The literary journal Di Goldene Keyt nurtured Yiddish writers in Israel and the Diaspora—and made an author in Baltimore dream
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.
Sacha Baron Cohen has been warned not to commit any stunts at the Oscars. But why should he listen? It’s not as if he’ll ever win one.