People of the (Yiddish) Book

People of the (Yiddish) Book

Second novel selected in virtual discussion group

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Susan Winter of Highland Park with, “The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga,” the first selection in a national book group launched in January by the National Yiddish Book Center. Photo courtesy Susan Winter
Susan Winter of Highland Park with, “The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga,” the first selection in a national book group launched in January by the National Yiddish Book Center. Photo courtesy Susan Winter

Both Susan Winter of Highland Park and Lauren Ross-Feldman of Princeton were hooked by the concept, if not the first book, in the National Yiddish Book Center’s club launched in January. 

“I wanted to read books that wouldn’t have come to my attention,” said Ross-Feldman.

“The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga,” by Moyshe Kulbak, considered a great comic novel, was definitely not on her radar. Published in Yiddish in serial format between 1929 and 1935, and translated by Hillel Halkin in 2013, it follows several generations of a Jewish family, the Zelmenyaners, in Russia. They all live in homes facing a common courtyard where their struggles with progress and modernity (electrification, anyone?), intermarriage, and the Russian political climate play out. The characters share a family name, but not necessarily each other’s affections. 

Both Ross-Feldman and Winter struggled to get through it. “I’m not really connecting with the book,” said Ross-Feldman. Judging by some of the comments in the Facebook discussion, they were not alone. 

There was so much interest in the group that Book Center communications coordinator Maureen Turner said they had to cap participation at about 270. Readers come from diverse places such as Nyack, N.Y.; Vermont; Wisconsin; Costa Rica; and Oslo. Some 14 participants, including Winter and Ross-Feldman, live in New Jersey. 

While the Yiddish Book Center, headquartered in Amherst, Mass., was founded in 1980 to rescue Yiddish books being tossed out, the mission has expanded not only to finding ways to bring the books to more people through translation, but also to engaging a new generation in reading  all kinds of modern Jewish literature, and not just Yiddish books. 

The group will read four books over the course of one year with reading resources such as touchpoint questions, essays, and book reviews, and links to articles and oral history interviews supplied. The conversation takes place on a private Facebook page and during live webinars where everyone can join in. The books include modern Jewish literature as well as Yiddish classics. 

Comments on “The Zelmenyaners” flowed on Facebook. Mostly, people posted informally, writing whatever they were thinking. From time to time, Josh Lambert, the Yiddish Book Center academic director, posted a broader comment intended to stimulate discussion or thought. 

Participants talked about “difficult” and “unlikeable” characters, “abrupt” prose, and concerns about reading in translation; they also described “beautiful dramatic moments,” even parallels with the cult classic film, “Harold and Maude” (because of one Zelmenyaner family member who makes repeated, failed suicide attempts) and the current Amazon series, “Transparent,” a contemporary Jewish family saga that deals with transgender issues. 

Winter said she appreciated the webinar that closed out the discussion on the Zelmenyaners. She liked the topics covered, including the author’s life, how the book was first published in serial form, the history of the times and the various characters. And she appreciated the hour-long discussion in real time. “Some of us would have even liked it to be longer,” she said. “While reading the discussions on Facebook was interesting, this discussion both reinforced things I had learned as I read the book and also filled in some gaps of things that I may have not realized from my reading,” she said.

Ross-Feldman said she didn’t like the book because of the overall narrative. “People are commenting on the language, but that’s not what draws me in. I’m there for the story or the characters. Both were choppy in the ‘Zelmenyaners.’”  

She doesn’t blame Kulbak, exactly, pointing out that when the novel came out, it arrived in serial form. “It would be better if we had a chapter a week and could talk about it for that week with friends.” Still, she said, “It’s not plot driven; there are too many characters to be character driven.” 

Winter chose to “sit back and observe,” rather than participate on Facebook with this first book, she told NJJN.  “I’d like to be part of the discussion, but mainly I want to read the books,” she said. But perhaps as a result, she missed the “immediacy” of an in-person book group, where she said there are side conversations happening parallel to the main conversation. 

While she has previously participated in online book groups, she said that none have been as loosely organized as this one. An American Jewish Library book group, for example, included a series of questions sent by email for discussion.

Participants in the Yiddish book group have begun to engage with the second selection, “Survivors,” by Chava Rosenfarb, announced in March. It’s a collection of short stories translated from Yiddish by the author’s daughter, Goldie Morgentaler. At the time they spoke with NJJN, Ross-Feldman and Winter were both looking forward to that book. They also expressed their appreciation for the suggested time frame the Book Center posted, which would facilitate everyone reading and commenting at the same pace.

Regarding comments for the new book, it’s clear that some people post a lot, and some offer great insight. But the participants, in their own way, now have their own metaphorical courtyard, with 270 characters and not much plot. Nevertheless, humor and conversation ensues. Representatives from the National Yiddish Book Center did not respond to requests for comments on this story.

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