September 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 David Mazower.

David Mazower is the bibliographer and editorial director at the Yiddish Book Center and a co-editor of Pakn Treger. His current projects include developing a major exhibition on modern Yiddish culture for the Yiddish Book Center and editing the Center's Bronx Bohemians blog. Prior to joining the Center, he was a senior staff journalist with BBC News in London. He writes for the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project and is the author of Yiddish Theatre in London. He has also published widely on his great-grandfather, Sholem Asch, Jewish immigrant culture in London, and Yiddish bibliography.

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

Mosheh odoner bukhThe Mosheh Odoner Book

I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of literary tribute books in Yiddish culture. Typically these are dedicated to an individual writer and edited by a committee of the writer's family and friends. There are dozens of them—but I know of only one such book dedicated to a Yiddish reader. His name is Mosheh (or Moyshe) Odoner, an immigrant upholsterer who filled his small Bronx apartment with 5,000 Yiddish books. A passionate reader, collector, and zamler (gatherer), Odoner is the Usain Bolt of Yiddish book lovers; he's so far out ahead of the competition that I doubt anyone will ever come close. His many Yiddish writer friends repaid his ardent devotion with this delightful book in his honor.

A Good Friend in Troubled Times

This translation by Elissa Bemporad from a recent issue of Pakn Treger is an example of the treasures nestling inside these tribute volumes. It's a touching memoir by the writer Rokhl Faygnberg of her friend Mordkhe Spektor, an influential Yiddish author and editor whose tribute volume appeared in Warsaw in 1929. Personal and playful, it's a great introduction to the scandalously overlooked Faygnberg. A well-respected figure in Yiddish and Hebrew letters for many decades as a novelist, story writer, translator, and journalist, Faygnberg is pretty much at the top of my list of Yiddish writers I'd like to see more of in translation.

"Letters," "To Miriam Ulinover," and "Letters"

Staying with the theme of friendship and tribute, here's a distilled poetic dialogue across time and space. It unites three women spanning three generations: the poets Miriam Ulinover and Rivka Basman and the scholar Kathryn Hellerstein. Reading this piece is like eavesdropping on a shared conversation, a gathering of kindred spirits. It's a beautiful meditation on the reasons for writing—and reading. But I also love how it shows that anyone contributing to Yiddish culture today is part of a multi-generational process of rediscovery, reworking, and renewal that stretches far back-and far into the future.

Vort kontsert mit herts grosbard—Word Concert with Herz Grosbard

There are actors, star performers, and virtuoso vocalists, and then there's Herz Grosbard. The man was not just a phenomenon, he was a one-man genre. Born in Lodz, Grosbard started out as a Yiddish actor, joining the legendary Vilna Troupe in 1919. But he soon developed a unique niche, entrancing audiences around the world with "word-concerts"—solo recitals of Yiddish stories, poems, and monologues. Grosbard's voice was his instrument, and this live recording from the Jewish Public Library in Montreal gives a great idea of his extraordinary talent. Grosbard is also proof that speaking lots of Yiddish is good for your health: he carried on performing into his 100th year and beyond!

Oyf gots veltIn God's World

This slim, pocket-sized volume is one of my favorite Yiddish illustrated books. The poems are by L. Miler [Louis Miller, the pseudonym of Eliezer Meler], a leftist poet and novelist who also wrote a long study of Walt Whitman. But the real beauty of the book for me lies in the sinuous drawings by the Polish-American Jewish artist and poet, Yehuda [Jennings] Tofel. Tofel illustrated a lot of Yiddish books and always took those commissions seriously. He studied briefly in Paris, and it shows: there's a very French lightness and lyricism about his sketching and calligraphy. Tofel was hunchbacked, the result of a childhood accident. But the women in these illustrations are languid and willowy and reminiscent of Matisse.

Shura Grinhoyz-Turkow's Oral History

I first visited Israel as a teenager with my grandmother, Sholem Asch's daughter, and among the people we met was Shura Grinhoyz-Turkow. At that time she had mostly stopped acting in Yiddish theater and was working as the curator of the Sholem Asch House Museum in Bat Yam. She was a stunningly beautiful woman then and remained so until her last days. I can still remember the feeling of kissing her cheeks—it was like touching the softest velvet. Very sadly, she has just passed away in her mid-90s, so this oral history interview has become a tribute to a remarkable woman.

