From Man to Man
By Moishe Nadir
Translated by Harvey Fink
Windshift Press, 130 pages, $16.95.
Before we begin to speak of the revolutionary work of Yiddish American writer Moishe Nadir, we should first speak of the revolution in publishing technology and arts economics that has finally allowed a translated volume of his to be read. “From Man to Man,” Nadir’s landmark 1919 collection of Yiddish prose poetry — and the first Nadir title ever to be published in English — comes to us not from a New York publishing house concerned with the canonic Judaic, but instead from the Internet-based, so-called POD (Print On Demand) Windshift Press, one of a proliferative number of do-it-yourself outlets that allow writers and translators to publish their own books without having the work or themselves subjected to the marketplace machinations often associated with a traditional imprimatur.
Most of the books that result from this un-vetted process are wanting, half-formed. And then, every once in a while, a lone, inspired worker such as Canadian translator Harvey Fink self-subsidizes, and Internet-releases, a work of rare brilliance — too formally strange for the big houses, too linguistically idiosyncratic to have been compromised by the editorial minions of Mammon. It can only be hoped that the remnant of natively European speakers of Yiddish, should they have translations of Yiddish writing that they can’t or won’t attempt to place with the New York powerful, would take advantage of the wondrous technology now at their disposal, and publish on their own — before any more culture might, in neglect, perish.
Moishe Nadir was the Yiddish penname of Isaac Reiss, which itself was a front of sorts, an Americanization of Yitzchak Rayz, who was born in the spring of 1885 in the town of Narayev, in eastern Galicia, then Austro-Hungary. Narayev is a Ukrainian or Russian compound made of two constituents: na, meaning “on” or “to,” and Ray meaning “Paradise.” The name Nadir, far from its devolved meaning in this language of “the lowest point possible,” is itself a compound word, with two meanings that seem to oppose: The Yiddish expression na dir can mean either a mindfully polite, bourgeois “To you,” or else a gutter-sniping “Take this and choke on it.” In his writing, Nadir resides at the Lower East Side intersection of these meanings — the corner, say, of Grand Street and Grandiloquence.
In 1898, Rayz immigrated to America and became Reiss, and within four years his work was appearing widely in the New York Yiddish press, under that Americanized name and under dozens of pseudonyms, including Rinnalde Rinaldine, Dilensee Mirkarosh, Der Royzenkavalir and (my favorite) Doctor Hotzikl. Though the establishment Teglikhn Herald published Nadir, most of his early and overwhelmingly satiric work found a home in a host of Yiddish popular-humor magazines: the biweekly Der Yidisher Gazlen, which Nadir edited, Der Groyser Kundes and Der Kibitzer. Nadir rubbed shoulders and sentences with more respectable “Literatur” in the pages of the journal of Di Yunge, a movement with which Nadir became affiliated through his intimate friendship with its most promising poet, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern.
In 1915, a small volume of erotic free verse was published, “ Vilde Royzn ” (“Wild Roses”), and in the wake of its success, Reiss became Nadir forever. Many books followed, and so did plays: “ Unter der Zun ” (“Under the Sun”) is a classic, as is Nadir’s sole volume of criticism, “ Mayne Hent Hobn Fargosn Di Dozike Blut ” (“My Hands Shed This Blood”). Fink is just now finishing work on a volume of Nadir’s stories for publication also on Windshift Press, later this year or in 2008. This will be the second Nadir volume in English, and its 50 or so stories represent not even a Scriptural tenth of the author’s short fiction oeuvre.
In 1916, years before the author would alienate publishers through ego, and friends through his apologetic allegiance to Stalin and party, Nadir’s reputation was such that the newspaper Der Tog hired him to fill daily space with a series of prose poems — giving his imagination, for the first, both column and full editorial freedom. The 98 unclassifiable results were later collected in an immensely popular book titled “ Fun Mentsh tsu Mentsh .” “From Man to Man,” in its entirely, is translated here — converted from the commission of yellowed Yiddish newsprint to the shrine of the English-language printed page.
None of these prose poems is longer than two pages, and yet none of them is short on Nadirian genius — if poetry, then resolutely never prosaic; and if prose, then never too specific or factual so as to abjure poesy, or lyrical mood. Ultimately, though, not one or the other nor both, their styles are stunningly manifold: There are revisions of the book of Genesis; modernly profane midrashim on Jesus and God; romantic odes to nature, and, perhaps most heartfelt, scribbled love letters to a Polish woman named Cora, the idealization of the author’s forbidden love. As Nadir writes: “How fine and how beautiful are all these things when put into a seven-dollar poem.”
Seven dollars, of course, was a lot of money back then — especially for the Yiddish press, and especially for a fragment of only six or seven lines. Indeed, Nadir was one of the very few Yiddish writers in America who lived by his pen alone. A prodigiously knowing, and knowingly prodigious, hack whose manner of working seemed Americanly “automatic” or mechanized years before the work of the Beat Generation or the widespread dissemination of European Surrealist techniques, Nadir was an original in unoriginal circumstances: He had to get by, and so he had to write quickly. He would sit down at his desk and begin a piece about sitting down at his desk to begin. Invariably, he would end amid the stars — though a firmament that was lustily failed. In the piece beginning “My fellow writer,” his counseling is itself inconsolable: “to be a Shakespeare one must appeal to the drowsiest of readers/the glory of Heinrich Heine rests in the hands of kerosene merchants/the immortality of King Solomon lives on in the hearts of second-rate Talmudic scholars/how sad it all is.”
Na dir! How happy it is that this author’s work has finally been translated and published! Shakespearean, Heineian, Solomonaically regal — long may Nadir be so under-appreciated, and misunderstood!
Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward.