DER YIDDISH-VINKL March 28, 2003
Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923) was known as “the sweatshop poet.” With the sewing machine providing a whirring obbligato, he sat at his station composing verse about the life of the worker in the apparel industry — his life in the shop and his life at home. On the occasion of Rosenfeld’s 80th yahrzeit, the Forverts devoted its page on “Pearls of Yiddish Poetry” to a sampling of his works. What follows are fragments of two of his most famous — and they were indeed famous — poems, many of which were set to music. The transliteration from the Yiddish is by Goldie Gold; the English version is by Gus Tyler.
Ikh hob a kleynem yingele,
A zunele gor fayn!
Ven ikh derze im dakht zikh mir
Di gantse velt is mayn.
Nor zeltn, zeltn ze ikh im,
Mayn sheynem ven er vakht,
Ikh tref im imer shlofndik,
Ikh ze im nor bay nakht.
Later in this poem, the child awakens with the coming of the daylight and asks, “Vu iz Pa?” Rosenfeld is “Tseveytikt un tseklemt/ Farbitert un ikh kler/ Ven do dervakhst a mol mayn kind/ Gefinstu mikh nit mer.”
I have a little sonny boy
A sonny boy, just fine
When I do see him I do feel
That all the world is mine.
But seldom do I see him
My boy when he’s awake.
When I’m at home he is asleep
It makes my spirit shake.
And when, at dawn, the child awakes and asks, “Oh, where is pa?” the poet answers:
In pain and sorrow great
My bitter heart does roar,
“When you awake some day, my child,
Your pa may be no more. ”
Another passage is drawn from Rosenfeld’s poem “Tsu a Borves Meydele” (“To a Barefoot Girl”). The context suggests that the poem may have been written at the time of the 1909 shirtwaist-makers’ strike when 20,000 young, exploited immigrant girls rose up to protest their condition.
Kleyne meydele, zog mir, vu geystu,
Durkh regn, durkh shney un durkh kelt?
O, zog mir, mayn kind, khotsh farshteystu
Vi iberik du bist der velt?
Oh, little girl, where do you go?
Through rain, through snow, through cold.
Oh, tell me, girl, oh do you know
You’re naught in mankind’s fold?
In the same lengthy poem, Rosenfeld shifts the mood as the little barefoot girl strikes out at her oppressors:
Vos rukt ir als di fleysh in zikh
Un shmayst tsu mir di beyner?
Vos meynt ir, vos? A hunt bin ikh.
A hunt mit kelevshe tseyner?
A hunt vos loyft arum in gas
Un nekhtikt oyf di briklekh?
Un ven im falt a beyn tsum shpas
Iz er shoyn ibergliklekh?
O, tsitert! Den ikh bin a leyb
Nit shpilt mit mir in shpitslekh,
Den koym derlang ikh mikh a heyb
Tsefleysh ikh avek oyf pitslekh!
Why do you tear away my flesh
And then do whip my bones?
And treat me like a dog who’s fresh
Because it mumbles moans?
A dog who runs in dirty streets
And sleeps in filthy gutters
Is grateful for some bony treats
And “Thank you, sir,” he mutters.
Oh, shiver, for a lion I am
Don’t fool around with me.
For you I do not give a damn
For soon you will not be!