World Books Review: “The Loving Specter of Yiddish”

The handsomely produced bilingual volume reflects a committed and passionate marriage of an exacting poet-translator and Yiddish poetry.

With Everything We’ve Got: A Personal Anthology of Yiddish Poetry
Edited and translated by Richard J. Fein. Host Publications, 218 pages.

Reviewed by Anna Razumnaya

Fortuitously, just before the publication of Richard Fein’s new anthology With Everything We’ve Got, I heard him read his poems and translations before an audience at Boston University. His manner of reading, which seemed unusually emphatic chiefly because it was unhurried and deliberate (“rapture fixes on one part, and turns to another, like a stream swirling, then sliding along,” as Fein writes in one poem), conveyed to me something that stayed with me for weeks afterward: the intensely personal nature of his engagement with Yiddish—“an intimate alienation,” in Fein’s own words.

This handsomely produced bilingual volume is the fruit of three decades of Fein’s sustained engrossment in Yiddish: the title of the book is borrowed from a poem by H. Leivick that calls Yiddish poets to write an elegy to their language. The book’s peacock-feather cover design brings to mind the peacock’s symbolism of immortality, and with the Yiddish poems set in a Hebrew typeface on the right-hand side in order to converge with the lines of translation on facing pages.

The collection does not pretend to displace Irving Howe’s authoritative Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, but the disclaimer of “a personal anthology” frees Fein to do something that the editor of a comprehensive anthology could not. First of all, it is the freedom to include only the poems that Fein felt compelled to attend to as a translator.

Having spent his boyhood avoiding Yiddish and the strange, Old World claims it exerted on his soul, Fein found himself lured back into Yiddish decades later, as if the language were a woman whose charms he had failed to appreciate as a younger man, but whom he now found irresistible. This reunion, however, only took place after the World War II, in the world where Jewish life had been disfigured by the Holocaust. Yiddish, a thriving language in a phase of literary experimentation and rapid enrichment in the pre-war years, emerged after the war as a dying language.

In The Dance of Leah, a book of essays exploring his preoccupation with Yiddish and the fate of its literature, Fein writes:

When I am involved in Yiddish I sense I am in touch with a world and a language vanishing bit by bit at the same time that I gather my energies and abilities to apprehend them. My contact with Yiddish yields new intensities to my life in the face of our shared mortality. I play out a personal fear in terms of my relationship to Yiddish language and culture. I touch the dying and return to my thoughts, to English. This is the origin of my impetus to Yiddish.

In the preface, Fein disavows the grim view of his anthology as a memorial to Yiddish: “This book is not a homage to Yiddish poetry. Translation is lust—a way of possessing the Yiddish poem—of being more intimate with its letters and words. . . .” Far from an unbiased “areal view” of a literature, the book is a fruit of the thirty-year committed and passionate marriage of the poet-translator and Yiddish poetry.

This is another departure from the existing collections of Yiddish verse, whose editors, for shortage of talent, have often relied on the translating efforts of students learning Yiddish in the classroom—often eager, but not always suited for the vocation of a poet-translator. Because of this limited talent pool, any anthology of Yiddish verse in translation striving to be comprehensive is bound to be uneven in quality.

Fein admits that his collected translations are not representative of either Yiddish poetry at large or the individual poets he has selected. But his treatment of the poets included in the volume—Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Perets Markish, Jacob Glatstein, Abraham Sutzkever, to name several—rewards the reader by the richness of the translator’s response to the original. The volume is as much a collection of translated verse as a chronicle of the poet-translator’s engagement with his material: Fein adds his own poetic commentary as a counterpoint of “responsa” that he sometimes inserts between poems, sometimes places as an afterthought at the close of a section of a particular poet’s poems. In “The Return of the Repressed”—a reply to Abo Stolzenberg’s “Dream Canaan”, he muses:

It excites me to think of Ruvn Ayzland
tutoring the young Abo Stolzenberg
at a table at Schreiber’s Cafe: “You’ll find
your rhythms. You’ll become subject to them.”
“Watch how the wrong word turns into the right word”—
the two of them hunched over a table, just as
George and I work over our poems at Au Bon Pain,
where the converging of Mt. Auburn and Mass. Ave.
divides the traffic like a prow.

The scene between Ayzland and Stolzenberg is reenacted by Richard Fein and George Kalogeris, probably in the same manner that Richard tutored me one evening, at the same Au Bon Pain, helping me with my own translations of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Hunched over a table, with my drafts spread out between us, it was mostly Richard talking, picking up a word that didn’t seem right, either in meaning or in diction, trying out alternatives, testing them for fitness by sound and mouth-feel until the solution came.

A poem written in tetrameter turned out to be unexpectedly difficult, because the changes Richard suggested violated the meter. He did not seem bothered by that at all. Only later I saw that this unconcern was a deliberate decision about what is essential to poetry. In his poem “Yankev Glatshteyn Visits Me in the Coffee Shop,” one of the “responsa” among the translations, Fein writes:

It’s all good and well that you translate me.
You need it more than I do.
I’m in Yiddish for all time.
Not that I mind, mind you.
Be my guest. But you,
you have to translate yourself
into English. Stop fretting
about starting late. Be like Yiddish
literature—grow into your gift.
Don’t brood over your unmetrical ear.
Listen to the truth-rattles in you,
your ear will catch on. . . .

For someone like myself who does not read Yiddish, the book is a revelation and a puzzle. The variant spellings of the names of poets like Yankev Glatshteyn, who was also known by his New World name, Jacob Glatstein, are not discussed in the otherwise helpful biographical notes at the end of the book. The mention of the “Great Stalinist Purges” in the biographical note on Izi Kharik should itself be purged of the word “Great.” The vastness of Russia’s national calamity can be described by other words—words that do not suggest “greatness,” however remotely.

The novelist and poet Perets Markish, a leading figure in Yiddish literature and during the war a prominent member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

More importantly, such disparities of register as can be seen between the translations of Perets Markish in this edition, in Irving Howe’s Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, and in the Russian edition of Markish, perplex a reader like me and challenge one’s ideas about what Markish, or other poets in the volume, must sound like. At the same time, the shock of recognition and the profound emotional resonance Fein achieves with his translations and responses suggests that in translation, as in marriage, love is the best guarantee of fidelity.


  1. Harvey Blume on April 22, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    thank you for this review, which brings an interesting volume to my attention.

    but let me complain, just a bit, about the sense that yiddish is over as a living language. in new york city, at any rate, & certainly in brooklyn, it’s still spoken, not only among the hasidim but also by russian jewish immigrants, some of whom can speak only in russian and yiddish. it was my pleasure to converse with them in yiddish, appreciating in the process that i knew more of it than i thought.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts