THE BOOK OF LIFE - A Bisl Yiddish: Bikher fur Kinder
11:11PM Dec 19, 2019
[COLD OPEN] There were many phrases from my youth but I think my favorite word is kochlefl, which is a soup spoon or mixing spoon. And it's used to talk about people who mix up in other people's business. So they're just, you know, always in your business and my mother had a cousin who she was always calling a kochlefl. That's my favorite Yiddish word.
[INTRO] This is The Book of Life. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz.
[MUSIC] Come on, bubbala, Don't feel skittish. We're gonna learn words in Yiddish. Come on, bubbala. Start to finish. We're gonna learn some Yiddish. We're gonna learn some Yiddish. Ready? Here we go. Nosh, nosh, nosh nosh nosh. Kvetch! Oh my gosh, gosh, gosh. Schmear the cream cheese this way, schmear the cream cheese that way. Schlep, schlep, schlep, oy vay! Meshugana, go cray cray cray. Come on, bubbala, don't feel skittish. We're gonna learn some Yiddish.
[THEME MUSIC, INTRO] That was "We're Gonna Learn Some Yiddish" with music and lyrics by Rebecca Schoffer, inspired by the book Goodnight Bubbala by Sheryl Haft. Yiddish is really popular right now. From the annual Yidstock festival each summer to the off Broadway Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof, the mamaloshen seems to be everywhere. That's even true in children's publishing. Today I have a joint interview with three authors who have created kidlit related to Yiddish language or culture. Sue Macy is the author of the picture book biography The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come, about Aaron Lansky, who founded the Yiddish Book Center. Debbie Levy, who appeared on The Book of Life in November 2016 to talk about her RBG biography I Dissent, is back with her picture book. Yiddish Saves the Day. And Valerie Estelle Frankel has written a humorous chapter book called Chelm for the Holidays. These three shayna maydelech joined me to talk about the resurgence of Yiddish.
Welcome, Sue, Debbie and Valerie. It's great to have all of you here. You have each written a recent children's book related to Yiddish culture. I would like to challenge you to describe your book in just six words.
This is Debbie Levy. My book is Yiddish Saves the Day illustrated by Hector Borlasca. My description of my book is "this is not your bubbe's Yiddish."
Hi, this is Valerie Estelle Frankel. My book is Chelm for the Holidays. "Silly chapter book for every holiday."
This is Sue Macy. My book is The Book Rescuer, illustrated by Stacy Innerst. And in six words, it's "how a mensch rescued Yiddish literature."
Very nice! So, my first question is: What drew you to writing about Yiddish language or Yiddish culture?
This is Debbie. What drew me to write about Yiddish? Well, it's a book that was percolating for many years, I think I was just collecting ideas about how fun and vibrant Yiddish is. And I really wanted to try to write something that would bring it to contemporary kids and make it a language not of your bubbe, but of today, that kids could see as a language that, though they're not going to speak it in their everyday lives, can pop up from time to time in expected and unexpected places. And they could take pride in seeing this language which is not only a language unto itself, but as the book points out, is a language that people use in our country and don't even know that they're speaking Yiddish.
This is Sue. First, I guess it starts with my grandma Adel, who hasn't been around for about... almost 50 years, but she was a very important presence in my life. And she spoke Yiddish with my mother. And I think I got to the point where I wanted to write a personal book and the story of how Aaron Lansky save the world's Yiddish books from destruction is just really appealing to me as a person who writes books, and I thought he was a real hero. One person made such a difference in the world by stopping people from destroying their Yiddish books and giving them a place to collect them. And then really reviving study of the language and sharing the stories and translating them. And I think that he just appealed to me as a person. And it really touched something deep inside me.
Hi, it's Valerie. So I was teaching religious school at the time. And I was telling Chelm stories and the kids loved them so much. But all my collections, everything I could find was either for Hanukkah or general, and I was looking at it going, "I wonder what the people of Chelm did for Purim or Rosh Hashanah? I bet I could write one of those." So I did.
Okay, my next question is, why is Yiddish relevant for kids today? So Valerie, go ahead and keep talking.
It's our cultural heritage. It's where we come from. And we are still using it. We're still connected. We're still serving, as my mother would say, all these "kvatch" Twinkies and white bread. It's still part of us. So we might as well share it and acknowledge how much it's still affecting our lives.
I was just rea ding yesterday that "plotz" is now in Webster's dictionary. So Yiddish, as Valerie said, is part of everyday speech. And you don't have to be Jewish to be using Yiddish words. So I think it's a good time for people to sort of come face to face with the history of the language and how Yiddish words crept into our everyday speech. So next time you have a bagel, you're speaking Yiddish.
This is Debbie. I'm not sure if it's more relevant today than it was yesterday, or than it'll be tomorrow, but I think it's always a good time to share with young readers different ways of being expressive. And if Yiddish is one thing, it's really expressive.
What are the challenges in making Yiddish language or culture accessible to modern kids? And how did you tackle that in your own book?
I think one big challenge in making it accessible to today's readers is that it's not a language in everyday use. Of course, the words are used every day, individually, you know, burst by burst burst. And so how do you make this old language that you know people sometimes think of as being spoken by old people, or by even our grandmother's grandmother if we're talking about our readers, that's the big challenge, and I'm sure we all have different ways of trying to overcome the challenge. For me, it was trying to write a story that was contemporary in its outlook, in its concerns. It's just about some kid who has a really bad day and Yiddish saves the day. Now, my book happens to have then been illustrated in kind of a retro way. So it's a mix of this story that is contemporary, but also has illustrations reminiscent of the early 1900s in New York City. So I'm halfway there in making it very contemporary for young readers.
Well, that's an interesting point. The illustrations are kind of old fashioned. Was that your intention?
Well, honestly, it was not my intention. But I also really like the illustrations and find them very appealing. If I had been queen of this book, I would have said and you're going to, you're going to draw it in a very contemporary way so the kids, you know, the clothing, you know, I may think that's a good idea. But I don't know everything there is to know about children's books, about pairing words with art. And so if the other heads on the project, the art director, the editor, the publisher and the artist came out this way, I can come around to this way. But it is, it is true that it wasn't my original conception.
Okay. I'm going to move to Valerie to ask the same question about the challenges of bringing Yiddish to modern children.
I've always found Chelm stories to be very contemporary, or at least the sort of universal folk tale that really doesn't need much updating. I was using pretty common concepts. My readers probably know what blintzes are. My readers probably know that it's traditional to have honey at Rosh Hashanah and if not, they catch up pretty quickly. So I always have found Chelm stories just all ready to go.
I'm sure that most of our listeners are familiar with Chelm stories. But just in case, can you define film for us?
Fair point. Chelm is like Amelia Bedelia stories. Specifically, it's a village where they are just too silly. They take everything too literally, they make assumptions that don't work out, and it all just comes out completely silly. There's a guy who knocks on their door to wake them up every morning and when he grows too old for it, they'll take pity on him. unhinge their doors and walk them over to his house so he can knock on them and wake them up.
Okay, good. Thank you. I like that description of Amelia Bedelia. Sue, talk about the challenges.
Well, when you asked the question, you said the challenges of bringing Yiddish literature and culture to kids today and I think that's a key, that the Aaron Lansky saved all these books that were in a language that wasn't very accessible to most people in the United States today. And one of the things that his Yiddish Book Center is doing, it's translating these stories. And that's really had a big impact for me, because, you know, my grandparents came from Eastern Europe. And my only image of the place they came from was Fiddler on the Roof. You know, I didn't have access to the stories to the fiction and the nonfiction, from their time in Eastern Europe to really get a good picture of it. And because all these books were saved, these stories are now being translated and being accessible. So there are many stories now to be shared with kids, with adults, who have no idea what Jewish life was like in Eastern Europe. And I think that's why what Aaron is so important. He basically helped save the language but more important, he saved the literature, which fills in an important part of our history.
Just take a minute to very, very briefly flesh out what your book is.
My book is a picture book biography about Aaron Lansky, who is a contemporary of mine. In the 1980s, he started saving Yiddish books that were being tossed away because the people who read them were dying off and their descendants couldn't read them. And he was trying to study Yiddish and he couldn't find enough books in Yiddish to read. So he started asking people to send him books and the call went out through different Jewish organizations. And he ended up saving more than a million Yiddish books and starting a Yiddish Book Ccenter in Amherst, Massachusetts to collect them to share them, translate them. They're available online in Yiddish, many of them. So he basically started this organization dedicated to the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture.
Why do you think Yiddish is so popular right now?
I also found out that there are a lot of non Jews studying Yiddish, which makes sense because I studied French when I was in school and I'm not French. So I think that there's a curiosity about the language and the literature. There are organizations trying to bring it back. You know, there's Yiddish theatre in New York, there's a Yiddish festival in New York every Christmas time. There's Yidstock at the Yiddish Book Center every July which is a music festival of klezmer and other kinds of music.
I might guess that it has to do with how many generations the majority of Jewish Americans have been here, because what I'm discovering is a surge in Jewish sci fi/fantasy. For decades and decades, there was the joke about there is no Jewish Narnia. That's just not how we write, we write a different kind of story. Well, in the last decade or so, everybody is writing a Jewish themed fantasy world, a Jewish themed sci fi. And this really looks like we're comfortable enough in our world, in our culture as fourth generation Americans, that's a you know, rough estimate, that we're telling these stories now.
That's an interesting theory. And you're right, there has really been an uptick. Especially the fantasy,
I just wanted to say that in the 1970s, there was a Jewish science fiction collection called On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi! So Jewish fantasy and science fiction is not totally new because I wrote a paper about it in college!
I had no idea there was an uptick in Jewish fantasy. How fantastic. But to your question, my guess would be, sometimes when you feel like something is scarce or in danger of disappearing, then you hold it closer and love it more, and try to bring it more to the surface and try to prevent it from disappearing. There's a sense of Oh, this is precious. Let's not let it disappear. Let's elevate it. Let's give it a rebirth. So that could be part of it.
I want to ask each of you, do you have a favorite word or if not word a saying or a song in Yiddish. Valerie?
Oh, you asked for it. You set this up. This isn't my fault. My dad has coined the phrase essen sie meine fahrtufkis, which comes out to, in fact, eat my shorts in Yiddish.
Oh, that's great. Say it again.
Essen sie meine fahrtufkis.
I love it. Okay, that's awesome. Sue, same question.
There were many phrases from my youth but I think my favorite word is kochlefl, which is a soup spoon or mixing spoon. And it's it's used to talk about people who mix up in other other people's business. So they're, they're just, you know, always in your business and my mother had a cousin who she was always calling a kochlefl. So that's my favorite word.
That's a good one. And that's fun to say.
Yeah, it's hard to spell. I had to look it up recently.
Debbie, what about you?
Oh, gosh. For fun, among my favorite Yiddish words is meshugana. But my true favorite word is probably mensch. Because being a mensch and trying to encourage others to be, and children in particular, to develop into menschen is, is a pretty high calling.
Good answer. Well, I want to ask all of you. Have you ever thought about focusing on Ladino, and Debbie, I know that you actually did a book related to Ladino, tell us a little bit about that book.
Yeah. So the same day that Yiddish Saves the Day came out, so did a book called The Key from Spain, Flory Jagoda and Her Music, and it's a picture book biography of Flory Jagoda, who is now about 95. She lives in Northern Virginia, actually not too far from me. And she's been considered and known as the keeper of the flame of Ladino music, of Sephardic music and she has a fascinating, beautiful story. She's from Bosnia. And it tells the story of her happy family or happy upbringing in Bosnia. Well, it actually starts way before that when her family less happily was expelled from Spain in 1492, or thereabouts. So her upbringing in Bosnia ... she lived in a very musical family. World War II came, bad things happened. She survived, her parents did too, she came to this country and brought this music with her. And along the way, she was really saved by her music. She was saved at one point by playing her accordion and singing Bosnian tunes. So yes, I thought about doing a book about Ladino, and there it is, The Key from Spain and I just love that a publisher let me shine a light on Flory Jagoda, whom people know if they're into folk music, or of course, if they're into Sephardic culture, and also the art in this book, if we were on video I'd hold it up for you to see, by Sonja Wimmer the art just really exceeded my expectations.
Okay, Valerie, what are your thoughts on Ladino?
I've been looking into South American Jewish folklore, so if I approached this it would be through the folklore not the music, although Debbie's book sounds amazing. The folklore is interesting but I haven't quite found the angle yet on the project. Some of the fantasy really does stand out as some amazingly different, really cool stuff. I could really see it being an easy pathway into the culture so bits of the language as I did with the Chelm stories, but not going deep, deep into the words we don't know, just kind of surfacing along the cool traditions.
Cool. And Sue, your thoughts on Ladino.
I have not thought of writing on anything related to Ladino. I usually write books about women's history and women's sports. So The Book Rescuer is extremely rare for me because the main character is a man. He's a great guy. Actually, now, I'm thinking of other stories focusing on Jewish women, but not language. Language is hard. The hardest part of my book was getting the transliteration and the definitions of the Yiddish words right, and kind of the etymologies of them. So I guess I would rather tell a nice story from the point of view of history or biography. And obviously there are people, as Debbie has shown, so maybe I will happen upon one that has Ladino in their story, but at this point, there's nothing.
It is interesting. How did you come to write a book that's so different from what you normally do?
When my father passed away in 2013, our family was deciding who to make donations to and I always knew about the Yiddish Book Center, but I started reading about it. That was one of the places we chose. But I thought, Man, this would be a good story for kids because it's about books. It's about stories and culture and how one guy made a difference. I have an editor at Simon and Schuster, who grew up with a Yiddish speaking father, and she liked it. So it was kind of organic. And I guess I have my grandmother and father to thank for that.
Okay, very nice. So for each of you, besides your own book, is there any other Yiddish resource, book, movie, organization, any other Yiddish related thing that you would like to share with our listeners?
