Sheva Zucker’s late mother Miriam was still attending a women’s Yiddish reading group in Winnipeg until just a few months before she died last January at age 97. So, even before her mother passed away, Zucker knew what the best way would be to memorialize her.
“My mother was never a shul-goer, and davening is not the fullest expression of my Judaism, either,” Zucker, executive director of the League for Yiddish, told The Arty Semite. “I wanted some way some other than just saying Kaddish that was more meaningful for her and for me.”
That desire led Zucker to create a blog titled “*Liderlikht,” or “Candles of Song,” within weeks of her mother’s passing. The blog, on which she posts Yiddish poems about mothers, went live on February 9. Each week, she posts a different poem in its original Yiddish, with English translation and transliteration. She also includes a brief biography of each poet.
“Candles of Song” comes from a line in the first poem Zucker posted, “Frum” (Piously), by Rashel Veprinski: “Piously as my mother the waxen wicks / I light my candle of song.” Veprinski (1896-1981) came to New York from Ukraine in 1907, and began writing poetry at age 15. She was first published in 1918 in the journal “Di Naye Velt,” and she went on to write several books of poetry, as well as an autobiographical novel, short stories, and many articles for Yiddish periodicals. From the 1920s she lived with the famous Yiddish writer Mani Leyb, until his death in 1953.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
Lev Berinsky is poet who cannot be bounded by easy definitions. He writes in Russian and Yiddish, and lives in Israel, but is best known in Germany. A poet to his core, he is also a gifted translator, journalist and essayist. Though his work is scattered throughout the pages of different publications in several languages, it is all part of a larger project, in both style and substance.
Now, Berinsky’s collected works are available for the first time in Russian. The first volume, containing his poetry, was published in 2009, and the second volume, of prose, is now out. How much these collections will raise Berinsky’s profile is unknown.
Yet Berinsky’s marginality is a position he has intentionally cultivated his entire career. Born in 1939 in the small Bessarabian town of Căuşeni (Kaushen in Yiddish), then part of Romania, Berinsky made his living during most of the Soviet era translating little-known Romanian and German modernist poets into Russian. He began writing in Yiddish in 1981, during Brezhnev’s Era of Stagnation. Though he didn’t yet know the Alef-Beys, the magnificent Bessarabian Yiddish of his childhood was still with him.
“I’m not going to be on Oprah,” said Zackary Sholem Berger matter-of-factly about his new book, “Zog khotsh l’havdil / Not in the Same Breath.” He’s realistic about his completely negligible chances, not because Oprah’s show and book club have just come to an end, but because he knows his work of original Yiddish poetry is not destined for a wide audience.
With no U.S. city today coming anything close to what pre-World War II Warsaw was (or even what New York was, for that matter) in terms of Yiddish publishing, producers of new literature in mameloshn need to go it alone and get creative about getting their work out there. Berger, 37, having translated a number of popular and beloved children’s picture books into Yiddish over the past decade, was well aware of this prior to writing his collection of poetry. He and his wife started their own Yiddish House (formerly Yiddish Cat) publishing company in 2003 to produce and distribute their Yiddish translations of Dr. Suess’s “The Cat in the Hat” and “One Fish Two Fish,” and “Curious George” by Margret and H.A. Rey.
The Yiddish poet Yirmiye (Jeremiah) Hesheles died on October 16, 2010. When he celebrated his 100th birthday a group of dedicated Yiddishists, myself included, celebrated the occasion by paying him a visit at the New York State Veterans Home in St. Albans, Queens. A herd of geese, as if out of an Eastern European legend, greeted us in the parking lot. The building was big, its corridors cold. Veterans were rolling around in their wheelchairs or lying quietly in bed. We were looking for the last great Yiddish modernist alive. We found him asleep in one of the geriatric wards. The nurse did not let us see him. Showing her a picture of the young Hescheles did not help.
What do Yiddish pilgrims do when they are denied access to the object of their desire? They go see the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the nearby Montefiore cemetery. Maybe it was the spirit of the dead Rebbe who helped us, but back in the hospital we negotiated with a weary social worker and were granted permission for a short visit. Hescheles was lying in bed wearing a hospital uniform. When he saw us he sighed and said (in English): “Oh no. This is not a good day. I have a heart condition and I am 100 years old.”
Something happens to the human psyche when an event reaches the 100 year mark, as is the case this month with the Triangle Factory Fire. It’s as if it can finally be relegated to the “dust bin of history” or tales of “long, long, ago.” But we can choose to remember, and we can read the work of poets determined to enshrine the daily life of people in verse. One poem, “Mayn Rue-Platz” by Morris Rosenfeld, captures the dismal world of the modern industrial worker, and continues to remind us of the dark conditions met by America’s new immigrants.
Rosenfeld, one of the “Sweat Shop Poets,” wrote of the disturbing nature of the garment industry, where he himself had worked for years. “Mayn Rue-Platz” contrasts natural beauty and pleasure with the realities found in American industry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each step begins with the hoped for American experience but ends with the inevitable and oppressive realities of the industrialized world.
The forlorn nature of the poem suggests a single voice speaking to a dear friend or love, perhaps one yet to arrive in America or about to disembark at Ellis Island. The narrator reminisces about the splendor of their shared dreams and contrasts them with the realities the listener is bound to find. While dreaming of the simple pleasures of youth, springtime greenery, and singing birds, the reader is shocked by the simple truth, “you will not find me there.”
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