An enduring focus on Yiddish language and literature

When Kathryn Hellerstein traveled to New York City earlier this month to accept a National Jewish Book Award from the Jewish Book Council, she was technically being honored for her most recent book, “A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987.”

But it was probably true, as well, that the honor was as much about Hellerstein’s entire career as it was about the book alone.

Hellerstein, an associate professor of Germanic languages in the School of Arts & Sciences, is a leading scholar of Yiddish language and literature, and there’s a pretty simple reason why: Besides the books she’s published, the numerous papers she’s authored, and the individual translationsn she’s completed, she launched her career in Yiddish research in the mid-1970s, when the field was in its early stages in American universities.

“Back in the mid-1970s, there was almost no academic home for Yiddish research,” she says. “It was not part of most universities in the world. There was a Yiddish department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and maybe a couple of Yiddish professors at Columbia in the linguistics department and at McGill University. But Harvard didn’t have Yiddish. NYU didn’t have it. Michigan didn’t have it, Ohio State didn’t have it, and Texas didn’t have it—and those are all  places that now have it today.”

Of course, Penn is now among that group, too. Hellerstein arrived at the University in 1993, becoming the first full-time  faculty member focused on Yiddish. Her research interests span numerous aspects of Yiddish language, literature, and culture—Yiddish literature in translation, gender and Jewish literature,  Jewish American literature, Jewish film, and literary translation—and she is also a published poet, with her work having appeared in such journals as Prairie Schooner, Poetry, and Cleaver Magazine. Her expertise has helped her win research grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National  Endowment for the Humanities, and she has also served as a contributor to The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books.

But for all of her varied interests, her scholarly research—an enduring focus on Yiddish language and literature—remains her greatest passion. It’s a passion that she discovered during her days as a graduate student at Stanford University, where she originally set out to earn a doctorate in English and American literature. Along the way, however, she discovered—and eventually came to master—Yiddish.

Her family roots played a big role in her nascent passion, she says.

“It was a heritage language for me,” she says. “My father was a Yiddish speaker, and his parents were, too. But I didn’t hear it very much growing up. Those were the days when ‘Roots’ was a big hit, and finding one’s roots was an idea that was very much in the air. And 1976 was also the year when Irving Howe and Kenneth Libo published a book called ‘World of Our Fathers,’ which was the first major English language intellectual history about Yiddish immigrants between 1880 and 1923. My father sent me that book, and I read it, and I thought it was great. That only fueled my interest.”

For her dissertation, she delved into the life and works of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, a Yiddish-language poet who was born in Galicia but eventually made his name as one of a group of modernist young writers in New York known as Di Yunge (The Young Ones). She would later expand her focus to include other modernist Yiddish writers in America, and then Europe, and would go on to examine gender issues related to Yiddish writing and more. The ever-expanding scope of her work provided her with a wealth of knowledge about the history of and major figures in Yiddish literatures. Her new book allowed her to collect all of that knowledge into a single work.

That’s precisely what “A Question of Tradition” does. The comprehensive work covers four centuries of women Yiddish writers over more than 500 pages. Hellerstein says she has been working on it, on and off, since the 1980s.

The years of work appear to have been worthwhile, however. Besides the honor from the Jewish Book Council, Hellerstein’s book has also received positive reviews both inside academia and out. The Philadelphia Inquirer gave the work a glowing review, praising Hellerstein for writing with “powerful authority about poems that seem to be gushing with life.” Cleaver Magazine added: “Women’s Yiddish poetry finally gets its scholarly due from Kathryn Hellerstein, long-time champion of the female Yiddish poetic voice, in her comprehensive and accessible account.”

With that book now complete, Hellerstein is working on two more major projects—an anthology of women Yiddish poets, and a literary history titled “China Through Yiddish Eyes”—that she hopes will be published soon.

In the meantime, she says, she can’t help but reflect on how far both her career, and her field, have come. When she started back at Stanford, there were some who wondered whether Yiddish even needed a presence in the academy. Those questions, she is pleased to say, are no longer being asked.

“It was a language that was not necessarily considered worthy of serious academic attention back then,” she says. “But there were a bunch of us that got started together around that same time, and we stayed with it. It’s a burgeoning field now.”

Yiddish Book