"It's a Spiritual Discipline To Do Things Badly"

A Conversation with Miriam Udel

It’s Passover, a beautiful wonderful holiday which, for my house, means yet another full-time job of cleaning and changing the way our entire kitchen works, plus virtually nonstop food prep for the kids who are out of school for almost two weeks (necessary sheepish acknowledgment that we are beyond fortunate that they have been able to safely return to their schools in-person this year). In short, this holiday is a lot but also the perfect occasion to introduce you to Dr. Miriam Udel, associate professor of German Studies and Jewish Studies at Emory University, where her teaching focuses on Yiddish language, literature, and culture. In October, Miriam published Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature, a gorgeous volume of nearly fifty Yiddish stories and poems for children from around the globe, most of them appearing for the first time in English translation. She is also the author of Never Better!: The Modern Jewish Picaresque, winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Modern Jewish Thought and Experience, and is currently working on a critical study of Yiddish children’s literature that will serve as a companion to Honey on the Page. Most importantly for this newsletter, Miriam has a message for all of us which I find particularly resonant this Passover season when I am overwhelmed with work and family responsibilities and the desire to do all of it backwards and in heels (jk, I barely wear pants these days let alone real shoes but I do want to make this holiday beautiful and meaningful for my family). She calls it “the gospel of doing things badly” and encourages us to embrace imperfection in our personal, professional, and side-hustle lives. It was also an absolute pleasure to talk to Miriam about the place of children’s literature in culture, the dissonance we can sometimes experience between our academic/professional and faith communities, and feeling obligated to show up to work after a miscarriage.

You are an associate professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Emory University and your focus is on 20th century Yiddish literature and particularly children’s lit. Did you always focus on children’s lit? Walk me through your academic journey.     

As an undergraduate I kind of bounced around from the study of literature, comparative literature to Jewish studies, and I ended up majoring in near Eastern languages and civilizations and getting a grounding in Hebrew literature of not quite all periods. So I learned some rabbinics and some medieval literature and then I ended up writing my senior thesis on some modern Israeli poets and themes having to do with autonomy and women's definition and reclamation of selfhood through their poetry. So I was definitely working out some issues in that thesis. And eventually I got the idea that I would like to go to graduate school and that I wanted to study literature. They say you peel away the layers of a scholarly monograph and eventually you get to the autobiography. I think I was still working through issues that felt very immediate to me and that had a lot of emotional resonance. I thought going into grad school that what I wanted to study was the relationship between literature and encroaching secularization and particularly the way that in a western world that largely perceives itself to be secular, to the extent that we engage in moral reasoning, we tend to do it through literature. Most high schools don't teach philosophy or the other fields where we might expect this to happen but they all have English classes and students work through moral dilemmas in their English classes and I just found that really interesting. And I wanted to understand what was going on there because on the one hand, literature seemed to me like such an engine of secularization and on the other hand, it seemed to be the place where we ended up having these conversations to the extent that we're still having them. So I went on a listening tour. I was an early fan of Hillary Rodham Clinton and that was her phrase when she decided to run for Senate so I went on a listening tour of professors that I knew from my undergraduate career, but hadn't necessarily studied with. One of those professors was Ruth Wisse and she said, ‘you know, if you're interested in secularization, yeah, you could study European novels, you could study continental novels, but secularization took place really rapidly in the Jewish world and in Yiddish, and if you are a native English speaker and you have strong Hebrew and you like languages then you should really try Yiddish.’ So I was in grad school and I had discovered Yiddish and was still trying to figure out how all of these various things that I was interested in that might not fit together, how they would work; how being a wife and hopefully a mother would fit in with finishing a dissertation.

Yeah, I'm interested in that because I had the same question of, I'm in graduate school but I'm not going to wait forever to have children. I don't know what the culture was like for you but in my experience the message was do not have children, the assumption was that you would not have children.

Yes, I think that is the broad assumption. And I actually had a miscarriage before my first successful pregnancy during the second year of course work. And that was hard, just showing up.

Same. I took a language exam the day after my D&C, actually. And I look back on it now and it seems crazy but at the time I was like, of course I'm going to go take this language exam. I mean, I’m not pregnant.

