British Columbia

Retired college instructor translates famed Yiddish works to English, says old stories a hit with students

Rachel Mines is the first person to translate works of renowned Yiddish writer Jonah Rosenfeld into English and says not only did the stories resonate with her, they are having a bit of a comeback moment with college students as well.

'It's cool again,' Rachel Mines says about historical Jewish language

Rachel Mines is the first person to translate into English the literature of New York-based Russian Yiddish writer Jonah Rosenfeld. (Thinglass / Shutterstock)

When retired Langara College English instructor Rachel Mines was a little girl, her parents put her in Yiddish classes that she promptly quit because she thought they were uncool.

It might have eased her parents' minds to know she would grow up to not only translate renowned Yiddish works, but encourage others to enjoy them as well.

Mines, who is part of a group called the Vancouver School of Yiddish Translators, is the first person to translate into English the literature of New York-based Russian Yiddish writer Jonah Rosenfeld, who was known for writing alienated characters with complex psyches.

She also introduced the translated text to first-year students who gave her a pretty good sense that Rosenfeld's stories — which focus on Jewish communities in Europe and New York City prior to the First World War and touch on universal themes of loneliness, displacement and family disfunction — still resonate.

"If you discount references to 1920s technology, for example, you might think these stories were written today," said Mines, speaking on CBC's The Early Edition.

Rosenfeld was a prolific writer who penned three novels, 20 volumes of short stories and a dozen stage plays. The Rivals and Other Stories is the title of Mines's publication, which consists of 19 Rosenfeld stories translated into English for the first time.

WATCH | The trailer promoting Rachel Mines's book, The Rivals and Other Stories:


Mines first discovered the Yiddish stories when she decided to pick up the language again about a dozen years ago, after her short-lived childhood introduction to it. She thought translating Rosenfeld's writing would be a good way to learn, and she enjoyed the stories so much she wanted to share them.

With the guidance of the Vancouver School of Yiddish Translators, Mines eventually started translating Rosenfeld's work with the hope of finding a publisher, and some readers.

She found both.

Old stories, new fans

The Rivals and Other Stories was published in March 2020 by Syracuse University Press, one day before B.C. health officials shut down events and businesses due to COVID-19.

And while Mines can't hit the book tour circuit in person yet, she says she has already had some rave reviews from past students, particularly those who were raised outside of North America.

Mines, the child of Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors, has translated the short stories of the prolific Yiddish writer Jonah Rosenfeld into English for the first time. (ingeveb.org)

"Yiddish culture is collectivist," said Mines, referring to how the benefits of families and groups are considered more important than individual needs — a concept she says is familiar to some international students.

"I'm noticing these students particularly are sitting and nodding with big smiles on their faces or with frowns of concentration," said Mines. "I think they really resonated with the unspoken assumptions of the stories that the family goals are important."

She said sometimes students would come to her office to tell her how much Yiddish stories meant to them and, in class, when Mines finished reading a story and would open up the floor for discussion, she said it was often hard for her to get a word in edgewise.

"I'd have to sort of shut them up and say, 'I [need] to talk to you for 10 minutes,'" said Mines with a chuckle.

While Mines might have set the trend by translating Rosenfeld for the first time, it appears old tales of hard times are being heard by new ears that appreciate them.

"It's cool again," said Mines.

With files from The Early Edition

now