A Hasmonean Khanike, Night 7, Pages 4-5

Home from my delightful vacation, to a slightly longer than comfortable things-to-do list.  I’m tempted to recite Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s poem “‘My likhtl burns at both ends; It will not last the night…” but I would be posturing. It’s not even midnight, and I’m skipping the commentary today.

Solomon Simon, Yidn Tsvishn Felker. Pages 41 and 42. Text only:

Yidn Tvishn Felker p41 a[When Alexander Jannaeus besieged Gaza, he killed off the most respected people of the city,…]

… and the terror he cast upon the populace was so great that a lot of men in the city killed their wives and children, to keep them from falling into Jewish slavery. [33] The Jews destroyed the temple of the Samaritans and Judaized the Edomites— forced them to accept Judaism at sword point.

Neither did the Hasmonean rulers spare their Jewish brethren. Once, when Alexander Jannaeus clashed with the people, he killed off six thousand Jews in the courtyard of the Temple. Brother battled brother over the throne. The rulers, whether kings or high priests, behaved amorally. The Jewish rulers were under the influence of the foreign Greek culture, imitated the powerful nations, and forgot their customary Jewish virtues and Jewish modesty.

Here is a brief and pointed description of the Hasmonean dynasty:

Yidn Tvishn Felker p41b“The life of the court was built according to the blueprint of the life of the court in fearthe Hellenistic governments. The Hasmoneans, in their private lives, were far from modest and their conduct was not fitting for Jewish high priests. And it’s no wonder: The Hasmoneans were first and foremost soldiers, military leaders. They were away at war for a long time, and life in a military camp has never been and could not be chaste and respectful. The Hasmoneans conducted themselves like all leaders of their time: they held great banquets, took concubines, persecuted those members of their own families who were suspected of political deviation. Shimon was murdered by his own relatives during a banquet when he and his sons were drunk. Aristobulus locked his mother and his brothers in prison. There, his mother died of starvation. It is said of Alexander Jannaeus, that he sat and conducted a feast, surrounded…

p42 part 1… by his concubines while the executioners crucified his defeated opponents. There’s no doubt that all these reports that have reached us contain a fair bit of exaggeration, but even if the specific facts are not all true, nevertheless the basic idea surely matches reality. The rule of the Hasmoneans was a secular government, even as life in the royal court was a secular one that was at no higher a level than life at the court of Antiochus or of other kinds in Asia Minor.”[1]

Jewish life under the influence of the Pharisees became holy and pious but the Sadducees, who led the government, went the well-trodden paths of all other nations. “They put the national interests of the monarchy above God’s commandments. Their main sentiment was passionate patriotism. Piety occupied second place. They understood, as experienced secular human beings, that the independence of the state cannot be maintained by strictly observing all religious commandments and ceremonies, nor by relying solely on God.”[2]

p42 part 2Yohanan Horkanos attempted to maneuver between the two parties and maintain an equilibrium between them. He took his diplomats and his soldiers from the Sadducees. For civil posts: judges, rabbis, and the [bote-seyfer] he picked Pharisees. But how long could such a situation be stable? And in fact a breach opened between the governors and the Pharisees, who had the great majority of the people on their side. Here we see a truly remarkable manifestation, unique in all of world history: A civil war broke out between the sons of Alexander Jannaeus, and both sides appealed to the Roman ruler, Pompey. But then a delegation from a third faction came to Pompey…

[1] Avigdor Tcherikover. Ha-Yehudim ve’ha. Yevanim bi’Tekufah ha-HeUenistit. P. 257. [note: later translated by the author as Hellenistic civilization and the Jews].

[2] Perhaps I can be permitted to wait and translate Simon’s footnote number 35 another time soon, when the eighth night is not racing to catch me.

footnote 35

Seventh Night.jpg

(to be continued…)

A Hasmonean Khanike, Part 3

That’s night five, page three of translating. I have blocked out some of the details from my own youth, but when my kids were young, I will freely confess that every year there were some candles left in the box when Chanukah was over.

Ch 06 The Hasmoneans. [from Jews Among the Nations, by Solomon Simon, p.40]

p 40 part 1

[Several places in the Gemara throw a very interesting…]
…light on the spiritual nature of the pious ones, who would later become the Pharisees. It says in the Mishnh: [Heb. quotation] – Those who go out on Shabbes to save Jews may return to the city with their weapons. The Gamara explains: When they used to leave the weapons next to the city wall, it happened once that the enemy found out and chased after them. The Jews took their weapons in to the city, with the enemy right behind. In the tight space, they killed more of each other than the enemy killed of them. Then the ruling was made that they were allowed to bring the weapons back with them.[1]

The Gamara goes on, giving Rabbi Yehuda’s interpretation: When enemies with weapons in their hand attack a town and demand money; if the enemy is only after money [עסקי–ממנות] one may not violate the Sabbath and go to oppose the enemy with weapons. When the enemy attacks them to take their lives, or “demand a soul” [עסקי–נפשות], they may go and fight the enemy with weapons on Shabbes. In the same Talmudic discussion, there is a whole discourse on towns that are near the border vs. towns that are far from the border. The conclusions are not important; what’s important is the [עצם–הקירה] concerning such a matter. This shows the particular Jewish view of attack, battle, and war.

page 40 part 2

About a hundred years after the Hasmonean uprising, Pompey besieged Jerusalem. The city was able to hold out for a long time. But here again, the question of Shabbes resurfaced. True, Jews are permitted to fight on Shabbes, but when? In order to save lives. But Pompey’s soldiers only broke the fotress walls of the city. To stop the siege machines would be a violation of the Sabbath![1] How can such people conduct a war, even when they appear to be as proud of their king, country and capitol as any other people.

When the Hasomean dynasty was well established, it was natural for it to go the way of all other monarchies. Their rulers oppressed the neighboring peoples. When Alexander Jannaeus besieged Gaza, he killed off the most respected people of the city,…

I welcome any insight folks can give me into the Hebrew words that I could not find (on the road, I don’t have all possible dictionaries]. The עסקי for example, in עסקי–ממנות, and also ” עצם–הקירה “.

It really only occurred to me this year that I never read the original account of the Khanike story. I’m on very shaky grounds here. To my surprise, I Maccabees and II Maccabees is not in the Tanakh. Apparently, it was not included in the canon, and the original Hebrew books were lost?

Maccabees is in the Christian bible, and, from what my cursory web search told me is found in the Septuagint, in a Greek version that has the clear linguistic features of having been translated from the Hebrew. The earliest Christians having been Jews, and this bit of history having been relatively uncontested, there’s no reason to think that book is not authentic.

Today, in a used book store, I saw the Anchor Bible has two volumes, one dedicated to I Maccabees and one dedicated to II Maccabees. According to the commentator, the two books are accounts of the same events by two different narrators with different axes to grind. Only by comparing the two versions can we deduce what “really” happened. This bears a family resemblance to my granfather’s method. Except, the two volumes together
total over 1100 pages. I think I will stick with my zeide’s 8-page version.

Thanks to those who commented. We’ll see how far I make it by the end of the holiday. When we had candles left over, we did not burn them all on the eighth night to finish out the holiday in a blaze of glory. Now I kind of wonder why not.


[1] Graetz, History, English edition, vol. 2, pp. 65-66. Or, see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 14, ch. 4, paragraphs, 2 & 3.

[1] Footnote 31, p. 40. I will be saving some of Simon’s Talmudic footnote citations for later, as both the language and format are a little unfamiliar to me. This citation is from Tractate Eruvin.

fifth night

A Hasmonean Khanike: Day 2ish

Learning is still a higher value for me than the product. I have already learned from this project. First (and anyone could have told me this), I learned not to take on a project like this when you’re supposed to be going on vacation. Sure enough, other work issues have been also insinuating themselves into my email, and this struggles to make it through even the first triage.

But I’m also learning, even from one of the less sparkling chapters of Yidn Tsvishn Felker, about my grandfather’s mindset. And I always learn, with every new page of work, about my own translation preferences and priorities.

The basis of Simon’s polemic is a reading across the sweep of Jewish history that emphasizes tensions between religious values and the state. He starts with Torah. In many cases, he reads past the text of the Tanakh, informed not just by the Talmud, but by the contemporary biblical scholarship of his time, to infer as well as he can, what “really” happened.

Here, in the Khanike (sorry, Arnold, Chanukah) story, he seems, to my surprise, to accept the received text at face value. One modern secular reading I hinted at on Tuesday, that the good guys were actually the bad guys, and vice versa, had not gained currency in the 1940s. But he would not have gone for that reading. He fought against his contemporaries’ equivalent cynical takes on religion. In Simon’s view, the religious values were generally good values, even if they were rooted in certain superstitions, and even when people did not live up them. In the Torah, the prophets were a necessary corrective to the raw power-seeking of kings. It is in that context the he is skeptical of a ‘secular government’. Not, heaven forbid, because he wanted a theocracy.

Anyway, to the text. Can you read the photo of the Yiddish, or is it too small? Please help me out where you see mistakes.

Yidn Tsvishn Felker p39Ch 06 The Hasmoneans. [from Jews Among the Nations, by Solomon Simon, p.39]

[No matter how much a people may wish to live quietly and peacefully and…]

…intend to follow a Godly path, it cannot walk that path, because statehood has its own logic.

The Hasmonean uprising did not begin because Jews sought power, rule, or even independence. The uprising started in an authentically Jewish way— as a fight for God, a fight for their own way of life. An uprising against the hated idolaters.

Antiochus could have put an end to the uprising very easily. He merely would have had to stop the persecution against the Jewish faith. The fight against the despot was not raised by the aristocracy, nor by the rulers of the people, nor by the military leaders. When it came to taking a stand against Antiochus, it was an ordinary religious priest, a man of the people who stood up. It may be said that the people had collected so much spiritual courage within itself that it could not become like all the surrounding peoples. It either had to win, or else it would prefer to perish.

The Hasmoeans won with the strength of the ‘khasidim’ [the pious ones]— the good, observant, God-fearing members of the people. The strength of the pious ones was not fundamentally military. Their spiritual heroism was merely temporarily embodied in physical force. And, because the pious did not think highly of force, they could not become the beginning, the kernel from which a class of warriors could develop. People who fight with stipulations, cannot be consistently good soldiers. And in fact, that’s how it was. As soon as the danger had passed, the “khasidim” distanced themselves from the Hasmoneans. But against their own will, a new dynasty arose from the victory that the pious ones had helped bring about, which set about founding a government, a secular monarchy, like that all other peoples.

A good example of the pious ones’ approach to fighting is the problem of Shabbes. At first, they completely refused to fight on Shabbes. When they recognized that this literally meant suicide, they authorized taking up a position against the enemy on Shabbes. But, among Jews, to fight for the government, or even for the existence of the government, is not important enough to completely overshadow a mitzvah, especially such a fundamental mitzvah as keeping Shabbes. Several places in the Gemara throw an interesting…

Khanike second night

(I bet the next word is going to be ‘light’)

A Hasmonean Khanike: Day 1

Hello blog readers of yore. I never know how to celebrate Hannukah (Yivo-Yiddish transliteration: ‘Khanike’). I’ve seen at close hand how ambivalent my goyishe loved ones are about Christmas, and have no desire to emulate them. Plus, I’m truly lousy at giving presents at appointed times. Nothing against dreidl, but really, it’s kid stuff, and the gold-foil chocolate coins- not great chocolate, and not great coin design. On the other hand, frying things in oil and lighting candles are both delightful. I will probably indulge in one or the other, or both. But I am frankly uninspired by stories of miracles, and also by stories in which the righteous fundamentalists prevail over the evil assimilationists.

So, this year, I have decided to celebrate by learning. My plan is to translate one page a day of the eight-page section titled “The Hasmoneans,” in my grandfather’s book, Yidn Tsvishn Felker. I have no idea whether it will work—the project coincides with vacation travel, and I’m already interrupting vacation with an online class (assuming I can get online somewhere at the proper time). But it is at least a little more likely to happen if I declare my intention and do it in public. So, with your indulgence, my dear and long-neglected audience, you are motivation for my holiday resolution.

A bit of background: Yidn Tsvishn Felker, or Jews Among the Nations, is Solomon Simon’s book-length polemical essay about diaspora nationalism, originally published in 1949. He was extremely concerned by the threat that Zionism posed, not just to his beloved Yiddishism, but to Jewish life in the diaspora more generally.

For centuries, Jews had lived among other, dominant, nations. Simon believed that, in their exile, Jews had worked out a way to live that was on a higher ethical level than other peoples. This was not because Jews were somehow genetically superior, nor was it the ideals embodied by their faith, as such. It was the way those ideals had been put into practice, or ‘concretized’, by duress, in the peculiar circumstances of Jewish life in the diaspora. Now, and particularly in the wake of the holocaust, many Jews wanted to be like everyone else, and to have a country, like everyone else.

