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A Moment Fell Like a Star

Can a literature die with a man? When White Russian-born Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever died in Tel Aviv on January 20 at the age of 96, this may be what happened. Sutzkever was the last great living Yiddish writer, and though it is not inconceivable that he may have successors, this does not seem very likely. Yiddish lives on as a spoken language today among only a number of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic communities in America, Israel and elsewhere, and these communities frown on secular literature. They are not environments conducive to its production.

Image by Arthur Kolnik

Although little recognized outside the small world of Yiddish readers to this day, Sutzkever was indeed, as Tel Aviv and Yale University literary critic Benjamin Harshav has called him, “one of the great poets of the 20th century.” And yet, though one cannot be a great 20th-century poet without also being a great modernist poet, Sutzkever’s modernism was of a peculiar sort. In content, it was avant-garde. In form, it was traditional, clinging to rhyme and often to meter in a way that the work of major modern poets in other languages rarely continued to do. In this, it must be said, Sutzkever resembled most important Yiddish writers of his period. Perhaps serious Yiddish literature, having been born, flowered spectacularly and perished within the tiny space of 150 years (its first great writer, Mendele Mocher Seforim, began publishing in the 1860s), simply did not have enough time to grow tired of the old forms. Or perhaps it always remained close enough to its folk origins to preserve their formal elements.

There is a little poem of Sutzkever’s, written in 1976, which is about — among other things —Yiddish itself. It tells of a meeting he had on a snowy winter day in 1944–45 with the Russian poet Boris Pasternak after he, Sutzkever, had escaped the Vilna Ghetto, fought as a partisan in the Lithuanian forests, and been plucked from behind the lines by a Red Army commando unit and flown in a small plane to Moscow. The poem has four four-line stanzas, and in the last two, Sutzkever describes how Pasternak, who came from an assimilated Jewish home and knew German but no Yiddish, asked him to read one of his poems in Yiddish. These stanzas go:

Ikh hob geleynt mayn geratevetn zhar fun gehenim:

“a rege iz gefaln vi a shtern” — ale verter

farshtanen, khuts “a rege.” Nit gekent tsu ir derlangen.

Der shney iz nit tsegangen.

In zayne faykht-geshlifene shvarts-mirmelne shvartsaplen

hot opgeshternt yene rege. Un zi hot a rege

dem rusishn poet mit geler late oykh behangen.

Der shney iz nit tsegangen.

Or in Cynthia Ozick’s English translation:

I read my coals plucked from hell. “A rege fell

like a star” — he understood everything well, except rege.

He could stretch but not snare.

The snow was still there.

In his moist marble pupils, burnished and black,

that rege struck like a star: a yellow patch

the Russian poet had, for a moment [a rege], to bear.

The snow was still there.

A rege, from Hebrew rega, means “a moment” in Yiddish — and being the one Hebrew word in the poem read to Pasternak by Sutzkever, it was the one word that Pasternak did not understand. The poem itself had been composed by Sutzkever in the Vilna Ghetto less than a year earlier and began, in Barbara and Benjamin Harshav’s translation:

A moment fell like a star,

I caught it in my teeth, for keeping.

And when they chopped open its pit,

It sprayed on me a kingdom of weeping.

The snow that “was still there” in Sutzkever’s 1976 poem is both the snow of the Moscow day on which he met Pasternak and the snow described in a poem called “Farfroyrene yidn,” “Frozen Jews,” which he wrote while in Moscow, and which begins (in Ozick’s translation), “Have you seen, in fields of snow,/frozen Jews, row on row?” These lines refer, of course, to Jews murdered by the Nazis, and by their accomplices, in the fields of Lithuania.

What an astonishing rege: The Yiddish poet from Vilna and the assimilated Russian poet from Moscow, joined by their poetic craft and their common humanity, and separated by the gulf of a single, two-syllable Hebrew word — a word that defines the uniqueness of Yiddish, that makes Pasternak realize how alienated from his own Jewishness he is and yet also makes him realize, if only for a rege, how inescapably Jewish he is and how the yellow star that the Nazis made Jews wear must be, symbolically, worn by him, too, at least as long as the snow in which Jews lie “row by row” does not melt in the memory. Only a great poet could have packed so much meaning into so few lines.

“A moment fell like a star.” That could be the life of any great poet. It could be the life of Abraham Sutzkever. It could be the life of Yiddish literature.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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