Friday, May 14, 2010

As good as it'll ever be - Moishe Leib Halpern, Ruth Wisse, and why translation really, really matters

Sanskrit, or Classical Greek, or Gilgamesh, are sufficiently distant from us, and the scholarship in the languages so well developed, that I perhaps take the role of translation in their survival for granted.  I know there are people out there, and have been, for hundreds of years, laboring as caretakers of the language and literature.

Yiddish, though, Yiddish is merely dying, not dead.  I was just reading Ruth Wisse’s Little Love in Big Manhattan (1988), her recreation of the world of the young hotshot Jewish immigrant poets of the turn of the 20th century.  Cool aesthetes or tricky satirists, shoemakers or bohemians, socialists or communists or Communists.  What fun to be young, and in New York, and a poet – was there ever a time when that was not true?

The Manhattan of the ‘00s and ‘10s, though, was unusual, because the city was the entry-point for the largest wave of immigration in American history.  All of these immigrants arrived as young men, and whatever their theories or politics, between their new world of tenements and Yiddish newspapers and sweatshops and their old world of villages and pogroms, they certainly had plenty to write about.  Every poet Wisse mentions was a secularist, but Jewish literature and history is everywhere in their poems.

Wisse keeps her attention on two poets, the best ones, she argues, Moishe Leib Halpern and Mani Leib (no last name, there).  Wisse provides generous excerpts from their work, which is essential, because as far as I can tell, there is only one collection of Halpern in English, and, for Mani Leib, none.  None.  I also read a few of their poems in an anthology of Hebrew and Yiddish poems, the name of which I have forgotten, which is slick work, kid.

Wisse’s title comes from Halpern, a poem about lovers finding privacy in the tenement:

There in the shadowy, dank hall
Right alongside the ground-floor stair –
A weeping girl, attended by
A grimy hand in the mussed-up hair.
- A little love in big Manhattan.

The hair – a whiff of some cheap rinse
The hand – hard, stiff and leathery
Two equal lovers, for whom this is
As good as it’ll ever be.
- A little love in big Manhattan. (Wisse, p. 169)

That’s a bit of “Song: Weekend’s Over,” originally published in 1923 (I think).  Wisse gives a few more stanzas, but not the whole thing.  It’s slangy, the tone jerks around, and it’s obviously a headache to translate well.  I’d love to read the whole thing.

The one Halpern book, In New York: A Selection*, gives me about a third of Halpern’s first book, In Nyu York (1919).  “In a Foreign World” is a poem about the voyage to America – every poet wrote one of these. “Our Garden” – “It takes a magnifying glass \ Just to see a little grass” – is typical of Halpern’s cheery pessimism about New York.  Contrast to the old country, though: the fragments of the long vision of a pogrom, “A Night ,” are sufficiently strong to truly puzzle me.  Why on earth is this not all in English?

“A Night” is in the same tradition as H. Bialik’s “In the City of Slaughter”, or Jeremiah’s “Lamentations.”  Paul Celan knew it.  The poet is a schoolboy in Galicia, but also Moses, and Christ, although Christians bring only violence and terror.  This poem is not cheery, or sardonic, just a nightmare.

They stop on a snowy field
And leave me alone.
On crutches, his head bandaged,
The little man hobbles again.

He calls me king. He kneels.
He asks me my desire.
I say, “It’s clear that I’m alone
And can’t move anymore.”

He winks. A naked skeleton –
Soldiers after it – runs from afar.
It lifts its legs like a hussy
Among the drunks in a bar.

It skips and dances around me,
Roaring and singing,
“May death forever spin
Around you – an eternal ring!” (XX, p. 151)

Dang hard poem to excerpt.  Soon enough – not for a long time, but too soon – the poems of Moishe Leib Halpern will only be available to readers with advanced degrees in Yiddish, or to readers of translations.  Without translations, this literature disappears.  In the long run, no language is immune.  Translators keep culture alive.  Maybe that’s too obvious a point.  Reading Halpern and Mani Leib, I can hardly stop thinking about it.

* Moishe Leib Halpern, In New York: A Selection, ed. and tr. Kathryn Hellerstein, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1982.


  1. Ruth Wisse is the greatest critic now writing in English. Hands down.

  2. I read this book because I wanted to know about Halpern and Mani Leib, but I knew I would be in good hands with Wisse. Her balance of the biographies, the context, and the poetry was unimprovable.

    I know I want to read The Modern Jewish Canon someday.