September 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 Eitan Kensky.

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Yiddish scholar Eitan Kensky, the Yiddish Book Center's director of collections initiatives, selected several types of media from our collections—Yiddish books, podcasts, translations, and recordings of cultural programs. “People know that we have an amazing library of digital Yiddish books. They may not know that we have everything else.”

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


Yehuda Amichai poetry reading

For decades, Yehuda Amichai was Israel’s semiofficial national poet. His poetry deftly blended ordinary speech with the resonances of the biblical tradition. In this recording from the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, Amichai intersperses a reading of his work with explanations, proving again that interpretation and the quest for meaning is a part of the poetic tapestry.

Interview with Molly Yeh

Molly is my distant cousin, but that’s not why I chose this interview. I love Molly on the Range. Everything I’ve made from the book has been fun, not too difficult, and delicious. Hear Molly talk about her background and her time at the Yiddish Book Center—and also hear Shmooze host Lisa Newman’s joy as she asks questions.

“Coney Island”: A Dadaist Sound Poem

“Coney Island” was one of a series of ritmish retsitatsye (rhythmic recitation) poems written by Victor Packer and performed by him live on New York radio station WLTH in the late 1930s. Never before published, the poem was transcribed from surviving broadcast disks. Listen to the original poem, and follow along with Henry Sapoznik’s enervating and sensual translation.

The Jewish Reader #1: An Interview with Michael Chabon

In January 2002, the then National Yiddish Book Center launched its monthly guide to Jewish books, The Jewish Reader, with a feature on Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The issue contains passages for reading groups and an essay by Shoshana Marchand, but the highlight is an interview with Michael Chabon. “I feel that I have come increasingly to claim my Judaism, to proclaim it and to acknowledge its claim on me,” Chabon says in the interview, thereby articulating and defining the values of a new generation of American Jewish writers.

Jack Cohen in Concert

The stars of the Jewish cultural world descended on the Jewish Public Library in Montreal: Abraham Sutzkever, Saul Bellow, and, of course, Yehuda Amichai. But to me, the true mark of the JPL’s vibrancy is the odd bits of programming preserved by our Frances Brandt Archive. This concert, held as part of the library’s pop culture series, features Dr. Jack Cohen, who was a plastic surgeon and “one of a handful of classical whistlers in North America.” Enjoy!

“In the Mountains” by H. D. Nomberg

H. D. Nomberg began publishing poems and short stories in 1900 and went on to become one of the most influential Yiddish writers of his generation. His translator, Joachim Neugroeschel, was a prolific translator of Yiddish, French, German, Italian, and Russian and a recipient of three PEN translation awards. This fantastic story originally appeared in Pakn Treger no. 26, Summer 1996.

Abraham Cahan, Bleter fun mayn lebn, bd. 4

Abraham Cahan was a socialist orator and an accidental capitalist; he was a pioneering author of Yiddish realism and the editorial foe of Yiddish modernism. Today he is best known as the long-time editor of The Jewish Daily Forward and for his novel The Rise of David Levinsky. In this volume of his autobiography, Cahan describes his earliest stabs at English literature.


Eitan Kensky talks to Josh Lambert, the Yiddish Book Center's academic director, about his Handpicked choices.

Josh Lambert: When you sat down to pick out a few favorites from the collection, what was on your mind? What were you looking for?

Eitan Kensky: I really wanted to showcase the different types of media that we have in our collection—Yiddish books, podcasts, translations, and recordings of cultural programs. People know that we have an amazing library of digital Yiddish books. They may not know that we have everything else. One collection that I didn’t highlight this time was Oral History. I don’t know that collection as well as I should, but that’s a real treasury of Jewish storytelling.

JL: It’s not just that we have so many different collections, it’s that they’re all quite big and varied. I mean, who would have guessed we’d have a recorded concert by a “classical whistler”? How did you find that one?

