The Bridges Are All So Bad Now

The Words Collide   (by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin)

The scribe objects. You can’t put it like that,
I can’t write that. But the client
is a tough small woman forty years old.
She insists. She needs her letter
to open out full of pleated revolving silk
and the soft lobes of her ears
where she flaunts those thin silver wires.

She wants to tell her dream to the only one
who will get the drift. How she saw their children lying
every one dressed out in their simplest fears. They glowed,
the shape of their sentence outlined in sea green.
Among those beloved exiles
one sighed happy, as a curtain
lightened and the grammar changed, and the wall
showed pure white in the shape of a bird’s wing.

But when she whispered it to the scribe he frowned
and she saw she had got it wrong, she had come
to a place where they all spoke the one language:
it rose up before her like a quay wall
draped in sable weeds. He said,
You can’t put those words into your letter.
It will weigh too heavy, it will cost too much,
it will break the strap of the postman’s bag,
it will crack his collarbone. The bridges
are all so bad now, with that weight to shift
he’s bound to stumble. He’ll never make it alive.

—————

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a poet I’ve kept in the corner of my ear since I found a book of hers on remainder a little over a year ago. Being Irish, she knows a little bit about islands of culture, generational divides, and old languages buffeted by history. Though on its face it has nothing to do with Yiddish, I post this particular poem on a Yiddish blog as a kind of bridge.

This week I saw a picture of a boat overflowing with “Europeans headed for North Africa” (that is, Jewish refugees seeking a home in Israel after WWII) used as an analogy, shared on social media in an attempt to provoke sympathy for the mass of Syrian refugees, now traveling some similar paths in the opposite direction. It’s up to us what analogies we allow to move us, but one function of literature is to serve as an empathy-extender, to let people see and feel what is particular, but, more importantly, what is common.

The poem, The Words Collide, opens with a scribe balking at the text of a letter he is asked to write. The ‘she’ of the poem wants to open herself in a letter to her lover, telling him that she has dreamed of their children. Our first conjecture is that the scribe is balking at the implicitly erotic content.

The second stanza is full of ambiguity. …their children lying [are they dead? resting? telling untruths?] every one dressed out in their simplest fears [how can you be ‘dressed out’ in a fear? and are they the parent’s or the children’s fears?] But, these ominous hints are countered by the fact that they are beloved exiles, and one of them, at least, is happy. So amidst the ambiguity, I get a strong sense of children launched across a sea. I get this sense partly because it is an Ur-tale of the Irish. They have been about this business of launching their brightest hopes across the water for generations. Simultaneous with the child’s happy sigh, the curtain lightens, and the grammar changes. The child has been given wings.

The scribe seems to me to be a symbol of tradition. Here, again in the third stanza, ambiguity. Is he the voice of puritanical judgment that he seemed to be in the first stanza? Or does he know something she doesn’t? Under his disapproving gaze she begins to believe she has done something wrong. And now we have a stickier problem: she had come to a place where they all spoke the one language.

You might think this would be a good thing, a world in which everyone understands each other. But the “one language” is, at least in our century, always English. To the Irish, this is a benefit that carries a high price. He says you can’t put these words into your letter, because to try to carry her words over will cost too much.

There’s a good deal more I could read into, or out from, this poem. I suggest you read it yourself and sit with it for a moment and see what feeling you get from it. When you read a poem closely with the right kind of intensity, the poem itself tells you which leaps are permissible and which aren’t, or which bridges lead nowhere, and which will find solid ground. But the musical, non-verbal part of the poem (yes, I know that sounds like an oxymoron) carries it’s own meaning as well. I will only add here that at first I thought the title was “When Worlds Collide”, a meaning that is clearly intended to underlie the less usual, more arresting, When Words Collide.

—————————–

Language gulfs of various kinds are ubiquitous in Yiddish literature. Sending a child away along with your hopes, and later seeing them happy, but also seeing them express themselves in a language that is foreign to you; this is an experience common to migrants of all kinds, across continents and generations.

Because of what the sociologists call “internal Jewish bilingualism”, it was also a common Jewish experience even before the mass transcontinental migrations. In a Sholem Asch story whose first page I wrote about in a post last May, a boy’s mother sends him away from her small shtetl to a Yeshiva. Soon after he starts there, he writes a letter back to her in a mix of Yiddish and Hebrew. She takes the letter to a rabbi and asks him to explain the Hebrew to her, and he says, “That’s not for you.” Just as a letter-writer is a gatekeeper in the Words Collide poem, the letter-reader serves that function in the Asch story. Despite the partial translation, she keeps bringing her son’s letters back to him. Over time, the Hebrew takes up more and more of the letters, but the rabbi continues to refuse to translate for her. She asks to study Torah and, of course, this is not permitted her either. Finally, the barrier between mother and son becomes complete.

————

When and how are languages used to separate, and when to connect? How can we reach across lingos, bridging the slangs used by ethnicities and social classes, the words that separate young folks in the know from the old who are hopelessly out of date, or divide the educated and the specialist from the uneducated and the generalist? It’s clear that the goal is not “a place where they all speak the one language.” Though code-switching has its place, and though it’s fun to be ‘in’ on another group’s jargon, I also don’t think the answer to these divisions is for everyone to try to learn a little of everyone else’s talk. We do need to stretch a little, but, in a world where the bridges are all so bad now we also need to use the language we do have to fix them up, if not build some new ones.

It’s useful to remember that Yiddish itself was a language that both united and separated groups of people. One of my hopes for this blog is that the effort of cultural recovery that I am undertaking for myself personally will resonate with others—not only with lovers of Yiddish, but also those with parallel experiences, like those I read in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poem.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin teaches at Trinity College in Dublin. Her most recent book is called The Boys of Bluehill. http://www.amazon.com/The-Boys-Bluehill-Eil%C3%A9an-Chuillean%C3%A1in/dp/1930630727

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin teaches at Trinity College in Dublin. Her most recent book is called The Boys of Bluehill.
http://www.amazon.com/The-Boys-Bluehill-Eil%C3%A9an-Chuillean%C3%A1in/dp/1930630727

A Tidbit for Apple Season

This week I came across two variations of the same expression in two of my grandfather’s books. In the book Medines Yisroyl un Erets Yisroyl, he talks about someone holding a bundle of keys to his properties: [er] hit op di shlislen, vi dos oyg in kop. “He guarded them like the eye in his head.” Then in the book Amolike Yidn, an old man talks about his childhood. A talented boy, he was doted on by his parents. [Zi] hobn mikh opgehit vi dos shvartsapl fun oyg. Literally, “They protected me like the pupils of their eyes.”

It is interesting to me that the word for pupil in Yiddish, shvartsapl, is a compound of the German words for ‘black’ and ‘apple’, when current German (’die pupille’) does not seem to do this.

Guarding someone like your pupil would seem to be treasuring them like part of your own body (“the eye in your head” in the first example above), or valuing them as you value your sight, or your core. The expression to guard someone like the pupil of the eye has an old pedigree. Here’s Deuteronomy 32:10, in the JPS translation: “He [God] engirded him [Jacob], watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of His eye.”

The Hebrew word for pupil in this verse has nothing to do with apples. One speculation, thanks to Wikipedia, is that the word, roughly ‘iyshon’, means, “little man”, and refers to the small person you see when you look into someone’s pupil. The Hebrew for pupil is also used to refer to a dwarf, or midget. From this point of view, protecting someone like your pupil is guarding them like the little man (your own face) reflected when you look at them. Parents’ doting on their talented children is depicted as an act of narcissism. For more on this subject, see The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller. The other possible origin of the Hebrew word for pupil is ‘darkness’. Hence, the ‘shvarts’ in shvartsapl.

In English, the expression “the apple of my eye” apparently was used to mean ‘pupil’ before it was used to mean ‘favorite’. The Latin word for pupil, like the Hebrew, has nothing to do with apples, but comes from ‘little doll’.

I have no clue how apples come into the picture in the first place. Now, if you call someone the apple of my eye, know that you are calling them your pupil. I still think it’s sweet, though. I suppose one might next conjecture on why a student is also a pupil, and whether this comes from the analogy of a teacher-pupil relationship to a parent treasuring their child. One might, but I won’t.

——

For my observant friends, I wish you an easy fast. May you be sealed for a healthy, prosperous, joyous year. A year of meaningful work and loving relationships. A year of peace.

My apple, my honeycrisp.

My apple, my honeycrisp.

Sun in the West

What treasures still remain alive but buried in frail memory!

During my regular Skype date with my mother this week, she mentioned having remembered out of the blue a snip of a song from her youth. She sang the first few lines to me. The melody was a little wobbly in that way that melodies get when we struggle to remember them, but the bits that she had were lovely, as were the words.

The first two lines were: Zun in mayrev, zetst zikh gikh. Vos darf nokh a mentsch vi ikh? And the answer, Lider, lider. A web search yielded the following poem, by Joseph Rolnick:

Screen Shot Zun in Mayrev

I’m not sure that picture of a screen shot of a webpage will be clear, even if you click to enlarge it. The following website not only has the poem, but also a transliteration and a translation: Link to YidLid Zun in Mayrev page

It turns out the tune is by Vladimir Heifetz. Heifetz was music director at Camp Boiberik, where my mother went as a girl, and where she undoubtedly learned the song. But Heifetz was a well-known conductor, composer, arranger and songwriter far beyond his role at the camp. His work ranged from collecting folk tunes, to writing choral music, to scoring movies and plays, and probably more that my quick research missed.

I couldn’t find a recording of Zun in Mayrev, but (again, according to the Yidlid webpage) the tune is taken from the title song of the play Grine Felder. Heifetz reused his own melody in setting the poem, or else put new words to his composition for the film. I have no idea which.

By coincidence, my friends will be reading Peretz Hirshbein’s Grine Felder and watching the film up in Rochester for their reading group this fall. I will be thinking of them, and I offer these alternative, and beautiful, words to Heifetz’s melody, for their enjoyment.
—-

Note: The picture below is from a blog post about Josh Waletzky, on the blog The Yiddish Song of the Week. [https://yiddishsong.wordpress.com/tag/secular-yiddish/].  With apologies, I didn’t see a name to whom to credit the photo. It shows Vladimir Heifetz, second row center, at Boiberik in the 40s, when my mother would have been there.

7-boiberik-in-40s-w-tsirl-triling

Vartn af Godot

This past week I had had three days in a row of Yiddish theater: ‘Yosl Rakover Talks to God’, ‘The Essesnce: A Yiddish Theater Dim Sum’, and ‘Vartn af Godot’. I am so grateful to Jonathan Boyarin (Cornell Jewish Studies), the New Yiddish Rep, Annette Levine (Ithaca College Jewish Studies) and everyone else who had a hand in making that happen. I also had three friends come down from Rochester and one from here, so it was a great social occasion for me.

Godot is freshest in my mind, so I’ll write about that. I had read the play (in English) when young, but this is the first full production I’ve seen. Like any work of true genius, it sets its own criteria for evaluation. Absent an external framework for approaching it, the play makes the viewer feel bewildered and frustrated, mirroring the helplessness of the characters, but it also amuses, provokes thought, and somehow maintains sympathy for individuals who are suffering from what could be just abstractions. The production was acted brilliantly.

Because the script is spare and vague, it is open to multiple reactions and interpretations. Most common is a modernist reading, in which the goal of the play is to explode traditional story-telling tropes. The absence of God(ot) means there’s no omniscient narrator, no linear plot, no happy ending. Put another way, if you think of the play’s author/creator as a stand-in for God, he is inscrutable. No coherent moral can be gleaned from the action. As a modernist play, it is also self-referential. It does not only defy established expectations of storytelling, it also disassembles and reassembles the act of telling a story, thwarting and enacting attempts at diversion, not only for the audience, but for the characters themselves.

Here are four other brief capsule readings of the play just from my reaction and those of my friends: First, it is about the loss of self in a world without memory. This could be a metaphor for Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, or, equally, for cultural discontinuity. How can the characters make sense of their present situation, or act coherently when they can’t remember what happened the day before? Second, it can be seen as a play about mental illness. They continue to repeat actions they know to be pointless or destructive. Their lives are unbearable yet they are trapped. Beckett says, “habit is a great deadener”, implying that we forgo our responsibility to choose. But some people actively try to choose, saying, “I am going to go,” and have what (before modern psychology) used to be called a ‘weakness of the will.’ They are trapped by depression, anxiety, or compulsions and cannot enact what they want to do. Third, for a friend who has had a loved one imprisoned, the play formed a rather exact replica of prison existence.

Finally, it is a play about the holocaust. The second act of the play explicitly invokes the dead millions. Vladimir and Estragon can be seen as trapped because they are twisting and twisting in order to not hear the voices of the dead, whose deaths had been devoid of meaning, and who insistently demand a response. This is why all attempts at storytelling, at finding a meaningful way to pass the time, are abortive. My friend E also pointed out how many people were still in Displaced Person Camps when Beckett began writing in 1948. On this reading, the past fails to provide a guide to the future, not because we know better now than we did then, but because the past has been murdered. The limbo being experienced is not just because the characters are waiting for salvation that doesn’t come, but because like the uncountable numbers of refugees, they have nowhere to go. To round out the ratatouille of reactions, my new older friend enjoyed the Yiddish, but didn’t find any satisfying lens though which to think about the play, and didn’t enjoy it as drama, since there really isn’t much drama to be had.

So what matters about doing the play in Yiddish? First, the joy of the sound of the Yiddish itself. In this performance, Vladimir and Estragon spoke in different dialects. This was great for my listening skills, but could be a plus or minus for the play, depending on how you view it. A plus because the difficulty in coming to any shared understanding is highlighted. A minus because the play was written to be abstract, deliberately stripped of local identifying information. So locating someone as a Galitsianer or a Litvak or anchoring them to any specific subculture can detract from that intentional open-endedness.

In Yiddish, some themes come to the fore more naturally, and some less so. The theme of loss of memory feels particularly poignant. Grief and physical suffering feel more… physical. And the dead millions with their unbearable voices feel, quite specifically, like our dead millions. On the other hand, Lucky’s incoherent speech did not, for me, work as well. Maybe I don’t have the vocabulary, or maybe it’s a little harder to render an abstracted pretentious academic nonsense lingo in Yiddish. Or maybe the implied message here– that all our thinking, and academic thinking above all, avails us nothing when we are confronted by the necessity of individual meaning-making and of moral action—maybe this message is not so palatable to the Jewish tongue.

D pointed out that “I used to be someone,” translates as I used to have a ponim. An identity is a social face. There are analogs in many languages. A self is a social achievement, and it comes with moral requirements, so that ‘losing face’ and ‘saving face’ have to do with shame, and with how we are judged.

The Yiddish Word of the Week is aftselokhes אויף צו להכעיס. The first play in the theater festival, Yosl Rakover Talks to God, portrayed a man who insists on his belief in God even as he goes up in flames at the end of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In a letter to God, he recounts his experiences and the loss of his loved ones, and descrbes how all his values and attitudes have turned upside-down, so that, for example, he has come to value night above day, and animals above human beings. But he insists on his love for God, despite the fact that he loves the Torah even more, and that judged by its standards, God is wanting. In the end, though God has done everything to drive him away, he remains a believer ‘aftselokhes’, or out of defiance and spite. In Vartn Af Godot, Estragon tries to help Lucky up, after Lucky has collapsed under strain and maltreatment. When Lucky doesn’t stir, Estragon complains, “He’s doing it on purpose”. The victim is accused of deliberately remaining in his victim position. Later the same accusation is leveled against Pozzo. Here, the translator uses ׳aftselokhes׳ as an equivalent.

Finally, if there is any redemption anywhere in Godot, it is in friendship. The characters, who otherwise have nothing, have each other. It’s not clear that either finds it sufficient, but it is what they have. I found this friendship particularly warmly rendered in the Yiddish, or perhaps through the actors fully-felt realization of it. In an absurd world, a world where I am unmoored and must make my own meaning, if friendship is all I can get, I’ll take it. Look how many meanings my friends helped me put on this play, and look how much I enjoyed it because of them.

————

I fell behind on blogging, so this will have to serve as my New Year’s post as well. Leshone Toyve. A sweet year to each of you, full of all life’s blessings. Together in khevruse (the solidarity of friends) we’ll make it a meaningful one.

New Yiddish Rep's Godot: David Mandelbaum as Estragon and Shane Baker as Vladimir. photo by Ronald L. Glassman.

New Yiddish Rep’s Godot: David Mandelbaum as Estragon and Shane Baker as Vladimir.
photo by Ronald L. Glassman.

Keeping Up With the Katchkes

On a Lighter Note… My last post was criticized for overkill. I took a charming and funny saying and explained it to death. So a short light one today.

In addition to unpacking, I have been flitting from one project to another, without getting much traction on any of them. I’m sure everyone has times like this.

For example, I thought I would work on my listening. No, I haven’t gotten a conversation group together yet, and I have not found a class. But, even for a yishuvnik in the hinterlands, this is a good time to study Yiddish. I’m old enough not to take the world wide web for granted.

It’s true, I said I didn’t love online learning. But I thought I could at least try a sporadic and self-directed project, given the resources out there. For example, the Forverts Yiddish news broadcasts are available as podcasts [link here]. The Yiddish Book Center has digitized old recordings of literary events from the Jewish Library in Montreal. You can hear the great writers reading and talking about their work [link here] . YIVO has podcasts of old radio programs [link here] . I’m sure there are other sources too.

For this try, I wanted the text of what I was listening to, so I went for the Sami Rohr Library, also at the Yiddish Book Center [link here].

I printed out the first three pages of Yud Yud Zinger’s Di Brider Ashkenazi, from the Book Center’s free pdf, and then settled in. The opening is richly descriptive, and the reader went fast, so I had to pause the recording practically every few seconds. That was a little galling— I couldn’t get any kind of feel for the rhythm of the language. So I read a page or two first, underlined the hard words, looked some of them up, and then just relaxed and listened. Less than three pages in, I fell into a deep, sound sleep. When I woke up to the soothing stream of barely comprehensible words, nearly fifty minutes of the recording had gone by.

I will give this another shot. In 3-page bursts. While standing. But in the meantime, I thought I’d share my new Word of the Day I learned from my journey through the first couple of pages.

Wagonloads of Germans are traveling through the Polish countryside as the book opens. The wagons and their occupants are a strange sight to poyerim (Polish peasants) and Jewish onlookers alike. The contents of the wagons, including tools (the travellers are weavers), other physical possessions, and religious artifacts are described. In the commotion of the caravans, Gendz hiner un katshkes hobn nisht oyfgehert kardatshen in zeyere shtaygn.

Kardatshen ( קאַרדאַטשען ) iz nito (is not there) in either my Weinreich dictionary or in my Beinfeld and Bochner. I assume it is Slavic, probably Russian in origin. And that’s a big limitation for me. When a word is not in the Yiddish dictionary, the next try is to go to the source language. I have a German-English dictionary, and a Hebrew-English dictionary, but I would not be able to make any use of a Russian-English dictionary, since I’m not familiar with the alphabet.

Luckily, as with many first encounters with a word, the context provides a lot of information. “Geese, hens and ducks did not stop Kardatshen in the cages.” I can infer fairly confidently that the verb Kardatshen means, “To draw a lot of attention to yourself, despite having no particular talent.”

—-

Chick and ducks and geese better scurry.

Chick and ducks and geese better scurry.

Oykh a Fish

1. A Leaf Turns

Classes have started for most of my teacher friends, and for my son. Though it is in the 80s outside, the days will now start getting noticeably shorter and the yellow and brown begin to show here and there on the leaves.

Tuesday, I visited my friends in Rochester, where our Yiddish reading group wrapped up reading the last chapter of Di Heldn fun Chelm. We felt the sorrow of the Chelmites leaving their town and dispersing into the wide world, somewhat sweetened by the knowledge that there is a little bit of Chelm in all of us. In the evening I saw my poetry friends and read at my favorite Rochester open mic. Usually I stay for a drink after, but this time the list of readers was long, and I had to drive back to Ithaca, so as the words of the last poem sounded, I was gone, like the feathers in the Chelmites’ perenes. [a perene, as I understand it, was somewhere in weight between a comforter and a feather bed, like a thin futon].

It’s a time of endings and beginnings, a time that looks in both directions. Back over this eventful summer, and the work of my last year, and forward to new challenges. First, we hang on for dear life to the last rays of summer:

Lomir Farhaltn dem Zumer

Lomir Farhaltn dem Zumer, or Let’s Hold Onto the Summer, is a poem by Israel Emiyot. It is included in the brand new book, As Long as We are Not Alone. This is a large, beautifully produced, bilingual selection of Emiyot’s poems, lovingly chosen, introduced, and translated by Leah Zazulyer. It has just been published by Tiger Bark Press, a small poetry press, based in Rochester and run by Stephen Huff. [you can order it here — http://www.tigerbarkpress.com/index.html]

I am still holding on to the warmth of our summer poetry evening now nearly three weeks ago, which drew a large and appreciative audience. After some great music to kick us off, I got to hog the stage, waxing on about our reading group and about Yiddish, putting the evening in context, and thanking my friends. Then, five of us read poems, by Leyeles, Korn, Leyvik, Dropkin, and Glatshteyn, in Yiddish and in English.

When the readings were done, Leah surprised us by reading her translation of Emiyot’s poem, Let’s Hold Onto the Summer, and put a perfect punctuation on the evening. There are some more original and more powerful poems in the collection (I might be able to review it more thoroughly later, but get a copy yourself and form your own opinion), but none that hits that turn-of-the-season spot this aptly. So, last Tuesday night at the open mic, before I left Rochester, I did the same.

Let’s Detain the Summer

Let’s detain the summer;
let’s hold fast to him;
let’s hide his green rustling;
let’s tie him to a strong tree.
Behind the tree there’s a barn
and the doors stand open.

The red sunrises trail pale tufts of hair;
and the sunset’s light streaks linger;
let’s put them on like a sash;
let’s tie them
to the strongest plants that extend themselves from the water;
let’s hide the summer, let’s entice him
into the deep valleys—the world’s love wounds.
Let’s not allow him to part.

————————

2. A Herring is Also a Fish

But, the world and leaves turn. Fortunately, I have a lot to look forward to this fall, and not just the mop-up of past projects. Yes, I’m going to finish my translation of Roberts Ventures. And yes, I will send out my translation of The Fate of Our Yidddishist Schools some time before the winter. But I have also just received Weinreich’s massive History of the Yiddish Language in the mail as a gift, to add to the other books on my reading list. I have already met someone here who can speak a little with me, and in a fantastic bit of timing, a Yiddish theater festival is scheduled for next week! [more about that here] So, I should have a chance to meet Ithaca people who are interested in Yiddish. Finally, I still have nearly a dozen of my grandfather’s yet-untranslated books to choose from.

None of those projects or events, though, can possibly substitute for D’s amazing class and our wonderful peer reading groups. A friend in Rochester told me I should teach a Yiddish class here, but I am painfully aware that I am merely an intermediate student. I can’t understand the language when it goes by at a normal conversational pace yet. I can’t read sophisticated material, and even the simple material I can read still sends me to the dictionary with disheartening frequency.

So, when I happened to be emailing a well-known Yiddishist for a different reason, I asked about teachers here in Ithaca. One thing I didn’t want is an online course. When it came to writing poetry, I quickly determined that I personally learn 1/10 as much in an online class as I do in person. Your experience may vary. The expert (who teaches an internet-based class) did not know of an Ithaca teacher, but suggested I give online learning another try, saying, Bimkom she-eyn ish… iz a hering oykh a fish.

Now that gave me something to chew on. The first part was indecipherable to me, and the second part?? In fact, though the first half is made up of Hebrew words, the combination is an ekht Yiddish sprikhvort, an actual Yiddish proverb. The literal translation is, “In a world without a man, a herring is also a fish.” Which barely tells you a thing. As Max Weinreich writes, “A text without a context is a linguistic shard.” So, one has to dig around a little. I’ll spare you the digging it took me to get there, and start where I ended up– with an explanation from Benjamin Harshav’s The Meaning of Yiddish (thanks to Google Books, and Kathie H).

The first half is Hebrew. In fact, it’s straight out of Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), in which Hillel is quoted: “Where there are no men [the plural is used in the original quote], try to be a man.” That is, in the absence of moral or intellectual community, be a mensch. That’s the literal reading. When there’s no group, create it, or stand in for it. More generally, when something needs doing, do it. If the tool is missing, become an instrument yourself. In a contemporary English version, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

But what’s with the herring? According to Harshav, not only would be Pirke Avot (or ‘Oves’) be familiar to the Yiddish speaker, so would a common Russian proverb, which goes: “In a fishless world, a crab will do for a fish.” Of course a crab (treyf) will not serve as a substitute for a fish in Yiddishland, so the herring is subbed in. Herring, while edible, will not make an ideal fish entrée.

According to Harshav, the proverb is often used in a self-deprecating way, as it was here. Not only is a herring a ‘small fry’, but, he goes on to say, the world of the herring barrel is “simple, coarse and smelly,” and provides an ironic contrast “to the lofty and moralistic Hebrew style.” So, in this context, “Yes, I get that an online course is not as good as a live one. But since you can’t have that, you may as well take what you can get– maybe I could serve as a substitute.”

——————

3. (Not Really) Good Enough.

The Yiddish proverb does not just operate, it seems to me, through how the Russian subverts or comments ironically on the Hebrew. Here’s a two-part English saying which does that, but which doesn’t have a Yiddish tam. In response to “How are you?” I sometimes get the reply: “I can’t complain. (Who would listen anyway?)” Here, the second half is, of course, nothing other than a complaint. But because the two are on the same level of content and generality, as well as the same literary style, the second half negates the first half more or less completely.

Yiddish, by contrast, has a way of meaning both itself and its opposite. The Russian-origin proverb does not overrule the Hebrew, nor fully convince us that, in a pinch, anything will do. The herring may be the best you can get, but rather than rueful acceptance, the Jewish version dishes out humor from the absurdity of the contrast. Oh, and by the way, we did not want fish in the first place, but a person.

The other part of how the Yiddish proverb means what it does is in its structure. Very frequently in Yiddish writing, a Hebrew saying or a bit of Torah is dropped in (“It is written that…”), followed by the Yiddish. This practice is so common that it has often been parodied, most famously by Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye. He apparently uses the person/herring/fish saying somewhere, but I couldn’t locate it. Instead, I’ll remind you of my description of a similar ironic ‘near’ translation in the story Chava, here [link]

In place of the original lofty moral resolve of Hillel, acceptance and complaint coexist. I may be reading the mood of the proverb wrong, but it seems to me what it’s saying is: “The world is not as it should be, and therefore we make do. But no one is fooling anyone that this is OK.”

And on those terms I could be at peace in doing my Yiddish translating. I recall Leah Zazulyer telling me once that at first, because in her view her Yiddish was not strong enough, she had felt like she was not the right person to translate Israel Emiyot’s poems. But over time she came to know that if she didn’t do it, no one else would.
When it comes to translating poetry, someone who is both native in the source language and a real poet in the target language will both do a better job and be less satisfied, more aware of the impossibility of translation. Ilya Kaminsky, who wrote a great blurb for the Zazulyer/Emiyot book, gave a reading this afternoon in Ithaca. Asked a question afterwards about translation, he said that he doesn’t really think of his translations from Russian as translations, but rather, as homage.

The sense of not-rightness can be generative. Yiddish says, or rather it embodies, a perspective that the old sources don’t work exactly as intended in our current setting. On the other hand, acceptance of or assimilation to the host’s way of thinking doesn’t answer the original question.

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Zazulyer Cover