This Day in Jewish History

1969: A Yiddish Bard Who Would Win Over Israel Dies

The world of Jewish culture and even Israelis' initial scorn for Yiddish were won over by Itzik Manger's poetry and passion.

Oil painting of Itzik Manger as a young man, by Arthur Kolnik
Wikimedia Commons

On February 21, 1969, Itzik Manger, one of the most popular and prolific Yiddish poets of the last century, died, in Gedera, Israel. Flamboyant, romantic and emotional, Manger liked making up alternate biographies to his actual life history, though the latter was dramatic and tumultuous enough for most anyone.

He was born in Czernowitz, Bukovina – then part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, today Chernivtsi, Ukraine – on May 30, 1901. His father, Hillel Manger, was a poetry-loving tailor, who playfully referred to literature, in Yiddish, as “literatoyreh.” Itzik’s mother and older brother worked with Hillel as tailors.

His home life, by all accounts, was filled with joy and culture. He “appears to be the only young Jew to have become a writer, poet, painter, or composer without leaving home,” wrote Yiddish-literature scholar David Roskies, commenting on Manger’s relatively placid upbringing.

From heder to expulsion to the army

Manger was educated at a traditional Jewish heder before enrolling at the city’s Kaiser Königlicher Dritter Staats-Gymnasium. It was there that he became exposed, and fell in love with, German Romantic literature, a passion he had to continue pursuing on his own after his expulsion from the gymnasium for naughty behavior.

When World War I began, the family relocated to Jassy (today Iasi, Romania), which had its own legacy as a center of Yiddish song. Now, his immersion in German literature was replaced by his exposure to the tradition of the Yiddish troubadour, for which Jassy was known. It was here that Manger began writing his own poetry.

During the war, he served in the Romanian Eighth Fusilier Regiment (Romania fought with the Allies against the Central Powers). In 1921, he relocated to Bucharest, where he wrote (poetry, essays, journalism) and lectured (on Spanish, Gypsy and Romanian folklore) in Yiddish.

His first book, however, was only published in 1929, two years after Manger had moved to Warsaw. He later called his time in that city “my most beautiful decade.” What is certain is that he made his name during his years in Warsaw, starting with that first book, “Shtern afn Dakh” (Stars on the Roof). It was followed by playful, deeply Jewish works in which he refashioned biblical heroes in an Eastern European context (Itzik’s Midrash, 1935), and retold the Purim story, giving Esther, among other things, an ex-boyfriend who is a tailor (Songs of the Megillah, 1936).

In Warsaw, Manger became a star, reading his own work in frequent public appearances, publishing a literary journal, and being one of the first four Yiddish writers to be inducted into PEN International , the prestigious international federation of Poets, Essayists and Novelists. He also published three additional books of poetry.

Escape to London

All of this soon came to an end: In 1938, Manger left for Paris, where he supported himself by lecturing on French literature – in Yiddish. When the Nazis occupied the French capital, he escaped to Marseille, and when that became untenable for a Jew, he fled, making a difficult and circuitous route to London, where he lived for the next 11 years.

The war made him come to hate German, which he referred to as “a bastard: a foreign language; a foreign melody. And so long as he does not abort the foreign element [the Jew] will not be able to discern the way to Jewishness.”

Eventually, in the mid-1960s, Manger ended up in Israel, where he did what few other Yiddish writers succeeded in doing: finding acceptance writing in that language. For the most part, the Zionist enterprise did its best to ignore the Diaspora language, but Manger actually saw his plays mounted in Tel Aviv; when “Songs of the Megillah” was given a theatrical setting, it ran for 400 performances, and such political figures as Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir were among those who were in attendance, demonstratively so. He also wrote increasingly in prose.

Manger died on this date in 1969 at the age of 67.