'Strange Rendering:' Uncle Tom's Cabin in Yiddish and the Staging of Race at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.

Author:Rubinstein, Rachel
Position:Critical essay

While the scholarly literature on Black-Jewish relations continues to expand, its archive has remained remarkably unchanged. Although recent explorations of representations of African Americans in American Yiddish literature and American Hebrew literature have newly revealed the ways in which immigrants in the early twentieth century engaged critically and creatively with race in the United States across languages, much work remains to be done. (2) Curiously, while many scholars mention in passing the translations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin into Yiddish, very few have elaborated further on the consumption of this iconographic national text among Yiddish readers. (3) There is even further silence on the subject of Uncle Tom's Cabin on the Yiddish stage, first in Yiddish literary and theatrical criticism at the time and consequently in contemporary Yiddish studies scholarship, reflecting historical biases against performances deemed middlebrow or lowbrow and the subsequent gaps in modern scholarly accounts. (4)

As theater historian John Frick notes, Uncle Tom's Cabin was not just a popular piece of abolitionist fiction; rather, it became a "cultural, commercial, ideological, and theatrical phenomenon," arguably super intending representations of racial difference and racial justice for a full century to come. (5) For this reason, seemingly narrow considerations of Uncle Tom's Cabin can, in fact, open up broader histories of racialization, racial representations and interracial interactions in American culture. Yiddish performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin at the turn of the twentieth century received increased attention from drama critics in English, because they coincided with a large-scale theatrical revival of the original 1853 melodrama in Anglophone American theaters, even as bowdlerized Uncle Tom's Cabin shows were ubiquitous. Even African American newspapers took note of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Yiddish, with the Freeman noting in 1902: '"Uncle Tom's Cabin' in Yiddish again last Saturday at the People's Theatre. Big hit." (6) And again, a few weeks later: "Uncle Tom's Cabin was produced in Yiddish again Saturday 19, at the People's Theatre. Sherman H. Dudley was in charge of the colored contingent." (7)

In this essay, I begin the work of situating the Yiddish versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the context first of the publication history of Stowe's novel and the many plays that were adapted from it, and then in the context of the broader history of racial performances on the popular stage at the turn of the twentieth century. Taken together, the Yiddish translations and adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin (particularly the discourse in English around Uncle Tom's Cabin in Yiddish), and black performances of Jewish voices and bodies further illuminate Jewish engagements with American national mythmaking, the positioning of Jews and blacks, and the relationship of language to bodies, in the turn-of-the-century racial imagination.

Literary Translations of Uncle Tom's Cabin

While Yiddish literary scholars often cite Yiddish translations of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin as evidence of Jews' "special interest" in the fate of African Americans, the truth is that these translations were belated in comparison to the translation history of Stowe's novel. In its first year of book publication, translations appeared in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Flemish, Polish, and Magyar. These translations weren't meant only for an overseas readership; in the 1850s, both Stowe and her publishers understood that the novel would have to be translated for the roughly 15 percent of American readers who were foreign-born. (8) Stowe herself commissioned the first German translation in 1852, understanding that for the novel to wield its full political power, even within the nation, she would have to rely on translation. By 1860, Uncle Tom's Cabin had been translated into twenty languages and was the most widely circulated work of American literature. (9) In fact, American literary scholar Colleen Boggs argues that Stowe's efforts to control the rapidly proliferating translations and adaptations of her novel helped to form the basis for international copyright law. (10)

