Skip to main content

“I Just Let Life Rain Down on Me"

Deutsches Haus at NYU (map)
42 Washington Mews
New York, NY 10003
In person
General: Free

An evening about Rahel Levin Varnhagen with Peter Wortsman and Tess Lewis

The Leo Baeck Institute and Deutsches Haus at NYU present a reading and conversation on "I Just Let Life Rain Down on Me, Selected Letters and Reflections of Rahel Levin Varnhagen" (Seagull Books, 2024) with the book’s editor and translator Peter Wortsman and the author and translator Tess Lewis. “I Just Let Life Rain Down on Me” affords English-speaking readers the first privileged peek at the mindset of one of Europe’s first and foremost women of letters. Rahel Levin Varnhagen penned over ten thousand letters to more than three hundred recipients during her liftetime, varying in subject from family affairs to linguistic, literary and pressing social concerns; and constituting a singular contribution to German literature.

About the book:

"I Just Let Life Rain Down on Me, Selected Letters and Reflections of Rahel Levin Varnhagen" (Seagull Books, 2024) Edited and translated by Peter Wortsman.

At times poetic but not a poem, prosaic but not an essay, a letter is often pure writing for writing’s sake. Such is the case for Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, née Levin, the illustrious German-Jewish Berlin literary salon hostess from the early nineteenth century. She penned over ten thousand letters to more than three hundred recipients, including princes, philosophers, poets, family members, and the family cook. Written with a wink at posterity, collected and first published after her passing by her husband, Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, these letters constitute a singular contribution to German literature.

Varied in subject—from family affairs to linguistic, literary, and pressing social concerns—the poignant lyricism of her letters is even more remarkable when we take into account that High German was not her first language; she grew up speaking, reading, and writing primarily Yiddish. Her shaky social status as a woman and a member of a precarious minority, combined with an astounding lucidity and a rare capacity to put her thoughts into words, made her a force to be reckoned with in her lifetime and thereafter as one of Germany’s preeminent women of letters. As we see in I Just Let Life Rain Down on Me, her voice is as fresh and original as that of any of the recognized poets and thinkers of her day. As Rahel herself put it: “[O]ur language is our lived life; I invented mine for my own purposes, I was less able than many others to make use of preconceived turns of phrase, which is why mine are often clumsy, and in all respects faulty, but always true.”

About the Participants:

Peter Wortsman is the author of three collections of short fiction (A Modern Way to Die, 1991, second edition, 2019, Footprints in Wet Cement, 2017, and Stimme und Atem/Out of Breath, Out of Mind, 2019); a novel (Cold Earth Wanderers, 2014—short listed for the 2014 INDIEFAB Science fiction Book of the Year Award); two books of poetry, Borrowed Words, 2022, and Driftwood at the River's Edge, 2023; an Independent Publishers Book Award-winning travel memoir (Ghost Dance in Berlin, 2013); a book of nonfiction prose, Epiphany of a Middle-Aged Pilgrim, essays in lieu of a Memoir, 2021; a book of doctors’ profiles (The Caring Heirs of Doctor Samuel Bard, 2019); as well as two stage plays (Burning Words, premiered by the Hampshire Shakespeare Company in 2006, and produced in German translation at the Kulturhaus Osterfeld in Pforzheim in 2014, and The Tattooed Man Tells All, first staged by the Silverthorne Theatre in Greenfield, Mass. in 2018, and staged, in a German translation, at the Deutsches Theater in Göttingen in 2022). His forthcoming books include Odd Birds & Fat Cats, an Urban Bestiary, on which he collaborated with his daughter, Aurelie Bernard Wortsman (his text, her art). His travel writing and other expository prose has appeared in Cicero, Die Welt, Die Zeit, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other respected newspapers, journals and websites, and was included five years in a row, 2008-2012, and again in 2016, in Travelers’ Tales’ The Best Travel Writing. His travel narrative “Protected” won the 2012 Gold Grand Prize for Best Travel Story of the Year in the Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing. Wortsman is also a critically-acclaimed literary translator from German into English, of works by Adelbert von Chamisso, the Brothers Grimm, Heinrich Heine, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Franz Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist, and Robert Musil, among others. He was a 1973 Fulbright Fellow, a 1974 Fellow of the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, and a 2010 Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. For more about the author look at his website.

Tess Lewis is a translator from French and German. Her translations include works by Peter Handke, Walter Benjamin, Lutz Seiler, Jonas Lüscher, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Montaigne. Her translation of Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion won the ACFNY Translation Prize and the 2017 PEN Translation Award. A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize fellow and an American Library in Paris Scholar of Note, she is an Advisory Editor for The Hudson Review and co-curator of the Festival Neue Literatur, New York City’s annual festival of German language literature in English.


While NYU has ended COVID-19 related restrictions and policies, we continue to remind and recommend to members of the NYU community that they stay up-to-date on their boosters and stay home if they feel sick. Masks are always welcome.