Celebrating Jewish poems teaching us about Jewish life

Those poems, including those written by Itzik Manger, remind us of what Jews did before 1939, how in spite of hardship, deserted by almost all, they lived, strove, created and gave.

Itzig Manger (photo credit: Courtesy)
Itzig Manger
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As these words appear on my computer screen, the kings and presidents and prime ministers are landing one by one. I do not know what our president or our prime minister will say in their public speeches. Will they mention the killing of two great European cultures? The ‘culturicide’ of Yiddish and Ladino – will these centuries-old languages be recalled – a tragic moment of eternal loss?
Will any European monarch or elected head of state or of government speak of the creativity of Jews in every field of human endeavor, from science to the arts to commerce? Will they say that without European Jews before 1939 the world would not have advanced in all fields: science, literature, theater, art, music and medicine as swiftly as it did?
Well, they should and well they might. I mourn the six million Jews, as we mourn their offspring never born. I mourn all groups murdered by the Nazis, but naturally I mourn first my own family and their families. In my heart I sing their songs, especially the Yiddish ones, some brought from my Canadian childhood in a Polish-Yiddish home.
In the rest of this column, I commemorate the joys of living Jews before they became ash and statistics. I revive one of their voices, who was the unique darling of Warsaw literati in the late 1920s and in the 1930s.
Itzik Manger grew up in Czernowitz, Ukraine, then Romania. In previous columns in The Jerusalem Post, the sister publication of The Jerusalem Report, I have written a great deal about him. Manger survived the war. I used the words of another great Yiddish poet to describe the survivor, as standing “like after battle” between “empty blackened walls.”
Manger’s genius was to mingle the beloved ancient texts with the modern: in dress, customs or modes of travel. Sometimes the time travel is ironic, sometimes poignant, and often it is both.
In the poem below he sees our Patriarch Avraham holding a “Shalom Zachar” (safely arrived male) party for the birth – finally of a “Jewish son.” In Eastern Europe, usually held after the Friday evening Shabbat meal, it was celebrated with singing; the menu usually centered on peppered garbanzo beans and beer.
“Father Abraham celebrates his son’s birth”
From every wall rebound
The chanted psalms of praise
Ten Jews in sable shtreimels
Sing with hands upraised.
“Ay bim-bam, bim, God’s Our Father,
Ay dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dee.
They sing the holy haunting tune
Of the Rabbi of Turkey.
They eat well-peppered chickpeas
And dip their beards in beer,
“Reb Avroom, wonder of wonders.
A miracle, it’s a miracle, you hear!”
Beneath Abraham’s gray beard,
A smile forms on his lips
As he hears Isaac cooing,
Lying in his baby crib.
He shuts his eyes for a moment
And sees the Turks leave with a sigh,
They cling to the fragile thin thread
Of the little baby voice’s cry.
Now they brush off the dust
From their shoes, robes flowing about,
They kiss the lintel mezuzah
And say quickly on their way out:
“Mazel tov, Reb Avroom, mazel tov
Surely you recall that night,
Sarah laughed when we promised
Next year an end to her plight.”
And before Abraham could even say:
“Welcome! my dear honored guests
Take your places at the table,
Eat, drink and sing with zest” –
The Turks slip through the curtain
And leave his time and ken –
Abraham opens his eyes:
“Where are the stranger men?”
“God be with you, Reb Abraham,
Ay dee-dum, dee-dee,
Better you sing with us the tune
Of the Rabbi of Turkey.”
Ten Jews in sable shtreimels
Sing with hands upraised.
From every wall rebound
The chanted psalms of praise.
The “Turks” are the three angels who visited Abraham a year earlier and foretold Isaac’s birth to 90-year-old Sarah (see Genesis 18). Manger pictured the angels as Middle Easterners, and was much taken with the word, the strangeness of Turk and Turkey. The latter in Yiddish is Turkay – which is pronounced “Tourk-eye” – and is easy to rhyme.
Isaac, so long sought after, is saved from knife’s edge at the last minute. It is a subject looming large in both the Bible, the daily prayer book and Manger’s mind. The Christians call it the Sacrifice of Isaac, but in Hebrew tradition it is the Binding of Isaac. “Binding” (of Isaac on the makeshift altar) in Hebrew is Akedah, in Yiddish, Akeydeh. Its mesmerizing message celebrates obedience to heavenly commands, and the end of child sacrifice. Later the Akeydeh (binding) became a symbol of all Jewish suffering.
 A portrait of Itzig Manger by Arthur Kolnik
A portrait of Itzig Manger by Arthur Kolnik
“Our father Abraham rides to the akeydeh, the binding of Isaac”
Gray first light sheds twilight shades,
Across the earth dim light courses.
Old and trusty Eliezer harnesses
The carriage and the horses.
Abraham carries his late-life child
To the carriage through the gloam,
A guardian blue star sheds its light
Upon their beloved old home.
“Get going, Eliezer!” The whip snaps,
And the highway gleams silver.
(How poignant and beautiful, the poet says,
Are the ways the Bible uncovers.)
The gray willow-trees lining the road
Recede and fade into naught.
Look back, is the mother weeping
Over her child’s empty cot?
“Where are we going, sweet father?”
“To Lashkev to the fair.”
“What will you buy me, dear Papa
At Lashkev at the fair?”
“A soldier made of porcelain,
A fife, a trumpet, a little clock;
And for mama waiting at home
We’ll bring satin for a frock.”
Avraham’s eyes moisten,
The burning knife scalds his chest
Beneath his modest robe.
To such a “fair” are we blessed?
“Eliezer, park by the millrace
Stay there and await our account!
From there I’ll walk with Isaac
To the top of Moriah Mount.”
Eliezer, sitting on the box-seat, growls
And stares only at the road,
(So beautiful and poignant, the poet says,
Are the ways the Holy Books uncover.)
Manger displays special sympathy for the non-Hebrew participants in the Abraham story. Eliezer, the Damascene, does not like what Abraham is about to do to Isaac. Hagar, whose name means the immigrant or the stranger – the Egyptian concubine thrown out by Sarah – is being mistreated by the matriarch Sarah; Manger sides with Hagar.
His criticism of the anachronistic silk-frocked hypocrites was pointed at those posing as holy while mistreating the weak and the stranger. Manger had internalized the Biblical commandments of protecting the weak – the orphans, widows, strangers and victims of power – and instinctively empathizes with them.
“Hagar leaves Abraham’s house”
Blue light dawns in the window,
Three times the cock has crowed
Outside the horse is neighing
Ready for its long road.
Hagar stands, is weeping
Her child held tight in her arms
Her eyes drink in a last look
At the walls and the house’s charms.
The wagon driver is bargaining
With Abraham over his pay:
“Add another sixpence, sir,
There are two people, I say.”
The horse, impatient, scrapes hoof
As to say: “Enough! I need to pace.
Any minute I’ll show you, my Jews,
How beasts taught Balak his place!”
“Don’t cry dear little Ishmael,
This is bashert – preordained;
Thus our forefathers behaved.
Pious long beards hide their shame.”
She envisions herself abandoned
In a distant train station’s great hall
And she sheds copious tears
Into her Turkish shawl.
“Hagar, enough, stop crying
Do you hear what I say, or no?”
And Hagar takes up her bundle,
And sets off on the road she must go.
Here stands with his velvet skull cap,
Rabbi Abraham, the so pious Jew.
“Does he at least, sweet mama,
Of my bitter struck soul have a clue?”
The whip snaps, “Start up, horse”
And before her weep-red eyes
The houses of the shtetl slowly
Fall away, fall away with her sighs.
And Hagar summons as witness
Heaven and earth to attest
That so act elders and patriarchs
With long beards and pious dress.
Manger wandered his way across Europe to England, and finally in 1958 made his home in Israel. He survived, changed forever. The Akeydeh of Isaac is also the Sacrifice of Yitzhak, the name which in its Yiddish diminutive form is Itzik. After the Holocaust, in a poem called “Akeydas Itzik,” Manger expresses his own pain and anger at God for the destroyed cities of Jews and of graves. His grandfather, his Zeydeh – who represents the ancient Jewish people – wafts Itzik through the air over a devastated land.
Excerpt from “Akeydas Itzik”
Then Zaydeh says, “Itzik recall
Back then, under the knife,
When the Angel told me to stop,
He gave us back your life.
Now the Old God regrets it.
Demands the sacrifice then denied.
Well I’ve lived so many times
And so often have I died...
Enough! An end! I don’t want Your favor!
Don’t think we’ll come acreeping.
Itzik, it’s good your mother is dead
At least she forgoes the weeping.”
By the hand Zaydeh takes me in charge
Over cities and villages and graves
The cities are small, the villages large
As we fly over them and the graves.
We mourn them, our families. Yes, monarchs and governors-general, presidents and prime ministers. It is good you came. It is right you came. It was right for the sponsor, Dr. Moshe Kantor, to make this happen. But let us not just mark the graves, Itzik! Let us also celebrate what living Jews did before 1939. How in spite of – and sometimes because of – hardship, deserted by almost all, they lived, strove, created and gave.