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Bringing Yiddish to the Negev

Rokhl’s Golden City: How poet Avrom Sutzkever became a giant in a country that rejected his language

Rokhl Kafrissen
January 30, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Last February I drove through the Negev desert in a kind of daze, mesmerized by the silent landscape. Camel Crossing signs flew by on one side of the highway, tank encampments squatting quietly on the other. In the desert, tanks and camels cross at the same place, and ancient history intersects with the present moment. For the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, the Israeli desert evoked his own life, where Polish storks and Bedouin camels could co-exist for a moment, but never meet. As he wrote in “A Horizon of Furious Salt,” translated from the Yiddish by Maia Evrona:

A horizon of furious salt. And prudent camels
move along with disappearing footprints in caravans.
But above them a silvery string of storks recalls,
that I once had a hometown in what then was Poland.

Sutzkever died in 2010 at the age of 96. As Dara Horn aptly put it, “Sutzkever’s life was more action-packed than any Marvel superhero’s—and as stark, gory, and unsubtle as a comic book in its battle between good and evil.” Already an accomplished poet when the war broke out, he and his wife, Freydke, joined the Vilne partisans in the forest. His renown as a poet led to their rescue by the Red Army, which brought them to Moscow. After the war he was the first Jew to testify at Nuremberg. Shortly thereafter, he and Freydke settled in Israel, where he became the most important Yiddish poet of the postwar period, a giant of letters in a country that rejected his language.

Sutzkever lived long enough to see the emergence of an independent Lithuania, with Vilnius (the formerly Polish Wilno/Vilne) as its capital. At the time of his death, Lithuania was deep in its effort to establish a double-genocide narrative, one in which elderly Jews were being sought for questioning in relation to “war crimes” supposedly committed by partisans. Whether or not he felt he could, Sutzkever never returned to his beloved Vilne. In the Israeli desert, he encountered migrating storks (botchan in Yiddish) from Poland, reminding him that he had come from there, too. But his journey only went in one direction, as he wrote in “A Horizon of Furious Salt”:

Dune after dune has erased the trail I left,
oh, who has strung that silvery string?
Now it will divide in two my world of memories
and camels grope along in vanishing steps and keep going.

Camels are very large, ornery beasts. The thought of colliding with one, and the damage it could do to a lightweight compact car, kept me unusually alert on the drive home from my night in the desert. But no matter their bulk, or how heavy their hooves strike the ground, the mark they leave in the sand can only ever be momentary. This is of no concern to the camels, of course, who generally travel as one, led by their owners and strung together from nose to tail. But what of the poet, untethered from the time and place that made him? From “A Horizon of Furious Salt”:

I am searching for my footprints, to finish my migration
but it’s already too late to learn the camel’s wisdom.
The silvery string of storks is slashing apart
a third layer of silence over clouds of dust.

“It’s already too late to learn the camel’s wisdom.” Is this the poet’s reproach to himself? It’s a jarring thought from our point of view. Sutzkever was, if anything, a leader, the embodiment of resistance, the quintessential partisan who literally turned words into bullets. One of the many astonishing stories from Sutzkever’s life is how during the war he led himself and Freydke through a forest minefield, using poetry to guide the rhythm of their steps. And yet, here, he seems unsure of his own step. How are we to understand this image? What is the camel’s wisdom? His ability to follow a disappearing path? Or the way he moves forward dumbly, without needing to look back and see where he has been? Sutzkever’s life, beautifully portrayed in the new Israeli documentary Black Honey: The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutzkever, hovers between these images, between the need to look back and the imperative to survive and forge ahead.

Black Honey is very much an Israeli movie, as is appropriate for an Israeli poet. His granddaughter Hadas Kalderon is a writer and co-producer of the movie as well as appearing as a talking head. The Israelis in the movie, like Dan Miron and Avraham Novershtern, represent the highest level of Yiddish scholarship and teaching, not just in Israel, but the world. Miron and Novershtern were filmed in a place I have come to love, the Yung Yidish performance space in the South Tel Aviv bus station on Lewinsky Street. Yung Yidish is a great place to film. The lighting is softly dramatic. The walls are lined with floor to ceiling stacks of books. Yung Yidish, even after decades of business, remains an undiscovered gem, where any night of the week you can find an intimate performance or class underway. Its proprietor, Mendy Cahan, is an indefatigable host, a Belgian song-and-dance man who has managed, by hook or by crook, to keep the place open.

Yung Yidish isn’t just located in a bus station, it’s located in a bus station so large, so bizarrely designed, and so sparsely populated that it begs to be used for an Israeli remake of Night of the Living Dead. If you like your travel experience with a post-apocalyptic tam, this is the place for you. And even if you don’t, the bus from South Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is fast and modern, runs every 15 minutes, and costs less than $10.

Unsurprisingly, the (arguably) grim setting of Yung Yidish lends itself to overdetermined press coverage by journalists eager to conflate the bus station with the endeavor of Yiddish in Israel. If anything, the more apt symbol is Sutzkever’s 2010 funeral, a sparsely attended affair to which the Israeli government shamefully sent no representatives. In contrast, the Lithuanian government, in addition to holding a moment of silence in its parliament, sent the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel to pay his respects.

Coming from New York, I see the bus station as a dynamic place on the margins, where cheap rent and plenty of space means anything can happen, even, or especially, Yiddish. In 2019 New York City, the idea of finding a cheap, spacious, and central place for Yiddish, something equivalent to Yung Yidish, is absolutely laughable.

In Tel Aviv, not only can you hang out in the world’s only Yiddish nightclub, but if you’re so inclined, you can see the same sunsets Sutzkever did, from the same waterfront Yafo cafe he favored. Though he is known for his poetry, Sutzkever wrote stories, too. It’s in these stories that you find him working the Tel Aviv sunsets into a major component of his poetic vocabulary.

When he was still learning the language, my friend Shane Baker received a signed copy of Sutzkever’s short story collection Di Nevue fun Shvartsapl (The Prophecy of the Inner Eye) from his mentor, the actress Lyuba Kadison. In Dortn Vu es Nekhtikn di Shtern (Where the Stars Spend the Night) the narrator sits in a Tel Aviv park and admonishes the sun, as a friend, not to sink into the ocean: Blayb nor, fraynd mayner, vos is di aylenish? “Rest a minute, friend, what’s the hurry? Sharks will tear your flesh and coral will build a city on your bones.” The narrator futilely tries to sink his own teeth into the sun to hold it back.

When Shane and I went back to Israel last May, we agreed to stay in Yafo and take in as many Sutzkeverian sunsets as we could. And we did. It’s amazing how a few lines of poetry can transform your relationship to a place. I’m lucky to have a friend like Shane who can act as a guide to the gorgeously challenging work of an artist like Sutzkever. Indeed, the problem that Yiddish faces in Israel is similar to the problem it faces in the United States: translatability. In Black Honey, Dan Miron calls Sutzkever’s poetry a “crystal palace” whose walls translators can only attempt to scale. Having spent some time reading Sutzkever in Yiddish, I agree. But if Dan Miron finds translating Sutzkever daunting, what hope is there for the rest of us? My friend Maia Evrona is an accomplished young translator who has been working on Sutzkever for a while. She did the translation of “A Horizon of Furious Salt.” She told me that when it comes to Sutzkever, one poem could take months, or even years to get right.

The problem of translatability is one faced not only by those of us who come by Yiddish as a second (or third) language. Even a native speaker of Yiddish from Poland could spend 20 years translating one poet, as Moshe Sachar has done for the beloved poet of the Krakow ghetto, Mordkhe Gebirtig. I had the honor of speaking with Sachar last year at 48 Kalisher, the Bund headquarters in Tel Aviv. A few months later, Sachar was honored by the Israeli government with a lifetime achievement award, along with a slightly better-known singer named Chava Alberstein.

Sachar and his family managed to survive the war, first in hiding in Lodz, then fleeing to the Russian side. Upon their return to Poland after the war Moshe was caught up in the 1946 Kielce pogrom. Two years later he was in Palestine fighting in the War of Independence. He went on to become a teacher and prolific translator among a multitude of languages. When Marlene Dietrich came to Israel in the 1960s she sang Sachar’s Hebrew translation of “Song of the Jackal.”

During the ’60s and ’70s, plenty of new Yiddish popular music was being recorded and released in Israel, and many of those songs were written or translated by Moshe Sachar, like David Eshet’s 1972 Forbidden Russian Songs (in Yiddish). Sachar composed an album of songs inspired by the Six Day War that included his Yiddish version of “Jerusalem of Gold,” “Yerushalayim Shtot fun Gold.”

But when I sat down with Moshe last year, all I wanted to talk about was his absolutely charming Yiddish translation of My Fair Lady. Moshe waved me away. His English, he told me, was not good. Then how did he create such a clever translation of a complex text like My Fair Lady? His secret? Lots and lots of dictionaries.