Right, that's the other thing. I mean, I think that we tend to have a very binary view of pregnancy, you either are or you aren't, and I think having experienced that miscarriage and others since, let's say that there is a level of forgiveness that I would counsel if I were speaking to a friend that I did not always display to myself. Like, okay, you're not pregnant, go do the thing, whatever the thing is, you do it. I thought that the challenge that semester was that everyone would see my growing belly and I would have to figure out how to talk about the pregnancy and instead the challenge ended up being the loss of that growing belly. ‘Mentsch tracht un gott lacht,’ you know, people propose and God disposes. But then I did have a successful pregnancy when I was out of coursework and the challenge became figuring out how to write with a newborn. The first solution to that, and I'm not sure that I see a better one still, is hire as much childcare as you can afford. And there's guilt in that but there's guilt in everything. I can't imagine a choice that one makes, particularly as a new mother, that doesn't come with a heavy burden of guilt. So I was writing and we moved for my then-spouse to take a position and I kept writing. I always say that I've truly won the lottery because I might be the last person, certainly in Jewish studies in North America, if not the world, who was hired without her dissertation completely finished. So the memory that is seared into my consciousness was the pressure of that year of teaching at Emory, having a second newborn, having a preschooler in school three mornings a week, and having to finish the dissertation or losing the position that I had won at Emory. I've never had a baby who could lie down and sleep for any length of time.

I know they exist because people like talk about it but I must not be capable of producing that kind of child.

My newborns have 20 minute sleep cycles, and if they can be rocked and hushed and shushed through that 20 minute interval then they can get into another sleep cycle so for me the searing memory was having the newborn in the wrap and the laptop on the changing table and writing for two hours a day and banging out that final, you know, 70-page chapter during those two hour naps that were punctuated by 20 minute intervals of swaying and shushing and that's how it got done.

Women are incredible.

We all we have those stories.

Oh, absolutely. It’s one of the main reasons I started this newsletter. I don't know why exactly I have this particular obsession but I do think people need to hear about it because you went through it and I went through it, other people are going through it, and to see that reflected and to hear that people do get out, to the other side, is important. And your swaying and shushing and writing obviously worked because you are still at Emory

I am tenured at Emory.

That’s quite an accomplishment when you have three kids. I also want to talk about how you have all of your academic responsibilities and your children, but that being an observant Jew is kind of like a whole other full-time job. At least that's sometimes how I think about it just because every week you are making Thanksgiving, essentially, planning and cooking for Shabbat, and then there are the holidays that don’t conform to the academic schedule. It’s an additional mental load.

And it's also the emotional wear and tear of being deeply emotionally invested in institutions that are still very patriarchal. Academics tend to be at the vanguard of progressivism and trying to dismantle all the structures of oppression. You know, we're thinking a lot about race and forms of difference and sexism and prejudice against people who are differently-abled and all kinds of things but for the most part academics tend to stay in like-minded spaces and talk to other people who share those values. I live about an hour and a half southeast of Marjorie Taylor Green’s congressional district and during the pandemic we wanted to go on a picnic outing for my birthday. So we just looked up what seemed like a cute town about an hour and a half away and we drove up there and everywhere we went there was Green signage exploding from every intersection. So, you know, you hear about things at a remove is what I'm trying to say and to still be observant, and particularly if you affiliate Orthodox, there is no remove. You're going to synagogue, at least before the pandemic, and you are having conversations with people all the time and you're praying with people who disagree with you politically who think that there is a kind of right amount of patriarchy or sexism. You wouldn't want the wrong amount, but the right amount is okay. And that's challenging, to show up as your authentic self and to still be in community with a lot of people who disagree with you.

Yeah, there was real dissonance when I was in grad school because I was writing a dissertation about these Christian women who were trying to have different religious experiences than the ones that had been constructed for them, the ones they were allowed to have and I would go to synagogue and think, I'm writing about these women as if this kind of thing is in the past but I'm actually living a similar life. And that’s only become more pronounced on the political side, more blatant and polarized in the last couple of years. So have you found a solution? Please tell me you’ve found a solution.

There's been a sort of reprieve with the pandemic where everything is so topsy-turvy and I have found myself seeking out and making community with my people however far away they might be because so much of life is being lived over Zoom. I've been trying to embrace the good in that without ceasing to long for real in-person community with hugs.

You are also ordained as an Orthodox woman rabbi, which shouldn't be as anomalous as it is, but rabbinic ordination has only been available to Orthodox women for about a decade.

I went through the tenure process in 2015 and it was actually a little bit of a nail-biter, more of a nail biter than it should have been. There was one publishing contract that fell through and then there was a time crunch and I didn’t know if I was going to get the book published in time. The book ended up being good but, for me, going into that process, particularly with all of the anxiety of the original publication schedule for the book being delayed, for my own psychological well-being I had to have a plan B and I had to ask myself: if you can't keep doing this thing that you love, what's the best contribution you could make at this point? And I thought, well, I definitely want to keep doing something with writing and I also want to keep teaching people and now they have this yeshiva open that's ordaining women, maybe I would go study there intensively and that was the thought that was taking shape in my mind before the year of tenure decision. Then, that spring, I received an email telling me that they were starting this new program aimed at mid-career women who had the underlying text skills and would I want to apply for this low Residency program and I jumped at the opportunity. I said, okay, no matter the outcome of tenure, this is something I would have wanted to do anyway, and then I got tenure and I got admitted to the program.

So both plans worked out.

Yes, and I realized that there wasn’t really enough time to do both of these things. And one of the things that I really wanted to talk about because this is a gospel that I have been trying to spread in as many individual conversations with women as I can have: the gospel of doing things badly. We must embrace this for two reasons. Number one, because it is better to do a good thing badly than not to do it at all. And number two, because we know so many men who show up when they're invited into a space and who do the thing and they do it however they do it. And we are socialized to do whatever the thing is six times as well so that we are thought to have done it well enough and we have to let that go. We have to walk into exams for which we are not completely prepared.

But it’s not just socialization, right? I think a lot about ambition, where it comes from, who has it, whether it can be cultivated, etc. And the women I know who have it, it seems to also frequently come hand-in-hand with perfectionism and maybe that’s socialized as well but, looking at my own children, I see how it can be inborn. And it’s really hard to set that aside but you’re saying we need to.

It's a spiritual discipline to do things badly. The fiction of work-life balance is that you are doing great these two realms and the lived experience is that you're  failing miserably in both realms simultaneously, so I was already used to the feeling of trying to be a professor and hanging on by the skin of your teeth and trying to be a mom and hanging on by the skin of your teeth and so adding one more thing into the mix of being a rabbi- you know, when I say being a rabbi, at a certain point I looked around and I realized there are men who are pulpit rabbis, there are men who are rabbis who mostly write books, there are men who teach at a variety of levels, there are many different ways to configure a rabbinic career. And so being able to be honest with myself about the wide variety of things that I see “real rabbis” doing – and my default for “real rabbis” is male rabbis – allowed me to take my place in the world. And you do start out doing a thing badly and you grow into it and you get better and better.

I want to talk about your gorgeous translated volume, Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children's Literature and I specifically want to take a second to talk about translation because it's the kind of thing that if you're not familiar with it as an academic discipline, you may think of it as writing-adjacent when in fact it is its own form of writing, replete with decision-making that impacts the way readers encounter the text you’re trying to translate. You have this kind of power when you're translating a book or a story for readers who don't have the native language.

Translation is writing with a co-author and producing meaning together. And in the case of this book, all my co-authors were dead. That gave me enormous power but it also made me fear the abuse of that power and made me really cautious because they had put these works into the world and it's a world that has largely vanished, a linguistic world that no longer exists. Literature written for children in Yiddish really flourished in the 1920s and 30s and then experienced a really sharp decline through the Holocaust. This literature was securely established in North America and somewhat in Latin America before World War II so it continued to be produced and there was a kind of reeling and a stock-taking and a ‘how are we going to keep meeting the literary needs of Yiddish-speaking children and ensure that there will keep being Yiddish-speaking children in North America and South America and the Caribbean’ but the European readership of this literature was destroyed almost overnight. And so that is a very heavy burden to carry as a translator. The writers are gone and a lot of their intended readers are also gone and we have to make this amazing and compelling for the children who are now able to appreciate these stories in English.

So what was the impetus for taking on a translation project? What kind of readers did you have in mind and what kind of experiences did you hope it would open up for them?

