The tales of Blume Lempel are all over the map, literally. Paris, Brooklyn, Tel Aviv, Florida, South Carolina, Warsaw, Yosemite National Park —these are only some places inhabited by her diverse and often mismatched characters. Although well known to Yiddish readers, Lempel (1907–1999) will be a discovery for many Americans; Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, translated from the Yiddish by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub (Dryad Press/Mandel Vilar Press, $14.99) is the first English-language translation and collection of her stories. And what an eclectic, original and inventive collection it is. Transgressive in both form and content, Lempel seems to defy easy categorization, and she bravely goes where her muse commands.
Two of the real knockouts here deal with taboo sexual longings —one between two cousins raised in the same home, and the other between a mother and her son. “Sylvia was no Jocasta”, begins the title story, which quickly dispatches Sylvia’s husband in a car accident and blinds her nine-year- old son, Danny. Years pass, but the connection between mother and son remains fierce, and often fraught. And when they move from Brooklyn to Florida, their relationship takes a forbidden, incestuous turn: “Sylvia and Danny hid from the sun. In the house, the air conditioner cooled their parched bodies. Mute, without words, without tenderness, without promise, without hope, they coupled day and night —on the floor, and after sunset, on the hot sand.”
The collection concludes with an essay, “The Fate of the Yiddish Writer,” in which Lempel opines, “I am housewife, a wife, a mother, a grandmother—and a Yiddish writer…The birds, real and imagined, speak in Yiddish, and the wind at my window speaks Yiddish—because I speak Yiddish, think in Yiddish…No world language is comparable to Yiddish with its unique sighs, its unmatched sense of humor.”
Yet for all her ardent defense of her mother tongue, those of us reading her now, in translation, know the ultimate fate not only of the Yiddish writer, but of Yiddish itself. Which makes it all the more important to keep Lempel’s unique flame alive, with whatever means necessary.
Yona Zeldis McDonough, Lilith fiction editor, is the award-winning author of the seven novels and 26 books for children.