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Miriam Udel named 2024-25 Emory College Chronos Fellow
Portrait of Udel

Miriam Udel, a scholar of Yiddish language, literature and culture, has been awarded the Chronos Faculty Fellowship in Emory College of Arts and Sciences for 2024. The fellowship will help support Udel’s upcoming research.

— Sarah Woods, Emory Photo/Video

Emory University professor Miriam Udel has spent much of the last decade exploring and explaining the political significance of Yiddish children’s literature.

Through books, a puppet film and even a radio play, Udel’s research reveals how writings in a language with a shrinking user base helped Jewish people and their children imagine their future.

As the 2024-25 recipient of the Chronos Faculty Fellowship in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Udel will expand that research to unearth what the last century’s broader Yiddish writings might offer to help the pursuit of a peaceful coexistence between Israel and Palestine.

“Now, at a moment where the future seems incredibly bleak, I want to go back to an earlier time when there were lots of possibilities to imagine,” says Udel, an associate professor in German studies and the Judith London Evans Director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies.

“I don't know where exactly the research will take me, but my work on Yiddish children's literature about the Holocaust has shed light on the therapeutic potential of story,” Udel explains. “What the scholarship calls ‘narrative empathy’ can have a powerful humanizing effect after the trauma of so much violence in Israel and Gaza.”

Funded by a grant from the Abraham J. & Phyllis Katz Foundation, the Chronos Fellowship has supported such ambitious scholarship by tenured Emory College faculty in the humanities and social sciences since 2020.

The program includes a year of leave and $10,000 in research/travel funds, allowing for a fully immersive research experience and opportunities to develop new scholarship.

“On behalf of Emory College, we are thrilled to award Miriam the Chronos Fellowship, allowing her the time and the space to take her critical scholarship in new directions of discovery and humanistic inquiry that are particularly valuable to the world at this time,” says Barbara Krauthamer, dean of Emory College.

Udel is particularly excited to expand her recent examination into ways Yiddish literature transmitted cultural and moral values to children. Her proposal stems from the idea that the Yiddish culture points to a “road not taken” in Jewish modernity.

“Yiddish in the 19th and 20th centuries was the vehicle for a wide range of ideas about how to organize Jewish politics in order to create safety for Jews in the world,” Udel says.

Some of those ideologies argued for a Jewish-majority nation, whether in the historical Land of Israel or elsewhere, while others suggested that Jews should flourish as a protected minority wherever they happened to live.

“There are ideas that have fallen into obscurity that could be very helpful to recover now,” Udel says. “No one wants to hear naïve declarations, but with devastation visited upon everyone in the region and millions more watching from afar while caring deeply about the suffering, I believe there is an ethical duty to cultivate rational hope.” 

Adding to a storied — and full of stories — career

Udel has been building to such a sweeping goal her entire career.

She began researching how Jewish people encounter the modern world, winning the National Jewish Book Award in 2016 for her debut book, “Never Better!: The Modern Jewish Picaresque,” which examines Jewish antiheroes in fiction.

She shifted her focus to Yiddish children’s literature when she translated and edited her second book, “Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature,” a landmark anthology of stories and poems, most never before published in English.

The book won the 2020 Judaica Reference Award, and five of its stories were the basis of an hour-long radio play in Seattle.

Udel’s next book is also a translation. The project, Chaver Paver’s story collection about an emotionally intelligent mutt adopted by a working-class leftist Bronx family during the Great Depression, is expected to publish later this year from SUNY Press. The work already served as the basis for Theater Emory’s 2021 puppet film, “Labzik: Tales of a Clever Pup.”

Udel recently completed her fourth book — a critical study of children’s literature as an archive for understanding the politics and aspirations of Yiddish-speaking Jewry — with the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Princeton Press plans to publish it in 2025.

Amid that flurry of activity, last fall the the New York Times published Udel’s initial thoughts on how her years of research might address the moment in a guest essay called “What I read to my son when the world is on fire.

The Chronos Fellowship will allow Udel to dive deeper and deliberate on what other Yiddish writings — from literature to newspapers and pamphlets — might further resonate.

She hopes to involve undergraduate students who have developed some Yiddish language skills to help with her archival research. The language program, part of the Department of German Studies, will continue during her Chronos leave.

That frees Udel to embrace the uncertainty about what she may uncover in the new research.

“There are many ways of thinking about how to create safety and flourishing, and we have only preserved a few as the dominant paradigms and main critiques,” Udel says. “It’s a gift to think about these questions more deeply and broadly.”

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