Mani Leib מאַני לייב

Mani Leib

In October 1955, the Congress for Jewish Culture published the collected poetry of Mani Leib to commemorate the poet's second yortsayt, or anniversary of his death. The two-volume collection spans the entire poetic life of the poet, born Mani Leyb Brahinsky in 1883 in Nizhyn, a shtetl not far from Kiev.
From his earliest attempts at verse to his strikingly fresh poetry while leader of the American poetry group, Di Yunge, the Young Ones.

When he arrived in America at age twenty-two, Brahinsky was, by trade, a shoe and boot-maker and worked in New York's shoe factories even after becoming a published poet and contracting tuberculosis in their miserable working conditions.

Mani Leib, who dropped his surname when writing, began his poetic career by translating Russian and Ukrainian poetry for the Yiddish Daily Forward and subsequently infused his own writing with the ideals of Russian Symbolists he translated, especially the belief in the ability of poetry to transform the mundane into the divine.

Following in the footsteps of the great Russian and Eastern European poets, Mani Leib also wrote poetry and short prose for children including his classic, Yingl Tsingl Khvat which was illustrated by the Russian avant-garde master, El Lissitzky.

Mani Leib also introduced a new, formal complexity into modern Yiddish poetry, a poetry he felt lacked classical, formal models. He also championed the cause of softening and polishing the sound of the Yiddish language, trimming the language of its perceived Germanic and Slavic harshness in favor of quieter, sibilant sounds. In what could be described as his poetic autobiography, Mani Leib closes with the following tightly rhymed quatrain:


און מייַן נאָמען זאָל זייַן ווייַט און ברייט באַוואוסטער,
אין בראָנזוויל, יעהופּעץ און ווייַטער, העט —  
און אַ דאַנק וואָס איך בין ניט קיין פּאָעט אַ שוסטער,
וואָס איך בין אַ שוסטער אַ פּאָעט.



In Brownsville, Yehupets, beyond them, even,
My name shall ever be known, O muse.
And I'm not a cobbler who writes, thank heaven,
But a poet who makes shoes.

-- trans. by John Hollander