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Kadya Molodowsky: A Jewish Refugee in New York. . . and Meet Translator Anita Norich!

Updated: Dec 25, 2021

Saturday, December 4, 2021, 5-7 pm Pacific

Anita Norich is Tikva Frymer-Kensky Professor Emerita of English and Judaic Studies, University of Michigan

It is no exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of an explosion of Yiddish transmission and learning. Like many others, I have experienced the COVID pandemic restrictions as an opportunity, while confined to home, to study Yiddish language and culture online. It has been my good fortune and pleasure to take several classes online with Anita Norich through the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Yiddish Book Center Soon the Yiddish Schmoozers in Translation can explore the (re)making of a Yiddish novel in English translation with Professor Norich.


As avid readers of mainly interwar Jewish writers, YSIT depends on the work of translators to deliver--or better to say--to open for us Jewish writers' works in Yiddish. As YSIT member and former professor of English Andrea White has often pointed out in our discussions, everything we have read together has had an added layer of interpretability beyond the manifest content of the original Yiddish text.

Taking our cue from Norich's scholarly book Writing in Tongues: Translating Yiddish in the 20th Century, the translator is obliged to make a choice essentially between loyalty to the writer, the reader or, an ambiguous third element proposed by Walter Benjamin, the "latent structure" of the original text.

What is the translator's obligation: To stick as closely as possible to the original text? To convey the author's intended meaning in its original context? To add footnotes, a glossary or parenthetical explanations? Or to update the intelligibility and expressive possibilities of the text for contemporary readers? These issues of substance and nuance make a good translation such an engaging, sometimes maddening, and typically lengthy endeavor.


It has not been common knowledge that the renowned poet, critic, essayist, short story writer and playwright Kadya Molodowsky was also the author of four novels. Anita Norich's translation of Molodowsky's first novel, under the title A Jewish Refugee in New York: The Diary of Rivke Zilberg (Indiana University Press, 2019), expands access and appreciation of this leading modern Yiddish writer, whose reputation was already prominent among readers in Poland, North and South America, Russia and Palestine when she herself arrived as an immigrant in New York.

Born in 1894 in Grodno province, now in Belarus, the well-known poet Kadya Molodowsky left Warsaw for New York in 1935. Sponsored by her publisher for a visit, she was reunited with in this country with her father and sister, and managed to prolong her stay. Except for three years spent in Israel after its founding as a state, Molodowsky remained in New York with her husband, historian and printer Simcha Lev, a Communist who narrowly escaped from Poland before the Nazi occupation of 1939.

Formal portrait of Kadya Molodowsky and Simcha Lev in Poland. Source: The Yiddish Book Center.

Although mainly identified with socialist Zionism, Molodowsky contributed widely to Yiddish letters. She served from 1934-1936 as literary editor for the Warsaw Communist daily Fraynt (Friend). From 1943, she was editor of the bi-monthly Yiddish literary journal, Svive--translated as "environment," "milieu," "surroundings" or "neighborhood"--and the only woman among her generation of Yiddish literary luminaries to serve in such a position.

Norich's translation and introduction of Molodowsky's novel to readers adds strength and visibility not only to Yiddish writing as bona-fide literature. It also contributes significantly to feminist scholars' efforts to recover and bring serious attention to neglected long-form works in Yiddish by women writers. Besides Molodowsky, this growing roster of writers includes names that I hope will become more and more familiar to YSIT readers in the coming years.

Works by women often exist, to quote Norich, "hidden in plain sight." Since the 1990s, stories by other women writers known mainly as poets, such as Ida Maze and Rachel Korn, have begun to appear in English translation. The roster also includes Celia Dropkin, Miriam Raskin, Malka Lee, Fradel Schtok, Blume Lempel and many others. It can be noted that translators who take on this work as a labor of love have nearly all been women writers and scholars.

Writers Kadya Molodowsky, Ida Maze, and Rokhl Korn. Source: Jewish Women's Archive.

