Vol. 09.08 [Sequential No. 160]
1 July 2005
A Review of Menke: The Complete Yiddish Poems
From: Leonard Prager, ed.
Subject: This issue.
This issue of The Mendele Review 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.
Menke; The Complete Yiddish Poems of Menke Katz, translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, Edited by Dovid Katz and Harry Smith. Brooklyn, New York: The Smith, 2005. [ISBN: 1-882986-21-0]
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
Menke 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 Boro Park streets" [his wife, p. 614], "Troim, girl of the Williamsburg backyards" [his daughter, p 620]. And, especially, the entire volume of 1939: Grandmother Mona Takes the Floor (pp. 403-451).
Menke is an epic of places, a kind of versified yisker-bukh (memorial book), especially of the magical shtetl of Michaleshik (now in Belarus), where the poet spent part of his childhood and the town of Svintsyan (now in Lithuania), where he was born. A concordance of Menke Katz's poems would show hundreds of instances where these storied names are invoked, carrying a dense array of symbolic meaning as well as of nostalgia.
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 Midday" in the section "Yiddish" in the volume Midday,
Menke Katz writes, "Yiddish - the voice of my graveless sisters and brothers,
/ Eternal as my people in bright midday." (p. 598)
O Michaleshik, O Svintsyan
On My Gravestone
Brothers, sisters of mine:
In the place where Yiddish is mute,
As this very dust of my grave,
There I have never lived.
In the place where Yiddish weeps,
As the ash of my villages -
O Michaleshik, O Svintsyan, -
There my father and mother weep.
In 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.
New York, September 1953
I 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.
Where 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 ('Safad') [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 -
Hands from digging, chopping, turning, pushing -
Masons of cities, harbingers of storm
Through narrow alleys, through lands of steel.
Today the streets, the bridges, the sky-ladder towers
Recognize their bosses.
Like the sun, the route of the endless march
Cuts the day into blazing roads.
Unrest, stinging under nails,
Like shrapnel in the hungry blood
The mood is bright and strong -
Seas tearing away from their shores.
My father is dark, dark, through the dazzle of banners,
His bare flesh weeping through the tatters.
He grows gray with the rust of silenced wheels.
Swinging idly, his hands
Leave traces of nails in his slim body. (p. 73)
Dovid Katz, who often writes under the name Hirshe-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 New
York in its heyday. Dovid Katz was aided in this huge task by the poet and publisher
Harry Smith, who for years shared a warm friendship with Menke fed by a common
devotion to the poet's craft. Smith tells us he related to Menke's "freethinking,
his kindred adventures in bohemian Greenwich Village and on the road, and his
natural non-conformism." [p. v] Smith saw Menke as an innocent: "Despite
his years among the Yiddishist Communists, he was at heart a utopian, a believer
in Isaiah not Marx
. Yet it is easy to see how the political radicals seduced
him in his youth." (p. viii) Smith's estimate of Menke the poet rivals
his measurement of Menke the man and friend: "I am convinced that his poetry
in English is equally important to world literature, and the Yiddish poetry
is fundamental to understanding it."
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.
Smith writes: "The Burning Village books are indeed his magnum opus. There were two in Yiddish. This volume contains a third, Burning Village III: Michaleshik in America, which we thought should be placed with the others to present the trilogy as a whole. It first appeared as part of his 1941 collection, May We Tell It in a Happy Time [Yiddish: Tsu dertseyln in freydn] preceded by propagandistic poems written for the daily press, understandably presenting the Soviets as saviors from the Nazis. It was this politically accommodating first section that enabled Burning Village III to be published." (p. x-xi).
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 - Michaleshik, Svintsyan!" ('good morning to you, my Soviet towns, Michaleshik, Svintsyan!' [p. 5]). The 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) Eastern Poland by the Soviets (rather than by the Nazis who occupied the western sector) do not appear in this volume. Many would require special historical introductions explaining the daily events being reacted to." (p. ciii) Let me briefly give my version of a "special historical introduction" to some of the poems excluded from this volume.
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)
"At 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 Germany did attack Poland, the Jewish communists used a 'special' argument among their followers. The partition of Poland, wrote the Freiheit, was 'good for the Jews.' For while two million Polish Jews had fallen under Hitler's heel, another million had been 'saved' by Russia." (Howe and Coser, p. 402)
Howe 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 Soviet Union would yet prove the land of socialism and freedom about which they had dreamed." (Howe and Coser, p. 404) 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 America . To move.... was considered abject treachery." (p. cii)
"From 1959 to 1960, Menke and Rivke spent another year in Safad, Israel (with me, their three-year old son). The intention had been to go for much longer, but the massive state- and intelligentsia-supported campaign to obliterate Yiddish was still in full swing in the new Jewish state. Menke tired of constant arguments over Yiddish, and more specifically, over his "crime" of speaking Yiddish to his son despite his fluency in modern Hebrew. The full scope of the hatred of Yiddish in Israel, and the campaign to destroy the language and its status, literature and culture, has yet to be documented with full openness. The fear of being branded anti-Israel or anti-Zionist continues, even today, in the contemporary Jewish Political Correctness, to hamper full research into the firebombings, beatings, and constant legal harassments that were used to bring down the language of East European Jewry in the new Middle Eastern Jewish state." (p. cxviii) 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 Israel, a subject that no one has suppressed and which has been freely studied and written about (e.g. Aryeh Pilowski, Rachel Rojanski). Local sporadic physical violence on the part of individual extremists and oppressive official policies - bad as they certainly were - do not quite add up to a "campaign to destroy the language."
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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