Jessica Kirzane and Saul Zaritt join the podcast to talk about their work on In Geveb, an online journal of Yiddish studies.
Jessica Kirzane is the Lecturer in Yiddish at the University of Chicago, and she’s the editor-in-chief of In Geveb. She recently published a translation of Miriam Karpilove’s Diary of a Lonely Girl, or The Battle against Free Love (Syracuse University Press, 2020).
Saul Noam Zaritt is an assistant professor of Yiddish Literature in Harvard’s Department of Comparative Literature. He was also one of the founding editors of In Geveb.
In Geveb is a really exciting journal that publishes important peer reviewed research in Yiddish studies, translations, and also on topics relating to pedagogy. We hope you enjoy our conversation about In Geveb, what it represents as part of the field of Yiddish studies, and how we can think about open-access and what that means for the question of making Jewish studies and Yiddish studies accessible to a wide audience.
Articles and topics discussed in the episode include:
- Teaching Guide for Isaac Meir Dik’s “Slavery or Serfdom” (trans. Eli Rosenblatt), an introduction to the Yiddish translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- “New Yiddish Productions on Broadway”
- The Milgroym Project
- Erin Faigin, “Where Text Meets Sweat: Reading Yiddish Utopia in the Utah Landscape”
- “Supporting In geveb from Coast to Coast”
- Chaim Grade, “Jewish Towns of Poland” (trans. Julian Levinson)
- Sholem Aleichem, “Bialik’s Shows” (trans. Daniel Kennedy)
- Fradl Shtok, “A Dance” (trans. Sonia Gollance)
An edited transcript of our conversation follows:
Jason Lustig: I think that what you guys have been doing is really cool. I’m a big fan of In Geveb, and so I was really happy that we could get you guys to come on the podcast to talk about it. When I think about what we have on the podcast, it’s a lot of people talking about books, about monographs. And I’ve tried to have some people also talk about projects that are really doing interesting and innovative things. And here we have a journal, and I’m interested in thinking about In Geveb kind of as a whole. At least the way that I see it—and maybe you see it differently—it’s not just a collection of articles; it really represents a vision of creating something. I think maybe one place for us to get started is, if you want, is to talk a little bit about the origin of the project and what you’ve wanted to accomplish with it and where you see it going.
Saul Noam Zaritt: I guess I’ll start since I was there in the beginning. I think I’m still listed on the website as a co-founding editor. A while back, in 2008, one of the last Yiddish literary journals stopped publication. That’s Chuliot, which came out of the University of Haifa. David Roskies, professor at JTS, always wanted to start a journal just for Yiddish Studies. He always wanted something that would just be about Yiddish, and he pitched this idea to the Naomi Foundation, a foundation that honors the memory of a Naomi Kedar, former Yiddish teacher, that funds a lot of Yiddish projects.
They were very keen on the idea, but they wanted to find young people to take it on because the idea was that it would be not only just a journal, but an online journal. This was Roskies’ idea from the beginning; and being himself, not exactly the most skilled in digital tools, he wanted to bring on younger people to look at the project.
It took them a while to find the right people, and then eventually came to both Eitan Kensky and to me. Eitan Kensky was, at the time, a lecturer in Yiddish, and it was just finishing his dissertation at Harvard, and I was still a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. We decided to take on the project, but we didn’t want to do exactly the things that Roskies had wanted to do.
He wanted, more or less, to have a simple, straightforward peer-reviewed journal, and on the side to have what he called a repository for Yiddish texts: a place to gather all the things that people had scanned over the years. We thought this was an excellent idea, but not enough for the kind of things that can happen on the Internet and with various digital opportunities that were out there.
So Eitan and I came back to David and to the Naomi Foundation with a much expanded idea of a journal that would have a peer-reviewed section, but also one that would have a large section devoted to translations to a whole pedagogy section that would allow teachers of Yiddish and students of Yiddish to exchange materials and to think about the teaching of Yiddish in a more collective way.
And then finally, because we were both children of the blog nra of the ‘90s and early 2000s, we wanted to have a place where people could write about Yiddish not just in an academic way, but in a more popular way. This took a little bit of time to formulate and we had to convince the Naomi Foundation that we were interested in it.
What we felt from the beginning of that was it couldn’t just be a project of the two of us, that one of the major values that the project could embody would be a new way of collaborating in Yiddish Studies or even in Jewish studies or in the academy at large, to bring in as many of our friends and colleagues and other people doing exciting things in Yiddish into the project from the very beginning.
So we brought in Sarah Zarrow, who was then a PhD student at NYU and Madeleine Cohen, who was a PhD student at Berkeley at the time. We started planning and building an editorial board of other young people, securing nonprofit status, all those things, and trying to think about the different sections and more compelling ways until finally, we were ready to apply for funding from Naomi Foundation, get very generous seed funding from them.
And then after two years of prepping in August, 2015, we launched, right when I was moving from New York to St. Louis. So that was a little bit insane, but we launched then with all of these sections happening at once. This is sort of this large and growing and very new kind of project, that was ready to be tested out in the world.
Jessica Kirzane: And from the beginning I was also involved, although my involvement changed and grew substantially over time. But I will say that at the beginning I was just a member of the editorial board and I was part of this early process of thinking through and collaborating.
And one of the things that was very exciting about the journal was that it was trying to address certain holes that all of us were feeling in our experience as Yiddishists and Yiddishists academics. One of them was this feeling that we found stuff and had no place for it, a place to publish our translations. I had translated a very long story by Opatoshu about a lynching, for paper as a graduate student, and felt that there was no good place for it. It was just sitting on my laptop.
Also, this sense of building a community among scholars through online publishing, which I think happened for me sort of right away by sitting in the room at the AJS with Yiddishists I didn’t know and had never met before, who I now, worked very closely with, including Mandy (Mendelein Cohen), who I hadn’t met before that.
So I think it was, in some ways, a kind of top-down endeavor of conscientiousness: Planning and looking for funding and thinking about what these different sections would be, from the group of people who were in the room and each of us expressing what we needed a journal to be or what kind of public sphere we wanted to create free Yiddish.
