Yiddish in Nature: Introduction

Written by:
Madeleine Cohen
Summer 2021 / 5781
Part of issue number:
Translation 2021

The first time I traveled to Poland I was incredibly nervous for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. In retrospect, it had everything to do with being on the soil where so many of the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II had transpired—which was odd, because I had been a college student in Berlin for four months already, steeped in those histories every day. My nervousness manifested in a way you couldn’t make up: as our train approached the Polish border and the announcement came to ready our passports I realized that, despite many reminders, I’d left my passport in Berlin. I was escorted off the train by Polish border control, then had to quickly buy a ticket back to Berlin, retrieve my passport, find a new train to Poznań, and rejoin my group, all on my own (and in the pre-smartphone era).

My most vivid memory of the whole episode? Not my nerve-racking interactions with the German and Polish police, nor the undertows of power and violence that lurk along national borders. No, what I remember most strongly is that it was May. The countryside I traveled through on those train rides was glorious: rolling fields of brilliant yellow rapeseed flowers, forests of silver birch, glimpses of small villages beyond the pastureland. It reminded me of rural New England—which is to say it reminded me of home. That is my enduring memory of traveling through Poland, and one reason I have returned almost every summer to the spaces of Eastern Europe that once constituted Yiddishland: seeing the countryside, farmland, small villages, and former shtetlekh in bloom, I came to understand that while these were landscapes of so much suffering and struggle, they were also the beloved homes of Yiddish speakers.

Yiddish literature is full of depictions of natural landscapes—though this is probably not the first thing most people expect of it. We so often associate Yiddish with the urban Lower East Side, the industrializing cities of provincial Poland or Belarus, or the bustling, muddy market squares of shtetlekh. But the shtetlekh were surrounded by farmland and countryside; city dwellers sought out parks, rivers, trees, and birds; the natural world was closer to many small cities at the turn of the 20th century than it is today in our age of urban and suburban sprawl. Yiddish speakers lived in small villages and af der land, on the land, as well as in the towns and cities.

The newly translated works of Yiddish literature in this issue explore nature in every season and from many perspectives. There are depictions of natural beauty, childhood memories of changing seasons, and poems that use nature as metaphor for love and identity. There are challenging explorations of trauma, in which nature provides a setting to experience and explore loss and pain. There are folkloric tales of the Baal Shem Tov and forest spirits, and there is a search for signs of spring through the urban spaces of Jewish London. In each piece we experience the writer’s relationship to the world around them, be it their familiar home or a new land. And each in turn helps us understand the writer’s sense of self and place in our human world, engaging themes familiar throughout Yiddish literature: the conflict of tradition and modernity, experiences of poverty and powerlessness, survival and trauma, migration, love and family. Nature offers these writers a fresh perspective from which to approach these ever-present issues, a different way to frame their humanity and their Jewishness.

My train ride, alone through the Polish countryside, offered me the opportunity to reflect on the landscapes and their histories: what was present, what was no longer visible, and what I might gain from the chance to be there. I have found great meaning in the spaces of Yiddishland, be they on noisy Houston St. or at the pastoral summer retreat of Otwock outside Warsaw—and especially if I have a Yiddish poem to hand that helps illuminate my experience. On behalf of the editors and translators of this volume, we hope to offer you a similar opportunity to see the natural world through the eyes of Yiddish writers.


—Madeleine Cohen