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Crowd-Funding a Classic Yiddish Translation

Michael Wex wants to bring Joseph Opatoshu to the masses

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Michael Wex.(YiddishBookCenter)

Would you like to read a classic Yiddish novel about hasidic wife swapping, messianism and Polish nationalism?

That was a rhetorical question—of course you would. And the opportunity is within your grasp: Michael Wex, Yiddishist and author of the New York Times bestseller “Born to Kvetch,” is spearheading a campaign to translate Joseph Opatoshu’s 1921 masterpiece, In Poylishe Velder (“In the Forest of Poland”), into English. Says Wex:

“[This] is one of the most important works of world literature with which you’re probably unfamiliar. A vast panorama of Jewish life in Poland during the 1850s, Opatoshu’s novel concentrates on backwoods Jews who live among gentile peasants rather than in Jewish communities in cities or shtetlekh. Touching as it does on hasidism, heresy, pre-Christian Polish folk customs, wife-swapping, messianism, and Polish nationalism, this book will change the way you think about Jewish life in Poland.”

If that summary sounds like the premise of a dangerously addictive HBO series, wait till you read the tantalizing excerpt accompanying Wex’s IndieGoGo pitch:

“Half-naked in a garnet-studded kerchief, the Rebbe’s grandaughter, Dushke, sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by women and Hasidim holding one another by the hand. Heads back, eyes closed—had their feet not been shuffling, you’d have thought the intensity of their devotion had plunged them into a trance.

A squat man was standing in a corner, beating his head against the wall, smearing himself with the blood that flowed from his forehead and nose, and crying out in a voice full of weeping, “Father, father, oy father. Two young women were holding each other by the hand and spinning faster and faster, their dresses billowing out like open umbrellas. They threw themselves into each other’s arms, sank down and lay on the floor, exhausted.”

Wex is crowd-sourcing the funds for the project because he wants to free translation from the stultifying clutches of the academic press and publish the book online, for free, in perpetuity. Sounds like a metziah to this literary nerd.

Judd Apatow, Matthew Weiner, are you listening?

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This is a tremendous project and worth supporting! I’ve “linkified” some things in a blog post to make it easier to find information on different topics that are referenced on the project page :

irvingdog says:

Sounds interesting, but dangerous to “learn” about Poland and Jews and the 1850s from a novel.

    erickleincaw says:


      irvingdog says:

      Using fiction as a source for history is dangerous in the sense that the conclusions can confuse the novelist’s creativity with reality.

        erickleincaw says:

        Makes sense. I’d agree with the word “incomplete” substituted for “dangerous.” One implies that you should do more reading, the other implies that harm will come from a book.

Would someone be willing to fund the translation from Yiddish of my great-great-grandfather Shlomo Ettinger’s works into English? He wrote in the early to mid-1800’s. Very little of his work has been translated. Most of its publication was posthumous and done in Buenos Aires, underwritten by family members. He is known in some quarters as the Shakespeare of Yiddish.

Linda Ettinger Lieberman, White Plains, New York, USA

Pole says:

1st of all Poland did not exist in the 1850’s.


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Crowd-Funding a Classic Yiddish Translation

Michael Wex wants to bring Joseph Opatoshu to the masses

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