Speaker gives talk on Yiddish literature, African Americans

Kristine Philips

Dr. Colleen McCallum-Bonar spoke in the Governance Chambers at the Student Center yesterday about Jewish representation of African-Americans. Katie Roupe | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

Two minority cultures converged last night in the Student Center during a talk by Colleen McCallum-Bonar.

McCallum-Bonar, an Ohio State University professor, gave a speech “Made in America: Jewish Representations of African-Americans.” Using her experience with Yiddish literature, McCallum-Bonar explained how African-Americans were viewed through the eyes of Yiddish-speaking immigrants and how the two cultures came together through their mutual struggles in assimilating into American society.

“There is a strong correlation between African-American and Jewish cultures many people don’t usually recognize,” said Richard Steigmann-Gall, director of the Jewish Studies program and associate professor of history. “Harlem Renaissance authors were writing about Jews during the same time period African-Americans were being represented in Yiddish literature.”

McCallum-Bonar explained that the similarities the two cultures share stemmed from their seemingly outsider status from the white-American culture that reigned in the country. This interaction between the two groups was at its strongest from 1915 to 1935, McCallum-Bonar said.

“Yiddish writers were not true Americans,” McCallum-Bonar said. “Yiddish speakers occupied a space between blacks and mainstream whites. They considered themselves ethnic whites.”

Through the poetry of several Yiddish writers including Berish Weinstein, who wrote during the Harlem Renaissance, McCallum-Bonar explained the plight of African-Americans in Harlem during that time.

“African-Americans watched their Yiddish counterparts pursue the American dreams of success, all while it eluded them,” McCallum-Bonar said.

Their experiences as immigrants and outsiders made the plight of the two groups, “different, yet somehow familiar. Foreign, yet somehow similar,” she said.

By reciting the poetry of these writers to the audience, first in the original Yiddish and then the English translations, McCallum-Bonar showcased how the two groups both struggled with their identities in feeling not quite “American,” which the poets conveyed as being white.

“They both had a sense of yearning for being at home, yet not feeling at home,” McCallum-Bonar said.

Specifically, the poems showcased a way of life in Harlem that was not quite human. The subjects were portrayed as creatures and animals, as the author used words that translate as feeding and grazing instead of eating. Yiddish speakers could relate to this scenario, as those of the lower-class Yiddish immigrants had experienced similar conditions in the old world countries.

“Harlem is a Negro ghetto,” McCallum-Bonar said. “It is reminiscent of another place: Jerusalem.”

The speech was part of the celebration of Black History Month. It was co-hosted by the Jewish Studies Program, Department of Pan-African Studies and Kent Hillel.

Contact general assignment reporter Kristine Philips at [email protected].