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Yiddish Literature in English Translation

Bennett Muraskin
March 30, 2009

An American Tale

by Bennett Muraskin
Modern Yiddish literature is a prime expression of Jewish humanism. Its creators were typically rebels against authority and proponents of universal ideals of freedom of thought, social justice and human dignity. Yiddish authors did not write for the educated elite, but for the average Jew. They formed a special bond with their readers, which gave Yiddish literature a popular character. Although rooted in the religious tradition, they were, with few exceptions, decidedly secular in their outlook, and often sympathetic to radical movements of the left. It should therefore come as no surprise that secular Jewish leftists have historically taken the lead in preserving and translating this literature and incorporating into it their concept of Jewish culture (yidishkayt). It can almost be said that Yiddish literature served as the secular Jewish “Bible.”
Leftists were not the first American Jews to produce translations, however. That honor belongs to Leo Wiener, a Harvard professor and immigrant from Poland, who was so impressed with Morris Rosenfeld’s poetry that he translated selections and published them as Songs of the Ghetto (1898). The following year, Wiener’s The History of Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth Century appeared, with selections from Yiddish writers and poets.
Most other early translations of Yiddish literature into English in the U.S. were published by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), a non-profit membership organization founded by German Jews that is the oldest Jewish publisher in the land. JPS’s earliest translations were of Peretz’s Stories and Pictures (1904) and Yiddish Tales (1912), both translated by Helena Frank, a non-Jew from Great Britain. The JPS also issued two Sholem Asch novels, Kiddush Ha-Shem (1912, translated by Rufus Learsi) and Sabbatai Zevi (1930); A.S. Sachs’ elegy to Jewish life in Lithuania, Worlds That Passed (1928, translated by Harold Berman); and three books by Joseph Opatoshu, including the novels In Polish Woods (1938, Isaac Goldberg) and The Last Revolt (1952, Moshe Spiegel), as well as the short story collection A Day in Regensburg (1968, Joseph Sloan). In 1967, JPS published Chaim Grade’s The Well (Ruth Wisse); in 1969, the Anthology of Holocaust Literature, with many excerpts translated from Yiddish; in 1979, a new edition of Ruth Rubin’s Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong; in 1985, I.B. Singer’s short story collection, Gifts. Now in its 121st year, JPS has established a distinguished record of publishing Yiddish literature in translation. This record extends to pre-modern Yiddish literature as well: In 1934, JPS published the two-volume classic Ma’aseh (mayse) Bukh, edited by Moses Gaster, consisting of Yiddish folktales from the Middle Ages.
A less likely promoter of yidishkayt, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius (1889-1951), was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants who rejected Judaism and became a free-thinking Debsian socialist. He was best known as editor of the popular socialist journal, Appeal to Reason, from his base in Girard, Kansas. To make both literary classics and socialist tracts available to the “masses” in inexpensive paperback editions, he founded Little Blue Books, and among the thousands of titles he published were Asch’s God of Vengeance (1918, Isaac Goldberg), Yiddish Short Stories (1923, edited and likely translated by Goldberg) and Great Yiddish Poetry (1924).
Before the trauma of World War II, many Yiddish-speaking Jews in North America were ambivalent about having Yiddish literature translated into English, for fear that it would discourage younger Jews from maintaining Yiddish literacy. Scattered translations of poetry and prose nevertheless appeared in the Jewish Frontier, the journal of the Labor Zionist movement; the Menorah Journal; the Jewish Spectator; and Congress Weekly, the magazine of the American Jewish Congress. After the loss of so many Yiddish writers and readers in the Holocaust, occasional Yiddish translations and articles about Yiddish continued to appear in these periodicals and newer Jewish magazines, notably Commentary, founded in 1946, and Midstream, a Zionist magazine founded in 1955. Many of these writings were about the Holocaust. Then a major new player joined the translation scene: Jewish communists, represented by such institutions as the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO), the Yidisher Kultur Farband (YKUF, the Yiddish Cultural Alliance) and the Zhitlovsky Foundation, among others.
In 1947, for example, the JPFO published a short collection of translated stories by I.L. Peretz. Yiddish prose and poetry in translation became a regular feature of Jewish Life, established in 1946, which in 1958 became Jewish Currents.
YKUF, founded in 1937, published an enormous amount of Yiddish literature before venturing into English translation in 1961 with The New Country, a large collection of Yiddish short stories about Jewish life in America. This was followed by a 1964 collection of Morris Rosenfeld’s poetry and prose, an Isaac Raboy novel, Nine Brothers (1968), and a 1974 collection of stories by Chaver Paver (Gerson Einbinder). The translators were either Henry Goodman or Max Rosenfeld, who also did numerous translations of Yiddish literature for Jewish Currents over many decades. Jewish Currents columnist and Yiddish translator Gerald Stillman has translated many of the works of Mendele Mokher-Sforim and is currently working on translations of two Joseph Opatoshu novels.
