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Jewish Journal

Hitting the century mark doesn’t stop this translator

by Jane Ulman

December 7, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Centenarian and Yiddish translator Eva Zeitlin Dobkin celebrates her birthday at the Jewish Home for the Aging. Photo by Robert Lurie

Centenarian and Yiddish translator Eva Zeitlin Dobkin celebrates her birthday at the Jewish Home for the Aging. Photo by Robert Lurie

Most afternoons, you can find Eva Zeitlin Dobkin working. Undaunted by the 100-year marker she passed last month, she pulls her wheelchair up to the hospital bed in the room she shares at the Jewish Home for the Aging -- her side is separated by a curtain -- and spreads her work out over the lavender bedspread. While her roommate rests or watches television with the volume turned high, Dobkin spends a couple of hours editing "Burning Earth" ("Brenendike Erd" ), a historical novel she has translated from Yiddish to English.

She began working on the book in 1984, then had to put it aside to complete other translation projects.

Now, despite limits to her endurance, she is reviewing her final version for the fifth or sixth time, making corrections in longhand -- she gave up the computer two years ago -- and occasionally referring to a Yiddish-English dictionary to verify her word choice. The book, by Aaron Zeitlin, who may be a cousin, was written in 1934 and centers on a group of Zionists who spied for the British, prior to the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

This is the fourth or fifth book Dobkin has translated, in addition to innumerable articles, letters and personal memorabilia. Her best-known book is "Profiles of a Lost World: Memoirs of East European Jewish Life before World War II" by Hirsz Abramowicz, published in 1999.

Recently, Dobkin did take one afternoon off to celebrate her birthday -- she was born on Nov. 20, 1906. Dressed in black slacks and a black sweater trimmed in white, her gray hair pulled neatly back, she sat in one of the home's conference rooms at the head of a large table. Her son, Jack Forem, flanked her on one side, her youngest sister, Hannah Doberne, on the other. A cake, frosted in chocolate with brightly colored flowers, was set before her, as well as two balloon bouquets.

Friends joined her at the table. A second group, in chairs and wheelchairs, formed an outer circle. They clapped and occasionally sang along to "Bei Mir Bist Du Shein" ("To Me You Are Beautiful"), "Di Grine Kuzine" ("The Greenhorn Cousin") and other Yiddish songs played by a pianist and violist. Staff members, most in red uniform smocks, clapped along.

"I regret that when you're 100, I probably won't be able to come to your simcha," Dobkin, told her guests, including about 25 fellow residents at the Eisenberg campus, where she's lived two years and is known as Eva Forem.

It was her day to shine, though, with 19 residents currently ranging in age from 100 to 108, centenarians are surprisingly common at the Jewish Home. Dobkin, however, is among the lucky ones, in that she is well and alert enough to be able to keep working.

Dobkin doesn't play bingo, and she doesn't own a television. She occasionally attends a lecture or musical event, but generally, when she isn't working, she is reading, usually The Forward in Yiddish or English or The Jewish Journal. She reads without glasses, except for very small print.

She also spends about 45 minutes each afternoon discussing her work by telephone with her son, 62, who is a writer and lives in Yucca Valley, and who has been collaborating with her on the book's final stages. Dobkin is hoping to find a publisher for it.

She has been translating Yiddish since 1932, when she was hired by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at $15 a week to work as a Yiddish and English typist. By the end of the first week, however, she was writing stories in Yiddish and English off the cable transmissions, eventually working her way up to $35. However, she left after two or three years to study for her teaching credential.

In 1936, she married Leon Forem, and in 1946 her son was born. She separated from her husband five months afterward and moved to Los Angeles in 1957, supporting herself by teaching public school from 1957 to 1972, mostly at Pacoima's Telfair Avenue Elementary School.

Born in Waterbury, Conn., to parents who had just emigrated from Russia's Mohilev Province, now Belarus, she was the oldest of seven children, and her youngest sister, 85, is her only surviving sibling. She grew up bilingual in Yiddish and English, and at age 3 she was taught by her father to write her name in Yiddish.

"There were Jewish periodicals coming into the house, and I would look at them whether I understood them or not," she said.

Dobkin attended public school in Waterbury and later, after moving at age 16, in the Bronx. She also received a Jewish secular education, taught primarily in Yiddish, and considers herself not religious but "very Jewish."

She often had to care for her younger siblings while her parents worked but nevertheless managed to acquire an A.B. in German, with a minor in English and education from Hunter College, as well as a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. The family was poor.

"We had nothing. Sometimes we didn't have a quarter to put in the gas meter," she said.

She attributes her success, and that of her siblings, to her parents' emphasis on education and the availability of free schooling. Her longevity, she believes, is due to genetics.

"Pick the right parents and grandparents," she advised, wryly. She won't commit to a future translating project but is considering writing a family history.

"Have a few more birthdays," her son said as the party wound down.

"I wouldn't mind," Dobkin retorted, "if they're not any worse than this one."

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