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.”
“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?”
“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 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.