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Posts Tagged ‘Yiddish’

In Brief

April 3, 2014 | by


From the cover of Liana Finck’s A Binkel Brief.

Dear Editor,
I am a Russian revolutionist and a freethinker. Here in America I became acquainted with a girl who is also a freethinker. We decided to marry, but the problem is that she has Orthodox parents, and for their sake we must have a religious ceremony. If we refuse the ceremony we will be cut off from them forever. Her parents also want me to go to the synagogue with them before the wedding, and I don’t know what to do. Therefore I ask
you to advise me how to act.
J. B.

Answer: The advice is that there are times when it pays to give in to old parents and not grieve them. It depends on the circumstances. When one can get along with kindness it is better not to break off relations with the parents.

You have probably heard of “A Bintel Brief,” the famous Yiddish advice column that ran in Der Forvertz, guiding several generations of newly arrived Jewish immigrants through the confusions of the new world. Penned by editor Abraham Cahan, the column, which has been anthologized, makes for evocative reading. It’s often heartbreaking and sometimes funny; the tersely definitive responses are compassionate and generally wise.

It was with great pleasure, then, that I came upon a copy of Liana Finck’s new graphic novel, A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York. Finck illustrates a number of the “Bintel Brief” letters—from an educated young woman engaged to an old-world greenhorn; from a poor mother whose watch has been stolen by an even poorer friend; from a cuckolded husband—but she does more than that. She speculates about what might have happened to the writers. She illustrates unspoken byplay, read between the lines. She records her own reactions. In so doing, she brings an entirely new dimension to what has become, for modern readers, a portal into a world that feels impossibly distant. It is about nostalgia, yes—Finck would not have been alive when the column ran—but it is also about how we engage with the past. The letters alone feel like such an anachronism.

But are they? Funnily enough, I was reading through Finck’s book, which I have been meting out like a treat, when a friend sent me this. It’s gotten some exposure on Reddit, as one might expect.

There is one particularly moving letter that Finck chooses to illustrate, in which the survivor of a pogrom wonders whether to uproot his elderly father, now alone, and bring him to safety in America. Cahan wrote, “For various reasons we need to answer this heart-wrenching letter privately. The writer should send us his full address.”


The Joys of Yiddish Dictionaries

February 22, 2013 | by

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 10.49.05 AMOne of the best things I’ve ordered on the Internet recently is a Yiddish translation of The Hobbit. After getting lost in the mail in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it finally arrived: a medium-sized white-on-black paperback titled Der Hobit, with a dedication to the “workers and residents of the Newtonville Starbucks (my office).” The translator, Barry Goldstein, is a retired computer programmer, and reworking The Hobbit is only one of his hobbies. He is an arctic traveler who has taken several trips to Greenland, and he has rendered accounts of Shackleton’s voyages into Yiddish. He is also on the editorial team of a more momentous, if not quite as whimsical, project: the new Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, released in January by Indiana University Press. Now, thanks to Goldstein, I have the Yiddish Hobbit, and the means to read it.

A dictionary is meant to be a reflection of a language (or a prescription for it, depending on your view), but the Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary reflects an entire culture. (In the interest of full disclosure, the dictionary received a grant from the Forward Association, which publishes the newspaper for which I work.) Unlike previous dictionaries, its audience is mainly English speakers, not Yiddish. It is aimed at readers of Yiddish literature (or Yiddish translations of children’s fantasy novels), rather than people who want to speak or write the language, though an English-Yiddish dictionary is also on the way. In the battle between descriptivism and prescriptivism it takes a middle path, erring on the side of the descriptive. Taken with its predecessors, it tells the story of Yiddish in America. Read More »


The Driftwood Remains: My Search for A Bankable Title

December 19, 2011 | by

Hope: A Tragedy was the first title I suggested to my editor. I really thought it was right.

“No,” he said.

