OK, not really, but the poem by Abraham Reisen (or Avrom Reyzen, as you prefer) that I will be sharing with you today has that jubilant spirit to it. Reisen’s work was often set to melody. His poems were simple and many had a direct melodic feel to them, often with consistent meter and rhyme scheme. The song Zog Maran, which I posted here on Pesach, had lyrics from a poem by Reisen. But there are many others. We heard one in class today, called A New Song. Then, too, there’s this beautiful rendition of The Gemore Nign: [click link here].
Given this great popularity, I had a surprisingly hard time picking out a poem to read last week. I think several of them work better as song lyrics than as poems. On the page, they are perhaps too sing-songy for the contemporary ear. Reisen was also an important fiction writer, and we’ve been reading a short story of his, whose English version is called ‘Tuition for the Rabbi’. The Yiddish title, Skhar Limud, can mean ‘tuition’, but can also imply ‘the cost of education’. It’s been all Reisen, all the time, these last two weeks. Since the TaNaKh reading group has been reading Job, we also looked at another (very) short story called Job, about a benighted, miserable kheder teacher who came alive when he taught the Book of Job to his young pupils. Clearly, the activity of teaching and learning was one central subject matter for Reisen.
On this first round we’ve been making through the world of Yiddish poetry, my choices are not based on any systematic knowledge. I happened to run across this particular poem on my haphazard flipping through the many hundreds of choices. It was in volume one of the 1933 edition of Reisen’s Collected Works, so I assume it was written early. The spelling in the Yiddish is archaic. In typing it out, I made no attempt to modernize it. I did look for an updated version in his 1951 book, Di Lider, but couldn’t find it. It could be the author wasn’t particularly proud of this one, or it could be I just missed it. Here it is, along with my rough English version:
The Rebbe is Dead — Avrom Reyzen
The Rebbe—dead… from the kheder
The young learners have run outside
and raised a commotion in the little alley
with the first-born sons in the lead
The Rebbe’s eyes, which pierced
like arrows, are extinguished,
and the lips that sang passages
from the prophets are shut.
He’s dead, the Rabbi… A party!
And you can do whatever you want.
You can roll around in the sand.
You can even stand on your head.
The Rebbe—dead! Such bliss
The children’s eyes are on fire
The world is entirely theirs
they can rule, and will …
Into the market to the red cherries!
cries the leader of the pack.
They buy, they grab, they nosh,
without the Rebbe they grow bold!
Into the woods! Thunders Leyv,
the butcher’s son. A youth strong as iron,
he tests the muscles of his hand
wanting to show off his courage.
The Rebbe—dead… their eyes
a spray of glowing sparks,
and they’re off, they fly far
from the settlement, to the woods…
Dust rises up from the alleys
The fathers and mothers have caught on,
Murmuring: “The Rebbe— dead.
The children have gone insane…
It’s no small thing, children without Torah—
They will turn the world upside down!”
(And now, tears can be seen
in the eyes of many a poor mother)
The Rebbe—dead… they run
There they are. Already behind the houses
they have started playing war—
And Leyv, the Butcher’s son, is Kaiser…
One Kaiser is too few… a second one
forms a gang*– the son
of a skinner. War blazes in the woods
and the wild children are on the loose.
[*note: I’m unsure what “a tsveyter vert bendet” means, in the second line, last stanza. Help me out if you can]
The literal meaning of the poem is clear enough. Kheder started too young, and took up too many hours. The melamed was often unqualified, and wages were low. Many of them were also strict, and frequently used corporal punishment. So the children’s joy at their liberation in the poem is straightforward, even if the circumstances are awkward. The tone of anarchic joy does gradually take on some darker notes, however, in the parents’ concern, and in the children of physical laborers taking the lead. Is a kind of Lord of the Flies situation going to develop? How earnestly do they ‘play at war’ in the woods? Or is it all in fun? The author, wisely, I think, does not impose his point of view.
We decided the poem could also be read as a metaphor for the overturning of the old order, through the enlightenment or, more likely, revolution. The social order will be stood on its head, and workers will be on top. But again, what will happen after the revolution, when jubilation leads to rule by brute strength? It would be handy to have a year on this one. My hunch is that it was before the Russian Revolution, which led to civil war in the Ukraine, and to yet another wave of pogroms. The overall feel is too high-spirited, even with the foreboding notes in the ending.
[When I type rather than scan the Yiddish, I’m usually grateful for help pointing out typos, but it may be hard, and of limited use, given the archaic spelling. The original is on page 215, Collected Works, 1933, vol. 1]