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The Psychology Behind Yiddish Literature

Rokhl’s Golden City: How trauma informed Blume Lempel’s stories

Rokhl Kafrissen
July 10, 2019
Inset photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
Inset photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
Inset photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
Inset photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Blume Pfeffer was born in 1907 in Galicia to a family that placed no particular importance on the education of girls. She dreamed of writing, a dream that was only realized when Blume, now married to Lemel Lempel, finally moved to New York (via Paris) in 1939. Blume Lempel wrote for a few years, submitting to Yiddish newspapers with some success. But when news of the war started to reveal the extent of destruction of Eastern European Jewry, she found herself unable to keep writing. “The past was a graveyard; the future without meaning,” she said later. “I sat paralyzed within a self-imposed prison.” Her creative paralysis lasted for years, until friends intervened, suggesting that she could write through the destruction that had overwhelmed her. Their intervention “opened a psychological door” and Lempel once again began to write. Her subject was survivors, both of the Holocaust, and of the violence of the world at large.

“My older brother … tells me what to write in Yiddish, directing my stories from beyond the grave. … This is how it was. This is what happened. So must it be recorded. … You did not survive simply to eat blintzes with sour cream. You survived to bring back those who were annihilated. You must speak in their tongue, point with their fingers …”

It would be a mistake, though, to assume that Lempel’s work was a mere “recording” of what was. Though she was in constant contact with the dead, her literary work was sophisticated, and her method psychologically inflected. When asked by an interviewer about her influences, she named Sigmund Freud, and disavowed membership in any literary school.

Indeed, the stories of Blume Lempel are full of traumatized people who can no longer see or hear or talk, bringing to mind the “hysteria” of Freud’s patients, who converted inner trauma into external symptoms. Lempel’s women suffer the price of survival, often paying that debt with their bodies. Lempel’s empathy with her women, and her unflinching attention to their wild and erotic energies, that makes her feel so incredibly relevant today.

Unlike after the war, today we are acutely aware of the psychological impact of trauma. The treatment of PTSD, as well as its potential transmission across generations, has been taken up as a mental health crisis. Even more important than her unique style, Lempel’s work gives voice to the most vulnerable and the most traumatized.

Lempel was widely published in Yiddish literary journals and Avrom Sutzkever, editor of the prestigious Goldene Keyt journal, became a friend and supporter. But there was one story too shocking for Sutzkever. In “Oedipus in Brooklyn,” a young mother is widowed, and her son blinded, in a shocking car accident. Psychoanalysis helps Sylvia move past her initial suicidal impulses, but it cannot heal what random violence has taken from her.

The title of the story announces Lempel’s bold insistence on refashioning the language of myth, and the myths of psychoanalysis, as a way of explicating Jewish pain. The mother and son of “Oedipus in Brooklyn” grow together, moving to Florida and sealing themselves into a self-contained bubble—a tiny, dysfunctional Garden of Eden, one birthed by a series of acts of meaningless violence. In one of the most shocking moments of modern Yiddish literature, mother and son become lovers. Sylvia tries to convince herself her dead husband “in the form of her son had come to demand the debt she owed to his unlived life.” Here, survivor’s guilt isn’t just debilitating (as it was in Lempel’s own life), it is a perversion of the natural order. Trauma begets trauma.

Lempel was writing in postwar America. By that point, the idea of psychoanalysis as a master key to human nature had become utterly mainstream, and, perhaps not unrelatedly, rather distanced from its origins as the “Jewish science.” This broad acceptance was in contrast to the hostility of the 1930s, as noted by literary historian Naomi Seidman in her lecture, “In the ‘Freud Laboratory’: the Yiddish Translation and Reception of Psychoanalysis.” In 1936, the Forverts published an article celebrating Freud on his 80th birthday, along with a sternly worded editor’s note from Ab Cahan himself. The note read, in part: “We on the editorial staff know full well that many people think psychoanalysis is a fraud, a way to make money. Nervous women go to a doctor, and pay them high fees to sit there and listen to them talk.” Many people think psychoanalysis is a fraud. That may have been so, but at least a few Yiddish-speaking Jews were taking it seriously, including the author of the Forverts article, as well as the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, who underwent analysis, in Yiddish, at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.

