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This poem is taken from PN Review 208, Volume 39 Number 2, November - December 2012.

Yiddish Folksongs
'Re-imagined' into English Poetry
Norbert Hirschhorn
Yiddish was the principal daily language of European Jews for nearly one thousand years, a fusion language based on German, written in Hebrew script, with additional vocabulary from Slavic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and other sources. Folksongs in Yiddish existed as far back as the fourteenth century, but the genre flourished from the eighteenth century onward, first with the rise of ecstatic Hasidic prayer, and then generally in the Pale of Settlement - the old Lithuanian and Polish empires - to which Jews were banished until the end of the nineteenth century. Conditions there were appalling: persecution, pogroms, military conscription, and poverty. The thousands of Yiddish folksongs reflected the plight of the people, as well as their hopes, prayers and daily lives. 'Yiddish folksongs are in a vernacular closest to the popular speech of the folk,' wrote Ruth Rubin, pioneer archivist of Yiddish folksong. '[I]nto folksong were poured feelings, thoughts, desires, aspirations, which often seemingly had no other place to go.' Some folksongs began as poems, some became poems adapted from the songs (in Yiddish lid means both song and poem). The folksongs were, in any event, fluid, often altered and adapted in passages from one person, time, or country to another.

As a Jew rediscovering his own cultural history, and as a poet, I noticed that English translations of the folksongs' lyrics are mainly dutiful, literal, and stilted, capturing none of the rich idiom and feeling of the original; certainly none of the felicitous rhyming or cadence as conveyed in both the language and the melody. As I scanned through over one thousand texts from several archives and sources, many 'spoke' to me, begging for recomposition or 're-imagination', as I term it: a penetration of the lyrics to distil their essence; to recreate, advance, enlarge, and sometimes to subvert the original in order to create a vibrant poem in English.

Cave Song
        
          
    Tell me, Maran, my brother,
where will you hold your seder?
            In a grotto, on a high bluff,
        there I will prepare my seder.


    But Maran, how will you
ever find unleavened bread?
            In that cavern, by God's own hand,
                matzos are already baking.


Say, Maran, who will provide
          our holy Haggadah?
          In the catacomb, a cranny -
    there I have long kept one hidden.


          Maran, who will save you
when our foes hear your singing?
...


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