What about joyful Yiddish literature—not merely humorous works, which can have a bitter edge, but genuinely delightful Yiddish literature? If you can’t name a Yiddish author whose work meets this description, well, that’s what I’m here for. Dear readers, meet Itzik Manger.
Itzik Manger (1901-1969) would have needed no introduction among Yiddish-speaking audiences at any point in his life before World War II; he was one of the most renowned Yiddish writers the world over. Born in the Romanian city of Czernowitz and raised partly in the town of Jassy, home of the earliest Yiddish troubadours, Manger inherited the region’s legacy as the cradle of Yiddish theater. His father, a tailor, coined the term literatoyre (a portmanteau of “literature” and “Torah”) to describe his own creative impulses, while Manger took on folk aspects of Yiddish-speaking culture—like Purim plays and wedding jesters—and began publishing “folk-style” poetry in the secular Romanian Yiddish press.
Manger moved to Warsaw at 27 and enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, publishing 10 books in 10 years, founding a literary journal, giving constant public readings, turning out lyrics for the Yiddish stage, and becoming a hot screenwriter for the Yiddish film industry. Needless to say, all this evaporated in 1939. Unlike most of his readers, Manger survived the war via an early escape to Paris and then Marseille, where various ship captains befriended him in bars from Marseille to Gibraltar to Liverpool, his persona as a cuddly drunk persuading them to usher him to safety. He eventually settled in Israel, where Hebrew translation brought him some sliver of his earlier renown. Yet the sheer exuberance in Manger’s work demands that we examine it outside of his life, for it is truly literatoyre, timeless art that brings Torah to life.
My favorite of Manger’s work is Itzik’s Midrash. These rhymed ballads are Midrash in the classical sense, stories that fill in the Bible’s narrative gaps. Playing with the rabbinic tendency toward anachronism, Manger goes all-in. He shows us a Jacob who gives his sons advice (“And for God’s sake, don’t forget / My Joseph the Righteous, not on your life / That even though she’s young and pretty, / Steer clear of Potiphar’s wife!”), an Adam who jealously wonders where his reflection’s gone when he’s not looking (“…maybe playing around with Eve’s breast and hair?”), an Abraham who dresses down Lot for being drunk (“That’s fine for Manger the tailor, / but not for you!”), and a Hagar and Ishmael who run into a starstruck Turkish sultan (“Our prophet tells us / That we’re your descendants!”). Nor are these just punchlines. Each poem brings new dimensions to these figures, who emerge as fully human, vulnerable and trapped by destiny; as Abraham muses silently en route to sacrifice Isaac, “Sad and beautiful are the Bible’s roads.”
I wholeheartedly recommend these masterpieces to you—except that I already know you won’t appreciate them. Like most highbrow Yiddish poetry, they are written in metered rhyme, which is not only hard to translate (Leonard Wolf tries valiantly in The World According to Itzik), but also sounds juvenile to English ears. Instead, in the hope of finding an access point to Manger’s brilliance, I recommend his novel The Book of Paradise, which captures in prose some of that same joyous humanity.
The Book of Paradise is a delight from start to finish—so much so that readers who equate seriousness with grimness may find themselves confused by it, wondering if they’ve stumbled into the children’s section. The novel’s premise comes from a story in the Talmud about how babies in their mothers’ wombs are taught the entire Torah prior to their births. At the moment of birth, the legend goes, an angel smacks each child’s face (resulting in the dent beneath one’s nose), causing them to forget what they’ve learned. In Manger’s novel, a young angel in Eden named Shmuel-Aba Abervo (“aber-vo,” a Germanic expression for “certainly not!” was a marker of faux-sophistication among Romanian Jews) finds out he’s doomed to be born. Fortunately, the angel assigned to deliver him to Earth is a notorious lush. Intent on remembering Paradise, our hero gets the delivering angel thoroughly drunk and then covers his own nose with clay to protect it from the blow. As a result, he is born remembering all of Eden and spends the rest of the book regaling his astonished earthly parents and neighbors with tales from his former home.
Eden, it turns out, closely resembles Earth. Rich angels abuse their poor angel servants, lovelorn angels pine after their crushes, patch-tailor angels eke out a living repairing damaged wings, and military angels’ wives cherish letters from husbands deployed to the Turkish Eden’s border. The only difference is that the rich angels are King David and the Patriarchs and other biblical heroes. (Hasidic rebbes occupy a far shabbier neighborhood.) Shmuel-Aba and his friend Pisherl (literally “little pisser”) play hooky from their Talmud studies to eavesdrop on Abraham and Isaac giving Jacob marital advice, Saul harassing David (who responds by mooning him), and Bathsheba in a jealous rage about David’s fling with his son Solomon’s lover Shulamith. They also trail the commoners, like Pearl, an angel gone mad after being abandoned by the bookkeeper who maintains the Book of Life, or Zaydl the photographer, an aspiring writer who foists his Purim plays on anyone passive enough to listen.
The book veers uncomfortably toward reality with the escape of the “Messiah-Ox,” a legendary animal described in the Talmud as the main dish the righteous will eat upon the Messiah’s arrival. In Manger’s Eden, the Ox bolts his pasture and leaps over the border into the Christian Eden, prompting a paradise-wide emergency. Queen Esther demands a communal fast, while King Solomon writes an obsequious letter to the Christian saints requesting the animal’s return. The improbable negotiations force Shmuel-Aba and Pisherl to venture into the Christian Eden, where a female angel seduces Pisherl, and St. Nicholas tries to convert them by offering toys. Our heroes’ humiliation before their return involves a ma yofes dance—a term any prewar Yiddish reader would instantly recognize. (Suffice it to say that your ancestors would be delighted to know you’ve never heard of it.) The casualness of this incident, and the promptness with which the book returns to its biblical heroes, is creepy only in retrospect. And only that retrospect tarnishes the joy of this relentlessly delightful book.
Today Manger’s extravagant playfulness feels a bit delusional, as the book’s publication history reflects. It was first “published” in Warsaw in 1939, with its author in Paris (from which he would soon flee). I place “published” in quotes because the book was never sold: the printing plant was bombed prior to its distribution, leaving only a few surviving copies previously mailed to New York. The book was only properly published in 1961—by which point most of its potential readers had long been murdered, including the volume’s illustrator. It’s easy to dismiss Manger’s work as hopelessly detached from his readers’ realities, then and now.
Yet that delusional quality is a necessary part of filtering the Bible through a contemporary imagination: There would be no Jewish literary tradition without it. And there is something unstintingly beautiful about Manger’s insistence on happiness, a fierce and marvelous determination in how he ushers his characters back to Paradise unharmed. This Yiddish writer insisted that being human means retaining one’s right to joy and uplift—a legacy from Eden that, despite the horrors of Jewish history, still endures.