The Alchemysts Theater production “Somewhere Very Far Away” brings together two great traditions of modern Yiddish culture: children’s literature and the radio play.
A lively corpus of nearly one thousand free-standing books and several periodicals grew up in tandem with the Yiddish secular school systems in Europe and the Americas between the World Wars. While these texts span continents and ideologies (including socialism, communism, Zionism), they share in the overarching goal of their creators: to write a better world into being in a distinctively Yiddish key. These works helped families to locate themselves in Jewish modernity, offering a secure anchor during a period of dizzying social and political change that was complicated by secularization, urbanization, mass migration, and economic modernization. These stories and poems represented a global publishing phenomenon over six decades, with publishers following their readers from Warsaw and Vilna to Kharkov and Moscow, New York, Detroit and Montreal, Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires and Havana.
Sometimes the political messaging was explicit, as in Jacob Reisfeder’s pacifist story, “The Boy and His Samovar.” At other times, it was subtler, as when the socialist-Zionist Yankev (remembered fittingly by the Hebrew pronunciation of his name, Yaakov) Fichman wrote about a simple tailor’s magical Sabbath in an enchanted forest palace. The traditional Sabbath observance portrayed in the story offered a counterweight to the demands of modern capitalism. Some of the material is offers whimsical fun, like the squabbling of stubborn spouses Mirtl and Avrohom about who should get up on a chilly fall night to shut the rattling door, or the plans of a class clown suddenly foiled by a kindred spirit in “The Teacher.” The program ends with a late story that gestures toward a feminist future: an excerpt from Dovid Rodin’s “An Unusual Girl From Brooklyn” (originally published in Tel Aviv in 1973). Protagonist Shprintse is an intrepid, independent-minded girl who wants nothing more than to read in peace.
The high tide of Yiddish children’s publishing corresponds almost exactly to the flourishing of American Yiddish radio—on about 180 stations from coast to coast, according to musicologist Henry Sapoznik. Like the work of the Alchemysts, the radio programs that ran from 1925-1955 helped Jewish cultural life to thrive far beyond the largest population centers.
Through my work as a translator and critic, I have tried to offer the wisdom and fun of Yiddish children’s literature to new generations. What a thrill it is to hear the Alchemysts bring them to new life—now accessible to English speakers, inviting for audiences of all ages, and even a bit less crackly than they sounded on the radio long ago!
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