October 2019: 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 Madeleine (Mindl) Cohen.


Madeleine (Mindl) is the director of translation and collections initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center. Mindl has a PhD in Comparative Literature with an emphasis in Jewish Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She is a western Massachusetts native; she grew up in Greenfield and attended Hampshire College, where her studies focused on German and German-Jewish literature. As an undergraduate, Mindl participated in the Yiddish Book Center's Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, which set her on the path of Yiddish Studies, and more recently she was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow. Before coming (back) to the Center, she worked as the Editor-in-Chief for In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies and taught Yiddish language at Harvard University.

After delving into her selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Mindl about her choices.

"The Ballad of Old Harlequin" by Itzik Manger, translated by Lawrence Rosenwald

Both Manger's Yiddish poem and Rosenwald's English translation are masterful examples of enjambment—when a poetic sentence continues past the end of the line and even the end of the stanza. 

"Avishag Writes a Letter Home" by Itzik Manger, translated by Murray Citron 

This poem in Citron's translation is, for me, one of the most touching of Manger's biblical reimaginations—the minor character Avishag is given a voice, and, in an example of Manger's signature use of anachronism, she bemoans the fact that her whole life is reduced to "a line of ink on parchment" in the biblical verse that tells her story. 

Itzik Manger—a conversation with Abraham Tabachnik

Thanks to the recordings of Abraham Tabachnik, we can listen to Itzik Manger reading a selection of his poetry and then discussing his work. Manger is among the most famous Yiddish poets, and one of the minority who came from Bukowina or Galicia. It is such a treat in a poem like "Lomir zhe zingen" to hear his southern accent. 

Medresh Itsik, by Itzik Manger

Like many volumes of Yiddish poetry, some of Mangers' have beautiful graphic design and illustrations. This volume has a gorgeous lettering of the title, and line drawing of the author by A. Kolnik.

"Updating the Poetry of Itzik Manger" Oral History Excerpt with Murray Citron 

Murray Citron gives an example of the creative decisions he makes in order to translate Manger's poetry—including introducing new images and anachronisms, which he feels match Manger's playful spirit. I agree! 

"The Librarians" by Rachel Auerbach, translated by Seymour Levitan 

It is thanks in part to Rachel Auerbach that Manger's manuscripts survived the Warsaw ghetto; she was a member of the Oyneg Shabes underground archive in Warsaw and helped to preserve his work along with so much other valuable material. Auerbach wrote memoirs about her experience in the ghetto—here is an excerpt about the importance of reading for ghetto residents. 

Q&A

Mindl Cohen speaks with Lisa Newman, the Yiddish Book Center's director of communications, about her Handpicked selections.

Lisa Newman: Well, the obvious first question—all of your selections are about Manger. Do tell. 

Mindl Cohen: I had Manger on my mind because we recently had the opportunity to publish translations of his poetry by two wonderful translators that we work with, Lawrence Rosenwald and Murray Citron. In addition to their translations included in my picks, their work was also featured recently by Asymptote Journal, an international journal of literary translation, in a special feature on Yiddish poetry that the Yiddish Book Center helped to support—it's exciting to think about readers who may know nothing about Yiddish encountering Manger's poetry for the first time in that publication! These new translations got me thinking about some of the other great material we have relating to Manger. Manger was one of the most popular Yiddish poets, continuing into the postwar period, so we're lucky to have recordings of him, beautiful editions of his work, and lots of colorful stories about him. 

LN: I'm eager to hear your thoughts on Manger's style...  

MC: Professor Chana Kronfeld describes Manger as a "neo-folkist," which is a great phrase. It means that Manger's poetry often reads like folk songs, with very regular meter and rhymes, and content that at first glance feels like a traditional lullaby, as in his famous poem and song "Oyfn veg shteyt a boym" ("On the Path Stands a Tree"). But under the surface the themes and imagery are modern, complex, and often subversive. "Avishag Sends a Letter Home" is a great example. This is one of Manger's many retellings of biblical stories, updated so that the biblical characters read like modern day Yiddish-speaking Jews, and often drawing different conclusions than the traditional interpretations of the biblical stories. This poem is subversive and modern because it takes the minor character of Avishag, whose role was to warm the bed of the dying King David, and makes her the main character, giving her a voice. The poem uses anachronism to point out how Avishag is misused: wise men try to tell her what a good deed she is doing, she will even be remembered in a bible verse! But this is cold comfort to Avishag, who thinks "A verse for all her youthful years / And the years that are to be. / A line of ink on parchment for / A whole reality." Citron's translation beautifully renders the simple regular rhyme of Manger's poem that makes this sentiment so affecting. I love how Manger's simple style expresses radical sympathy for Avishag, and the fact that this translation is able to do both things in English is so satisfying. 

LN: Listening to the voice of the Yiddish writers in the archival recordings is for me always a profoundly powerful experience—to connect a voice with the person, the work... What's your takeaway? Does it change or inform the way you read the work after hearing it read by the writer himself? 

MC: I agree, it is so powerful to hear the poet read their own work. It is very easy to feel that our Yiddish writers are only accessible to us through their printed works in books, so every photograph, recording, or example of handwriting I see reminds me what fascinating people these writers were, in addition to being great poets. What I take away specifically from hearing Manger read his work is hearing his wonderful accent. Manger was from Bukowina, he was born in Chernivtsi (now Ukraine) and later lived in Iaşi (now Romania), so he has a southern Yiddish accent. Lots of people spoke this Yiddish, but it is sometimes thought of as a less literary or less educated accent (compared to the northern, Litvak pronunciation). But it sounds gorgeous, and Manger is clearly proud of it. For example, in the poem I mentioned "Lomir zhe zingen" ("Let us sing"), the refrain goes "Let us sing, simply and plain, of all that is homey, beloved, and dear" ("Lomir zhe zingen, pushet un prost, fun alts vos is heymish, lib, un tayer"), and the way that he pronounces the word "simply," "pushet" (instead of "poshet") shows his accent—so he's also giving an example of something that is "simple, plain, homey, and beloved" in the very way that he says the word. That adds a meaning to the poem that you can only learn by hearing how the poet recites his work. 

It is very easy to feel that our Yiddish writers are only accessible to us through their printed works in books, so every photograph, recording, or example of handwriting I see reminds me what fascinating people these writers were, in addition to being great poets. What I take away specifically from hearing Manger read his work is hearing his wonderful accent.

LN: The drawing of Manger by A. Kolnik is one that has become very iconic. Do you know anything about the relationship between the artist and the writer? So many of the Yiddish writers had close relationships with artists, and the resulting portraits are always illuminating in terms of getting a sense of the person. 

MC: I don't know anything specifically about Manger and Kolnik's relationship, but it always struck me that Manger has especially wonderful portraits, both other drawings and paintings as well as photographic portraits, often with his face resting in his hand, which is also holding a cigarette. So iconic.

LN: Your work at the Center has you exploring and surfacing content from our collections—what are the surprises you've found or tripped over while searching? Most illuminating find?

MC: It's basically impossible to pick out one surprising or illuminating find, because every conversation I have with a translator or question I try to answer for someone results in finding something new and surprising. I recently helped a researcher locate a Yiddish memoir written by someone who had worked in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at the time of the famous and catastrophic fire. The researcher is writing a history of smoking regulations in the United States, so wanted to know what discussion of smoking in the factory there might be in this memoir. It's a great example of how Yiddish sources can be valuable in ways you would never imagine.