The man who wrote the 1936 Forverts article on Freud was Max Weinreich. As well as being the research director of YIVO, Weinreich was a translator of Freud into Yiddish. He wasn’t the only one, but his engagement with psychoanalysis, and the way he used psychoanalytic concepts to shape YIVO’s mission, certainly make him the most consequential.

Freud actually joined the YIVO board of trustees in 1930. Though he didn’t have much to do with the institution, his ideas had enormous currency there. Between 1936 and 1938, Weinreich published his six-volume translation of Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, called Araynfir in psikhoanalis, in Yiddish. It was the only Yiddish translation authorized by Freud himself and the only one by someone who had actually undergone analysis.

Indeed, Max Weinreich had been analyzed by Siegfried Bernfeld in 1933, while he was in Vienna studying the new field of child and adolescent psychology with Charlotte Buhler. Whereas most psychoanalytic attention had been paid to early childhood, Bernfeld believed adolescence (roughly between the ages of 12 and 20) was a time of great importance, as well as holding potential for social change. Bernfeld also believed that the study of adolescents required material data generated by young people themselves. This could be letters, diaries, memoirs, and more. He established repositories for those materials in Vienna, such as the Archive for Jewish Youth in 1913.

Bernfeld’s work had a profound influence on Weinreich, and thus YIVO. YIVO had had a department of psychology and pedagogy almost from the time of its establishment in 1925. But by 1930 the department was actively developing methods for the psychological study of the Jewish child. Influenced by the collection activities of Bernfeld, Weinreich and YIVO instituted an autobiography contest for young people, which collected hundreds of memoirs and diaries from all over the world. Three autobiography contests were held during the 1930s, the first of which was in 1932, the last of which was to have announced its winners on Sept. 1, 1939, the day of the German invasion of Poland.

Even before his analysis with Bernfeld, Weinreich believed that the future of Polish Jews lay with its youth, thus understanding them was of paramount importance. In 1935, Weinreich published what would be the culmination of his own theoretical and practical research on Jewish youth, Der veg tsu undzer yugnt (The Path to Our Youth). Influenced by his time with African American students at the Tuskegee Institute, Weinreich sought a framework for understanding the position of Jewish youth in Eastern Europe. For Weinreich, this meant researching the psychology of belonging to a disadvantaged minority. If the essence of becoming Jewish in Poland was a kind of double insecurity (first feeling different and then experiencing discrimination), then YIVO could be part of the solution.

Though a large part of the autobiography contest materials were destroyed during the war, a good deal of the material survived. In 2002, YIVO published Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland Before the Holocaust, a collection of 15 of the contest entries translated into English, along with explanatory material. Reading through these narratives is the best way to understand why Max Weinreich was so determined to put Jewish youth into a kind of collective analysis. The 1930s were a time of terrible Jewish poverty, as well as increasing anti-Semitism. Combined with new revolutionary movements, the appeal of assimilation, and immigration, it seemed like the generation gap between Jewish parents and children had never been larger. By focusing on young Jews, and treating them as experts on their own lives, YIVO’s Yugfor (Yugnt Forshung/Youth Research) could build a sense of security and rootedness in place, as well as a foundation for pride and self-knowledge.

As much as he was focused on the psychology of the individual, for Weinreich that work was always balanced by the needs and aims of the collective. His great unfinished work, though, was on the most important postwar Jewish collective here in America. If ever a group suffered grievously from nostalgia, and atomization, it is us. Rather than serving as a chasm between them, though, Svetlana Boym believed that nostalgia could be “an intermediary between collective and individual memory.”

I’m hung up on a line from Boym’s winding and allusive 2002 book, The Future of Nostalgia: “The space of experience allows one to account for the assimilation of the past into the present.” Boym suggests that in a modern, industrialized world, the unfolding of time is now driven by the superhuman logic of progress. What lies ahead, the horizon of expectation, is perforce more important than the now of the space of experience. We live in, and for, the future. Nostalgia, for Boym, “is a longing for that shrinking ‘space of experience’ that no longer fits the new ‘horizon of expectation.’”

I never thought of nostalgia as a kind of trauma reaction but it makes sense: Psychic injuries result when catastrophic events overwhelm our ability to process and integrate what is happening. The ability to reflect on the past is our natural defense. But in a future-focused world, there’s never enough time to address the wounds of the past. We might shut down, or close off. Or perhaps we cultivate nostalgia for a more peaceful never was. But unprocessed violence lingers inside us like a virus, and, like a virus, trauma can jump from host to host, body to body, and perhaps even further—perhaps even across time and space.

The practice of literature can widen the space of experience, its slowness and backward-looking tendencies resisting the horizon of expectation. The startling and unique work of Blume Lempel reveals how literature can also be therapeutic, serving as both the reading and writing cure.

There’s a famous quote of Weinreich’s, brought to us by the great literary scholar Dan Miron: “If American Jews still dream as a group, Yiddish is the language they speak in their dream. It is still the idiom of their collective unconscious. For their personality to become whole they—or at least some of them—will have to go back to Yiddish one day.”

WATCH: In 2014, researcher Markus Krah gave a fascinating talk on YIVO, Freud, and American Jewry.

READ:Oedipus in Brooklyn” was published in a collection of Blume Lempel’s Yiddish short stories in 1981. Those stories were finally given beautiful translations in 2016 by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub … Awakening Lives is a fascinating glimpse into the difficult, joyous, and often chaotic world of Jewish youth in 1930s Poland.

MORE: The microniche of Yiddish podcasts is thriving. After a five-month hiatus, the feminist driven Vaybertaytsh is back with a new season of interviews, conversations, live shows, and more, plus an expanded cast of young contributors. New episodes here. Dos Yidishe Kol is a long-running radio program (and now podcast) from Boston. New episodes this summer focus on Yiddish in Paris. Audio and much more here. (Both in Yiddish) … My friend Vivi Lachs is here from London doing the YIVO zumer-program with me. This week you can hear her talk about her brilliant book on the Yiddish East End, Whitechapel Noise. The book has it all: politics, sex, and religion through the lyrics of radical Yiddish verse and Cockney-Yiddish music-hall song. The event is free, and Vivi’s book and CDs will be available for sale at a discounted price. (A vilde metsye!) Thursday, July 11, 1 p.m. (In Yiddish with English explanations) Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street. … New Yorkers have a rare opportunity for a sustained study experience with a legendary teacher of Yiddish studies, Eugene Orenstein. He’ll be leading four sessions on “The Beginnings of Modern Yiddish Literature.” (In Yiddish) Begins July 17, at the Workmen’s Circle. … Golden City favorite Litvakus (down-home Byelorussian klezmer) plays Central Park, Sunday, July 21, 2 p.m., at the Harlem Meer Performance Festival. … “Sharabi means intoxicated in Punjabi.” Intoxicating is definitely apt for this Frank London-Deep Singh collaboration. I’ve been kind of obsessed with their funky klezmer-Bhangra fusion since I saw them at Yiddish New York last December. Not to be missed. July 24, Nublu, 151 Avenue C. … There’s no better way to immerse yourself in a culture than through song. And there’s no better guide than Paula Teitelbaum. She’ll be leading a session on the Yiddish songs of summer. Come ready to sing. July 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the Workmen’s Circle. … For my Australia peeps: My friend, Bund historian David Slucki, has a couple very special events coming up to celebrate the publication of his new memoir. Monday, July 29, is the Australian launch of Sing This at My Funeral: A Memoir of Fathers and Sons. Novelist and human rights activist Arnold Zable will launch the book and comedian and writer John Safran will emcee. 7:30 p.m. at Readings, 112 Acland St., St Kilda, Victoria 3182. Thursday, Aug. 1, David joins Bram Presser and Jordy Silverstein to discuss the challenges of reconstructing difficult family histories. The discussion will be moderated by historian Silverstein, whose work investigates Australian Jewish memory and identity. Jointly presented by the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation and the Kadimah. 7:30 p.m. at Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre and National Library, 7 Selwyn St., Elsternwick, Victoria, Australia 3185. … New old Yiddish theater comes to YIVO on July 31 with a reading of Leon Kobrin’s 1912 tragicomic slice of tenement life, Breach of Promise. (In English.) 7 p.m. … Klezkamp has reincarnated as a summer retreat, now in its second year at Ashoken. Festival opens July 29. Still time to register.


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Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.