EK: True story: because it went missing. We actually have two recordings of concerts by Jack Cohen in our collection, and we couldn’t find either event recording. Digitization is often confused with preservation. Digital archives and libraries are fragile things. You have to know where everything is at all times—where the original files are, where the backups are, and how the systems work. Somehow, because of an inexplicable error, about seventy-something events went missing from the Frances Brandt Audio Collection. I had to hand-check every item in that collection to see if the audio was on Internet Archive, so that we could see if there was an underlying reason why events were going missing.

That’s when I learned about the “Jack Cohen Whistling Concert.” I didn’t know what it was, but when I saw the title, I knew that we had to find it. Thankfully, we found both recordings.

JL: How unusual was it for the Jewish Public Library to have an eccentric event like that?

EK: That concert was part of a “popular culture” series sponsored by the library. It doesn’t seem like most of those events were recorded (or if they were, that most recordings of the series survived), but it’s really a credit to JPL that they had such diverse programming interests.

JL: I don’t think I’ve ever heard classical whistling, but I imagine that it’s probably a more soothing listen than Victor Packer’s “Coney Island.”

EK: “Coney Island” has a rhythm to it, and Packer knows how to perform. It’s not a soothing listen, but it seeps into you. I still hear Packer’s voice in my head.

JL: I’ve heard a few of Packer’s sound-poems, and I have that same feeling: they stay with me. Do you think there’s a reason his work isn’t better known?

EK: My guess would be the fragility and scarcity of the underlying resources. Before digitization, how many people could actually hear Packer’s performances? How many libraries and archives had copies? Henry Sapoznik’s work has been transformative. Because of him, we now have access to unique cultural objects. However, Yiddish popular culture is still also an underdeveloped research topic. There are great scholars who research the topic, like Eddy Portnoy, but we still don’t know nearly enough about what people listened to on the radio or what those shows sounded like. (Ari Kelman’s book Station Identification is an excellent introduction to the topic, and I hope that more scholars develop and build on that research.)

JL: That’s true. And you really need to hear Packer’s poems, I think, to enjoy them. Which isn’t true of all poetry. Amichai’s poetry is so strong on the page; what does it add to hear him read it?

EK: I never know what to expect when I listen to a poet perform their work. For me, the biggest surprise is always punctuation. How they say the poem aloud is often very different from how it’s written on the page. Pauses come in different places; emphasis is placed on different words. It forces you to think about the poem differently.

JL: On the recording you’re highlighting, does Amichai read in English?

EK: Yes, he does. Which was a disappointment on one level—but really nice on another. He explains a lot of Hebrew terms along the way so that the audience can capture some of the nuances.

JL: I was wondering about exactly that; Amichai’s poetry, like so much of modern Hebrew literature, contains so many allusions and references that are hard to conserve in translation.  So it makes sense that he’d want to gloss them.

EK: Amichai is an expert explainer. He’s not pedantic at all. Instead, you find yourself comfortably learning more and more.

"Before digitization, how many people could actually hear Packer’s performances? How many libraries and archives had copies?"

JL: Tell me about the H. D. Nomberg story you picked. What’s it about?

EK: The easy answer is that it’s a love triangle. Earlier this year, I edited an anthology of stories that had originally appeared in Pakn Treger. The Nomberg story was one of the longest Yiddish translations ever published in Pakn Treger; that alone made it interesting. The magazine decided to give it way more space than it devotes to other translations.

The story feels very European, but naturally so. This is clearly someone reading modern European literature and writing his own version of it. The settings aren’t exoticized; the characters are the same types of characters you’d find in contemporary European novels. Nomberg’s stories just happen to have Jews and people who speak Yiddish.

JL: Do you find, when you’re reading the Pakn Treger translations, that you’re constantly glancing back and forth between the English and Yiddish versions?

