Last week, I was invited to read a Yiddish poem at the first of our library’s “Favorite Poem Community Readings.” The event, which happened last night, is part of a national, decades-long peace initiative called the Favorite Poem Project, in which Americans are asked to transcend divisive cultural boundaries by reading each other their favorite poems. The only hard-and-fast rules for our local event were that (1) you’re not allowed to read a poem that you, a friend, or a relative has written, and (2) you have to explain why you like the poem so much. Our local organizer wanted to have poems in multiple languages, in order to emphasize the international diversity of our community. I was excited that she asked me to read in Yiddish.
Of course, I wanted to share a Yiddish children’s poem, since everything I do these days seems to focus on childhood. So I went to my bookshelf (both print and digital) and started flipping through Yiddish children’s poems, looking for something short, fun, and interesting that would somehow speak to my experiences raising my son in Yiddish.
Eventually, I settled on “Fayer” (Fire) by Leah Kapilowitz Hofman, whose poetry collection In Kinderland was the first volume of Yiddish children’s literature ever to be published in America (in 1919). Here it is in English and Yiddish:
As a young parent, I really love how this poem captures the frustrating disconnect between “kid brain” and “adult brain” — between the ways that kids and adults think about and interact with the world. It’s so easy for adults to jump to conclusions when their kids cause trouble, when they cry “for no reason,” or when they don’t want to do what they’re asked to do. Maybe the kid is a trouble-maker. Maybe the kid is stubborn. Or perhaps the kid just doesn’t know any better, or is just being totally illogical. But kids also notice things – tiny, seemingly irrelevant little details of life – that adults have learned to ignore. Kids can be incredibly curious, even about things that adults find totally unremarkable. And since (let’s be honest) kids don’t actually know all that much, especially when it comes to cause and effect, their curiosity about tiny little details can lead them to do things that may at first seem completely incomprehensible, until you actually start to think about it from a kid’s perspective, and then you realize that it’s actually very clever and logical and intriguing (even if it’s wrong and destructive and dangerous and, and, and…).
The end of this poem is so sad. The mother doesn’t try to understand her daughter’s “kid brain” — she just gets scared and yells at her. And what happens? The daughter learns not to play with fire, but she doesn’t learn why. She understands that her dress is gone, but she doesn’t know why. Her mother has killed her curiosity, her drive for experimentation and questioning and discovery and knowledge. What if her mother had asked her, not “what are you burning,” but “why are you burning that?” What if her mother had validated her logic, and then explained to her why coal withstands fire and fabric doesn’t? Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I’m just being “that guy” who thinks he knows all about parenting, because I’ve been a parent for just over a year. And maybe I’ll find that no matter how hard I try, no matter how patiently I explain things, my kids will always baffle and defy and anger and frustrate me. But how much strife and tension between parents and children could be avoided, if parents tried harder to think like kids, to really understand why their kids are doing what they’re doing, rather than simply yelling and punishing?
The poetry reading was so much fun. 11 of us sat in a circle and took turns reading and discussing our poems with the group. There was my Yiddish poem, and a French poem, and the rest were all in English. Some poems were hilarious; some were tragic. One was about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another was about violent class struggle in France. Someone read Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” with such incredible voices, with so much spirit and joy and creativity, that everyone in the room was rolling with laughter. Another read about a beloved pet dog who came back from the dead to tell his humans how much he had always hated them and how grateful he was to be dead.
Everyone seemed to enjoy my Yiddish poem, and one person especially thanked me, because her parents and grandparents had spoken Yiddish but hadn’t passed it on to their children. She said that her parents used to speak Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me this same exact story, I’d go out and buy a bunch of Yiddish kids’ books to read to my son…
At the end of the program, we put away our prepared poems, and just started sharing favorite poems from memory. One guy recited “The Jabberwocky” from memory, which brought back so many childhood memories. Then I raised my hand and asked to tell a couple of very short English poems that I remembered from my youth. One was a silly 4-line poem that my dad used to recite; the event organizer said that she had also learned it as a kid, but didn’t think anyone else in the world still knew it! (Turns out, it’s the first verse of Hughes Mearns’s Antigonish.) The other was even more ridiculous: a total nonsense poem that my friends and I used to recite for laughs in grade school. And as I walked home after the event had ended, I found myself reciting over and over another poem I remembered from my youth: a French poem that my high school teacher had told us everyone learns. And when my son woke up in the middle of the night, as he often does, I recited for him, from memory, the Yiddish poem that I had just learned for that day’s poetry reading.
I thought about everything I had just gone through this weekend to find and learn this Yiddish poem. I hadn’t found out until the night before the event that I was supposed to memorize my poem, so I had spent most of my free time on Sunday night and Monday trying to learn it. I had recited it, piecemeal and hesitantly, while sitting alone on the couch, while pushing the baby stroller down the sidewalk, while going to the bathroom, while lying in bed, while waiting for a pot of water to boil, while pushing my kid on a swing in the playground… In the end, I hadn’t finished memorizing it to my satisfaction, but that’s ok, because nobody else had memorized their poems, either! Despite the rules, we all read from paper.
And it got me thinking: I should learn more children’s poems to recite for my son. For one thing, Yiddish isn’t my native language, so learning poetry is a great way for me to keep on learning the language. But more importantly, it’s practical. As I’ve written previously, I try and read to my son in Yiddish every day, usually at bedtime. But the problem is that if we turn off the lights to help my son get to sleep, it’s hard for me to read the pages of a book. And besides that, there are also so many opportunities during the day when it’s impractical to read from a book but I could easily recite a short poem from memory: when changing his diaper, when feeding him dinner, when helping him put his pajamas on, when pushing him on a swing at the playground… and those are also the times I could be practicing learning new poems for myself, since I’m always pressed for time with work. In fact, those are exactly the random little opportunities that I already use every day for singing to my son (always in Yiddish). I could certainly make up a story on the spot, rather than trying to learn a whole poem, but there’s something to be said for exposing him to well-crafted literature, at least once every day, and maybe even throughout the day. So memorizing poems can give me that really great literature to recite for my son whenever I have 5 minutes here or there, and even at night after the lights are turned out. Of course, the challenge is learning the poems, but it’ll be worth it, and even just a handful will be more than enough to last us a while.