YSIT readers have begun to make our way into this treasury. In November 2021, we read the first novel in Chava Rosenfarb's 1972 trilogy, The Tree of Life, translated in 1985 by her Rosenfarb with her daughter Goldie Morgenthaler. A year or two ago, we read Esther Singer Kreitman's 1936 novel, The Dance of the Demons, translated by Maurice Carr in 1954 and republished by The Feminist Press. The Feminist Press edition included a stunning afterword with a 2004 copyright by Anita Norich.

Norich's admonition to readers in 2004 regarding Kreitman's novel applies to Molodowsky's novel today. She warns us against confusing and conflating the author's biography with the protagonist's self and experience. Because of the relative scarcity of long-form published works by women--and the association of women with the diary as a minor literary form-- a naive reader might mistake the novel for the writer's autobiographical outpourings. Talking about "genre and gender," Norich cautions readers not to misconstrue Molodowsky's use of the diary form and descriptions of the domestic and mundane.

An inattentive or lazy reader could overlook Molodowsky's skill--her literary craft--in portraying the vulnerability and limited choices available to her protagonist. Rivke Zilberg is a young immigrant preoccupied with decoding both the meaning of things expressed in the English language and also the strange customs of her American Jewish relations. Her immigrant elders speak a familiar Yiddish, but Rivke's contemporaries' speak almost none. The diary is the one place where Rivke can freely articulate what she sees and feels.

As an adult immigrant in her early forties in America, Molodowsky had to attend school to learn English. Images of pages from Molodowsky's notebooks provided by Norich demonstrate the writer's determination and tenacity to master the new language. Unquestionably, Molodowsky's experience as a language learner in America informs her lively portrayal of Rivke's language acquisition.

From there, however, the experiences of writer and protagonist diverge. Molodowsky was already married and a recognized professional. As for the character Rivke, the urgent need to earn a living for herself leads her to seek help finding work from more established immigrants from Lublin and from Jewish relief agencies. One man advises her that it is easier in America for an unskilled worker like herself to find a husband than a factory "dzjob" (job). In fact, Rivke's story turns on her fraught choice among three men who pursue her--two in America and the fiance who writes to her from Poland.

Even more to the point, Molodowsky's craft in writing A Jewish Refugee exceeds her ability to portray character and situation. Structurally, the book is a novel, a complete story told with admirable economy and a precise narrative arc. The use of diaries as long-form literature is certainly a known genre that includes works from Nikolai Gogol's story, 'Diary of a Madman,' to Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple. Molodowsky's novel is particularly deft in its dramatic exposition of Rivke's situation, its complications and resolution. The plot is clearly delineated and forward moving. Whether we are happy or not with the book's conclusion (I won't spill), this is a satisfying novel.


In both her afterward to Kreitman's novel and introduction to Molodowsky's, Norich also alerts us to the gendered interplay of the personal and political. In a recorded interview with me this October 28, Norich referred to A Jewish Refugee in New York's relationship to both historical events and contemporary issues.

Molodowsky had begun writing her book in 1940 as the war in Europe became steadily more destructive and menacing. First serialized in the Morgn-zhurnal, a New York Yiddish newspaper in 1941, the novel was titled Fun Lublin biz Nyu-York: Dos togbukh fun a yidish flikhtling-meydl. The next year, in 1942, it was published as a book with the altered subtitle, Dos Togbukh fun Rivke Zilberg. That is to say, the book From Lublin to New York: The Diary of a Yiddish Refugee Girl was retitled two years later, From Lublin to New York: The Diary of Rivke Zilberg.

Norich’s translation appeared in 2019 under yet another version of the title. Initially, Norich was cool to her publisher's insistence on retitling the book A Jewish Refugee in New York. It was, she felt, too great a departure from Molodowsky's original. She became convinced that this was the right choice, however, as the book's appearance coincided with the worsening immigration crisis in America. A growing audience for this book and continual invitations to give talks from around the country are evidence that Molodowsky's portrayal of Rivke Zilberg, the young Jewish refugee, has struck a chord.

