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Avrom-Ber Gotlober (1811-1889), recently featured in the pages of the Yiddish Forverts devoted to Pearls of Yiddish Poetry, was a multitalented poet, songwriter and performer whose name apparently contradicted his entire life course. The name “Gotlober” suggests that he was one who praised and loved God, but his life ran in a contrary direction.

As a bar mitzvah boy, he was married off to a girl of 12. The couple lived in the home of his wife’s father, who was a farbrente Hasid. Gotlober ran off to escape the draft into the czar’s army. He soon became a leading voice in the haskala movement, the Jewish version of the Enlightenment. As a result, when he returned to his hometown, the Hasidim forced him to divorce his wife and leave their child, whose early death reinforced his passionate contempt for Hasidim.

What follows is one of his poems, transliterated by Goldie A. Gold, with an English version by Gus Tyler.

Bay dem kval zitst a yingl

Flekht fun tsatskes zikh a krentsl

Er set zi shvimen oyfn vaser

Di khvalyes tantsn zeyer tentsl.

Azoy flien mayne yorn,

Vi dos vaser azoy geshvind

Vi dos krentsl vert farvyanet,

Azoy vyanet mayn gezunt.

Fregt mikh nitfar vos ikh troyer

In bester yunger tsayt,

Ven es freyt zikh yeder mentsh,

Ven es hofn ale layt.

Ven ale mentshn freyen zikh

In simkhes-toyre un in purim

Vern mir dervekt in hartsn

Mayne bitere yesurim.

English Version

At the spring there sits a moonstruck lad,

Stringing baubles ’cause it made him glad.

He sees a girl who in the water swims

A moving scene to please his wildest whims.

He says, that’s how my wasted time goes by

It rushes like the water I espy.

Meanwhile my health has really gone to hell

And like my baubles leaves no tale to tell.

Don’t ask me for the reason I do grieve

I still am young by what I do perceive.

It is an age when happiness should reign

An age when one should live without pain.

It is a time when one should sing and play

A happy moment — simkhes-toyre day.

Instead my heart is wracked with grievous pain

It is some madness that has seized my brain.

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