A New Translation of a Yiddish Comic Gem

YZM: Karpilove isn’t exactly a household name; when did you encounter her work?

JK: I first discovered Karpilove when I was in graduate school, working on a dissertation on the topic of inter-ethnic romance in American Jewish Fiction in the early twentieth century, and I had written a few paragraphs dealing with attitudes toward “free love” liaisons. One of the mentors who offered comments on my draft urged me to do a bit of research and develop a footnote explaining what “free love” meant to Yiddish readers in the early twentieth century. At the time I didn’t have a good sense of where to begin, and the first thing I did was go to Yiddish Book Center’s website and type “fraye libe” (free love) into the search box function that allows you to search the titles of their digitized collections.  Miriam Karpilove’s Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle against Free Love was the first item that the search retrieved.

I was quickly intrigued. The novel didn’t end up making it into the footnote, but it stuck with me and when I had defended my dissertation and was looking for a new project, it didn’t take long for me to decide to try my hand at translating Karpilove’s novel.

YZM: Was she well known during her lifetime? What was her background like?  

JK: Miriam Karpilove (1888-1956) was born in a small town outside of Minsk in what was then the Russian Empire and was among the middle of ten children (five girls and five boys).  Her father, Elijah Karpilov, was a lumber merchant. The family was observant, and Karpilove received both a traditional and a secular education. She was well versed in Russian literature, and even attempted in her younger years to write some Russian poetry. Karpilove also received training as a photographer and retoucher, and she used these skills throughout her adult life.

Karpilove immigrated to the United States in 1905 and settled in Harlem. Her first published writing appeared in print in 1906 in a newspaper called Idishe Fon, when she was eighteen years old, and she continued her publishing career until the mid-1940s. She was among the very few women who primarily made their living as Yiddish writers.  Karpilove wrote hundreds of short stories, journalistic reportage, plays, and novels, and served as a staff writer for the Forverts for several years. 

Karpilove was popular in her own lifetime—her serialized novels were widely read and her columns and stories appealed to broad audiences. Nevertheless, from what I gather from her correspondence, she did struggle to maintain her career. When she had a serialized novel running in a newspaper, she was in good shape, but when the serialization was completed she could go several years in which there was a dry spell and it was hard for her to find someone to publish her work.  In her letters she complains of feeling like she’s on the outside of the world of Yiddish letters, and I suspect that gender was a central factor in this experience.

Karpilove maintained a robust correspondence with several figures in the Yiddish world, such as Rose Bachelis Shomer and Kalmen Marmor.  She also wrote many letters to her brother Jacob Karpilow and his wife Rebecca, and these letters help give a picture of her day to day life and demonstrate that her gutsy self-deprecating humor was part of her unpublished as well as her published self-presentation.  

Karpilove was also involved in other aspects of the Jewish community.  She was a Labor Zionist, and she spent several years living in Palestine in the 1920s.  After she and her brother passed away, they left their estate to the state of Israel.

YZM: The novel was published in a serial form; do you think that helped shape the way the story unfolded?  

JK: Absolutely. There are a number of ways that the serialization is quite evident in the text. One is that chapters often end with a cliff hanger—a moment of unresolved tension that will make readers eager to purchase the next issue.

Another is that the novel includes a lot of repetition, which I think is much more easily tolerated, even desired, if you are reading the novel in weekly installments. You can experience again something that you liked from early in the book but haven’t had a chance to experience in a while – maybe not for a month or more – if it crops up again later in the book.  This is something contemporary audiences might expect to see in television shows but probably less so in a book.

Readers will also notice that the ending of the book feels quite rushed compared to the leisurely pace of the middle of the book. I suspect this is because Karpilove knew that the serialization was almost over and wanted to get her ideas onto the page as quickly as possible before she concluded.

YZM: Karpilove is wonderfully aphoristic—Women are proud of their virtue, men are proud of their sins and the lonely, poor girl has no spring. For her, it’s always autumn and winter.

JK: I agree!  I think Karpilove would have been very good at Twitter—she’s quite succinct and incredibly quotable.  

YZM: There is a recurring of theme of self-doubt—even self-loathing—in this novel; can you speak to that? 

JK: This is something that can be very hard to read in this novel, especially as the self-doubt seems to be a significant factor in why the narrator stays with really horrible suitors.  Self-doubt can be a form of self-victimization that enables or makes her susceptible to other kinds of victimization as well. Self-doubt also contributes to the loneliness of the title character, who would rather be with horrible men than be alone.  

I will say that the narrators in her later writing are much more self-confident, and I hope that this was also the trajectory of her own life and her own sense of self worth.   

YZM: What about Karpilove’s voice resonates with today’s reader? 

JK: For me there is so much that resonates.  I find her very funny, and even though she can sometimes be euphemistic she is also quite brazen and frank in representing the unequal power dynamics between men and women in intimate relationships.  In a lot of ways, unfortunately, what happens behind closed doors between men and women may not feel so very different today than it did in the past.

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