The Yiddish professor and female Orthodox rabbi sharing Yiddish children’s literature with the world
Image by Miriam Udel
A jack of many trades is sometimes a master of them all
Speaking with Miriam Udel, the Yiddish professor at Emory University in Atlanta who is reacquainting the world with Yiddish children’s literature, you quickly notice something remarkable. In one moment she sounds like a literary scholar and in the next, a Talmudic sage. It’s not all that surprising considering her background: Udel has a doctorate from Harvard University in comparative literature and rabbinical ordination from an orthodox yeshiva.
Yiddish speakers often say: “A sakh malokhes, veynik brokhes,” meaning that a jack-of-all-trades is typically blessed with few successes in life. Udel’s career runs contrary to the proverb. Her expertise in Talmud adds depth to her work on modern Yiddish children’s literature, and her academic training informs her rabbinical interpretations.
But what led an Orthodox Jew to embrace Yiddish children’s literature’s secular and leftist values? And how did an avowed feminist not only end up on the women’s side of the mechitza but become one of fewer than 100 orthodox female rabbis?
A Hebrew School Nerd
Udel’s mother, Ann Robbins-Udel, nourished her love of children’s books.
“Even when there wasn’t money for other luxuries, my parents would always scrimp and pinch to buy me a book,” Udel said.
No surprise, then, that her local library would play an important role in Udel’s childhood.
“One of the first sensory memories I have of abundance and plentitude is having a huge stack of library books when I got a new type of library card,” Udel said. “I wasn’t restricted to two or three books but could pick out as many as I wanted. It was the first time I felt real abundance and plentitude which was only limited by my curiosity.”
Another place where Udel loved to read was at the Hebrew school affiliated with her family’s reform synagogue in Miami.
“I was a ‘Hebrew school nerd,’” Udel said laughing. “I was really jazzed in sixth grade when we learned to look up chapter and verse in Tanach. It was like I suddenly had this new superpower.”
Despite her love of Jewish learning, Udel didn’t always feel at home in her Hebrew school. Her family was a bit more religious than the synagogue’s other congregants, and most of her classmates’ families were wealthier than her own. This led to what Udel terms a “productive tension” between her and her Hebrew school community. When she was in ninth grade, this tension led to a crisis of sorts during Rosh Hashanah.
“The rabbi was giving a sermon against materialism, condemning those who believe that ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins,’” Udel recalled. “And right afterwards, someone gave a presentation about reconstructing a wing of the synagogue and how they were going to honor the donors. I stopped going to confirmation classes and left the synagogue altogether because I saw it as just a place to show off wealth.”
Udel became even more interested in her spiritual tradition. She began attending an Orthodox synagogue, which soon led to a new conflict—this time between her feminist, progressive values and men’s and women’s distinct roles in Orthodox services.
“I understood that if I wanted to properly grapple with these questions, I needed to know what was in our sacred texts,” Udel said. “And for that I would need to be able to read them in the original.”
Far Miryemen a Matone (A Gift for Miriam)
Udel attended Harvard University as an undergraduate, where she had the opportunity not only to improve her knowledge of classical Hebrew but to master Babylonian Aramaic, study biblical exegesis and learn from “really exacting teachers, Talmidi khakhomim in a gender neutral space.”
At the same time, Udel became increasingly interested in secular literature and the role it plays in transmitting moral values. As she formulated it to me, it’s surprising that as the world grew increasingly secular, literature became the lens through which society examined questions of morality. Why, for instance, she wondered, do children in middle school discuss moral dilemmas in English class and not while studying philosophy?
When Udel was deciding where to attend graduate school, she spoke with several professors at Harvard about this question. One of them, the Yiddish literature scholar Ruth Wisse, suggested that Udel learn Yiddish, noting that the process of secularization occurred more quickly among Eastern-European Jews than nearly any other ethnic group. Comparing their secular literature to other world literatures, Wisse argued, could yield great insights into the effects of secularization. Wisse left Udel a copy of Uriel Weinreich’s textbook College Yiddish with a note reading: “Far Miryemen a matone” [a gift for Miriam]. Udel soon enrolled in the YIVO Institute’s summer program and began her graduate studies in comparative literature with Wisse that fall.
“Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.”
When Udel began working as a Yiddish instructor at Emory University in the fall of 2007, she knew very little about Yiddish children’s literature. Searching for simple reading material for her students, she came upon a catalog published by the Yiddish Book Center with short descriptions of more than 800 Yiddish children’s books.