In Yidn Tvishn Felker, Simon reinterprets Jewish history, starting with Father Abraham, to describe the centuries-old tension between being called to be a people apart, and wanting to be like everyone else. He used his reading of Torah, Talmud and Jewish history to argue for a certain set of values, including pacifism and separation of religious identity and religious values from state power. I could say much more, but that is enough to get you started.

Chapters 1 through 5 are titled, respectively: The Distinctness of the Jews; The Partriarchs; Beginning of Peoplehood; Kingdom; Babylonian Exile and the Return of Jews to Zion, and then the present chapter 6, The Hasmoneans. For the mavens out there, I welcome your feedback on the translation. I’m not after literal perfection. Nor am I particularly after consistency. For example, if the dictionary tells me the word מלוכה can mean ‘kingdom’ (or monarchy), ‘government’, or ‘state’, I have no compunction in going back and forth freely among them, as I feel the context merits. BUT, I do dearly want to know if I’ve gotten anything completely wrong.

Hope this is interesting to someone, but if not, thanks for being my foil to get it done. I promise something different next time. Best wishes to all for a Happy Khanike, for a light in dark times, and saturated fat for all. Translation follows screen shot of the original.

Yidn Tsvishn Felker p38

Ch 06 The Hasmoneans. [from Jews Among the Nations, by Solomon Simon, p.38]

It is worth emphasizing again that Jews are the same human beings as all other human beings. When they set up rulers, they were no better than the rulers of all other peoples. The Jewish kings, who were called merciful rulers (I Kings, 20:31), spilled a lot of blood: they led wars, intrigues went on in their courts, often court revolts, a son even went into opposition against his father and the father put down the rebellion. When a new ruler took power, he killed off the old dynasty. When a war broke out between two brothers of one father, the winner killed his brother. In the Persian era, when the high priests were the de facto rulers of the people, these selfsame spiritual leaders who were in power were no better than other tyrants. One example: In the days of Persian rule, when Cyrus Bagezes[?] was the de facto ruler, the two brothers Joshua and Jonathan began to struggle over the high priesthood. The end came when Jonathan murdered Joshua in the courtyard of the Temple. Bagezes retaliated against the populace, who were assumedly completely innocent, and weakened the Temple [that is, the power of the priests].

The rulers of the Hasmonean Dynasty did not conduct themselves any better, once they got a taste of power and glory. A state requires its victims; Life in a political city-state brings out greedy rulers and power seekers. No matter how much a people may wish to live quietly and peacefully and… (to be continued)


far zikh aleyn

Yeder makht yontif far zikh aleyn.

Calendars and Days: Lag B’Omer

Tomorrow I will shoot a bow and arrow, even though when I tried less than two weeks ago, I snapped the bowstring on my arm and raised a welt the size of a rutabaga.

Lag B’Omer is tomorrow. This is a peculiar holiday, maybe the quirkiest day of the Jewish calendar. The forty days of the counting of the Omer between Peysekh and Shavuous are a solemn time. The holiday of Lag B’Omer (the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) is a respite from that solemnity, and includes the various pleasures one does not partake of during the counting, along with various other spring-like observances and festivities.

It is a day of weddings, otherwise not permitted during this time.

It is also a day of outdoor walks and meals, of archery and bonfires and haircuts. I never had anything to do with counting the Omer when I was young (my family mostly only took note of the major holidays and, with the exception of the Passover Seder and a few nights of Chanukah, did not faithfully observe even them), so it does not really resonate with me. But Lag B’Omer is so wacky that it’s hard not to get in the mood.

In fact, I got married on Lag B’Omer, even though it was a mixed marriage, and we did not have a Jewish officiant. It was on May 13, 27 years ago. It also happened to be on Mother’s Day.

The strange thing about having two calendars is that they tend move in and out of phase. This can lead to a certain blurriness of vision. Leslie’s yortsayt (the anniversary of her death) is on the 22nd of Adar, which may or may not coincide with March 18th. This year it was pretty close– March 20th. I had the choice of which day I got to be sad and grateful. Or, if I chose, I could be sad and grateful for the whole three-day period. I went with the 18th, because it was a Saturday, and so I could feel bad about not going to synagogue to say kaddish.

Today, Saturday, is the day on the ‘American’ calendar that would have been our anniversary. But tomorrow being both Lag B’Omer and Mother’s Day feels more to the point.

