One important feature in the historical works of “ma’asalech” (little stories), written in Yiddish for children, is a practice of “Juda-izing” popular stories. Instead of translating children’s stories into Yiddish, translators would often adapt stories to reflect Jewish society and values. For example, in 1913, a Yiddish version of a Hans Christian Anderson story was “translated” into Yiddish and titled “Big Fievel and Little Fievel.” In this remade version, the main characters were Jewish boys.
Last Sunday, The Workmen’s Circle in Midtown hosted an event devoted to the world of Yiddish children’s literature, illuminating how traditional Jewish values have been colorfully passed on from generation to generation. Led by Nikolai Borodulin, master teacher and coordinator of Yiddish programming at the Workmen’s Circle, the lecture covered a detailed history of Jewish themes and imagery. These works of literature, both through their content and illustrations, provided a Jewish lens into the secular world.
A periodical titled “Green Trees,” published between 1914 and 1939, boasted a combination of Biblical and modern stories contributed by a range of iconic Yiddish writers including I.L. Peretz and Hayim Nahman Bialik. These writers were dedicated to the educational task of bringing traditional Judaism and modern secularism together.
Borodulin also showed how illustration perpetuated the combination of tradition and modernity. Earlier illustrations reflect “Bubba Ma’asehs”, or “Old Wives Tales,” which depict children being told stories by elders. Later works were more symbolic, with goats, representing the Jewish people, often appearing next to images of roosters, symbolizing revolution, especially during the rise of the Communist regime. Between 1917 and 1927, politically oriented images appeared in many stories.
Concluding, Borodulin turned to the United States. These days, Yiddish children’s literature no longer upholds this combination of traditional Judaism and modernity, but instead focuses on efforts to revitalize Yiddish language – so that there will be readers for these works.
Ayala Schnaidman studies English literature at the Macaulay Honors College at Queens College where she is an active Jewish student leader on campus.