Once Upon Another Fraught Time …

The power of Yiddish children’s literature

Adapted from the cover of <em>In the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times</em>
Adapted from the cover of In the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times

Democracy is not the only thing that dies in darkness. Together with democracy—which enshrines into a governing system the capacity to disagree and compromise—other parts of civil life are threatened, including deceptively basic values like honesty and respect. It doesn’t take much to pronounce these words, but it takes a lot to internalize them, and a whole lot more to express them in action. For this to happen, these values need to turn into principles, a process that often requires learning as well as practice. This is why culture—through which we develop convictions and sustain them in our interactions—is so important to civic life. Culture provides us the means to be entertained, to pass our leisure time. But it is also a way of maintaining and developing our values through creativity and play. This is what dies in darkness: our human drive to be creative.

Americans have experienced a resurgence of anti-Semitism in a way we thought had passed from the nation’s history. But just as wars have not passed out of our culture, so anti-Semitism has been dormant yet present, less expressed, but fueling hate nevertheless. Aside from dealing with the practical elements of its reappearance, including the need for dialogue, education, and security, we also need to revive a cultural memory of times when Jews endured such difficulties on a regular basis, and depended on their culture for resilience.

In 2016, I was living in New York City, and on the day after the presidential election, I walked into the Center for Jewish History, just as I had done every day for several months—I was collecting Yiddish children’s tales with the aim of translating them into English. In the reading room of the CJH, where pleasant smiles and hellos had always welcomed me and other readers, no one uttered the words good morning. There seemed to be a collective feeling of confusion and concern, as if we were experiencing this historical moment with the weight of Jewish history on our shoulders—sensing, perhaps, that when hate and anger rise, Jews, along with other minorities, are soon after targeted.

I had zero motivation to do anything that morning, but I tried to focus on my task. The stories I was collecting were written in the early 1920s, after the horrors of the pogroms and the First World War. The Polish-Soviet War was raging, but the nightmare of the Second World War and the Holocaust, of course, were still beyond most people’s imaginations. The stories were intended for an audience that was itself caught in the grips of radical changes, one that was witnessing the modernization of society while still adhering to traditional values. The Jews who were wrote these stories—many of whom dreamed of socialism, communism, or Zionism—tried to instill in the children the values of their times while also being honest about the difficult pasts they had themselves witnessed or experienced. Privilege was not something that these authors possessed. Traditional life for them had meant deep poverty, whether they came from rural or urban settings. Their only privilege, perhaps, was that they’d committed themselves to a life of literature.

I sat there thinking to myself: What good had any of this done? In what way did these stories help? History had proven these values and principles powerless in the face of aggression and violence. Most of the kids who read these stories were annihilated two decades later. In America, where others had gone as immigrants, their success—both in terms of economic mobility and cultural adaptation—had left them helpless when their families and friends were being deported to death camps. What good had these stories done? I felt like history was going to render these attempts at instilling value pointless yet again.

It was an ominous morning. But one thing gave me a sense of hope: this effort was being undertaken for children. Regardless of my mood, my actions told a different story. Investing energy into transforming these lost tales into something that could be relevant for readers today meant that I believed in a future where children still cared about stories that embodied values. A future that needed books to help turn values into principles—and, hopefully and eventually, into action. This wasn’t about wiping the dust off old folktales. It was about bringing the freshness of the past into today’s world, seeing that our own concerns were not ours alone, that they were shared by recent generations. Everything from antiwar sentiments to tolerance, environmentalism and vegetarianism, could be found in these tales, along with a yearning for equality and acceptance. The sensitivities, and not only the stories or images, increasingly seemed to reflect an anxiety over how the changing world was going to affect its children—and how these children were going to get through their own struggles. The stories came from a world where Jewish life was infused with Yiddish culture. This is not the Yiddish that is now depicted in popular culture—a kind of a nostalgic yearning for a lost authenticity. This is Yiddish as a culture of resilience. Even when they tell of magical realms or treasures buried in the snow, the stories are gritty reflections of real experiences—empowering their readers by increasing their awareness about the world and themselves. These were stories by people who shared concerns about precisely the kinds of eventualities that unfolded in the years to come. They were looking to the future, and so, in this future, their voices still have something relevant to say.

One of those voices was Jacob Reisfeder, a writer of fiction, plays, and poetry, and a member of the editorial board of Unzer Express, a daily Warsaw Yiddish newspaper in the interwar years. Little is known of him other than that he traveled to Argentina in the early 1920s and later returned to Poland. He was married, and eyewitness accounts suggest that he took part in literary events held in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he appears to have died. Reisfeder wrote a number of children’s tales that were published in small booklets. One of them was the following story, “The Children Who Lived in the Cellar,” which Ri J. Turner translated for the collection that became In the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times. The story had been set aside due to the publisher’s concerns about the story’s imagery—that it might be too harsh for children today. (Read on and judge for yourself.) But such images help children grasp the power of resilience and the idea that suffering is a common experience. The images also help them see that there are people in the world who live in difficult circumstances—and that these people, too, know how to use their imaginations to cope with their circumstances. As a testament of solidarity with all those who maintain creativity even in times of darkness, the story has been included in the paperback version of the book—in a world battling darkness, our children’s resilience depends on the wells of creativity that can be found deep within the heart and soul.

