“A little while ago there were twelve million people—not including babies—who lived inside this tongue, and now what is left? A language that never had a territory except Jewish mouths, and half the Jewish mouths on earth already stopped up with German worms. The rest jabber Russian, English, Spanish, God knows what. Fifty years ago my mother lived in Russia and spoke only broken Russian, but her Yiddish was like silk. In Israel they give the language of Solomon to machinists. Rejoice—in Solomon's time what else did the mechanics speak? Yet whoever forgets Yiddish courts amnesia of history. Mourn—the forgetting has already happened. A thousand years of our travail forgotten. Here and there a word left for vaudeville jokes. Yiddish, I call on you to choose! Yiddish! Choose death or death. Which is to say death through forgetting or death through translation. Who will redeem you? What act of salvation will restore you? All you can hope for, you tattered, you withered, is translation in America! Hannah, you have a strong mouth, made to carry the future—“
Envy: Or Yiddish in America shows clearly the brilliance of Cynthia Ozick. My main purpose in this post is to have it included on The Reading Life.
About four years ago a contact at Yale University Press gave me the ten volume Yale Yiddish Library (edited by scholars and sponsored by the Yiddish Book Center). As I began to read these works, starting with The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl and Motl, the Cantor's Son by Sholem Aleichem, I knew I had come on a culture that truly lived the Reading Life. Interpreting the Torah was central to Eastern European Jews. Scholars were greatly respected. The Holocaust was a war on this culture and by proxy all of us into the Reading Life. Yiddish culture has older and deeper roots than Anglo-American. Since then I have kept reading Yiddish Literature and Holocaust studies. Envy: Or Yiddish in America is an attempt to locate Yiddish literature in post Holocaust America, New York City. It asks did Yiddish die in the Holocaust? How is it transformed by Translation? What does it mean to be a Jew after the Holocaust?
The narrator of the story is a Yiddish writer, he struggles to make a living and is consumed by jealousy over the success of another writer, some say the famous writer is modeled on Isaac Singer. The famous writer has a translator, our narrator desperately wants to be translated into English. His envy consumes him.
There just is so much depth in this story. It can be seen as an attack on American Jews, circa 1969, forgetting the history of pain and suffering. The narrator is at first elated when he finds the young niece of the other writer, born in America, speaks Yiddish. Of course at first he hopes he has found his translator. Things do not, of course work out.
I will for sure revisit this story.
As of now I have access to eight short fictions by Ozick and two collections of essays.
I highly recommend this essay
History, Freedom, and Laughter in Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” by Menachem Feuer
Cynthia Ozick’s essays, novels, and short stories have won numerous prizes and awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Straus Living Award, four O. Henry First Prizes, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work has been translated into most major languages. She lives in Westchester County, New York, and recently ventured into playwriting with an adaptation of her own The Shawl...from her publisher