Cady Vishniac, author of “The Jakub Feinmans of the World” (NER 39.2), and NER editorial panelist Evgeniya Dame share an earnest talk on suffering, helplessness, Yiddish literature, and that sinking feeling we all get in response to the bad things out there—both in fiction and in the facts of our everyday lives.
Evgeniya Dame: Much of “The Jakub Feinmans of the World” revolves around the hardships of women: raising a child alone, facing strict abortion laws. The protagonist, however, is a man, Aleksy, who is caught between his sister and his girlfriend, sympathetic to their quite different opinions and, ultimately, at a loss how to help them. Did you always envision this story having a male protagonist? If not, what made you choose Aleksy?
Cady Vishniac: I absolutely always intended to tell this story from a man’s point of view. I usually don’t. Come to think of it, this might be my only published story from a male POV. There was a part of me that just wanted to prove I could get into a male character’s head.
Aside from that, I didn’t set out to write a story about the reactions of either women or Jews to their own suffering. It’s been a very dark couple of years, and the thing that goes on in my head is not always a focus on my own suffering; it’s the complete ripping of my heart when children are shot by cops or deliberately lost and tortured in ICE facilities. It’s that a foreign government is violating the human rights of Palestinians supposedly on my behalf. It’s the knowledge that trans people are dying. There’s a special rage and helplessness that comes with the fact that I can’t, you know, predict where the next child will be shot and throw myself in the way. I can’t singlehandedly abolish ICE. I don’t vote in Israel and none of my protests mean shit to its anti-Democratic prime minister, who is actually quite public in his contempt for American Jews. I’m probably not strong enough, physically, to waltz onto the scene to stop the murder of a trans person. And so on.
I can help with some of these issues, obviously, by volunteering my services or going to a demonstration or even voting, maybe sending Bibi Netanyahu another petition to ignore, but no one person, especially a grad student with a bad hip, can ever do enough against the latest worldwide slide into fascism.
What is this rage and helplessness? What does it do to us? How can we do better, but not in a performative way that burdens the true victims in these situations? Neither I, nor Aleksy can answer that question, yet. We’re just exploring. I think the only way out is through.
ED: I wondered what your story says about heroes. Doctor Feinman is a hero of tragic times, the man who opposed Nazis and rescued Jews from the Warszava ghetto. Still, he fails to live up to Aleksy’s expectations, or rather he can’t help Aleksy, who needs to be a hero in times when friends and enemies are hard to define. What are your thoughts on heroes and heroism?
CV: We all need to struggle to be heroes in times like these. It’s hard to contemplate heroism when you have a daughter to raise and an ex who would not necessarily make the best dad in case anything ever happened to you. It’s hard to be a hero when you’re just keeping afloat.
But there is, of course, the real Doctor Feinman about whom Hannah Krall wrote her book: Marek Edelman. He was pretty conscious of being just some guy. Radical left—much further to the left than the majority of people who consider themselves part of the #resistance, or whatever, today, not to be too pointed about that. Actually, let’s keep being pointed: he’d be bemoaned by DNC leaders today for having the temerity to fight Nazis.
There really is a book about Doctor Edelman’s ghetto uprising, and he’s left us plenty of documentation so we can safely say he pictured himself not as special, but present—and maybe morally obligated to shoot some Nazis. He was deliberately not heroic and deliberately antagonistic to the idea of heroism all his life. We should all be this. We should all struggle to be heroes until the idea of heroism is rendered mute, because such behavior is normalized.
Maybe, the best thing for the world would be for this thing we call heroism to die, and be replaced by an unwavering dedication to decency.
ED: Łódź appears a palimpsest of historic periods where contemporary reign of the conservative party Prawo i Sprawiedliwóść overlies earlier, hungrier times and years under Nazi regime. A setting so rich in history can be daunting for a fiction writer. How did you find balance between the real place and the Łódź your characters inhabit?
CV: Well, we come back here to the rage and helplessness, really the depression of Orwell’s vision of the future, “a boot stomping on a human face—forever.” The bad stuff can get to feel cyclical. A great wheel of bullshit, if you will.
We have a character suffering with that depression, someone struggling to deal with the great wheel, and he’s haunted. He has to be. And that haunting is what makes the future feel like every stage of the past. Aleksy’s character and interiority as this depressed person with a fear of recurring evil is what makes it all hang together. He’s not seeing the city he lives in with fresh eyes. He’s seeing tomorrow, his childhood, his mother’s childhood, his grandmother’s. My thought was that if I can make him that way, then I can just go along for the ride, living all time at once with him in a Łódź where everything is always happening.
