A Very Yiddish Take on the Star Spangled Banner

How Stars and Stripes Became Farfl and Lokshn

Seeing Stars and Pasta: In the early part of the 20th century, poet Abraham Liessin used the expression fafl un lokshn to refer to the American flag.
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Seeing Stars and Pasta: In the early part of the 20th century, poet Abraham Liessin used the expression fafl un lokshn to refer to the American flag.

By Philologos

Published May 26, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
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Frieda Danziger of Manhattan writes to ask whether I have ever encountered the Yiddish term farfl un lokshn as a comical or disparaging way of referring to the Stars and Stripes.

I have, once, in a poem by Abraham Liessin, a well-known Yiddish poet. Liessin, who was born in Russia in 1872 and came to America in 1897, was also a socialist activist and a frequent contributor to the Forverts, whose left-wing but anti-Communist outlook he shared. One of his poems, published in a three-volume collection of his verse that appeared in 1938, the year of his death, and titled “Sereh: Der Banket” (“Sereh: The Banquet”), has the expression farfl un lokshn in the sense of the American flag.

I have no idea who the Sereh of this poem was apart from what it tells us about her, beginning with her name, סערע — which may be a Yiddishized spelling of Sarah and may be a Yiddish name in its own right. (Relatively rare, Sereh, possibly a form of Soreh — itself the Yiddish form of Hebrew Sarà, the English Sarah — was occasionally used as a name in Eastern Europe.) If she was indeed known as Sarah to her American friends, Liessin’s spelling of “Sereh” would appear to be a humorous dig at the immigrant accent, which presumably she didn’t share, of her Yiddish-speaking acquaintances.

We are also given to understand that Sarah or Sereh was a well-known figure in the world of the New York labor movement; that she belonged, like Liessin, to its less radical, anti-Communist wing.

Because of this, we are meant to believe she had been ostracized by local Communists, and that in the mid-1930s, with the advent of the “Popular Front,” the Moscow-directed turnabout whereby Communist parties sought to forge alliances with the same liberal and social-democratic forces they had previously denounced, she was “rehabilitated” and given a banquet in her honor.

The poem begins:

Men brengt zi in likhtikn zal un zi zet:
A nikhpe af zey — nor far ir a banket!

Or in my free translation:

She steps into the brightly lit hall to a stir.
A pox on them all! It’s a banquet for her.

The poem continues, mocking the Communists’ changed strategy of backing Roosevelt’s New Deal and adopting the language of American patriotism:

Ot itzt, ven tsulib dem fareyniktn front
farzorgt men fun tsenter: altz “dant” un altz “dant,”
hot emetsn grad zikh on Sereh’n dermant.

Now that it’s all the vogue to declare a
Popular Front and the center is where a
left-winger should be, they’re remembering Sereh.

Men fokht dokh shoyn lang mit di farfl un lokshn,
un nit mit der fon der royt-proletarisher;
men shteyt far di makht-hober pod-kozirak shoyn,
un mit a farentferung mit aza narisher;
vayl vi men zol dreydlen un pshetlen derbay —
men vert dokh shoyn fort a regirungs-partay.

The farfl un lokshn now waves jauntily
instead of the red proletarian banner,
and one stands and salutes the powers that be
while explaining it all in an upside-down manner;
yet however it’s twisted and turned by some smarty,
one now is a part of the ruling party.

It’s easy to see why “farfl and lokshn” should have become a jocular Yiddish term for the American flag. Lokshn are noodles, the most common kind of which used in the Jewish kitchen are long, stripe-shaped ones resembling fettuccine or tagliatelle. Farfel is pasta, too, but small and round; often called egg barley, it has the shape of a bead or pellet — or, if you wish, of a star. Farfl un lokshn would have been, in pre-Popular Front days, a fine way of making fun of Old Glory.

Liessin’s poem concludes, picturing the banquet:

Un treft men afile a biznes-
agent —
Azoynem vos klept zikh bay im tsu di hent,
to vet men nit makhn shoyn kayn tararam;
men iz shoyn statetshne! Un zidlt men on
a klasn-faynt ye shoyn, to falsh iz der ton —
nito shoyn di hitz un der kvitsh un der tam.

One might even sit next to a businessman-gent,
the hand-pumping kind who claims he’s one’s best friend —
that’s no longer such a big deal.
One’s respectable now! And even if one
still calls for class warfare, it’s done in a tone
that lacks the old heat and old zeal.

To hot men es itzt, mit gemiter mit shvere,
gevolt in perzon fun der khaverte Sereh
der linye der foriker opgebn ere.

It hurts one to do it and nothing’s unfairer,
but a banquet in honor of our Comrade Sereh
lines one up with the line of which she’s been the bearer.

One would love to know who Sarah or Sereh was. Does anyone out there have any idea?

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


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