Yiddish Translations of American Literature in Your American Literature Class, Part I: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

PALS is excited to welcome a post by Jessica Kirzane. Kirzane is an Assistant Instructional Professor in Yiddish at the University of Chicago. This is the first of two posts discussing how to incorporate Yiddish translations of American literature into the American literature classroom. You can find part two of the series here.

I think it was October of last year when I was scrolling through Twitter, and I saw a tweet from PALS about the kinds of posts that seem to be attracting the most attention.  According to the post, teachers are not necessarily looking for new texts to teach, and indeed instructors of American literature may not even have much curricular flexibility and may be expected to teach within a certain accepted canon.  But even so, the tweets explained, teachers are looking for new and innovative ways to open up these tried and true texts to new ways of reading that are more critical or diverse or simply that are fresh and new. 

Well here’s where I have something to offer from my vantage point as a specialist in American Yiddish literature.  Although I have plenty of suggestions of American Yiddish literature in translation that you could be reading with your American literature classes (and maybe I’ll share something about them in future PALS posts), what I want to focus on here is what it would mean to teach about or with Yiddish translations of canonical American texts in an American literature classroom. Defamiliarizing canonical American texts by looking at them through the lens of how they were presented in Yiddish can help to shake up your literature classroom within the confines of an otherwise fixed syllabus.  It can bring global perspectives to the national orientation of an American literature syllabus, open the syllabus to minority and multilingual voices, and bring the material life of the book into focus.  

There’s a lot more to say than I could cover in a blog post, but in this post and in my subsequent post next week, I will share a few interesting points about some Yiddish translations of texts commonly taught in courses about American literature. I will also offer ideas for how and why they could be incorporated into an American literature classroom and how that might reshape conversations about the global, multilingual, and multicultural scope of American literature.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Yiddish

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a literary phenomenon, and was widely translated into languages read by American immigrant audiences and by readers worldwide. By 1860, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been translated into twenty languages and was the most widely circulated work of American literature.1

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was likewise very popular in Yiddish and appeared in translation several times over.  Among these translations are: Jacob Jaffa’s 1911 publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published by the Hebrew Publishing Company in New York, with 105 accompanying illustrations copied from the 1888 Houghton Mifflin New Edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Bernard Gorin’s translation of the novel in 1901, published in the newspaper Arbeter Tsaytung, and several stage performances throughout New York in the early 1900s.2

Title page of Isaac Meir Dik’s 1868 adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) into Yiddish.

One early translation of Stowe’s text into Yiddish bears particular mention because of several Judaizing adaptations that would make for eye-opening conversations in your American literature classroom (the material that follows is adapted from my longer teaching guide to this text which can be found here).  Isaac Meir Dik’s 1868 adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin provides insight into popular literature in Yiddish, the use of Biblical text to support political debate, the transnational circulation of texts, and Jewish/Yiddish and East European perspectives on American slavery, to name just a few issues of potential interest to students of American, European, and Jewish literature and history.

Isaac Meir Dik (1814-1893), who was based in Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania)in the Russian Pale of Settlement, has been called the first best-selling Yiddish author.3 His writing, in the form of chapbooks containing sentimental, sometimes satiric stories with ethical teachings, was immensely popular. Dik’s writing has variously been read as popular fiction for women and as Enlightenment philosophy and polemic that influenced vast social change.4 His attraction to Stowe’s novel likely stems from its similarity in genre to his own work. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at once a simplistic, sentimental work of popular fiction targeted at women and a stirring political allegory that fueled public debate about human rights for decades after its publication. Like Dik’s work, Stowe’s novel edifies through entertainment, titillates in order to advance a social platform.

In his introduction to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (you can read Eli Rosenblatt’s English translation of the introduction here) Dik ties the novel to the ideologies of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskole) including a belief in progress, an interest in applying rational, historical thought to the study of scripture, and the embrace of rationality. He provides his readers with historical background about race and slavery, and celebrates human progress in opposition to serfdom and slavery, drawing upon burgeoning ideas of race and race science as well as Biblical sources. In so doing, Dik brings a traditional Jewish readership into contact with Western science and relates world politics and literature to the social and political climate of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe.  What follows below are several suggestions for how this text could be introduced in an American literature classroom.

Teaching Suggestions:

  • Slavery? Or Serfdom?:
    • Divide the class in half. Instruct one group of students to read Dik’s introduction in order to glean information from it about slavery in America. Instruct the other group to read Dik’s introduction in search of attitudes and information about serfdom in Russia. Then, ask students from each group to join together in pairs to discuss their readings of the text and teach one another what they learned about slavery or serfdom and Dik’s attitudes toward each. Ask them how these topics are related and how they are different, and whether and how Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Yiddish is an artifact of American or of world literature.  How does Dik draw upon contemporary American politics to shed light on his political attitudes in the Russian empire?
  • Examining Stowe and Dik on the Purpose of their Texts:
    • Ask your students to think about the goals of this text and whether and how they differ from Stowe’s original text.  Where does Dik want to intervene culturally and politically?  Why does he translate this text?  What are his edifying/didactic goals and is there overlap with Stowe?  To this end, you may wish to have students compare Dik’s introduction to his Yiddish adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 preface to the European edition of her novel, or to her 1878 preface to a new American edition. Discuss how these different introductions situate the novel religiously and politically for its reading audience.
  • Translation and Adaptation:
    • Have your students read Bertha Wiernick’s review of Dik’s Yiddish adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and speculate, based on her description, on the relationship between Dik’s introduction and the changes he makes to Stowe’s narrative.  Ask them to consider the line between translation (moving a text from one language to another) and adaptation (faithful in some way to the source material, but also transformative).  Why would Dik choose to make significant interventions to Judaize the text, and how might that shape the text’s meaning in its new context? Ask students to compare this kind of adaptation to contemporary film adaptations of historical novels – what kinds of changes are made to texts to /entertain/educate/meet the expectations of new audiences?

1 Colleen G. Boggs, Transnationalism and American Literature: Literary Translation 1773–1892 (New York: Routledge, 2010), 127.

 2 For an account of this translation history with particular attention to stage performances, see: Rachel Rubinstein, “’Strange Rendering’: Uncle Tom’s Cabin  in Yiddish and the Staging of Race at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” American Jewish History, Vol. 101, No. 1, January 2017, pp. 35-55.

 3 Sherman, Joseph. “Dik, Ayzik Meyer.” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.

 4 For a discussion of Dik’s writing as popular literature geared to a female audience, see David Roskies, “Yiddish Popular Literature and the Female Reader,” In Depth: Popular Culture Around the World X:4 (Spring 1977), 852-858.


Bio:

Jessica Kirzane is an Assistant Instructional Professor in Yiddish at the University of Chicago and the editor-in-chief of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.  She is the translator of Miriam Karpiove’s Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love (Syracuse University Press, 2020).

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