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  • The World According to Itzik: Selected Poetry and Prose
  • Irv Saposnik
The World According to Itzik: Selected Poetry and Prose, by Itzik Manger, edited by David G. Roskies and Leonard Wolf. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002. 249 pp. $29.95.

[Yiddish writers] were all haunted by an appalled awareness that they were facing the end of their language, their culture, and their world. To cite an illustration from my personal experience, I helped lift to his feet the incomparable Yiddish poet Itzik Manger, drunk in a Brooklyn stairwell, as he clutched on to me shouting, "ikh bin a dikhter far toyte," "I'm a poet for the dead!"

(Seth Wolitz, The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer, ed. Seth L. Wolitz [Austin, Texas, 2001], p. xvii).

However difficult to admit, the future of Yiddish may very well be in English. Among the first to realize this and to exploit its possibilities was the ever-shrewd Isaac Bashevis Singer, who created "a second original" to assist the Yiddishly challenged among his readers. Since most contemporary readers remain Yiddishly challenged, translating Yiddish into English is not only a benefit, but perhaps the only way that the masterpieces of Yiddish culture will continue to be read.

Making the best of this reality, the editors of the New Yiddish Library, a joint venture of the National Yiddish Book Center and Yale University Press, have committed themselves to nothing less than creating a Yiddish library in English, a "second original" of Yiddish classics. Of a planned twenty volumes, four have recently been published: The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl and Motl, the Cantor's Son, by Sholem Aleichem, The I.L. Peretz Reader, The Dybbuk and Other Writings, by S. Anski, and The World According to Itzik: Selected Poetry and Prose, by Itzik Manger.

Of these four, the volume devoted to Manger is by far the most rewarding, since the others are updated translations of works previously available in English. The Manger volume, in contrast, offers a broad selection of his poetry and prose that for the most part has not been available in English until now. Foremost among these are Manger's poignant re-working of the Purim story in the Songs of the Megillah (1936) and his sly reconfiguration of Biblical tales in Itzik's Midrash (1935).

It is these poems, above all, that sets Manger apart from all other modern Yiddish poets, and that justifies the title of this collection. For in his re-casting of the Megillah as a Purim Play, and in his re-designing of Biblical myth as Eastern European mayse, Manger establishes his distinctive world view: that, to quote an old Yiddish proverb, "If [End Page 161] God lived on earth, people would break His windows." Rather than stones, Manger throws verbal barbs, poetic twists and turns that reverse the accepted tradition and offer the home-spun morality of Yiddishkeit in place of the stern Hebraism of the chumash.

Manger's Megillah is a tailor's tale. Itzik, the tailor/poet, fashions a Megillah in which Mordechai is a schemer, Esther a compliant pawn in his plotting, and Haman and Ahaswerus buffoons in a comedy of errors with tragic overtones. For his Megillah, Manger invents a new hero, Fastrigosso the lovelorn tailor, who pines after Esther only to be hanged for attempting to assassinate the king. By turning the Purim story from national fantasy to personal failure, by recasting this ancient tale as a tradesman's tragedy, Manger underscores the persistence of Jewish vulnerability, the eternity of Jewish exile.

Manger's Midrash on the heroes of the Tanach is likewise a personal, idiosyncratic commentary on accepted tradition linked inextricably to its author; each poem is, as Manger suggests, "a sort of mischievous toying with the gray beards of the Patriarchs and the head-shawl corners of the Matriarchs" (p. 3). In Manger's revisionist retelling, Father Abraham is a bully, Mother Sarah a jealous shrew, and King David an aging and ineffectual monarch. It is the outsiders who become heroic: Hagar, who in banishment assumes a nobility; and Abishag, who warms not only King David's bed but the reader's heart as well...


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