Ilan Stavans. Singer's Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture. Texts and Contexts Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. 353 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8032-7136-4.
Reviewed by Jan Schwarz
Published on H-Judaic (November, 2014)
Commissioned by Matthew A. Kraus (University of Cincinnati)
Reflections about Jewish Multilingualism and Translationality
Ilan Stavans’s book consists primarily of thirty-eight articles about Jewish culture that were originally published in Forwards, Shofar, Pakn Treger, Tablet, and other Jewish journals. The articles, ranging in date from 2002 to 2011, are grouped in five parts: “Essays,” “The Jewish Identity Project,” “Conversations,” “God’s Translators,” and “Storytelling as Midrash.” The collection is introduced by a comic strip by Steve Sheinkin, “A Visit to Centro Historico” (Stavans’s Jewish home turf in Mexico City), and enables readers to sample the seasoned views of a thoughtful commentator on contemporary culture.
A highlight is Stavans’s conversation with Morris Dickstein, “Nostalgia and Recognition.” The topic of this public conversation that took place in a synagogue on the Lower East Side in New York City a few weeks after 9/11 was Stavans’s recently published memoir On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language (2001). Dickstein, an accomplished scholar of American (Jewish) culture reflects on Jewish multilingualism in an increasingly monolingual America. In the conversation, Stavans coins the term “translationality,” the main topic of his memoirs. He defines the term as “the fact that you are born into various tongues and you are their carrier and conduit. It is your responsibility to look back at what those tongues have done and feel how rich they are, and to continue to perpetuate them” (p. 274).
Such a multilingual approach is an inspirational vantage point for Stavans in his role as a public intellectual. The long essay “What Melting Pot? Multiculturalism and American Jews: Oy, Are We a Pluribus?” is an exploration of the sociological, cultural, and political challenges of American Jewish identity in the age of multiculturalism that elaborates in a more discursive manner on the issues of identity and language. (It is also the only essay with footnotes.)
Using Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Underwood Yiddish typewriter as the central trope, the title essay delineates how the storyteller’s loyalty to Yiddish language and culture and his participation in translating his work into English has served as a creative paradigm for Stavans. Singer’s Yiddish typewriter on which he wrote most of his stories and articles becomes an anachronism in the fast-paced digital world of Globish English. For Stavans, Singer’s success in America derived from his ability to use his “ethnicity as a springboard,” which became a “left-behind” ethnicity embodied in the analog typewriter with its Hebrew keyboard (p. 16).
The title essay is an admirer’s tribute to his literary master that rehearses much of the English-language criticism from Irving Howe onward. It is a strangely one-dimensional America-centric Singer that appears in Stavans’s essay: based on English translations of the Yiddish work, and with little attempt to engage critically with Singer’s Yiddish or English work itself, or for that matter his Polish period, 1925-35. What we get instead is the aura of “the great master” as a paradigm of an immigrant writer’s successful acculturation to American culture. Stavans’s light, breezy style refrains from confronting the work’s challenging features of exile and Holocaust trauma that make the quintessential Singer character feel “lost in America” and even to contemplate suicide.
As the editor of the three-volume collection of Singer’s stories (Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories) and Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Album (both published in 2004), Stavans has already covered these bases. Singer’s Typewriter and Mine is not meant to explore and expand our knowledge of Singer’s oeuvre. Rather, Stavans’s essays on Jewish culture in this book use the author’s multifaceted Jewish identity and multilingualism as an “ethnic springboard” toward delineating his scope and variety as a Jewish public intellectual.
The sense that the essays in this book belong to the lighter section of Stavans’s huge output is confirmed by the essay “Sephardic Literature: Unity and Dispersion.” Taking on the fascinating topic of what constitutes Sephardic culture, Stavans makes some fresh observations about the necessity to include the full range of multilingual authors working in Jewish transnational traditions on multiple continents. Using Abraham Joshua Heschel’s statements about Sephardic culture as a foil, Stavans makes a telling error: Heschel was not born in Berlin but in Warsaw into a Hasidic rabbinical dynasty. Situating Heschel in a Yiddish-speaking (and not only German) Askenazic context would have enabled a fairer accessment of his comments about Sephardic culture. While the essay’s survey of multiple Sephardic cultures and languages is detailed and comprehensive—although frequently reading more like an encyclopedia article—several inaccurate points about Ashkenazi culture and Yiddish are stated: “Whereas Yiddish (literally, the word means ‘Jewish’) was the primary—although obviously not the sole—conduit of Ashkenazic angst throughout Europe, Ladino, on occasion referred to as ‘the other Yiddish’ and also as ‘the Yiddish of the Sephardim,’ was for the most part only a vehicle of communication for Jews in Spain” (p. 194). What exactly is meant by Yiddish as a ”conduit of Ashkenazic angst throughout Europe”? Moreover, according to Stavans’s own essay, Ladino was used as more than a vehicle of communication for Jews in Spain, and is therefore more akin to Yiddish than stated in the quote.
Following this quote, a Ladino poem is printed in the original (transliterated?) text without translation. In a book with so much talk about Jewish multilingualism it is odd that one of the few places where a Jewish-language poem is quoted, it remains unavailable to the non-Ladino reader. Except for a few transliterated Yiddish texts that almost adhere to the YIVO standard “Vos makht a yid? Ehr redt,” and misspelled titles “Literarishebleter” (pp. 24, 25), the book contains almost no visible sign of Stavans’s childhood language—Yiddish.
Despite these minor criticisms, my overall impression from reading Stavans’s book is that of being in the company of a Jewish American public intellectual following in the footsteps of Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Eva Hoffman. The essays are almost completely jargon free and accessible to a large readership outside the academic ivory tower. I enjoyed reading the essays not only for their breath and variety but also for their personal style and passionate engagement with Jewish culture.
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Jan Schwarz. Review of Stavans, Ilan, Singer's Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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