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A century through Yiddish letters

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Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays by Chava Rosenfarb Ed. Goldie Morgentaler; Trans. the author, Goldie Morgentaler, Roz Usiskin, Arnice Pollack (McGill-Queen’s UP)

The booklet is slim and fragile, printed on now-yellowed paper in Lodz, Poland, in 1946. Over an image of a bundled-up mother and child is printed the title in Hebrew block letters: Lekh-Lekho.

I stumbled upon a copy when the first post-Communist years in Warsaw allowed for street-sellers of the most motley kind. The one who sold me Lekh-Lekho sat before the Warsaw Ghetto monument among a jumble of touristic maps and Judaica. Chava Rosenfarb acknowledges, in her collection Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays, that Lekh-Lekho became one of “her most treasured possessions. All these years, I have kept it under glass . . . time has done its work, ravaging the pages and turning them a yellowish brown.”

Rosenfarb writes of the booklet’s value for her in an essay called “Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch: Poet of the Lodz Ghetto.” It is among the finely wrought “Personal Essays” in the collection, which is edited by her daughter, Goldie Morgentaler.

The subjects under Rosenfarb’s keen eye include prewar Lodz, the Lodz Ghetto under brutal German rule, Germany after the war, life as a newcomer in 1950s Montreal, and the waning of Yiddish literature during recent decades.

Rosenfarb addresses many of the key themes of 20th century history and Jewish daily life, in her wonderfully intimate and wry way. And she sets herself apart from the crowd on any number of familiar themes.

As a survivor, she was on the receiving end of repeated and what she viewed as naïve questions, to which she responded, “From which bag of highfalutin, well-sounding, hollow phrases do I take my response? What response exactly will satisfy my interrogators’ expectations?  Would not any answer tarnish the memory of those who did not survive the bondage of the darkest Egypt that ever existed?”

This is a fresh rebuttal to the bromides and generic comments that one encounters in discussions and commemorations of the Holocaust.

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Writing in 1975 of her postwar Montreal social environment, she is equally unguarded: “What has always bothered me in my Montreal Jewish milieu is the conformity that I find: people trying to emulate others, hitching their wagons to dogmatic standards. Whoever does not conform is ostracized and disliked. Everyone sits in judgment of everyone else’s behaviour, actions, speech. They classify, they criticize, they moralize, they preach, they crawl into each other’s pockets, into each other’s motives.”

This passage is from a piece called “Ramblings through Inner Continents: Notes from a Life,” which appeared in its original Yiddish in the Tel Aviv-based Di goldene keyt. The journal, edited by poet Avraham Sutzkever, became Rosenfarb’s favoured venue for placing her personal and literary essays, though her work also appeared in the New York-based Forverts, in anthologies, and more recently in online venues like Tablet. Recent appearances – especially after Rosenfarb’s death in 2011 – reflect Morgentaler’s ongoing efforts to translate and publish her mother’s work.

Confessions of a Yiddish Writer contains a detailed record of the time and place of each essay’s first appearance. This tells the story of Yiddish literary life in the postwar decades. When Di goldene keyt folded in the 1990s, Rosenfarb writes, she fell “into a profound depression, because it meant that I no longer had a venue for publishing what I wrote in Yiddish. So, what was the point of continuing to write in this language?”

This existential question appears in an essay called “A Yiddish Writer Reflects on Translation,” which, appropriately, was delivered in English in 2005. In it, Rosenfarb depicts her earliest translation efforts, which began by press-ganging her daughter.

“I made her sit at the table with my texts by her side, and, through a combination of bribery, insistence, and cajolery, I induced her to translate my work into English. She was 13 when we began this, and I don’t think she enjoyed the experience.”

This portrait presages Confessions of a Yiddish Writer; the book’s publication is the outcome of the mother-daughter tête-à-tête that began so many years ago.

Rosenfarb is best known as a novelist, and her youthful experience of the Lodz Ghetto is at the heart of her work. Confessions of a Yiddish Writer highlights key aspects of her prose work by way of personal reflection. The poet whose work is collected in the booklet Lekh-Lekho comes up again and again. He is Simkha-Bunim Shayevitch, whose reputation was, at the outbreak of the Second World War, established, though he was not among the leading poets, prose writers and artists incarcerated in the ghetto. Rosenfarb recognizes his influence on her as crucial and formative in her own development as a writer.

Murdered in Auschwitz after traveling there in the same transport as Rosenfarb’s family, Shayevitch retained his power as a ghostly muse.

The essays in Confessions of a Yiddish Writer convey a great deal about the writerly life, as it was lived in Poland, in refugee camps, among displaced persons in postwar Europe, and then as a newcomer and established writer in Canada.  

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