Well, the obvious one is the Yiddish Book Center and their website Yiddishbookcenter.org. They've got videos of oral histories of, of Yiddish speakers online. They've got the actual Yiddish books in a lot of translations. And if you can't go to Amherst, you can still enjoy what they have and learn from all that they have on their website. It's an extraordinary website. I think Steven Spielberg was behind the financing for their oral history project. So it's a cultural institution unto itself. So that's a great resource.
Okay, great. Valerie?
Shout out to Hereville, the only super heroine comic where the hero eats kugel.
Yes, actually, Hereville is a wonderful graphic novel series, and a while back, I interviewed Barry Deutsch, the creator of Hereville, on the podcast. So thumbs up to that. And Debbie?
On my bookshelf, I have had for years various editions of Leo Rosten's Joys of Yiddish. It's not an academic tome, but it sure is a lot of fun. And it introduces you to not just Yiddish words, but all kinds of stories from funny to poignant from Yiddish culture. So The Joys of Yiddish, on your bookshelf.
Okay, and it is on a lot of bookshelves. As a librarian, I can say that that's a book that gets donated repeatedly, because everybody owns it. So during Tikkun Olam Time here on the podcast, this is basically your chance to invite listeners to take some kind of action to help heal the world. I'm going to give each of you an opportunity to talk about that Debbie?
Put your phone down, look at people and talk to them when you're, for example, checking out at the grocery store. Put your phone down when you're sitting on the bus or subway, and take in the people who are around you. I think I have nothing against phones. But I'm also pro talking to people. And I think if we would engage with people in real life more that would go just a tiny bit toward healing the world.
Simple advice, easy to do. Sue, what tikkun olam advice would you like to share?
Well, I believe in people's stories and finding the value in ordinary people. So I would say, ask a senior what their story is and listen to them and ask them to, sort of interview them. You know, my mom is 91 and she's lives in a senior apartment. And she tells me you know, this woman was a professional golfer and and you know, the people you see when they're in their 80s and 90s do not immediately bring to mind these extraordinary stories that they have. You know, I've made a career out of interviewing old people. But you don't have to be a writer to do that, you can volunteer or do it at synagogue or on the golf course or whatever. I think it's really important to understand and appreciate what people have done in their lives.
Very nice. All right, Valerie?
Anything at all we can do for the environment. It definitely need it. Jewish values have always corresponded with taking care of our world and keeping this place beautiful because God gave it to us. And there are so many things we can do. Although at the moment, the big government stuff and the big boycotts and the big voting for environmental regulations seem to be a bigger step than just picking up a paper cup on the street.
Mm! Good point. Is there anything else you'd like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you? Sue, you can go ahead.
Well, my next book is about women in sports. But I actually have a young adult book about the 1920s and how the 1920s gave female athletes a chance to break stereotypes. But as far as the Jewish theme, I think there are a lot of stories yet to be told. They're not necessarily obvious stories, and I look forward to finding them and exploring them and some of them will be about Jewish topics. We shall see... more will be revealed.
Okay, great. Valerie, is there anything else you'd like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
Well, my book was just a PJ Library book. And when I met my publisher, KarBen, they were kind enough to say "so where's the sequel?" And I said, "uuuh" but I am actually working on the sequel, which is a sci fi story for each holiday for little kids. So I guess I'm launching more books like this one. Chelm for the Holidays is book number 75. So yes, I do have other titles.
Yeah, I know it's a mess to pack a suitcase. I've got books like Women in Doctor Who. I've got a series of Harry Potter parodies. I've got a lot of nonfiction on Harry Potter too. I've got super heroines in the epic journey with a bunch more on super heroines coming up. Lots and lots of analysis of pop culture, Outlande,r Game of Thrones, She-Ra, pretty much whatever we're into.
Okay, so I just have to take off my Jewish kidlit hat for a moment and tell you that you just hit upon some of my very favorite things in the world. Doctor Who and Harry Potter are my top two fandoms and She-Ra is pretty close behind. So yeah, that's great. So, Debbie, do you have anything else that you would like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
No, I would say Heidi, you thought to ask a lot of good questions. So I'm going to just leave it there.
Okay, thank you. Sue, Debbie, Valerie, a groysn dank, thank you very much for joining us today on The Book of Life and bei mir bist du sheyn.
Zei gezunt, all! And thank you.
[TEASER] Hi, this is Rebecca Levitan, Chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee. I'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life podcast. I'd like to dedicate my episode to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, may she live and be well until 120.
[THEME MUSIC, OUTRO] Don't be a stranger. Say hi to Heidi 561-206-2473, or BookofLifepodcast@gmail.com. Check out our Facebook page or our Facebook discussion group Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter too. There are lots of ways to support the show through Patreon and through donations to our home library, the Feldman Children's Library at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida. You can find links for all of that and more at BookofLifepodcast.com. Our background music is provided by the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band. Thanks for listening and happy reading!