- The Purim-shpiler and the Melancholy Clown: Folk Performance between Tradition and Modernism in the Work of Avraham Shlonsky and Moyshe Broderzon
The special Purim double issue of the literary journal Turim (Columns) was indeed, as promised in the previous number, sizable and delightful, offering “old time jests by renowned people to read on the joyous holiday.” Turimpurim, which came out a day before Purim, on February 28, 1934, presented light poems (pizmonim) by Nathan Alterman and Avraham Shlonsky, and jokes, caricatures, and Purim-related drawings alongside articles on subjects such as the spirit of Purim or, quite differently, the charm of actresses. In line with the purimesque topic yet quite in contrast to its cheerful atmosphere, the cover page presented a poem by Shlonsky, entitled “Mukyon ki yivke...” (When a Clown Cries...), suitably accompanied by Andre Derain’s painting Arlequin et Pierrot (1924; mistakenly entitled “Carnival,” in Turim) featuring melancholy looking commedia dell’arte performers. Indeed, as its title may suggest, “Mukyon ki yivke...” is actually a serious poem, and Shlonsky, the journal’s most prominent editor, probably considered it the main, if not only, literary achievement in the humorous issue. Adding vigor and anger to the romantic notion of the sad clown, this meta-poetic poem presents a defiant and ultimately lonely jester, alienated from his audience, who boasts his marginal social standing while lamenting his loneliness. A performer and simultaneously also a poet, the speaker in Shlonsky’s poem challenges both social and grammatical norms and struggles for his unique voice to be heard and appreciated.
Fifteen years earlier, another Purim issue of a modernist literary journal similarly featured an ars poetica work devoted to the comic performer. The first issue of the avant-garde art journal Yung yidish (Young Yiddish), published in Łódź in March, 1919, or Purim 5679, as marked on its cover, featured Moyshe Broderzon’s poem “Ikh—a purim-shpiler...” (I—a Purim-shpiler....) Responding to the chaotic reality of the Bolshevik Revolution and the aftermath of World War I, this meta-poetic proclamation occupied a third of the newly founded publication, or three of its eight pages. In adherence to the period’s modernist ethos and the radical spirit of the time, the speaker in this poem defines himself not as an introverted poet or a pensive intellectual, but rather as a rebel and an activist, challenging imaginary worlds of devils and dead souls [End Page 49] alongside contemporary reality. Less in accord with the conventions of the time, however, is the poet’s choice to assign the role of the revolutionary poet to the typically ignoble Jewish performer, the purim-shpiler. In this seemingly folkish poem, as elsewhere in his oeuvre, Broderzon appropriates a marginalized Jewish figure, imbuing it with modernist sensibilities.1
Written by two Eastern European Jewish poets of the same generation and, at least partly, of similar modernist motivations, the two ars poetica poems have a lot in common. Both poems associate the folk comedian with the gifts of imagination and creativity, thus equating him with the poet himself. Both turn the performer’s marginal social standing into an advantage which endows him with a certain freedom from social norms. At the same time, however, both poems reveal the “darker side” of the jester. While each of them starts with proud declarations of the comedian’s independent stance—such as “I am a purim-shpiler today/And I make fun of friends and foes!” Or, “And a jester is my clown/Like him am I/(And he decrees: ‘One may say: Like I!’)” (Mukyon ki yivke...)2—both end with a more tragic tone, disclosing the inner pain or the “tear behind the mask” of the boisterous performer. Like other modern European works of art, these two meta-poetic poems associate the melancholy jester with the marginalized and alienated modern artist.3 Originating in popular culture, the figure of the sad clown becomes in the interwar era a mark of highbrow culture, and above all of European modernism, with which the two Eastern European Jewish poets, writing in two minor languages, identify.4
Notwithstanding these significant similarities, rooted in a common poetic vocabulary and shared...