I started studying Yiddish during high school in Louisville, Ky., at the suggestion of my grumpy, thick-spectacled English teacher, Ms. Donsky. Her pedagogical influence was the palpable though unspoken assumption that I was smart but lazy. The first book I tried to read in the language was an overheated novel by Sholem Asch based on the life of Jesus. Later, in college, while others were having sex, starting million-dollar companies, or freezing atoms in the lab, I kept studying Yiddish literature on my own and began writing poetry.
In 1995, I got a ride from my college campus in Pasadena, Calif., to the UCLA library. I don’t remember what I first came there for, but I do remember the book I eventually picked up off the shelves with its respectable heft and canary yellow color—a literary journal in Yiddish that almost looked current. The words on the cover, I eventually figured out, were “Di Goldene Keyt,” or “The Golden Chain.” I eagerly flipped the pages, but enthusiasm could not redeem my limited fluency, and I put the journal back on the shelf.
I am writing this in a house where the dining room table is flanked by an incomplete, tattered, but multicolored set of that same journal, which has become my Yiddish kotel. Its tale, I found out, is anchored by a few names: Avrom Sutzkever. Mordkhe Schaechter. Baltimore, Md.
By 1947, Avrom Sutzkever (in his late 30s, already a renowned poet) had lived through the Vilna Ghetto, from which he was spirited to Moscow by an official Soviet plane. He testified at Nuremberg and flirted with communism in Paris. He wrote Max Weinreich, one of the founders of the Yiddish Scientific Institute, known as YIVO, about his peregrinations. Weinreich responded with a litany of YIVO’s difficulties in New York—money, ignorance, assimilation. Then he continued: “If I thought that in Israel you could find a simple life and the possibility of writing, I’d advise you to move there. But I don’t believe it. … You just need to understand [about America], that sometimes the best thing to do with unfinished houses is to build new buildings. There are good bricks here.”
Sutzkever might have made his decision before Weinreich’s letter made its way to him. In September of 1947, he and his family were on their way to Palestine, forged British passports in hand—brought by the Histadrut, or central workers’ union, who set about founding a journal to the poet’s specifications.
But the decision to sponsor the journal (as Rachel Rojanski wrote recently in Haaretz) languished in the Histadrut’s bureaucracy for the better part of a year. In May 1948, just days after Israel’s founding, the union’s central committee approved the Yiddish journal, but fierce opposition remained from those who saw it as a betrayal of Hebrew. One of the Histadrut’s cultural-affairs officials, Avram Levinson, was appointed as Sutzkever’s co-editor to give the journal more of a Hebrew appearance, and the birth pangs were eased.
Thus did the first issue of Di Goldene Keyt finally appear in 1949, outfitted in postwar Israeli olive drab. The opening essay by Yosef Shprintzak, the Histadrut secretary, made up in clarity what it lacked in warmth. “The Histadrut has found it necessary to publish a literary journal in Yiddish by the name Di Goldene Keyt.” Paragraph two began no more affectionately: “Hebrew is the language of our new Jewish land.”
One might see in Shprintzak’s essay a clear statement of Israel’s need to divorce itself from the Diaspora. But one would be wrong. As Rojanski points out, Di Goldene Keyt might have owed its very success in Histadrut committees to its usefulness as propaganda, a way to show the world that Israel was the new home of global Jewish culture.
Indeed, Di Goldene Keyt came to epitomize the polarity of Jewish culture: Israeli and Diasporic at the same time, a journal in Yiddish with a Hebrew focus. In the first issue, which was more than 200 pages long, together with a wealth of other materials from political analyses to theater to book reviews, one could read a description of the nascent state’s military status and a poem by Shaul Tchernichovsky—Hebrew poetry’s pagan high priest—translated by Arn Tseytlin, the Yiddish poet of desperate survival and Hasidic lugubriousness. Sutzkever contributed a poem about an old manuscript languishing in the dust.
There are authors in the pages of Di Goldene Keyt, characters in the journal’s novelistic life, who live and breathe in my house though I’ve never met them. Nosn Brusilov published several historical novellas brimming with naval warfare, Spanish-Jewish astronomers, and Ottoman courts. Yermiye Hesheles wrote dense sonnets—thick as cholent with philosophy and arcane references—that entice even through their forbidding obscurity. Some authors (I think of them as the Goldene Keyt family) published in the journal and remain active today. In the Bronx, Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman is now a revered folk poet and songwriter, though her earlier work reveals a sharp tongue and an ear for parody. Leye Robinson, Scottish-born, is a mystical nature lover who once wrote a paean to Michael Jackson. But the crown for me of nearly every issue is a poem of Sutzkever’s.
I went to Eastern Europe for a year after college in search of Yiddish writers. I remember struggling with a grim payphone in a mud-pit underneath a Moscow overpass. When I finally got through to the poet I was trying to reach, my language skills were still not up to a conversation with a crotchety 93-year-old. “You can understand Yiddish,” she trumpeted over the line, “but you can’t speak a word of it!”
The next year, 1996, I arrived in New York for medical school. I immediately phoned Mordkhe Schaechter, head of the League for Yiddish. For years I had waited for the latest issue of its journal to arrive in my mailbox in Louisville, like a comics enthusiast afire for the newest Fantastic Four.
The League for Yiddish was the successor to a territorialist organization that planned to settle Jews in Suriname, Australia, or somewhere else, to get them out of Europe and ensure their national survival. Zionism was not their chosen ideology. Schaechter had cast territorialism aside (or hid it well). He stood instead for uncompromising devotion to linguistic purity. He knew all the great postwar Yiddish writers—and won prizes for his philological writing, printed in Di Goldene Keyt and elsewhere—but found their verbal inventiveness suspect. When I first knocked on his door, I expected a bristling Titan but found instead a mild-mannered man, short and balding, who sat me down for a cup of tea and a chat. He died five years ago this month.
I never met Sutzkever, but I made one anticlimactic phone call to him in Tel Aviv to ask about translating his work. He was hard of hearing, the connection was terrible, and his television was too loud. Somewhere in there, in 1995, Sutzkever ceased publishing Di Goldene Keyt. I think he wanted to pluck the flower rather than see it wither. He died in 2010.
Oh, yes—in New York, I also met my wife (to whom I proceeded to speak Yiddish, until, worn down by my persistence, she reluctantly started speaking it herself). We started raising kids, to whom we speak Yiddish. Now we live in Baltimore.
About a year ago, a friend of mine here said: “I have boxes of Di Goldene Keyt saved in my basement for you. Can I give them to you?” For the first few months of their residence in my home, I regarded them with awe. Then I began to pick them up, open them, read them, share bits excitedly with friends, and leave them around the house.
Several other Yiddish-speaking families live a few minutes’ walk away, two of them with their talismanic, fading rainbow of Goldene Keyt on their shelves. The Professors Caplan have a nearly complete series, which I’m jealous of. The Professors Moss and I have something else in common: Our sets of Goldene Keyt were owned by Mordkhe Schaechter, whose other books and papers are now housed at the Johns Hopkins University Library in Baltimore. Occasionally, when reading a poem of Sutzkever’s on Shabbat or in those few minutes before bed, I find a small line in pencil in the margin: Schaechter’s disapproving sign for a nonstandard word, the prescriptivist even from the grave. To enjoy such a poem provides an illicit thrill.
To my mind, Sutzkever’s journal is still published regularly, albeit in diffuse, incorporeal form. Wherever a Yiddish literary work of merit sees the light of day, it posthumously earns that coveted credit and a space among the tattered volumes. Someday, I hope to have one of my poems accepted to Di Goldene Keyt.