A Moment Fell Like a Star

Remembering a Major Modernist

By Philologos

Published January 27, 2010, issue of February 05, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Can a literature die with a man? When White Russian-born Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever died in Tel Aviv on January 20 at the age of 96, this may be what happened. Sutzkever was the last great living Yiddish writer, and though it is not inconceivable that he may have successors, this does not seem very likely. Yiddish lives on as a spoken language today among only a number of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic communities in America, Israel and elsewhere, and these communities frown on secular literature. They are not environments conducive to its production.

Arthur Kolnik

Although little recognized outside the small world of Yiddish readers to this day, Sutzkever was indeed, as Tel Aviv and Yale University literary critic Benjamin Harshav has called him, “one of the great poets of the 20th century.” And yet, though one cannot be a great 20th-century poet without also being a great modernist poet, Sutzkever’s modernism was of a peculiar sort. In content, it was avant-garde. In form, it was traditional, clinging to rhyme and often to meter in a way that the work of major modern poets in other languages rarely continued to do. In this, it must be said, Sutzkever resembled most important Yiddish writers of his period. Perhaps serious Yiddish literature, having been born, flowered spectacularly and perished within the tiny space of 150 years (its first great writer, Mendele Mocher Seforim, began publishing in the 1860s), simply did not have enough time to grow tired of the old forms. Or perhaps it always remained close enough to its folk origins to preserve their formal elements.

There is a little poem of Sutzkever’s, written in 1976, which is about — among other things —Yiddish itself. It tells of a meeting he had on a snowy winter day in 1944–45 with the Russian poet Boris Pasternak after he, Sutzkever, had escaped the Vilna Ghetto, fought as a partisan in the Lithuanian forests, and been plucked from behind the lines by a Red Army commando unit and flown in a small plane to Moscow. The poem has four four-line stanzas, and in the last two, Sutzkever describes how Pasternak, who came from an assimilated Jewish home and knew German but no Yiddish, asked him to read one of his poems in Yiddish. These stanzas go:

Ikh hob geleynt mayn geratevetn zhar fun gehenim:

“a rege iz gefaln vi a shtern” — ale verter

farshtanen, khuts “a rege.” Nit gekent tsu ir derlangen.

Der shney iz nit tsegangen.

In zayne faykht-geshlifene shvarts-mirmelne shvartsaplen

hot opgeshternt yene rege. Un zi hot a rege

dem rusishn poet mit geler late oykh behangen.

Der shney iz nit tsegangen.

Or in Cynthia Ozick’s English translation:

I read my coals plucked from hell. “A rege fell

like a star” — he understood everything well, except rege.

He could stretch but not snare.

The snow was still there.

In his moist marble pupils, burnished and black,

that rege struck like a star: a yellow patch

the Russian poet had, for a moment [a rege], to bear.

The snow was still there.

A rege, from Hebrew rega, means “a moment” in Yiddish — and being the one Hebrew word in the poem read to Pasternak by Sutzkever, it was the one word that Pasternak did not understand. The poem itself had been composed by Sutzkever in the Vilna Ghetto less than a year earlier and began, in Barbara and Benjamin Harshav’s translation:

A moment fell like a star,

I caught it in my teeth, for keeping.

And when they chopped open its pit,

It sprayed on me a kingdom of weeping.

The snow that “was still there” in Sutzkever’s 1976 poem is both the snow of the Moscow day on which he met Pasternak and the snow described in a poem called “Farfroyrene yidn,” “Frozen Jews,” which he wrote while in Moscow, and which begins (in Ozick’s translation), “Have you seen, in fields of snow,/frozen Jews, row on row?” These lines refer, of course, to Jews murdered by the Nazis, and by their accomplices, in the fields of Lithuania.

What an astonishing rege: The Yiddish poet from Vilna and the assimilated Russian poet from Moscow, joined by their poetic craft and their common humanity, and separated by the gulf of a single, two-syllable Hebrew word — a word that defines the uniqueness of Yiddish, that makes Pasternak realize how alienated from his own Jewishness he is and yet also makes him realize, if only for a rege, how inescapably Jewish he is and how the yellow star that the Nazis made Jews wear must be, symbolically, worn by him, too, at least as long as the snow in which Jews lie “row by row” does not melt in the memory. Only a great poet could have packed so much meaning into so few lines.

“A moment fell like a star.” That could be the life of any great poet. It could be the life of Abraham Sutzkever. It could be the life of Yiddish literature.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.