A Second Chance at a Yiddish Poem

Closer Look at Abraham Liessin's 'Sereh' Reveals Meaning

Totalitarianally Committed: The subject of Abraham Liessin’s poem turns out to be a faithful Stalinist.
Getty Images
Totalitarianally Committed: The subject of Abraham Liessin’s poem turns out to be a faithful Stalinist.

By Philologos

Published June 23, 2013, issue of June 28, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Three readers — Daniel Soyer, Hirshl Hartman and Ben Ross — have written to correct a mistake I made in my June 7 column, “Whose Broad Noodles and Bright Farfel.”(The titles of my columns, by the way, are chosen by the Forward, not by me.) This occurred in my translation of Abraham Liessin’s 1938 Yiddish poem “Sereh: The Banquet,” in which I rendered the term biznes-agent as “businessman-gent.” Not that any of the three thought I was confusing agents with gents; they all understood that this was done for the sake of rhyming metrically with the phrase in the next line, “es klept zikh bay im tsu di hent.” But as Mr. Soyer points out:

“A biznes-agent is a ‘business agent,’ the union official charged with enforcing the contract in the shops, and ‘es klept zikh bay di hent’ [literally, “It sticks to his hands”], means that he has ‘sticky fingers’ — that is, the business agent takes bribes from the bosses to look the other way when it comes to labor violations. In the old days, the Communist Party [which Liessin satirizes in his poem] would have raised a stink [about the presence of a business agent at a left-wing banquet], but now that, in Liessin’s words, the Party has become statetshne — polite or well mannered — it keeps quiet about it.”

Mr. Hartman concurs:

“Your ‘businessman-gent’ was in fact the functionary in the ILGWU [International Ladies Garment Workers Union] and other unions who oversaw employers’ adherence to contract rules, especially payment of checked-off union dues and contributions to health and retirement funds. The business agent, therefore, was considered by radicals a tool in the slimy hands of the union bosses.”

And Mr. Ross adds:

“Once the Communists were defeated in the ILGWU in the late 1920s, the business agents tended to be the right wing of the union, more interested in day-to-day management of the workplace than in social reform.”

It gets more embarrassing than that. Mr. Soyer (with great tact, I must say) then goes on to observe that I misunderstood not only the term biznes-agent, but also Liessin’s entire poem. Its character of Sereh or Sarah, he writes, is not, as I thought, that of a veteran anti-Communist socialist who is the guest of honor at a Communist Party-sponsored banquet because the party line has switched to the “Popular Front,” a broad left-wing coalition including social-democratic forces. On the contrary, she is a militant Communist who is mortified by the new line and sits through the dinner in her honor — at which the Stars and Stripes fly high and there are union business agents among the guests — gritting her teeth.

Mr. Soyer is undoubtedly right, and I can only say that, in my defense, I had but a small part of Liessin’s 10-page poem in front of me when I wrote the column.

It’s a more subtle and moving poem than I described it as being, because Liessin’s Sereh, though teased by the poet for her ideological bellicosity, is also sympathized with as a woman who has given her life to a cause whose leaders, followed by her blindly, have suddenly changed their tune. As she sits listening to the banquet’s speakers and their new tone of moderation, she thinks of how, not long ago, she was leading a march through the streets of Manhattan:

Ot yogt zi af fertsnter gas un zi shalt,

Ir gvardye ir kemfnde yogt mit ir mit;

Es klapt zikh di tufles op on asphalt

Azh ‘skayskryepers’ tsitern unter di trit.

O soshl-fashist! O, rukt zikh avek!

Tsi zet ir nit den vi di mas-akstye geyt…?

Freely translated:

Down 14th Street she storms with a whoop and a shout,
And her fellow fighters stride in her wake;
Their shoes pound the pavement until it’s worn out,
And even the skyscrapers tremble and quake.
O social-fascists! Out of our way!
Can’t you see that the masses are marching today?

“Social-fascist,” like “business-agent,” was a new term for me. It dates to the sixth congress of the Comintern, the Communist International, in Moscow in 1928. There, Stalin declared that there was no difference between the fascist and social-democratic parties of Europe, which were “twin brothers” in opposing the spread of Bolshevism. The Communist refusal to collaborate with the Social Democratic Party of Germany in the fight against Hitler was partially responsible for the latter’s rise to power in 1933, and subsequently, Stalin did a turnabout and announced, in 1934, the Popular Front policy.

Liessin’s Sereh is a faithful Stalinist, but it’s nevertheless difficult for her to accept the “social-fascists” of yesterday having become her comrades of today. The poem ends with her back in her apartment, staring at the bouquet of flowers she has been given and bewilderedly mourning the years she devoted to fighting an enemy with whom she now has to share a banquet table.

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!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













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

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.