Exhibit looks at golden era of Yiddish children’s literature

  • An image from the cover of “Mayselekh,” a 1928 collection of stories by Jewish American writer Herman Gold. Image courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center

  • Cover artwork of “The Boastful Rooster,” a Yiddish children’s book published in Germany in 1922. Image courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center

  • Artwork from “The Hen That Wanted a (Rooster’s) Comb,” a 1919 Yiddish children’s book illustrated by Russian artist Ed Lissitsky. Image courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center

  • Artwork from “Mayselekh,” a 1928 Yiddish book of children’s stories illustrated by Yosl Cutler and Zuni Maud. Image courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center

  • Artwork by Yosl Cutler for “Yidishe Kinder” (Jewish Children), part of an exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center.  Image courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center

  • A montage of photos from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, part of an exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Image courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center

  • A montage of photos from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, part of an exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Image courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center

  • Displays of wall art for an exhibit on Yiddish children’s literature at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Image courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 05, 2018

It was a rich time for Yiddish culture and publications, a flowering of talent and creativity — much of which would be brutally cut down by the rise of Nazi Germany, World War II and the Holocaust.

But in early decades of the 20th century, Yiddish artists, both in Eastern Europe and the United States, lent their skills to a growing trade in children’s books, while photographers captured timeless images of Jewish life in Europe that would be published in American publications for immigrants eager for a glimpse of life in the “old country.”

At the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, a new exhibit captures the history and flavor of that era with a display of vintage children’s books and artwork, many with modernist illustrations that were considered cutting edge at the time. Also on hand are photographs of traditional Jewish schools and towns in Eastern Europe, as well as a collection of vintage toys, notebooks and Yiddish school publications.

“Through the Looking Glass: The Art of Yiddish Children’s Literature” includes notable books like “Der Galaganer Hon” (“The Boastful Rooster”), published in Berlin in 1922, and “Dos buhk fun dzshongl,” a Yiddish translation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” published in what was once eastern Poland in 1913. 

David Mazower, the book center’s bibliographer and editorial director, said the early 20th century, up until the outbreak of WWII, was very much the “golden era” of Yiddish writing, art and culture, as Yiddish became more widely taught in secular schools in Europe and children’s books in Yiddish were widely published for the first time.

At the same time, Mazower said, some Jews who immigrated to the United States and other parts of the world during this era “tended to shed their Yiddish very quickly, so there was a push from the other side to try and preserve” the culture as much as possible.

The exhibit, which runs through September, is based on a show that originated at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, an organization originally founded in 1925 in Vilna, Poland (today known as Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) to document and study all aspects of Jewish life. The institute relocated to New York in 1940; additional archives hidden in Europe during the Holocaust were transferred there after WWII. 

Mazower, the great-grandson of the 20th century Yiddish writer Sholem Asch, has added materials from the Amherst book center to the YIVO Institute collection to showcase the work of what he calls “some of the best Yiddish writers and artists in history … you had a lot of talented people working very hard to try and document this life and culture, because they felt they were in kind of a race against time.” 

Notable artists

The exhibit points out that Isaac Bashevis Singer, perhaps the most well-known Yiddish writer of the modern era, had initially believed children’s books were not written by “real writers” nor illustrated by “real artists.” But Singer, who was born in Poland and came to the United States in the 1930s, eventually wrote children’s books himself; he later reconsidered his opinion and “came to love the illustrations in children’s books,” as exhibit notes put it.

That work was often done by serious artists, Mazower notes. Case in point: “Mayselekh” (“Stories”) a 1928 collection by Herman Gold, a Jewish immigrant in New York, was illustrated by Yosl Cutler (also spelled “Kotler) and Zuni Maud, Jewish immigrants themselves who were also puppeteers and avant-garde artists. Mazower says Cutler in particular worked in multiple mediums for other Yiddish publications and outlets, including as a painter, theater designer and poet.

“When he died in a car crash in 1935, over 10,000 people came out on the streets of New York for his funeral,” he said.

On the book center’s website, Mazower notes in a separate interview about Yiddish illustrators that Cutler “was a master of the stylized grotesque. He was also an extraordinarily accomplished draftsman, able to stretch, shrink and contort a line into an endless kaleidoscope of forms.”

Indeed, the cover of “Mayselekh” shows a figure of a comical, stick-like man, bent so that his back is perpendicular to his upper torso and legs, with Yiddish lettering wrapped around his back and legs.

Meanwhile, the artist behind “The Boastful Rooster,” Yosef Tshaykov (also spelled Joseph Chaikov), was born in Kiev in the late 1800s and studied art in Paris from 1910 to 1914. He was a noted sculptor, graphic artist and teacher who in 1921 published the first Yiddish book on sculpture, “Skulptur”; his work was also exhibited at the 1937 Paris Exposition and the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

The book center exhibit is divided between two separate spaces; the second, “Yidishe kinder: Jewish Children and their World Before the Holocaust,” features a range of black and white photographs and children’s periodicals from Eastern Europe from the early 20th century, as well as a display of handmade toys such as tops and a slingshot.

Many of the pictures are by Alter Kacyzne, a Jewish-Polish photographer (and writer) who’s generally regarded as one of the leading chroniclers of Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Beginning in the early 1920s, Mazower says, Kacyzne began sending many of his photos to the New York “Foverts” (Forward), the leading Yiddish newspaper in the United States.

“There was a real hunger” among the paper’s largely Jewish immigrant readership, Mazower notes, for images and information from the countries many of those new Americans had left behind.

The exhibit photos largely showcase Jewish children in countries such as Poland and Russia in varied settings: in school, walking on village streets, working on farms or in gardens, ice skating and playing chess. There are plenty of images of hardship, too, like orphans living on the street and children forced by family poverty to work at an early age.

Still, exhibit notes say Yiddish life in Eastern Europe flourished for awhile after World War I, as new school systems opened for girls as well as boys, Yiddish was taught in schools, and children’s books and magazines became available. It’s a comforting but bittersweet thought, given the darkness that would engulf the region beginning in 1939.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Through the Looking Glass” is on exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst through September. For more information on the exhibit and the center, visit yiddishbookcenter.org.