Emanuel S. Goldsmith, ed. Yiddish Literature in America 1870-2000. Translated by Barnett Zumoff. Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House, 2009. 400 pp. $39.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60280-133-2.
Reviewed by Rebecca Margolis (University of Ottawa)
Published on H-Judaic (June, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Assessing an Anthology: Yiddish Literature in Translation
Yiddish Literature in America 1870-2000 offers a sampling of modern Yiddish writing in English translation that brings together a wide variety of writers and genres. Some five dozen authors are presented in roughly chronological order with brief biographical introductions and a sample of their writing: a handful of poems or an excerpt from a larger work of prose, such as an essay, novel, or dramatic work. This work is one of an expanding group of anthologies of American Yiddish writing in English translation to appear in recent years, including Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s American Yiddish Poetry (1986, 2007) and Sing, Stranger: A Century of American Yiddish Poetry-A Historical Anthology (2006); and Amelia Glaser and David Weintraub’s Proletpen: America’s Rebel Poets (2005).
Anthologies are complex ventures and this one is no exception. As David Stern discusses in his introduction to The Anthology in Jewish Literature, the anthology has long been a prominent Jewish literary genre that has been “transformed into a decisive instrument of cultural retrieval and re-creation” in the modern period. Anthologies are informed by numerous factors, including their form and organization, the role of the editor, and the function of the work.
The introduction of editor Emanuel S. Goldsmith--the author of extensive scholarship about Yiddishism--clearly presents ambitious aims for Yiddish Literature in America. Yiddish Literature in America seeks to introduce readers to a relatively unknown literature that stands alongside major world literatures. In the process, it aims for recognition of Yiddish writing and culture as a contemporary expression of Yiddishism for those who do not speak or read the language. Further, there is a hope that readers will be inspired to seek out and access the original Yiddish texts. These goals place the anthology within an ongoing discourse around the past, present, and future of Yiddish. Goldsmith also makes a bold assertion about the role of Yiddish literature in the historical narrative of American Jews: “American Yiddish literature provides the most complete, most condensed, most authentic record of the changing image of American Jewry and of the Jewish people as a whole in the twentieth century” (p. 14).
The body of the anthology showcases a breadth of styles and approaches to literature. The arrangement is implicitly democratic, with towering figures in Yiddish letters placed alongside names likely unfamiliar to most readers of Yiddish literature outside of literary scholars. Writers of diverse eras, as well as religious, political, and artistic orientations are presented side by side in a largely ahistorical manner, with only passing mention to wider contexts in the brief biographical entries. The resulting impression that Yiddish literature is an integral whole with a variety of component parts can, in theory, function to render the collection highly accessible: a reader with no previous background is able to simply read the volume from cover to cover, relatively immune to extraneous factors, such as the pitched battles that divided the Yiddish literary world.
The sampling and democratic character also lies at the heart of the difficulty with this volume: a lack of context and structure. One of the functions of an anthology is to create order to shape the meaning of the content. As Jeffrey Shandler writes in his study, “Anthologizing the Vernacular: Collections of Yiddish Literature in English Translation,” because of the vernacularity associated with Yiddish today, anthologies, such as Goldsmith’s, are inherently “agents of cultural transmission” and reflect their anthologists’ particular sense of mission around cultural continuity. Since the publication of the first English anthology of American Yiddish literature over a century ago, Yiddish has shifted from an immigrant vernacular where belles-lettres represented a novelty, to a language of national expression and high art; more recently, it has become a language where literary creativity is becoming increasingly rare as Yiddish undergoes ongoing attrition in the realm of secular culture. Goldsmith’s anthology, like a host of collections of Yiddish letters in translation published in recent decades, offers a point of entry into a linguistic culture with a dwindling readership that is accessed primarily via translation. In a project like this one, the editor’s role is significant and must entail not only selecting the material and placing an organizational structure on it but also providing an apparatus to overcome linguistic as well as other barriers that a reader from outside of the realm of secular Yiddish culture might encounter.
Unfortunately, this is where the anthology evinces a number of weaknesses. As a whole, the volume lacks a unifying theme and comprises a wide mix of genres, themes, and styles. The selections are presented without commentary and without an indication of the rationale for their inclusion: Do they represent the authors’ best, most interesting, or most well-known work? Are they intended to be “typical” of the authors’ writing? Are they work the translators selected for one reason or another? This would be less of an issue if the authors and their work were widely known; however, as Goldsmith indicates, the volume aims to introduce readers to a relatively unknown literature. As Shandler points out, the editor of an anthology of Yiddish letters published in 1927 (Samuel J. Imber’s Modern Yiddish Poetry) could present a variety of work without the imposition of any explicit orientation or structure: in the 1920s, the height of modern Yiddish literary culture, this atomized approach functioned as part of a wider movement in pursuit of “avant-garde estheticism.” However, in Goldsmith’s volume, the atomized approach counteracts the desired aim: to open up Yiddish literature to new readers and motivate them to investigate further. Because the texts are offered as samples, removed from their original historical as well as publication contexts, the content appears very uneven. While some of the works of fiction remain fresh today, many of the translations, in particular the poems, appear very dated and hackneyed. The Yiddish originals are not provided in order to allow for comparison for those who do read the language or to inspire those who do not. In the biographical introductions, little attention is paid to differences of time periods and geographical locations (the United States and Canada are presented together without comment); women writers tend to be categorized according to gender, downplaying ideological affiliations or other defining characteristics. The chronological arrangement of the content, in combination with the superficial biographical introductions, flattens out much of what renders Yiddish literature vibrant and exciting. Some of these challenges could have been solved through the inclusion of brief publication histories and short critical essays, either within the text or as an appendix. Further, there are numerous areas where content is left inaccessible and impenetrable due to the lack of explanatory notes. Finally, on a technical level, the volume contains a number of typos, which detract from the experience of engaging with its contents.
The content of this anthology was culled from Goldsmith’s voluminous Di Yidish Literatur in Amerika / Yiddish Literature in America 1870-2000 (1999). Goldsmith’s original two-volume, 1,300-page work presents four times the content. These weighty folios give the reader a sense of the breadth and depth of Yiddish literature in America, and in the Yiddish original. They offer tremendous potential in terms of raw material for a smaller volume in English translation. Perhaps another volume will appear as part of this translation project that offers a format and apparatus to better meet Goldsmith’s aims.
. David Stern, introduction to The Anthology in Jewish Literature, ed. David Stern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 3.
. Jeffrey Shandler, “Anthologizing the Vernacular: Collections of Yiddish Literature in English Translation,” in ibid., 304.
. Ibid., 309.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Rebecca Margolis. Review of Goldsmith, Emanuel S., ed., Yiddish Literature in America 1870-2000.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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