February 22, 2020

The Psychology of Yiddish Literature

“Blume Pfeffer was born in 1907 in Galicia to a family that placed no particular importance on the education of girls. She dreamed of writing, a dream that was only realized when Blume, now married to Lemel Lempel, finally moved to New York (via Paris) in 1939. Blume Lempel wrote for a few years, submitting to Yiddish newspapers with some success. But when news of the war started to reveal the extent of destruction of Eastern European Jewry, she found herself unable to keep writing. “The past was a graveyard; the future without meaning,” she said later. “I sat paralyzed within a self-imposed prison.” Her creative paralysis lasted for years, until friends intervened, suggesting that she could write through the destruction that had overwhelmed her. Their intervention “opened a psychological door” and Lempel once again began to write. Her subject was survivors, both of the Holocaust, and of the violence of the world at large.

“My older brother … tells me what to write in Yiddish, directing my stories from beyond the grave. … This is how it was. This is what happened. So must it be recorded. … You did not survive simply to eat blintzes with sour cream. You survived to bring back those who were annihilated. You must speak in their tongue, point with their fingers …”

It would be a mistake, though, to assume that Lempel’s work was a mere “recording” of what was. Though she was in constant contact with the dead, her literary work was sophisticated, and her method psychologically inflected. When asked by an interviewer about her influences, she named Sigmund Freud, and disavowed membership in any literary school.

Indeed, the stories of Blume Lempel are full of traumatized people who can no longer see or hear or talk, bringing to mind the “hysteria” of Freud’s patients, who converted inner trauma into external symptoms. Lempel’s women suffer the price of survival, often paying that debt with their bodies. Lempel’s empathy with her women, and her unflinching attention to their wild and erotic energies, that makes her feel so incredibly relevant today.”

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