Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Wikipedia
El Lissitzky, ‘The Constructor,’ 1924 Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Wikipedia
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Yiddish Kidlit

Rokhl’s Golden City: The revolution that belatedly gave birth to children’s books in Yiddish

Rokhl Kafrissen
December 04, 2019
Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Wikipedia
El Lissitzky, 'The Constructor,' 1924 Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Wikipedia

Today we think of children’s literature, especially books for very young readers, as oversize hardback books with whimsical illustrations. The beginnings of Yiddish kidlit, though, were a lot less glossy. In fact, for hundreds of years, young readers were not differentiated in any way from the adults, and certainly didn’t get their own dedicated reading material. It wasn’t until the very end of the 19th century that the explosion in Yiddish literature for adults prompted a similar revolution for children. Stories specifically for kids began appearing in Yiddish newspapers and periodicals, most of which had “holiday” supplements, which explains why we have so many classic Yiddish stories about Pesakh, Simkhes Toyre, Khanike, and so on. These weren’t the sumptuously illustrated, full sensory experiences we expect nowadays from early-reader books, but they were a quantum leap from the nothing that had come before.

The real aesthetic revolution came during the 20th century’s brief experiment synthesizing revolutionary fever and Yiddishkayt. The high point of this revolution within a revolution was the appearance of a Yiddish-Aramaic setting of the Passover song “Khad Gadye,” with illustrations by the great El Lissitzky. In this “Khad Gadye,” Lissitzky marries cubo-futuristic graphics with traditional Jewish imagery, creating an “artist’s revolutionary manifesto that epitomized his vision of how the Jewish past and future could be linked,” as Lyudmila Sholokhova writes in her essay “Soviet Propaganda in Illustrated Books” (from the 2016 volume of essays, Children and Yiddish Literature: From Early Modernity to Post-Modernity). The final image of God slaying the malekhhamoves (Angel of Death) leaves nothing to the imagination: Out of the eye of God emerges a hand wielding a sword; the eye is outlined in red, while the malekhhamoves wears an imperial crown.

Lissitzky’s Khad Gadye was published in 1919 in Kyiv by the Kultur-lige, a network of social-cultural organizations that promoted the “development of all spheres of contemporary Yiddish culture, including education, literature, theater, art, and music.” As Sholokhova points out, children’s literature during this early period was not yet overdetermined by political dictates, as it would come to be in the 1930s. Traditional Jewish imagery was deployed in a positive light. Progress—scientific, technological, and political—was glorified, but not yet tied to the visual vocabulary of later Soviet propaganda (hammers and sickles, pioneers, Lenin, and so on).

In the 1920s, there was a drive to eliminate illiteracy in the Soviet Union, as well as newly mandatory schooling in one’s native language. Sholokhova notes that the number of Yiddish language schools exploded in Ukraine and Belorussia in the early 1920s and early ’30s—a development that wasn’t always welcomed by Jewish parents. This increase in Yiddish schools created a new market for children’s books in Yiddish. The museum-ready caliber of the Kultur-lige activists contributed just one small part of this state-sponsored wave of creative activity.

One of the books Sholokhova doesn’t discuss is Miriam Margolin’s 1922 Mayselekh far kleyninke kinderlekh (Little Stories for Little Children), illustrated by Issachar Ber Ryback. Happily, it received a beautiful, but affordable, facsimile reissue in the 1980s.

Margolin was a teacher, as well as an official in the division of preschool education in the Jewish section of the Commissariat for Public Education, and Ryback was a drawing teacher at the Kultur-lige. But for the phonetic spelling of the loshn-koydesh-derived word mayselekh (stories), you wouldn’t know from reading that this was a “Soviet” text, as it retains such “reactionary” features as the use of final Hebrew letters.

Mayselekh has a magnetically concise quality. The stories are as short as 35 words, presented as a single block of text. While I can’t say nothing happens, there’s not really much conflict, and lessons go resolutely unlearned, as if being reported by a happy but distracted toddler who hasn’t quite gotten the hang of empathy. In “Di Zumerfeygele” (The Butterfly), for instance, Motke catches a butterfly and pulls at its wings, until it dies. The end.

Di naye telers” (The New Plates) is told in fewer characters than a single tweet:

Rokhele accidentally broke a plate. Her mother didn’t scold her at all, but went to market and bought two new plates. One had a blue rooster painted on it, and on the other were two flowers with a butterfly in between.

There are a lot of roosters in Mayselekh. The roosters, and all the other characters, are drawn with Ryback’s bold, confident lines. It’s an unfussy, cubo-primitive flat style that gives the paradoxical impression of jumping off the page. The composition has hints of Ryback’s contemporary, Marc Chagall, but with Picasso-like touches of arms and eyes sitting atop each other.