In Jamaica Plain, where we lived at the time, there is also the tradition of Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum which, I’m pretty sure, always coincides with Mother’s Day. We took a walk with both our families in the Arboretum the day before our wedding, and we had lots of lilacs at the wedding itself. Many years later, when Leslie was ill, she and I and the kids were all back in Boston and went to the Arboretum on Mother’s Day. In addition to smelling the lilacs, we looked at the Bonsai collection and got a plant to take home (I don’t remember what plant), and Adam had his first migraine headache. It was a bittersweet day, at a place that had once stood for pure pleasure. So that association is an overlay on top of the other calendars.

Just now I looked on the web and saw that Lilac Sunday has moved to Saturday this year because of predicted bad weather. So it turns out that the calendar can get blurry all by itself. Likewise, I suppose if it’s too rainy here for archery tomorrow, I could try for the day after. But on Sunday I’ll have better company.

What does any of this have to do with Yiddish? It doesn’t, except that Yiddish is a mashup, a hybrid of Jewishness and worldliness. So, when for idiosyncratic and very personal reasons I have multiple calendars in my head at the same time, or when I choose to observe a bit of a colorful Jewish holiday that clearly has Pagan roots, it just has that Tongue’s Memory feeling to me.

I don’t know if you are thinking of finals time or of blooming, of endings or beginnings, or both. Or maybe one day is so odd that it seems plucked out of the season. There are enough calendars, and enough births and deaths and anniversaries, that it sometimes seems like one can choose to remember whatever one wishes on whatever day one likes. Whatever the season means to you, I wish you season’s greetings.


Bow and Arrow Challah from https://challahchallenge.wordpress.com/

Let it Remind You

An excerpt from Roberts Ventures (Robert’s Adventures):
“I shook myself. I woke up. Heniah was not sleeping. She said quietly to me:
‘Look, brother. It’s only the beginning of May and our boss’s house is already locked up. He has taken his whole family and gone away, by our very home shtetl, to his vacation house in Sosnovan Forest. Momma supplies his family with bagels every day. We work here and he pays Momma with our money, with our labor. Boruch, I wish with all my might that I was home.’
She cried quietly. I consoled her:
‘Sha, sister. There will come a time when we will take over the factory, and we’ll work for everyone, not only to satisfy the appetites of the rich. We will send sick workers on vacation so they get well. All the summer places and parks will be ours. Everything that we build and create will be for those who work.’
My sister answered quietly:
‘I will not live to see it brother. Maybe you will. So remember, when the time comes that there is a holiday, and the people march through the streets carrying flags, songs on their lips and joy in their hearts, let it remind you of your sister Heniah, who died young, and spat out her lungs in the factory.’
‘Don’t talk nonsense, sister,’ I answered. Your cough is not that dangerous. It will get better.’
‘Don’t comfort me with lies, Boruch. I know where I stand.’
“And in fact, she did not live long.”
— from ‘Robert’s Adventures’. 1938, By Solomon Simon
Happy May Day.

translator’s note:

Though Solomon Simon was viewed as on the ‘right’ for his generation, the ‘right’ among American Jews in the late 30s was mostly made up of socialists by temperament who were unaffiliated with any revolutionary party, of Social Democrats, and, at what would be seen as the real ‘right wing’, of progressive Democrats who believed that Roosevelt would get most of the results that the left had been pressing for. Another post makes it clear that he grew at least somewhat more politically conservative over time. But there is no reason to suspect that his sympathies for working people fundamentally changed.

He also knew his audience. Writing for the children in the Yiddish schools meant writing not only for his own group, the Sholem Aleichem Folk Schools, but also for the parents and children of the Workmen’s Circle schools, who were more frankly socialist, and for the parents and children of the Farband (labor Zionist) schools, and the Communist schools run by “the Ordn”.



by Solomon Simon
(based on two Hebrew stories by Yehuda Steinberg)
Published in Kinder Zhurnal, April, 1933 pp. 7-9

Joseph was six years old. A small, skinny little boy with big blue-gray eyes. A restless boy. He was always busy—working on, tinkering with, looking for, or dragging something around. Otherwise—talking.

His mouth never closed. Always asking questions. He was unendurable. Always in the way. He was generally yelled at for his talking. They called him chatterbox, long-tongue, millwheel, phonograph, and organ grinder.