My parents didn’t love me, so I have low self-esteem, and I agreed to keep working. These are some of the alternate titles I presented, and the reasoning for or against them:

The Diary of Anne Frankenstein:
My working title; I never really intended to use it—too Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters—but it had grown on me, and I mentioned it to my editor as I was finishing the manuscript. This caused him to proclaim a couple of “title rules” for this novel:

1) Nothing funny.

2) No mentioning Anne Frank.

Apparently, people don’t buy “funny” novels, and they don’t buy books about Anne Frank. Which is, ironically enough, pretty fucking funny.

It’s a Wonderful Ka-Pow:
Too funny.

Did I Ever Tell You How Unlucky You Are?
Too funny.

To Those About to Be Consumed by Flames:
Too Sedaris.

Nowhere Ho:
I liked this title quite a bit, a play on the old expression “Westward Ho.” Kugel, the main character, wishes for nothing more than to be nowhere—a place with no past, no history, no wars, no genocides. My editor liked it as well, and began mentioning it to people, testing it out. It turns out young people don’t know that expression anymore. The poor dears were very confused. My editor was disappointed. I wanted to run to Nowhere even more than I had before.

There was a brief concern that they wouldn’t know who Anne Frank is, either, which, we decided, would be pretty fucking funny.

The Sufferers:
I do my best to stay out of bookstores because they make me want to kill myself, but apparently The X is a bit of a trend now. The Informers, The Intuitionist, The Imperfectionists. Et cetera. There was some concern it would be seen as that. I had a difficult time believing that things had gotten so bad that the word “The” was a trend.

“Like the Bible?” I asked.

“Keep working,” I was told.

The Lacerations and The Crematorians died for the same reason. Probably for the best, those. Read More »


Stop Me If You’ve Heard This

September 22, 2011 | by

Abe Vigoda by Drew Friedman from 'Even More Old Jewish Comedians.'

Veteran actor Abe Vigoda’s friends think it’s funny that he’s not dead.

“Abe, was the ground cold when you got up this morning?” asked Stewie Stone, who was compéring a party for Even More Old Jewish Comedians at the Friars Club last Thursday evening. The book, by artist Drew Friedman, is the third in a series of caricatures of his Borscht Belt comic heroes. For the occasion, the midtown club’s Milton Berle room was full of elderly Jews and even older jokes.

“Milton Berle was famous,” Stone announced, “for the size of his cock. When he died, he left it to the Friars Club. So if you wanna see it, it’s on the second ... third and fourth floors.” The crowd, sipping wine, laughed knowingly. They had heard this before. The wood paneled room hosted a mix of retired dentists and doctors; senior women sporting sparkly blazers, cloying perfume, and vibrant hair; comedy nerds seeking autographs; and a lot of quick-witted wisecrackers in their eighties and nineties. Read More »



August 2, 2011 | by

On a recent Friday evening I went to see the new documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness at a West Side theater that, on any given day, swings heavily Jewish and seriously elderly and on this occasion surpassed itself on both counts. The audience arrived early, settled slowly, talked loudly, and laughed at Yiddish jokes before they were translated, probably among the last people in the world able to do so. My own few words of the language—picked up in a class I briefly flirted with at the 92nd Street Y—were of little help.

That class was held only a few blocks from my grandparents’ apartment, and each week, I’d go there afterward for a late dinner. They were glad to see me regularly—I wasn’t, typically, on the Upper East Side—but the nature of the class made the dinners particularly meaningful. My grandfather would speak to me in Yiddish. I’d known it was his first language, of course, but he never spoke it normally, and it was surprising to see him slip into it as if eighty years hadn’t elapsed.

My grandfather, who died earlier this year, was a librettist, which is to say he wrote the dialogue for musicals. He started in radio, worked in early TV, and in the fifties made the move to Broadway. Looking for new material in the early sixties, he rediscovered Sholem-Aleichem’s tales of shtetl life and transformed them into an unlikely musical that became Fiddler on the Roof. (He had come to my sixth-grade class and told us about its inception—the difficulty of finding producers, the skeptics and naysayers, the creative team’s unwavering commitment to the project—during our “Immigration” unit.) Read More »