Monday, November 27, 2023

Q&A with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub




Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the translator, from Yiddish to English, of the writer Frume Halpern's story collection Blessed Hands. Taub's other books include the novel in stories Beloved Comrades. He lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: Why did you decide to translate these stories by Frume Halpern (1880s-1965)?


A: Translation is a rewarding as well as a challenging and labor-intensive process. When considering a work for translation, I have to be drawn by its themes and how they're treated, the authorial voice, and a sense of kinship, or a kind of emotional connection.


With Halpern's Gebentshte hent, I found all of these. Halpern writes about individuals living on the margins, chiefly but not entirely, in the United States, and how they navigate conditions of hardship and struggle and seek to create lives of meaning and purpose.


Their marginalization is often due to factors of race, class, or gender. Others do not meet societal expectations of attractiveness and are considered "plain."


As the book's title suggests, many of these stories are about people who work with their hands. Halpern's protagonists include a shoemaker, a hairdresser, a butcher, a workshop worker, and a cleaner of homes. Many of the stories feature immigrants to the United States who haven't at all or quite achieved the American dream.


In one story, "Hello, Butch," the aforementioned butcher, despite his financial success in the New World, yearns to escape his seemingly predetermined profession and to protect his son from following his own path. 


Other stories focus on the lives of the sick or those with (or developing) a long-term health condition, challenge, or disability.


Long before the terms "anorexia nervosa" entered the public consciousness, Halpern wrote about two young women (the title characters in "Clara and Mary") essentially starving themselves to death in a public hospital ward.


In "They Came to See Each Other," a story about two blind protagonists who fall in love, the themes of handiwork and health converge in the character of the blind Pauline, an expert knitter and embroiderer.


Halpern's voice is at once tender and dispassionate. She takes us into the lives of her characters with an almost clinical precision. There is a deep sense of caring here, and her work has never relinquished its hold on me since I initially came across it. 


Q: What can you tell us about Halpern’s life and her writing career, and what do you see as her legacy today?


A: Frume Halpern was born Frume Tarlowski (Tarlowskwa, Tarloff, among other forms). Her gravestone has 1885 as the year of her birth, but I've encountered other dates, as well.


The documentation indicates that she immigrated to the United States in 1904 from Bialystok. Her father was Yikusiel (Kusil), and her mother was Rejzel Tarlowska. Her siblings were Nochin (Nathan) Kuszelew Jankelew Tarloff and Feige Rachel Yolken.


She also had half-siblings from her father's second marriage following her mother's death. 


According to a family member, she had studied to be a nurse in Europe, but couldn't practice in the United States due to the language barrier. Halpern worked in the workshops and eventually as a massage therapist in the Bronx Hospital.


This work may well have inspired the title (and first) story of the book as well as the various stories set in hospitals or healing institutions.


Her husband was Isaack Halpern, and they had two daughters, Nora and Vera (Yetta). Frume Halpern died in the Bronx in 1965. Nora's grandsons, Victor Linn and Robert Linn, as well as Victor's wife, Judith Linn, provided a great deal of information about the author, and I am extremely grateful to them for their generosity of spirit and support. 


Frume Halpern's work appeared in left-wing publications such as Morgn frayhayt [Morning Freedom] and Zamlungen [Collections]. Prominent leftist writers such as Ber Green, Itshe Goldberg, and Isaac Elchanan Ronch championed her writing.


Indeed, Ronch wrote the foreword to Gebentshte hent, and my translation of his foreword appears in Blessed Hands. A group of Halpern's friends, advocates, and admirers pooled resources and brought these stories out in book form.


Without their efforts, we would not have had the original Yiddish book, and thus, this translation into English.


According to a remembrance by I. Fisherman (translated by Immanuel Klein and Nora Linn): "... Frume Halpern was "devoted to progressive movements. The literary club in the Bronx, of which she was a prominent member, felt very proud that this beloved and talented writer was one of them and shared their philosophy and dreams." 


Q: The author Rhea Tregebov said of the book, “Taub's nuanced translation brings Halpern's stunning and moving words fully to light; his extensive afterword helps contextualize Halpern's remarkable accomplishment.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: I am extremely grateful to Rhea Tregebov for her generous words on behalf of the book and indeed, for her enthusiasm for this project as a whole from its very inception.


Tregebov is the editor of the anthology Arguing with the Storm: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2008), in which several of Halpern's stories appeared in translation (one by Roz Usiskin and two by Esther Leven).


Tregebov conveyed to me her admiration of Halpern's writing, and learning about her enthusiasm was inspiring to me as I set about this project.


As I progressed, I encountered other Yiddish scholars and translators who expressed their love of Halpern's writing and thanked me for doing this work. To me, it felt like I had discovered and entered a community of Frume Halpern super-fans.


I'd also like to express my deepest gratitude to Amelia M. Glaser, Irena Klepfisz, and Aviya Kushner for their blurbs. While my belief in Halpern's writing has never wavered, it's been immensely meaningful to find out that others share this belief.


And of course, there are many others to thank. My acknowledgments in the book are extensive. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Halpern explored difficult life situations with great insight, originality, and empathy. She wrote about the marginalized and overlooked in a way that brings the reader into her protagonists's struggles and joys, too.


Halpern is an author of great courage. There were many times as a reader when I gasped, even shivered, in recognition and shock, thinking, "Wow! She really went there!" I felt that Halpern was speaking to me, and it is my hope that other readers will experience that same feeling.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently translating the autobiography of the folksinger Lifshe Schaechter-Widman, born and raised in the Bukovina region, which is now divided between Ukraine and Romania. It is an extraordinary account of an extraordinary life. I am also working on a new manuscript of my own poems. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Blessed Hands is full of surprises. There are a number of deeply moving meditations on aging, including one entitled "The Fate of a Strand of Hair."


In "An Orphaned Synagogue," a young rabbi struggles to keep an Orthodox synagogue going as the congregants age and decline in number.


Halpern was also a master of the interior monologue (e.g. "Blume") in which a protagonist addresses an individual, often from the past. These read like prose poems and are composed in an incantatory, strikingly intimate tone.


I think a number of stories in the collection, such as "In the Garden of Eden," "Susan Flesher," "Hello, Butch," "The Mute Mother," "Rusty, My Friend," and "By My Mother's Sickbed" deserve to be included in the Jewish short story canon. 


Of course, there's much more to say about Frume Halpern's life and work, but I hope I've given you and your readers a taste. Thank you so much for this opportunity.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub.

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