Changes large, small, for the better or not.

I’ve been posting less often again. While the world goes to hell in a big way, it has been a time of small changes in my life, changes that might or might not add up to something larger soon. Perhaps it’s just the anticipation that comes with the last couple of weeks of winter, but it seems like more than that. Meanwhile, it is clear that this blog, without my having consciously decided or said so, has been going from a regular and important part of my activity to a less regular and more peripheral one.

Several occasions over the last month might have provided fruitful material for a blog post or two, had I given them my time and attention. I might have chosen to write about immigration. Yes, the “ban” is a Jewish issue, and our perspective matters, and we must speak out. I also recently took a temporary part-time job reading applications for Cornell. It is striking how many of these over-achieving students are children of immigrants, particularly from south and east Asia, but from elsewhere as well. One of the questions on the application is what languages are spoken in the home. When a language other than English is listed, the parents were born abroad. Despite our current more accepting attitudes and the lip-service we pay to multiculturalism, it still seems to be two generations and out for heritage languages.

I might have written about my visiting friends in Rochester where I was impressed to see how my old class, still being taught by the wondrous Deborah Rothman, is now actually reading Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi together. Then I returned for a conversation about The Zelmenyaners, the Moyshe Kulbak book that people are reading in conjunction with the Yiddish Book Center’s book club. We talked about the difference in experience of reading even a small portion of that in Yiddish, compared with the English. Their impressive energy, reading two family epics, has me wondering what I am accomplishing in my own puttering here.

I have also been continuing to watch my own little Yiddish Ithaca group as it does not transform over time into a larger and more viable entity. We are changing days this spring because of a time conflict. I fear that will diminish our small remnant to a remnant of a remnant, and have started to question whether this is the best use of my time. Or, the reverse. Perhaps with redoubled efforts and/or a changed emphasis we could now get a better turnout, and the creativity that critical mass would enable.

I have returned to my work at smoothing the rough edges on my translation of Dos Kluge Shnayderl, and that, at least, is going well.

Yesterday, I idly wandered into a poetry reading and it turned out that all three poets were also translators. One of them is local and seemingly eager to talk translation theory, which he teaches nearby. So that could become a useful connection for me. Then a friend posted in facebook this morning about her Binghamton, NY talk next week about Yiddish modernist poet Dvoyre Vogel [for more about Vogel, click here, or here]. Her announcement promises some Yiddish, and also “Hegel, Heidegger, Benjamin, Derrida, and Modernist texts.” Oy vey!

My zeidy warned me in 1932 that this would not be easy. In his article Iberzetsung un Dikhtung he says: “At first glance it does seem that translation is very simple. The writer has a finished text. All he has to do is to take one word at a time as it is written. But words are not dead things made up of vowels and consonants. Words are symbols that conceal images and this is where the translator’s difficulties begin.” He goes on to say that even a simple word like ‘table’ (tish, shulkhen) evokes different mental images of different tables when given in English or Yiddish or Hebrew. He doesn’t even begin to get into the sounds of the words (so crucial when translating poetry) or their secondary meanings and the associations that those bring up. I have feared and avoided critical theory, not just because I feel inferior and at a disadvantage, having never done university coursework in literature, but also because as a translator I am already on shaky and complicated ground before I consider the philosophical and deep linguistic, political and historical ways that words are used to make meaning. But I might go to that talk anyway.

There are two other things I did not want to let pass without blogging about. First, unbelievably and yet utterly predictably, overt antisemitism has reared its ugly head in Rochester. A Jewish cemetery was desecrated, and then less than a week later a bomb threat called in to the Brighton JCC. Such is life in America under Republican rule.

I’ve thought and thought and thought about my friends, and have not known what to say. I’ve thought and thought about how three and a half years ago I first walked into the little room in that JCC with Yiddish books all around the walls– the room that gave me back my life. Or took it, depending on how one views the madness I’ve enveloped myself in ever since. I’ve thought, and I have no special insight to offer at all. Only love for my dear friends and teacher and community, and the germ of an even stronger determination to keep at it. If a dozen old people struggling one sentence at a time to read a book written 80 years ago actually pose a threat to these racists, then dafke, by all means, let us read.

I also recently received a sweet, beautiful, long letter from a prominent Yiddishist, someone who has made major contributions to Yiddish and Jewish studies, who took the time to tell me, book by book and in rich detail, about how important Solomon Simon’s stories had been to his childhood. How generous it was to share those memories and the feelings (clearly still vivid all these decades later) that went with them. There really is no way to know how our actions, big and small prepare the soil for the future. So, I am leaving Tongue’s Memory right here where it is and will keep checking in.

I have been working part time, as I mentioned, and I have another gig coming up. It’s only a few hours, helping out with a digitizing project, but it marks the first paid job I will have that uses Yiddish in the work. I also have had a short translation accepted for publication that could come out as early as this summer. Another, larger project is in the works. I had been thinking that this might be a good time to say goodbye to this blog, which was intended to be a record of my process of coming to Yiddish as a beginning student, later in life. Though I am still far from competent, I’m also clearly not a beginner anymore.

But no, there will be no goodbyes. I will be around, just not as often. Let’s hope it’s because I’m off doing useful things with the time I have and using the voice that tongue’s memory has given me.

Screen Capture Debora Vogel Project.png

Screen capture from a video project about Dvoyre Vogel’s poetry. You can see the video here:

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