Oykh a Fish

1. A Leaf Turns

Classes have started for most of my teacher friends, and for my son. Though it is in the 80s outside, the days will now start getting noticeably shorter and the yellow and brown begin to show here and there on the leaves.

Tuesday, I visited my friends in Rochester, where our Yiddish reading group wrapped up reading the last chapter of Di Heldn fun Chelm. We felt the sorrow of the Chelmites leaving their town and dispersing into the wide world, somewhat sweetened by the knowledge that there is a little bit of Chelm in all of us. In the evening I saw my poetry friends and read at my favorite Rochester open mic. Usually I stay for a drink after, but this time the list of readers was long, and I had to drive back to Ithaca, so as the words of the last poem sounded, I was gone, like the feathers in the Chelmites’ perenes. [a perene, as I understand it, was somewhere in weight between a comforter and a feather bed, like a thin futon].

It’s a time of endings and beginnings, a time that looks in both directions. Back over this eventful summer, and the work of my last year, and forward to new challenges. First, we hang on for dear life to the last rays of summer:

Lomir Farhaltn dem Zumer

Lomir Farhaltn dem Zumer, or Let’s Hold Onto the Summer, is a poem by Israel Emiyot. It is included in the brand new book, As Long as We are Not Alone. This is a large, beautifully produced, bilingual selection of Emiyot’s poems, lovingly chosen, introduced, and translated by Leah Zazulyer. It has just been published by Tiger Bark Press, a small poetry press, based in Rochester and run by Stephen Huff. [you can order it here — http://www.tigerbarkpress.com/index.html]

I am still holding on to the warmth of our summer poetry evening now nearly three weeks ago, which drew a large and appreciative audience. After some great music to kick us off, I got to hog the stage, waxing on about our reading group and about Yiddish, putting the evening in context, and thanking my friends. Then, five of us read poems, by Leyeles, Korn, Leyvik, Dropkin, and Glatshteyn, in Yiddish and in English.

When the readings were done, Leah surprised us by reading her translation of Emiyot’s poem, Let’s Hold Onto the Summer, and put a perfect punctuation on the evening. There are some more original and more powerful poems in the collection (I might be able to review it more thoroughly later, but get a copy yourself and form your own opinion), but none that hits that turn-of-the-season spot this aptly. So, last Tuesday night at the open mic, before I left Rochester, I did the same.

Let’s Detain the Summer

Let’s detain the summer;
let’s hold fast to him;
let’s hide his green rustling;
let’s tie him to a strong tree.
Behind the tree there’s a barn
and the doors stand open.

The red sunrises trail pale tufts of hair;
and the sunset’s light streaks linger;
let’s put them on like a sash;
let’s tie them
to the strongest plants that extend themselves from the water;
let’s hide the summer, let’s entice him
into the deep valleys—the world’s love wounds.
Let’s not allow him to part.


2. A Herring is Also a Fish

But, the world and leaves turn. Fortunately, I have a lot to look forward to this fall, and not just the mop-up of past projects. Yes, I’m going to finish my translation of Roberts Ventures. And yes, I will send out my translation of The Fate of Our Yidddishist Schools some time before the winter. But I have also just received Weinreich’s massive History of the Yiddish Language in the mail as a gift, to add to the other books on my reading list. I have already met someone here who can speak a little with me, and in a fantastic bit of timing, a Yiddish theater festival is scheduled for next week! [more about that here] So, I should have a chance to meet Ithaca people who are interested in Yiddish. Finally, I still have nearly a dozen of my grandfather’s yet-untranslated books to choose from.

None of those projects or events, though, can possibly substitute for D’s amazing class and our wonderful peer reading groups. A friend in Rochester told me I should teach a Yiddish class here, but I am painfully aware that I am merely an intermediate student. I can’t understand the language when it goes by at a normal conversational pace yet. I can’t read sophisticated material, and even the simple material I can read still sends me to the dictionary with disheartening frequency.

So, when I happened to be emailing a well-known Yiddishist for a different reason, I asked about teachers here in Ithaca. One thing I didn’t want is an online course. When it came to writing poetry, I quickly determined that I personally learn 1/10 as much in an online class as I do in person. Your experience may vary. The expert (who teaches an internet-based class) did not know of an Ithaca teacher, but suggested I give online learning another try, saying, Bimkom she-eyn ish… iz a hering oykh a fish.

