Leon H. Gildin review of Yiddish Genesis

When I was asked by the editor of Prof. Richard J. Fein’s collection of essays, Yiddish Genesis, to review the work, I was hesitant to do so in that the editor would not tell me anything about the material. Since it was written by a professor I felt that I did not have the scholastic background to judge writing that might be beyond my comprehension. Nevertheless, when the work was received it did not take me long to decide that I was competent to review it because it became obvious that Prof. Fein was a man who wanted to live the life that I had lived.

If the truth be known I did become literally frightened after reading the Preface. If the rest of the essays were going to be in the incomprehensible language of the Preface I would be in trouble. Permit me to quote: “Whatever the conceptions and chimeras that rove here, I ride them to travel more deeply into Yiddish and Genesis.” The Preface then ends with the following sentence: “To adapt the Chagallian image, I eye the horse that eyes me in my village of memory and reading.” That’s tough stuff to understand.

In my opinion this collection of essays should have been published separately. I find little connection between them other than the fact that they are bound together in one book. The Yiddish portion of the book deals with two basic issues. The first is the author’s regret that he came to Yiddish so late in life. Having been brought up in a Yiddish speaking home and having lived and enjoyed a Yiddish secular life, I understand Professor Fein’s regret. From a reader’s point of view, however, the same regret is expressed in almost every essay and while it may have been relevant at the time the essay was written, it does become a bit repetitive.

The second issue which is gone into in depth is the question of translations, more particularly the translation of Yiddish poetry. I understand Prof. Fein’s emotional attachment to the issue having done poetry translation for many years as a matter of personal achievement and having had many of them published. The essay, “The Companion-Translator,” correctly states: “The task of translators is to capture, in their language, what the poem possess in the original.” Prof. Fein has done just that in the few examples of his translations that appear in the essays. There is, however, a very serious omission. Prof. Fein writes at great length about the works of H. Leivick and cites a translated portion of one of Leivick’s poems that happens to be in free verse. I am sure that it will make Prof. Fein jealous to learn that from the earliest days of my life up to today, my oldest friend is Leivik’s son and I spent many a supper at Leivick’s home (speaking Yiddish, of course). I am more than familiar with Leivick’s body of work and it is fair to say that ninety five percent of it is in rhyme. So now we come to the real issue of translation that Prof. Fein does not deal with. If the original is in rhyme then the translation should be in rhyme. The rhyme, in many instances, dictates the meter. If the translator ignores these elements then his work is nothing more than a poem, in English, on the same subject as the Yiddish poem that he attempted to translate.

And now we go to Genesis. The reason I feel there is no connection between the two sets of essays is the fact that, although there exists a translation of the TANAKH, The Five Books of Moses by Yehoash, a truly monumental work, and although Prof. Fein chooses a line here or there in English and shows how it appears in translation, the connection is, at best, tenuous. His essays on Genesis are learned and if published separately would be just as learned and just as unrelated to Yiddish and to the translation of poetry.

Yiddish Genesis is a scholarly work and, as I said in the first paragraph of this review I am not a scholar.


LEON H. GILDIN
Leon H. Gildin is a retired lawyer who was active in the Yiddish secular world of New York and now resides in Arizona. He is the author of the following books: You Can’t Do Business (Or Most Anything Else) Without Yiddish, Hippocrene Books, New York, 2000; The Polski Affair, Diamond River Books, Canada, winner of the 2010 International Book Awards for historical fiction, 2009; and the sequel, The Family Affair, Diamond River Books, Canada, 2011.

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