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A Very Yiddish Take on the Star Spangled Banner

A Very Yiddish Take on the Star Spangled Banner

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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:

Or in my free translation:

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

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:

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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