these stories, which I was initially quite surprised by. For instance, when I first got to the Center and heard of Sholem Aleichem as one of the great Yiddish authors, I naively imagined his work as very serious. And then I read one of his stories and was just smiling and laughing throughout it. It was so lively and fun, with so much personality. And it was a sense of humor that felt really intuitive to me. So there's the humor—which often comes through in works even about struggle and tragedy—and the relatability and, for lack of a better word, the modernness of Yiddish literature. That probably shouldn't surprise me, and it doesn't really anymore, but it certainly keeps me enthralled.
LN: As a genre, memoir is so interesting—on so many levels. When you read the Klara Klebanova excerpt and the others, what was your general reaction to them in terms of what you took away—broadly or for each of the stories.
FA: My immediate response to this question is probably something like delight—but let me qualify that. I read these excerpts one after the other all on the same afternoon, and my response to each was very different. The Chava Rosenfarb one, for instance, made me cry; it was beautifully-written and poetic, but utterly heartbreaking in its simplicity and honesty, in its rendering of human tragedy. She's writing about unfathomable loss, but you also know that she herself survives the Nazi camps, and you know, from the preface, that the man who tells her of her father’s death will be the one she falls in love with—who is the father of the story's translator, Rosenfarb's daughter. So there's this tension there; it's a very emotionally complex story. As for the Faygnberg excerpt, she's such an adroit writer, so skilled in her humor; it's almost like satire, and I was laughing out loud throughout much of that one. But then, again, there's the tragedy at the end, and the narrative shifts—but the humor from the first half still lingers in the air so it doesn't completely pull you under. That story, too, is about survival, in its own way. And then this one, the Klara Klebanova excerpt, is so entirely different, in some ways more story driven than the other two, and yet you really get a sense of her personality through the details and observations she provides, the dialogue she brings in. And there's humor here, too.
Three stories of three incredibly strong, talented, brilliant women, each so different and each facing very serious, intense obstacles, but each able to communicate their experience so evocatively. There's much to learn from them, both as a reader and as a writer, and simply as a person. I guess that's what I mean by delight. There's real joy in reading works like this.
LN: If you could ask Jessica Kirzane one question about her work what would that be?
FA: Haha, well, if you know me there's never really just one question . . . But I'll try to narrow it to a few. I was recently reading a review of Jessica's translation of Miriam Karpilove's Diary of a Lonely Girl, in which the reviewer, Faith Jones, also a Yiddish translator, writes, "Kirzane's choices around language (from the use of the word 'girl' to the ways she signals English and German words in dialogue that is understood to be taking place in Yiddish) feel spot-on. Her clarity in these translation choices creates a seamless reading experience that does not ignore the Yiddish nature of the text." So, with that in mind, I'd be interested in hearing more about Jessica's process in terms of the choices she makes to capture the "Yiddish" nature of a text. I'd also love to hear about her favorite and least favorite Yiddish writers that she's translated and why—what makes a writer particularly fun, or frustrating, to translate for her.
In a slightly different vein, I'd be curious to ask her how she views the politics of Yiddish literary translation or if she sees a political imperative there. I'm thinking about her focus on translating Yiddish women writers but also, for instance, her work—as mentioned in the Black Struggle in Yiddish Literature page that is one of my selections here—translating Joseph Opatoshu's short story "The Lynching," which, as she notes, both works against and perpetuates racist ideas. I'd love to hear her talk more about that process of translation and both the need to translate stories like that and the necessary considerations that go into doing so.
LN: In your work at the Center, and evident in your picks, you find so much to unpack in Yiddish literature and culture. What's your takeaway from all that you're being introduced to through your work?
FA: This is an excellent question, and one I have to work to distill. On the surface level, there's the rather obvious takeaway that books and writing and language really do open worlds, and that literary translation is so vital because of the access it can provide to those worlds. While this isn't necessarily a new revelation for me, my recent engagement with Yiddish has certainly thrown it into relief. I'm continually amazed by the way a single story or poem or object can provide a point of entry into a world, a life, or a topic. There's so much there throughout history, so many lives and so many stories that have been lost to history or obscured from view, some unrecoverable but many out there waiting to be excavated. Just thinking about it can be overwhelming, and also incredibly sad—so many of these stories may never have the chance to be told because they weren't even documented—but at the same time it's exciting, amazing, because there is still so much to be discovered and to learn about, not just in Yiddish but in all languages and cultures (this is part of what I love about the Jessica Kirzane excerpt).
This—and again I'm venturing into the cliché—speaks to the vastness and diversity of our world, which sometimes (especially these days) can feel really small and isolated. Having perspective has been key, for me, to staying (somewhat) sane during these last few months. Being aware of and seeking out as much as possible these really diverse stories—stories that communicate the intimate details of daily life that can get lost sometimes, and stories of struggle and tragedy, both personal and collective, but also of perseverance and survival, stories that are sad while still retaining their humor, stories that are lively and joyous, ones which showcase emotional complexity and the complexity of life itself—can provide perspective and inspiration during difficult times. Yiddish has so much to offer, but it's not only itself, it's also the story of what language and writing can do, and it's the story of survival. Right now more than ever, I think we need that story.