Not least, the story of Rivke Zilberg and the desperation at the southern border resonated with Norich's own family's story. In a moving 2018 interview in Yiddish on the The Yiddish Book Center website, Norich describes how her family entered the United States when she was four and a half years old after a period of detention and uncertainty at Föhrenwald, in Bavaria, the last of the displaced persons camps to close. She explained to me her affinity for Molodowsky's novel:

On a more personal level, in addition to being interested in what was going on here during the war, the category of immigrant and refugee was close to my heart. We, my family, came as stateless to the United States, my parents were survivors.


There is so much more to ask and say about Kadya Molodowsky, Anita Norich and the project of restoring Yiddish writers to interested readers in English translation. I hope that in December, YSIT members will give Anita the run for her money (actually she is graciously joining us without charge) that her passionate scholarship and teaching deserve.

I'll conclude here with a brief excerpt from the interview of October 28, 2021, in which Anita discusses finding hidden works by women writers "in plain sight." (Hint: It helps to hang out in archives.)

She also comments on her current and forthcoming book projects:

AN: I had an NIH grant at the Center for Jewish history, just looking for prose works by women. I mean, I would sit in the archives . . . and this is the other thing, that I really I love archival work. You know, I don't think there were more than half a dozen novels by women at that point that had been translated, if that.

GF: Now there are more?

AN: Now there are more. So I would sit in the YIVO library. And I would sit at the Center for Jewish history and its archives. I would look for names of women who had written something. And just get those books to figure whether they were prose or whatever.

GF: And you stumbled upon . . .?

AN: So one of the things that I again stumbled across, besides the Molodowsky novel, was a book that's actually coming out now in the spring. It's a collection of nine short stories of varying lengths by a woman that I think nobody has heard of except, you know, maybe three people in Poland.

GF: You were looking for novels, right?

AN: And I wasn't going to do anything with this book, because they were short stories. I was looking for novels, but there was an introduction in this book written by Max Weinreich, who was, really, the dean of Yiddish in the 20th century.

GF: Founder of the YIVO Institute for Yiddish Research in Vilna, in 1925 . . .

AN: Yes. The book was published in Vilna in 1939. As I later found out, it was actually in July 1939, which means that it's one of the last books to be published. I couldn't resist. I thought it was important historically. And the more and more I translated it, the more I came to like these stories. So that book will be coming out.

GF: And you have another project concerning Celia Dropkin.

AN: And now I'm working on translating another novel by another well-known poet, Celia Dropkin. It was serialized in the Forverts (Forward) newspaper in 1934 and never published as a book. . . . So that's the next one.

GF: All your career you've been a scholar and critic, and now you're deep into translation.

AN: Yes. I'm a literature person, you know. But in my sort of jaundiced view, we were moving as a profession, further away from saying something to make people think about literature in language that was comprehensible. I've done criticism most of my life, right. And there's nothing wrong with literary criticism, except that sometimes the language of literary criticism nowadays obscures rather than clarifies. And there were all of these works that people had no access to and it's been my experience-- perhaps limited, but nonetheless true--that one way to bring people to Yiddish itself is by getting them interested in the literature. But I also just enjoyed the process of doing translation in a way that I hadn't quite expected. And that I hadn't really felt in my critical work, with the exception, maybe of Writing in Tongues, which set me off on this on this quest.

GF: To translate these works.

AN: I wanted to do translation, which I could have done while I was still in Ann Arbor. The joke in my family is that since I retired I'm working as much as I was before. I'm just not getting paid for it.

GF: It gives you a lot of pleasure . . .

AN: You know, it's obvious I'm fascinated by language and the nuances and the registers and all the rest. And I found that I could sit at my computer and spend a half hour trying to figure out whether this character-- had she been speaking English--would she have said "I'm really angry," or would she have said, "I'm mad," "I'm furious," or "I'm pissed off." Well, that one is less likely. . . . I enjoyed it. I don't know how else to describe it, I just enjoyed it. I don't want to get overly melodramatic about this but it felt like this was my calling.

--Gelya Frank, November 18, 2021


YSIT invites comments below. Want to write more lengthy reflections, suggestions or a blog/essay? Let us know and we will help you post it.

Gelya and Haim

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