What we Don’t Know

Lately, my brain has been so full that no blog posts have been coming out. Here are three mini blog-posts. Like the Koran, I’ve arranged them from shortest to longest.

1.  I’ve talked about writing this blog not as an expert, but as a learner, sharing that process in the spirit of discovery. Perhaps that’s why I like this short post from the site Brain Pickings. It argues for the value of what we don’t know, including the virtue of surrounding ourselves with books we haven’t read. Published today by Maria Popova, [click link here] the blog post highlights a description of Umberto Eco’s library in the book The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. My take away is to acknowledge the unknown as a place of flexible openness and the potential for surprise, a source of humility, and the realm of the imagination. If it gives me a reason to be proud of owning unread books, I think I want The Black Swan on my shelves (unread, of course).

2. Preparing for Passover. Today our reading group tackled the Yiddish Haggadah. So that we could sing along, my friend E gathered a couple of links, by searching the titles on YouTube. Our musicologist fellow student A, who is Florida until after Pesach, could probably have found us a dozen versions of each. Here’s my own farkitsert (abridged) version- with a couple that E found for us, and a couple of my choices:

Here’s a snip of Khad Gadyo in Ladino, from the Yiddish Book Center’s oral history project [click link here]

Here’s a recording of the Partisan’s Hymn (with the lyrics helpfully given in Yiddish and Spanish). [click link here]

Here’s Der Bekher (or, Tayere Malke). The choral treatment sounds funny to me, but it doesn’t matter. Even if you gave me an accordion version to listen to, inside my head I hear this song in my mother’s voice (Hi, Mom). [click link here]

Then, when we met today, D sang us a beautiful version with a completely different tune. When she finds a recording of that version, I’ll share it. But her melody was much less rowdy and upbeat. I’m easily confused. I started to wonder whether in the last verse, it was our enemies’ tears coming from the cup, or ours. Is this a triumphal drinking song, or are we crying in our cups? After rereading, I’m going with the first version. Shh, don’t tell our enemies. Zeide may be gone, but I still have his favorite glass, and tonight I’m going to use it well.

Finally, here’s the world’s oddest version of all time of Ekhad Mi Yodeya, by the sort-of-hip-hop artist, Socalled, from Montreal. Not everyone delights in sheer weirdness as I do. But if books you haven’t read are good, this is like a book that you still don’t know what’s in it, even after you’ve read it. Seriously, though, it’s like a sound collage. I started our poetry reading group pushing the idea of poetry as art made out of sounds. We keep being pulled in by problems in semantics and nuances of translation. Music that incorporates the spoken word is often able to break through this problem. [click link here]

3. Lastly, here is the wonderful Yankev Glatshteyn poem we read yesterday, called Inmitn Veg.

English Text:

In the Middle of the Road English

Yiddish Text:

Inmitn Veg

This poem moves me, and is worth a full-length blog post. But for now, I’ve decided just to share it with a brief comment. The word Opgemekt may have been mistranslated. The word appears to mean ‘marked’. The Harshavs have “And when our graves disappear,” where it should read almost exactly the opposite, “And when our graves are marked,” [then you will become a people of orphaned joy].

The second version seems on its face to make less sense. In fact, I went to the published version of the poem to make sure that there wasn’t a typo in the Yiddish, but it says opgemekt, and we checked all the dictionaries.

One way to read it might be to say that the past, when marked, becomes a problem for those who would prefer to leave it behind joyfully. They can only leave it behind by willfully forgetting. This willful ignoring of the past exacts a price, so that without memory, the ‘generation of singing mule-headedness’ will be a childish people.


It’s often tempting to erase the inconvenient parts of the past. The Arbayter Ring Haggadah we read from today has no God in it. Instead of the brokhe over the wine, for example, it reads, ‘We lift our glasses together’, or the equivalent. It has no plagues. If universal brotherly love is the goal, we don’t rejoice over the sufferings of others. At the end of the Ha Lokhma Anya (The Bread of our Affliction) it reads, “hayntiks yor knekht, dos kumendike yor—fraye mentshn” (this year we are slaves, next year we will be free), but not a hint of “Next year in Yerushalayim.” The reasons for that I will try to address when I talk about the word doyikayt, in an upcoming post. Forgive me the delay. There’s nothing I can say about the relations between the diaspora and Israel that won’t get me in trouble with someone. As long as we stick to Yiddish everyone’s been getting along smashingly.

But I will say this. Blinding ourselves to the past is a perilous business. Coming back to where I started, not all forms of not-knowing are equal, and not all carry that delightful potential in them. Nor is this a new idea. Doesn’t each of the four kinds of child in the Passover Seder not know in a different way?

Correction and apology, 2/26

AAgh!  Talk about a learning process. And it did strike me as unlikely that the Harshav’s would make such a basic mistake. In fact, they didn’t.  Opmekn means “to erase, or obliterate”  Opmerkn means “to mark”.  OY!

From now on, I should consider running my blog posts past my Yiddishe mame, who supplied me with the following song lyric: “Opgemekt zol zayn oyf eybik, yeder simn fun milkhome…”  She’s on her way to a Camp Boiberik sing-along this evening. Wish I could be there.

The four kinds of sons. From 'The Eisenstein Hagada'. Illustrated by Lola.  Hebrew Publishing Co., 1928.

The four kinds of sons. From ‘The Eisenstein Hagada’. Illustrated by Lola. Hebrew Publishing Co., 1928.

One thought on “What we Don’t Know

  1. Pingback: What We Don’t Know We Don’t Know | Tongue's Memory

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