Reviving a lost world: Bible stories wrapped into today

All conscious Jews share the one great tragedy that befell our people in Europe, the Shoah – the catastrophe – in English, the Holocaust.

ZABŁUDÓW SYNAGOGUE, Poland, 1895. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ZABŁUDÓW SYNAGOGUE, Poland, 1895.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
All conscious Jews share the one great tragedy that befell our people in Europe, the Shoah – the catastrophe – in English, the Holocaust. Many of us have as well their personal Shoah, the parent or uncle or cousin or niece, and their never-to-be-born offspring, ad sof kol hadorot – “till the end of all generations.”
The more we study and learn Yiddish or Ladino, the larger our personal sense-of-loss Shoah grows. Take, for example. the magnificent Yiddish poet, Mordecai Gebirtig who wrote a chillingly prophetic dirge in 1938. Following a number of pogroms and a pitched battle between religion driven fascist nationalists and armed Jews in the Polish village of Prztyk, Gebirtig wrote “S’brent.”
I have translated two verses out of four:
It’s burning, my brothers, it burns
Our poor shtetl – alas – it burns.
Angry bitter winds come lashing
Ripping, burning, and smashing
Fanning flames into the fire –
Everything around us burns.
And you just stand and look on, watching.
With folded arms.
Oh, you just stand and look on, watching
While our shtetl burns.
It burns, my brothers, it burns,
There may yet come the moment
When we together with our city
Will go up in ash and flame,
Leaving standing, like after battle,
Only empty blackened walls.
And you just stand and look on, watching
With folded arms.
Oh, you just stand and look on, watching
While our shtetl burns.
Mordechai Gebirtig himself went up in ash and flames in Treblinka four years later. That same year, and in that same murder camp, those of my father’s family who remained in Poland also went up in ash and flames. That is our individual family Shoah, and we don’t even know how many cousins there were by then. Only one did not reach the camp, my little old grandmother who, together with the others from Szydlow were marched from there to Staszow, where the area’s Jews were assembled before being forwarded to Trebllnka. She was diminished by age and widowhood, and was murdered on a roadside because she could not keep up with the group. All this family information was given to Yad Vashem by the sole first cousin who survived the war, as a “non-Jewish” Polish army prisoner of war.
Gebirtig wrote seemingly simple sweet poems about everyday life before the Shoah, sentimental poems that mirrored childhood, early love and family celebrations, happiness often streaked with sadness and nostalgia. At the same time, in Warsaw, his contemporary, Itzik Manger, created his delicious concoction of Bible stories written anachronistically – a mélange of the millennia-old story recast partly in the present. Manger was originally from Czernowitz, then in Romania, and brought with him a sense of fun and a taste for wine (probably women and song as well). Warsaw was then the capital of the Yiddish world.
Manger was “saved” from the Holocaust thanks to Polish bureaucracy, which expelled him, a non-citizen, in 1938. Or maybe it was neglect that saved him, since he had done nothing about his Romanian citizenship in all the 11 years he’d been in Poland.
His whimsical and sometimes riotously funny poetry had made him into a favored star in the great firmament of Yiddish writers in Warsaw. The neglect or luck that forced him to take up the wanderer’s staff saved his life, made him a survivor, and ever – it seemed to me – guilty in his own eyes of surviving his friends, his colleagues, and Yiddish life in Europe. Pretty well penniless, he arrived in Israel in 1958 after exile in London, reached through many fortuitous stops as World War II pressed on. Here, surrounded again by Jewish, if not Yiddish life, he found some succor and success, especially in a stage production of “Megilla Lider” (Pseudo-Songs from the Purim Story of Esther).
Manger had written “Medrish Itzik” decades earlier. I became truly enamored with his personal “midrashim” – a loving take-off on the Talmudic explanations of Biblical texts through anecdotes and the like. One of them that I translated some years ago, appears below. It takes our Father Abraham’s majordomo, Eliezer of Damascus, on his trip to Abraham’s old family home in Mesopotamia, to find a pretty bride with a handsome dowry for his son Isaac (Yizhak). The translation tries to keep the rhythm and feel of the original Yiddish, the irony and the mixing of the time frames. It recalls the almost-sacrifice of Isaac and has a touching dialogue with the shade his deceased wife, Isaac’s mother, Sarah.
Abraham Sends Eliezer to Find Isaac a Wife
“Eliezer my trusted and loyal slave,
Take up the staff in your hand,
Saddle up your trusted old feet
And set out across the land.
For our Isaac find a right good wife
Who shines like the sun by day,
She must also be worldly,
And have a good sum stashed away.
Isaac is the apple of my eye,
I was this close to being his mourner.
You know this yourself, my loyal slave,
You read it in the Bible in your corner.”
The old Eliezer manages a “Yes,”
He smiles into a beard gray with time.
And into his old rucksack he shoves
Two bottles of the finest red wine,
The rye-flour biscuits with poppy-seed
Well baked (and burnt on one side),
Ten hard-boiled eggs and a roasted hen---
For the road is long and is wide.
“Reb Avrum, a good one!,” off he goes.
Outside twilight descends on the road,
The twilight is blue and it is cool,
As sometimes in a Bible ode.
Abraham follows him with his eyes
He passes sour-cherry trees below
The slave’s form speedily disappears
Borne on the swift wind’s flow,
On her forehead the kerchief shines,
As Mother Sarah flutters by.
“Avremel, Mazeltov!” She fades away...
Now he’s sad, a teardrop’s in his eye.
His gray beard trembles as he says
“Mazeltov, Sarah! But it was not to be –
‘Twas not bashert for you to lead
Our Isaac to the wedding canopy.”
He takes the Books of Moses
And chants on pitch and scale
The section called “The Life of Sarah.”
A shooting star smashes into the dale.
Father Abraham is lost in thought,
Eyes on the road, he waits.
Blue is the night and velvet cool,
As the Bible sometimes relates.
Manger, when I saw him in Israel some 55 years ago, was a heavy smoker. He bore on his face, with its drawn cheeks and deep lines, the story of his personal purgatory. He saw the destruction of his citadel, Yiddish culture, just as it turned 1,000 years old, and was left to survive, bereft of family, friends, colleagues, a language, an entire civilization.
A few lines of Gebirtig’s tragically prophetic poem could well describe Manger, the survivor, and all of us, survivors or witnesses, standing like after battle, In empty blackened walls.
We must preserve and honor their creativity, and their strength, their ability to sing in the face of horrors they sensed would surely come.
Avraham Avi-hai has written often about the culturocide suffered with the death of Yiddish and Ladino civilization just four generations ago. Contact: 2avrahams@gmail.com.