Born on July 13, 1939 in Slonim, a city in Poland (between the two world wars), Rachel Ertel is unquestionably the most distinguished scholar of Yiddish culture in France. Yiddish culture filled her with pride from a very early age, and she has brilliantly strived since then to revive and keep it alive. She is the daughter of Riwa Mirski (1916–2001), a former student at the teacher-training school of Vilna, and the daughter of Moishe Waldman (1910–1996), a Yiddish poet. Riwa Mirski is better known as an author of novels and short stories under the pen name of Menuha Ram, an acronym of Rachel (her older daughter), Aron (her step-son, b. 1938) and Myriam (her younger daughter, b. 1949). Her best-known works are Vayter fun trakt (Further than thought), Le Vent qui passe (The passing wind, 1974) and Exils (Exiles, 1993).
During the war Rachel and her mother were placed under house arrest in Kazakhstan as enemies of the regime, thus escaping the Holocaust. Upon their liberation they returned to ?ód?. The family fled Poland and emigrated to France, where they settled in 1948. Menuha Ram and Moishe Waldman took an active role in the cultural vitality that marked the post-war period, turning Paris into the heart of Yiddish culture across Europe.
Rachel Ertel soon focused her energies on literature, her passion for which, inherited from her forebears, was further strengthened by her frequent visits to the Guy Patin Center (opened by the Rothschild family). This establishment enabled writers, poets and painters alike to congregate in a very dynamic and stimulating environment. Among the many intellectuals who had come from the United States to Paris were H. Leivick (1886–1962), Jacob Glatstein (1896–1971) and Melech Ravitch (1893–1976).
A holder of the French title of Agrégée in English literature, Rachel Ertel pursued all of her studies in France. In 1978 she defended her doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne on the American Jewish novel, “Le roman juif américain: une écriture minoritaire” (The American-Jewish novel: a minority writing, 1980) and went on to become a professor at Université Paris-VII Jussieu in Paris until 2001. She taught American literature and founded the Center for Jewish-American Studies, which focuses on the various social, institutional, political and cultural aspects of American-Jewish society. Part of her research deals with the Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia in Europe and the United States at the turn of the century and the avant-garde publications that this community produced.
Rachel Ertel chose American studies as her field because in it she saw the idea of a pluralist culture that gave its writers the possibility of preserving a distinct identity. She was the first to emphasize this fundamental distinction between American and French traditions, maintaining that France is a highly Jacobite and unifying country that erodes differences and does not allow Jewishness to be as explicitly included in its scope as does American literature.
Although at the heart of her concerns, the American scene is not her only area of interest. Combining her position as an English specialist with that of a distinguished Jewish scholar, Rachel Ertel turned the field of Yiddish into an area of multiple explorations that extended well beyond the American territory. She assigned herself the task of introducing both American and European Yiddish literature, in particular by creating the collection Yiddish Fields, which showed that, in her view, Yiddish literature constituted a vast sounding-box of world literature.
Rachel Ertel devoted herself to training Yiddish translators and publishing Yiddish authors in French, translated directly from the original language (and not from German or Russian, for example). In her opinion, the act of translation encompasses more than the simple transfer from Yiddish to French; it stems from an authentic act of bearing witness. One of the distinguishing events of her entire life’s work was the organization, in collaboration with other intellectuals, of the Journées de la culture Yiddish (Days of Yiddish Culture) at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1978. This event was part of the general movement of the diasporic spread of Yiddish. She later published Le Shtetl (1982), about the Jewish shtetl in Poland from early to modern times, Une maisonette au bord de la Vistule, et autres nouvelles du monde Yiddish (A little house on the Vistula and other news from the Yiddish world, 1989), Dans la langue de personne: poésie yiddish de l’anéantissement (In nobody’s language: Yiddish poetry of annihilation, 1993) and Brasier des mots (Furnace of words, 2003).
In tandem with her work as a translator, Rachel Ertel carried out a remarkable project which involved tracing the extensive historiography of genocide to a reflection on the annihilation of a language, which—in a term that has since gone down in history—became “nobody’s language.” For Rachel Ertel, the poetry of annihilation represents a unique literary territory that was characterized after genocide by an abundance of words unlike those of other fictional genres. The poetry of annihilation does not refer only to that written in the very places of extermination, but to any writing haunted by this abyss of history: poetry in which Rachel Ertel has attempted to bring together the many voices that stem from one single voice, from a sort of general narrator.
Of all her writings, her most recent work, Brasier des mots, published in 2003, is undeniably her most accomplished reflection on the question of the assassinated language. While it may be wishful thinking to speak today about the rebirth of Yiddish as a language or literature, one cannot fail to be struck by the uniquely contemporary emergence in France of works in which Judaism forms a tenuous part and on which the Holocaust—a fundamental event that granted the language a radically new status—left an indelible impression. In the work of writers such as Serge Doubrovsky or Patrick Modiano, the Holocaust is assimilated to become a sort of dybbuk that challenges both the imagination and writing, condemning the works to an undefined generic wandering. The heterogeneous form of Brasier des mots falls under this wider category of works by contemporary authors which history saved from extermination, but which nevertheless bear the mark of the insurmountable hold which the Holocaust has over writers.
Since 2003, Rachel Ertel has been the honorary president of the Yiddish Cultural Center in Paris, where Yiddish language and literature courses have been given for many years by Yitshak Niborski, the other great craftsman behind the preservation of Yiddish culture in France.
Ertel, who was married to Marcel, a cardiologist (1938–2003), has two daughters: Judith (b. 1961) and Emmanuelle (b. 1969), both teachers of literature.
En marge des minorités aux Etats-Unis (in collaboration with G. Fabre et E. Marienstras). Paris: 1971; Le roman juif américain : une écriture minoritaire. Paris: 1990; Le shtetl: la bourgade juive de Pologne de la tradition à la modernité. Paris: 1982, (2nd edition 1988); Une maisonnette au bord de la Vistule et autres nouvelles du monde Yiddish. Paris: 1989; Khalinstra-La bande, revue futuriste yiddish, Varsovie, Paris 1922–1924. Paris: 1989; Sutzkever, Avrom. Où gisent les étoiles, préface de Rachel Ertel and translations by the CEJA. Paris: 1988; Dans la langue de personne : poésie yiddish de l’anéantissement. Paris: 1993; J. Baumgarten, R. Ertel. I. Niborksi, A. Wieviorka. Mille ans de cultures ashkénazes. Paris: 1994; R. Ertel, G. Fabre (sous la direction de) “Configurations de l’Ethnicité.” In Cahiers Charles V N°15. Paris: 1993; Brasier des mots, Paris: 2003.
Asch, Shalom. Moscou, Paris: 1989; Brodsky, L. D. and William Heyen. Falling from Heaven. Paris: 1998; Chekhtman, Elie. A la veille de … . Paris: 1964; Hill, Christopher (The World Upside Down). Le Monde à l’envers (with Simone Chambon). Paris: 1977; Leivick, H. “Poèmes et extraits d’œuvres dramatiques.” In Leivick Poète yiddish (sous la direction de M. Waldman). Paris: 1965; Mann, Mendel. Au bord de la Vistule. Paris: 1960; Ibid. “La Ballade du Rocher de Petra.” In La Table Ronde. Paris: 1960; Rabon, I. Balaty. Paris (forthcoming); Ibid. La rue. Paris: 1982; Ram, Menuha. Le Vent qui passé. Paris: 1974; Spiegel, I. Les Flammes de la Terre. Paris: 1973; Ibid. Une échelle vers le ciel. Paris: 1980; “Dix poètes yiddish de l’anéantissement.” In Dans la langue de personne, Les Temps modernes, Poésie. N° 568, Paris: November 1993.