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What Can Yiddish Mean to an American Poet? REFLECTIONS WHAT CAN YIDDISH MEAN TO AN AMERICAN POET? by Richard Fein Richard Fein's books include a memoir of Yiddish, 1be Dance of Leah, translations, Selected Poems of Yankev Glatshteyn, and two books of poetry, Kafka's Ear (which won the Maurice English Award), At the Turkish Bath, and a new collection, To Move into the House. He lives in Cambridge, MA. "Late resounds in us what early sounded." Theodore Reik, jewish Wit 79 For so long, Yiddish has thrived on its own demise. It has become its own dybbuk-occupied by the presence of its former self. We can imagine the nature of its appeal lying in the very life of its dissolution-the bracing taste of our mortality. For me, reaching out to Yiddish was also groping inward to a language that I had spurned when younger but that suddenly-or not so suddenly-began to speak to me, or nudge up to me. To come to Yiddish as I did is like having a love affair in middle age with someone known years before but back then rejected as ungainly, embarrassing, and pushy. Now, the sounds and nuances evoke a pleasure I had once never thought possible, just as lonce thought that a woman's gray hair could never be alluring. Cynthia Ozick embeds this late embrace with words of longing, "We translate Yiddish with the fury of lost love." In a sense I did not go into Yiddish, but Yiddish came upon me. It is a specter from childhood; it is a night thought, a visitation of the shadows in the back rooms of shops I couldn't really look into when I was a child. 80 SHOFAR Summer 1996 Vol. 14, No.4 There were indistinct garbles there, hazy movements and figures beyond some cheap curtain over a doorway. Somewhere in back rooms with remote shelves were one shoe, a deserted bolt of cloth, a mismatched cap and bottle. I can never know what exactly was there but feel again the child's halting curiosity. Sounds felt like shapes that lay their hands on him. Whatever it was that shadowed the back rooms of those neighborhood stores, and beyond them to the Galicia, Volhynia, and Bessarabia those bodies came from I can only know by reading and imagining. And thus every Yiddish word comes from a destroyed and precious region that simultaneously shapes and vanishes as I enter it. How different Yiddish was for the wagon driver (der bal-agoleb), the female ritual bathhouse attendant (di tukerln), the pampered son-in-law financed so he could continue his religious studies (an eydem af kest). For them, Yiddish was merely normal, and therefore, for me, strange. For some ofus, Yiddish might be seen as our orphan-language of early years which squirmed underneath (or alongside) that English we were bound to learn. In our growing up, Yiddish became our dispossession that we later sought to recover-say the way a poet goes back to claim and refigure early feelings. If a poet goes back to the immigrant experience, the Bible, or Yiddish literature and life for some of his themes, he must first feel that those themes are really his own-not borrowings, approached identities, dutiful attachments, or exhumed exotica. Either you feel the frlsson ofYiddish or you don't, I mean to say der tsiter ofYiddish. The poet must find in those realms the provocations of his moods, the longings of his ignorance, knowing what he has lacked is more important than where he has willed to go. Otherwise, Yiddish is merelyworked up for a delicacy, a celebration, a mere identity. Robert Pinsky has extrapolated Zishe Landau's famous quip that Yiddish poetry had heretofore been the rhyme department of the Jewish labor movement to mean, in our day, "cleaving for material to the Holocaust, to the Old Testament, or to reminiscences of the immigrant generation." A shrewd admonition this, but if these sources writhe inside of you and are part of your natural turmoil, then the cleaving is genuine, and so the emerging poems will strive to be genuine. If Genesis, Yiddish, Grandmother's mortar...


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