Victor Bers served on the faculty of Yale’s Department of Classics from 1972-2018, specializing in the interpretation of ancient Greek syntax, Greek prose style, the language of Greek tragedy, and ancient Athenian law. Yiddish is his first language, and he has participated in the Yale-New Haven Yiddish Reading Circle since the 1980s. Yosef Malka spoke with him about his connection with Yiddish, his perspective on the connections between Yiddish and Greek, the importance of Yiddish for modern Jews, and the art of translation.
Bers began our Zoom interview by pulling out a large picture of his paternal great-grandfather, a “so-called poor rabbi” of Riga, Latvia.
"He was Misnaged, and had many children—all but one of whom became atheists. But he said he couldn’t be angry, that it must have been his fault somehow.”
After learning Latin in public school, Bers attended the University of Chicago, where he began to study Greek and Greek literature. He received his PhD from Harvard, by way of Oxford, and managed to avoid the draft. His relationship with Judaism during this time was primarily ancestral and cultural.
"If you were a Jew living in Latvia, you would almost certainly know Yiddish, and you would know at least enough Lettish (sometimes called Latvian) to get around. And it was common at least for children of the middle class to get training in German, often simply from German speakers who would just come and talk to the children. My father's German wound up being really excellent. His family also spoke Russian. The one language that my parents never really learned was Hebrew.
My great-grandfather was Misnaged, that is not Hasidic. And my grandmother came to America with her second husband in 1939, cutting it very close—not long before the start of the war on September 1. My parents were active in the Bund. On May 15, 1934 Latvia went from being an actual democracy to being ruled by one man, Karl Ulmanis. I think it's important to say he was not actually a fascist and not an anti-Semite, but he was very far right, and mostly interested in the promotion of Latvian agriculture. My father was on the list of people to arrest, but the regime didn’t know that my mother was also active in the Bund. My father was an editor of a somewhat adolescent newspaper given to ridiculing Ulmanis. He narrowly escaped arrest and escaped, first to Estonia, then to Denmark, and then on to Prague.
The Bund was dedicated to the use of Yiddish.
It's quite a story, how my parents managed not to be murdered. My father went to Prague and continued his studies there. He was a mathematician. Once he got his doctorate, my parents had to make a quick exit. From Czechoslovakia, they went to Paris. My sister was born there. The Germans were moving into France very quickly. My parents picked up my sister, and ran like hell to the South, to Marseilles. At the consulate they said that the first chance for a visa to America was about 1951, 1952. So it looked very bad. But a few months later there was something that really came out of the blue—if the family were religious, we would say it was a nes, "a miracle.” They were informed that visas were waiting for them. These visas were the doing of Eleanor Roosevelt who believed in saving people's lives. Now, FDR was, without doubt, an anti-Semite. But she talked him into providing 10,000 places for political refugees. The document was absolutely explicit: this was not for immigration leading to citizenship. This was just to get people out of the danger from the German army, which was quickly moving south. My parents wound up getting onto that list. They must have been among the younger people on the list, and certainly they were entirely obscure, unlike some of the famous refugees who got out on the same boat. I think it may have been the very last boat to get Jews and other anti-Nazis out of Europe.
The visa explicitly stipulated that my parents were not allowed to work for salary.
My grandmother and step-grandfather came in 1939, not long before the start of the war. They could, for a while, live with friends who had emigrated to the U.S. long before them, but that arrangement was temporary, and their money soon ran out. They went from being down to about 60 cents and they thought maybe they'd better go back to Europe. But after a short while my grandmother had an idea that hadn't come to her before: she asked the New York Psychoanalytic Society whether they could send her patients she could communicate with in one of her languages—Yiddish, Russian, or German. The Society said that there were such. That turned the family's fortune completely around. Suddenly they had money, and my parents and sister went to live with them in their apartment on West 79th street."
Much of the rest of Bers family were not as lucky and perished in the Holocaust, and Bers has over the years learned more about their story.
“I try not to make a concerted effort because it distracts me from my work and it’s very lousy for the mood. But I have to say, I do want to know the truth and keep learning of things more horrible than I know of before.”
Bers did not have a Bar Mitzvah and did not study Hebrew, but his love of Yiddish literature necessitates a continuous engagement with religious sources.
“I really crawl through the texts. I hit a lot of Hebrew. There is some Hebrew that even the Yiddish speaker knows of course, but I'm looking up lots having to do with the details of the particular prayers and all of that. And our Yiddish reading group helps me: we're a very small group, but at least two of the members are quite knowledgeable about the religion.”
YM: What connections have you experienced, if any, between Yiddish and Greek?
“Essentially there is no substantial connection. But what happens rather often, and I’m delighted when it does, is if we’re reading a Yiddish text, and the word the author uses, which is probably the common word in Europe, it is often derived from Greek. Here’s an example: We were finishing up a very famous story by Peretz. At one point there's a prosecutor and the prosecutor is called a kategor. Well, that’s the Greek kategoros. This keeps happening, and of course it gives me particular pleasure. I always point this out to the group; there’s not a classicist among them, so they tolerate me, but they have to--because I'm running the Zoom.”
YM: Are there connections on a cultural level?
“A segment of Greek society, mostly, not exclusively Athenian, developed a system which put a lot of emphasis on ability in language. They have a magnificent language. So there's a type of richness to Greek of which we are quite well informed because of the tradition of scholarship. I would say that in that respect there is a certain similarity to Yiddish or to the Jews in general, because it's not just Yiddish; obviously there is often Hebrew and Aramaic. This is something like what we encounter in Greek literature. Classical Greek of the fifth and fourth century B.C. holds much that is archaic, often drawn from Homeric poetry and a variety of dialects, but all to a significant extent mutually intelligible.
"Among the Jews it was usually the case that many of the men would know a lot of Hebrew, obviously, and Aramaic; and all the Jews were living in societies speaking other languages. I never actually thought about this until you asked me the question, but there is a type of multilingualism in operation in these languages.”
“The sense of antiquity in both is perfectly obvious. And if you're talking about people who spend their whole lives reading texts and arguing about them, something similar comes up. There are lots of really bizarre personalities—you'll find them in Plutarch, and you'll certainly find them among the Jews—and that is on display in language.”
Bers intellectual development was furnished by his parents’ library and their fortunate ignorance of “children’s literature.”
“I had the advantage that my parents didn't know anything about children's literature in English. My father, especially, was a very voracious reader. So I read a lot of things, prematurely. One thing that worked out very nicely was Cervantes. My parents bought an expensive edition of Don Quixote, and I read it. and I liked it very much. Of course I had a very limited idea about much of what was in that book. In fact, as soon as I hit retirement, I started to reread things. My favorite example is Boswell's Life of Johnson. I read through that and since I didn't do sports at all and only had a few friends, I had this premature exposure to a lot of literature.”
During a digression about Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bers imagined encounters that could have been during his childhood in New York, despite the fact that he far prefers Bashevis’s brother, Isaac Joshua Singer.
“I regret that I never saw I.B. Singer, because he was certainly hanging around places like the Automat which was one of the great memories of my childhood. He often ate at an Automat, but I think it was a different one. This was a big chain and very useful for people with very little English, because all you had to do was stick some coins in a window and take out the food. As a child, I found this very intriguing.”
YM: What don’t you like about I.B.?
“Too much magic. This bores me. I find it a little bit cheap and a little bit opportunistic. I have nothing, in principle, against schmutz in literature, but you’re constantly having to accept something magical, or something slightly obscene, and not in any interesting way.”
YM: Do you think that Yiddish culture is important for modern, especially secular Jews, to engage with? Is it a means of cultural cohesion, or simply another intellectual interest?
“I would say that if somebody has a connection with the world of Jews, it's a thing to do. They would be losing something if they didn't. But on the other hand, you can't do all of the things which are interesting. There are just too many interesting things. That reminds me of the curse: may you live in interesting times.”
YM: What, exactly, would they lose?
“A familial connection with very important aspects of the past, and at least some idea of where and what they have come from. But I would say that'd be one of a great number of things which they should know. I think they really should know Bach's B Minor Mass. I suppose I probably worry more about musical poverty.”
YM: What is your advice for translators?
“Number one, what comes out the other end should be good English. Second, I think you have to make peace with the things which require more than getting the right word or the right phrase, that is, you have to give in to the occasional, or not so occasional use of footnotes. You could ask the same question about translations from the Greek. It's very good if you're able to give a sense of what the writer has in the back of his mind all the time. For example, anybody who is writing in classical Greek would have Homer and poetic vocabulary in the back of his mind. It's very hard. And it's a very good thing to do for general language competence, even if there's no possibility of anybody ever seeing it. It's the way that you attend to those details.”