How I got to this project is a story that I have been dying to talk about with you in particular for your project because I was writing my first book about the picaresque tradition and all of these male authors who were writing these tortured, modernist – not all tortured, some of them were quite funny – but modernist picaresque journeys in the early decades of the 20th century, and it was at a pretty maximal remove from my kids who were then eight and four. I would have my work day, which was five hours, which was, you know, seven hours that they were in school and time to commute and drive them back and forth and time to answer emails and that left me with, you know five hours when I had no teaching. And I was really doing this work that had nothing to so with my kids and all of the incidental time that I was spending with them was doing nothing to feed my work. Throughout these years, I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor reading children's literature to my kids and realizing, ‘wow, some of this is really good and I'm delighted to reread and some of it really wasn't. And there were lessons being taught and there were depths to these books that were not necessarily being talked about anywhere. Particularly, you know a series of books like the Gerald and Piggy books by Mo Willems. The reason that those spare books work so well is that there is a lot of psychological depth.

Where’s the dissertation on Gerald and Piggy? Who’s writing it?

Somebody has to be doing it. I wrote an op-ed last March about it and I'm ready to work with the person who wants to take this on. There is more and more serious scholarly work being done about children's literature and I think it's only matter of time until someone gets to Elephant and Piggy.

It will probably take more academics who are in very involved parents of young children. I remember being in graduate school and having babies at the same time, you can't turn it off. The same tools that I was using on Middle English texts I would then apply at bedtime to the board books I was reading. You become this kind of insufferable person and it’s hard to reintegrate into the regular parenting world, but that's probably a conversation another time.

We are that insufferable person and I think we just need to own it. So, you know, taking stock during these years when I had two young children, I realized that number one, I was having these reading experiences all of the time that were real reading experiences and I was witnessing the reception of a text with other readers, which is also fascinating for an academic. And I had so little time and wouldn't it just be the greatest efficiency ever if, as a language instructor because I was teaching Yiddish language and a parent and a scholar, I could find out whether there were any children's books in Yiddish because I had never encountered any in my Yiddish education. And I had in my Spanish education and I had when I was studying Hebrew and when I was studying Arabic and not when I studied Yiddish, so were there any? And within the course of an afternoon, having hopped on the Yiddish Book Center website and seen that there were hundreds of works that were digitized that were sitting there and that in the 1990s and early 2000s, they had even commissioned a guide which gave a synopsis of hundreds of these works, it was all just there, who is going to do something with it? And it turned out that there are a couple of people in Israel who are doing some work and there are a few people in Germany and Poland and other places in Europe who are doing some work with it, but no translation to English and no kind of synthetic treatment of the whole phenomenon of Yiddish children's literature and that's what I'm working on now. I'm working on the critical study. But I realized that the first step before we could get to a critical study was you've got propose a canon or define a corpus and say, here are some texts that we all need to be able to access.

You have two teenagers and a preschooler: how are you getting that writing done these days?

I'm not actually getting writing done during the pandemic, to just be completely honest. I cut myself some slack because I released a book into the world in October 2020 and I've done about 35 appearances and a lot of interviews and I'm trying to get the word out despite the isolation of the pandemic. But I'm positioning next year to be a real writing year when I hopefully almost finish that other book. And it’s hard and, you know, fellowships are key and one applies for many and one wins very few and sometimes there's a round where you don't win any at all and it doesn't mean your idea isn’t good or that you aren't worthy. I'm in the mud with everyone else and I try for outrageous numbers of things because if even one comes through it’s life changing for that year.

So with Honey on the Page, you have proposed a group of texts, and now the next step is to write the book where you explain why these stories for children are worthy of serious critical attention. I can’t wait to read it.

I made this decision that I was going to take a children and their literature very seriously. And my friend Jessica Kirzane, who teaches Yiddish at the University of Chicago, heard me give a talk where I mentioned this and she had an insight that I think ties together a lot of the threads we've been talking about. She said, not only have you done the work of translating this literature itself into English from the Yiddish, but now you're doing the other translation work of translating kid world and kid literature and all of these insights back into the academy and into theory at the highest levels. You’re here doing the work of talking about this in terms of Foucault and his idea of the heterotopia of this other space that gives you a new view of the mainstream or dominant space. And, for me, that other space is children's literature and the kind of mainstream, accepted space is adult literature, whatever that means. So that's its own act of translation and that was like a blinding flash of insight for me. It doesn’t have to be women doing this work but we can see why, for all kinds of contingent reasons, women are situated to do this work of taking childhood and children's world and what was the domain of women and children, and translating that into real rigor and seriousness at the highest intellectual levels. That's also part of the work of repair that that women are situated to do.

