Monday, February 22, 2016

Acidic Jews, Or, Translating a "Jewish Noir" Story from 1912: Kenneth Wishnia

Today I welcome back Ken Wishnia, Editor of Jewish Noir. Kenneth Wishnia’s novels include 23 Shades of Black, which was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and an Anthony for Best Paperback Original; Soft Money, and Red House. His short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Queens Noir, Long Island Noir, Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail, and elsewhere. The Fifth Servant was an Indie Notable selection, a Best Jewish Book of the Year according to the Association of Jewish Libraries, won a Premio Letterario ADEI-WIZO (the Italian chapter of the Women’s International Zionist Organization), and was a finalist for the Macavity Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery Award. He teaches writing, literature, and other deviant forms of thought at Suffolk Community College on Long Island.

Kenneth Wishnia:
Acidic Jews 
Or, Translating a “Jewish Noir” Story from 1912 

The Israelites and their descendants have been prone to a noir outlook on life since ancient times. The voluminous folklore relating to the Jewish holiday of Passover even includes the following question and answer:

Why are hard-boiled eggs eaten on Passover? They are a reminder of the Jewish people. The longer eggs are cooked in hot water or roasted on a fire, the harder they become. This is also true of Jews. (Goodman 401)

So according to tradition, Jews are as hardboiled as they come. This perspective served as the inspiration for the Jewish Noir anthology (PM Press).

I want to focus on one story in particular, Yente Serdatsky’s “A Simkhe” (A Celebration), which was first published in Yiddish in the Forverts (The Forward) in 1912, and has never been reprinted. This story is appearing in English for the first time in the Jewish Noir anthology, and it is a real honor to rekindle the voice of this long-neglected Yiddish writer.

The first challenge was finding a decent copy of the original text. I had to go to the main branch of the New York Public Library to locate and print out a poor photostat of an out-of-focus microfilm image of the original pages of the Forverts, which were already flaking and tearing when they shot the film. So I was working with a third generation text full of misprints, crumbling letters and words that just disappeared into the oblivion of the darkened gutter. At times it felt like I was decoding one of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Another challenge I faced in translating the story is the language itself: Yiddish, even literary Yiddish, often exhibits qualities that typically characterize oral traditions, such as a frequent repetition of words that is generally avoided in modern American fiction. One example of this repetition comes when Serdatsky’s narrator describes how the principle female character in the story reacts to seeing old friends who no longer talk to her: “der blat in ire hend tut a tsiter” (the newspaper in her hand shakes). The word “tsiter” is used every time another person comes in, or five times in one paragraph. There is no exhaustive literary search for multiple ways of expressing this idea. I deleted some of the repetitions in the Yiddish elsewhere in the story, but left most of them in for the sake of fidelity to the original text. (Note: I have already received an email from one reader pointing out that the English translation uses “face” twice in the same sentence. Well, that’s how Serdatsky wrote it, folks.)

One important exception to this repetition is Serdatsky’s employment of three different words for “friend”: fraynd, bakanter and khaver/khaverte/khaveyrim. Irena Klepfisz has pointed out, using the feminine singular form, khaverte, for her example, that this word means either “friend” or “comrade” (Klepfisz 78), the latter implying commitment to the same political cause. However, Serdatsky’s two narrators in “A Simkhe” often seem to use these three terms interchangeably, although there is one clear instance where the distinction between them is used for sardonic effect:

Er hot a raykhen gesheft. Er borgt oys amol etlikhe dollar tsu a khaver un er hot derfor a sakh “fraynd.” 

He has a successful business. Sometimes he lends a few dollar to a friend [comrade] and now he’s got many “friends.”

In order to preserve the cynical tone of the Yiddish, I chose to pair friend and “friends” in quotes, rather than shift from comrade (a more faithful translation) to “friends.”

Serdatsky’s personal life also followed a noirish trajectory. In the same way that discrimination against the Jews in the U.S. did not take the extremely violent form of pogroms and other mass killings as in the Old Country, but typically followed a more “genteel” pattern of social exclusion (Karp 16), American Jewish socialists “made a special point of supporting women’s suffrage,” and in the socialist press, “Women’s literature was both a symbol of modernity and a way of increasing circulation” (Fain Pratt 76-77). Yet a writer such as Yente Serdatsky was “excoriated for the thinness of her plots [and] the sameness of her characters” by male critics, and she stopped writing for several decades, the partial result of “living within a pattern of seeming acceptance combined with implicit exclusion” (ibid. 80; 88).