JL: I’ve heard you say a couple of things about creating community and creating a public sphere for Yiddish. How do you see that and think about that in terms of the role of a journal?
JK: I think that In Geveb has become over time, a really important space for people to think through what it is to study Yiddish today.
That has gone in many directions, but one has been the personal essay component of the blog. With various people coming in and discussing their experiences. The experience of being a non-Jewish instructor of goodish for instance, or the experience of attending Yidish-Vokh and thinking about its pedagogy and its communal function.
And having a space where people openly reflect about their experiences as teachers and learners and academics, rather than leaving the reflection kind of in the background and foregrounding only the output, the syllabi or the academic publications. There’s also kind of a public accounting for it, which I think is important.
SNZ: I think there is a danger in creating these kinds of institutions of perpetuating a sense of their being gatekeepers. We could have decided that we “are” Yiddish studies now, and this is what Yiddish studies is, which has an important function for some fields, I think when you don’t know exactly what’s going on or if there’s a kind of ego battle between various scholars. And that was the kind of culture that we wanted to avoid, explicitly.
We wanted Yiddish studies to be an open and fluid space. So, not only about Yiddish literature or about a kind of philological mastery, but about opening Yiddish in as many ways as possible, both to our own personal reflections, but to the kind of scholarly work that maybe is Yiddish-adjacent, or is in multiple fields at once and in which Yiddish plays one role, that for us is a kind of Yiddish studies and something we really want to bring into the project.
The idea was that we want someone coming to our website by accident, say through some sort of academic or nonacademic channel to find Yiddish suddenly to be relevant to their work, whether they’re a slavicist, whether they’re a linguist, whether there’s someone working on American history, European history, or, I don’t know, African history, they’re working on South African history. Suddenly, Yiddish might be important. Any work that we do can fit and open up these various different avenues for conversation, not just amongst kind of a circumscribed group, but really opening it up to a larger conversation.
JK: I will say, we spend a lot of time thinking about different constituencies that we might want to address or reach in terms of audiences or in terms of potential participants. So, how do we get graduate students involved? What kinds of writing is easier or more applicable to people who maybe don’t have research budgets, but can otherwise produce different kinds of scholarship? Do we want to be addressing, for instance, people who teach in a day school and want to give them resources from the expertise that we have, who maybe could potentially show up at this website and then think about how they could be teaching this material. How can we make our texts teachable to people who aren’t experts?
So we have this series of teaching guides, and one of the goals of the teaching guides is to give instructors who are not experts in Yiddish the tools to teach a text that was originally written in Yiddish. Also, we have an interest in publishing work by scholars who don’t originally write in English or who are giving access to kind of the the international, transnational sphere of Yiddish Studies through our English-language platform. So there’s a lot of different kinds of constituencies that we’re trying to reach all at once.
SNZ: I’ll just add one more to that list, from the peer-review side, getting people to review books who are not Yiddishists, to get someone who’s not in the field at all. And actually, often, when we email these people to try and get them to review books that are about Yiddish studies, they’re like, “but I don’t do that, I don’t do Yiddish studies.” We’d say, no, that’s exactly why we want you to review this book for us. Or we want you to do the peer review so that we can get a sense of how these fields intersect and include these new voices in a field that has sometimes has felt closed off.
JK: We tried to do that a little bit in the blog as well. We had an idea for a Loyt di leyeners (according to the readers) section, where people who weren’t necessarily Yiddishists who had read something on our site, could write a personal essay about their experience, so they could write a personal essay about their experience reading a piece.
We had someone respond to a short story that had an abortion scene in it, from the perspective of an abortion rights activist. And so that is something that we’re open to as well. Though it’s not a series that has continued, that has potential to continue.
SNZ: I know it’s hard, because when people see Yiddish, they see, oh, so that’s for someone else. They think of it as part of a particular kind of conversation that they’re not invited into. I think at every turn, we’re kind of battling between both there being an institutional idea for Yiddish and one that is kind of set in stone, and this desire to push against that idea.
And we can’t force people to write. We can commission as much as we can, and look for people and invite them. But we’re always struggling with how to manage those different audiences, as Jessica described them, and trying to get them to talk to one another.
JK: And in some ways, we have already really radically different audiences within Yiddish studies. We just did this special issue and religious thought in Yiddish, which involves scholarship about Chabad and about Hasidism. And then we’re publishing this teaching guide to erotic Yiddish poetry, and the subject matter and that tone and so forth is radically different.
It’s kind of exciting to have a space where both of those things are possible and not really, like, questionable. So far, I haven’t felt like people are surprised by seeing both of those items on In Geveb.
JL: I want to pick up on some of the things that you were just saying. Because when you talk about taking a field of study and talking about why it’s relevant to a wide range of people—and it’s something that I’m trying to do with the podcast, too—I think one way to think about this question of reaching many audiences and many constituencies is this question of, what is Yiddish studies and what does that mean for you? In terms of this negotiation between, on the one hand, the actual teaching of the Yiddish language and the study of Yiddish culture. That’s one thing.
And then, also, how do you make that relevant to a wide range of people? So for instance, Saul, you mentioned someone who’s a slavicist, someone who studies Eastern Europe. Well, in a certain way, Yiddish is kind of naturally of interest to them because that’s where Yiddish culture developed. But if you talk about someone who studies South Africa or someone who studies or is interested in any number of range of things that does not directly intersect with the Yiddish homeland, so to speak… How and in what ways do you see Yiddish studies mattering to people in a very broad way?
JK: Well, I think it intersects in a lot of different ways. And in every aspect of Yiddish Studies that we touch, there are potential ways in which it can connect. So a piece about Yiddish language teaching, for instance, a piece about how to teach songs in the Yiddish classroom, is not just, I think, for Yiddish language teachers. It could be for people who are interested in language pedagogy more broadly, or less commonly taught languages. It can be entering those conversations as well.
