Children of the Mother Tongue

Tali Berner introduces Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature

There was a time when Yiddish was a language like any other. It was the mother tongue of millions: There were newspapers in Yiddish, novels in Yiddish, movies in Yiddish and children’s literature in Yiddish. But Yiddish has disappeared so quickly and is employed in such limited contexts that we can hardly imagine that for at least a certain period of time it was a language that encompassed all aspects of daily life. The language was annihilated under such tragic circumstances that we can depict it today only as part of a nostalgic “Yiddishland” where people were poor but happy, miserable but hopeful, innocent but wise.

Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature (NYU Press, $29.95), an anthology of Yiddish children’s stories collected, translated and edited by Miriam Udel, upends all these clichés. The only element the stories have in common is that they were written in Yiddish and for a young readership— they vary in length, subject matter, and genre. Some are boldly realistic, taking on issues like death, poverty and exile. Some take place in imaginary countries and involve the magical and mystical. Some are a combination of all the above. For instance, the first story in the anthology, “A Shabbat in the Forest” by Yaakov Fichmann, reflects the harsh reality of poor peddlers who were forced to spend the weekdays away from their family, but quickly turns to the magical and fantastic.

Yiddish is often referred to as Mameloshn—the mother tongue, but the vast majority of its authors are male, both in children’s and adult literature. In her introduction, Udel explains that she attempted to even out the picture somewhat by including as many female authors as possible. While this is an important and admirable step toward a more gender- balanced canon, Udel seems to have included pieces that would otherwise not have been not deemed worthy of translation and publication, such as Malka Szechet’s “What Izzy Knows about Lag Ba’Omer,” a didactic story with little literary or even informative value.

The gender gap is also very apparent when we consider the protagonists of the anthologized stories. The vast majority are male, with women and girls often playing only supporting roles. One particularly notable female protagonist is Shprintse from Dovid Rodin’s “An Unusual Girl from Brooklyn,” excerpted here—a novel about a girl who is so immersed in the books she reads that they begin to come to life for her. I was intrigued enough to seek out the original, available online, and hopefully one day available in translation as well.

As this anthology showcases, children’s writing was taken very seriously by Yiddish writers. The best Yiddish and Hebrew authors, such as Yaakov Fichmann, Levin Kipnis, Sholem Asch and Kadya Molodowsky, dedicated much time and effort to their younger readers. The fact that these pieces can be enjoyed today is a testimony to their enduring quality. When these writers composed their stories, they imagined a large, eager, diverse readership. Udel’s superb work of selection and translation breathes new life into these works, fulfilling the wishes of their authors, albeit in different form.

The book takes its name from the tradition of giving children honey-covered letters so they will associate Torah study with sweetness. The stories in this anthology indeed read as artisanal candies with flavors both familiar and foreign, enticing and exotic. 

Tali Berner teaches at the Program for Child and Youth Culture at Tel Aviv University. She holds a PhD in Jewish history from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.