A Fragment of a Remnant

My blog post today has two parts. I will share the first stanza of a Chaim Grade poem. I will also share a bit of an essay that appeared this past week in the online Yiddish Studies journal In geveb. The essay about postmodernism, by Jonathan Boyarin, was written in Yiddish. It therefore embodies in its form, as well as discussing in its content, the distinction between Wissenschaft des Judentums and yidishe visnshaft. This reversal is a call for putting the ‘Jewish’ at the center of Jewish Studies. That is, the discipline is not only ‘about’ Judaism, but is done Jewishly. Though handicapped by the fact that I never studied literature, modernism or post-modernism, I am truly intrigued by this essay. Here is a link to it, including the author’s postscript and, at the bottom, a few thoughts from the translator. [link here]

And here are a couple of excerpts from the English translation. I selected these because I can almost begin to comprehend them:

If one must put the stress on continuity (rather than, say, loss or forgetting), one is already in a modern stance.

That is, the concern (I might add the word, ‘obsessive’ concern) with continuity reflects a gulf from traditional life that is already there. He goes on,

And not, by the way, in a postmodern stance, since postmodern thought doesn’t subscribe to the idea of continuity. It insists, rather, that “tradition” is never whole, that it’s never a perfect transfer from generation to generation, that we annihilate memory or renew it at every moment in time.

The middle of the essay talks about ‘otherness’. The Jewish minority experience in Europe is erased again by precisely those scholars who ought to know better, who describe the world from a multicultural perspective, but who write about Europe as though it were a monolith.

And then, at the end of his essay, talking about Derrida:

A remnant is what endures of an entity that has been forgotten. It does not allow for any “further” creation from itself of a false, renewed wholeness, but, on the other hand, it is also strong enough, present enough, to be able to destabilize the positive designs of a here-and-now that wants to pretend ignorance. It’s no coincidence, it would seem, that the Jew from Algeria became the French philosopher of the “trace,” or the “remnant.” Jewish living-with-loss, the Jewish mode of holding one’s own in a foreign land, is a model for postwar, postcatastrophe writing and thinking.


And here is an excerpt from a Chaim Grade poem. The English is a ‘first rough’ deciphering. That is, I am trying to figure out what each line means, more or less literally, without obsessing too much over the poetic qualities yet.

Old Boys Who Collect Books

Like hidden Lamed Vovniks of the old legends,
Who creep out at sunset from their leafy hiding places
And stand among the trees in the thickness of woods
Spellbound by the stillness and covered in humus [veiled with laziness]—
So, too, [they] stand at the walls of bookshelves
In the bookshops—old bachelors getting on in years;
Tucked away, like sunbeams in gray cobwebs
Sundered from life and forgotten by the world.
Paging through their paper treasures at midnight,
In narrow garret dwellings and in cold rooms,
Like usurers weighing their gold collections in the dark
And the next day their eyes still shine with gold reflections.

This is the first of (have mercy on me) nine twelve-line stanzas. Here it is in Yiddish:Bokherim First Stanza

To decipher that excerpt I use my own fragmentary Yiddish knowledge. First, I have to look up about a word per line:

vocab first stanza

And here are just a few of the initial problems that come up for me. First, I can’t even make it past the title unscathed. Alte Bokhurim Vos Kleybn Sforim. ‘Bokhurim’ means ‘youths’, or else ‘bachelors’. In the sense of youths, the title is an oxymoron, and that’s the meaning that I’ve rendered here. Boys who never grew up, or else adult book collectors who in their fanatic enthusiasm resemble children more than men. But the sense of ‘bachelor’ is clearly also meant, as erotic passion and loneliness are both concerns of the poem. It appears in the book Der Mensh fun Fayer, published in 1962. Never-married status tended to imply a taint of immaturity in that generation, in which a man was not considered a full adult unless and until he was married. That doesn’t really translate.

Additionally, ‘Sforim’ are not just ‘Books’ [bikher], but holy books or, at the very least, valuable, important books. These are not collectors of children’s literature or of Stephen King. There is no single word to render that distinction in English.

Line 1. Is it a ‘postmodern’ style of translating to render ‘Lamed Vovnikes’ as ‘Lamed Vovniks’? Certainly you lose much more than you gain by calling them The Thirty Six. Anita Norich (Writing in Tongues), among other people, insists that translating is an act that both brings Yiddish to the reader and brings the reader to Yiddish. If someone wants to read a Yiddish poem, it’s ok to ask them to learn one Jewish concept. If you Google ‘lamed vovnik’, you will get two thousand hits, and any of the first several of them will quickly give you a reasonable idea of who they are.