One example of something that we’ve done to try to reach out and draw connections between what we’re publishing and potential other fields, I think, one example is the teaching guides that I mentioned before which often use the text that we have published on our site, a translation that we publish on our site, but then gives suggestions for discussion questions and writing prompts. And sometimes, those are of a comparative nature and help to draw out those connections.
We had Eli Rosenblatt’s translation of Isaac Meir Dik’s introduction to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And then we also published a teaching guide with it that helped to draw connections between this text and what was going on contemporaneously in Eastern Europe that would have attracted him to this text, “the end of serfdom,” and then maybe to people who are teaching Uncle Tom’s cabin as part of the emerging global literature landscape. The idea is to try to make this accessible to a variety of fields. The question about whether we reach those readers is an open question, but that’s the goal.
SNZ: I think it’s okay to say that Yiddishland isn’t everywhere. I mean, we try to push the boundaries as much as we can. And Yiddishland, this kind of idea of there being a Yiddishland or some kind of Yiddish territory that is diasporic in nature, it can go anywhere or be anywhere is true, to some certain extent. But we’re not going to be relevant to everybody. And I think that’s okay.
At the same time, we want to make sure that in anything that we publish, at least how I think about it—and I think, Jessica, you may share this—is that there’s an opportunity for some larger conversation. We have a great set of pieces that we put out for Purim that have a ton of inside jokes. But what we hope, at the same time, is to give a sense of the kind of play that you can do with Yiddish.
This last Purim, we published this amazing song translation of “Hamilton” into Yiddish that Jessica sang for us. I hope I’m not embarrassing her too much by putting this on a podcast. Just look at the website, it’s hilarious you won’t necessarily get all the translation jokes that are inside her translation of Hamilton. But you get the idea of a kind of play that is part of a kind of popular culture of event, but also taps into a long history of Yiddish adaptation and translation that has a kind of, I think, at least an indirect intellectual component to it that would be of interest to both people in the field interested in translation as such, but also those interested in the kind of entertainment factor that it can bring.
JL: I think as I’m hearing you talk about the idea of like inside jokes and also some of these questions about languages that are not taught as widely, that again also brings up some of these fundamental questions about Yiddish language and Yiddish studies and why they matter in a broad way. I can think about this question about the way in which sometimes Yiddish is kind of the purview of some people who have a heritage connection. For instance, if we talk about YIVO—which is a place that I love, I do tons of research there and at the Center for Jewish History—but if you look at it, there are so many people who are part of that who are insiders within the world of Yiddish. So the question is, how to make it accessible, whether we’re talking about the history of the Jews of Eastern Europe or their language and culture, and how to make that accessible to a wide audience of people, many of whom may or may not understand that as insider baseball, or the inside jokes of some of these things.
And then the other half of it, as well, I think, is one of the ways in which it does matter—it’s important that languages that are not spoken as widely are taught and understood. I think that we think about globalization, which has been going on for centuries but has really intensified, obviously, over the past century and decades. One of the things we see is a growing monoculture, linguistically. One of the things that’s interesting to me about Yiddish is the way in which it represents, know a language that among many other languages needs to be taught. It needs to be understood and studied. And not just the major global cultures.
SNZ: Just a short corrective, Yiddish is not in a terrible state, it has hundreds and thousands of speakers, in the Hasidic community for the most part. I also want to push back against the idea of Yiddish being a unique case, as much as all languages have within them, I would say, or all cultures have their various insider and outsider mechanisms. So, to say that Yiddish has more or less of those, or Yiddish is in a unique position, I think is, is hard to prove or to say with any definitive way.
At the same time, it is a challenge, as we’ve talked about, of trying to find ways to make a culture that has its particularities become somewhat translatable while preserving the idea of particularity itself.
So we’re not interested, in the journal, in turning Yiddish into some universalizable thing, some sort of every language. Or, as Isaac Bashevis Singer would say, a figurative thing. But at the same time, making those particularities somewhat accessible. So take the challenge of our translation section. For instance, we never published texts on our website without also providing a translation.
Meaning we want the text to always be accessible to anyone who comes to the text, which is a challenge because not all of these texts are translatable. Or it’s hard to find ways that make them accessible, whether we’re using excessive footnotes that make the reading of it very difficult. Or if we’re leaving those footnotes out, what happens in the gap between the various texts? It’s something we struggle with, I think with every text that we publish in the translation section and elsewhere in the website.
I think there is that tension between trying to decide or perform the uniqueness of the language and its culture at the same time as trying to provide avenues into the language or feel like it’s okay, in Jeffrey Shandler’s terms, to have a postvernacular relationship with language, to have a kind of partial or fragmented relationship with it, or to only find it important for this small part of your research, while also welcoming those people who want to fully immerse themselves with Yiddish to the website, how to answer both of those needs.
JK: And to think about our readers as being both insiders and people who have maybe tangential relationships. We talked a lot about how we want to reach and appeal to a broad audience, but we also want this site to be a place where people who have a kind of deep and rich experience and understanding of Yiddish and engagement with Yiddish to find a voice there and a community there. It can be hard to balance between those two things.
One of the early conversations—and Saul, maybe you can talk about this more than I could—on the site was, can we or should we be publishing in Yiddish, and what are the politics of choosing English? What are the consequences of choosing English for In Geveb?
I think that that kind of speaks to this question of the insiders and outsiders and also the language revitalization project. And what In Geveb‘s role is or should be in that project.
SNZ: The choice of English is a hard one, and it’s become clear that English was the dominant language of Yiddish studies scholarship.
At the same time, there was a large number of people that wanted more venues to be able to publish in Yiddish, not just in the Forverts (Forward) or in the Yerushalmer Almanakh, which is a kind of intellectual journal that sometimes still publishes.
But there was a demand, like, if you have this journal, I have this funding for this journal you’re becoming a nonprofit: Why not have a venue for publishing actual either essays in Yiddish or even, you know, Yiddish literature, poetry, and fiction? We struggled with that. I think we’ve kept to this idea of still providing a kind of accessibility of a Yiddish beyond Yiddish at the same time as having this heavy Yiddish content.
So if we’re going to publish a new Yiddish poem, we said, we have to be publishing it with the translation, which is a kind of compromise that doesn’t always meet the demands of those who want to produce Yiddish in Yiddish, Yiddish culture in Yiddish. So yeah, it’s a constant negotiation that we’ve struggled with.
JL: One thing that I wanted to talk about was the online open access format. I think even the journal’s title, In Geveb literally means, “in web” or you could translate that very liberally as online. So I think especially, as you talk about making Yiddish studies accessible, whether that’s through translations or anything else… what’s the significance of having an online journal also as an open access one? How do you understand the online component? Is it just the medium, the way that you’re able to put it out there? Or does it also relate in some way to your vision for the openness of Yiddish and also this question of the ways in which you try to perhaps reach beyond the scholarly community?
JK: I think all of the above. In some ways, it is the medium. But it’s also a way of building connections across these sections, between the blog and the pedagogy and pieces that we’ve published in the past, that can then come back and be linked as related content. So there’s a way that things that are on the internet don’t become “old” in quite the same way. So the continued relevance and continued circulation of ideas, but also the way that it helps to constitute the community and gives access to people who aren’t necessarily part of the academia to academic writing, to think about it and incorporate it into their own Yiddishist work, whatever it is. I don’t know if that answers your question entirely, but I think it’s an important component. It’s kind of fundamental to who we are as an organization, that we are open access and online.
SNZ: Part of In Geveb was, at least for me, a critique of the academic publishing world. Most journals are affiliated with the university press of some kind. The way those university presses work, as nonprofits themselves, is that they have to sell their journals. They don’t sell their journals to individual people. They sell them to libraries, libraries of universities for the most part. So there’s this weird circular logic in which a university press is funded by the university, then sells its own content back to the university library.
And increasingly, those journals, whether they’re online or or in book form, are becoming very expensive. And libraries and universities are starting to not be able to afford those libraries. And certainly scholars outside of the university setting are not going to have the money to gain access to these large repositories, like JSTOR or any other.
So the sense is this system is kind of falling apart, and people know that it’s falling apart. Open access is one of the answers to this kind of crisis in academic publishing. And when we started, we want it to be independent from that system.
In Geveb is its own nonprofit. It’s not attached to any other institution. It does its own fundraising for better, for worse. It allows us to do things that a university press wouldn’t necessarily want to do and spend money in ways that a university press wouldn’t want to do. For instance, by funding our managing editors, trying to pay as much as we can, those people who publish with us in various sections.
That’s something behind the sort of financial and political, in some way, motivations behind it being open access. But beyond that, it’s the things that Jessica said. We don’t have the overhead of print. We get to do lots of things with multimedia and mixed media without having to apologize for it.
JK: We don’t have to give word limits or length requirements…
SNZ: Although sometimes, it’s better when we have them, when writers need those limits. So we do apply them when they’re needed. The connection between different kinds of materials and the most important, at least for me, is never being a paywall for our content. Anyone can get it from anywhere, without there being any institutional obstacle.
JL: This question of the paywall is important. So much of what happens at the university is behind a paywall, whether we’re talking about students paying tuition or the exorbitant prices for parking to come to events. One of the questions is, what does taking Yiddish studies out from behind that paywall, and putting it online, what does that do for Yiddish studies?
SNZ: Well, that in some way depends on our reputation as a journal. The more we’re able to create conversations, both between scholars that are working on Yiddish most explicitly internationally and through different institutions, then taking that conversation and be able to apply it to all different kinds of academic and nonacademic settings. That’s really going to determine our success, at least for me and the way I think about the horizons of it.
This kind of open access is part of that strategy. It’s not the only thing. These conversations have to take place in multiple different ways, not just through forwarding someone an email or getting us some link on social media. We need to make those things happen.
But at the same time, the openness of open access is really a part of how the whole project would have to work. One of the challenges is that, say, there’s a ton of scholarship happening in Yiddish studies in Europe, in Poland, in Russia, in Germany, and all these places in Europe. But the way their system works for many of the academics, they are incentivized to publish in particular kinds of journals. For some places, there’s even point systems in which you write something or publish a book of some kind, you get a certain number of points and it’s tied to your promotion and to your career path.
Since we’re outside of all those academic institutions, we don’t count in that way. So sometimes it’s hard to get European scholars to publish with us, even though that’s the stuff we need to see. Because the dialogue, which in Europe and America and the U.S. has been kind of truncated at times, there’s a lack of incentive due to these kinds of institutional hierarchies for them to publish with us. So we have to really go out of our way to find ways to get, get those people involved.
JK: Part of that is also the various sections, that we offer different kinds of opportunities for people to be involved in. If someone’s a person who doesn’t feel they can publish in our peer review section because of some of the questions that Saul mentioned, or also because say they don’t have a research budget and don’t have time for research in their particular job can publish something else. They can publish in our pedagogy section. Then some of their thoughts and their ideas are part of this broader conversation, even if it’s not in the peer reviewed section.
I think that’s kind of fundamental to the project of putting all these things together in one space, is saying that a pedagogical writing is also academic writing. And blog writing can also be a kind of academic writing and translation is also academic work that should be valued as part of the broader project of Yiddish Studies.
JL: We’ve talked a little bit about the politics of open access. I want to go back to something that I asked about before. When you think about the relationship, you know, not just of open access to the academy, but of open access to Yiddish studies in particular, is there is something that you see sort of in your vision for the development of Yiddish studies and this open access ethos?
SNZ: Well, I think it’s something that’s actually a broader problem for Jewish studies in general.
