Weekly Reader: Yiddish interpretations of Native American Heritage

We all know the story of the first (or maybe second) Thanksgiving: in November 1621 the survivors of the Mayflower, having been ravished by exposure, starvation, and disease, celebrated their first successful corn harvest at Plymouth Rock, joined by members of the Wampanoag nation. When Yiddish-speaking European Jews first started immigrating to North America in the nineteenth century, they too were curious about the people who came before them. In the urban centers where they tended to live, however, Jews were more likely to read about Native Americans in books or newspapers than to meet them on the street, a fact that could lead to some unfortunate exoticizing tendencies. Nonetheless, because it’s not only Thanksgiving but also Native American Heritage Month, we’re taking this opportunity to highlight a few instances of that curiosity, and the efforts by some Yiddish writers to better understand their Native compatriots.

—Ezra Glinter

Yiddish Hiawatha

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The Song of Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, has a lot to discommend it. Critics have taken issue with Longfellow’s treatment of his folkloric source material, as well as his depiction of Native Americans as “noble savages.” Today, Longfellow’s epic poem is not much read outside of nineteenth-century American literature courses. Nonetheless, the poem, written in 1855, served as a source for millions of Americans on Native American culture, and it did for Jewish immigrants as well. In the early years of the twentieth century the poet Yehoash, best known for his translation of the Tanakh, rendered Longfellow’s poem into Yiddish. If you’re interested to see how the American original survives in Yiddish translation, well, you can read the whole thing here.


Read Yehoash’s Yiddish translation of The Song of Hiawatha

Why Read Yehoash?

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Speaking of Yehoash, you might wonder why you would bother reading his translations at all. Never mind Longfellow; why read Yehoash’s more famous translation of the Tanakh when you can read it in the original Hebrew, or any number of other masterful translations? The reason, argues Peter Manseau, is because, just like the King James Bible, Yehoash’s translations have a poetry all their own.


Read Peter Manseau’s appreciation of Yehoash

Memory of Fire

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Yehoash wasn’t the only Yiddish writer rendering Native American history and culture into mame-loshn, or even the only one to do so using epic poetry. In 1931 Ascher Penn, a Yiddish journalist from Ukraine who settled in Cuba, wrote Hatuey, a tribute to the fifteenth-century Taino chief from Haiti who traveled to Cuba and led the island’s natives in a fight against the Spanish invaders. That’s not where the story of Penn’s Hatuey ends, however. Almost a century later composer and trumpet player Frank London of the Klezmatics adapted Penn’s poem into an opera titled Hatuey: Memory of Fire, which premiered in Havana in 2017.

Watch Frank London talk about adapting Hatuey into a Yiddish opera

Before Columbus

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Philip Krantz (pen name of Jacob Rombro) was a big makher among New York’s Jewish socialist intelligentsia. He founded newspapers and journals, and he participated enthusiastically in the many internecine disputes that consumed the Jewish left. He also wrote numerous books of popular history, including this one, titled America Before Columbus: An Investigative Cultural History. I’ll be honest—I haven’t read it, and whatever scholarship it might contain is no doubt way out of date. But as its own kind of cultural artifact, it’s an interesting specimen.


Read Philip Krantz’s America Before Columbus (in Yiddish).

Face to Face

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For the most part, Yiddish-speaking Jews encountered Native American culture at a distance, through the prism of literature or performance. But that wasn’t always the case. In some instances, there were real relationships between Yiddish-speaking Jews and Native Americans. In this oral history interview, documentarian Paul Mintus recalls life on a Native American reservation, which he experienced as part of his filmmaking work.


Watch an oral history interview with Paul Mintus