Yetsies Mitsrayim

In dem Land.png

In dem land fun piramidn
            In the country of the pyramids
Iz geven a kenig, beyz un shlekht…
            There was an angry and evil king…

These words are so ingrained that I cannot read them without singing them in my mind.

Zaynen dort geven di yidn
            There, the Jews were
Zayne diner, zayne knekht
           His servants, his slaves.
Zaynen dort geven di yidn
Zayne diner, zayne knekht

Pesakh. The Passover Seder, done correctly, is both meaningful and delightful, and, naturally, there are (to put it mildly) varying perspectives over how to do it correctly. I just typed the word ‘Haggadah’ into Amazon, and it returned a 34-page list of different variations of the book (at a dozen per page, that would be about four hundred choices) for sale. In my view, whatever hagode (Haggadah) one uses, there are several inherent tensions in conducting a seder. The biggest of these is between thoroughness and speed, between putting extra things in, and taking things out.

Regarding speed, my parents often told me about the seders of their youths, at which the hagode was read, complete, in three languages— Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. What they mostly remember is how the heads of families would read at breakneck speed. I was told that this was a contest to show off whose Hebrew was best. I looked and found a similar story described on the internet, along with the writer’s indignation about how alienating this had been for the children; old people zooming through an incomprehensible story in a foreign language, just to show off. But I’ve also heard somewhere that this custom of reading as quickly as possible comes from much less crass a motive– the tradition that we tell the story of Passover as though we ourselves are there, experiencing the Exodus. We speed through the reading of the story, according to this interpretation, because we might have to flee for our freedom at any second.

Regarding putting things in and taking things out, we have in our hagode the Extremely Charming Story of Rabbi This, Rabbi That, Rabbi Somebody, Rabbi Youknowho and Rabbi Whatsizface; the five of whom once got to talking with each other about the amazing Exodus from Egypt, and were so spellbound that they talked all night, until finally their students came in and told them that it was morning, and time to recite the sh’ma. And? That’s it. No hint about what they came up with in all that talk, nor whether their wives thought this story was the least bit charming (or even, for that matter, true). But someone thought it was charming, because we’ve been telling it for over a thousand years.

Why even waste blog space on this? Isn’t it enough at the seder? Well, the point of the Extremely Charming story is that whoever adds to the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt has great merit. As the anecdote itself embodies and demonstrates, we’re going for quantity over quality. Furthermore, the story teaches us that it is easier to put something into a Jewish ritual than to take it out.

There are all kinds of brief, revised, short, essential, abridged Haggadahs available among those on Amazon. In my family, we do not use these. Instead, we read the “New” Haggadah, which was published 70 years ago, under the editorship of Mordecai Kaplan. This work, which was designed in its day to be new and relevant, to tell the old story in a modern idiom, has become unalterable cannon.

So the peanut gallery groans at the stories that go on in too much detail, seemingly with no connection to our lives. We chop a verse or three from Dayenu, but the rest of the text stays, even as the dissidents in the family openly mock one sexist passage or cluck their tongues at the doctrinaire socialist ones. Two concessions to speed are made— only for the very most famous passages do we add Hebrew to the English, and after the meal all we do is sing a couple of songs. But however few they are, along with Chad Gadyo and Eliyahu Hanovi, the pyramid song stays.

Shver hot zey geplogt der kenig
            The king afflicted them badly
Laydn hot dos folk gemuzt…
            The people had to suffer…

In my mind, I hear my Uncle David’s basso profundo filling the air and prevailing over the voices of his sisters and the rest of us. But not with these words. This particular verse, they did not sing:

Vayl es hot farstanen veynik,
            Because few resisted
Veynik mut gehat in brust.
            Few had courage in their hearts. [repeat]

As far as I remember, the verse that says the reason that the Jews had to suffer so long and so badly was that too few of them had the courage to resist… that one was not in our hagode. The rather gruesome verse about children being mortared into the walls was actually in our hagode all this time, but as long as there were children (and there were always children), we never sang it. My mother only pointed it out to me a couple of years ago.