It seems like there was way more than you could ever hope to include in one volume. How did you make those decisions?

Once I was going to do all of this work and really learn the art of literary translation, I was not going to make a book for 25 hard core scholars. I was going to make a book that, goshdarn it, my kids and my friends’ kids were going to be able to read and hopefully enjoy and so that dictated some of the decisions. I wanted to represent the diversity of this literature, the generic diversity of including prose and poetry. There was geographic diversity; this material was published on four different continents. There was ideological diversity which was a huge aspect of it. We have Zionists and Socialists, Bundist Socialists and Labor Zionists, and Communists and just plain Yiddishists, and their various political ideologies also correlated somewhat with different aesthetic choices about how realistic and mimetic work should be or how imaginative and whimsical. So we have fairy tales and we have these very realistic representations of everyday children's lives. There’s all these different kinds of material that I wanted to represent. And of course, I wanted as many women in my table of contents as I can jam in there and when I found that the numbers of women were not nearly equal to the numbers of men writing and publishing then I chose to compensate for that by having longer pieces by women so that the longest single selection in the anthology is a novella by Tina Rabinovich. So those were some of the decisions. Some of it was eased by literature just not standing up and not passing the test of time, teaching lessons that we didn't want to teach; sometimes there was just so much casual misogyny that I ruled something out. So that made it somewhat easier for me to skinny it down. But yes, there is a lot of good material on the cutting room floor.

In your introduction you talk about language as a way of carrying culture with us. I love that idea and I was thinking about how I grew up mostly ignorant of Yiddish. I think everybody who grows up in a Jewish religious environment has some degree of familiarity with certain stock phrases or whatever, but I think we've lost so much culturally in losing the language. It struck me that while literature was a core subject in my Jewish schools, there was very little Jewish literature and certainly no Yiddish literature. If you encountered Sholem Aleichem, it was outside of formal study, it was not taught as a text worthy of the same kind of tools we were applying to, say, Shakespeare. Are we able to bring that back or do you think that it’s always going to stay on the margins?

I'm hoping that we can bring it back for a large swath of the Jewish community. There are parts of the Orthodox world that I think are threatened by modern Yiddish literature because it was an outgrowth of a movement toward Enlightenment, not necessarily a movement intending to quash religious observance fully – the irony is that on today's religious spectrum, the most radical figures of this literary Enlightenment movement would probably fall somewhere in the Modern Orthodox band of the spectrum – but the intent of the literature aimed at adults, in its own time, was to destabilize.

The intent of this literature aimed at children in Honey on the Page was to re-stabilize a generation whose parents had already been through the destabilization. This was literature aimed at the Yiddish speaking children of leftists of secularists of all kinds to try to shore up their Jewish identity and their ability as Yiddish speakers and Yiddish readers. So it is subtly different than the literature that was aimed at their grandparents in you know, the 1870s and 1880s. And I hope that in this moment when sometimes it really feels like we're reliving the 1920s and 30s, now that so much of this literature is becoming available in English translation, our schools will embrace it and see the possibility and the opportunity of, okay, we don't have to totally reinvent the wheel because somebody has already done this work for our children.

And just from a purely representational point of view, this would be a different way to encounter stories where Jewish children see themselves.

There’s this idea that's talked about a lot now of children needing to encounter mirrors and windows in their reading material. When you see yourself represented, that's a mirror. You catch glimpses into lives that are vastly different from your own and that's a window. And I think that this book offers Jewish children both a mirror – because yes, they're talking about the same holidays that we celebrate or they're talking about the same virtues of charitable giving, generosity, solidarity that might be part of our communities and they are cherished values – but on the other hand, by virtue of being the past, by virtue of being, you know, Brownsville of the 30s instead of Riverdale or Teaneck of today, there’s also a little bit of a window into Jewish lives that look very different from what is known to today's kids.

Order a copy of Miriam’s gorgeous and eye-opening volume of Yiddish children’s lit here!