The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature
(A Companion to MENDELE)
of Vol. 09.08 [Sequential No. 160]
1) This issue. (ed.)
2) A Review of Menke: The Complete Yiddish Poems (ed.)
From: Leonard Prager, ed.
Subject: This issue.
This issue of TMR is devoted to Menke, translations by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav of the Yiddish poems of the bilingual poet Menke Katz (1906-1991) with a monographic introduction by the poet's son Dovid Katz. The poems are described in general terms, briefly illustrated, and a central issue of the Introduction is discussed.
From: Leonard Prager
Subject: A Review of Menke: The Complete Yiddish Poems
Menke; The Complete Yiddish Poems of Menke
Katz, translated by Benjamin
and Barbara Harshav, Edited by Dovid
Katz and Harry Smith.
A Substantial Volume
Menke richly portrays the life of the exuberant Menke Katz (1906-1991), one of the few Yiddish poets in America who published in English (appearing in Atlantic, New York Times, Poet Lore , Poetry, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere). The main body of Menke's 779 pages provides English translations by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav of virtually the entire published corpus of Menke Katz's Yiddish verse. To contextualize this mass of poems and illuminate the period, the milieu, the familial and personal background, the poet's son, Dovid Katz, has written a comprehensive 122-page biographical, critical and personal introduction. There is also a preface from publisher Harry Smith, a lifelong friend and collaborator of the poet and an intriguing free spirit in his own right. Smith and Katz edited the book, reviewing "every line together" (p. xi) and the translators worked on the poems "over a period covering most of the 1990s" (p. xi).
Family Saga, Epic of Places and Ode to Yiddish
is a family saga: "I love so
much my mother's hearty laughter." (p.531)
"Father, in that old house of yours, you became a legend of Svir. We five children are hushed in fear of your quieted
voice." (p. 552) "Rivke,
radiant girl of the gray
is an epic of places, a kind of versified yisker-bukh
(memorial book), especially of the magical shtetl
of Michaleshik (now in
Bridging epic and saga, Menke is an impassioned ode to Yiddish, to yidish koydesh, a central leitmotif in the poet's entire work and title of a group of poems in the volume from the 1947 Der posheter kholem (The Simple Dream). Here in a poem called "Michaleshik" we meet the poet's fervent belief in the power of Yiddish to resurrect itself. The poem ends on the line: "Mit ale kheynen fun mame-loshn, veln dikh nokh kinderlekh tseshaynen." (p. 37) (With all the charms of mame-loshn, babies will shine upon you one day.) (p. 490) A late poem entitled "Yiddish" begins "Mother, in what language does the brook chatter?" (p. 754) And in "Yiddish at " in the section "Yiddish" in the volume , Menke Katz writes, "Yiddish – the voice of my graveless sisters and brothers, / Eternal as my people in bright ." (p. 598)
O Michaleshik, O Svintsyan
áøéãòø, ùÔòñèòø îÖÇðòÓ
ãàÈ ÔåÌ ééÄãéù ùèåîè,
Ôé àÈè ãòø ùèÕá ôÏåï îÖÇï ÷áø,
ãàÈøè äàÈá àéê ÷Öï îàÈì ðéè âòìòáè.
ÔåÌ ééÄãéù ÔÖðè,
Ôé ãé àÇù ôÏåï îÖÇðò ùèòèòìòê –
àÕ, îéëàÇìéùò÷, àÕ, ñÔéðöéàÇï, –
ãàÈøè ÔÖðè îÖÇï èàÇèò àåï îÖÇï îàÇîò,
ãàÈøè äòø àéê ÷Öï îàÈì ðéè àÕó ÔÖðòï.
ÔåÌ ééÄãéù ìàÇëè,
äàÈôÏòøãé÷, Ôé ôÏøéìéðâãé÷òø Ôéðè,
ãàÈøè ìàÇëè îÖÇï èàÇèò àåï îÖÇï îàÇîò,
ãàÈøè äòø àéê ÷Öï îàÈì ðéè àÕó ìàÇëï,
ãàÈøè äòøï îéø ÷Öï îàÈì ðéè àÕó ìòáï.
sisters of mine:
In the place where Yiddish is mute,
As this very dust of my grave,
There I have never lived.
the place where Yiddish weeps,
As the ash of my villages –
O Michaleshik, O Svintsyan, –
There my father and mother weep.
the place where Yiddish laughs,
Sanguine as spring's wind,
There my father and mother laugh,
There I never stop laughing
There we never stop living.
