This February 4th-5th, a Mellon Sawyer Seminar convened by professor Maya Barzilai brings together a group of Midwest-based scholars to discuss Jewish thought and writing about the Midwest and its cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee. The event, “Jewish Multilingualism in the Midwest: Yiddish Translations of Urban Experience,” will be held virtually. It dovetails with the Frankel Institute 2020-2021 theme year “Translating Jewish Cultures,” led by co-head fellows Maya Barzilai and Adriana X. Jacobs. Participants will explore Yiddish writings about urban experience, discussing the role of translation and multilingualism in Midwestern Jewish culture.

“For the first time, we will discuss the Midwest as an interconnected region of Jewish creativity and production, rather than focusing on isolated cities and sites within the Midwest,” said Barzilai. “Reading texts about city life, stockyards, factory work, and the auto industry, participants consider what connects the Midwest as a region through a Jewish lens.” Through this event, Barzilai also intends to create an archive of Yiddish publications in and about the Midwest. 

The symposium is part of a series of collaborative seminars funded by a $225,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, meant to explore how the Midwest was shaped by successive waves of both international and domestic migrations. The foundation aims to create short term research centers that allow the intensive study of subjects that may be otherwise difficult to pursue. Led by Yopie Prins and Silke-Maria Weineck, a group of translation studies scholars in the Department of Comparative Literature received this grant to study the Midwest as a multilingual site of translation. The various seminars explore diverse cultures of translation across different sites in the Midwest, including languages such as Polish, German, Yiddish, Filipino, Turkish, and Arabic.

Visiting participants in the February seminar include actor and playwright, Mikhl Yashinsky, University of Chicago faculty Anna Elena Torres and Jessica Kurzane, as well as Sunny Yudkoff and Erin Faigin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. U-M professors Julian Levinson and Mikhail Krutikov will also contribute to the seminar. “I invited scholars of Yiddish literature who have an interest in the Midwestern Jewish experience or in Midwestern Jewish authors. Jessica Kirzane, for example, has translated Yiddish women who write about life in Chicago. Other scholars explore the history of Jewish publication in the Midwest, Yiddish poetry about the Midwest, and bilingual, Yiddish-English writing about urban environments,” commented Barzilai. Actor Yashinsky will perform poetic and dramatic works by Midwestern Yiddish writers, alongside translations into English.

Translation practices play an important role in the seminar. “While Jews lived in a predominantly English-speaking Midwestern environment, they continued to write and publish in Yiddish throughout the early twentieth century. They also translated their own works into English or wrote in multiple languages,” said Barzilai. “When composing works about the Midwest, Jews needed to literally translate their experiences into another language, while also providing cultural translations and interpretations for American phenomena. Many of the texts we will discuss are critical of urban society and worker exploitation, and they also contend with early twentieth-century anti-Semitism.”


Ezra Korman, Poet of My City

Performance by Mikhl Yashinsky, followed by Q&A with Mikhail Krutikov

Zoom Webinar Event Link

The author and anthologist Ezra Korman was born in Kiev and later adopted Detroit as his home, becoming the city's dean of Yiddish letters. Mikhl Yashinsky, born in Detroit a few decades later, has claimed inheritance of thought and poetry in the author's life and work. At this event, Yashinsky shares that inheritance and performs Korman's Yiddish poetry in his own translation, inviting us to visit libraries and dusty synagogue vaults, guiding us through the author's possessions, his voice, his writing, his grave...

Mikhl Yashinsky has taught Yiddish at the University of Michigan, YIVO, and The Workers Circle, and is known to Yiddish theatrical audiences for his performances in Joel Grey's production of Fiddler on the Roof and the title role of The Sorceress.