After my moth­er died, I real­ized I need­ed to study Yiddish.

My moth­er didn’t actu­al­ly speak Yid­dish, but she pep­pered her con­ver­sa­tion with Yid­dish words. In the kitchen: Hand me that shisl (bowl).” At the win­dow on a rainy day: A pliukhe (down­pour)!” On the phone: The woman’s a makhesheyfe (witch).”

When my moth­er died, I missed these words laden with her­itage. (My father, though a great lover of all things Jew­ish, had been raised a Chris­t­ian and couldn’t help.) Bereft of my mom, and want­i­ng a way to main­tain my con­nec­tion to my Jew­ish fore­bears, I went look­ing for a begin­ners’ class in the lan­guage once heard in kitchens, lanes, mar­ket­places, and union halls on both sides of the Atlantic. Yid­dish became my home with­in Jew­ish culture.

When I became a trans­la­tor from Yid­dish into Eng­lish, I learned that Yid­dish had a long his­to­ry as a portable home­land for writ­ers. In the words of the schol­ar Sebas­t­ian Schul­man, Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture is a tru­ly transna­tion­al repub­lic of let­ters, a body of texts that since its ear­li­est days has been writ­ten, read, and sung across polit­i­cal boundaries.”

Sholem Ale­ichem was only one Yid­dish writer who made a con­scious choice to write in mame-loshn (moth­er tongue). Anoth­er was Yen­ta Mash (19222013), a lit­tle-known giant among Yid­dish women writ­ers whose work I’ve trans­lat­ed and col­lect­ed in On the Land­ing: Sto­ries by Yen­ta Mash (North­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2018).

Mash is a mas­ter chron­i­cler of exile. Her char­ac­ters are always on their way to or from some­where, always arriv­ing or depart­ing. Her work is urgent­ly rel­e­vant today, as dis­placed peo­ple seek refuge across the globe. I put her along­side Jhumpa Lahiri, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and André Aci­man for her keen insights into the expe­ri­ence of migra­tion, assim­i­la­tion, and resilience.

Grip­ping, hon­est, and some­how inspir­ing, no mat­ter how grim the set­ting, Mash’s sto­ries draw heav­i­ly on her own life — a life dis­rupt­ed by repeat­ed uprootings.

Born and raised in a small town, or shtetl, in the south­east­ern region of Europe once known as Bessara­bia (today Moldo­va, east of Roma­nia), Mash was deport­ed to Siberia by the Sovi­ets at the begin­ning of World War II. Though her exile saved her from the fate of Jews mur­dered by the Nazis, she suf­fered extreme hunger and pri­va­tion dur­ing her sev­en years of hard labor. In 1948 she returned to Sovi­et Moldo­va, where she worked as a book­keep­er — and did not write — for three decades, before immi­grat­ing to Israel in the 1970s. There, final­ly, her words came pour­ing out, and received imme­di­ate acclaim. She pub­lished four vol­umes of short sto­ries, appeared in Yid­dish jour­nals through­out the world, and received sev­er­al lit­er­ary prizes.

Those prizes were well deserved. Mash tells us much that we didn’t know about lit­tle-explored cor­ners of Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in the twen­ti­eth and twen­ty-first cen­turies, and she does so in a rich­ly elab­o­rat­ed lit­er­ary style that is full of the fric­tion of dis­parate cul­tures rub­bing elbows.

As her char­ac­ters strug­gle to adapt to new cir­cum­stances — whether in a harsh labor camp, in the post­war Sovi­et sys­tem, or in the not-always-friend­ly land of Israel — Mash por­trays the most har­row­ing cir­cum­stances in metic­u­lous detail. At the same time, though, she makes clear, as one crit­ic wrote, that even under hell­ish con­di­tions, good­ness and beau­ty can exist under the same roof. Often a kind of spe­cial illu­mi­na­tion seems to shine forth out of that piti­less darkness.”

We see rela­tion­ships forged, inner strength called upon, and a cease­less wrestling with God. Mash’s char­ac­ters keep the faith in their own way. They don’t stop believ­ing, but nei­ther do they let the Almighty off the hook for his many missteps.

When Mash arrived in Israel, her new land was hard­ly wel­com­ing toward Yid­dish, which was seen as an emblem of Euro­pean oppres­sion. Yet, like Sholem Ale­ichem and many oth­ers before her, Mash remained stub­born­ly loy­al to her native tongue.

Yid­dish is my lan­guage,” she said. In Yid­dish I feel at home.”

Ellen Cassedy, the trans­la­tor of On the Land­ing: Sto­ries by Yen­ta Mash (2018), received a PEN/​Heim trans­la­tion grant and a Hadas­sah Bran­deis Insti­tute fel­low­ship for her work on Mash. She was the co-trans­la­tor, with Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub, of Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn and Oth­er Sto­ries by Blume Lem­pel (2016), award­ed the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter Trans­la­tion Prize. She is the author of We Are Here: Mem­o­ries of the Lithuan­ian Holo­caust (2012), which won sev­er­al nation­al awards and was short­list­ed for the William Saroy­an Inter­na­tion­al Prize for Writing.