Blume Lempel (in English she stressed her surname on the second syllable) might not be a familiar name in most Jewish or American literature classes. However, the unique Yiddish short stories she wrote towards the end of the twentieth century are sure to captivate any reader. Lempel was born in Khorostkov, Galicia (today in Ukraine), in 1907 (or perhaps 1910) as Blume Leye Pfeffer and died in Long Island, New York, in 1999. Her life spanned most of the twentieth century, from her childhood and adolescence in pre-war Eastern Europe, to her young adulthood in Paris, to her six decades in the United States. As a child, she attended a kheyder (traditional religious school) and a Hebrew elementary school. In 1929, she immigrated to Paris to join her brother who was living there at the time. Together with her husband, she left Paris for New York in 1939 at the cusp of World War II. Her first short story was published in 1943 in a New York Yiddish newspaper, and she continued to publish short stories in periodicals around the world, and later in two collected volumes. Although she was widely published and even recognized with several awards and prizes in the Yiddish cultural sphere later in life, she did not break into the mainstream American Jewish literary community.
In the short story “Neighbors Over the Fence” the relationship between two women, Betty, an Eastern European Jew, and Mrs. Zagretti, an Italian Catholic, takes center stage. The two women share an immigrant background, though they never explicitly discuss either this commonality or their differing cultures and religions. However, the women slowly bond over their shared practice of gardening, keeping a friendly distance on either side of the fence.
This kit gathers together oral histories, letters, and contemporaneous writings to give context to Lempel’s story, and to help students explore some of the complexities of Jewish modernist writing.
Cover image: Blume Lempel's typewriter, photographed by Adah Hetko, 2019.