The gnomic weirdness of the texts with Ryback’s childlike visuals reminds me of nothing so much as the books of Daniel Pinkwater, like Fat Men From Space. I wish I could draw a definitive link between a book like Mayselekh and Fat Men, but Pinkwater claims his visual style owes more to Japanese woodcuts than the Yiddish world(s) from which his aliens inevitably come.

With greatest respect to the (extremely knowledgeable) scholars associated with them, I do have to register one complaint about the beautiful facsimile edition of Mayselekh, as well as Mani-Leib’s delightful Yingl Tsingl Khvat (also featuring art by Lissitzky). The brief introductory material written for these new editions ends up obscuring the origins of both the creators and their creative milieu. The word “revolution” is entirely, curiously absent. The book jacket copy of Mayselekh, for example, states that it was published in 1922 in “Russia,” which is true (the book was published in Moscow, and the Soviet Union would not be officially declared until Dec. 30, 1922) … but not entirely accurate. The Kultur-lige originated in Kyiv, and Ukraine had become an independent republic in 1919. These books would not exist but for the unique political-cultural moment engendered during the Bolshevik Revolution and the brief life of the Kultur-lige, as well as the Jewish artists who believed they could create something entirely Yiddish, progressive, and modern.

But how on earth can you communicate such intricate history within the space of a book flap? And is it really worthwhile? After all, they’re just quaint picture books, right? Is it worth getting into the minute details of the revolutionary timeline in a children’s picture book? It depends on what you think the purpose of these books is. If we believe Lissitzky was creating a “manifesto” linking past and present with his Khad Gadye, why can’t these new editions do the same, in their own way? Why can’t we even mention the word “revolution” in an entirely accurate and appropriate context? The danger of turning American kids into Bolsheviks is probably minimal by this point.

In fact, I’d argue that American Jews have an Old Country problem, in which all of Jewish history in Eastern Europe is shrunken down to Russia, shtetls, and pogroms. (I blame An American Tale. Sorry, Feivel.) Most Jews who came to the United States before 1924 came for economic reasons, not fleeing violence. (See Hasia Diner, among others, on this point.) Completely excising the revolution from these reissues feels like a missed opportunity and a compounded problem.

It might be somewhat more difficult to justify a reissue of a book like Nathan Chanin’s 1938 Berele. But I’ll make my pitch anyway. It’s a sort of Bundist bildungsroman, which I’m fairly certain is based on Chanin’s own life. The language is accessible but not dumbed down. Berele could be a great book for motivated intermediate Yiddish students. It’s fairly short and reads like a cross between a “Boy’s Life” adventure serial and a Jack London novel. And it was published by Farlag Kinder Ring of the Educational Committee of the Workmen’s Circle, right here in the good old USA.

Within 130 pages or so, the title character goes from being a very poor, kheyder-educated Jewish boy to a bomb-throwing Bundist and 1905 revolutionary. One of the chapters is even called Me lernt zikh varfn a bombe (Learning to Throw a Bomb). Berele survives a couple years in Siberia, escapes, and finally makes his way to New York. There he finds his new life kind of dull (!), until his life is changed once again by a Meyer London rally.

Berele illustrates an important moment in the history of Yiddish children’s publishing. The real engine driving the creation of Yiddish texts for kids was the early-20th-century growth of Yiddish language education. Berele was issued by the publishing arm of the Educational Committee of the Workmen’s Circle. In the United States, there were four Yiddish-language school systems: the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle), the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute, Poyle Tsiyen (Labor Zionist), and the Ordn Shuln or JPFO (Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order) schools of the IWO (International Workers Order). These weren’t just schools, but entire cultural networks.

As Jennifer Young writes in “A Language Is Like a Garden: Shloyme Davidman and the Yiddish Communist School Movement in the United States” (also in Children and Yiddish Literature), when it came to summer camp, JPFO parents wanted more for their kids than a respite from city life; they wanted an experience that would continue the educational and political goals of the shules. “[A]s the motto at the time proclaimed, ‘From shule to camp and from camp to shule.’ They sought to build a network of institutions that could mutually reinforce, support, and insulate their political experiment.”

Davidman’s most popular book was a 1937 collection of stories about life at Camp Kinderland called Bongelo no. 25. Young notes that—exemplifying the more didactic, ideological tone of Yiddish literature in the ’30s—one of the typical Bongelo stories is about a boy named Mori, who mocks his fellow students at the Talmud Torah he attends. Then the narrator of the story interjects, just in case we didn’t get the message: “There are Jews who believe that in the sky there sits a God who controls the world. But we already know there is no God in heaven. We must overthrow the bad people, the capitalists, who now rule us, like they did in the Soviet Union.” Young’s fascinating research uncovered Davidman’s decades of work as a pedagogue and cultural activist, the sum of which is, happily, far more interesting than the unbearable cringe of Bongelo no. 25.