Eastern European Jewish readers may very well have read Uncle Tom's Cabin in its 1857 Russian translation or its German versions several years before best-selling Yiddish author Isaac Meyer Dik published his free adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Vilna in 1868. Dik's adaptation is substantially shortened, and he notably "Judaizes" the novel, with major characters like the Shelbys, Eliza, and Tom himself now pious Jews instead of Christians and resettled in a Jewish colony at the novel's finale. Tom is reunited with the Shelbys to live out his days, presumably in happy servitude rather than enslavement, which leads Rosenblatt to observe that the text's ideological orientation seems to be "ameliorist" rather than "abolitionist." (11) Niger notes that Dik wrote frequently about America, as part of a larger program of counseling Eastern European Jews to emigrate to the United States rather than Palestine. (12) Niger also observes that in Dik's several "romances" about America, his protagonists are quite often Jewish plantation owners in the South. In Dik's version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, retitled Di sbklaferay oder di layb-eygnsbaft (translated as Slavery or Serfdom, denoting the terms of many responses to Stowe's novel that compared the conditions of slaves in America, for better or worse, to wage laborers or serfs elsewhere), Dik introduces the novel as a "true and wonderful story," and provides an idiosyncratic history of slavery in antiquity and early modernity, dwelling at great length on the brutal practices of slavery in the Americas. (13) In his afterword, Dik tells his readers about the recently concluded American Civil War, which has, "thank God," eradicated this "wretched condition" from America, though the "great President Lincoln lost his life" in conquering "the southern tyrants." (14) Dik continues by expressing his "loyalty to the Russian emperor," who "also liberated some forty thousand Jews who were slaves of the Circassian princes ... let us hope in time this blot of slavery will disappear from the entire world and that all peoples and all faiths will take each other's hands as friendly brothers descended from one father and mother, which we are in truth." (15)

But while, as Eh Rosenblatt argues, Dik's adaptation should be read as a central Haskalab (Jewish Enlightenment) text, a site to test out his ideas about universalism and emancipation vis-a-vis the Jews, his translation also reveals the ambivalent ways in which he engaged with issues of race in the Americas from his distant vantage point in the Russian Empire. On the one hand, as Rosenblatt asserts, "[Dik's] framework of allusions to the biblical and rabbinic texts, largely recognizable to a traditional reader, provides the linguistic hedge for the text's partition of Jewishness from whiteness." (16) On the other hand, as Rosenblatt notes, Dik "does not express clear political or cultural solidarity with oppressed African slaves or the abolitionist movement." (17)

In 1911, the Hebrew Publishing Company published a faithful translation by Jacob Jaffa of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the United States, with 105 accompanying illustrations copied from the 1888 Houghton Mifflin New Edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin (which were themselves taken from one of the many pirated British editions of the novel that were published at the height of its international popularity in 1853). (18) Jaffa's reviewer in Dos Naye Land castigated the Yiddish publishing world for waiting so long to properly translate Uncle Tom's Cabin, noting that the novel had already been translated into Hebrew in 1896, and that Yiddish readers should become as familiar with Stowe's work as with that of Gorky or Chekhov. (19) In a 1912 piece published in the Lodzer Tageblatt in response to Jaffa's translation and on the occasion of Stowe's 100th birthday, the author notes that the novel has been published "into nearly every language"--"afile Arabish"--and finally only now Yiddish. (20) While Jaffa's translation, published by the semi-reputable Hebrew Publishing Company, drew the attention of literary critics, Stowe's novel had, in fact, been translated and serialized by Yiddish journalist Bernard Gorin several years earlier in the socialist weekly Di Arbeter Tsaytung from December of 1900 through May of 1901, at the very moment when the People's Theatre was performing Uncle Tom's Cabin on stage. (21)

Novelist Charles Dudley Warner wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1896 that Uncle Tom's Cabin had even been translated into several "oriental" tongues, including Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Japanese, and Siamese. (22) According to literary critic David Reynolds, the Chinese translation of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in 1901 and was the first American novel to be translated into Chinese. (23) Reynolds argues that its translators meant for the Chinese Uncle Tom's Cabin to function as a protest against both the colonization of China by foreign powers and the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants in the United States. For Reynolds, nearly all translations and adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin--including the Yiddish stage performances, which he touts as exemplifying "the adaptability of Uncle Tom's Cabin to persecuted peoples"--were motivated by radical, political identification and should be read as protest literature. (24) However, it is difficult to find expressions of Jewish identification with (as distinct from sympathy for) African Americans in the Yiddish press in relation to Stowe's novel, though such claims would become more frequent throughout the 1920s. (25) I suggest alternatively that Yiddish translations of Uncle Tom's Cabin, both literary and performative, tended to emphasize the text's status as an important American...

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