Itche Goldberg’s Yiddish Stories For Young People (1966, translated by Benjamin Efron) probably remains the best collection of translated Yiddish short stories for children. Editor of Yidishe Kultur, a widely admired Yiddish literary journal, until his death in 2006, Goldberg was long associated with institutions of the Jewish left. The Zhitlovsky Foundation for Jewish Culture, which he headed, helped fund A Century of Yiddish Poetry (1989), an anthology edited and translated by Aaron Kramer, who made it a point to include the “Proletpen” poets of the communist movement. In 1991, the Zhitlovsky Foundation also published a bilingual collection of Peretz’s stories, edited and translated by Eli Katz.
In 1967 and 1995 respectively, the Sholem Aleichem Club of Philadelphia, an educational and cultural organization with roots in the old Jewish left, published two volumes of Max Rosenfeld’s translations of Yiddish short stories about Jewish life in America, Pushcarts and Dreamers and New Yorkish, the latter in partnership with the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO), a network of progressive secular Jewish Sunday schools and adult societies. The CSJO, a small entity with meager resources, nevertheless published Apples and Honey: Music and Readings for a Secular Jewish Observance of the Jewish New Year Festival (1995), which includes a range of humanistic Yiddish poems in English translation. In 1997, the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations published my pamphlet, A Yiddish Short Story Sampler, an annotated bibliography of selected Yiddish short stories in English translation. To the best of my knowledge, no other resource of this nature exists.
In Canada, the Jewish leftist magazine Outlook, established in 1963 as Canadian Jewish Outlook, continues to feature Yiddish poetry and prose in translation and the original Yiddish. Other Canadian periodicals have published Yiddish translations, but none with the consistency or passion of Outlook.
Nathan Ausubel broke ranks with the Communist Party only a few years after the 1948 publication of his classic A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, much of which came from Yiddish sources. This extraordinarily popular book is still in print sixty years later. Ruth Rubin, another product of the old Jewish left, became the foremost collector of Yiddish folksongs, writing A Treasury of Yiddish Folksongs (1950) and Voices of a People (1963).
Socialist opponents of the communist movement also played a significant role. The greatest anthologist of translated Yiddish literature, Irving Howe, was a committed socialist, and his collaborator, Yiddish poet Eliezer Greenberg, left the communist orbit by the time he began working with Howe. Howe was also responsible for the publication of I.B. Singer’s famous short story, “Gimpel the Fool,” in Partisan Review in 1953, translated by Saul Bellow. Joseph Leftwich, a major British editor of literary and scholarly anthologies of translations from the Yiddish, was also a socialist who had many friends among Jewish anarchists in Great Britain.
The organized Jewish social democratic left in the U.S., however, was less active. The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring published very little Yiddish literature in translation, apart from its noted series of four song books by Chana and Joseph Mlotek, who translated, transliterated, annotated and musically notated hundreds of Yiddish songs. The only other translations published by The Workmen’s Circle are a collection of Sholem Aleichem’s plays (1967, reissued in 1989); a singly published Sholem Aleichem play, “The Jackpot” (Dos Groyse Gevin) published in 1989; and The Holocaust in Yiddish Literature (1983), a slender volume edited by Yiddish scholar Elias Schulman.
Individual members of the organization, however, have been prolific translators of Yiddish literature in other publishing venues. In 2005, four-time Workmen’s Circle President Barnett Zumoff published Songs to a Moonstruck Lady: Yiddish Poems by and about Women (Tsar Publications); in 1993, Zumoff’s translations of Jacob Glatsein’s Holocaust poems, I Keep Recalling, was published by KTAV. Marvin Zuckerman, a Workmen’s Circle leader and Yiddish educator and scholar from Southern California, has translated both Mendele and Peretz.
YIVO, the Yiddish Research Institute, founded in Vilne in 1925 and relocated to New York in 1940, has published outstanding scholarship in Yiddish and English, but only two translations of Yiddish fiction: a bilingual collection of Peretz stories (1947, translated by Sol Liptzin) and Yiddish Folktales (in collaboration with Pantheon Books, 1988, translated by Leonard Wolf). YIVO’s longtime leader, Max Weinreich, the teacher of a generation of new Yiddish speakers and writers in the U.S., was a Bundist in his youth, and remained the model of a secular Jew.
