Klezmer bears, lazy hippos, proud peacocks and loud parrots can all be admired in Yiddisher Zoo, a splendid children's book from the acclaimed multilingual Mayses series. This new publication brings back the world of Jewish children in pre-war Poland and makes it available to young readers today.
Yiddisher Zoo presents a curated selection of animal-themed Yiddish poems for children. Written mostly during the first half of the 20th century by poets, pedagogues and Yiddish language activists, these poems were created for the Jewish children who lived across the vast expanses of Eastern Europe and for whom Yiddish was a native tongue. Yiddisher Zoo resuscitates these little gems of Yiddish children's literature with new translations, and beautiful illustrations by Ewa Gordon, whose artistic concept transforms this jolly menagerie into a real zoo of Yiddish calligraphy.
Yiddisher Zoo is the fourth book in a publishing series run by Kraków's Czulent Jewish Association. The director of the foundation, Anna Makówka-Kwapisiewicz, remembers how she came up with the idea for the series:
At the time I was looking for a Jewish children's book for my own child. Very soon I realized that there were virtually no such books for children in Polish bookstores. That's also when I received a book called Hanukah Bugs from my friend Anne Applebaum, which also turned out to be a big inspiration, she recalls.
With her husband Piotr Kwapisiewicz, she started an education project Mayses. In 2010 ‒ using grants from Zygmunt Rolat Foundation, the Polish Ministry of Administration and Digitization as well as Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture ‒ the couple published their first book A Mayse, which was soon followed by Mayn Alef-Beys (about Yiddish alphabet) and Yontev Lider (featuring a presentation of Jewish religious festivities). In particular Mayn Alef-Beys was awarded numerous international prizes, among others the Bologna Ragazzi Award.
As Mrs Makówka-Kwapisiewicz explains, the first reader and tester of all of the books in the series is her daughter, who needs to approve all the poems as well as the illustrations.
Yiddisher Zoo once again brings a selection of traditional Yiddish poetry for children featuring 12 poems by 20th-century Yiddish writers, all of them pedagogues and Yiddish language activists from prewar Poland and Ukraine, among them Israel Goichberg, Mates Olitski, Nochem Weisman and Eliezer Steinbarg.
The beautiful illustrations were created by Ewa Gordon, a graphic artist and a Hebrew calligraphy specialist who drew inspiration from the graphic tradition of the Yiddish alphabet. The meticulous graphic design of the book as a whole owes to the skills of Barbara Janczak.
Most importantly, with this new publication the reader gets three versions in one, since the original Yiddish poems are accompanied by their new Polish and English versions created especially for the book by contemporary writers Bożena Keff and Ellen Cassedy.
But, as Anna Makówka-Kwapisiewicz explains, the whole project wouldn't have been possible if not for the voluntary work of many people. 'The fundraising campaign in the US which allowed us to raise money so quickly was run by Don Perlstein. Without his help, and that of many other activists and donors, we wouldn't have been able to finance the whole project in the first place.'
The books from the Mayses series are already popular with Jewish children in Poland. Yiddisher Zoo will also be available in libraries and cultural institutions in Małopolska. The books are available for download in PDF format on the Czulent Foundation homepage.
Jidiszer Zoo (Yiddisher Zoo)
With poems by: Israel Goichberg, Mates Olicki, Nochem Weisman, Eliezer Steinbarg
English translation: Ellen Cassedy
Polish translation: Bożena Umińska-Keff
Illustrations by: Ewa Gordon
Graphic design: Barbara Janczak
Profreading: Maja Rosińska-Kowalska, Karolina Szymaniak and Sarah Glazer
Philological translation: Anna Rozenfeld
Pages: 40; In colour; format: 30cmx30cm; hardcover
Published by Czulent Jewish Association, 2015
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, January 28, 2016