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The Joys of Yiddish Poetry

Rokhl’s Golden City: A different take on Walt Whitman

Rokhl Kafrissen
April 24, 2019

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending the concert and release party for my friend Alex Weiser’s gorgeous new CD, called … and all the days were purple. Weiser is director of public programs at YIVO, but in his civilian life he’s a composer of new art song and opera. With this project he has taken (mostly) Yiddish poetry and written new settings for voice and strings, elegantly bringing together his two worlds.

We picked up oversize handouts on the way into the Center for Jewish History’s auditorium. As I settled into my favorite seat (back row, aisle) I looked down with some surprise. The first song on the program was in Hebrew, a Yoel Engel setting of the Shaul Tchernichovsky poem “They Say There Is a Land (Omrim Yeshna Eretz).” In designing the concert, Weiser wasn’t content to just show off his own compositions. He chose to open the program with a selection of music and texts from the YIVO archives, arranging them for voice, piano, and string quartet. These selections went all the way back to the legendary St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music. The society was an elite group of Jewish musicians at the beginning of the 20th century, students of Rimsky-Korsakov, who set out to collect and study Yiddish folk music as a way of creating a new, highly refined approach to Jewish music. Engel was also a part of S. Ansky’s famous ethnographic expeditions. It was during those expeditions that Ansky collected the material he would turn into The Dybbuk and it was Engel who would compose the score for the show.

I’m embarrassed to say my familiarity with Hebrew poetry is limited. “They Say There Is a Land,” with its elegant simplicity and mystic landscape, knocked me back in my seat. As the program moved on my eyes kept returning to the words on the handout:

Where are they, the holy ones?
Where is the Maccabee?
Akiva answers him,
The Rabbi says:
All of Israel is holy,
You are the Maccabee!

“They Say There Is a Land” captures a familiar tension, between the expectation of finding holiness in there, in the land, and the reality that it is up to us to embody holiness. When Tchernichovsky wrote it, the State of Israel had not yet been born and had not yet created the semiotic split between the people Israel and the state.

Blame my Diaspora-specific fatigue, but the entire poem felt like a thrilling archaeological find, far older than a hundred years. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Tchernichovsky had also been an accomplished translator of ancient Greek poetry.

The songs on … and all the days were purple are painted with deep blues and rich purples, a far different palette from Tchernichovsky’s romantic, sun-bleached lines. This is a poetic world in which female poets have an equal voice, set among Weiser’s elegant strings. The opening poem is untitled, by Anna Margolin:

… but listen:
How over our joy
there hovered the smiling face of death.

And all the days were purple,
and all were hard.

Whether we are meant to think of an underripe plum, or a swollen bruise, the poem quietly hands us the quintessential Margolin image.

Margolin is one of the most tragic, but compelling, figures of modern Yiddish poetry. She had only one child, born while she was living in Palestine with her husband. When she left her husband, and Palestine, she left her child behind and likely never saw him again. The final two decades of her life were spent in New York as a shut-in.

Anna Margolin was actually the nom de plume of Rosa Lebensboym, one among many names she used over her life. Born in 1887 in Brest, Lebensboym led an unconventional life at a time when women had precious little latitude to do so. The educated daughter of a maskilic family, she left her family as a young woman to come to New York. She quickly became the secretary, then lover of the great theorist of the Diaspora, Chaim Zhitlovsky. She went on to have a prolific career in Yiddish journalism, doing translation and foreign reporting, as well as writing the women’s section. She was the rare female editorial member of a Yiddish daily, and she suffered the scorn of her male colleagues.

Another new CD, Shtoltse Lider, features the poetry of Margolin. It’s from the Swedish duo Ida and Louise. Shtoltse Lider (Proud Songs) also showcases the poetry of Celia Dropkin, Rokhl Korn, Kadya Molodowsky, and Malka Heifetz Tussman. Ida and Louise take a very different musical approach than Weiser does, using simple arrangements of voice, piano, and saxophone, floating words atop music. Their arrangement of Margolin’s “Shlanke Shifn,” in particular, is most effective, capturing the unsettling calm before a storm:

Slender ships drowse on swollen green water,
black shadows sleep on the cold heart of water,
All the winds are still.

The title of the CD is taken from Margolin’s poem “Dos shtoltse lid” (The Proud Song). I happened to get the CD shortly after attending a lunchtime talk by Ayelet Brinn, a graduate student who has been researching Margolin/Lebensboym and her intellectual milieu at Der Tog newspaper. And it was Brinn who described the hostile work environment she suffered at Der Tog, where her intellectual ambitions were continually thwarted. It was with that in mind that I listened to “Dos shtoltse lid”:

On the fifth floor
On a broken throne
I sit, the queen of words.
And with delicate white hands
I create a race of men
and women and pensive children …

One of the places Lebensboym/Margolin submitted her poetry was the Fraye Arbeter Shtime, an anarchist newspaper. According to Brinn, because the editors of the Fraye Arbeter Shtime were known to be looking for poetry written by women, many men submitted under female names. Ironically, some people assumed the poetry of Anna Margolin had been written by a man. Though Rosa Lebensboym experienced great disappointments in her life, in one way she was lucky to be a poet at a time when poetry was much more present within everyday discourse, especially within journalism.

Poetry is less abundant in our noisy, media-drenched world. In 1996 the Academy of American Poets designated April as National Poetry Month “to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States.” Every year the academy awards its prestigious Walt Whitman prize for a first-book publication.

The Walt Whitman birthplace is a historic site in Huntington, across the street from what I grew up calling the Walt Whitman Mall, lately upgraded to the classier sounding Walt Whitman Shops. If poets fret about their legacy, I often wonder how old Walt feels about his own ubiquity on malls and rest stops, in addition to literary prizes.

Which isn’t to imply that Whitman’s poetic legacy has diminished. If anything, his work has only become more important, more definitively American. Given his symbolic importance, it’s no surprise that Yiddish poets who came to America set themselves to translating him into Yiddish. Yiddish scholar Leonard Prager believed that among his many translators, L. Miller (Eliezer Meler, 1889-1967) was the most satisfactory. You can read Miller’s translation of “Leaves of Grass” and decide for yourself.

Whitman doesn’t strike me as technically difficult to translate into Yiddish, though it may occasionally be difficult to capture his dialectal playfulness. But what does present difficulty is the joyous American expansiveness of Whitman’s spirit. His poetry breathes the same air as the transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson himself was an early, and influential, fan of “Leaves of Grass.”

For Anna Margolin, happiness is found in the understanding of the imminence of death. (How over our joy/there hovered the smiling face of death.) Contrast with Walt Whitman imagining himself in a cemetery in “Song of Myself”:

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death …

I can’t think of a more un-Yiddish sentiment. And yet, the poet and translator William Nathanson/Vilyem Natanson does beautiful work bringing Whitman’s very un-Jewish climax into Yiddish, making it seem the most natural thing in the world:

Alts geyt foroys un aroyftsu, keyn zakh vert nisht khorev
un tsu shtarbn iz andersh fun dem, vos ver es iz hot zikh meshaer geven, un mazeldiker.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.


MORE: The last week in May is Walt Whitman’s birthday week, celebrating his 200th this year. Toast Whitman’s New York roots at events all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. I’m putting this out here now, if any Yiddishists want to organize a public reading of L. Miller’s translation of “Leaves of Grass,” I’d be all in. … If you want an overview of new Yiddish poetry, there’s no better place to start than Sholem Berger’s roundup for Ingeveb. Berger himself is a poet with a worthy new volume of poetry. As Berger notes, the infrastructure for new Yiddish poetry is almost nonexistent. Once upon a time new Yiddish verse was a staple of the Yiddish dailies. Today, it has to be sought out. One of my favorite young translators of Yiddish poetry is Maia Evrona. You should be checking her website regularly for delicious bites of her new work.

LISTINGS: A very special Yom Hashoah program is coming up at the New York Klezmer Series. Instead of a class and jam session there will be two sets of music. 1920s Budapest Café Band recreates the lively, spirited, and soulful tunes made popular in cafés during the interwar period in Hungary and Transylvania. Ghost Brothers is a song cycle for voice and piano, exploring the lingering effects of the Holocaust on the second generation. Thursday, May 2 at 8:00 p.m., Town & Village Synagogue, Social Hall, 334 East 14th St. More information here. … If you’re going to be in Palo Alto, California, you have a rare opportunity to attend an academic lecture in Yiddish. Ken Moss will be speaking on the topic of culture and its limits: “Di koykhes fun der kultur, un di grenetsn derfun: di yidishe kultur kegn dem aynbrokh fun der tsukunft un dem ikh in di 1930ike yorn (vegn Helena Khatskels, Mikhl Burshtin, Manger, Grade, Vaynraykh, Glatshteyn un andere).” May 3, noon. Stanford University, Building 360, Conference Room, more info here. … In the Jewish American popular imagination, migration from Russia to the United States was usually triggered by anti-Jewish violence and took place seemingly overnight. In reality, the decision to leave the Pale of Settlement was usually motivated by economics and unfolded as a multi-stage journey. Anastasiia Strakhova will be giving a sure-to-be-fascinating fellowship talk at YIVO on “the complex decision-making and border-crossing processes that individual Jews went through on their journeys to America.” May 9, 3 p.m., at the Center for Jewish History, more info here. … Mitzi Manna, international drag star of the Yiddish theater, has amused audiences the world over. Now, for one night only, Shane Baker will bring Mitzi back to reprise her performance for the Queens Public Library. Mitzi sings and recites songs and poems written for and about her in her beloved mame-loshn, and she spills all the tea from her long and checkered career. Monday, May 20 at 6 p.m., Queens Library-Forest Hills, 108-19 71st Ave., Forest Hills, more info here. … Professor Eugene Orenstein is coming to the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center with a lecture about the Yiddish intellectual A. Vayter. Vayter was a member of the Bund at its founding in 1897, but later moved to the world of Yiddish literature and criticism, as did many of his generation. (In Yiddish) Sunday, May 19, 1:30 p.m., 3301 Bainbridge Ave., Bronx. … If you’re new to the world of Yiddish cinema, you won’t want to miss the upcoming Film Forum festival, The Jewish Soul, Classics of Yiddish Cinema, featuring restored prints and brand new subtitles. Opens May 26 with The Dybbuk. … The Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus Presents Yiddish Flavors of Love: A Musical Celebration on Sunday, June 16 at 3 p.m. Tickets here. … Yiddish Vokh is the only 100% immersive Yiddish retreat in the Western Hemisphere. If you want to work on your Yiddish and also enjoy a relaxing week with hiking, swimming, and campfires you need to check it out. Opens Aug. 14. Scholarships available!


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

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