December 2023: Handpicked
Each month we ask a member of our staff or a special friend to select favorite stories, books, interviews, or articles from our online collections. This month’s picks are by Asya Vaisman Schulman.
Asya Vaisman Schulman is the director of the Yiddish Language Institute and the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program at the Yiddish Book Center. She is the lead author of In eynem: The New Yiddish Textbook, published by White Goat Press in 2020. Schulman received her PhD in Yiddish language and culture from Harvard University, where she wrote her dissertation on the Yiddish songs and singing practices of contemporary Hasidic women. She is also a Yiddish dance teacher, singer, and songwriter and has participated in and taught at klezmer and Yiddish-culture festivals around the world.
Asya’s selections highlight the goldene pave, or golden peacock, a frequent motif in Yiddish folklore and literature that often acts as a messenger or companion on a long journey. So frequent is this symbol that it has also come to stand for Yiddish culture itself. Let’s see where the bird has landed in our collections, focusing in particular on the works of American Yiddish poet Moyshe-Leyb Halpern (1886–1932).
Moyshe-Leyb Halpern titled his second book of verse, published in Cleveland in 1924, after the legendary creature. The volume contains several poems that feature the golden peacock, such as “The Ballad of Kashtakhan.” For a literary analysis of this poem (including the peacock’s role in it), see Yiddish poet and literary critic Abraham Tabachnik’s book Dikhter un dikhtung (Poets and Poetry).
Di goldene pave was illustrated by cartoonist, poet, and puppeteer Yosl Cutler (1896–1935). The graphic following the beautifully designed title page depicts the golden peacock within what is likely an illustration of the aforementioned “Ballad of Kashtakhan.” In a virtual public program from 2021, Eddy Portnoy, the academic advisor and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, talks about Cutler and his artistic partner Zuni Maud. Portnoy shares Cutler’s peacock illustration from 21:06 to 21:53 of the presentation, describing it as “modernist” and “compelling.”
To learn more about Halpern in the context of American Yiddish poetry, you can explore this reading resource guide that was created for members of the Yiddish Book Center’s Great Jewish Books Club of 2019. The guide quotes Benjamin Harshav, who describes Di goldene pave as “a tour de force, combining elements of Yiddish and Slavic folk bards, direct naturalistic description with satirical and grotesque overtones and a lyrical romanticism.”
One of Halpern’s more famous goldene pave poems is “Di zun vet aruntergeyn” (“The Sun Will Set”). You can find it in Halpern’s collection In nyu-york, first published in 1919. The poem also appeared in numerous anthologies and works of literary criticism, such as in Canadian Yiddish poet, novelist, and critic Sholem Shtern’s book Shrayber vos ikh hob gekent: memuarn un eseyen (Writers Whom I Knew: Memoirs and Essays). Shtern writes, “It is a song of mourning, as though taking leave of the joy of life. It is a quiet lament that wells up from one’s very bones.”
A recitation of “Di zun vet aruntergeyn” can be heard as part of Abraham Tabachnik’s lecture about musicality in Halpern’s poetry, given in honor of Halpern’s 25th yortsayt. Tabachnik introduces the poem at 18:16 of track 1 on a recording from the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, lauding its “quiet, gentle, yearning, golden sounds.” (The recitation itself begins at 18:24.) Speaking of musicality, “Di zun vet aruntergeyn” was actually set to music by composer Ben Yomen; on the same recording from 38:37 to 41:32 of track 2, you can hear author and Canadian Yiddish community activist Yankev Zipper lead a group of harmonizing poetry enthusiasts in singing the song.
On another recording in our Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library, poet Bertha Kling beautifully performs Halpern’s song. If you don’t yet know Yiddish, and this song inspires you to learn it, I recommend checking out In eynem: The New Yiddish Textbook, which features this poem and song in Unit 6.
Moyshe-Leyb Halpern wasn’t the only Yiddish poet with a golden feather in his cap. Two other poets whose renown soared on the wings of their goldene paves are Itsik Manger and Anna Margolin. Anna Margolin’s poem “Di goldene pave” was published in her book Lider (Poems); you can read more about the poet and find a link to a recording of Chava Alberstein’s musical setting of “Di goldene pave” in this reading resource guide. Itsik Manger wrote about the goldene pave so extensively that a eulogy for him proclaims that upon his death, “the emblems of his literary creation, the symbols of Yiddish folksong—the golden peacock, the pure-white goat—have been orphaned,” as you can read in this resource guide. One Manger poem that features the bird is called “Der shnayder-gezeln note manger zingt fun der goldener pave” (“The Tailor’s Apprentice Note Manger Sings about the Golden Peacock) and can be found in his book Volkns ibern dakh (Clouds Above the Roof). You can hear the artist Sholem Labkovsky recite the poem as part of the audiobook Lider un baladn (Poems and Ballads) in the Sami Rohr Library of Recorded Yiddish Books (2:10 on track 2).
Tell us about your selections and what they say about your relationship with Yiddish language and culture.
As a Yiddish teacher and pedagogy specialist, I saw this project as an opportunity to share some of my approaches to finding particular items in our digital collections. I hope that by detailing my process for digging through our almost infinite and fabulous resources, I can help some of our readers also learn to find what they are looking for.
I knew going in that I wanted to feature items from as many different types of media as possible, and I particularly wanted to include something from our Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library and from the Sami Rohr Library of Recorded Yiddish Books, two resources that we are working to make more visible and accessible. I thus narrowed down my topic to the goldene pave, a symbol so widespread in Yiddish culture that I knew I would be able to find a variety of sources featuring this illustrious bird.
I started by searching for goldene pave–related titles in the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library and cross-referencing authors with those featured in the Frances Brandt recordings from the Jewish Public Library (JPL) of Montreal. Of the authors I found, I singled out Moyshe-Leyb Halpern for some deeper research. Not only were there multiple evenings dedicated to him at the JPL, but he had named an entire book of his verse after the renowned peacock. This book also featured an intriguing illustration by Yosl Cutler that I wanted to learn more about. I found a virtual public program about Cutler in which the speaker, Eddy Portnoy, mentioned this particular piece of art, but Portnoy’s talk did not satisfy my curiosity fully—I wanted to figure out which specific poem the image was illustrating. I then used the Center’s OCR-based (optical character recognition) full-text search to find all poems in Halpern’s book that mentioned the golden peacock. After reading through them and looking up literary analyses of the poems, I was able to match the illustration to a specific poem.
My next quest was to find the peacock in our audio collections. Some of our Frances Brandt recordings have been processed and segmented into individual tracks (such as this recording of Itsik Manger reciting his own poetry), so I searched through those first, but I did not find references to the bird that way. I then picked a recording of an evening in honor of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and focused on finding a very famous goldene pave poem that I thought would likely be recited at such an event—Di zun vet aruntergeyn. It turned out that this particular recording included not just a contextualized recitation of the poem but also a group performance of a musical setting of the poem. Finally, I used OCR once again to locate the poem in a published book of Halpern’s verse.
I hope you enjoyed this bird’s-eye view of the golden peacock in our collections!
What are you working on next?
I am working with several groups of Yiddish teachers who are participating in our pedagogy programming; this year we are running the Yiddish Pedagogy Practicum and the Asynchronous Yiddish Pedagogy Fellowship. I am also continuing ongoing work on revisions to the In eynem textbook, as well as starting to plan a set of curricular materials for teaching Yiddish at the intermediate level. I will also be teaching in both the online and in-person Bossie Dubowick Yiddish School programs in the winter and spring, respectively.