Of course, many Jews not identified with the secular Jewish left have also produced major translations of Yiddish literature into English. Not to be overlooked, Midstream devoted its entire July/August 2002 issue to “Yiddish Culture, Language and Literature,” and has since included Yiddish-related material, including literary translations, in every July/August issue.
One of the greatest proponents of Yiddish literature in translation today is the National Yiddish Book Center (NYBC). Every issue of its journal, Pakn Treger. includes a bilingual short story. In 1995, in collaboration with a California public radio station, the NYBC produced Jewish Short Stories From Eastern Europe and Beyond, nine cassette tapes (since converted into CDs) that include twenty Yiddish short stories. Other projects of this nature have followed, including an English CD of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl the Cantor’s Son. In his superb book, Outwitting History, NYBC founder Aaron Lansky reveals that most of the Center’s major zamlers (book collectors) and supporters, at least in its formative years, were secular leftist Jews, and he aptly describes Yiddish literature as “a counterculture” that presents “a challenge to mainstream values.”
Among commercial publishers involved in translation, Schocken Books is in a class by itself. Founded by Salmon Schocken (1877-1959), a secular liberal Zionist, its sole mission has been to promote Jewish studies.
With Inside Kasrilevke (1948, Isidor Goldstick), Shocken became the third commercial publisher to translate Sholem Aleichem into English. A year later, it published Mendele’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third (Moishe Spiegel). Yiddish folksongs were well represented in Ruth Rubin’s A Treasury of Jewish Folksongs (1950), and Yiddish folktales in Louis Newman’s Hasidic Anthology (1963). Schocken also published I.J. Singer’s Family Carnovsky (1969, Joseph Singer), and nearly all of Howe and Greenberg’s translations of Yiddish literature in either hardcover or softcover editions, including the first paperback of the seminal A Treasury of Yiddish Short Stories (1973).
Schocken also produced the softcover edition of Lucy Dawidowicz’s indispensable The Golden Tradition, Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe (1967). In 1987, it published softcover versions of Grade’s My Mother’s Sabbath Days (Chana Kleinerman Goldstein and Inna Hecker Grade)and Rabbis and Wives (Harold Rabinowiz and Inna Hecker Grade). In the same year, it inaugurated its “Library of Jewish Classics” with the issuance of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories (Hillel Halkin), followed by The I.L. Peretz Reader (1990, Ruth Wisse) and Ansky’s The Dybbuk and Other Writings (1992, translated mostly by Golda Werman). In 1996, Schocken produced Mendele’s Tales of Mendele the Book Peddler (Dan Miron and Ted Gorelick). In the pre-modern realm, Schocken published a 1977 softcover edition of the Yiddish classic, The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln (translated in 1932 by Marvin Lowenthal).
The New Yiddish Library of the Yale University Press has also issued editions of the Peretz and Ansky titles, as well as a new translation of Sholem Aleichem’s Letters of Menakhem Mendel and Motl the Cantor’s Son (2002, Hillel Halkin) and The World According to Itsik — Selected Poetry and Prose of Itsik Manger (2002, Leonard Wolf). In 2007, it published a novel, Everyday Jews, by Yehoshue Perle (Maier Deshell and Margaret Birstein), and stories by Lamed Shapiro. Both the New Yiddish Library and the Library of Jewish Classics series are joint projects of the National Yiddish Book Center and the Fund for the Translation of Yiddish Literature, which has received financial support from Felix Posen, a British Jewish philanthropist who endows universities to teach courses in secular Judaism.
Syracuse University has been most active at Yiddish translation among university presses, publishing works by Mendele (The Wishing Ring, 2003, translated by Michael Wex) and Sholem Aleichem (Nineteen to the Dozen: Monologues and Bits and Bobs of Other Things, 1998, Ted Gorelick, and The Further Adventures of Menachem Mendel, 2001, Aliza Shevrin). Peretz was added to the mix in Syracuse’s 2004 anthology, Classic Yiddish Stories (Ken Frieden, Ted Gorelick, and Michael Wex). Syracuse has also produced books by Ansky (2000, Joachim Neugroschel), Dovid Bergelson (1996, Golda Werman), and Kadya Molodowsky (2006, Leah Schoolnik), as well as two books by Chava Rosenfarb, Bociany and Lodz and Love (2000, both translated by the author). In 2001, Syracuse published a new edition of The New Country: Stories from the Yiddish About Life in America (originally published by YKUF), and in 2003, a bilingual edition of The Jewish Book of Fables: The Selected Works of Eliezer Shtaynbarg (Curt Leviant).