The Children Who Lived in the Cellar

by Jacob Reisfeder • Translated by Ri J. Turner


It was a wintry night. The damp cellar apartment was cold and dark.

Three children clustered around the cold stove, a brother and two sisters. They clung to one another, their feet wrapped in old rags and their hearts pounding with fear.

“Mama is taking so long to get home!” the youngest cried out with tears in her eyes, startled at the sound of her own hoarse voice. She was not yet six years old.

“She locked us in, and she’s not coming back!” wept her seven-year-old brother.

“Hush! As soon as Mama sells out of apples, she’ll come straight home,” their elder sister soothed them, herself only eight years old. She too could barely keep from crying, she was so cold and hungry.

“I’m hungry!” the little boy wept louder.

“We haven’t eaten all day!” echoed the littlest sister.

“Oh, hush, hush! As soon as Mama gets home, she’ll prepare supper,” Rivkeleh coaxed, swallowing her own tears.

“It’s so cold!” Her younger brother and sister trembled feverishly, their hands black and blue from the winter chill. From time to time they breathed on their hands in an attempt to thaw them out.

“As soon as Mama brings wood, we’ll kindle the oven, and it’ll be so warm in here!” Rivkeleh drew the two younger children closer.

All three fell silent. They huddled together, listening fearfully to the wind’s menacing howls outside the window.

“Oh, look—flowers!” cried the little boy suddenly, pointing at the frosty windowpanes. “And up there, trees. Look, look—isn’t that a forest?”

“Oh, yes, a forest!” agreed Rivkeleh, the eldest sister.

“A forest, a forest,” the youngest sister, Miriam, said dreamily. “Moysheleh, have you ever seen a forest?”

“No,” replied Moysheleh sadly, and kept peering at the windowpane, which the frost had decorated thickly with white flowers.

“How about flowers?” she asked.

“No,” he replied, but then he quickly reconsidered. “Wait! I have seen flowers! On the street once, an entire basketful. Oh, how beautiful they were! A peasant woman was carrying them on her shoulder. I begged her for one tiny blossom, but she wouldn’t give it to me.”

“I’ve never ever seen any flowers,” Mireleh said sadly, lowering her eyes to the floor. “Where do flowers grow?”

“In gardens and in fields,” answered Rivkeleh. “There are different kinds of flowers—white and red, blue and yellow.”

“Ha, ha, ha! All the colors!” laughed Mireleh, her eyes sparkling. “And how do they grow, all those different flowers?”

“Mama told me that you have to plant them in the earth, and then they grow in the sun and rain. Flowers, like children, love the sun best of all. And that’s all I know. Children who can read books know a lot about it. But I can’t read and I don’t have any books.”

“I’ve never seen anything at all: no forests, no gardens,” Mireleh commented abstractedly.

“We never get to see anything here—in the courtyard or on the street,” mourned Moysheleh.

“Mama never takes us anywhere,” Mireleh complained.

“Where would she find the time? Silly goose … when she comes home, she’s always coughing,” scolded Rivkeleh.

“When the summer comes, we’ll make our own garden outside the window,” Moysheleh ventured.

“I’ll plant the seeds,” said Rivkeleh. “You’ll see, I know how to do it.”

“Yes, yes!” Mireleh practically jumped for joy. “What will we grow in the garden?”

“Grass,” said Moysheleh, “beautiful grass whose fragrance will spread throughout the house. Also peas and beans …”

“No, no!” interrupted Mireleh. “Let’s grow only flowers.”

“Yes, flowers are better—white and red, all kinds of colors.”

And the poor children were off on a fantasy, their eyes lighting up with excitement, their hunger and cold all but forgotten. So engrossed were they that they barely heard the creak of the door opening. Suddenly a beautiful smiling woman stepped gently over the threshold, fresh white roses woven into her loose golden hair. Her gown was made of nothing but flowers, flowers of every shade, each more beautiful than the last. In her hand she held a sweet little woven basket full of the loveliest violets, narcissi, lilies, and forget-me-nots.

The children leapt up, their eyes wide with wonder and fright. They started to cry out, but the beautiful Flower Lady, whose mere presence had already caused sweet fragrances to spread throughout the cellar apartment, approached them with soft steps, and with a white glowing hand she tenderly stroked their frozen faces.

“Don’t be frightened, children. I’ve come to decorate your apartment with flowers. For I know that you love flowers! I heard how your hearts fluttered when you spoke of the green grass and the blossoms you’ve never seen, living here in your little apartment on this tiny street. Well, children, now you won’t lack for flowers. Take a look at the beautiful blossoms I have for you here in my basket.”

And as soon as she set the sweet woven basket down on top of the black sooty oven, it instantly transformed into a beautiful marble pedestal.

The children stood and stared in awe at the marble pedestal and the fresh quivering flowers.

“How beautiful! How beautiful!” Mireleh whispered, shaken.

“They are beautiful, aren’t they?” the Flower Lady smiled, again caressing the children’s faces warmly.

“Beautiful, beautiful!” nodded all three children, not taking their eyes off the basket of flowers.

“Would you like even more flowers?” asked the Flower Lady.

“Yes, dear lady, give us more, more …” the children replied. They spoke in a pleading tone, yet their voices rang out more confidently now that they had begun to feel comfortable in the lady’s presence.

The kindly beautiful woman let loose her flower-dress, waving its skirts over the marble pedestal. It was as if she had opened up a door. Twelve gleaming pedestals sprang forth, lining up as if alive, in three rows down the length of the apartment. Then the Flower Lady waved her skirts toward the basket of flowers, which still stood on top of the first pedestal, and it multiplied into 12 baskets, one to top each pedestal.

“Ha, ha, ha! So many flowers! So many flowers!” rejoiced the poor children. They ran from one basket to another, their eyes shining with pleasure at the fresh, fluttering blossoms.

“Is there anything else that you want, children?” asked the Flower Lady with a gentle smile, gathering the three children in her arms. A cascade of her sweet flowery fragrances floated over them.

“A garden, a garden!” All three children blurted out their shared desire.

“All right, dear children,” the Flower Lady said, tenderly stroking the children’s heads. “Soon you shall have a beautiful garden.”

And the moment she waved her flower-skirts in the air, the crowded cellar apartment was instantly transformed into a large, gorgeous garden with a clear silvery stream running through its center. There were countless trees with all kinds of leaves—red, green, golden, and many other colors—and lovely paths, paved with precious stones and surrounded by beds full of the most beautiful flowers in the world. The beds were round, as if the flowers were playing circle games, and everything was bathed in the golden rays of the sun. The garden was crowded with blossoms of all colors, quivering cheerfully on their green stems. They’d bend over momentarily in the breeze, and then poke their little heads back out into the light, as if they were playing hide-and-seek. And in the air above, pure white butterflies fluttered and golden bees buzzed, and in the branches of the trees all sorts of songbirds sang sweetly.

And the three children ran around across the length and breadth of the garden. They wore lovely summer outfits and light slippers. Their eyes gleamed, their cheeks glowed, and the blossoms laughed in greeting.

“Ha, ha, ha!”—the cheerful satisfied laughter of the blossoms rang out throughout the garden – “they’ve come, the sisters and brother who yearned for us so … ha, ha, ha! Come closer, children, so we can play together … ha, ha, ha!”

And the children ran around drunkenly from one flowerbed to another, laughing along with the blossoms and kissing their tender petals. And the beautiful Flower Lady stood to the side and looked on with pride, calling out first to the flowers and then to the children:

“That’s right, just like that … keep playing together, pure little souls!”

And suddenly she began to sing in a sweet voice:

In the lovely garden,
In Flower Land
Three children laugh and play
With blossoms hand in hand,
With blossoms hand in hand.

Children and flowers,
Blossom with allure
Children and flowers,
Little souls so pure.

Souls so full of light—
True birds of a feather,
Children and flowers,
Playing all together.

And the Flower Lady joined hands with the children, and they danced in a circle around the flowerbeds and sang the song together. And all the flowers nodded their heads emphatically to the music, dancing too, and the golden bees buzzed along, and the butterflies fluttered, and the songbirds sang an accompaniment from the tree branches, and waves of song filled the entire garden:

In the lovely garden,
In Flower Land
Three children laugh and play
With blossoms hand in hand,
With blossoms hand in hand.

Children and flowers
Blossom with allure
Children and flowers
Little souls so pure.

Souls so full of light—
True birds of a feather,
Children and flowers
Playing all together.

* * *

When the children’s mother came in from the street, agitated and chilled to the bone, she found the children lying asleep on the floor next to the cold stove, clinging to one another.

“My poor little swallows!” she murmured, tears coming to her eyes. “The cold and hunger must have put them to sleep.”

She didn’t know, the devoted mother, what sort of beautiful sweet image her poor children had seen in their dreams, and what kind of person they’d received as a guest in the dank cellar apartment.

David Stromberg’s introduction is adapted from the paperback edition, recently published, of In the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times, in which Jacob Reisfeder’s story also appears.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar whose recent work has appeared in Speculative Nonfiction, EastWest Literary Forum, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. His latest book is A Short Inquiry into the End of the World, and his edited collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer's essays will be published in May. He was born in Israel, grew up in Los Angeles, and lives in Jerusalem.


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