It was the tail end of our week exploring Yiddishland when we sat down with Emory professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture Miriam Udel to hear about her research and writings on Yiddish children’s literature. I came in expecting a talk on the woes of khareydi children’s literature and the need for non-khareydi cultural production for children. What I did not expect was to begin a journey into the world of 1930s anti-racist Yiddish children’s literature from New York City.
I sat down with my assigned translation partner to dive right into a story about Labzik, a proletariat dog whose owners are a lovely and warm Bundist immigrant family living in the Bronx. My translation partner and I exchanged tredpidous glances between one another as we struggled to articulate our translated reality of this chapter of Chaver Paver’s “Labzik: Tales of a Clever Pup.”
As we translated, we stumbled across common, transliterated landmarks in the Bronx (“Does this say gzjaksohn avenoo?” “Oh—Jackson Avenue.” “Oh! Yeah. That makes sense.”) In the chapter Professor Udel gave us to translate, as we had hesitatingly decoded at this point, Labzik had bit his owner’s black friend because the friend is dark. (‘Shvartz’ in Yiddish, but we couldn’t believe our eyes. How do we even translate it? Is it meant to imply black? dark? or even dirty perhaps?)
Labzik was immediately punished by his family for his anti-black prejudice and was taught a lesson about racism. Together with his family, Labzik unlearns his racism. The moral of this chapter was that if a dog can unlearn his racism, so, too, can the young Yiddish reader.
I began looking through other anti-racist Yiddish children’s stories and was just as struck by Yankev Krepliiyak’s Shvarts un vays, a collection of short stories detailing moments of collaboration and encounter between white and black children. Krepliyak’s Shvarts un veys includes full-page illustrations of black Americans that would warrant its own dissertational analysis. Discovering this world of Yiddish anti-racist children’s literature made me simultaneously incredibly excited to learn about the genre whilst also giving me pause: Why are we so quick to remind everyone about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s march on Selma but so easy to forget the treasure trove of anti-racist tradition and pedagogical learning tools provided to us by Yiddish writers and educators in America. Of course, the former is a significant and symbolic moment of American Jewish activism and prayer through protest. However, the latter is a moving example of pedagogic teaching and transmission of values from a young age. The insurmountable importance of children’s literature in the development of a child’s sociocultural reading of and interaction with the world around them should not be overlooked. Again, through my pursuit of Yiddish Studies, I have accidentally fallen upon the mantle of tradition that is rife to answer the pressing questions and anxieties of twenty-first century Jewish life in the diaspora.