Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Dickens by Way of the Warsaw Ghetto

I love the fall. I always enjoyed the new year and the start of school and looked at it as a chance to start fresh and learn new things. Okay, maybe I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the summer ending in middle school as I am now. However, one of my favorite classroom memories is from that time period. I used to adore listening to my 6th grade teacher read a chapter a day of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. I was riveted by the characters, the language, and the attention to smallest details. I couldn’t wait for Mrs. Hosman to finish the book, so I got my own copy from the library and finished it myself, and then went on to read A Tale of Two Cities, on my own. Thus began my lifelong love affair with British literature. 

Needless to say, I was thrilled to find out that the New York Public Library is celebrating Dickens’ 200th birthday with an exhibition, Charles Dickens: The Key to Character, which I was lucky to see recently. 

Set in a cozy recreation of Dickens’ library filled with beautiful illustrations and personal belongings such as the author’s scribbles regarding character names and his own pen and ink well, the exhibit brings the man and his characters to life. The exhibit also features scores of letters, quotes, and some multimedia elements, not to mention props from the time period and contemporary artworks inspired by Dickens. (N.B. It is a truly beautiful exhibit, but they didn't allow photos.)

As you may know, many Jewish scholars and readers have been troubled by the depiction of the despicable Fagin in Oliver Twist. What I didn’t know is that Dickens had a Jewish friend, Eliza Davis, who was so distraught at the characterization of “Fagin the Jew” that after many discussions, Dickens eliminated the moniker in subsequent editions, referring to him only by Fagin. To atone, he went on to write an honorable character in Our Mutual Friend that is described as a gentle Jew. 

At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, we very much believe in the power of an artifact to tell a story. Coming full circle, the exhibit includes a translation of Oliver Twist into Yiddish (Oliver Tvist: Dos Tragishe Leben Fun A Yosem) translated by the self-taught poet Shelomoh Shaynberg who died in 1942 in exile after escaping the Warsaw Ghetto. 

I spent many minutes just looking at the book, and wondering about its journey. I like to imagine Shaynberg finding solace in Dickens’ work. I hope that Shaynberg in turn inspired his readers who would not otherwise be able to read the dark, yet touching tale about how despite everything Oliver maintains his humanity and purity of heart while living through unbearable conditions.   

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