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This Valentine’s Day, Serenade in Your Lover in Yiddish

Four poems capable of melting even the coldest of hearts

Rose Kaplan
February 11, 2016
Marc Chagall / Pinterest
Marc Chagall / Pinterest
Marc Chagall / Pinterest
Marc Chagall / Pinterest

Valentine’s Day may be just another one of those peak goyische holidays that we’re forced to suffer through—what could the martyrdom of an early Christian saint possibly have to do with the Jews?—but that doesn’t mean we’re any more immune to the calls of romance and love than our non-Jewish neighbors. With that in mind, consider putting a Jewish spin on whatever rituals you and your sweetie perform each Valentine’s Day. To help, here are excerpts from four Yiddish poems to read (or sing!) to your bashert. (Full poems are linked below.)

All my yesterdays were steps
that led to you and you and I alone.
My heart was like a harp that slept
until you made the strings your own.

Born in Poland in 1914, the author published nine volumes of poetry from 1944 to 1991, and much much of it has been translated into English, Russian, French, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Hebrew. The Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture in Coral Gables, Florida, works to preserve her legacy and support new work in Yiddish. Teitelboim’s poetry sparkles with rich imagery; here, of trees, harps, and time.

The Song of a Girl, by Anna Margolin (trans. Maia Evrona)

Oh lovely one, I want to give you so much now.
Love? Death? Do I even know?
But a yearning bends me, it rocks me, like a storm.
Come and burn through.

Anna Margolin, the pen name of Rosa Lebensboim (1887-1952), moved to New York in 1913 and published her work in a wide range of Yiddish newspapers, in addition to serving on the Editorial Board of Der Tog. The Song of a Girl is intense, with its potent mixture of love and death.

A river runs through my heart
It’s water: silver-silk,
And my hand that caresses your head
Emits waves of quiet joy.

There is a fence around my heart
A small door opens in
And my mouth on your mouth–
Kisses a path into creation

Below, the trio Magillah performs Rosenfarb’s 1968 poem in song, set to the original music by Henri Oppenheim. It’s heartfelt and moving. Rosenfarb (1923-2011) survived the Lodz ghetto and multiple concentration camps, eventually settling in Montreal, where she continued to write for the rest of her life, in addition to raising a family. That Bubble of Being, a documentary about her life and work, premiered last year.

Your Eyes, by Celia Dropkin (trans. Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon)

I will go where your eyes lead me,
through fields, valleys, through a dense forest
where paths are crooked and curved
and quiet darkness holds you in its arms.

Celia Dropkin’s poetry carved out new territory for Yiddish writing and women’s poetry with its frank and often explicit sexual themes and imagery. Your Eyes, however, poem is modest, with its lovely images of summertime travel. Dropkin (1887-1956) was born in Belarus and emigrated to new York in 1912. Her poetry was acclaimed in her lifetime but she lived to see only one book of her work published, 1935’s In Heysn Vint (In the Hot Wind).

Rose Kaplan is an intern at Tablet.

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