Joseph did not know why people yelled at him. His father himself said that a good boy should learn well and grow up to know things, like his uncle Isaac. So, if you don’t ask questions, how can you know everything?

Grownups are just strange people. Take his dad—seems like an alright guy, a good man. But, nevertheless, strange.

Listen to this. When Joseph was four years old, he noticed the lightning for the first time, and he asked his father:

“Ta’te, how can fire come from a black cloud?”

His father did not answer. Then later he told everyone he knew what Joseph had asked him. Nu, if it was such a clever question, why didn’t he answer it?

Strange folks, the grownups. You ask them, and they don’t answer.

It rained for three days in a row. It was sad sitting in the house all day and not being able to go outside to play with his friends. Joseph sat and thought. God made the rain, after all. Maybe he could pray to God to stop the rain. But God is far away. Who knows if He would hear him.

Joseph asked his mother:

“Momma, if I talk, does God hear it?”

His mother answered, “Of course. And if you say good and nice things, God will like you. If you say bad things, he’ll punish you.”

“Does he hear when I whisper?” asked Joseph.

“Of course,” said his mother.

“Good, Momma,” said Joseph. I will pray to God to stop the rain. ‘God, God, stop the rain. I want to go out in the street and play.’”

The rain poured down without a pause. Joseph came to his mother with a new question.

“Momma, why didn’t God make the rain stop? I prayed to him.”

His mother got angry:

“Again already with the questions! Be quiet. Turn the machinery off for a while.”

Joseph retreated grumpily into a corner. And it irritated him even more when later in the evening he heard his mother telling his father all about Joseph’s cleverness.

Joseph had a lot of questions. But he did not know whom to ask. He repeated them and kept them in his head. If he met some clever person, one who would not get mad right away, he would ask him.

Surely his uncle Isaac would answer all of his questions. His father said that Uncle Isaac was the smartest man in America. He was a professor. But his uncle lived far away, somewhere in the state of Oregon. That’s where he was a professor. Isaac had never met his uncle.

One day his father came home happy, and told his mother proudly:

“My brother is in New York. He will visit us tomorrow. He’s coming here for dinner.

“Is he here with his wife?” asked his mother.

“No, alone. Came to give a talk at Columbia.”

“We should invite one of the neighbors. They should also…”

Joseph interrupted his mother:

“I want to come ‘to Uncle’s supper’ (dinner), too.”

“Look what else is new,” answered his mother, “we couldn’t possibly manage without him.”

“I will cry if you don’t let me,” said Joseph, peevishly.

“You will cry? How? Will you even be awake that late?” said his mother.

“I don’t care, I will be up,” answered Joseph.

“You know what, we’ll do it like this,” said his mother to Joseph. “You will say ‘Hello’ to your uncle, meet him, and then go to sleep. Good?”

“Good,” answered Joseph.


Joseph liked his uncle. He was tall, with gray eyes and black, curly hair. He had a big and ready laugh. He grabbed Joseph right away, lifted him high up to ceiling, and said:

“So, little rascal, do you like your uncle?”

“Yes, I like you,” said Joseph. “Did you bring me a present?

“Of course. I know nephews like presents. Here! I got you an electric train.”

Joseph took the bag, stood still and did not move from the spot.

“So,” asked his uncle, “why are you standing there like an statue; why don’t you open the bag? It’s late, almost time for you to go to sleep.”

Joseph fixed a pair of big blue-gray eyes on his uncle. His lips were scrunched as if he was about to cry.

“Shh. What are you about to cry? Feh. A big six year old boy should not cry,” teased his uncle.

“I don’t want your present,” answered Joseph, unhappy.

“What?” His astonished uncle asked.

“I thought if you forgot to bring me a present, you would have to answer my questions.”

“Your questions?” His uncle didn’t understand.

“Oh, now he’s started,” his mother mixed in.

“Oh. No, excuse me,” said his uncle, “I’m interested in hearing him out.”

His father signaled to his mother not to interfere.

And his uncle went on: “Why do you want to ask me these questions?”

“Because you are a professor, of course. You know everything.”

“OK, fine. Shoot.”

And Joseph began:

“I have a friend whose father is a carpenter. He makes furniture. But at home, they don’t have any nice furniture. Why?”

“A good question,” said his uncle. “Do you have more questions?”

“Yes,” said Joseph. “our maid.”

“What is with your maid?”

“She washes, she cleans all the time,” said Joseph, “and irons everyone’s things, and she herself always goes around in a wrinkled dress?”