In addition to Schocken, Jewish commercial publishers that have left a mark include Thomas Yoseloff, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who published a significant number of Yiddish translations under multiple imprints, including Peretz (1958 and 1959, translated by Moshe Spiegel and Joseph Leftwich, respectively), Sholem Aleichem (1959, Curt Leviant), and three Mendele novels: The Nag (1955, Moshe Spiegel) The Parasite (1956, Gerald Stillman), and Fishke the Lame (1960, Gerald Stillman). Yoseloff also published the original 1963 edition of Ruth Rubin’s Voices of a People, and an updated version of The Golden Peacock (1961), Joseph Leftwich’s famous Yiddish poetry anthology, as well as others of Leftwich’s contributions to Yiddish literature and scholarship. In addition, Thomas Yoseloff published a translation (by Beth-Zion Abrahams, 1963) of Glückel of Hameln’s memoirs, The Life of Glückel of Hameln.
Alfred A. Knopf, the son of German Jews, published the very first translation of Sholem Aleichem stories in the U.S., Jewish Children (1920, Hannah Berman), and all of I.J. Singer’s translated novels, beginning with The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936, Maurice Samuel). Knopf also published the first I.B. Singer novel that appeared in English, The Family Moskat (1950, A.H. Gross), as well as Chaim Grade’s My Mother’s Sabbath Days (Chana Kleinerman Goldstein and Inna Hecker Grade) and Rabbis and Wives (Harold Rabinowitz and Inna Hecker Grade) in hardcover during the 1980s.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, another Jewish-owned literary house, published nearly the entirety of I.B. Singer’s works, while Crown, founded by Nat Wartels, also Jewish, published Sholem Aleichem’s The Old Country (1946, Julius and Frances Butwin), Tevye’s Daughters (1949, Frances Butwin), and Wandering Star (1952, Frances Butwin), as well as Nathan Ausubel’s A Treasury of Jewish Folklore. Between 1991 and 1996, Joseph Simon/Pangloss Press, a small Jewish publisher from California, produced a multi-volume series, The Three Great Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature, consisting of Selected Works of Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Marvin Zuckerman, Gerald Stillman, Marion Herbst), Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman (Miriam Katz), and Selected Works of I.L. Peretz (Marvin Zuckerman and Marion Herbst).
Finally, a non-Jewish publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, released nearly all of Sholem Asch’s novels (the translators included Willa and Edwin Muir, Elsa Krauch, A.H. Gross, and Maurice Samuel) and six volumes of Sholem Aleichem’s novels and short stories, from 1969 to 1985, including The Adventures of Menahem-Mendel (Tamara Kahan), Old Country Tales (Curt Leviant),and In the Storm (Aliza Shevrin).
Yiddish continues to attract Jewish rebels and outsiders. Feminist, gay and lesbian Jews, for example, are among today’s most passionate advocates of Yiddish culture. Irena Klepfisz, a Yiddish poet and translator, is the daughter of a Bundist hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. She is a graduate of Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring shules and was a student of Max Weinreich’s. A lesbian and a feminist, Klepfisz provided the introduction and some of the translations for the first anthology of Yiddish women writers, Found Treasures (1994), and in 1995 she coordinated a conference entitled “Di Froyen (The Women): Women and Yiddish.” The lead editor of Found Treasures, Frieda Forman, although not secular, considers herself a progressive Jewish feminist. Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal, founded in 1989, has as its “Yiddish editor” Faith Jones, a lesbian feminist and secular Jew, who has translated Yiddish poetry into English and is a frequent contributor to Outlook.
It is clear that these Jews identify with Yiddish as a source of resistance to mainstream culture and politics. So do the editors of the four most recent anthologies of Yiddish fiction in translation, Rhea Tregebov’s Arguing with the Storm: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers (2007), Martha Bark’s Beautiful As the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories (2003), Joachim Neugroschel’s No Star Too Beautiful: Yiddish Stories from 1382 to the Present (2002), and Miriam Weinstein’s Prophets and Dreamers: A Selection of Great Yiddish Literature (1998).
Although literacy in Yiddish is diminishing, there is still considerable interest in reading the original among academics, college students and Yiddish book clubs/reading circles (leyen krayzn). The International Association of Yiddish Clubs, made up mostly of older Jews who read and speak Yiddish at various levels of proficiency, still thrives, and pockets of younger Jews have been attracted to mameloshn, the mother-tongue of their ancestors. Di Tsukunft, Afn Shvel and Yugntruf survive as Yiddish literary magazines.
Yiddish literature is our yerushe, our inheritance. As an international cultural product, it exists independent of religion or territory. This is its source of strength but also weakness, for it means that the language requires a lot of nurture to survive. Translation is part of that nurture -— to which American secular Jews, most particularly of the left, have made a profound contribution.

Bennett Muraskin conducts our “In Memoriam” column. His book, Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, has recently been reissued by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and is available through Jewish Currents.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.