The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
(A Companion to MENDELE)

Contents of Vol. 11.007 [Sequential No. 184]
Date: 30 June 2007

1) This issue of TMR (ed). ***Shirley Kumove wins prize. ***The Bergelson explosion.
2) Dovid Bergelson's "Bay nakht" translated by Leonard Prager [Yiddish text and audio:]
3) Towards a Reading of Dovid Bergelson's "Bay nakht" (ed.)
4) Books and Journals Received: Yeled shel stav***Afn shvel ***All My Young Years ***Lebns-fragn
5) Takones fun yidishn oysleyg – copies still available
6) Gilgulim ('Metamorphoses'), Paris (2008-        )
7) Ralph Ellison and Yiddish (ed.)

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30 June 2007
From: ed.
Subject:  This issue of TMR.

*** Shirley Kumove, author of several fine books of Yiddish proverbs and of translations from Yiddish has been awarded the 2007 Helen and Stan Viner Canadian Jewish Book Award for Yiddish Translation for her  Drunk from the Bitter Truth: The Poems of Anna Margolin. The award took place on 21 June 2007 at the Leah Posluns Theatre [Bathurst Street Jewish Community Centre], Toronto, Canada. The author can be reached at 41 Marbury Crescent, Toronto, ON  M3A 2G3. Her telephone number is 416 - 444-1333 and her fax number is 416 - 444-5850. Her web site is and her email address is *** Joachim Neugroschel's Yenne Velt: Great Works of Jewish Fantasy, a blockbusting and milestone-marking anthology of Yiddish fiction notable not only for its size (713 pages!) and originality in choice of stories, but for its consistently high-level of translation, has been around for 31 years, first published in 1976 (Cassell) and reprinted in 1978 (Pan Books) and 1997 (Overlook Press). Neugroschel compiled, translated and introduced this anthology, which continues to be read and admired. A key story of the collection is David Bergelson's "Bay nakht" (At Night), which he not only translates with considerable skill but also puts to broad service in his Foreword. While I admired both translation and commentary, I found myself resisting both.  Di velt fun yidish gives the Yiddish original at].

While scrolling the story you can hear Sarah Retter reading it. You can also examine my translation in this issue of TMR and compare it with Neugroschel's at http:/www/

Lastly you can read my tentative comments on what the story is "saying."

There appears to be a Bergelson revival. In Israel Sifriat Poalim has reissued Dov-Ber Malkin's 2-vol. Ktavim (Writings) of 1962. A review of this book in HaAretz of 27.6.02 by the poet and reviewer Dror Burshteyn starts out with the exhilarated sentence: "Eyze sofer nifla David Bergelson" (What a wonderful writer David Bergelson is!) Joseph Sherman and Gennady Estraich are the editors of now available David Bergelson (1884-1952): From Modernism to Socialist Realism (Oxford: Legenda, 2007).The focus of this issue of TMR is the short short story "Bay nakht". Burshteyn, too, dwells on this story.

30 June 2007
From: Leonard Prager
David Bergelson's "Bay nakht" (At Night) translated into English [see too Joachim Neugroschels' translation at]

At Night
by David Bergelson [Dovid Berglson]
tr. Leonard Prager

At night, once, in a dark, close-packed and hard-snoring coach I suddenly awoke and spotted him sitting on the bench opposite. I recognized him right off – it was the old familiar Night Jew who could never sleep when he rode the trains at night. And not being able to sleep he grew restless and searched about him for something, looking into everyone's eyes, silently summoning some deep accounting.

"Young man," he turned his sad, tearful eyes towards me, "where are you going?" His acerbic and ancient voice echoed in my ears, a voice older than any time I could recall. He did not talk to me again, yet it seemed as though his voice emitted not from him but from some distant and somehow demanding place.  

"Young man, where are you going, young man?"