Line 4. Bedekt mit foylenish. This is the hardest problem in the stanza. Bedekt means ‘covered’, but it can also mean ‘veiled’. And, foylenish, commonly means ‘laziness’ but can also mean ‘rot’. One possibility is that the secret tsadikim, or holy men, are pretending to be lazy, that idleness is their ‘cover’, so to speak. The other is that in the image they are literally covered with decaying or rotting leaves, having just emerged from a foliage-covered hiding place in the woods. As for the sense of bedekt as ‘veiled’, that is clearly intended as part of the connotative stream of the poem. Or, in playnem English, words that have a tone hinting of courtship or marriage are used to describe these bachelors who are, perhaps, married to their books. In the second stanza, the analogy of lovesickness will be invoked explicitly.

Line 9. At first, I had line nine as, “Paging through their paper treasures, their late-night devotionals.” The Yiddish word חצות, which the dictionary transliterates with the throat-clearing khtsos, can refer to the custom of waking at midnight to pray and study in memory of the destruction of the temple, the first khurbn. [In Yiddish, the same word is used for the Holocaust as for the destruction of the Temple]. I was confused here as to the grammar of this sentence. My best guess was that their leafing through their hoards of books at night was being compared to these late-night prayers. Of course, the object of their devotion would not be the temple, the land, the people who would be exiled, nor God, but the books themselves. It is a self-inflicted exile.

Anyway, when I went to check the transliteration, which I thought must be more like ‘khutses’, I realized I had gotten this line completely wrong. Khtsos simply means midnight. Now, whether using the Hebrew-origin word rather than the German-root halb nakht implies all that, I don’t know. Poets do try to get their words to do more than one thing. I can imagine my digression here might well have pleased rather than irritated the poet.

Line 11. Having used the word ‘night’ in my translation of khtsos, I avoided it in line 11, preferring ‘dark’. The Yiddish does not repeat, and that sonic clumsiness might detract. On the other hand, I did deliberately introduce a repeat, in the echo of ‘gold collections’ and ‘gold reflections’, to at least remind people that this is a rhyming poem in the Yiddish. On revision, I would work the sounds a lot more.


And lastly, a couple of quick comments on why I have put these two subjects next to each other in the same blog post. I still read so slowly! In fact, I have to start reading Peretz’s five-page story Drunk all Year, Sober on Purim today, right now, if I want to have even read it by Purim, much less written about it. A page a day is about what I can do. Or (not ‘and’), a stanza of Chaim Grade. The whole poem is so daunting. Do I give up, or do I present the fragment I’ve done so far, which I hope is intriguing enough that someone else will want to read it?

I am also still so far away from the culture. I have trouble understanding the implication of the poem’s reference to the lamed-vavniks disguised by laziness or else bedecked with rotting leaves. If the latter, is it an ironic comparison to the partisans? I don’t know, any more than I can tell whether or when he poet is or isn’t referring to late-night penitential prayers. I am an outsider, groping my way towards understanding. For now, the literal meaning of the poem, and some hunches, will have to suffice.

What I like about Boyarin’s essay is that it gives a sliver of hope that fragmented understanding is not merely better than nothing. It is another version of what we had all along. This is not an excuse for laziness, or for being satisfied with a cursory grasp of the language, or with one stanza out of nine. But we always see partially and through the lens of our time. If I am coming to Yiddish literature from a culturally impoverished place, I am still here, still looking and trying to make sense. To mix metaphors, the shard still has a spark of light reflected in it. And perhaps my reflections on these reflections is still “strong enough, present enough” to be of some use.

You don’t need to be a postmodernist to know that translating something fifty years later, and from far outside the writer’s cultural group of East European immigrants is very different than it would have been in the writer’s lifetime. I’ve been led to believe that Grade’s writings were closely guarded by his widow. With some estate issues apparently having recently been settled, I believe there will soon be a surge in translation of and scholarship about his work. I can’t wait to see what the people who actually know what they’re doing do with him. And I wonder what might have been different if some of this had happened sooner. The power of timing. Like the old men in the poem, his poems themselves were “Sundered from life and forgotten by the world.” But I’m betting they still have some life in them.


Hey, I don’t have a problem. I can quit any time.

One thought on “A Fragment of a Remnant

  1. Pingback: How Do I Even Title This One? | Tongue's Memory

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