Berish Weinstein: Lynching (From Yiddish)

The lynching poem is something of a thematic mini-genre of leftist Yiddish American poetry from the first four decades of the 20th century. The mood of the Yiddish lynching poem is as a rule not lamentation so much as anger (whether at the lynchers, at oneself for not stopping them, or both) often mixed in with, or expressed as, irony, sarcasm and embitterment. Literally putting the "gallows" in gallows humor. Berish Weinstein is not not alone or the first in comparing the lynched black to crucified Jesus. But his use of this theme in poetry dealing with black Americans is consistent thread tying together a number of his poems.
Crucifixion and Jesus motifs are an interesting and much-developed theme of Yiddish literature, about which much had been written, and more still could be. As opposed to the Christian perception of the cross as a symbol of piety, reverence and sanctity, to say nothing of the unquestioned divinity of the man who died on it, the Yiddish artistic approach to the cross (formerly an object of fear) may be ironic, subversive or cautiously syncretic. Not infrequently, especially early on, it leads to points about Christian hypocrisy (the professed universal love of Christianity belied by Christian hatred and persecution of Jews) with the Jewish people standing as a Jesus figure. The fact that Jesus was himself Jewish, that Christians often view their own sinfulness as spiritually implicating them in Jesus' death, meant that Jesus and the Cross were an obvious and ready-made object of ironization and source of literary stimulus as soon as taboos on Christian themes started to loosen in the 19th century. Since then, everybody and everything from the Jewish people, to Mozart to an evening landscape, has wound up on a metaphorical cross at some point in Yiddish (and modern Hebrew) literature.

By Berish Weinstein
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Wild white hands with a spare rope snare you.
A July Tree crucifies your Negro neck;
In its heavy ripeness, in its full blossom.
In the utmost green of leaves the branch can bend
So as not to snap under the noose's weight.
The sun stains spots upon your neck — the fingermarks of the hangman.
The leaves break out in dew as ever, swaying gently as ever.
They do not feel that they are shaken by a hanged man's wind. 

Black you hang in your flayed rags.
Your stigma's pang dies open and young.
Your extinguished lips sag coarse and thick
The dazzle of your strong teeth mouthing a mute challenge to all eyes.

Your singing prayer so woefully wept to God.
He can't appear to you now, he is gushing from his split legs, his nailed hands.
He can't even open up an eye with a tear for you,
Or take your last words as your last confession1. He's crucified Himself. 

Your body blossoms on a summer day although you hang, although you no longer see the sun,
Your wife whose evening bed is a back doorstep in an alley,
Or your father counting bits of tallow each morning in a meat-wagon.

Negro, the fate of destruction did not fall on you alone.
Many, yeah, many are dying like you. Death like this is all the rage.
They're dying like this everywhere now
From the German ghettos to Carolina.2

1 — The term לעצטע ודוי létste víde refers to Jewish confession, which differs from Christian confession in several respects. It does not for example require a second (human) party to be present as witness, though they may be present if the sin was against another person. There is a special death confession one is to make if one knows one is about to die. The Talmud specifically cites convicts sentenced to death in this regard. If one has nothing specific to confess when the moment comes, one says תהא מיתתי כפרה על כל עוונותי t'hey misósi kapóro al kol avoynóysay "Let my death be an atonement for all my sins." But the lynched man's sins are not the ones that need atoning for. (There are a number of Hasidic legends about Rabbis voluntarily submitting to execution in order to atone for the sins of others, for their communities, or for their entire generation, when they themselves were in no need of atonement. The lynched man, too, is being executed for something he probably did not do.) This also draws him into parallel with Jesus. Jesus' final prayer, though, was אלי אלי למא שבקתני "my god my god why have you forsaken me." Here too, God is ineffectual. The actual Jesus cannot come to the aid of this metaphorical one. He is dead. They both are. This death is completely senseless.

2 — The original has "In Wedding, in Leopoldstadt and in Carolina..." the former two refer to Jewish ghettos in Vienna and Berlin, and which had recently (this poem was published in 1936) been the sites of anti-semitic massacres by a new, ascendant and troubling German faction known as the Nazis. In my translation I've tried to give some sense of the Jewish-Black equation, by referring to German ghettos. Ghetto has come to mean "black slum" for Americans. A reminder of the sense the word had for Weinstein, and the analogous terms in which he treated Jewish and Black suffering, seemed fitting.
In the 1949 edition of Weinstein's collected works, this line is removed from the poem, and the one before it edited slightly, probably in part because the poet thought the reference had now become dated. But it is also in line with a general post-Holocaust turn from Jewish universalism toward Jewish particularism. In the 30s, it was common in Yiddish letters to relate black suffering in America to Jewish suffering in the Old World. (And thou shalt remember that thou too wast a slave...) By the end of the 40s, this was becoming increasingly unfashionable. If I keep writing I will start crying.

The Original:


ס׳פֿאַרציקן דיך ווײַסע הענט, הענט מיט אַ געפֿונענעם שטריק,
און ס׳קרייציקט אַ יולי-בוים דײַן נעגערישן האַלדז;
אין זײַן שווערער רײַפקייט, אין זײַן פֿולער בליאונג. 
אין דער סאַמער גרינקייט פֿון בלעטער איז האַפֿטיקער די צווײַג
זי ברעכט נישט אָפּ אונטער דער פּעליע.
דער זון אַנטקעגן קלעקט דײַן האַלדז מיט סמנים פֿון תּליונס פֿינגער.
בלעטער שלאָגן אויס אין טוי ווי אַלעמאָל, און רירן זיך לינד ווי אַלעמאָל;
און זיי פֿילן נישט אַז דאָס טרייסלט זיי אַ ווינט פֿון אַ געהאָנגענעם. 

הענגסט שוואַרץ אין געשינדענע קליידער.
די שאַנד דײַנע שטאַרבט אָפּ אָפֿן און יונג.
גראָב שווערן אַראָפּ די פֿאַרלאָשענע ליפּן
און פֿאַר איטלעכנס אויגנ שטומט דער בלענד פֿון דײַנע שטאַרקע ציין. 

גאָט פֿאַר ועמען ס׳האָט געטרערט דײַן זינגענדיק געבעט אַזוי טרויעריק,
קען זיך פֿאַר דיר אַצינד נישט ווײַזן, ס׳שפּאַרן אים די פֿיס, די צוגענאָגלטע הענט,
ער קען אַפֿילה נישט אַן אויג עפֿענען מיט אַ טרער נאָך דיר,
אָדער אָננעמען ס׳לעצטע וואָרט דײַנס פֿאַר אַ וידוי, ר׳איז אַליין געקרייציקט. 

ס׳בליט דײַן גוף אין אַ זומער-טאָג כאָטש דו הענגסט, כאָטש דו זעסט די זון נישט מער. 
ס׳ווײַב דײַנס וואָס בעט אויס איר אָוונט אויף אַ זײַטיקער שוועל אין אַ גאַס. 
און דעם טאַטן וואָס ציילט שטיקער חלבֿ איטלעכן פֿאַרטאָג אין אַ יאַטקע- וואָגן. 

נעגער, ניט אויף דיר בלויז איז געפֿאַלן דער גורל פֿון פֿאַרלענדונג. 
אַ סך, אַ סך, שטאַרבן אַזוי ווי דו, אַזאַ טויט איז איצט אַ מאָדע אַזאַ.
אַזוי נאַך שטאַרבט מען הײַנט אומעטום — — —
אין וועדינג, אין דער לעאָפּאָלד-שטאָט און אין קאַראָלײַנע. 

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