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It Smokes a Man

New translations of works by the Polish-born modernist Yiddish poet Yitskhok Berliner, whose life in Mexico made him a special kind of mestizo

Eli Rosenblatt
September 16, 2015
Collage: Tablet Magazine; main photos: from a 1936 issue of "Der Veg" (The Path), a Mexican Yiddish Journal, Magnes Collection, UC-Berkeley
Collage: Tablet Magazine; main photos: from a 1936 issue of “Der Veg” (The Path), a Mexican Yiddish Journal, Magnes Collection, UC-Berkeley
Collage: Tablet Magazine; main photos: from a 1936 issue of "Der Veg" (The Path), a Mexican Yiddish Journal, Magnes Collection, UC-Berkeley
Collage: Tablet Magazine; main photos: from a 1936 issue of “Der Veg” (The Path), a Mexican Yiddish Journal, Magnes Collection, UC-Berkeley

Modernist Yiddish poet Yitskhok Berliner was born in Łódź, Poland in 1899. He immigrated to Mexico in 1923. He sold images of saints for a living. Berliner’s best-known poetic subjects were the destitute and forgotten people of Mexico City’s alleyways. The detailed, ethnographic language of Berliner’s speaker is also an expressionist voice in spiritual crisis. He is a tormented, simple Jew who—having become European exactly as he departed the continent for Mexico—reluctantly improvised a persona sensitive to the severe social disparities of his new home. The poems emphasize the anguish and disorientation of thinking and writing Yiddish in a Nahuatl and Spanish linguistic environment.

Berliner died in 1957, in Mexico. Published in 1941, the verses that follow include three poems in their first English translations. The language is marked by its subversive use of allusions to the Jewish past. Two dark bodies bend over like “reyshes” as a new immigrant rides in a wagon through the alleyways of Mexico City. We encounter the image of a sudden, frantic search for tefillin inside a Hasidic overcoat as naked children play in the sandy streets. We pass by dreams impaled on picket fences. The last poem from Berliner’s best-known book, City of Palaces, about marijuana’s effects on the perception of abject poverty, was published in English translation in 1996 and appears here in a new translation.

Yiddish poet Melekh Ravitch remarked that Berliner “should be and is a synthesis, between the wider world (al-velt) and the Jewish world, between yesterday and today, between Tepito and Bałuty, Mexico and Łódź, America and Europe, today and eternity, individual experience and world experience.” As some Jews mark Mexican Independence Day and the Fast of Gedaliah simultaneously, may this poet’s modernist innovations be a guide—and a warning.

Godl Treads a New Land

(Fragment From a Long Poem about Immigrant Life in Mexico)

The sea behind is already suspended in green jelly
having been cast by a front of waves checkered and fluttering
like Jonah’s whale-fish, the ship remains, still by the coastline.
Here he encounters here a sun glowing with dust and pollen
He raises his eyes up to the heavens and prayerfully deep-dreams.
His still lips manage—Praise God, may His name be sanctified!—
I have just crossed the sea and arrived here in one piece.

Foreign-tongued voices deafen like the beats
of drums.
Strange men hand off the suitcase he carries
His valise between valises, lifted on a wagon
two dark bodies flank him like two reyshes, bent.
Two palms lift and push the wagon hard
and Godl is off through the sunburned streets and intersections
He looks around and gazes upon it all, naked children in sand
messing around.

Big houses. Small, low-slung shanties bending down in prayer.
He touches the pocket in his overcoat to check if his tefillin
are there—if he had left them on the ship—God forbid—Deprivation.

He arrives at a house. An inscription on a board: “Hotel Espana”
A man opens the door to a room for him, better to say merely, “lodgings”
He washes his hands in a basin and wastes no time.
He takes a look through the shaded window to the eastern heavens astride,
fastens his tefillin upon his forehead and wraps the straps on his left arm
Forget it! He’ll pray in solitude, because here the Jewish street does not exist.

Let Us Relate the Power

It burns in me—the evil sin of Adam and Eve.
My troubles are soaked through with boiling tears and blood
I have never praised the Creator, I have never prayed.
I have never allowed God one tear through my wails.

My dreams dangle bloody on every picket
of this bright prison-world—I will beg, moan
My God—I come to you now with a holy quaking and panic,
Girded with prayers, like a devout Jew on Rosh Hashanah.

Each adversarial hour is a stumbling block,
Every coming day is for me a cold cruelty
Every bloody spot is a letter of Unesanneh Tokef
The red, agonized earth—an open page in the prayer book.

There, put those letters in all the corners of the earth:
Who from hunger? – Who in winter? – Who by fire? – and Who by water?
and I will stay a fleck of dust between red flecks
until the end of generations I will scream scream scream.

The Punishment Should Come

It became black it is a sunburned face
a piece of black coal
the light cries with red tears
toward a desolate destiny and unto horror
The Image of God wails
What has the world deserted?

There is no synonym
for sorrow that bullies
It is every letter
of a poem
an open mouth
that screams

For all
for beginning and end
for mourning-rips in cloth
upon a world of compassion and good
for us who have been dealt what we’ve been dealt
here, besides a variety of folk
for every bloody hour.

It moans
my song
blood, for a Jew
bloody scream
from each punishment.

The heart of time
has opened up a black secret
heated up my calm mood
God does not scream
in my song’s chamber
the blood of the Jew, it screams
it screams, it screams out to
a variety of folk
and it moans my every sentence

and I
a child
from a folk among wandering folk

through generations eternally in sorrow
through distant paths
through plague
through temptation
through wind.

I wait
for the ascent of a new day.


The path so muddy
A man, on the earth on the mist
Moving along lazy-stepped
with feet, like heavy pendulums
eyes, alight like candlesticks
small flames aroused, fall upon
womanly flesh and hips,
on girlishly tender faces.

What a waste!
He can’t avert his gaze.
Why, if man could master himself
slake in his eyes
these erotic flames.

The man smokes marijuana
A narcotic.

The dream-effect places him in a harness

The earth is not muddy.
He lays upon divans
that caress his feet, treading:

He doesn’t hear the laments,
The begging
The children on grimy corners,
play quartets
Here, thousands of singers sing

A man collapses from hunger?
They extend their hands and wail?
Their skin dried out?

An Emperor
A Youth
Upon thrones
Of red and bloody luminations

It smokes a man, that marijuana.

He’s harnessed to the divan.
upon the earth, which is filthy.

Eli Rosenblatt is completing his doctoral dissertation in Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.