Now that gave me something to chew on. The first part was indecipherable to me, and the second part?? In fact, though the first half is made up of Hebrew words, the combination is an ekht Yiddish sprikhvort, an actual Yiddish proverb. The literal translation is, “In a world without a man, a herring is also a fish.” Which barely tells you a thing. As Max Weinreich writes, “A text without a context is a linguistic shard.” So, one has to dig around a little. I’ll spare you the digging it took me to get there, and start where I ended up– with an explanation from Benjamin Harshav’s The Meaning of Yiddish (thanks to Google Books, and Kathie H).

The first half is Hebrew. In fact, it’s straight out of Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), in which Hillel is quoted: “Where there are no men [the plural is used in the original quote], try to be a man.” That is, in the absence of moral or intellectual community, be a mensch. That’s the literal reading. When there’s no group, create it, or stand in for it. More generally, when something needs doing, do it. If the tool is missing, become an instrument yourself. In a contemporary English version, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

But what’s with the herring? According to Harshav, not only would be Pirke Avot (or ‘Oves’) be familiar to the Yiddish speaker, so would a common Russian proverb, which goes: “In a fishless world, a crab will do for a fish.” Of course a crab (treyf) will not serve as a substitute for a fish in Yiddishland, so the herring is subbed in. Herring, while edible, will not make an ideal fish entrée.

According to Harshav, the proverb is often used in a self-deprecating way, as it was here. Not only is a herring a ‘small fry’, but, he goes on to say, the world of the herring barrel is “simple, coarse and smelly,” and provides an ironic contrast “to the lofty and moralistic Hebrew style.” So, in this context, “Yes, I get that an online course is not as good as a live one. But since you can’t have that, you may as well take what you can get– maybe I could serve as a substitute.”


3. (Not Really) Good Enough.

The Yiddish proverb does not just operate, it seems to me, through how the Russian subverts or comments ironically on the Hebrew. Here’s a two-part English saying which does that, but which doesn’t have a Yiddish tam. In response to “How are you?” I sometimes get the reply: “I can’t complain. (Who would listen anyway?)” Here, the second half is, of course, nothing other than a complaint. But because the two are on the same level of content and generality, as well as the same literary style, the second half negates the first half more or less completely.

Yiddish, by contrast, has a way of meaning both itself and its opposite. The Russian-origin proverb does not overrule the Hebrew, nor fully convince us that, in a pinch, anything will do. The herring may be the best you can get, but rather than rueful acceptance, the Jewish version dishes out humor from the absurdity of the contrast. Oh, and by the way, we did not want fish in the first place, but a person.

The other part of how the Yiddish proverb means what it does is in its structure. Very frequently in Yiddish writing, a Hebrew saying or a bit of Torah is dropped in (“It is written that…”), followed by the Yiddish. This practice is so common that it has often been parodied, most famously by Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye. He apparently uses the person/herring/fish saying somewhere, but I couldn’t locate it. Instead, I’ll remind you of my description of a similar ironic ‘near’ translation in the story Chava, here [link]

In place of the original lofty moral resolve of Hillel, acceptance and complaint coexist. I may be reading the mood of the proverb wrong, but it seems to me what it’s saying is: “The world is not as it should be, and therefore we make do. But no one is fooling anyone that this is OK.”

And on those terms I could be at peace in doing my Yiddish translating. I recall Leah Zazulyer telling me once that at first, because in her view her Yiddish was not strong enough, she had felt like she was not the right person to translate Israel Emiyot’s poems. But over time she came to know that if she didn’t do it, no one else would.
When it comes to translating poetry, someone who is both native in the source language and a real poet in the target language will both do a better job and be less satisfied, more aware of the impossibility of translation. Ilya Kaminsky, who wrote a great blurb for the Zazulyer/Emiyot book, gave a reading this afternoon in Ithaca. Asked a question afterwards about translation, he said that he doesn’t really think of his translations from Russian as translations, but rather, as homage.

The sense of not-rightness can be generative. Yiddish says, or rather it embodies, a perspective that the old sources don’t work exactly as intended in our current setting. On the other hand, acceptance of or assimilation to the host’s way of thinking doesn’t answer the original question.


Zazulyer Cover

One thought on “Oykh a Fish

  1.     David, you know I’m fond of you, so I can say this. Once in a while,you ought to simply enjoy, even relish a saying, take what you can from it without so much analyzing. I had to ‘soften’ my expression a bit, because I didn’t want to offend you. ‘Don’t kill it with so much analysis’ is what I wanted to say. It’s like analyzing humor, the joke may not survive.    By the way, I agree with you that our reading of your Grandfather’s Chelm book had an extraordinary conclusion. A knockout one, memorable.                                            A


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