ED: I just have to ask about the evil eye! I loved the way you describe Wiesława as “conflating the New Testament and folklore in her worldview” when it comes to a belief like that, which is something I witnessed many times growing up in Russia. What is the evil eye for you—a simple superstition, a sign of spirituality, or something else?
CV: I take the evil eye pretty seriously. I have my great-grandfather’s hamsa hanging on the inside of my doorknob and it seems to help.
It’s not that I believe the neighbors are cursing me, although they can be really rude about the shared washing machines. It’s not that I feel important enough to have some all-powerful force after me. Maybe it’s a simple superstition, except that a superstition can never be that simple. They’re a bulwark against the void, a way of enacting control. If I know the evil eye is out there, well, that sucks, but at least I have a realistic idea of what I’m facing and how to fix it. Maybe the fix is a spiritual one, and if I’m spiritually pure, acting in the way that I think my G-d would want me to, then I become someone who can handle the evil eye.
It’s a force for me, not a person. I don’t believe in cursing people. But I’ll tell you this: this guy harassed me in my MFA (which woman writer doesn’t have this story), and some friends of mine cursed him over Facebook, like burning sage on a mirror. That’s their version of the hamsa, I guess. It was one hundred percent magic that I will always be grateful for.
ED: Could you speak about your work as Translation Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center? How has knowledge of Yiddish and the practice of translation affected your writing style?
CV: When we think of Yiddish literature, a lot of people immediately go to Sholem-Aleichem, or whatever bits and reinterpretations of Sholem-Aleichem’s work we get in the US, including, obviously, Fiddler on the Roof. I have read quite a bit of this sort of deliberately folksy stuff in translation and cut my teeth on the Yiddish, and that was a great thing for the rigid fiction writer I was in that moment. I stopped caring about sentence order! I learned to love a good digression! I began to understand folk culture as something we currently invent and will continue to invent, something that helps us engage with the world. This careful invention of folklore is the bread and butter of what academics tend to consider the early greats of Yiddish fiction.
ED: Are you currently reading any authors writing in Yiddish? Who would you recommend?
CV: This isn’t reading, but Michael Yashinsky just produced a Yiddish-Language Fiddler on the Roof, and I’m very impressed with him. There have been a few Yiddish plays in New York in the past several years, including Asch’s God of Vengeance, and musicians like Daniel Kahn are enormously popular. YouTube series like Yid-life Crisis, podcasts like Vaybertaytsh. An episode of Arrested Development and the Broad City one about pegging all translated to Yiddish—”Hostu, oder hostu nisht, gepegt?” So I’d be doing everybody a disservice if I didn’t mention the huge body of great art coming from people of all ages, not just translation, poetry, prose. Eve Jochnowitz and Rochel Schaechter have a Yiddish cooking show whose recipes I have followed. Menashe, a contemporary Yiddish movie, premiered at Sundance.
The Forverts, which was publishing Yiddish fiction in their newspaper just under a century before I was born, continues to do so. Right now they’re serializing a novel by Noah Barrera, Der Nekhtiker Tegnik (The Grave Whisperer), and it’s wonderful. This is what I’m reading at the moment, and I would highly recommend it. I should add that the website is a good learning tool for intermediate readers as well, since it’s designed to allow readers to highlight words and get a definition. So it’s good for many levels of Yiddish readers.
And for those who would like to read Yiddish fiction by a living author but don’t speak the language, Boris Sandler’s work has actually been translated into English recently in the book Red Shoes for Rachel.
Cady Vishniac is a Big Ten Academic Alliance Traveling Scholar in Jewish studies at the University of Michigan and a Translation Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center. Most recently, her work has appeared in Glimmer Train and Salamander, where she won the 2017 Fiction Contest.
Evgeniya Dame studied English at Samara State Pedagogical University before coming to the US on a Fulbright Fellowship to pursue fiction writing at the University of New Hampshire. Her MFA thesis received the Young P. Dawkins III award, and her work has appeared most recently in Electric Literature. After returning to Russia to teach at Lomonosov Moscow State University for several years, she’s currently completing an MA in Language and Linguistics at UNH. Evgeniya lives in Maine with her husband.