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Reflections on Jewish Culture

by Ilan Stavans

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8032-7136-4
Publisher: Univ. of Nebraska

Born in Mexico City and educated in a Yiddish-language school, Stavans (Latin American and Latino Culture/Amherst Coll.; Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years, 2010, etc.) collects some of his journalistic output as a deeply engaged cultural observer.

Calling himself an “accidental Mexican,” and rather more Jewish than Mexican, he moved to New York in 1985. In the life and work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who immigrated to New York from Poland in 1935, Stavans found a kindred spirit. From anonymous immigrant, switching languages and cultures and moving from poverty to recognition and financial stability with the help of his antiquated, trusty Hebrew-character Underwood typewriter purchased in Coney Island, Singer personifies the American dream. Stavans’ own devotion to Yiddish burbles in other essays here, such as a revisiting of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish. Stavans writes about the particularly delightful hurdles of translating Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye der milkhiker; offers some prescient re-readings of Argentine Jacobo Timerman, poet Homero Aridjis and critic Lionel Trilling; and includes an interview of novelist Allegra Goodman and an interview of himself regarding the translation of the King James Bible. Among the most elucidating essays concern Singer’s sister, Esther Kreitman, “the other Singer,” relegated to obscurity despite her own impressive literary output and due for correction and rehabilitation along with numerous other female masters of Yiddish. In “What Melting Pot?” Stavans delivers a moving, detailed take on the profound changes the author has observed in Jewish American identity through language and literature.

Too scholarly for some readers, but Stavans provides a relevant, fresh point of view.