“Another good question. Do you have more?”

“Yes. I asked Momma, why are there poor people in the world. She said that God loves poor people. If he loves them, why doesn’t he make them rich?”

Everyone in the house burst out laughing.

“Don’t laugh,” his uncle pretended to be mad. “Do you have more questions, Joseph?”

“Of course. A lot of questions. Should I ask them?”

“Wait a while,” said his uncle. “The questions you already asked are hard enough. To answer them, I would need to write a whole book, and I am only visiting here, I don’t have time. And you know what, son? Maybe I will not even be able to answer them in a book. Only on Peysekh will they be answered.”


“Yes, on Peysekh, at the Seder. You know, of course, that’s when questions get asked, and the answers are given.”

Everyone smiled, and Joseph asked, seriously:

“Will they answer my questions??”

“Yes,” his uncle answered, “there, there is an answer for every question.”

“Good,” said Joseph, still serious. “This Peysekh I will go to my Zeidy’s for the Seder, and I will ask him.”

“Agreed,” answered his uncle. “Shake on it!”

Joseph gave his uncle his hand.

“Now good night, Sonny. Sleep.”

Joseph went off to sleep. His uncle sighed:

“Ach! If I only I did know the right answers to all the questions.”


The first Seder at his grandfather’s house. The whole family is seated around the table. The custom is for all grandchildren who know the questions to say them to their grandfather. Joseph is the youngest, so he asks last.

Joseph thinks: First I will ask Zeidy the other people’s questions, the ones that are in the Haggadah. Then I will ask him my own questions.

And now finally Joseph’s turn comes. His grandfather signals. “Ok. Joseph”.

Joseph begins.

“Zeidy, I would like to ask you four questions. The first question is,…” Done with the four questions from the Haggadah, Joseph wants to start asking his own questions. But his grandfather claps his hands right away. “Avodim hayinu…” We were slaves… Then, “A story is told of Rabbi Eleazer…” Joseph does not understand what kind of an explanation that was. He looks at his grandfather and waits for him to stop for a moment. When he stops, he will ask him. But his grandfather presses on. He speaks quickly, page after page.

Now his grandfather stopped. But before Joseph has time to open his mouth, his grandmother brings him a pitcher of water, a hand towel and a bowl. His grandfather washes his hands, makes a brokhe, and starts eating matzah. Joseph waits for him to swallow his bite. Now is a good time to ask. And he begins:

“Zeyde, now I want to ask you my…”

His grandfather speaks angrily and in Hebrew— one is not permitted to stop. “Morror, now we eat horseradish, as the law requires.”

Joseph wants to satisfy his grandfather. He grabs a little cup of horseradish, pops it into his mouth and gives one chew, and then another. It goes into his nose. Another chew, it takes his breath away. He starts to turn blue.

His mother notices and cries out:

“Woe is me, just look. The child is dying…”

“Not at all, not at all,” answers his grandfather calmly. The horseradish went in his nose. Give him a drink of wine.“

His mother gives him a cup of wine. Joseph drinks—wonderful,– the wine is cool and sweet, it cools the roof of his mouth. His whole body feels good.

But it’s still better in his mouth. He takes another little cup of wine—oh, it tastes good. He drinks a third cup.

Joseph did­ not remember when his mother took him and laid him in bed. When he opened his eyes, he was lying in his grandmother’s bed. Right away the floor leapt up and put itself where the ceiling was. The ceiling fell down, bells rang, wheels turned, black clouds snowed with fire. God sat above the floor, up in the sky, creating the moon and stars, making it rain, putting poor people out all over the world, and laughing… Joseph lay in soft white snow, but his father held a big cup of horseradish and shoved it into his mouth.

His head spun, everything was chaotic—he fell down into a deep hole. But no…

Morning. Joseph opened his eyes. His mouth was bitter, and his head hurt.

What happened yesterday at the Seder? He remembered.

He made a wave with his hand— there is no point asking any questions of grownups. They trick you. Even his smart and good uncle had made fun of him, telling him to wait for Peysekh. He waited, for nothing. If you want answers to questions, you have to find them out yourself. And sitting in bed, Joseph took out his little book and wrote down all the questions he had thought of. When he grew up, he said to himself, he would find out the answers himself, himself and with no one else’s help.

kashes cover.png

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: https://vimeo.com/184893390