Q&A

David Mazower talks to the Yiddish Book Center's communications editor, Faune Albert, about his Handpicked choices:

Faune Albert: Can you tell us more about what fascinates you about these tribute volumes? What types of writing are usually found within them? How popular were they? 

David Mazower: These tribute books are like the best kind of treasure hunt; you never know what you'll find inside them. Typically, they serve two main purposes. They are a kind of literary pinkes (book of record) in terms of that writer's professional life and work. Many of them, for example, include remarkably comprehensive bibliographies. But they also personalize their subjects; you often find family photographs, letters, and great anecdotes. The Sholem Aleichem Book, a door stopper of a volume published in 1926, is a key source about his life, with a wealth of ephemera. Another favorite of mine is the memorial book to the writer, activist, and partisan hero Shmerke Katsherginski, published in Buenos Aires in 1955, a year after his tragically early death. It's a 600-page record to a hugely popular figure, compiled by an elite local committee. There's a generous selection of Katsherginski's own work and about fifty Yiddish writers pen their own tributes. You really get a sense of these writers' stature and celebrity status from these memorial books. Mosheh (Moyshe) Odoner's book—my selection—is somewhat different. It's a delightful tribute to a book-lover, filled with warm appreciations by New York-based Yiddish writers and publishers who were also his friends.

FA: I absolutely love the Faygnberg piece that you selected; it's both laugh-out-loud funny and also incredibly tragic in the space of just a few pages. I'm curious if you've read much of Fagynberg's other work and in which genres? Is her other writing, for instance her journalistic work on pogroms, as lively or spirited as this piece is? I'm wondering how this sensibility informs her documentation of such catastrophic historical and cultural phenomena?

DM: I'm still discovering Faygnberg, though in order to understand her properly I'd really need to be able to read her in Hebrew. She's an unusual figure in that she wrote mostly in Yiddish in her early decades and then mostly in Hebrew in her later ones. The Yiddish editor and literary scholar Sheva Zucker was an early champion of Faygnberg, and I recommend her fine translation of the autobiographical story "My First Readers" in the anthology Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars. It's like a short stage farce, full of moments of comedy and sharply-etched characters. Faygnberg was a wonderful observer and storyteller, and her journalistic, psychologically astute, instincts are present in everything I've read by her, including her writing about war and pogroms. It's the same with our short extract in Pakn Treger from her article for the Spektor book; her sharp eye (and pen) skewers Spektor's somewhat traditional attitudes toward women and women writers, but it's done with a great deal of affection. The piece also shows Faygnberg negotiating her way through the male-dominated world of Yiddish letters. She was hugely respected among her contemporaries, but she clearly had to fight hard to earn that respect.

FA: Another question on the Faygnberg piece, though in a different vein. This piece was originally featured in an edition of Pakn Treger on Jewish women's memoirs. As one of the editors of the magazine, can you say a little bit about how you chose the excerpts that you did for that issue?

DM: We'd been wanting to focus an issue of Pakn Treger around memoirs for some time. There are so many wonderful and important memoirs in Yiddish—by actors, revolutionaries, journalists, educators, and others—and so few have been translated, especially by women. Some memoirs were published in book form, but many hundreds more were only ever serialized in newspapers and journals. I think the Faygnberg piece was probably the spark that grew into the theme for the issue. Elissa Bemporad and I share an interest in Faygnberg and found our way to this piece, which she then agreed to translate for us. Other pieces in the issue came from new books or ongoing projects; for example, the two theater memoirs were chosen in collaboration with Alyssa Quint and Amanda Seigel, two friends of mine who are editing what will be an eye-opening and important publication about the role of women in the world of Yiddish theater.

FA: In her introduction to "Letters," translator Kathryn Hellerstein writes, "Ulinover draws attention to the futility of writing and reading-to the script and the very paper, ink, envelope, and stamps, which embody the emotional costs of trying to communicate in troubled times." At the same time, the Yiddish poem in these exchanges is used as a way to commune with the dead. There's a tension there between the inability of language to convey loss and the fact that language is in some ways the only vehicle we have. I'm wondering if you could speak to that tension, say more on how you see it playing out here in these poems or in Yiddish writing and poetry more generally?

DM: That's a great question, and it goes to the heart of Ulinover's problematic career as a poet. She was highly respected but only managed to publish one book, and many of her poems remained in manuscript, and disappeared, when she was murdered in Auschwitz. At the same time, there are fine tributes to her by younger Yiddish writers, especially women, like Rivka Basman here, and also Chava Rosenfarb, who created a fictional character based on Ulinover in her monumental trilogy The Tree of Life. So that tension between silence and its opposite is fundamental to Ulinover and her posthumous memory.

FA: The phenomenon of the "word concert" came up in a previous Handpicked, though it is maybe less familiar to a contemporary American audience. How popular were these types of concerts, and were they given in front of large audiences? Did the speaker generally use props or was it more just oratory? 

DM: The spoken-word performance in modern Yiddish culture has earlier roots—the maggid or traveling preacher was an entertainer as well as an orator, with a well-honed set of parables and anecdotes. From the 1900s, Jewish literary societies mushroomed across the Pale of Settlement, and literature moved into the public realm. Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, and Mendele all embarked on speaking (i.e., reading) tours in Russia which drew huge crowds and often produced a kind of mass hysteria. But the vort-kontsert (word concert) is somewhat different—it's really a showcase for a professional reciter, a practiced and accomplished performer. Itzik Manger had that ability to keep an audience enthralled, reciting his own ballads. But Grosbard seems to have been in a class of his own. He has this extraordinary, crystal-clear diction, as well as a chameleon-like ability to switch characters and voices at will.

FA: Do you have a favorite moment or story from this particular concert?

DM: They are all wonderful, but to get an idea of his range, compare his delivery of the shattering Glatshteyn poem "On yidn" ("Without Jews"), written in response to the Holocaust (first line: On yidn vet nisht zayn kayn yidisher got / Without Jews there will be no Jewish God) with Aaron Zeitlin's extraordinary, bravura poem "Monolog in pleynem yidish" ("Monologue in Plain Yiddish"). It features a Polish-Jewish immigrant to America confronting the enormity of the Holocaust and musing on life in the Old Country and his new home in a hybrid mash-up of Yiddish and English. Just as in Sholem Aleichem's monologues, the speaker is in conversation with a silent other. It's a tragi-comedy, a lament for the disappearance of Jewish Warsaw, and a scathing satire on yiddishkayt in America, with the laughter washed away by tears.

FA: The art in Oyf gots velt is truly extraordinary. As a non-Yiddish speaker, I'm sadly unable to read the poems, so I was curious if you could say a little bit more about their subject matter and how the subject matter of the poems is complemented or complicated by the illustrations?

DM: Well, I'll give you an example. The largest group of poems in the book is titled "Froyen, froyen" ("Women, Women"), and the first poem in that section is "Tsu der froy" ("To Woman"). It's very short, and here's my rough and ready translation: "You are my God! / And I belong to you body and soul / My master, my God! / I believe in you. Your wonders are great / In deep and sorrowful prayer my heart goes out / To you, my God!" I see Tofel's drawings as his response to the spirit and mood of Miler's poems—they're sensuous and pantheistic, more evocations of the poems than direct illustrations. Incidentally, Tofel was also a poet and a writer on art—he was well known in the New York Yiddish scene in his day but now is almost completely forgotten.

FA: And why the oral history?

DM: I was very sad to learn that Shura Grinhoyz-Turkow had just died, and, to be honest, it was only then that I found out we had this interview in our archives. I remember her so clearly from when I first met her in Israel many years ago; maybe it's to do with being an actor, but she had something beyond mere physical beauty, a luminous quality, a kind of inner radiance that shines through in this interview. She was a delightful presence and a link to the great days of Yiddish theater in Poland. The story of how her prosperous grandparents disowned her mother when she married Shura's father, a poor Yiddish actor from Bialystok, tells you so much about the prejudice faced by the early generation of Yiddish actors. In her later years, Shura worked tirelessly to transmit Yiddish culture in Israel, appearing in recitals and literary evenings, often at the Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) where this interview was filmed. (Notice the portraits of Mendele, Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem in the background). I kept meaning to visit her on more recent trips to Israel and bitterly regret that I didn't manage to do so.