The Bold, Intimate Writing of Blume Lempel

As a child, Ellen Cassedy picked up just a little bit of Yiddish from her mother, who, she says, “sprinkled her conversation with Yiddish words now and then, sort of as a spice.” But she also picked up a deep appreciation of the role Yiddish played in Jewish culture.

“Yiddish was the language that activists on both sides of the Atlantic used to rouse the masses,” Cassedy says. It was also the language of the marketplace and the home, which resonated with Cassedy, who majored in women’s history in college and has always been interested in what she calls “history from the bottom up, honoring the everyday lives, the ordinary lives.”

 After her mother died, Cassedy says, “I came up with this idea of studying Yiddish as a memorial to her.” She’s since gone on to become an accomplished translator of Yiddish works into English: this year, Cassedy won a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant—the first time the award has been given to a translator of Yiddish—for On the Landing: Selected Stories by Yenta Mash, which she worked on while a Yiddish Book Center translation fellow in 2015. This fall, Mandel Vilar Press published Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, a collection of works by the twentieth-century Yiddish writer Blume Lempel that Cassedy and her colleague Yermiyahu Ahron Taub translated into English for the first time. Cassedy and Taub won a 2012 Translation Prize from the Yiddish Book Center for that work.

Cassedy happened upon Lempel’s writing by chance: years ago, she told her then Yiddish professor, translator Max Rosenfeld, that she was interested in trying her hand at translation, and he pulled off his shelf Lempel’s 1981 story collection A rege fun emes (A Moment of Truth), inscribed to him by the author. Cassedy translated one story from the collection—“The Death of My Aunt,” which was published in Pakn Treger. Then the book “sort of sat around for some years,” she admits, until she met Yiddish scholar David Roskies at a party. When the conversation turned to Lempel, Roskies encouraged Cassedy to continue with her translations of Lempel’s work; doing so, he told her, “would be a gift to Yiddish literature.”

“She’s a unique writer,” Cassedy says of Lempel, who began writing stories, always in Yiddish, in the 1940s and continued until shortly before her death in 1999. While much of Yiddish literature in translation harkens back to the Old World, Cassedy notes, Lempel’s work is often decidedly of the moment. The stories in Oedipus in Brooklyn—all of which were originally published in the 1980s—cover such modern topics as feminism and the erotic lives of women. One story is set in a clinic where a young woman is having an abortion; in another, a widow ventures ambivalently back into the dating pool. Other stories reach back in time and across continents. Often they contain elements of a dream world, though they remain grounded by Lempel’s down-to-earth style. Cassedy describes the effect as “Grace Paley mixed with Gabriel García Márquez.”

“She takes you, very matter-of-factly, into the experience of women, their inner and outer lives, in a very immediate way,” Cassedy notes—a marked contrast to the male modern Yiddish writers whom readers are more likely to have encountered.

Lempel was born in Galicia in 1907 and, as a young woman, lived for a time in Paris. In 1939 she fled with her husband and children to New York, where she began writing. A number of relatives who’d stayed in Europe died in the Holocaust, sending Lempel into a deep depression that brought her writing to a halt until another writer friend urged her to process her feelings through her work. Some of her stories imagine what life was like during the Holocaust, while others address “the guilt and the sadness of survivors.”

As she and Taub translated Lempel’s work, Cassedy says, “We came to feel very close to her. Although she was very private as person, she’s very intimate as a writer, and she takes you places that most writers don’t.” The translators speculate that Lempel’s decision to write exclusively in Yiddish into the late twentieth century perhaps enabled her to take risks in her writing; as the Yiddish literary world became smaller and smaller, Cassedy says, “Yiddish gave her a kind of freedom to express what she wanted to express, a kind of privacy.”

—Maureen Turner

Read Cassedy and Taub's translation of Blume Lempel's story "Neighbors Over the Fence" and Cassedy's translation of Yenta Mash's story "On the Landing," both of which were previously published in Pakn Treger