Ode to the post office
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Ode to the post office

Teaneck native wins Israel’s National Authority Yiddish short story prize

Raphael Halff, left, and a portion of the cover of the Forverts containing his story.
Raphael Halff, left, and a portion of the cover of the Forverts containing his story.

 

 

 

I

magine there’s no post office.

That’s the premise of Raphael Halff’s short story, “A Letter to the Post Office,” which recently took the 1,000 shekel third prize in the Yiddish short story contest sponsored by Israel’s National Authority for Yiddish Culture and was published by the Yiddish Forverts.

Mr. Halff, 25, grew up in Teaneck,  where his parents still live, before he moved to New York to study computer science at Columbia University and Jewish studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s joint program with Columbia. He is now a graduate student in Yiddish at Tel Aviv University and plans to pursue a doctorate in Yiddish. “It’s the logical step,” he said. “Either that or be a mailman.”

In “A Briev Der Post,” to use the story’s proper title, the narrator is writing to the post office to complain about its decision to close itself down.

Email, he argues, has its place. But can “Can you take an email and put it under your pillow to comfort yourself on those lonely nights?”

The narrator tells of his long and deep experience with the post office. There was the time he tried to send a letter with an Egyptian return address to his family for Passover. There was the time he applied to be a mail carrier. There was the letter he sent to the dead letter office. These are experiences that loom large in the narrator’s mind, and he hopes loom as large on the post office worker who is reading the letter.

Mr. Halff wrote the story as a writing assignment in a Yiddish grammar class, for which he was asked to write “a letter of complaint.”

“I asked myself what would I really get mad about? What would I really need to complain about?” he said.

As it happened, the winner of the contest’s first prize — Ethel Niborski — is the granddaughter of Mr. Halff’s instructor, Yitskhok Niborski.

“The Yiddish world is very very small,” Mr. Halff said.

Mr. Halff did not grow up with any Yiddish. His mother’s parents spoke Yiddish with each other, but his grandfather died before Mr. Halff was born, and he never heard his grandmother speak Yiddish.

But after taking a Yiddish course in college, “I loved it,” he said. “I felt an innate connection to the language. I never really felt a connection to a language before. It must have been the teachers. I had good teachers.”

But “I actually do struggle sometimes with the feeling that my connection to Yiddish is somewhat fabricated and romanticized,” he said. “I do sometimes think it’s a little weird.”

Mr. Halff attended Yavneh and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County before going to Teaneck High.

“It would have been amazing” if the Jewish schools he went to had taught Yiddish, he said. “The high schools should all offer Yiddish. Why not? They offer Latin, they should offer Yiddish.”

Mr. Halff warns of the misconceptions about Yiddish that need to be overcome. “There’s the shtetl nostalgia sentiment. There’s the Yiddish is a language of humor and everything is funny sentiment. There’s the Yiddish is only Sholem Aleichem’s style of writing. There are tons of these misconceptions.”

The more Yiddish literature Mr. Halff reads, the more he appreciates how wrong these misconceptions are.

Take for example, the story “A Shaila”, which Mr. Halff and his friend Zeke Levine translated as “A Problem” for the journal In Geveb. The story was published in 1924 by Joseph Opatoshu, arguably the most famous forgotten American Yiddish writer.

“It’s a very strange story,” Mr. Halff said. “It’s kind of about Abraham wanting a concubine. Instead of mentioning one of Abraham’s concubines in the Torah, she has an American name, Daisy. She’s a mulatto. Opatoshu basically brought Abraham into slave ownership and he wants to be with his slave. It’s very weird.”

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