February 2021: Handpicked
Each month, the Yiddish Book Center asks a member of our staff or a special friend to select favorite stories, books, interviews, or articles from our online collections. This month, we’re excited to share with you picks by Zackary Sholem Berger.
Zackary Sholem Berger is a multilingual poet and translator, and he was a 2013 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow. Most recently, he translated Sutzkever Essential Prose, a collection of prose writing by acclaimed Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, published by the Yiddish Book Center's White Goat Press in December 2020. A medical doctor by profession, he lives in Baltimore with his Yiddish-speaking family.
Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman was the first Yiddish poet I met when I moved to New York and someone I looked up to. While well known in Yiddish music circles for her art songs and renditions of folk songs, her poetry is underappreciated: dark, witty, and deliberate chronicles of her peregrinations across continents and her keen painter's eye.
As I was first learning Yiddish in my teens and twenties, I read over and over again the searing, cynical work of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, whose In New York lent an immigrant's gaze to the city I ended up moving to. "Benk aheym un has dayn heymland," snarled Halpern: "yearn for home and hate your homeland."
A poet I still need to translate more of is Arn Glants-Leyeles, who I called elsewhere the "virtuoso of loneliness." He was a formalist who believed in high Yiddish culture even as he praised the American prairies and cities and their vernacular. A. Tabachnik's interviews with literary figures are a high point for me of the Yiddish Book Center site. His interview with Glants-Leyeles in 1955 is worth it for the latter's careful, deliberate readings of his own work.
Randomly searching in the Yiddish Book Center's site, I came upon a linked series of stories by the Soviet Yiddish writer Rivke Rubin on Soviet Jewish theater life. Life, art, and work constrained by government and finances is always topical, but I was transported to a world I never thought of visiting before.
As someone who considers himself, for good or ill, a rabbinic Jew, and stands at the intersection of the "two cultures" Bal Makhshoves talked about (Hebrew and Yiddish), I have referred to Pyetrushke's Mishnayes, the Yiddish translation of the Mishna by Simcha Pietruzska, time and again throughout my life, and am now studying part of it with my son.
Zackary Sholem Berger talks to the Yiddish Book Center’s communications editor, Faune Albert, about his Handpicked choices:
Faune Albert: Can you say more about how Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman’s background as a painter, her ‘painter’s eye’ as you say, influences or comes across in her poetry? Any favorite poems or verses from her oeuvre that really capture, for you, that quality in her poetry?
Zackary Sholem Berger: A book called Perpl shlenglt zikh der veg (The Winding Purple Road), I believe her last work of poetry, included a number of her illustrations, as did her previous books. Her poetry, much of which remains untranslated, provides picturesque descriptions of the various places and continents where the poet lived. I am particularly struck by her dark, foreboding poems about the South Bronx. I included a translation of a poem of hers in my collection All The Holes Line Up.
FA: You mention that you read the poetry of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern again and again when you were first learning Yiddish. What about this work attracted you? What did you learn from it?
ZSB: To quote Julien Levinson, Halpern’s collection In New York depicts an urban chaos reminiscent of the work of Baudelaire. Halpern affected a persona of the dastardly poet on the fringes of society, which as a searching adolescent fascinated and thrilled me. Later, I read a poem of Schaechter-Gottesman’s which was a clever takedown of Halpern’s “poet maudit” style. It’s difficult to say what I learned specifically. Maybe that he hated his hometown Zlotshev.
FA: You refer to Arn Glants-Leyeles as the "virtuoso of loneliness." Why that appellation?
ZSB: I wrote an article on this topic for In geveb. He was acutely conscious, like his contemporary Yankev Glatshteyn, of being the heir to a nearly-lost culture. I translated part of a poem of his, in which he directs himself to Yiddish poetic colleagues:
Dikhter yidishe, ir mayne noenste brider,
Brider fun dem zelbn elnt, fun dem zelbn yokh,
Fun dem zelbn farloyrenish un brokh
Kh'shrayb tsu aykh di shures, aza lid fun lider.
Yiddish poets, my closest brothers
Brothers of the same yoke and loneliness
The same loss and tragedy –
I write these lines to you, this song of songs.
FA: Were there things that surprised you in discovering Rivke Rubin’s stories about life in the shtetl before and after the Russian Revolution?
ZSB: The stories I know from Es shpint zikh a fodem are about the experiences of a young woman in the Soviet Union (very much post-Revolution) immersing herself in theater culture. The depiction of youth culture in the Soviet Union in an idiomatic Yiddish, supple with emotion and physical attraction, was eye-opening to me.
FA: This last question is on a more personal note: You’re a practicing medical doctor as well as a Yiddish poet and translator. I’m wondering whether you see any connections between these two vocations, which on the surface may appear very different?
ZSB: The juxtaposition of medicine and literary activity is probably as old as both of these! And Yiddish-writing doctors were not unknown (I think of the great Vilna figure Tsemakh Shabad). To me, being a humanist means accepting human beings in their complexity while trying to change, understand, and tolerate them all at once. Such characteristics define the good reader and writer as well.