Interview with Dr. Ken Frieden 

Ken Frieden

Would you give us a summary of your educational and professional background, your activities, and your research?

I received my Ph.D in Comparative Literature at Yale University before holding post-doctoral positions to study Yiddish and Hebrew literature in Jerusalem. I taught previously at Emory University and was a Visiting Professor in Tel Aviv and Haifa. While teaching Yiddish literature in Haifa, many of my students were Palestinian Israelis. They especially enjoyed reading Sholem Aleichem because they said that life in their towns in the Galilee was similar to life in an Eastern European shtetl. I have published many articles on Yiddish fiction and two main books: the scholarly study Classic Yiddish Fiction and the anthology Classic Yiddish Stories. More recently I published Travels in Translation, a study of Hebrew travel narratives, focusing on the evolving Hebrew in narratives of pilgrimage to the Holy Land and beyond. I also edit a book series, “Judaic Traditions in Literature, Music, and Art,” at Syracuse University Press. I enjoy working with translators of Yiddish fiction.

Can you speak regarding the importance of understanding Yiddish and Judaic history and languages for Middle Eastern Studies?

One of the misfortunes of modern Jewish history has been the decline of Yiddish. Although many 20th-century inhabitants of Palestine spoke Yiddish, the State of Israel suppressed Yiddish for ideological reasons. As a result, Israelis today are out of touch with their Eastern European roots. Israeli Hebrew contains many unacknowledged traces of Yiddish, including calques- -expressions that have been literally translated. For centuries, many Yiddish writers had an experience of exile and powerlessness. Israelis and American Jews today could benefit from having a greater understanding of Yiddish literature. I will teach a class on Yiddish literature in translation in Fall 2018.

You’re from a comparative literature background. How would you say Middle Eastern Studies has influenced your own research/methodology?

I began with a textualist approach to Yiddish and Hebrew writing. Gradually I needed to become better educated in biography and cultural history in order to understand the authors I studied. While writing my last book, I became interested in ambiguities surrounding the word “Zion.” I would like to explore the ways in which “Zion” is a scriptural intertext, not simply a geographical referent associated with the current State of Israel. I believe that today Jewish life in the diaspora is as important as Jewish life in Israel. Modern Israel could become exemplary as a pluralistic society, instead of trying to define itself only as a “Jewish state.” Many American Jews identify with Israel, but they do not need to support every action by the Israeli government. In addition, Orthodox Judaism does not adequately express most American Jews’ religious preferences. I participate in SAMED, the Syracuse Area Middle East Dialogue group, which favors a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine peace process.