Sunday, September 11, 2011

Yiddish Edition of Charles Darwin's Descent of Man

We have here a Yiddish translation, done by Y. A. Merison, of Charles Darwin's 1871 follow up to Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. It was published in 1921 in New York by Max N. Maisel (1872-1959), who ran a publishing company, The Grand Street Press of Literature and Knowledge, devoted to printing and disseminating scientific literature in Yiddish. Organizations like Maisel's are a side of Yiddish culture that is very easy to overlook today when Yiddish is almost the sole dominion of the Ultra-Orthodox. There was a time when Yiddish was a powerful secularizing force.

Merison also wrote a childcare guide titled Muter un kind (1912) What does Darwin have to do with parenting? Well the Grand Street Press also distributed birth control literature by Margaret Sanger and Ben Zion Liber so clearly there was a connection in Maisel's mind. Now it makes sense to me to, if you are a good Darwinist, hand out birth control literature to immigrants to keep their population in check. But why would you then turn around and let them in on the plan?

To the best of my knowledge, Darwin did not get the company into trouble but the birth control literature did run afoul the obscenity laws in force at the time. I guess the tactic of saying things in Yiddish as a way of dodging gentile censors, so beloved by later generations of Jewish comedians, did not cover contraceptives.

Presumably our secularizing immigrant Jew would also desire to learn English and would soon be able to read Darwin in the original. Thus one assumes this is for people fresh off the boat. Why would someone think that new immigrants, with all of their concerns in adapting to a new country, first and foremost of them being to learn English, needed to make their way through Darwin. I could understand translating Israel Zangwill's play The Melting Pot or Uncle Tom's Cabin (this book actually helped by great-grandfather learn English as an immigrant) to teach people about American culture, but a scientific treatise that few English speakers ever read?

One can only imagine:

Dear Ma,

I have successfully reached the United States and am adapting very well to my new environment. Not to worry, I am using protection. I have my copy of Darwin's Descent of Man. Yes it is in the Mama-lashon. And I have some Margaret Singer (Sanger, Singer what's the difference) as well. So not to worry about grandchildren; I have that all under control.

Your beloved yingilah,

Chaim Dovid  Horowtiz (soon to be Harvey Drew Howard)

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