At first Udel planned only to use the material to aid her language students, but over time Yiddish children’s literature became a topic of interest for her in its own right. As a literary scholar, she was curious about the relationship between Yiddish works for children and adults. And as a Jewish educator, Udel soon recognized that among the thousands of stories and poems for children lying mostly forgotten in early to mid-20th century Yiddish books and magazines were treasures that would be of use to contemporary Jewish parents.
Udel told me that it’s impossible to understand Jewish modernity without reading Yiddish children’s literature. When I asked her why understanding Jewish modernity is important, she responded by citing Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, a collection of sayings from the Mishna): “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.”
Udel explained that the issues that Yiddish children’s book authors dealt with a century ago are still relevant for contemporary Jews.
“We don’t have to entirely reinvent the wheel,” Udel continued. “We can see how they had a conversation about acculturation, about the challenges of creating a robust Jewish identity and living in a mostly open secular society. We don’t have to adopt all of the same strategies and solutions they did, but we would be foolish not to witness the way our community grappled with these questions.”
Hoping to share these works with the world, Udel read through hundreds of texts, choosing examples she felt were the strongest works of literature or particularly representative of the canon. After seven years of compiling and translating, the fruits of her labor were published in 2020 as “Honey on the Page.” The landmark anthology, featuring 47 stories and poems, is the first to give English readers a systematic overview of Yiddish children’s literature.
Taking inspiration from the structure of many classic children’s anthologies that were used in Yiddish schools, Udel chose to organize “Honey on the Page” thematically. The first stories include the most overtly Jewish topics (holidays, biblical narratives and historical figures), but the further you progress in the book the more universal the works become. Udel notes in her introduction that this approach reflects a tendency throughout Yiddish children’s literature — the authors wanted to emphasize the particularly Jewish nature of their works while also showing that Jewish children belong to the wider human race and inculcating them with universal values.
A Socialist Shabbos and Class Struggle At the Purim Party
Udel writes in her introduction that Yiddish children’s literature emerged alongside the conception of childhood as a distinct stage of life when individuals are more open to intellectual influences. It’s no surprise then that Yiddish writers used their works to imbue a political consciousness in young readers. Udel notes that the bulk of Yiddish children’s literature is a product of leftist writers from “several groups of very idealistic people fighting for all kinds of progressive values, even if they saw different pathways of achieving them.”
Udel hopes that the visions of these authors will have another opportunity to influence children through her translations.
“It was my intention to empower child readers through portrayals of kindness,” Udel said, citing Mordechai Spektor’s story “Children”, which tells of two friends who go begging on Purim in order to buy a pauper’s daughter a new pair of shoes. When the boys stop by Purim parties at the houses of rich Jews in their shtetl, they are turned away but their poor neighbors give them alms.
“It shows that the poor and middle class, unlike the rich, will never let you leave empty-handed,” Udel said.
Udel noted that it is often difficult to “disentangle Jewish tradition from leftism” in Yiddish children’s literature.
“Jewish socialism was deeply spiritual,” Udel said. “It comes from a religious tradition in which a key tenet was kindness and a key principle of that kindness was to work to make a more just world.”
As an example, Udel cited “The Magic Lion” by the Bundist leader and educator Yankev Pat, which “takes the trappings of traditional religious observance and marries it to a tradition of progressive values, i.e., giving the worker a day of rest.”
In the story, a rabbi is traveling through the desert on a camel as part of a caravan. After his fellow travelers abandon him because he refuses to ride on shabbos, he is protected from wild beasts and other dangers by the story’s lion, who is observing his own day of rest. After sundown Saturday night, the lion allows the rabbi to ride him out of the desert to safety.
“‘The Magic Lion’ fits right in in Hebrew school, but it also has an additional political dimension,” Udel said, explaining that the animal’s appearance can be interpreted as either a divine miracle or a symbol of the strength of workers.
Udel believes that the stories in her anthology can teach contemporary children to understand oppression just as Yiddish writers hoped to inspire their young readers to become resilient by learning about their ancestors. Several stories in the collection portray Jewish historical tragedies in stark terms. Isaac Metzker’s “Don Isaac Abravanel”, for instance, follows the titular Jewish philosopher and banker’s unfruitful attempts to prevent the Spanish expulsion of 1492. The novel, published in 1941, was written to comfort American Jewish youth in the darkest days of the Holocaust with one generation’s tragedy substituted for another.
“There’s something uncanny about the fact that we’re living through a series of crises now and so many of these stories come from times of crisis,” Udel said. “I revised my introduction after Squirrel Hill (the mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue), and I revised it again at the last minute in March 2020 when the pandemic broke out. I had a keen sense of the historical resonance, the echo of history.”
What a Communist Puppy Can Teach Today’s Children
American readers will hear such echoes most strongly in Khaver Paver’s Labzik stories, which portray the humorous but often frightening adventures of a dog that is adopted by a Jewish family in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
“Labzik: Stories of a Clever Pup”, published in 1935 by New York’s communist Yiddish school network, was one of the most popular Yiddish children’s books in America but has never appeared in English. Several of the Labzik stories can be read in “Honey on the Page” and Udel is currently at work on translating the rest of the book.
Udel told me that it felt more urgent after the murder of George Floyd to share Labzik with the world.
“They’re stories for children that show protest as a positive value, condemn police brutality and show what kids, and even dogs, can do to improve the world,” she said.
She noted that many of the issues the book’s depression-era puppy faces still plague American society, citing growing income inequality, American Jews’ renewed concern about their security and the importance for Jews of expressing solidarity with African-Americans.
When she put together her anthology, Udel was concerned that the political content of some of its stories would turn off certain readers. So far she has heard few complaints. Just the opposite: some parents found the political content “refreshing.” Udel feels that a strength of her anthology is that she included writers from various political camps.
“Some of the stories are Zionist, others aren’t,” Udel said. “Some families will like some stories and not others. The important thing is that it models what it can look like to have a really messy multivocal marketplace of Jewish ideas. And that’s good for kids, too.”
Becoming a Darshanit
This inclination towards a diversity of opinion is reflected in other aspects of Udel’s life as well. Despite her academic career as a specialist in modernity, Udel never stopped learning in the bet midrash (Jewish study hall).
As an undergraduate student she helped to coordinate the women’s prayer group that met as part of Harvard Hillel’s orthodox minyan, and before starting graduate school, she studied for two years at seminaries in Jerusalem for Orthodox women.
For most people working full-time as a professor while raising three kids, writing a monograph and translating dozens of stories for an anthology would be more than enough. Udel, however, wanted to further her studies of Talmud and Jewish law, and in 2016 Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox yeshiva to grant women rabbinical ordination, accepted her into its Executive Ordination Kollel program for midcareer professionals. When she started, her youngest son, Emmanuel, was only eight months old.
“Needless to say, I couldn’t have done (it) without Adam’s (her husband: Adam Zachary Newton) support,” she said.
Upon completing the program in 2019 Udel didn’t choose one of the more common titles for Orthodox women rabbis like maharat (an acronym meaning “female leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah”) or rabba or rabbanit (both female forms of “rabbi”) but rather “darshanit,” i.e., a female expounder of scripture. As Udel explained in a Facebook post she wrote at the time, she selected the title as an homage to Rivke Bas Meir Tiktiner, a preacher active in late 16th century Prague and the first woman to write a book in Yiddish. The introduction to her guide to Jewish law, “Meinikes Rivke” (Rivke’s Nurse), posthumously published in 1609, describes Tiktiner as a “darshanit v’rabanit” (a female interpreter of scripture and female rabbi).
The title “darshanit” appealed to Udel because she hopes that her role in the rabbinate will not just be doing what male rabbis have always aspired to do. Rather she aims to “remake the shape of our aspirations altogether” by incorporating the strivings of women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and “others who have been shut out by traditional power structures.”
“To give that project wings,” she wrote, “we need new language, and to give it roots, we need very old language. Serendipitously, ‘darshanit’ offers both.”
The Holiness of Secular Yiddish Children’s Literature
Udel’s expertise as a darshanit is in interpreting Midrash, and several stories in the collection harken back to these ancient biblical commentaries. Levin Kipnis’ “Children of the Field”, for instance, is an expansion upon a legend referenced in the Talmud, tractate Sotah, 11B, which describes how the Jews hid their babies from the Egyptians in “cradle pits” in the soil and the children emerged from the earth like grass. Although Kipnis’ story refers directly to the era of the Egyptian exodus, it serves as a metaphor for educating new generations after the Jewish enlightenment.
Udel sees in the story an example of how so-called “secular” Yiddish children’s literature serves as a link in the chain of Jewish tradition, bridging ancient holy texts with modernity. Like the children in the story, who remain hidden until they are revealed to help establish new generations, Udel hopes that the stories in her anthology, long inaccessible to most Jewish families, will contribute to shaping Jewish life for years to come.
“Ultimately,” she said, “I want to push back against the high wall between the religious and secular worlds. I’ll daven with a mechitza, but I don’t want to read with one.”