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May 30: Itsik Manger

May 29, 2015

203Yiddish poet, playwright, novelist, and essayist Itsik Manger, for whom Israel’s Manger Prize for Yiddish literature was established in 1968, was born in Czernowitz, Romania on this date in 1901. Manger came to Warsaw in 1927, published his first book of poems in 1929 (Stars on the Roof), and became the toast of Yiddish Warsaw’s extensive literary circles and a highly productive writer for the next decade. This would be followed in 1938 by a self-imposed exile, in the face of growing Polish anti-Semitism and the rise of Nazism — first to Paris, then to Marseilles, Tunis, Liverpool, and London, where he became a citizen and lived unhappily for eleven years. In 1958, Manger moved to Israel, where his playful midrash on the Purim narrative, Megile Songs, was staged as a musical in 1967 and broke box-office records despite an Israeli taboo on Yiddish theater. Prominent Israelis, including Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Teddy Kollek, attended performances and helped to elevate Manger’s reputation as Israel’s most cherished representative of the Yiddish language. Several of Manger’s poems were set to music and became “folk” ballads, and Megile Songs helped launch a worldwide Jewish custom of presenting funny interpretive versions of the story of Queen Esther, Haman, and the other cast of Purim characters. Manger also adapted Abraham Goldfaden’s classic Yiddish plays for a new generation, and wrote The Book of Paradise, a 1965 novel that satirizes utopia. To hear him reading his poem (with English subtitles), “There is a Tree that Stands,” in Central Park in the 1950s, look below.

“Writing for an overwhelmingly secular and working-class readership... and aligned with the leftist, Yiddishist politics of the Bund, Manger’s latter-day midrash met with opposition on two fronts: from the Orthodox camp, who viewed his mock-epic treatment of the patriarchs and matriarchs as sacrilege, and from the Zionist-Hebraists, who correctly understood his scripturalization of the shtetl to be a species of doikayt, a valorization of the Diaspora.” —YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe