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Leivick and Other Yiddish Poets

Curt Leviant
September 29, 2016

by Curt Leviant

Discussed in this essay: The Poems of H. Leivick and Others: Yiddish Poetry in Translation, by Leon H. Gildin, Finishing Line Press, 2015, 37 pp.

WHEN I SAW the Table of Contents of this lovely little book of translated Yiddish poems by Leivick and other noted modern Yiddish poets, all of whom lived in the United States, two images came immediately to mind. One was a scene with Leivick, a slight figure with a beautiful etched face and a halo of white hair, sitting alone on circular stone ledge in front of the Hebrew University Library, in Jerusalem, seemingly lost in thought. The other, and this goes back decades, is a gathering of Yiddish poets, including almost all the ones collected in this book in a meeting hall in New York. What a thrill it was for me as a college boy to be at such a meeting and seeing face to face the famous poets I had known before only by name.

The poems of H. Leivick (1886-1962) range in subject matter: a poem about a very small poem “no longer than an epitaph”; a recall of a birch rod beating given by his father; a prisoner in a cell at night “swallowing as if it were wine the moon’s bright light”; a man looking for work without success (Leivick was a paperhanger when he came to the USA).

Here are a few lines from the “Ballad” wherein the above lines appear.
From the bars to the bed,
To the chains, to the rings,
And over his cheeks, over his head,
Down his throat –- swallowing,
As if it were wine, the moon’s bright light
Poured over the prisoner’s every limb,
Then stubbornly gritting his teeth in the night
He dropped off to sleep again.

Leivick was also a noted playwright; his most famous is The Golem, originally produced by the Habimah Theater when it was still in Moscow, and later translated into other languages.

Here too, admirably rendered into English by Leon Gildin, are the voices of those other famous American Yiddish poets (all born in Eastern Europe), singing songs of longing, love, and Sabbath. About half the poems are by Leivick: the rest are by luminaries like Chaim Grade, Yakov Glatstein, Avraham Reisen, Itzik Manger, A. Leyeles, Mani Leib, and Avraham Sutzkever. Most of the poems here have a modernist lilt regarding imagery and tone, yet all have traditional rhymes.

The book devotes much space (six poems) devoted to a relatively minor but good poet, Anna Margolin. The imbalance also highlights the fact that Margolin is the only woman in Gildin’s collection: no poems by Kadya Molodovsky, Rokhl Korn, Rachel Zychlinksy, or Celia Dropkin.

My favorite poems are those that have a Jewish core. Hence, Chaim Grade’s loving poem “The Sabbath,” recalling his war and post-war wanderings in Russia and Europe resonates, as does Ephraim Auerbach’s prayer-poem, “God of Abraham,” which begins with the opening lines of the havdalah (the prayer for the departing of the sabbath) and takes wing from there.

IN HIS SHORT Introduction, Gildin accents the secular aspects of Yiddish poetry, but by so doing he puts an artificial divide between religiosity and secularism. He says that while Yiddish was the street language of the Orthodox, it was secular Yiddish-speaking Jews who created a culture. But Gildin neglects to note that Yiddish was used far beyond the street for Orthodox Jews. Religious Jews also used Yiddish in shul, in studying, in translating khumash and Talmud, in creating commentaries and translations of the siddur and the makhzor, the daily and the holiday prayer books. Women created their own prayers in Yiddish., which were collected into separate volumes. This same “street language” was used by the secular poet Yehoash in creating his masterpiece: his magnificent translation of the entire Bible into Yiddish.

In Chaim Grade’s “The Sabbath” and Ephraim Auerbach’s “God of Abraham,” the boundaries between piety and secularity are blurred. The distinctions are not as separate as they appear to be. In a classic photo, Yiddish poets sitting at a long dinner table at a wedding, one can see secular poets like Leivick, Grade, Glatstein, Reisen, and the noted critic, Shmuel Niger, all wearing either fedoras or yarmulkes.

Sholom Aleichem was thoroughly secular. He was not observant and did not keep a kosher home. In fact, he spoke Russian, not Yiddish, to his family. But yet when his son died in Denmark, Sholom Aleichem went to shul to say kaddish every day in New York. And in his will he asks those who are willing to say kaddish for him too.

And most significantly, the obviously secular translator of this volume, Leon Gildin, along with his brother, founded a university Yiddish department, not in the secular Hebrew University, Haifa University, or Tel Aviv University, but at Bar Ilan University, the only religious-sponsored university in Israel. So much for artificial mekhitses (the curtain or wall separating men from women in a traditional synagogue).

For those who know Yiddish poetry, The Poems of H. Leivick and Others revisits old friends; for newcomers it is a cogent introduction.

Curt Leviant’s most recent books are the two novels, King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son.