ÔÖñ èàÇèò, îùéç Ôòè ÷åîòï
Ôòè àÕó àÇï àÖæòìò øÖÇèï ãåøê ñÔéø àåï ãåøê ñÔéðöéàÇï,
ãàÈøè ÔåÌ ãé äÖìé÷ñèò òøã àÕó ãòø Ôòìè àéæ ôÏàÇøàÇï,
àéê ÔÖñ îàÇîò, îùéç Ôòè ÷åîòï ôÏåï îéëàÇìéùò÷,
ÔÖÇì àéï âï-òãï âòáìéáï àéæ îéëàÇìéùò÷
àåï îéè ãé ÔàÈøöìòï àéáòøâò÷òøè ìéâè àéï äéîì ñÔéðöéàÇï.
ãàÈøè ÔåÌ ãé áòð÷ùàÇôÏè àéæ
Ôé âàÈè, àÈï àÇï àÈðäÖá,
àÈï àÇ áøòâ
Ôòè îùéç ÷åîòï, àÕ, îéëàÇìéùò÷, àÕ ñÔéø, àÕ, ñÔéðöéàÇï.
know, father, Messiah will come from Michaleshik.
Riding a donkey through Svir and Svintsyan,
Where there is the holiest soil in the world.
I know, mother, Messiah will come from Michaleshik,
For Michaleshik stayed in the Garden of Eden,
And with roots upside down, Svintsyan lies in heaven.
longing is like God, with no beginning, no end,
Messiah will come, O Michaleshik, O Svintsyan. (p. 736)
Father and Son
The intimate connection between poet - father and Yiddish scholar/writer – son that underlies this entire work is cemented by a common devotion to Yiddish as shown in the dedication to Tsfas ('Safed') [Tel-Aviv, 1979]: "Far mayn zun Hirshe-Dovid velkher iz in der ershter rey, tsvishn di getrayste kemfer far yidish." (For my son Hirshe-Dovid who is in the first rank of the most faithful fighters for Yiddish.)
This is a pristine instance of that highly esteemed and singularly Jewish mode of pleasure known as "shepn nakhes fun kinder." As accurately englished in Uriel Weinreich's MEYYED, the emotion involved is 'proud pleasure'. With the exception of Agnon's daughter Emunah Yaron, no other child of a Jewish author that I can think of has devoted as much time and energy to the posthumous publication of a writer-parent as has Dovid Katz.
The poetry of filial piety is a substantial sub-genre in Yiddish poetry - one thinks of Khayim Grade's moving poems to his mother and Avrom-Nokhem Shtensl's to his father. In Menke we have many poems of a son to his father Heershe-Dovid, and his mother Badonna (Dovid Katz's grandfather and grandmother). In "My Father on May Day," the third section of "My Father Heershe-Dovid" in the volume Dawning Man we have a typical Menke poem of the thirties where filial feeling and social awareness fuse in free verse that works largely through its images:
Facing him –
from digging, chopping, turning, pushing –
Masons of cities, harbingers of storm
Through narrow alleys, through lands of steel.
the streets, the bridges, the sky-ladder towers
Recognize their bosses.
the sun, the route of the endless march
Cuts the day into blazing roads.
stinging under nails,
Like shrapnel in the hungry blood
The mood is bright and strong –
Seas tearing away from their shores.
father is dark, dark, through the dazzle of banners,
His bare flesh weeping through the tatters.
grows gray with the rust of silenced wheels.
Swinging idly, his hands
Leave traces of nails in his slim body. (p. 73)
Katz, who often writes under the name Heershe-Dovid
Katz, has not offered a poem to his father in this volume, but has edited Menke with its lengthy introduction that aspires to
be a history of the Yiddish literary world of
The translators of Menke Katz's poems speak through their craft and make no claims for their author or their English renditions of his work, which are "clean" and honest, yielding the plain sense of the original and much of its sound and spirit. The editors on the other hand make very considerable claims in the hope that an allegedly restricted Yiddish literary canon will now make place for a figure neglected for political reasons.
We are given numerous instances where the poet stood up to Party browbeaters, but he never broke with them, never moved to the camp of the "Rekhte" (Rightists). In one surely difficult period, the poet, gritting his teeth or perhaps momentarily dreaming, appended to the talismanic place names "Michaleshik" and "Svintsian" -- names repeated again and again through a lifetime of verse-making -- the deeply political and subsequently emotive word "sovetishe": "a gut morgn aykh: sovetishe shtetelekh mayne – Michalishek, Svintsyan!" ('good morning to you, my Soviet towns, Michalishek, Svintsyan!' [p. 5]).
dreary diurnal imagery suits this "press poem," a term that Dovid Katz employs to cover this embarrassing subject. He
writes: "The rest of To Tell it in Happiness, largely comprising
press poems expressing relief at the occupation of (then)
The "Yiddish Communists"
"It was in the Jewish community that the Communists encountered their most serious troubles during the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact…. those who presented themselves as Jewish communists, writing and speaking in Yiddish and appealing to a distinctive Jewish consciousness, suffered the greatest emotional turmoil within themselves, met with the most violent criticism from the anti-Communist Yiddish press, and soon began to drop out of the movement in considerable numbers. Ever since the twenties the party had enjoyed a devoted following among the Jewish garment workers. During the thirties it had won the friendship of important Jewish intellectuals and established itself as a force within Yiddish cultural life." (The American Communist Party by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, New York, 1974, p. 401)
first the Freiheit, the Yiddish
Communist daily, claimed there was nothing necessarily wrong with the
non-aggression pacts and that, in any case, they did not conflict with the
anti-fascist Popular Front line. This
justification quickly became obsolete…. Once
and Coser tell us that "the hard core of
Yiddish-speaking Communists remained faithful…. The will to believe, the
necessity for faith, ran deep among them; the emotional investments of a
lifetime could not so easily be abandoned; and always there remained the hope
that somehow the
son would like to justify the father's political affiliation, which he sees as
the chief cause of the poet's exclusion from the "canon." He finally
asks him why he stayed so long in the Stalinist camp. "Why didn't Menke just pick himself up and take the proverbial walk
from 35 East 12th Street (the old Frayhayt
address) to 175 East Broadway (the Forverts),
and have it over and done with? This was
a painful question for him in later years, but his answer was… not couched in
any kind of heroics. The Linke had
provided him with a magnificent environment of writers, friends and literary
inspiration; they had published his poems and his books, they had given him a
Yiddish teacher's education and made him into a teacher in their Yiddish
schools. They had given him a life in
1959 to 1960, Menke and Rivke
spent another year in
Katz has here exaggerated –
as he often does in other realms as well – as regards the complex and thorny
subject of the fate of Yiddish in
Dovid Katz develops the notion that allegiance to "right" or "left" in the Yiddish-language world of New York's left-of-center Jewry in the first half of the twentieth century was accidental and ideologically of little import. He further draws this world as a genial debating society, an extended New England Town Hall Meeting, as American as apple-pie. He intimates that the bogeyman of "political correctness" prevents us from seeing the virtues of the Frayhayt and the Linke. This reader cannot agree that the latter were some sort of debating society, or that they were notably "American."
Menke could have been a slimmer, more selective volume, Yiddish original facing each translation. The introduction gives much factual information about the remarkable Katz family and its central figure, Menke, but endless paragraphs of reviewer's comments do not make the book more readable. I have never believed that Menke and other Proletpen figures were treated unjustly by the leading Yiddish writers of his day, but the subject deserves continued study. Addition of an index to this volume would earn the gratitude of students of American Yiddish poetry. These students and many who do not read Yiddish will welcome this new addition to the growing library of quality English translations of Yiddish writing. The doughty translators Benjamin and Barbara Harshav and the editors Harry Smith and Dovid Katz merit a yasher koyekh ('well done').
End of The Mendele Review Vol.09.08
Editor, Leonard Prager
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