We concluded with the heroism of Moses. Otherwise, who knows how long the misery of slavery, or the seder, would have dragged on,

Ven in land fun piramidn
            If, in the country of the pyramids
Volt nit zayn a shtarker held
            There had not been a strong hero,
Velkher hot gekemft far yidn
            Who fought for the Jews
Mit zayn khokhme un zayn shverd.
            With his wisdom and his sword. [repeat]

And, if you look up ‘In Dem Land fun Piramidn’ on YouTube, that’s pretty much what you get: [link to you tube version here]. Pharaoh was cruel. The Jews suffered. Moses saved us. For my whole life up until I studied Yiddish, I had no way to know that more was being left out than was included.

The poem that would later to be set to music was written by a man named Dovid Edelshtat. Born in Russia in 1866, he was of the first full generation of secular Yiddish poets, a highly politicized group known collectively as the sweatshop poets. Edelshtat moved to the US at age 15. He was an anarchist, who joined the movement just after the Haymarket Riot in Chicago. Emma Goldman apparently referred to him as “a fine idealistic nature, a spiritual petrel whose songs of revolt were beloved by every Yiddish-speaking radical.” He not only wrote about sweatshops, but also worked in them, as a buttonhole maker. He died of tuberculosis in Colorado at the age of 26.

Called Yetsies Mitsrayim (the Exodus from Egypt), the original version of his poem did not have just the three verses sung at most seders, but twelve. Here is the text of a slightly modernized version, in full:

Full text piramidn for blog

I am grateful to Anna Gonshor (McGill University), who taught my literature class last summer, for sharing this version of the poem with our class. [note: I retyped it here, so any and all errors are mine, not hers]. It puts the intent of the song in an entirely different light.

Here’s a rough translation of stanzas 7, 8, & 10:

Un fariber zaynen, brider,
            And, brothers, millions
Miliyonen teg un nekht.
            of days and nights have passed.
Un itst, yidn, zayt ir vider
            And now, Jews, you are again
Pares diner, Pares knekht
            Pharaoh’s servants, Pharaoh’s slaves.

Folk! Ver vet dikh itst bafrayen,
            People! Who will free you now?
Vu iz er, dayn sheyner held?
            Where is your wonderful hero?
Af dayn veynen, af dayn shrayen,
            Over your tears and your cries
Ver vet tsiyen itst zayn shverd
            Who will now draw his sword?

— — — —

Ven du vilst kayn keytn trogn,
            If you do not want to wear chains
Zay aleyn dayn sheyner held!
            Be your own wonderful hero!
Nit nor mentshn,- shteyner klogn
            Not only people—the very stones are groaning
In der vister shklafnvelt!
            In the barren world of slavery.

And then, ‘my brothers’, a new Pesach will come. There’s more, but dayenu. It’s enough.


Three Encounters with Mani Leib

Three Encounters with Mani Leib
by Solomon Simon
Di Prese, Buenos Aires, Nov. 14, 1953.


More than a year ago I invited the poet Mani Leib to a graduation ceremony at a Sholem Aleichem school. I was surprised that he did not immediately accept. He would usually be eager to come to shul ceremonies. One time he said to my wife:

“My biggest competitor in the schools is Avrom Reyzen. He is even invited to school ceremonies more often than me!”

When I met him at the school celebration I asked him:

“How can it be, Mani Leib, that you have lost your enthusiasm for coming to our shul ceremonies?”

He gave a sigh:

“Take a look at me, Khaver Simon. I am an old man by now, soon to be seventy. A Jew my age should be full of wisdom and Torah and should have an established path. He should come to his grandchildren with complaints, demanding to know why they are not walking in his ways, why they are not keeping God’s commandments. I ask you, what are my ways? What are my commandments that I would have them keep? “I am left in a wasteland, dried out from an unrooted life.”

We sat in a back corner of the noisy hall and talked as though no one else was there. I said to him:

“You will pardon me, Mani Leib, I think it’s just your mood. You talk as though you are reciting a poem. Of all people, you surely have nothing to reproach yourself for. What do you mean, “I am left in a wasteland, dried out from an unrooted life”? You are a poet with deep roots in the folk. You have taken the language of the marketplace, the kitchen and the workshop and made it sing hymns. The whole people has gained eloquence through your poetry.”

“I will answer the way you would. ‘The first point I shall address first, and the next point next.’ Yes, “I am left in a wasteland, dried out from an unrooted life” is taken from a poem. From the sonnet, My Tradition.