JL: How do you define a field like Jewish studies, which is interdisciplinary? It can happen anywhere, as long as you say the word “Jew,” Jewish studies has happened. So a similar thing for Yiddish studies: How do you create a central space for it, or some kind of institutional home for a language and culture that often alludes our grasp? Yiddish famously, as a “diasporic language,” doesn’t have clear institutional connections. We have a place like YIVO, but YIVO is tied to Eastern Europe in a very fundamental way. Or YIVO is tied to Vilna in a very fundamental way. So even though it (YIVO) purports to speak about all of Yiddish and all of Yiddish culture, its research goals tend to be circumscribed in certain ways, and they’re tied to a particular institutional structure in history. How can we make a home for Yiddish Studies that doesn’t have those kinds of strictures to it? That, I think, is one of the motivating questions that kind of gets to something that you’ve just said: what is it about Yiddish Studies that lends itself to open access? I personally think this is applicable to other fields in a very fundamental way. But I think this kind of disjunction that Yiddish studies has, we don’t know exactly what it is, lends itself to this kind of openness.
JK: Partnering with other institutions is a big part of what we do. Having connections and drawing connections between various institutions and the work that they’re doing at various institutions. Our project is in no way to say you’ve always doing it wrong, so now we are going to do it better, or the Yiddish Book Center is doing it wrong, so now we’re going to do it better. Instead, we say, how can we bring the variety of projects that are going on Yiddish studies together in one kind of central and more fluid context,
SNZ: Kind of like an umbrella. Though we’re not controlling any of those places, but where content that’s digitized in the Yiddish Book Center can find its way onto our website and use other kinds of archival resources that are at YIVO and somehow find their way into an article that ends up on our website. That, I think, is one of those ways that we can write, as you called it, a fluid container for the vast number of resources that all of these great organizations do.
JK: And so much of what we do relies on the work that other organizations are doing even in the most minute detail. Everything that we publish has at least one cover image, if not other images. And most often, I find those images through digitized content that’s been put online by a variety of organizations, New York Public Library, or YIVO or any number of other organizations.
I think that part of the success of In Geveb has been the moment that it arrived, was ripe for it and all kinds of digitization. I often find things through Historical Jewish Press as well. There is the volume of material that is available online creates the opportunity for people to use it and use it creatively.
JL: You talked about an aim of connecting the Yiddish world across institutions, and also graphically. One question is, then, what are some of these challenges that the field that Yiddish studies faces institutionally, politically and otherwise? How have you been able to have these opportunities, but also where you see yourself fitting into this transformation and development of Yiddish studies?
JK: I will say that a lot of people involved in Yiddish studies, and I don’t think this is unique to Yiddish studies, feel an enormous stake in it, feel an enormous sense of ownership over it. We want to honor that, and also suggest that there are multiple points of entry and multiple owners and stakeholders.
And I think there is a possibility of discontentment over what we publish, because it doesn’t fit into one or another institution or individuals perceptions of what Yiddish Studies is or should be.
SNZ: That was very diplomatic of you to say, that was very carefully and wonderfully worded. The thing I would also add is that working across institutions takes so much time. That’s something that we didn’t anticipate. We had this project called the Milgroym project, which we had from the very beginning.
JK: We’re going to have new content for Milgroym.
SNZ: I think pretty soon we’ll have some. But Milgroym is the name of an interwar journal; very pretty with lots of amazing color, glossy pages, that was published in Berlin by a number of Yiddishists. It was a Yiddish art journal.
It’s the most prominent of a number of interwar avantgarde, modernist journals that were an amazing collection. Many of them short lived. And scholars are always like, Oh, why isn’t this digitized? It’s like there’s only three or four issues that would take like an hour to digitize, and there’s all this great content that should be translated, written about.
And we were like, let’s just go to the Yiddish Historical Press. They’ll digitize it quickly and we can start this project immediately. We’ll invite all these other people to join in. And they were enthusiastic. We were enthusiastic. We have people lining up to do the work, and still four years to get some of that stuff off the ground, which is for, I think veterans of the academic world is just like totally understandable. But for us as young academics, and we can talk more about the youngness of in In Geveb and how we want to keep the people doing it young, that was one of the hardest things, to come to realize that working across institutions just requires time, even without the ego problems and the political problems, which sometimes come up as well. It’s just sort of getting one thing to move across a time. It’s just hard.
JK: The issue of time in general is something that I think, probably, is hard for any publication. But part of it, maybe, has to do with our youngness and our youthfulness that we’re, you know, used to the instant publication of Facebook or emails where you write something and it exists immediately.
And for me, as the editor-in-chief, that has taken and is still taking a lot of time to develop the kind of patience to let something go through all of the stages of multiple rounds of edits and waiting for people to return contracts, and do we have a photo to go with their bio, and all these different steps to make something look professional and be the best that it can be. And different sections require different lengths of time. It doesn’t take as long to publish a piece for the blog as it takes to go through peer review or something.
And it can be hard to manage a publication schedule across the variety of pieces that we published where, Oh, well, you know, we’re publishing a review of this book. Should we also publish teaching materials for this book? Well, that would be great, but how do we get them to come out in sync with one another? It can be a real challenge.
SNZ: And then the last thing is just money. Like any nonprofit, especially one that’s not dependent on a university press or anything like that… we have got very generous seed funding from the Naomi Foundation. But, as Eitan Kensky says, who’s the president of our board? We’re always in search of that eccentric millionaire that will provide us with the funding. We need it. It’s just always a challenge to find those individuals and foundations that are willing to support the journal.
We have very generous readers who give to the journal and give back and we’re deeply appreciative of them. But we’re a nonprofit and we’re living from year to year in some ways. On top of that, dependent on volunteer labor, when we really would love to pay them. So it’s a kind of attention there that has an articulation in an institutional sense.
All of these organizations that are working on Yiddish culture are all trying to raise money from YIVO to the Yiddish Book Center, to all the different kinds of places in the US that are trying to support this stuff that happens in and for Yiddish.
I wouldn’t say it’s a competition. I think we all do very many different things, but it’s not the first thing that people want to give money for.
JK: I should say why we need the money is, in part, because we’re very committed to trying to pay for the labor of writing and the labor of editing as best we can. And so our budget could be much smaller if that was not our commitment.
SNZ: On top of that, we have a pedagogical goal: that those that are employed are young academics. So they are graduate students, contingent faculty, non-academics that are working on Yiddish and we want to support them financially as part of the intensity of the academic job market, the crisis of the academic job market if you want to call it that. We want to be a resource in that world.