And, when I opened my eyes a second time in the dark hard-snoring coach, the train was still speeding over black bogs and desolate soggy fields, the raintears through the night beating on the windows and in the far corner of the coach a lamp continuously flickering and going out. Opposite the thin door that opened to a second part of the coach a swaddled baby did not stop wailing. And here near the wakeful Night Jew on the bench across from me there already sat a red-cheeked young man in a jacket and boots and I somehow felt that I also knew him from the past. He would rise from his accustomed seat whenever he was reminded of some accident which had befallen him and there were always people around him ready to listen to what he had to say. They regarded him with pity and said nothing. But while they looked at him with pity and were silent, they saw that he had a kindly nature and said to him, "Young man," they said to him, "would you please hop down and boil us a kettle of tea."

The young man had by now related to the Night Jew all the troubles of his life: "And that is why I cannot sleep," he quietly remonstrated. "And what does one do," he asked the Night Jew," what does one do on such a long night?" "What does one do?" The bored Night Jew did not understand: "What do you mean, what does one do?" He looked long into the red-cheeked youth's eyes as though searching for some deep response. "What does one do?" he repeated quietly, his voice again monotonous, acerbic and ancient, older than any time I could remember. "Look into a book," he said, "study...." "But I cannot," the youth complained. 


The Night Jew thought a while. "If you cannot, then repeat after me, word for word. Repeat: 'In the beginning the earth was empty and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep and the spirit of God hovered over the waters.'" "In the beginning," the youth repeated, "the earth was empty and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep and the spirit of God hovered over the waters."

All about them the heavily chugging train with darkened coach was full of the snoring and harsh breathing of those who, in the light of the flickering lamp, slept in three registers, one higher than the next. Sweaty faces turned red, swelled, cheeks blew out, noses piped -- and all these in three different modes. One sound was steady, decent, innocent, as though it wanted to say, "Well, yes, I am sleeping... obviously I am asleep." Another volley was depressed and listless: "I sleep because the world is chaotic..."  A cyclical piping, a kind of rise and sudden fall as in the biblical "tebir" cantillation seemed to ask, "What then is going to happen here when everyone is asleep, then what will we have here?" And a yet stronger sound that did not want to listen to anybody warned, "Don't wake anyone, it will be of no use."

And in the midst of all that snoring and harsh breathing, the red-cheeked youth repeated word for word what the restless Night Jew had recited, how God created heaven and earth, sun and stars, day and night, reptiles and mammals, birds, grasses and people, how the serpent was cunning and how the wrongdoing of people had grown, and God regretted he had created humans. God said: "I will sweep off the earth all creatures, from the humans I created to the reptiles and birds that fly in the heights, for I regret having created them." And suddenly... suddenly there arose out of the ennui-suffering Night Jew a certain person called Noah. "Repeat after me, word for word," he said to the red-cheeked youth. Repeat:" 'And Noah found favor in the eyes of God.'"

"And Noah," repeated  the youth, "found favor in the eyes of God." All around, the hard snoring went on. The train continued across black bogs and desolate water-drenched fields. And the night kept on beating raintears on the windows. The only ones not yet asleep were myself, the bored Night Jew and the red-cheeked youth in the jacket and boots. The Night Jew and the youth sat as though congealed, looking into each other's faces and I lay and thought: "A good word: 'and Noah found favor'. It had saved the world."

Copyright  2007 Leonard Prager

Date: 30 JUNE 2007
From: Leonard Prager
Subject: Towards A Reading of Dovid Bergelson's "Bay nakht"(ed.)

Variant understandings of a work of literature can illuminate one another  and make for lively discussion. Bergelson's "At Night" is singularly ambiguous and lends itself to the most varied readings. My own view of  the story is at this stage tentative, unfixed. Let me begin by mentioning a matter which is omitted in most reprintings of the story. I suspect that the piece first appeared in the rich January 1916 issue of Petrograd's Dos yudishe vort where it carried the subtitle "a halb-oysgetrakhte mayse" ['a half-invented/fabricated/imagined tale'). The other items in this miscellany, the work of such eminent Jewish intellectuals as Simon Dubnov, Sh. Niger, Y. Tsinberg, are soberly concerned with the contemporary Jewish reality (e.g. Khayim-Dov Hurvits' essay entitled "Undzer ekonomisher khurbm un gezelshaftlekher zelbtshuts" [Our Economic Ruin and Social Self-Defence]. The story has to do both with the fate of Eastern-European (mainly Russian) Jewish culture in the face of rampant assimilation and the author's own future as a Yiddish writer in a milieu of linguistic (Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish) competition. Dovid Berglson was always interested in the conflict between the shtetl, seen as largely obscurantist and the secular Russian-language culture outside – one, however, that did not readily admit the young man, even though his customary dress was now jacket and boots rather that the yeshiva student's black gaberdine.

I do not  find mystical, mythological or religious elements in this very secular allegory. "At Night" is a symbolic fable that unravels on both a realistic and a surrealistic level. We are aboard a real train in inclement weather in an unspecified region at an undefined time with a diverse company of passengers and heading we know not where. The key element in this railroad story is a transparent metaphorical question which is repeated by a character known as Night Jew and addressed to Young Man in Jacket and Boots: "Where are you going?" Given that the author is David Bergelson, the year 1916 (or earlier), it is reasonable to gloss this queston as dealing with the direction of young assimilated Jewish youth who have left their parents' world and not found themselves in the larger Russian one, a generation which has severed itself from a rich Past but faces an uncertain Future. The question of direction also applies to the teller who is the author's persona. It is not the "story" that creates the total impression of this somewhat strange and Kafkaesque narrative, as it is the sum of all the verbal repetitions whose effect is hypnotic.

Ordinary life is experienced in such actions as making tea for others and such non-actions as failing to comfort a swaddling infant who does not stop crying. The hoary and sad Night Jew tries to redeem Young Man with Jacket and Boots by an improvised Jewish catechetics, rote repetition starting from the very first words of Genesis. They represent the most fundamental text of Jewish civilization. By the story's end the pair has reached the story of Noah and the Flood. At the tale's close, the two main characters, Night Jew and Young Man in Jacket and Boots stare at one another in congealed blankness.

The teller, who may be largely the author himself, is the one who observes the contrast between the cacophony of the snoring and the recitation of Torah passages. This recitation is somewhat astounding since it can only be begun and hardly can go very far; yet there is bravery here as well as hopelessness. Neither the Night Jew nor the Red-Cheeked Youth in Jacket and Boots is idealized – both are somehow familiar to the teller from the Past. They may have appeared in dreams and are returning in this "halb-getrakhte mayse". Nor is the "public", whose single attractive sign is to evince sympathy for the youth, a positive force. Their three (I count four) modes of snoring represent the gamut of ordinary troubled mankind.

Passages from the biblical book of Genesis – the creation myth and the story of Noah and the Flood -- are surely significant. The very last words of the story refer to Noah, a righteous man who found favor in God's eyes. "Found favor" to the teller is a powerful expression, Noah's finding favor having "saved the world." The teller may indeed believe that Noah "saved the world" – alluding to God's promise not to flood the world a second time. But can we believe that Dovid Berglson saw matters in this light?

The rabbis had difficulties describing Noah as an exemplary figure, stressing that he was only virtuous relative to his contemporaries. The modern reader has numerous difficulties with the image of the virtuous hero who saved the world from a second inundation. When God informed Noah of his plan to save him and his family on the Ark, Noah did not weep for all the humanity that would perish. Noah had a wife, but she has absolutely nothing to say in the Bible story, as though it were not also her story. The fear of Noah "shall be upon every beast of the earth" (Gen. 9:2). Noah is the first drunkard in world history, author of a terrible curse that justified African slavery for generations. The Curse of Ham punishes the sons for the sins of the father. The Biblical text tells us that Ham saw his father's nakedness and laughed. The curse that followed was hardly proportional.

4) ------------------------------------------------------------
30 June 2007
From: ed.
Books and Journals Received (ed.)

Yeled shel stav [A Child of Autumn] by Sholem Ash [Shalom Asch] stories translated into Hebrew by Leah Ayalon; illustrations by Rita Zlubinski. Kibbutz Dahlia: "Ma'arekhet", 2007. This is the first translation of a body of Sholem Ash's largely unknown short stories into Hebrew in many years. The translator received a doctorate from the University of Haifa for her close study of Ash's Der man fun natsres (The Nazarene). The new collection may be purchased from Bet Shalom Ash c/o Shura Turkov at 50 Arlosoroff St., Bat-Yam, Israel, tel. no. 972-3-5064536 or from the author Lea Ayalon at 7 Mendele St., Kiryat Yam 29014, Israel. She may be reached at tel. 052-2610913. The price of the book is fifty (50) shekels. The ISBN no. is 978-965-518-062



--  Afn shvel; gezelshhaftlekh-literarisher zhurnal. Summer 2007, No. 337-338

The new Afn shvel under the editorship of Sheva Tsuker has a bright and inviting appearance. A contemporary journal in Yiddish, it should now be attractive to a wider audience, old and young, in North America and elsewhere. The latest  issue contains an essay by Ghil'ad Zuckermann on "Israeli," his challenging glottonym for Modern/Israeli Hebrew. The rich Territorialist chapter in Jewish history is probed in a central essay on the late Michal Astour. The issue may be purchased from The League for Yiddish, Inc. 45 East 33rd St., Suite 203, New York, NY 10016. 212-889-0380.

-- All My Young Years; Yiddish Poetry from Weimar Germany by A.N. Stencl , edited and introduced by Heather Valencia. Translations by Haike Beruriah Wiegand and Stephen Watts. Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications [], 2007.

An impressive bilingual (Yiddish and  English) A.N. Stencl [Avrom-Nokhem Shtentsl] volume has now appeared, appropriately dedicated to the memory of Majer Bogdanski (1912-2005), a sterling personality who continued the Stencl tradition in London's East End after the  poet's death in 1983. Heather Valencia in her introduction gives us the best portrait of Shtentsl that has appeared anywhere. The poems selected are from Shtentsl's early – and arguably best work – very ably translated by Haike Beruriah Wiegand and Stephen Watts. While several major Yiddish writers were for longer or shorter periods domiciled in Britain, the central figure in Anglo-Yiddish literature remains Shtentsl, who deserves more  volumes as thoughtfully designed as this one.


-- LebnsÎ fragn; sotsialistishe khoydeshÎshrift far politik, gezelshaft un kultur. Nos. 655-656 [May-June 2007]

48 Kalisher St.,Tel-Aviv, Israel 65165. tel. 972-3-5176764

Yitskhok Luden bravely continues to edit this veteran journal, which now has an easy-to read  internet version. In the most recent issue the editor unleashes his disapproval of young non-native speakers who are "purists" and proscribe many old Yiddish words as "daytshmerish".

Date: 30 June 2007
From: League for Yiddish, Inc.
Takones fun yidishn oysleyg – copies still available

Der EynhaytlekherYidisher Oysleyg: Takones fun Yidishn Oysleyg. Zekster aroyskum, in eynem mit Mordkhe Shekhters "Fun Folkshprakh tsu Kulturshprakh." [The Standardized Yiddish Orthography. Sixth edition, together with Mordkhe Schaechter’s "Fun Folkshprakh tsu Kulturshprakh" (The History of the Standardized Yiddish Spelling)]. New York: League for Yiddish/YIVO, 1999. $18. Postage in the US $4, $2 for each additional. Canada $5 for first item and $5 for each additional. International: $5 per item and $5 for each additional item. Surface post. If you would like a quicker method  of sending,  prices will be higher. Please inquire. League for Yiddish, Inc. 45 East 33rd St., Suite 203, New York, NY 10016. 212-889-0380.

30 June 2007
From: ed.
Gilgulim ('Metamorphoses') Paris (2008-     )

A new literary journal in Yiddish has been announced. This is a cheering event in the world of Yiddish. The address is c/o M. Gilles Rozier , 102 Boulevard Voltaire 75011 Paris France Blitspost-adres :  This news is a cheering reply to those who say that Yiddish is in irreparable decline!!

Date: 30 June 2007
From: ed.
Subject: Ralph Ellison and Yiddish (ed.)

In his review of Arnold Rampersad's Ralph Ellison: a Biography in a recent New Republic Online, Christopher Benfey writes: "One of Rampersad's surprising revelations is that Ellison had a comfortable command of Yiddish, having picked it up, apparently, from clients of his mother's in Oklahoma City". I would like to know who has estimated this "comfortable command."


End of The Mendele Review Vol. 11.007

Editor, Leonard Prager

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