In the Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur (Encyclopedia of Modern Yiddish Literature), author Zalman Reisen is quoted describing Serdatsky as

a belle-lettrist with a truly writerly temperament, who deals especially with the quiet tragedies of woman, her longing for luck in love, her isolation, the betrayed hopes of youth, etc. [Her writings] give expression to the voices of former party-members and their disappointments. (“Serdatsky” 505)

Norma Fain Pratt, feminist literary scholar and translator of Serdatsky’s short story, “Confession,” extends this idea further:

Her stories portrayed the fate of revolutionary Jewish women in the American environment. Isolated, left without ideals, often having sacrificed family life for the revolution, these women experienced mental depression, poverty and lonely deaths. The stories written in the 1908-1920 period reflect an unwillingness by the author to adjust to American life. Her central theme remained one of relentless estrangement. (Fain Pratt 80)

Sounds pretty noir to me.

Finally, renowned Yiddish poet Yankev Glatshteyn (Jacob Glatstein) wrote that Serdatsky’s stories dealt with

the first conscious awakening of experience and disappointments of the Jewish woman. In America we had several such specialized women writers, such as Miriam Karpilov, Rokhl Luria. [She] published several powerful things... and it would be a very good thing if someone would honor her by re-issuing Yente Serdatsky’s legacy; perhaps someone could select a volume of her older and more recent stories and with them set up a monument to this angry writer, who perhaps really quarreled mostly with herself.* (“Serdatsky” 506)

I hope that I have contributed in some small way to this worthy enterprise.

*In a final swipe, Irena Klepfisz suggests that Glatshteyn’s closing comment conveys an indirect dismissal of Serdatsky’s feminism (Klepfisz 77). Don’t let this be the last word on Yente Serdatsky! Get a copy of Jewish Noir and strike a blow for feminism!

Works Cited 

Fain Pratt, Norma. “Culture and Radical Politics: Yiddish Women Writers, 1890-1940.” American Jewish History 70 (1980/81):68-90.

Goodman, Philip. The Passover Anthology. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1993.

Karp, Abraham J. Golden Door to America: The Jewish Immigrant Experience. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Klepfisz, Irena. “Jewish Feminism 1913: Yente Serdatsky’s ‘Confession.’” Bridges 1.2 (Fall 1990):77-78.

“Serdatsky, Yente.” Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur. Vol. 6. New York: Congress for Jewish Culture/Cyco, 1965.


Jewish Noir is unique collection of all-new stories by Jewish and non-Jewish literary and genre writers, including numerous award-winning authors such as Marge Piercy, Harlan Ellison, S.J. Rozan, Nancy Richler, Moe Prager Reed Farrel Coleman), Wendy Hornsby, Charles Ardai, and Kenneth Wishnia. The stories explore such issues as the Holocaust and its long-term effects on subsequent generations, anti-Semitism in the mid- and late-20th century United States, and the dark side of the Diaspora (e.g., the decline of revolutionary fervor, the passing of generations, the Golden Ghetto, etc.). The stories in this collection also include many “teachable moments” about the history of prejudice, and the contradictions of ethnic identity and assimilation into American society.


vallery said...

This is a terrific article. Acidic Jews-love it. Enjoy the Yiddish. I bought 4 copies of the book-one for me, the others for family and friends.

Melissa Yi/Yuan-Innes said...

@Ken, thanks for telling us about the back story, both about Yente Serdatsky and the thought going into the translation.
@Vallery, thanks for supporting the Acidic Jews!
@Janet, how cool that you not only host blogs and win Anthony Awards for your contribution to the mystery community, but started a whole theatre company.

kk said...

Great article. Thanks for offering this up, Janet. I've been aware of this anthology by Kenneth Wishnia since its publication, but this is the first time I've read anything about it in such glorious detail. I am particular appreciative of the historical points made. And of course the paeans to feminism.

lynw said...

Loved the article!
Not so crazy about the title. Acidic is a common misspelling for Hasidic, which is the correct term.

Of possible further interest is this post about "The Acidic Jew" - a character from the Common Grounds comic book series: