An American writer, in English for the first time

Frume Halpern’s Blessed Hands, translated by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

4 minute read
Book cover: title above a sepia photo of a worn sculpture of a hand holding another pair of clasped hands.

A young female factory worker witnesses what could have been her own symbolic funeral procession; a gray strand of hair makes its passage through space; two patients share a dinner of coffee and a dessert of cigarettes. A wide cast fills the pages of Blessed Hands, a collection of short stories in Yiddish translated into English by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, now available from Philly’s Frayed Edge Press. While many of these characters are radically different in a variety of ways, most are nevertheless united by poverty, infirmity, a common New York City geography, and the experience of living on society’s margins.

Several stories feature young female protagonists who find themselves alone and alienated in the sea of city humanity. In “Comrade Bashe,” young Bashe is glowingly transformed by the human recognition of a factory coworker, while in “Thrice Encountered,” Freydl ruminates on the relationship shared by another group of factory girls longing to take part. In “Clara and Mary,” the protagonists connect with one another in a hospital ward, where both are suffering illnesses as much arising from the spirit as the body. Across these and other stories, author Frume Halpern takes great care to portray the spiritual and physical power of community and friendship. A licensed massage therapist and nurse outside of her writing, Halpern has an eye for the human body’s influence over the fate of its owner, both as this fate is imposed by society and as it is perceived by her characters.

Translating an American author

These stories were originally published in Morgn Frayhayt (Morning Freedom) and Zamlungen (Collections), two Yiddish literary magazines published by the American Communist Party in mid-20th-century New York. Given this, it’s not surprising that they have, by and large, remained untranslated until now, decades after the end of the Cold War and subsequent reconsideration of communist political thought. It’s exciting to read this American work in English, and translator Taub takes pains to illuminate Halpern’s connection to the literary magazines. Unfortunately, Blessed Hands leans a bit heavily on a historical argument for its place in the literary canon and not heavily enough on the work of a skilled editor. It’s a lost opportunity to present well-polished, new-to-English American literature.

Familiar endings

After the first hundred or so pages of hardship and friendship, of young people with pluck and those down on their luck, a common pattern of ending begins to emerge—a final, pithy line of dialogue or a general trailing off into the unknown, for example. This is perhaps less obvious when published serially, but when published as a collection, weaker endings become glaringly emphasized. In “Big Boss,” a powerful philanthropist leverages his intimidating presence and buckets of money to mold a charitable institution into his image. When a professor hosts a lecture in the building’s gathering space, the philanthropist sees his authority undermined by the power of the professor’s expertise. Enraged, he breaks up the lecture; the final line reads, “He felt like congratulating himself and saying ‘Good work!’”[sic].

It’s a stiff line, and it leaves the reader wondering if Taub’s translation might be attempting to hew closely to Halpern’s original. As Halpern’s third-person prose begins to feel repetitive, this technical fidelity becomes a clunky constraint. In contrast, “Blume” is arguably the most compelling short story in this collection, written in the first person and rushing to describe the deceased Blume, a former factory worker: “Not for you, Blume, did the skies turn blue and the sun shine; not for you did the stars sparkle and the birds trill.” It’s one of only a handful of stories written in the first person, and it’s refreshing as the sentences shake off the formulaic constructions of other stories.

Clarifying the collection

Given the value Halpern places in human connection among her characters, Taub misses a real opportunity to describe his approach to selecting and orchestrating the individual stories in this collection.

The meandering afterword (“Frume Halpern on My Mind, in My Body: Notes from the Plague [Toward an Afterword]”) offers little practical insight beyond the translator’s personal connection to Halpern’s themes of bodily fragility, vulnerability, and fragility during the Covid-19 pandemic. And while Taub does give some background on the original Yiddish collection’s publication, he doesn’t draw many connections to his own work. Instead, readers are generally left to sort through a series of excerpted homages, detailed family records, and wandering personal interviews with Halpern’s descendants.

Blessed Hands may be a boon to some scholars and historians reading in English, but it needs another editorial pass before it can begin to capture a general audience.

At top: Detail from the cover of Blessed Hands. (Image via Frayed Edge Press.)

What, When, Where

Blessed Hands: Stories. By Frume Halpern, translated by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub. Philadelphia: Frayed Edge Press, October 17, 2023. 319 pages, paperback; $25. Get it here.

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