An Interview with Zack Berger

posted by Mike on November 9th, 2005

A few years ago, Zack Berger and Celeste Sollod self-published Zack’s Yiddish translation of “The Cat in the Hat,” Di Kats der Piyatz. Following the success of that book, they’ve come out with Zack’s Yiddish version of “Curious George,” George der Naygeriker. We caught up with Zack via e-mail.

Pie and Coffee: Why “Curious George”?

Zackary Sholem BergerZackary Sholem Berger: Several reasons. First, we want to make sure that we’re selling books that we can make money on. We don’t expect to make our fortune–all I mean is, that on each book we earn enough money to publish more books. For that reason, we can’t publish just any old Yiddish translation that comes into our heads, because the Yiddish-interested and -reading public is not large enough. We need to find a book that’s well known enough to grab the novelty lovers–people who say, “Yeah! Curious George in Yiddish! What a great idea!” Three sorts of people buy our books: those who know Yiddish; those who have forgotten most of their Yiddish but know some words, or have some familial relationship to the language; and those who just think they’re cool. The third group is our biggest (though we welcome all three, and hope to help groups one and two grow, if only incrementally, through our efforts).

George der Naygeriker: Curious George in YiddishMore important than that, of course, is that we like the book. It’s not an entirely uncomplicated story–George, the happy monkey, is kidnapped from his home and taken he knows not where by a smilingly unscrupulous animal hunter on contract to a zoo. But look at the context of the book’s composition! The Reys, German Jews, were writing their book in Paris on the eve of the German invasion, and had to escape with the manuscript (on a bicycle made out of spare parts) as the Nazis approached. The monkey–as strange as the comparison may sound–is the Jew, taken from place to place in the Diaspora. I don’t know who the animal hunter is (the allegory’s not that neat), but you’ll also notice that the post-Africa part of the book takes place in France, where the Reys wrote it. It’s a Jewish book. It’s a book about any minority. And, of course, it’s a great book about a charming monkey who smiles even when he’s drowning, and whose smile only gets bigger when he’s being rescued and vomiting fish.

A few Yiddish words have made it into mainstream American English. Can you suggest some other good words we should adopt?

Toyres-lokshn. Literally “the Torah of noodles,” a scornful play on the phrase “Toyres-moyshe,” the Torah of Moses. Used to cast aspersions on the reliability of some statement, theory, or claim. Translatable, more or less, as “I wouldn’t bet the farm on that.”

Fe! “Yuck!”

Prakhtik. Lovely, gorgeous.

How does a late-twentieth century, all-American boy come to speak Yiddish?

How do I come to speak Yiddish? The story begins in Louisville, Kentucky, where I grew up and went to high school (my parents still live there). Even though I attended a high school which gave me a number of opportunities to take courses at the nearby University of Louisville, I was still bored. My high-school English teacher then, Diana Donsky, was a brilliant woman with little patience for idiots and not so much more for everyone else. She saw that I was wandering the halls with little to do, and suggested I learn Yiddish. Her suggestion took root, and good thing too–were it not for her push in the right direction, I might have ended up finding other hobbies, like fencing auto parts.

Ms. Donsky (who has since passed away) taught English and German. I used to sit in the back of her German class and read the Yiddish Forward. I read the Forverts (as it’s called in Yiddish) on the school bus and at home, too. I got obsessed, and I carried that obsession into my twenties and (now) early thirties. Along the way I dragged my wife into an unwanted Yiddish immersion course (i.e. I started speaking it to her). I speak it to my daughter. I found other people (since I live in New York now) to speak it with.

But why Yiddish? I guess that’s your question. In short: it’s a Jewish language that is historically connected to, and even now still an integral part of, Jewish life in the Diaspora, and in particular the life and culture of those Jews who trace their ancestry to Eastern Europe. The profile of my Jewishness (and other, more broader ideologies I consider myself a supporter of) encompasses more than just Yiddish, but the language itself, and, even more so, those who speak it, make it an essential part of my day-to-day existence, something I never could have predicted in Ms. Donsky’s English class.

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