Honey on the Page


    🕮    October 6, 2020 is the book birthday for Miriam Udel's Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children's Literature! I was not able to fit an audio interview into The Book of Life's schedule, but to bring your attention to this worthy book I offer you this conversation-in-print with Miriam. Enjoy!

THE BOOK OF LIFE: What inspired you to create Honey on the Page?

: Honey on the Page represents the convergence between my vocation as a language instructor and my avocation as a mother. I sought authentic materials that my second-semester Yiddish students would be able to read profitably and without frustration. At the same time, I was searching for representations of Yiddish-speaking life and childhood that I could share with my own children. When I discovered the large, mostly untranslated and forgotten corpus of Yiddish children’s literature, I knew that I had to create at least one anthology that would help to retrieve these texts for contemporary, English-speaking Jewry and those curious about modern Jewish life.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Tell us about the scope of the stories in this book. Do they all take place in a Fiddler on the Roof type of setting?

MIRIAM UDEL: Absolutely not! The stories were published on four continents and represent about 15 different settings, whether realistic or fantastical. I chose a few of the stories in part because of the locales they represented, which we wouldn’t think of as typical for Yiddish storytelling. These include Zina Rabinowitz’s pandemic tale “The Mute Princess,” set in Casablanca and her Yom Kippur tale “Senor Ferrara’s First Yom Kippur,” set in Trinidad, as well as Isaac Metzker’s “Life of Don Yitzhak Abravanel,” set in medieval Spain and Portugal. We have the Eastern European countryside and shtetl life, but we also have bustling modern Warsaw and Brooklyn, and farming communities outside Boston and in southern New Jersey.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Talk about the translation process. What are the challenges of rendering these stories into English?

MIRIAM UDEL: The primary challenge with translating the book as a whole is that I needed not only to translate across language but across time periods and cultures. Should I assume that my readers know what “kiddush” is, or should I gloss it as “the blessing recited over the Sabbath wine?” I usually erred on the side of trying to make things more accessible, even if that risked diminishing the heymish, or homey, feel to the translation. A further challenge, which I mention in my introduction, is that we are witnessing the moment of creation for Yiddish literature, and when Yiddish authors began to address children, they didn’t necessarily have a separate linguistic register in which to do so. That took several years to develop. So in a text from the 1920’s, perhaps the Yiddish says “desolate,” whereas a contemporary child is more ready to parse “sad and lonely.”

Translating rhyming poetry is both very difficult and extremely rewarding. It really engages the puzzle solving part of my brain, and there is an almost audible click when the right word engages and locks into place. I knew I wanted to include Leyb Kvitko’s “Boots and the Bath Squad,” about a gluttonous boy who refuses to bathe, but I wasn’t a skilled or confident enough translator at the outset. So I took off the pressure and did a non-rhyming translation. At the end of the project, I reopened the file, and said, “let’s give it another shot.” And then I had a rollicking good time turning the poem into English verse. The advantage of working on a book for seven years is that you can actually become a much better translator over the life of the project!

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Other than language, what differentiates these stories from the children's literature we are used to? What makes these stories unique?

MIRIAM UDEL: There is a lot of very candid proximity to historical violence and to politics, which Americans, at least, are not used to in children’s literature. Some of these stories really model how parents can talk with their children about anti-Jewish and other violence. The idea of labor organizing and striking for better workplace conditions is brought down to a level that a child—or an exceptionally clever dog like Khaver Paver’s “Labzik”—can understand. As a body of work, the distinctive feature is the frankly leftist worldview and the commitment to empowering kids to lead through kindness as part of that worldview.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Children's literature is not typically published by NYU Press. Talk about how you struck a balance between creating a scholarly work and a book for families.

MIRIAM UDEL: This balance—or tension—was one of the hardest aspects of getting the project sold! I was picturing a book with illustrations that would be a resource for families, but I also envisioned curious, intelligent adult readers like my friends who would want to know something about the lives of the authors represented in the anthology. The acquiring editor at NYU, Eric Zinner, was willing to take something of a risk on this book because of the success he had had with Julia Mickenberg and Philip Nel’s anthology of American leftist and anarchist kidlit, Tales for Little Rebels. There was a template, albeit one without many illustrations. But when I met Paula Cohen, who ended up creating dozens of new images, that was a turning point. She has a whimsical, joyful style that really reflects the liveliness of the tales themselves. Everyone at NYU Press was won over by her work. The design team did an incredible job, through creative font distinctions and use of white space, of creating a book for both adult and child readerships. I think that there are a lot of subtle, perhaps sub-conscious cues to kids that they can read over certain “boring” parts and just get to the good stuff: the stories and poems.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Why should modern English-speaking children be interested in these stories?

MIRIAM UDEL: As I explain in the note to young readers, some of the stories are about experiences we can all relate to: celebrating a birthday, going ice skating, visiting grandparents, celebrating holidays. And some of them portray experiences we can only have in books: riding on a lion’s back, getting snatched by a giant, or losing a calf in a farmer’s long beard. Children, like all humans, appreciate stories of both the familiar and the fantastical.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: It's Tikkun Olam time. This is your chance for a little bit of activism. What action would you like to invite listeners to take to help repair the world?

MIRIAM UDEL: I would like to appeal to parents (including me!) to be more truly receptive to our children’s own sense of injustice and the need to intervene. They see a hungry person and want to give food, they see somebody lonely and want to extend friendship. We parents are full of reasons why we can’t derail our morning in order to do X or Y. But maybe we should be in the habit of keeping some goodie bags in the car or find other ways to take seriously our children’s strong urges toward concrete tikkun olam. And as participants in a democratic society, we have a moral duty as well as a civic right to vote—as if our children’s lives depend upon it.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: I've been asking my guests to help me boost black voices. Is there a black author whose work you'd like to shout out today?

MIRIAM UDEL: My book will share a birthday with that of an Emory colleague, Dianne Stewart’s Black Women, Black Love: America's War on African American Marriage. She is a brilliant scholar of religion, race and society, and while this book interrogates the effects of sustained, systemic racism on black families, it also offers a portrait of familial resilience.[Buy Black Women, Black Love at Bookshop.org]

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Miriam Udel, thank you so much for appearing on The Book of Life!


Veronica Jorge said…
A lovely interview and insightful questions. An exciting book I can't wait to treasure and have pre-ordered my copy. Thank you Heidi and Miriam.
Lisa Silverman said…
I have a copy of this book and I am really looking forward to reading these stories, thank you both!
C. Sheer said…
Definitely sounds like a labor of love...which I look forward to owning!
Unknown said…
Thank you for this review - I will definately order this book for my granddaughter.