Mayn Mesore – My Tradition

My great grandfathers’ lineage is two-sided.
They poured into each other like separate veins
feeding the same river, then just as soon divided
back into two streams, in a far corner of Ukraine.

One stream of ordinary Jews, their children playing
– peace be with you- among gentiles in the market square.
The other— rich as the Torah’s truth— raised on sayings
of sages; fine satin frock coats they used to wear.

Which of these two tendencies shall I bequeath
to my children’s children? For when God’s hand
separated the streams, I was left in a wasteland

between them, dried out from an unrooted life–
To Torah and the market I am equally foreign,
and dry wasteland itself is my tradition.

“That’s the poem. But it is not just a mood, as you say. For me it is a years-long experience that has now been formed into a poem. It is a part of my being. Or the other way around.

“OK, I will admit, he went on, I agree with you. I have a share in transforming the language from the market, workshop and kitchen into hymn. The exploited craftsman, the repressed Jewish woman, the apprentice, and the serving girl have become eloquent through us Yiddish poets and are have made it out into the wider world. So, they went out into the wider world, became spellbound by the earth in her fullness, and left us behind, abandoned. Left Mother Yiddish standing there, embarrassed. Ashamed of her own flesh and blood.

“Listen to what kind of a language is spoken here in shul at the celebration of this occasion, waving his hand sadly, whether by the parents or the children. Mother Yiddish is debased here. And there, across the ocean, no one is left — killed off. What remains is locked in jail. And in Israel? In the Jewish State, Mame Lozhn is seen as an outside language, a foreign tongue.

“Warsaw is gone, Brownsville is silent, my dear Simon, Jerusalem does not want our Mother Yiddish. Yehupetz, Kazrilivke, and Berdichev have been put in jail, surrounded by goyishe guards. And we, Jewish poets in America, went into raptures over the richness of Yiddish. We dressed it up and adorned it with all kinds of literary airs and jewelry. Momma Yiddish has become a Grande Dame. But we have neglected the family. The whole family left her, does not want to know her, or looks at her as at a stranger. We Yiddish writers sit here near Momma Yiddish, alone, without sons, without daughters, and without grandchildren. Was it worth it?”

He spoke quietly as if he were talking to himself. It was the first time I had heard him talk about such matters. Usually he talked about literature in general, rarely about himself and about the future fate of the Yiddish language and literature. I answered him:

“Mani Leib, suppose that everything you are saying is true, even. Truly great creations are never lost. You will not convince me with you despair. Yes, it was worth it!”

“You’re probably right, it was worth it. But even if our creations are preserved, and I am not at all so sure they will be, it is no consolation. I will be translated into a classical English, into a prophetic-sounding Lozhn Koydesh, or a wooden Modern Hebrew. It will be read by generations who are not rooted in my Jews, my Ukrainian Jews, in these seven Jews:

Seven Jews ride and ride
ride to the yearly fair,
bringing raisins, bringing almonds,
hoping to sell them there.

The roads are rainy, the night black.
The wheels of the wagons clack.
Black and rainy are the roads,
their horses barely drag their loads…

See, I cannot be satisfied with beneficiaries. I want heirs, heirs of those Jews and an heir of mine.

That evening he read that very poem, “Seven Jews,” and the whole cycle of Elijah the Prophet poems from his book Wonder of Wonders. After the reading, over a cup of coffee, I said to him:

“So, you did not read just for beneficiaries. A poet only reads like that when he knows that he has his [own] listeners. It’s more evidence against your pessimism.”

He looked at me sharply:

“In your writing, which cuts like a knife, it seems you want to rebuild our lives and we want to make a fool of you. Maybe you are fooling yourself. Three listeners I know for sure I had. Maybe another couple out of the forty in the crowd. The rest are like estranged children who came to their father’s for a holiday. The father makes Kiddush. The children put on yarmulkes, listen with the longing and pleasure of their youths. Usually, they do not answer with an Amen. If they do, it is only a bit of nostalgia. The heirs are no Kiddush makers. Their children, absolutely not.”


I saw Mani Leib a second time this year in the Arbeter Ring’s Liberty Sanitorium. It was Erev Rosh Hashone. My wife and I traveled to the mountains for the week of Rosh Hashone. Before we even unpacked, my wife told me to hurry:

“Let’s go the Sanitorium, we’ll see Mani Leib and Daniel Charney.

