Blume Lempel was a master of stream-of-consciousness, flashback, free association and eroticism—all rare in Yiddish literature. Her modern short-story style was appropriate to her themes, which were often daring: incest—Oedipus in Brooklyn (1981), rape—Aleyn in Eynem (Alone Together, 1989) and the ambivalent attraction of one woman to another (Correspondents, 1992).
Lempel was born in Khorostkov, Ukraine (104 km N of Chernivtsi [Chernovitz]) to Abraham and Pesha Pfeffer. Her mother died when she was twelve and her father, a kosher butcher, remarried. Though he provided a fine education for his son, he believed a girl needed to know nothing more than how to sew on a patch and cook. As a result, she attended a heder for girls and a Hebrew folkshul briefly as a child and was later tutored by a man whose only expertise was in German. She had no systematic education but was kept at home to look after the cows. She was on her way to Palestine in 1929 to live out her Zionist yearnings when she stopped off in Paris to visit her brother, Yisroel, six years her senior.
In Paris, where she remained for nine years, she started to write, but was discouraged by her brother, who told her that only an educated person could write. In fact, she had so little faith in her ability to write that she destroyed all her work. Once in the U.S., she again attempted to write, having been stirred by news of the Holocaust. She had no literary encouragement or environment, but would retreat to her writing after her husband left for work at his fur business in New York.
Although she also wrote personalized Holocaust stories, many of her settings were very American. She blended feelings about the songs of Frank Sinatra with thoughts of a lover, her sick mother, her stepmother, and other memories glimpsed as if in a cracked mirror (“Gezangen nit Derzungen”; Songs One Has Not Finished Singing). She said her modern style developed subconsciously. “I feel I do not borrow from anyone.”
Recognition came slowly. Her first short story was published under the pseudonym of Rokhl Halpern in the daily Yiddish newspaper Der Tog in 1943. Her novel, Tsvishn Tsvey Veltn (Between Two Worlds), was serialized in the Morgn Frayhayt in 1947, yet mention of her work was omitted from the eight-volume Lexicon of New Yiddish Literature, published by the Alveltlekher Yidisher Kultur-Kongres in 1957; she was finally included in the supplement published in 1986. She wrote only in Yiddish and received the Atran award (1985), the I. J. Segal Prize for Yiddish Literature (Montreal) for her book, A Rege fun Emes (A Moment of Truth, 1981) and the Zhitlowsky prize (1989).
Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories - Translators
Ellen Cassedy is author of the award-winning study We Are Here, about the Lithuanian Holocaust. With her colleague Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, they received the Yiddish Book Center 2012 Translation Prize for translating Blume Lempel.
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of several books of poetry, including Prayers of a Heretic/Tfiles fun an apikoyres (2013), Uncle Feygele (2011), and What Stillness Illuminated/Vos shtilkayt hot baloykhtn (2008).