Reyzel Żychlińsky: The Poem (From Yiddish)

      Here's the fourth poem in my latest Yiddish translation-spree which began 10 days ago. I'm planning on doing another couple of Yiddish poems, before I move on to a few translations from Medieval Hebrew, which should occupy me up till I hightail it over -both in the literal and the literary sense- back to Egypt, where my Real Life project will involve getting an apartment and starting coursework, and my Blogospheric project will involve Arabic poetry, ancient, modern and everything in between.
      A reader recently asked me (and I quote) "are there any poems in yiddish that aren't horribly depressing? Are they ever happy?" My first response was "what a dumb question! Yiddish poets are real people, not grieving stereotypes, hell, I've translated several Yiddish poems that aren't particularly morose." But it raised an interesting point. It's true that in the way in which I read Yiddish literature, it is an experience of something lost or in the process of being lost, and that is reflected in the introductions I write to the translations from Yiddish I post. My not being Jewish perhaps adds a further complication. To quote Jeffrey Shandler:
For some non-Jews, speaking Yiddish offers the tantalizing prospect of inhabiting a culture that is not only “other” but also “lost.” For Germans and Poles, in particular, learning Yiddish can be a project of cultural reparation.
      The second sentence is relevant, too. As a non-Jewish Russian-American who is profoundly, vomitously disgusted by the pervasiveness of Anti-semitism in non-Jewish Russian communities, I might guess this explains some of why I keep coming back to Yiddish literature time and again, whatever be my other interests of the moment. There are only so many times you can watch a 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation Russian-American, descended from members of the pre-Bolshevik privileged class, speaking wistfully of the days of Tsarist autocracy and blaming the Jews for Stalin's purges (while shrugging off Tsarist pogroms as "not that big a deal"), before you lose both your pride of heritage (a healthy loss to be sure) and your sanity (which is not so healthy.)  
      To get back to my point: there have been those who have suggested, in one way or another, that the gravity and tragedy of 20th century Jewish history renders modern Yiddish poems incapable of making many people happy. Inasmuch as that is true, it isn't because of the poems themselves, but because the language in which they happen to be written -Yiddish- is affectively and culturally loaded. Yiddish is, in Jeffrey Shandler's aptly-chosen words, a postvernacular language. Whatever you say or hear in Yiddish today, it also says something that Yiddish is the language you're saying or hearing it in. 
      So let's have a light-hearted Yiddish poem about heart-lightening Yiddish poetry, shall we? Meta away!

By Reyzl Zhychlinska
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

So what, if you've written a poem?!
Somebody says it's lovely,
Someone else says it's awful.
Someone coughs,
Someone groans.
The sun has no idea
About the lovely poem.
Nor does the cat
Nor the mouse.
And the house is still made of stone,
The table- of wood.
But the water 
which I drink from a glass
Is suddenly sweet,
And green as grass.
I lift it high
Higher than my hair
And fall three times
To my knees then and there,
And kiss the table
and kiss the house!
and search every cranny
for that little mouse. 

The Original:


איז וואָס אַז מען שרײַבט אָן אַ ליד?!
איינער זאָגט, ס'איז שיין,
איינער - ס'איז מיאוס.
איינער גענעצטאיינער הוסט.
די זון ווייסט גאָרנישט
פוןעם שיינעם ליד.
און נישט די קאַץ,
און נישט די מויז.
און דאָס הויז איז ווײַטער פון שטיין,
דער טיש פון האָלץ.
אָבער דאָס וואַסער,
וואָס איך טרינק אין גלאָז,
איז דעמאָלט זיס
און גרין ווי גראָז.
איך הויב עס הויך
העכער פון מײַן קאָפּ
און לאָז זיך אויף די קני
דרײַ מאָל אַראָפּ.
און קוש דעם טיש
און קוש דאָס הויז!
און זוך אין אַלע ווינקעלעך
די קליינע מויז.


  1. Fascinating. :-) lovely job!

  2. As a non-jewish non-german non-scholar of either germans, jews, history or language, who's learning yiddish in Germany, I must admit that the idea of a project of cultural reparation, however appealing as a theoretical construct, is one I can only feel revulsed by when put into practice as I have seen it here. I can't help but wanting to cry when I see evangelic church choirs singing what they call klezmer in what they call yiddish. 

  3. I'd suggest:


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