Within a year of completing his doctorate in Yiddish literature at Oxford University, Jeremy Dauber returned to the United States, found a job heading the Yiddish studies program at Columbia University, and was invited by the National Yiddish Book Center to manage its ambitious compilation of a list of the 100 greatest works of modern Jewish literature. Suddenly the 27-year-old assistant professor of Germanic languages and literatures found himself in a significant position to influence the future of a field that wasn't much older than he was.
The opportunity was also a homecoming of sorts. It was during a summer internship stocking shelves in the book center's hot warehouse after his first year of college that Dauber first encountered the writings of Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mokher Sforim. He returned to Harvard excited by a language never spoken in his New Jersey home. Like most American-born Yiddishists of his generation, Dauber learned to read and speak the mama loshen in university classrooms, not at the knee of parents and grandparents.
Indeed, one of the great successes of Yiddish studies has been its arrival in the rarified realms of Harvard and Oxford. Yet as Yiddish integrates into American academia, American academia has integrated into Yiddish. A new wave of sophisticated learners like Jeremy Dauber view Yiddish language and culture not as a security blanket but as part of a larger tapestry of Jewish and European culture. Now 28 and easing into his role of professor at an age when most of his peers are still students, Dauber has begun to fulfill his potential in re-conceptualizing Yiddish literature to be both more Jewish and more universal.
"His position announces that finally we have a new guard," says Ilan Stavans. "Conservative forces see him as inauthentic," because of his age and non-native Yiddish, but American-born scholars like Dauber are "the future of Yiddish studies."
As project coordinator of the National Yiddish Book Center's "The 100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature," Dauber first compiled a worksheet of 400 to 500 possible titles, which the seven judges, scattered in California, Massachusetts, Britain and Israel, used to select the final list. To negotiate some of the most respected academics in Jewish literature like Hillel Halkin and Robert Alter, Dauber's youthful enthusiasm was an asset, says Stavans, a Spanish professor at Amherst College and one of the seven judges.
Stavans, who grew up speaking Yiddish in Mexico City and has worked to broaden the parameters of Jewish literature to embrace Latin American writers, described Dauber as "a man who will not ghettoize Yiddish. That's very welcoming."
Center vice president Nancy Sherman praised Dauber's "immense, encyclopedic knowledge of Yiddish literature" and his political skills in handling an opinionated panel and tricky logistics.
"Somehow all this makes me proud," says Aaron Lansky, founder and director of the National Yiddish Book Center. "Jeremy is an extraordinary young guy" with "a very powerful intellect."
Observing Dauber's newfound curiosity in Yiddish nearly 10 years ago, Lansky suggested that he look up the Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse when he returned to Cambridge.
"I was lucky," Dauber tells The Jewish Week during an interview in his Columbia office-in-progress, books piled on the floor waiting for homes. "Ruth Wisse is a tremendous scholar of literature and was just starting a program in Yiddish studies, so I took classes with a first-class teacher with very few students."
Says Wisse: "He was one of the first students I encountered at Harvard University, and has remained one of the most memorable." She also served as a judge on the Book Center project and praised Dauber's "dazzling intelligence and enthusiasm to match, and also his sense of humor."
Dauber majored in interdisciplinary social studies at Harvard and wrote an honors thesis about the Jewish Daily Forward's "Bintel Brief." Observing how editor Abraham Cahan frequently rewrote letters to suit his purposes, Dauber developed a keen interest for the politics of translation, noting, "you can't take the quality of translations for granted." He's currently working on a collection of original translations of Yiddish plays.
Growing up in a traditional Jewish family in Teaneck, N.J., Dauber went to day schools, which instilled a passion for Jewish learning. His interior designer mother and attorney father spawned a brainy bunch: Dauber's two younger brothers are both doing graduate work at Harvard, one in medicine and the other in political philosophy.
"There was no great parental surprise," Dauber says about his decision to study Yiddish, particularly since he landed at such prestigious stations. "My interest in Yiddish corresponded with the general rise" of the field, made legitimate by its inclusion in universities like Harvard.
Wisse declined to speculate about the specific impact her former student may make in the field, only hinting, "I very much appreciated the opera that he made with Noam Elkies," calling it "the creative interpretation of Yiddish literature in a new genre and for a new audience."
Dauber wrote the libretto for "Yossele Solovey" based on an 1889 novel by Sholem Aleichem for composer Elkies, a Harvard math professor. The opera premiered in 1999 with a full orchestra at Harvard's Lowell House, but Dauber doubts whether he and Elkies will have the time in their busy schedules to raise capital for a second production.
In his spare time, Dauber also co-wrote the screenplay for the 1999 independent film "The Sterling Chase," which Variety called "a cleanly told, somewhat old-fashioned college drama about personal integrity and making adult choices."
After graduating from Harvard in 1995, Dauber spent a year at the Avi Chai Foundation, co-authoring a study, "The Financing of Jewish Day Schools," with Marvin Schick.
Next, Dauber incorporated his religious background in his study of Yiddish and other Jewish literatures on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford from 1996 to 1999. Dauber describes his dissertation as an analysis of how the Maskilim (proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment), rather than breaking entirely from the past, utilized "traditional Jewish religious texts in service of modernity."
"I was originally interested in Tevye," Dauber says about Sholem Aleichem's famous midrash-quoting dairyman. "For a long time, people thought he was Mr. Malapropism, but the more you think, you realize Tevye is more complicated. He's a key to an essential strategy." Asked what that strategy is, Dauber slips into cautious academic-speak. "It's a way of expressing the particular polemic goals a particular group of modernists have in a particular local context."
This close scrutiny of the particulars of writers' time and place is the product of Dauber's desire to reveal the myriad lines of cultural connection and bring Yiddish literature into the larger cosmopolis of European literature. A multilingual bunch, Yiddish and Hebrew writers were greatly influenced by contemporary writers in Slavic languages as much as Jewish religious tradition. Next semester, Dauber will teach a class with Columbia colleague Cathy Popkin comparing Yiddish and Russian literature. And in April, he will deliver a paper at the Syracuse University conference "Borderlines," about the transnational forms of Judaic literature in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and Polish.
"Yiddish and Hebrew literature offer a wonderful test case for much larger problems in literary theory," such as "reading reception theory and intertextuality," Dauber says. He believes it's possible to better gauge the relationship between reader and writer in Yiddish literature, which has a fixed vocabulary of midrashic quotation and limited audience, than in far larger literatures like French or English.
As director of the Yiddish studies program, he's eager to take on new graduate students. But while Yiddish language classes have about 75 students, to date there has never been an undergraduate major in Yiddish at Columbia, Dauber says, even though the subject is "no less utilitarian than lots of liberal arts majors."
"I want to reach from academia to have a public forum," says Dauber, who lives alone near the University. "It's wonderful literature, and I want as many people reading as possible." Thus far, however, Dauber has published relatively little. A personal essay about his affection for Art Spiegelman's "Maus" appears in the National Yiddish Book Center's magazine Pakn Treger, and he's trying to find a publisher for his reworked dissertation.
"There's such a hunger among general Jewish audiences for knowledge," Dauber says. "That's what we're here for, to read 20 books and say, ‘These are the three you can't live without.' "
The hope is that the National Yiddish Book Center list, which was announced in early December, will build a new readership for the many "buried treasures in Jewish literature." Dauber will serve on the editorial board of the project's follow-up project of bringing into English untranslated Yiddish titles from the list. He will also write reading guides for book clubs, published online as "The Jewish Reader."
"Yiddish studies is wide open," Dauber smiles at the future.