The surprisingly universal appeal of Yiddish children's poems
A new collection offers a glimpse into an era in which tragedy was humorous and weakness powerful.
"I think and I wonder / maybe I'll finally get / what it is I'm doing / that gets everyone so mad"
- from "What Are We Doing?" by Shike Driz
The first impression one gets upon reading the new Hebrew collection of children's poems translated from Yiddish, charmingly entitled "Me and Myself" (in Hebrew, "Af al Pil"; Keter Publishing ), is one of surprise, as if one has suddenly stumbled across an earlier, foreign version of "It's Me," the 1977 Israeli children's classic by Yehuda Atlas.
The poems, translated into Hebrew by Benny Mer, who also edited the collection together with illustrator Michal Arieli, were written by different authors in the period between the two world wars. But despite the children's rather archaic names (Yossele, Avraimele, Hannah), intentionally left in their original form, and the dreams and predilections of the young heroes who are featured, which are so typical of an earlier era - the poems are modern, even contemporary, and certainly not just some relic of a bygone world.
The backdrop to the poems is the forest, in which, for example, one little girl hankers after marzipan, not exactly a favorite among Israeli kids. But the children in these poems are like all children and the subjects that preoccupy them are universal: the fear of getting lost or not being loved by one's parents, as well as the desire for freedom and independence. There are nature poems and poems expressing love for animals. As is true of all good children's literature, not everything is rosy. The youngsters described have mood swings; sometimes they're sad or afraid, and at times they simply find it hard to be kids.
The child's point of view is absolute here. In the first poem in the volume, "Being a Little Girl," by Masha Shtuker Paiuk, the little girl asks, "When will I grow up already?" She wants a life without restrictions, without homework and punishment, like that of her parents. By contrast, in "Ethel," by I.L. Peretz, the heroine wants to continue being a little girl, to lie in bed for hours and eat butter every morning. This poem represents the caprices and self-love of childhood in the very best sense.
The collection is full of humor, ironic poems and nonsense verse. The colorful illustrations in their square borders seem to force the rest of the white on the pages to serve as a frame. This stylistic choice creates the sense that the illustrations are fragments of a whole world with a strange, alluring context that is hidden from our eyes.
Despite the nonsensical bits and colorful illustrations, a fine thread of sadness runs through the volume, by virtue of the knowledge that most of the children for whom these poems were written, as well as some of the writers, perished in the Holocaust.
Opening the gate
"Me and Myself" is being published after a long hiatus in Hebrew translations of Yiddish works for children. Aside from a few rare publications, almost 70 years separate the publication of this volume and the children's classic "Efen Di Toyer" ("Open the Gate" ) by Kadia Molodovsky.
According to Mer, Molodovsky's poems, published in 1945, were given the Israeli public's so-called seal of approval, "not only because Olkeh became Ayelet [in Yiddish, the poem is called "Olkeh mit der bleuyer parasolkeh]" but mostly because of the charm and literary merit of the poems themselves.
"The historic translation of that book," continues Mer, "opened the gate to the illegal immigration and its Diaspora-type characters." Since then, he says, there has been a rich tradition of translated works from the Yiddish, but not in the realm of children's literature; when such books were published, it was usually because people went back to Molodovsky's works.
For Mer it seems that reviving these poems is also something of a personal mission. Mer, 41, a literary editor and translator from Yiddish (and also editor of Haaretz's Culture and Literature supplement ), has been interested in Yiddish language and culture since his teens. He finds it hard to explain why exactly he was first drawn to this world whose culture he seeks to preserve. "I think it's always been in me, this attraction to the past, especially the Jewish past and its negative powers, the Holocaust," he says.
While neither of his grandmothers ever sang melodious Yiddish lullabies to him, Mer's own family included many Yiddish speakers: "This world was very much present due to its absence," as he puts it, especially in the world of religious Zionism in which he grew up and where, he claims, people denied the mameloshen (Yiddish mother tongue ) and aspects of Diaspora life even more than in secular Zionist circles.
Mer studied the language with a private tutor with whom he read texts by Sholem Aleichem (the pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, 1859-1916 ). He also edits Davka, a Yiddish cultural magazine; one of its issues was devoted to childhood in that culture. His partner in the editing of the book, Arieli, 39, works as an editor at the financial newspaper Globes. They're old friends and, according to Arieli, she started getting interested in Yiddish thanks to Mer. Her interest in the period the poems were written, and in Yiddish poets in general, developed even further because of a personal project she undertook a few years ago: making drawings inspired by the journals kept by her grandfather, Avraham Tarshish. He was the pioneer-son of a rabbi who immigrated here from Russia, became one of the founders of Kibbutz Ein Harod, and later became an editor at the Lamerhav and Al Hamishmar newspapers.
"We loved the poems and felt a lacuna in contemporary culture," says Mer. "We wanted to create a demand."
Arieli adds, laughingly, that the poem "Ethel" was written about her: It's the antithesis of childhood on a kibbutz where there is no legitimacy at all for slackers (she grew up on Kibbutz Na'an ).
"In my opinion, the surprise discovery of these poems is the modern world," she says. "You don't expect to find modernity in Yiddish."
For his part, Mer calls the first half of the 20th century in Yiddish culture "the hot period of childhood." The biographies of the writers are very similar, he notes. They we nt to heder and most were later teachers. "For the first time in Jewish history, the child was placed at the center [in these works]."
'Language of the masses'
Dr. Adina Bar-El, an author of children's and young adults' books who also researches Yiddish children's literature and journalism, says that in certain Jewish communities in the early 20th century "new schools grew out of the 'improved heder' which, unlike the traditional heder, had more breaks and less learning. In my research I've found a correlation between the development of children's literature and poetry and newspapers and magazines for children, on the one hand, and the founding of [such] schools, on the other. Many educators later became writers." Thus, says Bar-El, Kadia Molodovsky, for example, was inspired to write by the children she taught in Warsaw.
During the inter-war years, Yiddish culture was dominant in both ultra-Orthodox circles and among the socialist Bundists, "who wanted to unite with all the workers of the world." The Bundists viewed Yiddish as "the language of the masses," says Bar-El, "and therefore opened Yiddish-language schools, whereas the Zionists opened Hebrew-language schools at the same time." But during the same period a similar phenomenon of writing Yiddish poetry for children developed in the ultra-Orthodox Bais Yaakov network of girls' schools. In 1913, for example, the Society for the Dissemination of the Enlightenment sponsored a conference on children's literature in St. Petersburg, in which the need to establish a children's Yiddish press was discussed.
As for the content, Bar-El says that Yiddish writing is noteworthy inasmuch as it does not mention the land of Israel. Unlike the more ideological children's literature written in 1940s' Mandatory Palestine, Yiddish writers wanted to preserve childhood in every way and wrote "the way people write for children today," says Bar-El. "The contents were free of ideology. When it came to teenagers, they allowed themselves to talk about the poor workers and the exploitation by the rich."
This "message of childhood" spread to all areas where Yiddish was spoken, chiefly Vilnius and Warsaw. "In 1917, it was forbidden to speak Hebrew in Russia so Yiddish flourished," says Bar-El. Thanks to immigration to Argentina, the United States and Canada, a vibrant Yiddish culture developed in those places, too. Indeed, one of the poets whose work is in "Me and Myself," Shmuel Chessler, was an educator who moved from Poland to Argentina and became a principal there.
Mer notes that "In the inter-war period, there were a lot of children in independent Poland. There was a great effort to invent childhood. In the formative novel by Mendele Mocher Seforim [the pen name of Sholem Yankev Abramovich, 1836-1917], 'The Tiny Pupil,' the protagonist - Yitzhok Takif - is someone who hasn't had a typical Jewish childhood of the 19th century, and he says to his roommate: 'The poor thing. Just born, the Jewish soul, and immediately it's buried under 613 commandments.' The little girl who wants to eat butter all the time represents the freedom the new writers sought to represent."
Arieli adds: "The notion of weakness is very powerful in these very humanistic poems. The poets enjoyed going back to the 'scene of the crime' of childhood and digging in it again, this time with an adult's sense of compassion and amusement."