by Joshua Fogel

What I am about to describe is not the ordinary behavior of a Sinologist. I’ve spent the bulk of my career working on the cultural ties linking China and Japan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I have also done a fair amount of translating. I had long wanted to learn Yiddish properly, because my parents had used it as a cryptolect, and whenever we visited my grandparents in New York City, I remembered hearing everyone speaking the language. The opportunity arose in 1980 when I had finished my Ph.D. and began a postdoc at Columbia which just happened to have the best Yiddish program in North America, maybe the world, though I knew nothing of this reputation. For some years thereafter, I had been thinking about how I could make a contribution to Yiddish scholarship. I am more than a little aware of my own capacities and limitations in the language (and more than a little of those who overstep their abilities in my own principal field of research); so, while I was not going to translate or re-translate the writings of one of the masters of Yiddish prose, such as Sholem-Aleichem, I thought there might be something else that I could do.

In 1990 I published a translation of Bilingualism in the History of Jewish Literature by the great literary critic Shmuel Niger (1883-1955), and in the process (even those many years ago) realized that it was best for me to stick to translation of non-fiction. By the 1950s and 1960s, the great Yiddish writers and journalists who had survived WWII were dying off, and slowly but surely the primary group of people for whom the language was native was moving from secular authors to the ultra-Orthodox for whom Yiddish was largely, though not exclusively, a language of oral communication. Learning it as a foreign language in the university meant, in a way, that it was likely never to acquire native status, no matter how hard many tried. But, that didn’t mean the effort wasn’t worth it. I had plenty to do as teacher of Chinese and Japanese history, but I wanted to keep my hand in the game—without overstepping my capacities.

Like many folks (indeed, probably many who are reading this now), I’m one of those who likes to pick up a volume of the encyclopedia or a dictionary at random and spend a little time opening to a random page. About a dozen or more years ago, I purchased the Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur (Biographical dictionary of modern Yiddish literature)—eight volumes published from 1956 to 1981—and I would oftentimes spend some time with the (usually) unknown authors’ biographies. These biographies are an immense reservoir of information about thousands (see below) of authors, most of them now forgotten, the countless books and stories they wrote, the numerous newspapers for which they penned countless articles, and for the history of the Yiddish press over the last two centuries or more.

Then, about eight years ago, I got the quixotic idea that I should try to translate its entirety and post it on a website. Unaware of how to do this, a friend explained to me how to go about setting up a website. The web offered several advantages, such as: total availability to anyone free of charge; and open accessibility for people in the field to respond and comment. At the time, I could not imagine that any serious press would want to publish an eight-volume reference work—and who needs the tsores (צרות, trouble, anguish) of going through the endless review process (especially if you already have tenure); and also by placing the translation online, it would obviate the laborious task of securing permission from the original publisher of the Leksikon.

Plenty of scholarship in the field of Yiddish literature and Jewish studies generally is published every year in a variety of languages. There are numerous journals appearing monthly or quarterly packed with a wide range of material. There are, thus, no lack of venues for work in these realms to appear. There is not, however, the mountains of Yiddish fiction, scholarship, and journalism that a generation or two ago was virtually natural. In just a matter of two generations, then, Yiddish has gone from a mother tongue to a foreign language among the lion’s share of Ashkenazi Jews. The great masters of Yiddish fiction have been translated and retranslated, and while works of theirs remain to be worked on, much less than before is appearing in print on a regular basis.

Over the next five years, I completed several translations of these biographies every day, some just a short paragraph long, a few long enough to constitute a modest pamphlet if published separately. When I finished the first volume, covering authors whose surnames began with either an alef or a beys—including such big names as Sholem Asch (1880-1957), Tsili (Celia) Adler (1890-1979), and Meyer Blinkin (1879-1915, great-grandfather of our present secretary of state)—I reflected on my work only to realize that (arguably) the most famous modern writer of Yiddish literature, Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yitskhok Bashevis-Zinger, 1903-1991), was nowhere to be found. It was only at this very moment that I realized I was wading into a modest minefield. How could Bashevis (as he is known among the cognoscenti) be totally absent? This made no sense to me initially. The editors of the Leksikon can’t have been ignorant of Bashevis’s name, and while there have always been rivalries in the world of Yiddish writing, many of them intense, his absence remained a mystery. I consulted Zachary Baker, an old friend and former librarian of the Yidisher visnshaftlekher-institut (YIVO, Jewish Scientific Institute in New York), and he explained that some of the money used to support the original publication came from German post-Holocaust reparations, and a number of living Yiddish authors refused to have anything to do with the project—Bashevis among them. After the murder of the majority of Yiddish-speaking Jews, many survivors felt simultaneously that a huge burden had been bequeathed to them, while at the same time not feeling particularly generous toward the Germans. Would taking that money absolve the Germans of responsibility for the Holocaust, particularly as any number of former Nazis were returning to public life in Germany after emerging from the shadows or brief stints in prison? It smelled like blood money. By the same token, others desperately needed the support and indeed thought they had “earned” it.

Zach introduced me to the Jewish bibliographer at the library of Ohio State University, Joseph Galron-Goldschläger, who like so many librarians today seemed to be able to manipulate the web for sport. He proved to be a great colleague, offering lots of updates to my posts that had appeared online, while he was himself preparing from scratch a comparable biographical dictionary of Hebrew writers. He also noted that there was effectively a ninth volume to the series I was translating—Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers), compiled by Berl Kagan and published in 1986—which was comprised of emendations to the earlier biographies and additional ones not included (for whatever reason, though not explained). He also sent me a copy of a “tenth” volume: Chaim Beider, Leksikon fun yidishe shrayber in ratn-farband (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union), which I translated and added or incorporated into the entries online.

It was in the Kagan volume that Bashevis’s biography appears. A revelation! For readers who approach Bashevis in translation—and he can be very difficult in Yiddish—we are subject to the choices of translators. I’m not speaking here of the word choices in their translation work, but to the actual books they have chosen to translate. Bashevis published virtually all of his novels serially in various daily Yiddish-language serials; only later were these segments collected, revised, and published as discrete volumes. Often this occurred only in English or other languages and not in any Yiddish edition. As a result, most contemporary readers who only know his work in translation will have been exposed only to a portion of it and only to the way publishers have packaged it. Often Bashevis himself would become involved in his own translations into English (and Hebrew) and, as was his wont, play with the text. Reading and translating the long Bashevis biography in this separate, ninth volume was an entryway into a world that effectively is no more—ironically, reflecting the title of his older brother’s memoir, Fun a velt vos iz nishto mer.

The whole effort of the entire translation project took just over five years. I was doing my own mainstream work on Sino-Japanese relations and Sinology at the same time, though willingly sacrificing much of it for the Leksikon. The total number of biographies translated is just over 7100. Over the years it has received hundreds of online “comments” from people around the world—in English, French, Spanish, Romanian, Polish, and other languages. My greatest commenter who provided a plethora of information is a Jewish-language bibliographer in Russia, Mariya Zavorokhina (Мария Заворохина). She posted well over 200 such comments, full of information on Russian translations of Yiddish literature, additions that my translations did not mention, images of people and books, and more. Among the many comments of others, my favorites may have been the following sort: “I didn’t know my grandfather did X”; “oh, she was my grandmother!”; and the like.

More recently in 2023, the Congress for Jewish Culture and its head, Shane Baker, contacted me. They noted the obvious, that I had not contacted them prior to translating all 7100-plus biographies, but they were also very interested in providing a venue for the whole translation on their own website. Today, interested readers can go directly to the Congress website. You can type in the name of an author there, either in English or Yiddish. Often, the English transcription of an author’s name does not strictly follow YIVO’s guidelines, and so I have included various tools to locate those names in English to ease the process of accessing the biographies. It is my hope that this has been and will continue to help readers: scholars, students, interested relatives, anyone. The total number of visits to the entries is now approaching 2,000,000 with about 2500 to 3000 daily.

Let me conclude with a brief anecdote. Several weeks ago, I was invited to be a discussant to a paper delivered by a young scholar invited by the University of Toronto’s Jewish studies program. He spoke in a fluent, remarkable Yiddish on the topic of the Jewish element of Esperanto, and I have been working on the Esperanto movement in China and Japan. What I didn’t realize until the last minute was that I was expected also to deliver my comments in Yiddish. Afterward I went to dinner with the speaker, the chair of the program, and three graduate students. The three students knew all about my translations from the Leksikon, and they were all using it, despite their relative fluency in Yiddish. I got the sense from these 20-somethings that this might be the future of the Leksikon in translation.

Joshua Fogel (PhD, Columbia 1980) was born in Brooklyn, raised in Berkeley, and received his BA in 1972 from the University of Chicago. He has taught at Harvard (1981-88), University of California, Santa Barbara (1989-2005), and York University in Toronto (2005-2024). His work focuses on the cultural ties between China and Japan, mutual understanding and misunderstanding, and related historiography. He has written, edited, or translated seventy-four books.

Edited by Jacob Saliba

Cover Image: Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize Winner. Israel Press and Photo Agency (I.P.P.A.) / Dan Hadani collection, National Library of Israel / CC BY 4.0, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.