What he really wanted to talk about was his true literary achievement, his translation of Gebirtig into Hebrew. In 1977, the actor Mike Burstein recorded an album of Sachar’s Gebirtig translations, the beginning of his two decade Gebirtig translation project. Burstein calls Sachar’s translation “magnificent” and compares it to hearing the original Yiddish lyrics. Not because he did a word-for-word literal translation, but because he captures their essence. As Mike told me, “In order to do what Moshe did, you have to be both musically inclined and have the lyrical talent—it’s that combination that makes it so difficult.”

Burstein and Sachar had already known each for a long time before he recorded the Gebirtig album. It was Sachar who wrote the Hebrew songs for Shnei Kuni Leml, the 1966 Hebrew film adaptation of Avrom Goldfaden’s Yiddish operetta Tsvey Kuni Leml. A huge hit in its day, for years Shnei Kuni Leml was a staple of Israeli TV, especially on Yom Ha’atzmaut. It’s odd to think of this quaintly low budget story of an Old World matchmaker and two identical strangers being linked to the project of Israeli nationalism. But for Sachar, a hardworking translator who stayed behind the scenes and rarely made himself the subject of his own work, it is perhaps the perfect image for a life spent writing bridges across worlds.


READ: Avrom Sutzkever was a member of the famed Paper Brigade, a group of Vilne Ghetto laborers selected by the Nazis to sort through the cultural treasures of Vilne and decide what was worth bringing back to Germany (and what would be sent for pulp). As part of the Paper Brigade, Sutzkever helped build an underground bunker into which he and the other workers smuggled in as much as they could, saving countless treasures from Nazi destruction.

LISTEN: Many musicians have set Sutzkever’s poems to music. Daniel Kahn’s version of “Vi Azoy” is absolutely stunning. You can read his longer reflections on Sutzkever along with his own brilliant translation, here. Black Honey ends with one of Sutzkever’s most famous poems, “Ver Vet Blaybn,” though frustratingly, the Yiddish name of the poem is not given. The Yiddish power metal mavens of Yiddish Princess do a powerful setting of “Ver Vet Blaybn.”

ALSO: Seattle Yiddish Fest is a brand new three-day event with a small but high-powered klezmer faculty. Opening Friday, Feb. 1. More details here … You’ll laugh until you cry and then cry some more: Tevye Served Raw has returned for a brief New York engagement, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays through Feb. 13. Tevye Served Raw shows Tevye and his family from a different, more complicated side, one much closer to the work of author Sholem Aleichem. Click here for information and tickets … New York Klezmer Series is back, and in a new home! Coming up on Thursday, Jan. 31, is radical Brooklyn klez Tsibele, and for Valentine’s Day, my favorite Parisian fiddler, Eleonore Biezunski, is doing a rare solo concert of love songs from the Ruth Rubin Archive. New York Klezmer Series, class at 6 p.m. and concert at 8:30 at Town and Village Synagogue, 334 East 14th Street … One of the highlights of Yiddish New York 2017 was getting a preview of Mark Slobin’s then-unpublished memoir about growing up in Detroit. We know Slobin as one of the foundational scholars of the klezmer revival. Without his 1982 English language edition of Beregovsky’s Old Jewish Folk Music we might not even have klezmer music as we know it today. Turns out his own life is just as interesting, and his family story intersects with an array of postwar musical and cultural figures. The memoir is finally out and you can catch his book talk Motor City Music: A Detroiter Looks Back, Thursday Feb. 7, at 3 p.m. at YIVO … Speaking of the klezmer revival, along with Slobin’s research, Zev Feldman and Andy Statman’s album Jewish Klezmer Music stands out as a watershed moment. Feldman and Statman are playing a rare reunion concert, Wednesday Feb. 13, at 7 p.m. Details here … Eddy Portnoy will be talking (in Yiddish) about Bad Rabbi, his meticulously researched book on the seamy Yiddish underside of life in New York and Warsaw, as portrayed in the pages of the tabloid newspapers of the day. Sunday Feb. 10, at 1:30 p.m. at the Sholem Aleichem Center in the Bronx, 3301 Bainbridge Avenue … I can’t think of anything more romantic than going to a Yiddish lecture in Paris on Valentine’s Day, can you? If you’re lucky enough to be there, go hear my friend Nick Underwood talk (in Yiddish). about the Jewish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair. Details here … I wrote about Canadian troubadour Ben Caplan last year when he came to New York with the immigration musical Old Stock. Caplan performs a Geoff Berner song in Old Stock and it’s a combo that makes sense: Caplan’s outrageous carnival barker growl and Berner’s well-earned reputation as the chief rabbi of Canadian protest song. The two of them are touring this spring, mostly in Canada, but some dates in the United States. Keep your eye out for a stop near you.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.