Yiddish Comes to America: Introduction

Written by:
Madeleine Cohen
Spring 2020
Part of issue number:
Translation 2020

I love the braggart skyline of Manhattan,
the rivers of this land, the thousand-year prairies;
I love the automobiles, the streets, splendid as parquets,
I love the dream of the reality, that is called America.

So begins Aaron Glanz Leyeles’s 1963 poem “To America,” translated by Oliver Elkus—the opening poem of this year’s Digital Translation Issue of Pakn Treger. As with any ode, the poem dutifully and joyfully begins with a list of the virtues of the beloved addressee. As the poem continues it illustrates not only the dream of America but, more important, how that dream is tempered by reality.

Somehow it isn’t surprising that so much of Yiddish literature written about the experience of immigrating to America focuses more on the challenges and the sense of loss that are part and parcel of the immigrant experience than on the triumphs and the new possibilities. While there are some extremely funny and touching moments in these newly translated works of Yiddish literature, there are very few rosy portrayals of “di goldene medine,” the golden country of America. Instead, many of these works offer at best a silhouette of the American Dream, set in stark relief against the reality of the experience of immigration.

The themes that emerge from bringing together the works in this issue are by and large not unique to the Jewish immigration experience. While nearly 3 million European Jews came to America between 1880 and 1924, there were also more than 1.5 million Irish immigrants in the same period and 4 million Italian immigrants, to give just two examples. Nor are the insights of these works unique to that period of American immigration. As Isaac Bashevis Singer writes in the essay included here, “I realize now that these kinds of confused thoughts were characteristic only for me and not for other immigrants, but I still feel that, in general, it may reflect all immigrants—a sudden loss of values, a confusion and irritation which takes years to heal, and sometimes even generations.” Bashevis wrote these thoughts roughly half a century after his immigration in 1935. By that point, having won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was certainly what you would call an immigration success story—the picture of the American Dream. Yet what is universal in his experience, he believes, is the experience of loss, confusion, and irritation.

Bashevis’s essay is one of several pieces included here that reflect on key moments of arriving in America. Bashevis and Jonah Rosenfeld both recount an immigrant’s very first day in New York: Bashevis being driven around by his brother I. J. Singer, Rosenfeld’s narrator being brought to live with a stranger. Chone Gottesfeld describes the journey from Europe and his arrival on Ellis Island, and Sam Liptzin writes a bittersweetly humorous story about a new immigrant’s first trip to Coney Island. Other pieces consider the loss that Bashevis describes, reflecting on what the immigrant must leave behind when coming to America, usually in the form of lost loves, family, and changed relationships. The excerpt from Miriam Karpilove’s novel Judith is told in the form of letters written by a young woman on her way to America to her fiancé who has stayed behind in Europe, as she realizes that some distances may in fact be too great for love to span. Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn’s story is also about a lost long-distance love: during her sea voyage to Rio de Janeiro a young woman rereads letters from the man who has led her on for years. Israel Emiot’s and Moyshe Efron’s works take up heartbreaking stories of families divided by immigration, death, and shifting values.

Another theme explored by several of these works is the changing nature of work and Jewish identity in America and how these are often bound together: Avrom Reyzen’s story “New Bosses” tells of a rabbi negotiating the expectations of his new American congregation, and the excerpt from Joseph Opatoshu’s novel Hibru relays a debate among Jewish educators choosing between Yiddish, Hebrew, or English as the language of instruction for their young American students. Abraham Goldberg’s essay compares the trials of the Jewish intellectual in America to those of Robinson Crusoe, “a comparison,” writes translator Daniel Kennedy, “that does not go well for the intellectual.” And continuing in this more humorous mode, Fradel Shtok’s story “The First Patient” depicts a scene that will be familiar to many first-generation Americans as proud immigrant parents helicopter lovingly over their dentist son’s first appointment with a patient.

Finally, a poem written in the Soviet Union by Yoysef Kerler takes inspiration from the civil rights movement in America, imagining solidarity between Jews and African Americans. Kerler’s dream about the struggle for equality in the United States and what it could mean for him in the Soviet Union returns us to Aaron Glanz Leyeles’s “dream of the reality” and another translation from his collection America and I, this time translated by Zackary Sholem Berger. We were struck to receive these two poems translated with strikingly different approaches, though both offer moving and skillful English versions of powerful Yiddish poems. These two poems will likely feel very different to readers; the first is an ode to America as exuberant as the nation itself. The final (though from the same collection!) is a reflection upon fifty years in the new land, much like Bashevis’s essay. The differing sentiments toward the experience of coming to America that Leyeles offers are an example of the sophistication and capacity of Yiddish poetry, and the differing styles of these two English translations exemplify the great craft and skill of the Yiddish translators featured in this issue.

American and Jew. I’ve brought them (in myself) together.
How? Don’t expect some narrative thread
Brightly tying ring to ring, methodically styled.

A human life—at least mine, I know for sure—
Isn’t a structure, founded, erected per strict plan.
It’s quite sinuous. It’s a misty forest trail, rather,
Without a clear start. There’s definitely an end
which we don’t live to see. Not from directions in brochures.
You walk in transparent or blindfold cloth, you’re
Surrounded by whispers, wailing, laughter. Fated—or less than.