Weekly Reader The Memoirists
February 6, 2022
What was it like to be a woman writer in Yiddish? There’s a lively group of researchers now illuminating the lives and work of these nearly forgotten authors. Here at the Yiddish Book Center, we’re casting a spotlight on women in Yiddish as part of this year’s Decade of Discovery programming, a decade-long celebration of our 40th (and 50th) anniversary. But there’s no better way to learn about these writers than by reading the works themselves—particularly the memoirs. Yiddish writers were avid memoirists, and these are some of their most fascinating examples.
Witness to History
Perhaps the most famous Yiddish memoir written by anybody is that of Glikl of Hameln; it’s a premodern diary that provides an intimate account of German-Jewish life in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Although intended as an ethical will for her children, Glikl’s memoir touches on many of the most important events of her time, including the Khmelnytsky Uprising of 1648, the scandal of Shabbetai Tsvi, the Franco-Dutch War, and the War of Spanish Succession. In this oral history interview, Chava Turniansky, professor emeritus of Yiddish literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, argues why everyone should read it.
A Friend in Troubled Times
Born in 1885 in the town of Lyuban, Rokhl Faygenberg received a rich and varied education as a child and, under the influence of popular novelist Shomer, wrote her first novel at age thirteen. In 1933 she moved to Palestine, where she continued to write in both Yiddish and Hebrew, becoming a major literary and journalistic figure in both languages. In this autobiographical essay she focuses on her relationship with writer and editor Mordkhe Spektor and reflects on her dual roles as writer and housewife.
My Brother's Agent
Sore Reyzen is perhaps best known as the sister of Avrom Reyzen, a prolific Yiddish poet and short story writer, and Zalmen Reyzen, compiler of the Lexicon of Yiddish Literature, Press, and Philology, one of the most important Yiddish reference works. Sore was a poet, prose writer, and translator in her own right, and she was heavily involved in negotiating with Warsaw editors and publishers on her brothers’ behalf. Her letters reveal a commanding personality and an intimate familiarity with the Yiddish publishing scene, and they are studded with casual mentions of the stars of Yiddish literature.
A View from Inside
Kadya Molodowsky’s memoir, My Great-Grandfather’s Legacy, was published serially between 1965 and 1974. Almost every notable figure in Yiddish literature comes alive in its pages, their characters sketched quickly, almost in passing, but with tremendous, palpable fondness. The cumulative portrait of a self-sufficient Yiddish literary culture is astonishing and, for those of us with skin in this particular game, emotional.
This last one wasn’t written in Yiddish, but it’s worth your time nonetheless. In her critically acclaimed graphic memoir Flying Couch, artist Amy Kurzweil brings her own coming-of-age story together with memories of her mother, a child psychologist, and her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. She joined us for an episode of The Shmooze podcast to talk about the importance of family in the formation of her identity.