Striking stories help rescue Yiddish and Ladino from oblivion

Silent movie fans like myself tend to be haunted by the sobering knowledge that the vast majority of films made during the silent era are permanently lost and will never be seen again.

Literature composed in Jewish languages occupies a related place, but with a difference — copies of most books exist, but only a small percentage of them are likely to be translated, rendering them inaccessible to all but a relatively small number of readers.

In the case of literature in Yiddish and Ladino, the number of people capable of adequately translating these works is limited. Ladino is endangered, and the only communities where Yiddish thrives are religious ones that generally eschew secular literature.

I consider it a cause for celebration when substantial literary projects emerge against this tide. One such case is the new anthology “Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction from the Forward.” The Forward is America’s longest-running Yiddish newspaper, launched at the end of the 19th century, which reached a daily circulation of 275,000 during the Depression. The inclusion of fiction, often serialized, was part of the paper’s appeal.

Assembling the book required editor Ezra Glinter to pore through thousands of issues of the Forward on microfilm in search of gems. But he’s not complaining. He writes in the introduction that “one of the great joys of putting together this collection was the opportunity to unearth writing that may never have been read by anyone ever again, and to give it new life in a new language.” And, indeed, none of the pieces in the anthology — even the stories by heavy hitters like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Grade — had been previously translated into English.

Rescued from oblivion, the stories are expertly translated, and many are terrific. And even those less satisfying as literature have great value as portraits of life frozen at their time of composition. Anyone who has visited the rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side and lamented the disappearance of Jewish life can appreciate the melancholic dialogue of Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn’s “Comptatriots,” published 65 years ago.

A character suggests: “Let’s go to East Broadway. That’s the place I always think of as the Land of Israel.” His companion responds, “There, my friend, it is dark and silent now.”

Grouped thematically, the texts explore many dimensions of the Jewish experience in the 20th century in both the United States and Europe. For instance, the section entitled “World on Fire” reminds us how World War I and the Russian Civil War wreaked immeasurable havoc on Eastern European Jewish communities.

I appreciate that nearly half of the book’s 42 selections were written by women. An example is the opening story, “Golde’s Lament,” written in 1907 by Rokhl Brokhes, a prolific but little remembered author later murdered in the Minsk Ghetto. It records the agony of Golde, whose husband, Leybe, is about to depart for America along with another married woman in an arrangement in which he will pretend to be that woman’s husband during the voyage. Leybe assures Golde that the ruse is purely for practical and financial purposes, but neither Golde nor the reader can be certain.

Another author included in the anthology is Blume Lempel, whose work is reaching readers in English for the first time with the publication of a collection of her writings, “Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories.” Co-translators Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub have gone a long way toward rescuing a fine writer from oblivion.

Lempel was born in 1910 in Khorostkov, in today’s Ukraine. A Zionist, she was emigrating to Palestine in 1929 when she made a stop in Paris to visit her brother and ended up spending nearly a decade there, going to night school and starting a family.

Fleeing in fear in 1939 with her husband and children for the United States, Lempel escaped the fate of her brother in France and her family remaining in Khorostkov.

Although she lived in New York for 60 years until her death in 1999, Lempel wrote exclusively in Yiddish. She reflects on her choice in a concluding essay, “The Fate of the Yiddish Writer,” declaring pointedly: “You did not survive simply to eat blintzes with sour cream. You survived to bring back those who were annihilated. You must speak in their tongue, point with their fingers.”

Lempel’s subject matter can be strikingly unconventional, with stories addressing suicide, abortion and incest. Most of her tales are set in America, but her characters tend to dwell psychically in a world that has disappeared. In “Pastorale” the narrator remarks, “For me, Shabbas is the saddest day of the week, full of uninvited memories. A Jew with a long beard walks by — and I see my father, bathed in the light of the Sabbath soul that relieves him from workday cares.”

One might expect that the story “Yosemite Park” will be different, with its narrator going on a group tour of national parks. But a visit to Bridal Veil Falls plunges her into memories of a series of events in her hometown, including an ill-fated wedding held in a cemetery as a ritual intended to ward off an epidemic. In Lempel’s universe of loss, the grandeur of Yosemite is eclipsed by the powerful hold of memory.

 “Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction from the Forward” edited by Ezra Glinter (464 pages, W.W. Norton)
“Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories” by Blume Lempel (240 pages, Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press)
Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.