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Spring Awakening

Rokhl’s Golden City: What Yiddish writers have to say about the great outdoors

Rokhl Kafrissen
May 27, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

I’m not much of an outdoor Jew. If outside was so great, they’d put it inside so the rest of us could enjoy it.

But there are a few times in the year when an urban Jew’s thoughts turn toward the great outdoors. The last few weeks here in New York have seen some absolutely spectacular spring days. We’re talking blue skies and mild sun, and those crisp but gentle breezes that can make you believe anything is possible in this ugly old world.

The little park by my house is just barely what I’d consider a green space. But during this particular spring, its sparse collection of flowering whatchamacallit trees and blooming whatsherface bushes have combined their reproductive energies, producing an evanescent, perfumed cloud hovering inside the park’s modest borders. Even this indoor Jew has been finding reasons to go outside and get flower-drunk while she can.

The traditional Yiddish attitude toward the charms of outside is an ambivalent one. Look at Mordkhe Gebirtig’s song “Avremele un Yosele.” Two kheyder (religious school) boys contemplate playing hooky. The field is already growing and blooming, the sun is finally shining, and Yosele, understandably, has no desire to spend such a fine spring day inside. Avremele is more cautious. It would be a sin to skip school. Ah, Yosele says, don’t you see the birds and the bees flitting about, without a care. Far morgn zorg zikh nisht/terutsim iz faran genug. (Don’t worry about tomorrow. We’ve got plenty of excuses to choose from.)

And if you thought the “birds and bees” imagery was too subtle, Avremele warns Yosele:

dos hot der soton dort in feld
zikh in a feygele farshtelt
dos shlept er undz un tsit

There in the field, Satan
Has disguised himself as a bird
Dragging us to him …

Do I lack a taste for outdoor living because I am epigenetically programmed to fear Satan lurking in the corn? Or is it because I’m actually genetically programmed with once-crippling hay fever? I’m inclined to go with the latter. My whole Ashkenazi family suffers from terrible pollen allergies. And yet, somehow, since moving to Manhattan I’ve (poo-poo-poo) scarcely suffered from an allergy symptom in two decades. And I’m not the first New York Jew to breathe easier in the unnatural air of Gotham.

The great Yiddish poet Moyshe-Leyb Halpern published his first book of poetry in 1919, a collection called In Nyu-York. As literary scholar Kathryn Hellerstein describes it, the book declared Halpern’s break with the reigning generation of Yiddish labor poets. Those writers, like Morris Rosenfeld, cried out against the grinding poverty of New York Jewish immigrant life. But their work could also be weighed down by ideology.

For Rosenfeld’s generation, the spring song was a literary convention, linking natural renewal with a renewal of political and ideological commitment. The natural world stood in poetic opposition to the everyday urban life of Rosenfeld’s readers. Halpern criticized Rosenfeld for taking the individual as merely an exemplar of some pattern. We may belong to a group of millions, Halpern argued, but each individual is alone in his unique perceptions.

Halpern, writes Kathryn Hellerstein in her article “Moyshe-Leyb Halpern’s New Spring Song,” moved “from the pastoralism and millennialism of his predecessors into the terms of the city-dweller’s actual experience of spring.”

The observer in Halpern’s Der ershter friling-tog (The First Spring Day) is poetically liberated, free to make his ironic, and at times startling, observations about the wild nature of the city:

… an automobile
Comes rushing through the street, roars wild and loud,
And rushes by, and leaves a smoking cloud
Which mingles with sun and dust, and stretches far,
And shimmers in rainbow colors,
And graciously bestows its gasoline
Odor on us, big-city dwellers,
Who are (the doctors say) tubercular,
And to die more slowly, need pure air.

(translation by Kathryn Hellerstein)

Though it is a spring day, by the side of the road stands a young man, his hands in his pockets, vi a harbst tog blas (pale as an autumn day). He’s marked off by his pallor as a man out of step with the times, appropriate for a poet. He is silently composing a traditional friling lid (spring song) one made fun libe un fun vey (of love and pain).

But Halpern yanks the curtain open on the poetic apparatus, revealing that the poet is not an objective observer, but himself a product of the wild city, pushed and pulled by market forces and consumer desires. He is busy composing, Halpern tells us, but within the poet’s heart he is focused on a new suit and a haircut, all to be paid for by the sale of a friling lid (the more quickly written, the better).

In the city, poems are just another piece of merchandise. And nature is not somewhere out there, free for sensitive contemplation, but a complex relationship to be mined and commoditized. Or, at least, that is where Halpern seems to be leading us.