JL: I mean, that’s a very noble thing. People should be getting paid for the writing that they do. It’s kind of a shame, right? If you wrote an article for a major journal, you don’t see a dime. But that’s a whole separate set of issues. I’m glad that you brought up this question of fundraising, actually. In as much as we’ve talked a fair bit about the online component of what it is that you’re doing. One thing that I’ve seen recently was that you did a handful of fundraisers for the journal, which I thought was just really cool. I saw all the posts on Facebook and other social media
SNZ: They were salons, not just fundraisers. House parties.
JL: Well, this is exactly the thing: You’re taking the journal on the road, so to speak. It’s not just an online publication, but there’s this kind of a connection with your readers and with colleagues. So I was wondering if you maybe want to say something about this experience of using the journal, in a way, as a platform for developing these salons, so to speak. And of course they’re also fundraisers.
JK: Well, In Geveb has had an annual fundraiser in previous years in New York, a party. We wanted to try to do something a little bit different for a number of reasons. One is that many of our readers are not in New York, and we wanted to reach them where they were and build community with them and also raise funds from them.
But also because having a party in New York City, in a location that’s not somebody’s home, has an enormous overhead. This was a way to solve a lot of problems at once. To actually have parties where our readers are. To maybe grow our readership and help connect them to one another and have like real life conversations between actual people instead of just on screens. Also promote our journal among them. It has been really fun to plan and see these things come into fruition. So far, we’ve only had two of them, but I hope more in the future.
SNZ: Yeah, there definitely would be more. I had one at my house. I don’t always think that celebrity is a good thing, but some of this is about showing that there are people that are icons behind the journal. There’s living and breathing people that make things happen. So, at our party, we had Anthony Russel, who’s a singer of Yiddish songs, who we featured his work on the website, come and sing. To know that there’s this really dynamic cultural thing happening, that it’s not just something on the page or on the screen, but that there’s this living and breathing person making this stuff was so powerful.
To have him at our house sing a few songs and then also have a reading by Richard Fine, of his translations of Sutzkever, accompanied by Solon Beinfeld reading the Yiddish originals. So Avrrum Sutzkever, a Yiddish poet, started writing in the 1930s, but he was one of the most important Yiddish postwar writers, living the second half of twentieth century in Israel, and is thought of as one of the most important writers, but not necessarily very widely known.
And here’s this person who’s just published these amazing new translations, some of them on our website, and he’s this dynamic poet and translator, a really charming guy sitting down in my living room and reading in the most intimate way to a group of forty strangers, and now friends, I guess, friends in the Yiddish cultural sphere, of this very beautiful and important thing.
JK: The same thing was the case for the Seattle party. The Seattle party was co hosted by Liora Halperin, Sasha Senderovich, Faith Jones, David Schlitt, and Sarah Zarrow. It was a large group of people who came together and they cooked for it. They also had musicians, Sasha Lurje and Craig Judelman, perform. They had a raffle of CDs and books and so forth that were Yiddish related.
And so it was this kind of lovely bringing together of people, actual real life people, who care about Yiddish with in In Geveb at the center of it.
JL: I think it’s really cool. One of the other things that it really demonstrates, and it’s interesting, I wasn’t aware of the sort of the prior events in New York. But it’s interesting, you think about the geography of Yiddish culture.
SNZ: What are you saying? That Belmont, Massachusetts, is not a center of Yiddish culture?
JL: No, that’s exactly what I’m saying. That New York is not the only center of Yiddish culture.
SNZ: Yeah. That’s also something we’ve tried to push on the journal. We’ve had pieces about Yiddish in Utah. We have a special issue in the works about Yiddish in South America, but we wanted to reflect that also in our readership, which happens. We have a piece about someone learning Yiddish in Oklahoma.
I spoke earlier about the idea of Yiddish on being everywhere and nowhere. So I think the salons are part of that. The salon can happen anywhere a reader wants a salon.
So we’ve had a number of very generous readers in Seattle who wanted to throw a party at my house in Belmont, Mass. But the further ones will not necessarily be in New York. I imagine we’ll have one in New York, but to have them wherever the reading and consuming of Yiddish and Yiddish Studies, wherever it happens, we’ll be there.
JK: And if you’re listening to this podcast and you want to host an In Geveb salon you can write to us and we will be very happy. It’s not very hard to do. You have a party and we will help you.
SNZ: We’ve toyed in the past with doing In Geveb reading clubs.
JL: I think it’s interesting. It raises some really interesting questions about how we do scholarship. There’s a very long history of salons and reading groups. In a lot of ways I think that when we look at academia today and the world of publishing, we have conferences, but they’re very business-like affairs. Obviously, AJS and a lot of other conferences are a lot of fun. But I think that it’s really still an open question that we should continue to be creative about and think about how we do scholarship and how we talk about research and we talk about our fields of study in all sorts of different kinds of settings and not just behind a podium.
JK: And this question of reading groups, we also published a pedagogy poll about Yiddish clubs and reading groups and how they are structured and what are they reading and so forth. And that was really important for me to think about Yiddish learning as something that didn’t just happen in the classroom.
And to think about specifically putting it on the pedagogy section as people are actively trying to learn in ways that are not in the classroom. How can we talk about that and support that and help those people connect and think about how they could develop what they’re doing? So that’s not so much related to the fundraiser, but I do think that they are related concepts about thinking about the different kinds of communities that work in, around and build community in and around Yiddish.
JL: I was hoping that we could talk about some of the really interesting things that you guys have been doing. One of the things that I found really cool was the pedagogy blog, the pedagogy section. You already mentioned, Jessica, this idea that we should treat writing about teaching as something that’s valuable and important for scholars to be doing.
When you think about In Geveb and having materials relating to pedagogy, and I would also include to some extent some of the translations, which makes some of these sources available to be taught in the university classroom and anywhere else, whether that’s at a synagogue or among a group of friends or whatever—why do you think that teaching and pedagogy is an important component to have within a journal framework when most academic journals are really solely focused on publishing research?