We went to him for a short visit. We arranged to come for a longer visit a day after Rosh Hashone. He was very happy with us. My wife went in to Daniel Charney first, and I went to Mani Leib first.

I found him sitting in bed with a thermometer in his mouth. His face lit up when he saw me. He indicated a chair and gestured that in a minute he would take the thermometer out.

As he took out the indicator and glanced at the degrees of temperature it revealed, he waved his hand: “What a bother! It’s normal anyway. Yesterday, one degree higher. Today, normal.”

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“Wait a minute, Simon, don’t be in such a hurry. Before I tell you how I am doing, tell me the truth. Did you come to visit me or Daniel?”

“Both,” I answered. “But I came to you first.”

“I’m glad. Don’t laugh at me. I am jealous of Daniel. Everyone comes to him first, and only then to me. I know it’s foolish but nonetheless, human.”

I smiled. “How can you compare to Daniel? After all, he is a resident here. He has set up a home. Two rooms—a bedroom and a workroom. You are a guest here. In a couple of weeks you will be back home. Few people even know you are here. They find out you are here only when they come to see Daniel. So they visit you, too.”

He laughed:

“Litvak objectivity and common sense. You’re right.”

“So now tell me, how are you doing?”

“Who knows? They say I am a sick man. This winter I got pneumonia. My old illness paid a call on me— the one that lies in wait for a man so many years without even a hint of sickness, and then ambushes him. Nu, I feel fine. But the doctors say that I have to be here six more weeks. Meanwhile, I am looking over my poems. Putting together a two-volume set. I’m telling you, this is the best and most peaceful place to revise writing and reflect on ideas.”

“It’s high time you put out your poems in a couple of volumes!”

“What’s the hurry? As long as the poems are here, that’s the main thing. The few real readers keep the poems when they are published in newspapers. The rest? These good readers do not even pretend to grasp the true meaning of the poems. It’s a way for them to pass the time a little. Yes, you have been writing a lot lately. Strangely, I’ve started writing a lot in my old age, too.”

“You know, Mani Leib, I thought that since I have time here, and you obviously aren’t busy, that when I come back the day after tomorrow I would read you ten pages or so from a new book I’m writing. A folkloric novel. In such a work, the main thing is the language. I’d like you, with your ear, to hear it. I know you would have corrections.”

“But you won’t follow my advice.”

“Maybe yes and maybe no. But when it comes to language, you have an ear that catches the least false note, the smallest insincerity. It would be interesting to me, and a gauge to measure my language by how often you interrupt my reading, as you tend to do.”

“So, good, bring the manuscript!”

Sunday I read for him for fifteen minutes. Of course he interrupted me often, as per his usual custom. I stopped.

“And, and, go on?”

“What, do you want me to read you the whole book?”

He laughed:

“No, but I want you to read until I catch you— as I catch all folklorists— “with a bench grown up in the middle of woods and fields.” In these ten pages there’s no bench.

“With a bench grown up in the middle of woods and fields?” I asked, astonished.

“Yes, that’s the name I’ve given to nonsense in literature. Often, nonsense and illogical situations come up in folkloric stories. A writer who writes folk stories lets himself go on as follows:

It was Friday afternoon. Reb Mordechai went into the woods to pray Mincha, [the afternoon prayers]. He crept deep into the woods and set about praying. He prayed out loud, and when he got to the eighteen blessings, he closed his eyes, deep in prayer. When he finished the Shimen Esre he looked around and did not know where he was. He had completely forgotten which way was East and which way was West. He quickly finished Mincha and set off on his way. He had to get to town by Shabes. He walked and walked and the woods got thicker, the trees wider. The woods were so thick that it was dark in the middle of the day. He went on until he had grown very tired. In his fatigue, he sat down on a bench.

“You understand me, Simon. The writer needed a bench, so a bench grew for him in the middle of the woods. And do you think, it’s only in folklore that a bench grows up in the middle of the woods? Among our greatest poets and prose writers there are words, expressions, sentences, whole paragraphs that are utterly illogical, nonsense: ‘A bench, grown up in the middle of the woods’!”

“You know, Mani Leib it’s worth the visit to you just for that bench. But I am working too hard. Let’s talk a little.”

“Wait, have patience,” he answered me. “Read me the two paragraphs about Tzedakah [charity] again.”

I began reading:

Jews, remember! A man does not become poorer by giving Tzedakah. Whoever has compassion on poor people, God has compassion on him. Also a man must remember that it’s a “galgl hakhoyzer”; the wheel of fortune turns: Now he is down and soon I, or my child, will be down. And those who have compassion on him, he will be treated with compassion. One most donate to the poor with an open heart, in good spirits and with joy.

And if a poor man asks you for a donation and you have nothing to give, you should not yell at him, and not, heaven forbid, raise your voice to him. You should speak to him gently and explain that you want to give but you are not able to. One may not refuse a poor man when he asks for a donation and send him away empty-handed, even if you can only give him the smallest little thing- a dried fig.

I stopped. Mani Leib said to me:

“You took these two paragraphs just as is from a book in the holy tongue. They are not yours.”

“True,” I answered, “it’s from Yoyre Deye, Halokhes Tsedoke.”

“From where?”

“From the Shulkhen Oyrekh, the laws concerning charity.”

“So, I sensed it right away.”

“Which is not allowed?”

“Heaven forbid. Just the opposite. By all means. It’s good when one can draw from the old wells, the Jewish sources. This is one of my biggest regrets. In my old age I discovered that in Jewish knowledge I am an ignoramus. In world poetry, an expert; in world literature a scholar; about Judaism, a dope. I never made the effort. On the contrary, I thought it wasn’t necessary.”

I answered him:

“In your poems [it] is not apparent that Jewish knowledge is lacking, but the reverse. It seems to me few Yiddish poets use Hebraisms as skillfully as you do. You have no ‘benches grown up in the middle of the woods’”.

“That is not erudition, it just comes from a passion for language. But a truly great Jewish poet has to be a scholar, or to become a scholar. I am far from it, which is why I complain in my sonnet, “Mayn Mesore”:

To Torah and market I am equally foreign,
and the dry wasteland itself is my tradition.

“Maybe I would not be in such a dry wasteland if I had been more deeply rooted in Torah!”

I answered, annoyed:

“Listen, Mani Leib, it’s not true. What are you talking about, there is no dry wasteland in your poems. Your poetry is full of juice, of Jewish analogies and metaphors, and with…”

He interrupted me:

“I did not say, Simon, that my poetry is a dry wasteland. I am enough of an aficionado not to look down on my own poetic work. But, for us, the poem became poem, only poem, and nothing but poem. A poem for the sake of a poem, that is not duty-bound to anything. The poem is not instilled in the framework of everyday Jewish life. Yes, a genuine poem, a true poem, but only for the sake of the poem, not grown up intrinsically out of the demands of an integrated Jewish life. It’s really hard for a poet to write genuine poetry within the framework of a coherent life path. Yet I believe that I, Mani Leib, could have accomplished it, but I did not have the necessary Jewish knowledge for such a challenge. That is what I meant by the line, “And dry wasteland itself is my heritage,” but I still should thank God that no bench grew up in the middle of a thick wood in my work.”

I realized it had gotten late. There were only a few more minutes to go in and see Daniel Charney and give him my greetings. I said goodbye to Mani Leib and we agreed to see each other when he came back to the city.


He did not live past the month of Tishrei. He died suddenly. Unexpectedly. He died when his family came to take him home— the doctors said he had gotten that much better. He got a hemorrhage and he was gone.­­­­­­

I went to the funeral in the great “Forverts” Hall. Someone told me that Mani Leib lay in his casket in a blue suit, a white shirt, a red necktie, his hair combed in a part and his cheeks rouged. I stood at a distance and did not even want to go stand near the coffin for a while. I wanted the living face of Mani Leib to remain in my memory, not the dead reflection ­of his face.

As is our custom, we chose a speaker, who would himself give a eulogy for the dead, and call up the other speakers. I listened as the speaker called out:

“And now so-and-so will give a speech.”

I heard a buzzing in my ear:

“Oh, Mani Leib, Mani Leib, do you hear? “A bench has grown up in the middle of a thick wood.” You would not have said it that way. You would have said, “And now so-and-so will deliver a eulogy for the departed.” Why didn’t they learn from you how to guard the Yiddish language— that itself would have brought them to the Jewish path, and they would deliver a eulogy for you, and not make speeches??”
But that was not the only “bench grown up in the middle of a thick wood.” Later I heard something even worse. A poet stood up and began reading the poem Mani Leib had left as an inscription for his gravestone:

Do ligt Hersh Itses zun,…

I did not want to listen further. I now understood why he said to me, “For us my poetry became too much, ‘the poem, only the poem, that is not responsible to anything’.”

Yiddish poets stand up and one of them reads a poem that says:

“Here lies Hirsh, son of Isaac, with shards on his eyes,
buried in shrouds like a fine Jew. He was
in our world as though he had just arrived on foot
to the yearly fair from his far-flung settlement


when the body is dressed up in a blue outfit with a red tie– is there a more blatant lie? He hit it on the head! Literature means nothing in daily life. A poem is just beautiful speech, which does not have to be complied with. The words, the thoughts are written and said out loud in order to sound good, for the sake of the rhyme, for beauty.

Here you have it, shrouds in the poem, and a blue suit in the coffin. If he had thought a poem was something binding, that a poem is a part of the poet, then either they would not have dressed him up like a country squire, or else they would not have recited the poem.

Now I felt the poet’s complaint more deeply:

“To Torah and market I am equally foreign,
and the dry wasteland itself is my tradition.”

(translation, by D. R. Forman, March, 2017)

Comments on “Three Encounters with Mani Leib”

I became aware of the 1953 article, “Dray Bagegenishn mitn Dikhter Mani Leib” through Ruth Wisse’s book, A Little Love in Big Manhattan. I am fond of this piece, partly because I am proud of and interested in my grandfather’s ties with the Yiddish poets of his era in general and with Mani Leib in particular. Their friendship resulted my improbable possession of a treasure—a copy of Mani Leib’s Sonnets inscribed to my grandfather by Leib’s widow, one of the few physical artifacts of my zeidy’s life I own.

The article is also of some general interest. The conversations reported here show how far the great lyric poet Mani Leib had traveled from Di Yunge’s (the artistic group The Young Ones’) original aesthetic commitment to ‘art for art’s sake’. Now, in his old age, Leib yearned for a sense of integrity or wholeness, for life and art, thought and behavior, self and community to be of a piece. Di Yunge had once boasted of not having any literary antecedents. This now seemed less like something to boast about in the keenly-felt absence of literary heirs. My grandfather, being the Yiddish secularists’ great proponent of tradition, was well placed to be the recipient of this questioning and these concerns.

The piece is a bit long and the language, in places, a bit stilted. Much of the latter is undoubtedly the fault of my translation. But, the Yiddish is also a little stiffer than some of my grandfather’s writing. I assume it was written hastily (what was the publication lag from NY to a Buenos Aires newspaper in the 1950s?), and with an eye to honest recount rather than literary perfection. At points Leib’s voice seems a little too close to my grandfather’s own voice. But there is also a moment when Leib makes fun of him, parrying Simon’s argument with a pompous holy-tongue-infused Yiddish. In that moment and a few others, their friendship comes through warmly and clearly.

Libery Sanatorium

Changes large, small, for the better or not.

I’ve been posting less often again. While the world goes to hell in a big way, it has been a time of small changes in my life, changes that might or might not add up to something larger soon. Perhaps it’s just the anticipation that comes with the last couple of weeks of winter, but it seems like more than that. Meanwhile, it is clear that this blog, without my having consciously decided or said so, has been going from a regular and important part of my activity to a less regular and more peripheral one.

Several occasions over the last month might have provided fruitful material for a blog post or two, had I given them my time and attention. I might have chosen to write about immigration. Yes, the “ban” is a Jewish issue, and our perspective matters, and we must speak out. I also recently took a temporary part-time job reading applications for Cornell. It is striking how many of these over-achieving students are children of immigrants, particularly from south and east Asia, but from elsewhere as well. One of the questions on the application is what languages are spoken in the home. When a language other than English is listed, the parents were born abroad. Despite our current more accepting attitudes and the lip-service we pay to multiculturalism, it still seems to be two generations and out for heritage languages.

I might have written about my visiting friends in Rochester where I was impressed to see how my old class, still being taught by the wondrous Deborah Rothman, is now actually reading Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi together. Then I returned for a conversation about The Zelmenyaners, the Moyshe Kulbak book that people are reading in conjunction with the Yiddish Book Center’s book club. We talked about the difference in experience of reading even a small portion of that in Yiddish, compared with the English. Their impressive energy, reading two family epics, has me wondering what I am accomplishing in my own puttering here.

I have also been continuing to watch my own little Yiddish Ithaca group as it does not transform over time into a larger and more viable entity. We are changing days this spring because of a time conflict. I fear that will diminish our small remnant to a remnant of a remnant, and have started to question whether this is the best use of my time. Or, the reverse. Perhaps with redoubled efforts and/or a changed emphasis we could now get a better turnout, and the creativity that critical mass would enable.

I have returned to my work at smoothing the rough edges on my translation of Dos Kluge Shnayderl, and that, at least, is going well.

Yesterday, I idly wandered into a poetry reading and it turned out that all three poets were also translators. One of them is local and seemingly eager to talk translation theory, which he teaches nearby. So that could become a useful connection for me. Then a friend posted in facebook this morning about her Binghamton, NY talk next week about Yiddish modernist poet Dvoyre Vogel [for more about Vogel, click here, or here]. Her announcement promises some Yiddish, and also “Hegel, Heidegger, Benjamin, Derrida, and Modernist texts.” Oy vey!

My zeidy warned me in 1932 that this would not be easy. In his article Iberzetsung un Dikhtung he says: “At first glance it does seem that translation is very simple. The writer has a finished text. All he has to do is to take one word at a time as it is written. But words are not dead things made up of vowels and consonants. Words are symbols that conceal images and this is where the translator’s difficulties begin.” He goes on to say that even a simple word like ‘table’ (tish, shulkhen) evokes different mental images of different tables when given in English or Yiddish or Hebrew. He doesn’t even begin to get into the sounds of the words (so crucial when translating poetry) or their secondary meanings and the associations that those bring up. I have feared and avoided critical theory, not just because I feel inferior and at a disadvantage, having never done university coursework in literature, but also because as a translator I am already on shaky and complicated ground before I consider the philosophical and deep linguistic, political and historical ways that words are used to make meaning. But I might go to that talk anyway.

There are two other things I did not want to let pass without blogging about. First, unbelievably and yet utterly predictably, overt antisemitism has reared its ugly head in Rochester. A Jewish cemetery was desecrated, and then less than a week later a bomb threat called in to the Brighton JCC. Such is life in America under Republican rule.

I’ve thought and thought and thought about my friends, and have not known what to say. I’ve thought and thought about how three and a half years ago I first walked into the little room in that JCC with Yiddish books all around the walls– the room that gave me back my life. Or took it, depending on how one views the madness I’ve enveloped myself in ever since. I’ve thought, and I have no special insight to offer at all. Only love for my dear friends and teacher and community, and the germ of an even stronger determination to keep at it. If a dozen old people struggling one sentence at a time to read a book written 80 years ago actually pose a threat to these racists, then dafke, by all means, let us read.

I also recently received a sweet, beautiful, long letter from a prominent Yiddishist, someone who has made major contributions to Yiddish and Jewish studies, who took the time to tell me, book by book and in rich detail, about how important Solomon Simon’s stories had been to his childhood. How generous it was to share those memories and the feelings (clearly still vivid all these decades later) that went with them. There really is no way to know how our actions, big and small prepare the soil for the future. So, I am leaving Tongue’s Memory right here where it is and will keep checking in.

I have been working part time, as I mentioned, and I have another gig coming up. It’s only a few hours, helping out with a digitizing project, but it marks the first paid job I will have that uses Yiddish in the work. I also have had a short translation accepted for publication that could come out as early as this summer. Another, larger project is in the works. I had been thinking that this might be a good time to say goodbye to this blog, which was intended to be a record of my process of coming to Yiddish as a beginning student, later in life. Though I am still far from competent, I’m also clearly not a beginner anymore.

But no, there will be no goodbyes. I will be around, just not as often. Let’s hope it’s because I’m off doing useful things with the time I have and using the voice that tongue’s memory has given me.

Screen Capture Debora Vogel Project.png

Screen capture from a video project about Dvoyre Vogel’s poetry. You can see the video here: