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People of the Book 101: Joseph Landis and Daniel Waldman

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January 3, 2014
by Jules Chametzky Some years back I served with the late Kenneth Libo (1937-2012), who did wonderful work as chief researcher and contributor to Irving Howe’s magisterial and indispensable World of Our Fathers, on an advisory committee for a projected documentary on Abraham Cahan, the fabled editor for fifty years of the Yiddish Forverts. As part of his research, Libo spoke with the then editors of the Forverts (social democratic), the Freiheit (communist), and the Arbeiter Tseitung (anarchist), all of them in their nineties, all writing in Yiddish. What kept them going into their advanced age, Libo quipped, was their hatred for one another. lex-landis-josephA good story, but I prefer to believe it was their love and passion for the language and even their (dwindling) constituencies. This came back to me as I learned recently of the death of two stalwarts in the field of Jewish American and Yiddish literature, both also in their nineties. Joseph (Yosl) Landis (1918-2013) was the author of the indispensable collection, The Yiddish Theatre in America, and editor for almost forty years of Yiddish, a quarterly journal operating out of his office at Queens College of CUNY (with Hannah Fischthal as managing editor). It published mostly in English, but also featured Yiddish articles, stories, and poetry. With his death, this valuable resource may also go, though the mantra published on the contents page promises otherwise: “ich bren und bren, und ver nit farbrent" (“I burn and burn, but I am not burnt” [or extinguished]), a reference to the the Bible’s Burning Bush, and also to the Jewish people and their thousand-year history in Europe with their Yiddish language. It may sound like a pious hope, since the language and its people were indeed practically exterminated. image_normalYet Landis’s work continues — as does that of Daniel Walden (1922-2013), who edited for decades Modern Jewish Studies out of Penn State, and combined with Landis to publish an annual called Yiddish-Modern Jewish Studies. Walden also edited an important volume, Twentieth Century American-Jewish Writers in the Dictionary of Literary Biography series. Both men also published important essays on the history of Yiddish literature and of Jewish American literature as well as editing volumes on Yiddish and Jewish American drama (Landis breaking new ground with these) and literature generally. This is a eulogy and recognition of these men, but also a testament to the survival of the literatures they served. And survived it has, with discoveries of the Chaim Grade trove of manuscripts and many other Yiddish writers being newly discovered, translated and critically evaluated. And of course Jewish American writing flourishes unabated, refusing to be burnt out. Jules Chametzky is an emeritus professor of English at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and editor emeritus of the The Massachusetts Review. His books include Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology (co-editor, 2000), From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan and Our Decentralized Literature, and, most recently, Out of Brownsville: Encounters with Nobel Laureates and Other Jewish Writers-A Cultural Memoir.