JK: So, I’m in no way impartial about the pedagogy section. I should just put it out there that prior to my being the editor-in-chief, I was for two years the head of the pedagogy section and it was kind of my baby… in addition to my actual babies.
I think it’s central to the work of In Geveb because it’s mine. But also, I think for me it was really important for a number of reasons. One was, as a new instructor in the university setting, when I started to actually teach I realized that there were a lot of syllabi out there in the world, that there were academic articles out there in the world.
I had actually attended a couple of different language training seminars, but it was so hard to find resources about what people were actually doing in the classroom. What do you do when you come in the first day of class? What do you do to teach this or that particular question? And it was easy to find people’s reflections about it, but not their discussion questions and not their essay prompts.
I felt everyone had to just reinvent the wheel. If multiple people are teaching the same text in question, they are sharing the different kinds of resources, the worksheets that they come up with in addition to the scholarship that they put out, especially because teaching is such a big part of what we do.
And for the growing number of people who are adjuncts and with these kinds of increasing teaching loads, it’s more and more of… I teach in a quarter system. I teach seven courses a year. And so it’s a huge part of what I personally do, is teaching. And so why shouldn’t that also get a central place in an academic journal? It seems sort of obvious to me.
SNZ: And your work should circulate beyond just your classroom.
JK: And not for fame and fortune, but because theoretically, hopefully it’s good and helpful.
JL: The other half of it, which is also quite interesting, is the translation section. I don’t know if there are any particular translations that you think we might want to talk about.
SNZ: What we should first mention how translation is presented on the website because this was like the coolest thing that we got our designers to make for us. You can toggle between different settings where you can read only the English. You can read only the Yiddish. You can read both at once.
JK: Side by side, and it’s always beautiful, the way it’s done.
SNZ: It makes it very readable. And also makes it a pedagogical tool. You can look it, because it’s almost always line by line. You can see what choices the translator made or maybe you read in the Yiddish that you didn’t understand. You can zoom over to the English side and back and forth based on your own self discipline of what you want to read.
So, I think that provides a really great sort of just structure for it. But speaking of, I don’t know, Jessica, if you want to mention particular pieces that you think do this well?
JK: I was just going to say in terms of thinking about the pedagogy of the translation section, these are clear and printable Yiddish texts with standardized Yiddish, like even if you are teaching in a Yiddish language classroom and you’re not interested in the translation part of it, the Yiddish on the site is extremely usable for the classroom.
SNZ: Just to clarify, in Yiddish printing over the years, there hasn’t necessarily been a standardized spelling of Yiddish, in the early twentieth century in particular. It can be difficult to read multiple texts. And texts are in better or worse shape, and that when we transcribe the text, we standardize the spelling and usually fix typos of various kinds.
So, and we have an excellent group of Yiddish proofreaders that make this possible. So clean texts are a really important part of how to teach, and so we get to provide that.
JK: Obviously, just having more translations makes more texts available for teaching in the classroom. It can broaden the kind of canon of what people think is teachable. Because if something has never been translated before, then you can’t bring it to a classic unless they get ish language class.
SNZ: What texts in particular, are you thinking of that we’ve published?
JK: So we recently published a poem by Chaim Grade in translation by Julian Levinson, which is called “Jewish Towns of Poland,” a previously untranslated poem. Chiam Grade is considered one of the most important, distinguished writers of Yiddish pose in his generation. And to have this poem, which we published a really very recently, it was our most recent translation available, gives people an opportunity to think about post-war Yiddish literature in new ways. So that’s one prominent example.
Saul, do you have favorites from the translation section that you want to highlight?
SNZ: We already mentioned Eli Rosenblatt’s translation of the introduction of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin translation, which I think is really a fascinating way to think about nineteenth century Jewish conceptions of race, which I think is really great.
There’s a great translation by our current translation editor, Daniel Kennedy, of a Shalom Aleichem letter all about Bialik’s shoes. So Chaim Nachman Bialik, the famous national Hebrew poet, had left his shoes at Shalom Aleichem’s house and Shalom Aleichem writes this amazing, parodic letter regarding who claimed Bialik’s shoes.
And it’s a really amazing letter and it’s mostly entertaining, which I think is great for the classroom. But it also speaks to this connection between literature and you get to think a lot about what it means to be a national writer and how Shalom Aleichem sees Bialik as a national writer as opposed to what he is as the national writer; as someone who is worshiping Bialik’s shoes as a Yiddish writer, as opposed to a Hebrew writer.
You get these kinds of interesting dynamics between Jewish language politics and Jewish literary politics, while at the same time giving your students a very entertaining text to read that is also pretty straight forward and has whatever vocabulary things you might need out of it.
JK: Another thing that I’ve taught in my classroom is Sonia Gollance’s translation of Fradel Shtok’s short story “A Tanz” (A Dance). She also published with us a peer reviewed article about that story. That gives a number of additional resources to think about in through the text and think about how to teach it.
SNZ: Because students have a chance to read a text and also read a scholarly article about it at the same time, you get to kind of nice pairing.
JK: And it’s a really interesting test for thinking about gender and immigration and Eastern Europe and dance, which is Sonia’s expertise. I teach from these texts fairly often and bring them also both to people who are reading in Yiddish and the people who are reading English.
JL: Obviously, I think that this is a very important undertaking to have these kinds of translations. But why do you think that these translations matter? What is the contribution that they’re making? Beyond having these individual texts that are available, especially when we think about one of the major goals, which is to get people to actually read Yiddish.
One of these questions is, you know, you’re doing these translations, and you’re also making available the sort of the standardized text as well, which is also very useful. But when you think about the many competing goals, why do you think these texts matter in a scholarly way to have them available in translation and also in relation to this question of pedagogy and language instruction?
JK: One of the things that’s interesting about the translation section, as with all of our sections, is the wide variety of the kinds of texts that we have published there. So, we have humoresque short stories. We have letters, we have poems. We also have memoirs, a memoir about the Jewish unions in America, for instance.
And so some of them are kind of more geared toward historians perhaps, and some of them are more geared towards literary scholars, and some of them are about life in Eastern Europe… I mean, they have the wide swath of geographical locations where the initials represented and across time. And so in that way, it addresses the broad scope of Yiddish Studies, just like the rest of our site does, which I think is important.
SNZ: Yeah. I don’t know, I think it just speaks to the larger translation politics of the journal. We’re interested in thinking about how Yiddish comes out of its shell, in that sense.
So I would think, we’ve talked a lot about this already, but yeah, these texts, we may think of them as inaccessible. We might think of them as texts that should or will probably remain in a footnote. It’s a kind of challenge to the reader. What would happen if you wanted to read an entire Purim spiel from a Hasidic community in Borough Park from the 1990s? We have that text on our website.
What does it mean to take that text from its very specific context and make it accessible? So think, for instance, of one of the first translations we published of a draft by Hasidic rebbe by Arielle Evan Mesa and Daniel Reiser, that text is part of a religious education today.
It’s a text that would be read by a particular community for a particular purpose or in, say a Jewish Renewal context maybe. But what happens when you put it on a website dedicated to Yiddish studies? What does that text’s doing now in translation and who are those footnotes for? I think it’s like extensively footnoted because Arielle does do a lot of footnotes and we thank him for them.
And so what does that mean? I don’t think we always know the answer to that. Take another problem, I think from the early years were in the same introduction to the translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We had to standardize that Yiddish, but it’s a Yiddish from the nineteenth century that doesn’t lend itself to standards, and we’ve got to make lots of choices that were maybe not the best choices.
Sometimes the translation can shield things or prevent a kind of access to the texts that it would have otherwise. Right. who knows how many Hasidim are reading our website, but I don’t think they’re coming to our website to, necessarily learn a drash by Hasidic rebbe. So it gets kind of complicated and we’ve made this decision to be a translational hub, but we don’t always know what that means.
JL: So I think that we’re mostly out of time. But I want to kind of go back to something that I had asked you about at the beginning. We talked about the origins of the journal. But you didn’t really say that much about where you want it to go and where you see the future of and also the future of Yiddish studies. Where do you see this project going and also just the study of Yiddish culture in general, and how do you think that the journal can contribute to that?
JK: It’s a hard question for a number of reasons, because I see the journal as a very collaborative project that as things come up, as people’s interests develop, we move along with them.
So I have this really great idea to have a graduate student conference that In Geveb would, in some way, sponsor. Let’s do that. If there’s a kind of a fluidity to the journal that has to do with the collaborative nature of it.
But as I envision it, I think that in some ways, the people who are involved in In Geveb began largely as graduate students and are now in more established positions because there’s a certain level of stability and credibility in the scholarly world, which maybe gives us a little more flexibility as well. We don’t need to prove ourselves. People trust us.
If we publish something that seems sort of, unusual or unique, people will kind of maybe go along with that. That gives us an opportunity to be maybe more creative. And then also, I think one of our major goals is to support new work by young scholars and help develop the field through their eyes.
SNZ: Yeah, I think I agree with all of that. I don’t think it’s fair for us to say what we think Yiddish studies needs to be or what In Geveb needs to be. First of all, that needs to be collaborative thing that involves all of the people that are making Yiddish studies happen, and it should be one that is constantly reinvigorated by those conversations, either from the young people or from the old people.
It doesn’t have to only be young. But for us, that’s been one of the reasons for it. And they think it’s healthy to be able to say, we don’t know what Yiddish study says, nor do we want to be able to say what it is or for that matter, a larger conversation about Yiddish culture.
JK: Right. But it’s important to be sort of actively seeking answers to those questions continually. So I have an idea of having, sort of like having a sense about what our readers want, what our various constituencies want, and asking over and over again. And having these kinds of meetings or email chains or whatever, where we hear from people about where they see the field going and what would be helpful to them.
One of the questions that I try to find answers to, although it can be very difficult, is what are people actually using? Right. Do you use the teaching guides? Are they useful for you when you’re writing your lesson plans? Are they actually just kind of pretty documents that sit on our website and what people are actually using are the worksheets, so we should be doing more of those?
Right. That’s an example from the pedagogy section, because that’s the section that I spent the most time thinking about these questions for. But I think it rings true for all of the sections. What do people want? What are they using? What would they want more of? What would be helpful? And this is the question that we have asked when we had a pedagogy poll about teaching and translation. One of the major questions is, what would you like to have translated? Because then we can try to make that happen.
SNZ: It’s a really hard thing to do. Like we were talking about before, about the idea of being a gatekeeper. Because that’s so satisfying to be able to say, we know what this thing is. And it’s much harder to constantly undermine your own authority and cede authority.
Jessica is not going to be the editor-in-chief forever. I was editor-in-chief for two years, maybe not even, and Mendel took over soon after. And we want that turnover to happen quickly, which is hard because turnover is hard. But also it’s about trying to find space for new voices and trying to invite those new voices, identify them, make them feel comfortable to come in and take a project that they don’t necessarily see as their own and then make them say that it’s their own.
And that seems to be how we’re challenging our readers all the time too, is like make this your own. It’s not just ours.
JK: We’re short on time, but I think that’s also something that In Geveb has given me personally, in a huge way is an opportunity to make my own voice known and to develop my voice and to develop editorial skills that I didn’t have, managerial skills that I didn’t have, online publishing skills that I didn’t have.
And, I think it has been enormously important for my own career as a person who was very interested in pedagogy and thought a lot about pedagogy to suddenly have a place where I can edit pedagogy journal when I wasn’t teaching. Because I was writing and I had little kids at home and I was working part time. So then to have this opportunity to be sort of an authority in the field of pedagogy. I think it really helps me get a job later on. And so I’m hoping to be able to give that forward as well, to be developing not just new ideas and new directions for the journal, but also new professionals in the field of Yiddish studies, through the venue of the journal.