Halpern lays claim to a new aesthetic, drawn from an urban natural world, one that is just as wild as the green fields and dark forests of out there. The question at the end of the poem, however, is whether he can make the Yiddish reading public care about more than the old springtime clichés that sold so well.

The question of writing about the natural world in Yiddish is not a trivial one. When I was just an embryonic Yiddishist, my friend Michael Wex insisted that I read Maurice Samuel’s absolutely delightful In Praise of Yiddish. Though Samuel’s book is still a brilliant introduction to the many realms of idiomatic Yiddish, it does have its troublesome spots. Samuel, enamored as he was with English and English literature, brings passages from John Milton’s Lycidas and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Question to argue that there is nothing in Yiddish literature that can compare. Their “anatomizing penetration into nature does not exist in either Yiddish poetry or prose …” The greatest Yiddish writers, he says, wrote of nature “in general terms and with a restricted vocabulary.” And, until recently, Yiddish-speaking Jews lived “in close proximity to, though not in, nature.” Here Samuel speaks from a rather old-fashioned conception of nature as a thing that exists apart, or at least, with minimal interference from, human activity.

But, of course, wherever we go, human beings are part of the natural world, even if, like Avremele and Yosele, we have an ambivalent relationship to it. Yiddish speaking Jews, like everyone else, had plenty of names for the plants they encountered in their lived environment. I touched on this recently in my review of Ashkenazi Herbalism. In that new book, authors Deatra Cohen and Adam Siegel make a convincing case for an entire body of Yiddish language herbal vocabulary and lore which went unrecorded because it was, in large part, the province of low-status members of traditional Jewish communities. In fact, Maurice Samuel says as much! “If some [Jews] became experts in field and forest lore … their expertise and knowledge was not held in esteem.” Ya don’t say!

In his still essential reference work Plant Names in Yiddish, Mordkhe Schaechter gently takes Samuel to task for dismissing whole categories of Yiddish plant names as mere “transliterations” from co-territorial languages, as if many English language plant names were not in some way dependent on Latin or Greek loan words.

As much as I am on the side of Schaechter and all those lovingly tending the Yiddish linguistic garden, there is still something of the cautious, Avremele-indoor-kid in me. I might be seduced by the perfumed decadence of our boring old corner park, but I still couldn’t tell you the name of one plant there if you paid me a million dollars. (Nor can I tell one bird apart from another, and not too long ago confidently identified a seagull as a pelican.)

When I first read In Praise of Yiddish, some 22 years ago, part of me was thrilled to see myself so boldly represented, a Jew confidently apart from the natural world. But this spring, after being confined to my home for over a year, I’m reveling in my flower-drunk love for the prosaic greenery of home. Whether or not that leads to being able to identify it, these days I’m far less willing to hold my own ignorance as a Yiddish value.

ALSO: My heart leapt when I heard Zion80 would be returning to live, in-person performing. I think my exact words were, “I’ve been saving up my hearing all year.” Zion80 isn’t just loud, it’s transcendent. Catch their unique Jewish funk/klez/jazz/noise blend outdoors (easier on the ears) on May 30, at the Flatbush Jewish Center. More info here … On June 3, my colleague Lori Weintraub will present Heroines of the Holocaust: New Frameworks of Resistance, a Zoom virtual mini-conference hosted by the Wagner College Holocaust Center. Find more information here and register here …YIVO’s all-star Yiddish Civilization Lecture series starts on June 21 and will continue on Monday and Thursday afternoons through July 26. Lectures are free to watch, but you must register in advance … On June 22, the Yiddish Book Center presents Jacob Glatstein and Yiddish Rage as part of their Great Jewish Books Lecture Series. Glatstein can be one of the more difficult of the modernist Yiddish poets, but this series is aimed at readers of all levels. Led by superb Yiddish literary scholars Sunny Yudkoff and Saul Zaritt … I’m kvelling all the way from the East Coast to the West. My friend Caroline Luce (associate director of the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies) just unveiled a years-in-the-making public history project called Jewish Histories in Multiethnic Boyle Heights: A Digital Exhibit. Using both texts and interactive visual elements, the site uses “Jewish history as a lens to capture a range of historical processes and transformations across different racial and ethnic groups.” That may sound a little dry, but if you have any interest in, or connection to, Jewish Los Angeles (the second largest Jewish community in the country), you can easily spend a couple hours on the site, immersing yourself in the Jewish, and Yiddish, contours of Boyle Heights. But don’t take my word for it, read what The Washington Post had to say about it.

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

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