Ear­li­er this week Ellen Cassedy and Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub wrote about their dis­cov­ery of the Ele­na Fer­rante of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and her trans­gres­sive fic­tion sto­ries, now trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish as the col­lec­tion Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn and Oth­er Sto­ries. Ellen and Yer­miyahu will be guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all Week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Two men are strolling togeth­er in the Bor­sht Belt when they come upon a flower by the side of the road.

What’s the name of that?” one asks, pointing.

How should I know?” replies the oth­er. What do you take me for, a milliner?”

The notion that the Yid­dish lan­guage, and Jews them­selves, are far removed from the nat­ur­al world is well entrenched in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. For Jews, the joke says, the only thing a flower is good for is trim­ming for a lady’s hat. 

Yet in the fic­tion of Blume Lem­pel we trans­lat­ed and col­lect­ed in Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn and Oth­er Sto­ries, nature plays a sur­pris­ing­ly sig­nif­i­cant role. Born in a small town in East­ern Europe in 1907, Lem­pel immi­grat­ed to Paris and then to New York, where she wrote in Yid­dish into the 1990s. Her sto­ries were acclaimed through­out the world of Yid­dish letters.

In Lempel’s lyri­cal, jew­el-like sto­ries, the nat­ur­al world oper­ates as coun­ter­point, as dri­ving force, as back­drop, and as pro­tag­o­nist. Some­times the very huge­ness of the nat­ur­al world is invoked to put the life of the indi­vid­ual into per­spec­tive: one sto­ry opens with a vast world encased in ice,” with no mark­ing of time,” where the foot­steps of eter­ni­ty make no imprint in the void.” In anoth­er sto­ry, a woman fly­ing to Reno for a divorce looks down into the blue trans­par­ent void” that sym­bol­izes her unknown future with its myr­i­ad choic­es; anoth­er woman lies under an apple tree on a hot day and trav­els in her mind far, far into the cos­mos — all the way to the moon. 

Many of Lem­pel’s pro­tag­o­nists are seem­ing­ly hap­pi­est, or most deeply them­selves, when work­ing in nature. A Brook­lyn woman named Pachysan­dra tends the small plot of earth next to her apart­ment build­ing and feels her­self trans­port­ed back to her home in South Car­oli­na — The rise and fall of her green days pur­sued her in her dreams.” Mrs. Zagret­ti lov­ing­ly plants a del­i­cate fig tree in her yard on Long Island and proud­ly presents its fruits to her Jew­ish neigh­bor as an anti­dote to Amer­i­can consumerism. 

Con­nec­tions between humans and ani­mals — even insects — are par­tic­u­lar­ly pow­er­ful. In the title sto­ry in our col­lec­tion, the squir­rels in the zoo come run­ning at the approach of their blind friend Dan­ny. Mrs. Zagret­ti finds a soul­mate in a house­fly, elic­it­ing a dev­as­tat­ing reac­tion from her Jew­ish neigh­bor. Mrs. Zagret­ti is not the only char­ac­ter to feel a pow­er­ful tie with a fly, either: the pro­tag­o­nist of a dif­fer­ent sto­ry tries to keep a fly alive in her apart­ment by feed­ing and speak­ing to it — when it lands on a mir­ror, she takes note of how it com­munes with its reflec­tion. In yet anoth­er sto­ry, a res­i­dent of an old age home releas­es a fly into the world in hopes that it will live out its life in joy and satisfaction.” 

Far from serv­ing as a gen­tle pas­toral back­drop, nature is often the site of grave dan­ger, where beau­ty is inter­twined with men­ace. A young woman hid­ing in the for­est remem­bers that the wind brought me the smell of berries, a dead bird, the rot­ten car­cass of a half-devoured crea­ture.” The half-mad nar­ra­tor of anoth­er sto­ry calls the flow­ers in her gar­den by the names of peo­ple who per­ished in the Holo­caust. Each burns as a memo­r­i­al can­dle in its par­tic­u­lar sea­son. Soak­ing up hot sun­shine and plen­teous rain, hail and hur­ri­cane, they know the art of adap­ta­tion and sur­vival,” just like the sur­vivor who watch­es over them. 

For Lem­pel, the bound­aries between dream and real­i­ty, civ­i­liza­tion and nature, human and ani­mal are per­me­able, shift­ing, dif­fi­cult to trace. Her evo­ca­tion of the nat­ur­al world gives her sto­ries a weight more pow­er­ful than the tra­jec­to­ry of her plots, and the pre­ci­sion and musi­cal­i­ty of her prose offer excep­tion­al plea­sure to the reader.

So much for the unbridge­able divide” between Yid­dish and nature. 

Ellen Cassedy and Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub received the Yid­dish Book Center’s 2012 Trans­la­tion Prize for their work on the fic­tion of Blume Lem­pel, now avail­able to Eng­lish read­ers in their col­lec­tion Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn and Oth­er Sto­ries.

Relat­ed Content:

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.