Seven Windows opens lost Yiddish world

Yakov the Postmaster. Yidl the Horsedealer. Reb Chaim the Scribe. If these names strike you as characters from a Sholem Aleichem story, you’d be awfully close.

They come from the imagination of Kadya Molodowsky, the late Belarus-born Yiddish writer who, like the creator of Tevye the Milkman before her, straddled the old and new world.

Best known as a poet, Molodowsky also wrote short stories, many of which rival anything by Sholem Aleichem and Anton Chekhov for their poignancy and sublime insight.

Though lauded in her heyday (she flourished from the 1930s to 1950s), her short stories have been largely neglected since her death in 1975. Only a handful had been translated into English.

Until now.

Syracuse University Press has published a new translation of her masterwork, “A House with Seven Windows,” opening up a Molodowsky’s work to a much wider audience.

The comprehensive volume includes dozens of stories, written over many years and first collected in Yiddish in 1957. The stories are peopled with indelible characters, from Chagall-like shtetl dwellers to street smart Manhattanites, all with a distinct Ashkenazi flavor.

“They were wonderful stories; treasures,” says Palo Alto translator Leah Schoolnik, recalling the first time she read them in the original Yiddish. “I thought ‘It’s too bad people can’t read them in English.'”

It wasn’t much of a stretch for her to do something about it. Schoolnik had translated the work of other Yiddish writers like Avrom Dubleman and Pinchas Berniker. But Molodowsky held a special place in the pantheon.

“She is the woman poet,” says Schoolnik. “[Molodowsky] is the only woman among all these men writers. Her style is deceptively simple. Not at all like Isaac B. Singer.”

Translating Molodowsky’s idiomatic Warsaw Yiddish proved a daunting task, says Schoolnik, who has been working on this project for eight years.

“Yiddish is not so easy to translate,” she notes. “There’s a lot of dialect: Russian, Polish, Ukrainian. The languages seeped in. And some words have disappeared, even since 1957 when [‘A House with Seven Windows’] was published.”

She cites as an example Molodowsky’s use of the Yiddish term “gepreste pearls.” Gepreste means “stamped” or “molded” in Yiddish, but Schoolnik had never heard the term in reference to pearls.

“I called [Yiddish-speaking] jewelers all over Manhattan,” she recalled, “but no one ever heard of it. So I just called them ‘pearls.'”

Other Yiddishisms required creative solutions. In one story, a phrase roughly translates “So go be a wise man.” Schoolnik modernized it to “Go figure.”

Molodowsky lived in Eastern Europe, New York and Israel over her lifetime. She was born under the reign of the Czar and died during the Nixon era. So her work spans space, time and culture.

“The stories set in Europe seem almost idealized,” notes Schoolnik. “The stories set in this country tend to be immigrant stories and what happens to them. They tend to lose their bearings. The ones in Eastern Europe are not funny. The ones in America are funny, but in a kind of bitter way.”

Schoolnik, 63, came to Yiddish rather late in life, having already mastered Russian, French and Spanish. A former English teacher, she volunteered to read to an infirm Jewish senior in the South Bay. When that woman asked Schoolnik to read to her in Yiddish, she decided to take up the challenge.

She found good teachers and eventually developed fluency, though Schoolnik admits it’s not so easy to find places to actually speak Yiddish.

“There was a conference on Yiddish Literature at Columbia University,” she says. “Everyone who came was a professor or graduate student. But the entire conference was conducted in English. They read it but don’t speak it.”

And for those who can do neither, Schoolnik hopes “A House with Seven Windows” might prove a window into the world of Yiddish literature. In fact, maybe it’s a good thing not everyone speaks the Mamaloshen, since those that do frequently argue about it.

That includes the invalid woman Schoolnik volunteered to read to.

“I learned what’s called the Litvak dialect,” remembers Schoolnik. “The woman I was reading to spoke Yiddish from Warsaw. When I read to her she said ‘Oy, this is Litvak!’ To her ears it was not her Yiddish.”

“A House with Seven Windows” by Kadya Molodowsky, translated by Leah Schoolnik (315 pages, Syracuse University Press, $19.95)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.