Modern in Autumn

The Belated Discovery of Blume Lempel

Fall 2018/5779
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Blume soaks up the sun on a road trip to upstate New York, leaning against the family car, a 1957 Oldsmobile 98

Loneliness was a besetting problem for many Yiddish writers in the late twentieth century, as the ranks of Yiddish readers and fellow writers diminished. Story writer Blume Lempel overcame it in her own way: her astonishingly wide network of correspondents included many of the greatest Yiddish authors of her time. Now, thanks to family archives generously shared with Pakn Treger, that story can be told in all its richness and complexity.

Blume Lempel was one of the most private of Yiddish writers—and one of the most sociable. She wrote alone at her home on Long Island and largely absented herself from the New York Yiddish literary scene. That self-imposed separation seems to have been an essential condition for her to create her bold, intimate, and taboo-breaking stories.

“Writing for me is a private matter, separate even from my own family,” she once said. “I don't like to write when my husband is in the house. It presses on me—I'm not free. Free is only when I know I'm alone. Then I'm free to write what I want.”

Yet this most independent of writers craved companionship and forged for herself a rich literary support system. Her private papers and newly discovered archives reveal a voluminous and warm correspondence between her and many other Yiddish writers on several continents over many decades.

Perhaps the best word for the literary community Lempel created for herself is svive. A Yiddish word that means “environment” or “atmosphere,” it also connotes fellowship and a sense of home. Like the regulars at the cafes of Vilna or Warsaw in earlier times, the diminishing ranks of Yiddish writers in the second half of the twentieth century devoted considerable energy to sustaining one another.

Blume with Lemel, her fiancé, in Paris, early 1930s.

A key figure in Lempel's svive was Abraham Sutzkever. A survivor of the Vilna ghetto, Sutzkever was considered the leading postwar Yiddish poet. He founded and edited Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain), an acclaimed literary journal based in Tel Aviv, and his approval could transform a writer's reputation.

Lempel received her first acceptance from Sutzkever in 1970. “I still remember how surprised I was at the warm answer,” Lempel recalled. “I remember even that it was a cold, cloudy winter day, but for me spring gardens burst into the most beautiful bloom.”

Lempel and Sutzkever corresponded for twenty years. Sutzkever deeply affirmed Lempel's individuality: “You have your own words, your own observations, your own madness, which you scoop out from within yourself like shovelfuls of hot coals,” he wrote to her. “I write not for my readers but for myself,” Lempel responded. “I write for the dybbuk that is seeking a transformation through me.” (In the Jewish tradition, a dybbuk is a wandering soul that resides within the body of a living individual.)

Sutzkever wrote back without delay. “For that dybbuk you must write!” he urged. And “keep writing in Yiddish,” he exhorted. “You have a Yiddish heart, not an English one.”

Lempel’s remarkable trajectory began at the turn of the twentieth century in what she described as “a white-washed room by the banks of a river that had no name.” Her birthplace was the small Galician town of Khorostkiv (Chorostków in Polish, Khorostkov in Yiddish), near Lviv (now in Ukraine). Her schooling was sporadic. “My father,” she later recalled, “believed that all a girl needed to know was how to cook a pot of food, sew a patch, and milk a cow.”

Blume with her friend Esther Grossman, c. 1950

In 1929, at age 22, Blume left Khorostkiv, planning to become a pioneer in Palestine. On her way, she stopped in Paris to visit her brother, who had escaped there after being imprisoned for militant resistance activity. Blume fell in love with the City of Light. She found a job in a factory, married, and started a family. Her dream of becoming a writer began to take shape.

In 1939, just before the German invasion of France, the family was fortunate to be able to flee to New York. There Blume reached out to the Yiddish literary scene and began to publish. But as she learned of the Holocaust and the deaths of her closest family members, she was “catapulted into a deep despair,” she said later. “The past was a graveyard; the future without meaning.” She stopped writing. “I sat paralyzed within a self-imposed prison,” she said. “The years went by, many desolate, fruitless years.”

Then came a turning point. Two friends who were Yiddish writers, Chaim Plotkin and Reyzl Glass Fenster, suggested that she take that very despair as her subject. The idea “opened a psychological door,” Lempel said. In a burst of creativity, the stories came pouring out.

She wrote about survivors—the “broken people who attempt after the war to establish a new link to life”—but not only about them. She was drawn to people at the margins of society, such as the homeless and prostitutes, and to taboo subjects, such as abortion, incest, and rape. In one story, two women forge a friendship in the ladies’ room at Penn Station. Another tells the tale of an anti-Nazi spy in Paris disguised as a glamorous mistress. In a third, an African-American woman in Brooklyn struggles with guilt after telling a lie to save her son's life. And then there's “Oedipus in Brooklyn,” an astounding story in which a contemporary Jewish mother and her son become involved in a transgressive relationship.

Blume wears a Pierrot-style ruff for this studio portrait taken at Photo Henri in Place de la Rep

As this new work began to appear in print, beginning in the 1960s, other writers began to seek her out. For some years, she met regularly with the New York Yiddish writer Nathan Brusilow. And beginning in the 1970s she exchanged letters with the poet Malka Heifetz-Tussman, who had emigrated from Ukraine in 1912 and was living in California. “I've had my eye on you for a long time,” Heifetz-Tussman wrote. “You are a poet ... It is not the theme that draws me. It is the way that you force out from within you that which is struggling. Always struggling.”

Then, on September 22, 1982, out of the blue, Lempel received a letter from Chava Rosenfarb, a Yiddish poet and novelist who had survived the Lodz Ghetto and settled in Montreal. "I've been reading your work in Di goldene keyt," Rosenfarb wrote. "I feel very close to your way of writing, to your style. Who are you?" And, as if intuiting Lempel's craving for literary contact, she added: "If you agree that we should get to know each other, please send me your phone number. Maybe we can meet when I'm in your country. And do take down my address; maybe you'll want to write me a few words..."

Lempel wrote back at once: “I almost wrote ‘beloved’ Chava Rosenfarb instead of ‘dear’ and that would have been the truth. I love every word from your pen, or should I say from your soul.” And then, in response to Rosenfarb’s question “Who are you?,” she wrote:

You ask who I am. By way of illustration ... I received your letter on Yom Kippur. As soon as I saw your name on the envelope, I began to tremble. I didn't open the letter until late at night. I was afraid it would say something impersonal, cold and unfriendly. And what can I tell you, dear Chava? I cried with joy that Chava Rosenfarb had written to me in such a heart-felt and intimate manner. I had fantasized about writing you, but did not dare. Now I can speak to you. Too bad it can't be soon... I asked my friend Chaim Plotkin about you. He told me you gave a wonderful reading (at a Montreal Yiddish conference) and said you were an energetic woman, attractive, elegant.

Lempel enclosed a copy of her short story collection A rege fun emes (A Moment of Truth), published by I. L. Peretz Publishing House (Tel Aviv) in 1981, adding “I hope it will not disappoint.” As their correspondence continued—dozens of letters over many years—the two women critiqued each other's work and shared news of their families as well as their struggles with writing and publishing. In December 1983, Blume wrote:

I’ve reread your story and I want to say again, Wonderful! I see the story as a breakthrough in Yiddish subject matter, both for its theme and for its refined style .... It’s too bad we have in our Yiddish literary world so few people who appreciate originality. If it weren’t for Di goldene keyt, such artistic stories might never see the light of day.

Lempel's second book, Rosenfarb wrote, exerts “such a power,” adding:

... it is perhaps most of all an autobiographical novel. You are in it from beginning to end. One senses your presence even when not in the first person. Maybe that's why your stories affect the reader so intimately .... You don't need my compliments but my enthusiasm has only grown. I admire the beauty and concision of your language. You are so economical and careful not to waste a word! And most important: the precision with which you analyze the human soul, women's souls, your own soul.

There is a sustaining warmth in the correspondence between the two women. Though the two rarely met, a deep affection flourished. Rosenfarb ended one letter “Blume dear, I wish you a good, healthy and productive time. It is a blessing to have you in Yiddish literature today. I kiss you and hug you, Chava.”

Lempel forged close relationships, too, in the process leading to the publication of her two collections of short stories—following A rege fun emes (A Moment of Truth) came Balade fun a kholem (Ballad of a Dream), published by Israel Book Publishing House (Tel Aviv) in 1986.

For her first volume, Lempel hired as an agent and editor the distinguished Tel Aviv poet Binem Heller. Heller urged Lempel to include even her most daring stories, including “Oedipus in Brooklyn,” which Sutzkever himself had turned down on the grounds that it was too shocking. “You are one of the best and most original storytellers in Yiddish,” Heller wrote her.

Lempel's second collection entailed a similarly close collaboration with another Tel Aviv poet, I.Z. Shargel.

As was the case with many Yiddish books, the publishers shipped the books to Lempel and she handled the distribution herself. Although she claimed to despise this aspect of the writing life, she took the job seriously and used it as an opportunity to reach out to readers and writers across the Yiddish literary world. Within her papers we found long lists of addressees, along with cover letters urging that recipients who liked the book should send back $5 or $10 to defray the cost of publication.

Back in her beloved Paris, 1953

Lempel received several Yiddish literary prizes, and her stories and poems continued to be published when she was well into her 8os. On October 20, 1999, at the age of 93, she died of cardiac arrest in her Long Beach home. An article in the Forverts stated:

With the passing of Blume Lempel, Yiddish literature has lost one of its most remarkable women writers, whose number today is already terribly meager .... An empty spot has opened in the galaxy of talented women Yiddish writers.

Among the Yiddish literary figures with whom Lempel connected over the years was the celebrated Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. In 1981 he wrote to her in praise of her work. How sad it was, he noted, that her talent had flowered so late, at a moment in history when so few could read her words in the original. But perhaps this was inevitable, he said. Lempel belonged to her time and no other:

It is enough to make one weep, that you appeared in our literature at a time when so few good readers remained. But perhaps it could not have been otherwise. Perhaps your magical, sweet, lyrical tone could not have come into being any earlier than our autumn years .... You are a modern writer in the most beautiful sense ...

Yet the “autumn years” of Yiddish literature were not the end of the road for Blume Lempel. Today she is finding a new readership, in English, in another era—our own. As new generations of readers encounter her work, whether in the original Yiddish or in translation, they will have the opportunity to become part of her svive.

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub are the translators of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press, 2016), which won the Yiddish Book Center's Translation Prize in 2012. They have both participated in the Center's Translation Fellowship program. Our heartfelt thanks to Paul Lempel and Goldie Morgentaler for providing access to letters from their respective parents, Blume Lempel and Chava Rosenfarb.

To hear more about the Cassedy and Taub's work translating Blume Lempel's, listen to Cassedy's 2016 interview on the Yiddish Book Center's podcast, The Shmooze, in episode 128, "Discovering and Translating Yiddish Writer Blume Lempel":