Today is publication day for Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature, so we’ve invited Miriam Udel, the anthology’s translator and editor, to tell us all about it…
Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp: Congratulations on this exciting publication. Can you tell us the story behind the book? Is it a translation of an existing anthology in Yiddish, or have you compiled stories from various sources? Did (m)any of these stories exist in English translation already?
Miriam Udel: This book grew out of my vocations as a Yiddish language instructor and a mother. I wanted to offer my second-semester students authentic yet simple materials that they could read in the original, and I loved the idea of finding Yiddish texts to pass on to my own children, who don’t (yet!) speak Yiddish. Selecting the entries was nearly as large a task translating them, and in some respects, more daunting. Which texts would gain new life in English now, and which would be left to flicker on in their digitized, but mostly readerless lives—at least for the moment? With my choices, I have implicitly proposed a canon, although by no means an authoritative one. I hope that readers will not only delight in the stories and poems I have included but also question what I left out, and perhaps some of those readers will even be moved to go find out for themselves.
RAK: What eras are the stories from? Are any of them by contemporary writers?
MU: These stories are from the “long twentieth century,” ranging from the 1880’s to the 1970’s. But most of them originate during the interwar period of the 1920’s and 30’s. This is when the possibilities for Yiddish seemed wide open in the political and cultural spheres. Then, there is another cluster in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, most of which focus on cultural consolidation and preservation.
RAK: I love what you write in your introduction to the anthology: “A language isn’t just a way of saying things: what you hope for, what you’re afraid of, what you dream about, or what you ate for lunch. A language is also a way of carrying a culture with you. In fact, the things that you hope for, fear, dream about, and eat for lunch are all influenced by your culture. So when you read this book, which is full of stories and poems that I’ve translated into English, you are also catching a glimpse of the culture and civilization of kids who spoke Yiddish fifty, seventy-five, or a hundred years ago. Some of them lived in Poland or Lithuania, others lived in New York, and still others lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Havana, Cuba.” It sounds like the stories come from very disparate traditions and were published in very different contexts. Were they all originally written down or are some part of an oral storytelling tradition? How different is the language and modes of storytelling between different eras and different places where Yiddish is spoken and used to tell stories?
MU: These are all modern, single-author tales, although some of them draw on earlier oral storytelling traditions, such as folktales. I think one of the most interesting observations that I made in translating these disparate tales is how Yiddish had to create a register for addressing children. When authors first started to write work that would be distributed through the Yiddish secular schools—i.e. work aimed at children—they continued to use a sophisticated diction that most of associate with writing for adults. A field in winter might be “desolate” rather than “lonely.” Eventually, a kid-language emerged, and the change came about—as so many transformations in Yiddish literature do—very quickly.
RAK: In his introduction to your anthology, Jack Zipes speaks of a common thread of ‘ethical storytelling that is closely tied to Judaism and socialism’. What is meant by this and how do you find it comes across in the stories?
MU: The vast majority of these stories were written expressly for use and dissemination in the networks of Yiddish secular schools that grew up in Europe and the Americas in the first decades of the twentieth century. These schools were leftist in orientation, and their teachers (who were sometimes the authors) sought materials that would cultivate in children an awareness of their ethical responsibilities as heirs to the Mosaic tradition and their sense of solidarity with the oppressed workers of the world and other marginalized, underdog communities or members of society. So for example, in the Judah Steinberg story, “Questions,” we witness in real time a little boy’s dawning consciousness of his place in the class hierarchy and his realization that an entire economic order exists to keep him clothed and fed—often at the expense of human workers and animals who are being exploited for his comfort.
RAK: Were there any particular challenges you encountered in translating these stories, and how did you deal with them? (I know that’s a huge question! What is translation if not a sequence of one challenge after another!)
MU: Since these are not contemporary stories but I feel that they have a great deal of contemporary relevance, I found myself having to translate not only language but culture and time period. When a rabbi traveling through the desert stops to observe the Sabbath and ends up spending the day in the company of a friendly lion, I have to make sure I embed explanations of the Sabbath rituals he performs as well as rendering the Yiddish into English.
RAK: Which are your favourite stories and why? Are there any authors you would particularly like to translate more in future? And what did your sons think of the collection? (You mention them as a motivation for starting this research and the translations.) Do they have a favourite story?
MU: Do I have a favorite son? I love them all! But a few translation experiences do stand out. My most challenging was Leyb Kvitko’s rhyming narrative poem, “Boots and the Bath Squad,” about a Jewish boy dwelling in a shtetl, or small but largely Jewish town, who is rather gluttonous and disinclined to bathe. He’s pretty much a Shel Silverstein protagonist, but he lives in the Soviet Union. One day, a squad of “sanitarn,” or bathmen, show up to bathe him by force. It’s potentially very dark material (Kvitko ended up murdered at Stalin’s behest, as part of the Night of Murdered Poets on August 12, 1952)—but the living Kvitko keeps it a light, rollicking tale. It was incredibly fun to try to capture some of the rhythms of his language as I sought to make the story-poem rhyme in English.
I also have a special fondness for the minority of stories that feature girl protagonists, such as the volume’s final selection, which is the first chapter of David Rodin’s book of linked stories called “An Unusual Girl from Brooklyn.” This unusual girl, Shprintse (her name means “hope”), has the superpower of being an intense reader. Whatever is happening in the book Shprintse is currently reading, she perceives to be happening in her own life. It quickly becomes mind-bendingly “meta,” and that’s part of the fun!
And the future is now! I am currently translating the entire volume of Khaver Paver’s stories about Labzik, or “Leftist Lassie” as I like to think of him: a charming mutt who is adopted by a Bronx-dwelling family of workers and who accompanies them on all their adventures in fighting the exploitation of the poor by the rich, standing up to police violence, marching peacefully for social change, etc.
RAK: You write “One of the special things about Jewish children’s literature—in Yiddish and Hebrew—is that almost every writer, including the ones who wrote the best grown-up books, tried to write at least sometimes for children.” Is this still the case? How would you characterise the Yiddish publishing scene right now? Are there many writers publishing stories for children in Yiddish or is there a preference for publishing in Hebrew, for example?
MU: Most of the current children’s publishing activity in Yiddish now takes place in the Hasidic world. I am slowly getting up to speed on those texts, hoping I might find some literary gems. However, one very exciting initiative in the non-Hasidic world of Yiddish activism is the brand-new imprint of bilingual, lavishly illustrated children’s books Kinder-loshn.
Miriam Udel is associate professor of German Studies and Jewish Studies at Emory University, where her teaching focuses on Yiddish language, literature, and culture. She is the author of Never Better! The Modern Jewish Picaresque (University of Michigan Press, 2016) and the editor and translator of Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature (NYU Press, October, 2020). She is currently working on a critical study of Yiddish kidlit and translating Khaver Paver’s Labzik: Stories of a Clever Pup (1935).