Jacob Apelberg passed away on September 11, 2021. He was a regular attendee at minicourses, lectures and other ICJS events with his beloved wife, Estelle. Jacob had a truly voracious love of learning—devouring books and articles in history, language, literature, poetry and art, along with the sciences. Jacob always had a ready smile to match his insightful questions, and oftentimes, a joke to go with his follow-up questions. In 2010, students from Goucher College recorded interviews with Jacob.
By Benjamin Sax
The richness of Lithuanian-Jewish culture and religion, in all of its complexities, anxieties, and intellectual rigor, was captured famously in the Yiddish writer Chaim Grade’s 800-plus-page novel Tsemakh Atlas: Di Yeshive (trans. “The Yeshiva”). Much of Grade’s poetry and prose mined the depths of a once dynamic, vibrant, now eviscerated civilization. In this novel, Grade wrote about the spiritual and ethical troubles of Rabbi Abraham Shayne-Kosover. Within the numerous conversations between characters, we are presented a window into the world of Lithuanian-Jewish scholasticism—through Talmud study—and Eastern-European-Jewish intellectualism, otherwise known as the Haskalah (“the Jewish Enlightenment”). Rabbi Shayne-Kosover personified this relationship. The tempestuous relationship between the traditionalism of the past and the secularism of the future was a preamble to the myriad discussions taking place today regarding the role Judaism plays in modern life. In fact, these discussions were the hallmark of Yiddish literature in general. Unlike a few of his contemporaries, most famously Isaac Bashevis Singer, Grade was reluctant to have his works translated into English, since the Yiddish language itself was (is) a living archive of this relationship between Jewish traditionalism and Jewish secularism. Each linguistic idiosyncrasy in Yiddish contains the DNA of a long-evolved Jewish religion and culture in Europe. English, for him, the language of the goldene medina (“the golden land,” i.e., The United States of America), was simply ill-equipped to carry this DNA. As a result, much of his work remained untranslated.
Scholars of Yiddish literature have pointed out that Grade’s character in “The Yeshiva”—Rabbi Abraham Shayne-Kosover—portrayed the life and thought of his former teacher, Abraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1878-1953), better known by his pen name, the Hazon Ish. The Hazon Ish wrote over forty books in Hebrew on a wide range of theological and legal concepts and literature. Much of his work placed the future of Judaism within the world of Torah study and strict observance of the Halakhah (Jewish law). In many ways, his world and worldview characterized precisely those that Grade hoped to move beyond. Nonetheless, Grade’s work illustrated great reverence for his former teacher, which was expressed most poignantly in a poem commemorating the sixth anniversary of Hazon Ish’s passing. Employing the phrase “pillar of fire” in the title (a reference to God’s presence in Ex. 13:21-22 and Nehemiah 9:19), Grade expounded upon the teacher’s lasting influence on his student.
It is with great joy that I introduce Jacob Apelberg’s translation of Grade’s poem into English. Apelberg was a student and supporter of the ICJS. The story behind the translation of the poem is no less remarkable than the poem itself. Several years ago, a descendent of the Hazon Ish was nearing the end of his life, and his child contacted Apelberg, a long-time student of Hebrew and Yiddish poetry, and asked him to translate Grade’s poem into English. The father did not know Yiddish and so had been unable to enjoy the lasting tribute to his famous relative. Given the impending death of the father, Apelberg agreed to translate the poem, even though he had not previously read it.
Apelberg was a native speaker of Yiddish, although he did not have any formal education in literary Yiddish. His training was in the Hebrew language: He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Hebrew language and literature from the University of Haifa. Apelberg, himself a Hebrew poet, had significant experience in the art of translation, especially of works having Jewish themes, and has translated Hebrew poems into English.
Apelberg’s work in translating Grade’s poem stirred up memories from what he called his “prehistoric childhood” in Wąsewo, a small village sixty miles northwest of Warsaw. Born in 1932, Apelberg’s early experiences in Poland were replete with feelings of “fear, persecution, and helplessness.” The violence against Jews during this period was as cyclical as it was horrifying. Despite this, Apelberg found peace and solace in the Jewish holiday cycles and Shabbat. Apelberg fondly remembered his mother reciting blessings in Yiddish—“a language so assuring and warm”—and allowing the spirit of the holiday to move her to feelings of dignity and reverence. Apelberg’s father was killed in a bus accident in 1934, so Apelberg was raised by his mother until he was he was nine years old. After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Apelberg, his mother, and grandmother were forced to flee to the Archangelsk region and reside in a small forced-labor camp called Novostroyka in the former Soviet Union. They settled for a while in Akmolinsk (now called Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan). Because of the lack of resources available to them, Apelberg’s mother died from an illness in 1941, rendering him an orphan. Following her death, he moved in with a neighbor.
After moving around the former Soviet Union during the war, Apelberg returned to Poland in 1946. There he joined a Zionist youth organization and feverishly studied all available subjects in Yiddish and Hebrew. In 1949, Apelberg, along with a number of other orphaned young Zionists, made Aliyah to Israel. He lived and worked on a kibutz until 1966, when he began his university studies in electronics at the Technion, and in Hebrew language and literature at the University of Haifa. After his marriage to Estelle in 1973, he settled in Baltimore. Here, Apelberg completed his degree in electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University and earned a master’s degree in computer engineering from Loyola College. He worked as a principal engineer at Becton Dickinson, a medical diagnostic company. He earned a patent “on designing and testing a circular bar code reader.”
Translating Grade’s poem not only brought back to Apelberg memories of his mother, his village, his travels, and his experiences, but it also provided him a window into a lost civilization. These are powerful memories. Within the layers of Jewish tradition, each word opens the spirit up to old memories infused with new meaning. Translation is always interpretation. It is also dialogical, a conversation. In this case, Apelberg was listening not only to Grade, but also to his mother, and even to himself. Through his translation, we can now share in this passing of tradition. We can now appreciate how Grade “walks around with hungry eyes.” Apelberg provided not only a service to a family in need, but also to the American Jewish community in general. We are thrilled to have his translation housed on the ICJS website.