Seminar 1 on Jewish Multilingualism in the Midwest: Yiddish Translations of Urban Experience (Spring 2021) – Translate Midwest

Seminar 1 on Jewish Multilingualism in the Midwest: Yiddish Translations of Urban Experience (Spring 2021)

Seminar 1 coordinator: U-M Professor Maya Barzilai (Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Comparative Literature)

Yiddish Translations of Urban Experience poster

The first Mellon-Sawyer seminar in the Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest series took place on February 4-5, 2021. The seminar focused on twentieth century Jewish immigrants who wrote in and about the American Midwest. Drawing on Yiddish poetry, prose, journalism, and letters, the participants used these texts as a springboard for discussions of midwestern Jewish publishing, cultural and pedagogical institutions, and political activism.

The study of modern Jewish cultural production in the United States has focused on the East and West coasts, particularly on the “center” of New York city. This seminar spotlighted the Midwest as an interconnected region where Jewish writing and art flourished, addressing pressing social and political issues: urban sprawl, industrialization and worker exploitation, gender and racial inequalities.

The participants in the seminar, hailing from Midwestern institutions, presented their research on Yiddish writers in urban contexts such as Detroit or Chicago, while also asking how might we reassess the landscape of Jewish American culture in view of these newly discussed materials? What contributions did Midwestern artists or those who observed this region make within the field of Yiddish letters? What role did translation and multilingualism play in Jewish writing about Midwestern society and how can we translate twentieth-century Yiddish literature for a contemporary audience?

In her opening remarks, Maya Barzilai examined the critical viewpoint of a New York based Jewish writer, Isaac Moyshe Nadir (1885-1943), upon his visit to Detroit and its factories. In the 1932 “The Ford Factories,” Nadir describes Detroit as a fluid and even rubbery city that takes in and spits out factory workers according to its needs. This image of the city can be extended to Nadir’s own language, an elastic Yiddish that negotiated Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds. The subsequent discussion of Nadir’s texts raised questions that would then be explored in other sessions: How did writing for a Jewish audience shape these writers’ voices and criticism? How did Yiddish writers, as recent immigrants, respond to the industrialization of the Midwest, and how were they positioned as subjects within this region? How did Yiddish and (Midwestern) English intermingle in these works? 

In his discussion of Ezra Korman and Jewish DetroitJulian Levinson (University of Michigan) examined the rich Midwestern cultural forums of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Yiddish-language reading circles for women of different political stripes. Levinson maintained that Jewish cultural life in the Midwest contrasted with that in New York, where friction between different political groups did not allow for the establishment of unified Yiddish cultural institutions. Because of the smaller size of the Jewish population in the Detroit, ideological differences could be smoothed out, giving rise to a bustling cultural scene. 

A central figure in the Midwestern Jewish literary community was Ezra Korman (1888-1959), poet, editor, and translator. Korman promoted and anthologized the work of other Yiddish writers, especially women, while organizing Jewish cultural life in Detroit. He also published several volumes of his own Yiddish poetry. Ezra Korman’s life and his fascinating body of work were further explored in “Ezra Korman, Poet of My City,” a performance by Mikhl Yashinsky, followed by Q&A with Mikhail Krutikov. For a Yiddish discussion of these events, read Professor Krutikov’s essay published in the Yiddish version of the Jewish Forward.

In Centers and Provinces: H. Leivick & I. I. Segal, Erin Faigin (University of Wisconsin-Madison) discussed the economic and social conditions that informed Yiddish literary production, focusing on the dynamics between the Jewish literary centers in New York and the Midwest. During the Great Depression, Midwestern branches of the Yiddish Cultural Society (Yidishe Kultur Gezelshaft – YKG) were established to coordinate activity outside of New York. In correspondences between New York writers, such as H. Leivick,  and Chicago-based writers and publishers, we find references to the Midwestern branches as “provinces,” a term drawn from Russian imperial discourse. Other writers complained about how New York became the single center in the United States, in contrast to the multiple centers of Eastern Europe. Faigin explored how Russian and Yiddish notions such as province, region, and center become translated in the American landscape, and particularly with regards to the Midwest-New York cultural and economic relationship. 

Jessica Kirzane (University of Chicago) discussed the work of Yiddish poet Pessie Pomerantz-Honigbaum and presented her English translations of the poetry. Across several poems, Pomerantz-Honigbaum depicted Chicago, the city where she settled, as a space of poverty, hunger, and inequality. 

Anna Torres (University of Chicago) presented the journalistic work of Malka Heifetz Tussman (1893-1987) and the Chicago Anarchist PressTorres underscored the Chicago anarchist movement as multiethnic and multilingual, composed of predominantly immigrants who published in a myriad of languages. Heifetz Tussman published for The Alarm when it was led by a woman of color who was born a slave, Lucy Parsons Gonzales. She reported on the “lived experience of working women, rather than elegize heroes of labor,” as often occured in post-Haymarket anarchist writings.

In Lune Mattes: Miniature SkyscrapersSunny Yudkoff (University of Wisconsin-Madison) discussed Mattes’ (1896-1929) Yiddish minimalist poems and their relation to his intriguing biography. After immigrating from Poland and settling in Chicago, Mattes traveled across the United States and spent prolonged periods of time in hospitalization due to his tuberculosis. His poems stood in dialogue with Anglo-American modernism and included the art work of Todros Geller.

The seminar Jewish Multilingualism in the Midwest: Yiddish Translations of Urban Experience dealt with the understudied region of the Midwest as a site of intense Jewish cultural activity, which deserves our critical attention, no less than other sites of writing and publication in the United States. Yiddish-language writings about the Midwest were critical of its intense industrialization and social hierarchies. The presenters highlighted the participation of women, as both producers and consumers, in the Midwestern cultural scene. They discussed not only the inter-Jewish relationship between communities in the Midwest and the East Coast, but also foregrounded modes of contact and exchange with other immigrant and minority communities in Detroit and Chicago.

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