Jewish News book critic Andrew Field spoke with Josh Lambert and Ilan Stavans about their own love of Yiddish and the challenge of putting the book together.
How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, published this January by Restless Books, collects 150 years of writing on Yiddish culture in America. The anthology’s co-editors are Josh Lambert, academic director of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts and incoming director of the Jewish Studies program at Wellesley College (and a Ph.D. alum of the University of Michigan), and Ilan Stavans, an endowed professor at Amherst College.
Jewish News book critic Andrew Field spoke with Lambert and Stavans about their own love of Yiddish and the challenge of putting the book together. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JN: Where and how did your own personal love affair with Yiddish begin?
Stavans: I am a Mexican Jew, born in Mexico City, [and] went to Yiddish school from kindergarten to high school. We learned of Jewish culture, and Yiddish literature, and also of Mexican culture and of Mexican literature, all in Yiddish. Spanish was the language of the street, the public language; Yiddish was the private language, the language of grandparents, parents and schooling.
I have a very close, kind of romantic relationship with Yiddish. I see it as the entry way to a culture. But I’m also very critical of that culture, both in constructive and maybe more forceful ways.
Lambert: I grew up in Toronto; I went to Jewish school, but Yiddish wasn’t ever a part of it. And even though my grandfather had immigrated from Poland and was a native Yiddish speaker, it was never part of my family life.
When I got to college, I took a course on Yiddish literature and discovered all these interesting Yiddish writers. Eventually I went to graduate school to become a literary scholar, and I had a mentor who said that if I wanted to understand the history of Jewish writers, and of Jewish literature in America, I’d need to have access to the Yiddish texts. So she pushed me: “You have to go start studying Yiddish!” And I did. I went to a summer program and started to learn the language. It was amazing to discover how much of my own story, my own family history, was contained in Yiddish culture.
Years after my grandfather died, I went down to my parents’ basement and found a Yiddish book owned by him. And I could understand what he had been reading.
JN: This is a fascinating book because it’s an anthology of so many different genres, writers and backgrounds. What was the process like of putting the book together? Was it totally chaotic?
Lambert: It was the best kind of chaos. We knew we didn’t have an enormous amount of time, because part of the intention of this project was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Yiddish Book Center. So we used as our starting point a really wonderful magazine that the center has published. Pakn Treger tried to do over all those decades what this book tried to do: Find compelling material from Yiddish culture, and bring it to the attention of an English-language audience.
We got down from the shelves 40 years of the magazine. And we started to highlight pieces we thought were the most exciting, most interesting. We built up this enormous list, which would have made a book three or four times as long as the one we ended up with. Then we started to shape things into sections.
Stavans: I love how Josh put it—the best type of chaos. We started with an abstract vision, of trying to put in-between covers some of the most representative elements that would, together, give a vision of what Yiddish culture has been in America—as an immigrant language, and as a language and culture of assimilation. It’s ambitious, because [over] 150 years, particularly with such a creative, diverse, thought-provoking culture, there is so much to consider.
You know, we Jews have produced so many terrific anthologies. The Talmud is an anthology; the Torah is an anthology. We love printing voices from different orders and periods. And in some ways, that’s what we were trying to do here, too, to create a dialogue among people that didn’t live together, or even knew each other. But in this book, they happen to be inhabiting the same building and talking to one another.
JN: How do each of you understand the cultural legacy of Yiddish, not only today but also for the future?
Lambert: For me, what’s most compelling is how Yiddish was at the right time and place at these crucial moments in the history of America and so much of world civilization. There’s a quotation in the book which I love, where Alan Alda, who is not Jewish, says that his father, who was an actor, learned Yiddish in the Catskills, and called it “the unofficial language of show business.” It’s amazing to think about that—a non-Jewish actor learned Yiddish as a way of connecting to the history of show business!
Yiddish is an invitation to think in more complex ways about the past and the experiences of Jewish people. What I always hope is that Yiddish allows Jewish people in the contemporary moment to think in more expansive ways about what the possibilities of Jewishness are.
Stavans: Because I am a Latino immigrant to the U.S., I see Yiddish as a very successful immigration language. There are other languages that have disappeared very fast and have left very little trace in English. Yiddish has been very successful because it refuses to die. And Yiddish has also gone from being a language to becoming a way of dreaming and of thinking, of engaging the world. And that is very clearly manifested in the various generations of American Jews, from the immigrants to their successors.
In that sense, Yiddish is a portal, an entrance. I love the emotion that Yiddish can convey, the way it delivers sort of aggressive sentences with a kind of humor. And I love the endurance of Yiddish, the fact that it resists and goes on by not wanting to disappear altogether.