I have to admit that much of the material that I encounter as a translator of Yiddish is of a somber and foreboding tone. A great deal of what I read and translate is comprised of family letters, whether between two towns in Europe or two international sites, typically separated by a vast ocean. Many of these handwritten texts are from the years leading up to the Holocaust, and it is understood that at least some of the individuals involved in the letter exchange did not survive the Second World War and the Holocaust. As such, there is often a dark cloud overshadowing the work that I do – as valuable and important as I know it is – both for my clients and for me.
For this reason, I would like to highlight in the following blog, one particular noteworthy instance in which I was privy to a series of beautiful and memorable love letters – all written in a very readable Yiddish, approximately a century ago, beginning in 1918. What’s more, the love affair that transpired over the course of this romantic exchange was set entirely in the New World of New York City. This is the type of story, which I hope will have special appeal to all of my readers who have roots, or who presently reside, in NYC, and/or whose ancestors immigrated to this country in the early 20th Century.
Indeed, it is so rare that I come across writing of this nature in my Yiddish repertoire, that although the following account of my translation work dates back several years – to 2009 – the experience of reading such romantic innocence has remained with me up until the present day. Moreover, it prompted me to renew my contact with my former client, Anita Abrams. It was she who hired me to translate the letters written by her grandfather, Harry Zapol (1896/1897-1963), to her grandmother, Zelda “Jennie” Chernin (1898/1899-1973).
As Anita conveyed to me recently, she grew up quite close to her grandparents, as they lived together under one roof for many years, and because her mother, May (1920-2012) – their daughter – was an only child. As such, she was able to offer the following biographical details about “Harry” and “Jennie,” which help provide historical context for the unfolding story of their courtship and Yiddish love letter correspondence.
Jennie Chernin (originally, “Zelda”) was born in June 1898 or 1899 in Vitebsk, Russia, the city often associated today with the painter, Marc Chagall (1887-1985). She immigrated to the United States in 1909, along with her parents and seven other siblings. The family resided at 161 Madison Street in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood. Harry Zapol, born in Minsk, Russia, in June 1896 or 1897, immigrated to the United States in 1912, where he already had a sister and an uncle. He initially lived in a boarding house at 73 East 105th Street in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood. His first job in America was as a clerk; later, he worked as a taxi driver.
According to Anita, she believes her grandparents met sometime in 1916, having been introduced to one another by a “girl” (Harry’s own words in one of his letters to Jennie) who lived in the same boarding house as he did. As Harry romantically pursued Jennie, he became jealous of her would-be “suitors” – other young men who would visit her at her parents’ home. Fearful of his growing competition, Harry asked Jennie’s mother for permission to marry her daughter, and she agreed. The two had a civil marriage on March 24, 1919, but did not have a religious Jewish wedding in a synagogue until nearly one year later, on January 3, 1920. During the gap period of March 1919-January 1920, Jennie continued to live at home; she and Harry did not live together officially as man and wife until after they had had their religious marriage ceremony. It goes without saying that this was a far more innocent and traditional era than our own.
Anita and I both agreed that one of her grandfather’s letters, in particular, seemed to express his depth of feeling, love, and ardor for her grandmother. This is the correspondence that we assigned the “#3,” as there were several multi-page letters from which to choose. Frankly, I found all of them to be emotionally moving, but due to space constraints, I am unable to showcase their entirety in this blog. In lieu of that, allow me to present here some English translation excerpts from Harry Zapol’s Yiddish love letter “#3” to his future wife, Jennie. [Please note, that this may in fact, be two letters in one, as based on the multiple closing greetings, indicated below.] A few pages of the original letter are also included here for the sake of authenticity and as a source of reference for those of you who read Yiddish.
October 22, 1918
Dear and Beloved Jennie,
Today is my first day of work and I will tell you the truth – that I don’t feel too bad. I came in in the morning and everyone turned and looked at me gleefully. Naturally, I rejoiced together with all of them, but at the same time, I was thinking to myself that they – [complete] strangers to each other – mere acquaintances, were rejoicing. And so I considered how you, my dear, rejoiced, with the thought that your beloved feels well. Yes, darling, it is very good to have a lover, but imagine how good it is to have the thought in mind that one is loved by the same person who loves you…
Hoping that this letter will find you in good humor and that you will read it with joy, I remain your lover. I am sending you kisses XXX, but don’t get them from the letter carrier….
Good night, my dear
And finally, the time came… when I had the honor to meet the person for whom I had so long and impatiently waited – for the happy hour – to meet. Oh, how happy I was then! I will never forget that evening. I was sitting there beside you, and I myself couldn’t believe it. But unfortunately, the evening passed too quickly and didn’t even leave me with enough time to gaze at you – how badly I wanted to gaze at you… For my heart told me that after this evening I would not see you [again] for a long time, and that I must record what I had experienced…
Sometimes you would raise me up very very high, and afterward, you would cast me down very very low. Sometimes you made me the happiest man, and then suddenly, you would upset me to the point that I didn’t know in which world I was living. And last summer, this very thing came to pass quite often, when I had an appointment to go with you to Richmond Hill [i.e., a neighborhood in Queens, NY], and you agreed to this. Then, I was the happiest man on earth…
And so, there are just a few more questions left and I shall finish my letter. One question always comes to mind: “Does Jennie love me?” Please, Jennie… Try to find out if Jennie loves Harry! I will therefore pay very well with… And one more thing – if you love me – I would like to know, in what form would you like this love [expressed] – at home or openly? I will be happy with whatever you agree to, because your request will be holy and dear unto me. And I will fulfill it exactly [as you desire]. And so, I will conclude my writing here, wishing you a good night.
From me, yours, XXX
In light of Harry’s thoughtful and amorous words, I asked Anita whether she felt that her grandparents had had a good marriage, to which she replied in writing with the following:
“I feel they had a good marriage. I really never heard them argue. They had nice friends and went out and always had a lot of company. They were always a `team.’ My grandmother … always taught me that `love and respect go hand in hand.’ … I feel extremely blessed that I had them in my life and had the experience of being totally embraced by them. When they passed away, to say I was heartbroken is an understatement. They will always be a part of my heart. They are always with me. His [i.e., Anita’s grandfather, Harry] love for her totally overwhelmed me. When I went to visit their graves several years ago, instead of each grave having a bed of yews over it (as it was when they were planted), the plants had come together as one, just as my grandparents had been in life.”
I can scarcely add to Anita’s own eloquent tribute to her grandparents and the deep affection and adoration they had for one another in this lifetime – and beyond. Suffice it to say that I was thoroughly charmed and captivated by reading the nearly 100-year-old Yiddish love letters of Harry Zapol to the “apple of his eye,” Jennie Chernin. Furthermore, I hope that in the future, I will continue to see more of this type of Yiddish reading material, as it serves as a reminder to us today, of the timelessness of the human spirit and the tenderness of the human soul.
If you have any family letters or other materials that you would like translated, please feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.