EK: Only if I’m studying the stories. When I was studying Yiddish, I read translations very critically. How did they get from x to y? Where did it say that in the original? Oh, that’s how you do things! But now I try to just enjoy the stories. Ideally, you can read and appreciate them as good stories that are now in the English language. That’s how I try to read the stories the first time. If they really interest me, then I want to read and devour the original.

JL: I have to admit I haven’t read Cahan’s autobiography, though it’s been on my to-read list for a long time. Do you think it’s a problem that his work as an English writer has been overshadowed by his (enormous) role in Yiddish journalism?

EK: Cahan is this gigantic, totemic feature in Yiddish culture, who often functions as an off-screen villain. He stifled Dovid Bergelson and raged with Opatoshu. He did all kinds of terrible things to the Yiddish language. Critics say these things, and they aren’t wrong.

But Cahan was such a complicated figure. There have been multiple biographies, and no one has really managed to tell Cahan’s stories in a way that captures his contradictions. You need to read the English fiction to have a chance of understanding him. Also, it’s some of the best Jewish immigrant writing.

JL: It’s a case where different audiences have different needs, no? Non-Yiddish speakers tend to remember him somewhat fondly, condescendingly, as the guy behind the Bintl briv, no?

EK: Yes, or for The Rise of David Levinsky. It doesn’t seem as popular now as it once was, but this was a touchstone of American Jewish writing for decades. It’s a very dark, Jewish, Horatio Alger story in which the “hero” gains luxury and a measure of assimilation but loses his soul to capitalism.

JL: Is the autobiography similarly ambivalent?

EK: Levinsky was Cahan’s last sustained English writing; the earlier stuff is very different, and nowhere near as ambivalent. The autobiography is very factual. At times I wish he gave himself more of an emotional journey. But he tells amazing stories of his life in Eastern Europe and in America.

JL: It’s a long way from Cahan to Michael Chabon, but you could maybe argue that Chabon played an almost Cahanian role in inspiring a new wave of American Jewish writing in the 21st century. Maybe?

EK: I think so. I think of Chabon as introducing a new kind of openness about writing Jewishly. His isn’t just an ethnic relationship with Judaism, or religious writing in the classical sense. It’s spiritual—as in a source of his spirit as a writer.

JL: In my mind, part of what Chabon did with Kavalier & Clay was to make a kind of research acceptable, even expected, for Jewish novelists. That’s the first novel I can remember that had a long bibliography (about five pages). Not that writers weren’t doing research before, but I don’t think they were foregrounding it.

EK: I think you’re right about that. The Bellovian novel, for example, was grounded in the social-historical debates of its moment and drew on traditional anthropology. But it isn’t a researched novel in the way that Kavalier & Clay was, that’s very true.

JL: It seems to me that Chabon was a bellwether for the moment we’re in, in which it’s very natural for people to be looking back into archives, like the Center’s, to make sense of their own (Jewish) stories. Am I right in my impression that Molly Yeh’s culinary projects are, at least sometimes, doing that too? 

EK: I’m glad that you connected Molly Yeh to Michael Chabon in one sentence. That makes me really happy. So I will agree completely with what you just said, and I hope that future historians will follow this thread and trace the impact of Molly’s food and Instagram on Jewish high culture. And I really hope that Michael Chabon has a copy of Molly on the Range because the food is delicious and fun—and who doesn’t love cookies? I think that he would enjoy the postmodern transgression that her brown sugar cookies represent. And while we’re connecting Center alums who write cookbooks and Jewish literature: I also hope that Jonathan Lethem makes Lily Diamond’s goat-cheese-and-sage-stuffed pumpkin challah.

JL: Agreed. And I also don’t think it’s totally absurd to say that Molly could be a Chabon character. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear his next novel is about a Jewish–Chinese–North Dakotan farmer—who makes the best pastries.

EK: Right! That would be like a walk-on role in a Pynchon novel, but the standout of a Chabon or Lethem book.

JL: Ha. Exactly. You picked a lot of picks, but I think that’s all of them?

EK: I think we covered them all. Thanks, Josh!