Miriam Udel writes in her forthcoming book about Yiddish children’s literature, Honey on the Page: “The story of Yiddish kidlit begins with stories that were not so much for children as about them. All three of the ‘classic’ Yiddish authors [Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and Mendele] … wrote memoirs describing—and burnishing in memory—their own boyhood days.”

Recall what I wrote last year about Sholem Aleichem’s “Dos Dreydl,” a story based on his own Khanike transgressions. Udel, associate professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture at Emory University, says in Honey on the Page: “Sholem Aleichem was renowned for holiday tales featuring youthful protagonists, often ridden with guilt over some religious infraction or other childish mischief. His great theme was the loss of innocence, which might come about through a character’s own misdeeds or through a child’s observing the vagaries of the adult world.”

With the excision of the boring (for children) social commentary from a preexisting story, and perhaps a glossary, a Khanike story like “Dos Dreydl” could be refashioned for children and placed in one of the many new Yiddish periodicals.

It seems natural that Yiddish children’s literature was born on the pages of Jewish periodicals. Holiday stories are always timely, and they provided a perfect (and highly commercial) template for injecting new literary ideas into familiar material, thus inventing a new genre. But today, when so little of Eastern European culture and language is familiar to young readers, where is the modern author of Jewish books to even begin with the idea of Yiddish?

Too often, well-meaning authors of books about Yiddish end up presenting it as a strange jumble of “colorful” words, none of which can actually form an entire sentence. I could play the nit-picking Yiddishist and further register my dismay at the copious errors and infelicities that tend to plague these word-jumble books. And some of you, even some of my fellow Yiddishists, would argue that those errors are less important than sparking the interest of a young person who might read it and want to learn more.

But if awakening Jewish kids to the world of Yiddish is the goal, I’d argue that perhaps the best, and most successful example (aside from the oeuvre of Daniel Pinkwater) has to be Maurice Sendak’s 1963 classic, Where the Wild Things Are, a fantasy picture book reworking of Sendak’s own very Yiddish youth. As a child, Sendak himself was scolded for being a “vilde khaye” (wild animal). The “lovable monsters” of Where the Wild Things Are are “rowdy and impolite” and “resembled the immigrant aunts, uncles, and cousins who visited his childhood home in Brooklyn.” With just a tiny bit of contextualizing, Where the Wild Things Are flings opens a door to the very recent Yiddish past, an invitation which no vilde khaye could refuse.

READ: Yugntruf is about to launch its exciting new imprint for bilingual Yiddish-English children’s books, Kinder-Loshn … If your family is ready for a classic book with alef-beys and transliteration (but no English), you can’t do better than Sholem Berger’s translation of The Cat in the Hat … The inaugural issue of the Jewish kids’ magazine Honeycake is out now and has a translation of a Yiddish story by Miriam Udel, while this issue of the Jewish Book Council’s Paper Brigade magazine has an essay by Udel that goes into much more detail about ideology and Yiddish children’s literature … Still the most perfect (in my humble opinion) English-language depiction of Yiddish life on the Lower East Side is—you knew I was going to say it—All-of-a-Kind Family … Sue Macy’s new picture book, The Book Rescuer, tells the story of Aaron Lansky and the creation of the Yiddish Book Center. The illustrations are absolutely marvelous. More importantly, I was delighted to read it and discover what is possibly the most accurate, most accessible kids’ book to appear so far about Yiddish literature.

ALSO: The multitalented Miryem-Khaye Seigel will present a musical lecture on the early history of Yiddish theater: Di Broder-zinger: forgeyer fun yidishn teater, a muzikalishe lektsye (in Yiddish). Sunday, Dec. 15 at 1:30 p.m. at the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center, 3301 Bainbridge Ave.. Bronx … The annual Workmen’s Circle Khanike party will be on Dec. 17 at the organization’s headquarters, 247 West 37th St. Registration required. ….The first New York YiddishFest will take place Dec. 21-29. Reflecting the experience of co-founder and Yiddish theater icon Avi Hoffman, YiddishFest is heavy on theater programming, including a Dec. 22 tribute to Public Theater founder Joe Papp … Tevye Served Raw is an absolutely hilarious reinterpretation of classic Sholem Aleichem texts, featuring the stuff they had to cut out of Fiddler on the Roof. It’s back for one day, two performances, Dec. 22. (In Yiddish with supertitles) Tickets here … Registration is now open for the seventh annual YIVO-Bard Winter Program on Ashkenazi Civilization. Opens Jan. 3, college credit available. Register here … The second Shtetl Saint-Gills Klezmer Festival will take place in Brussels, April 29-May 3, 2020 … If you’ve got the money, YIVO’s Literary Tour of Jewish Galicia looks absolutely amazing, June 22, 2020.


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