“Fences” and “A Chimney Sweep”

Moyshe Nadir, translated by Ollie Elkus, published on November 04, 2019.

"Ploytn" ("Fences"), and "Koymenkerer" ("A Chimney Sweep") are selections from Moyshe Nadir's collection entitled Di nayeste verk, published by Morgn Frayhayt, a New York City-based Yiddish-language newspaper, in 1931. They are workers poems, political in nature, though Moyshe Nadir was not exclusively a political poet. His first published full-length work, Vilde royzen (1915), a short book of poems and vignettes, was primarily concerned with aesthetics and even known for some of its sexual imagery. The following selections from Di nayeste verk refrain from  declarations of loyalty to any particular political movement, although other poems from the collection do make direct mention of the Red Army. Due to the timing of Di nayeste verk, which was written before Nadir's eventual embitterment with communism, his political voice resounds throughout the collection. These two particular poems, with the absence of communist language, seem more anarchistic than communistic, but at that time the lines between the two could be somewhat blurred. I would argue that the poems have aged very well and remain relevant, but perhaps that's not to our credit. If a poet's political epiphanies don't seem irrelevant ninety years after their publishing, one must wonder how far we've come. So I present to you two poems from Moyshe Nadir, and I encourage you to mind their history but to read them fresh, as if they were written today.

—Ollie Elkus



If the generations have fashioned fences –
who was supposed to plant gardens?
Fences of stone and of thorn,
fences of panic and scorn.
And no one planted any gardens.

Around every people – a fence,
around every heart – a fence,
around every language – a fence,
around every life – a fence,
overgrown with moss and with bloodshed –
and when was one supposed to bake bread?

Here me out, you fence builder
and demolish your fences.
One is not strange to another,
so if I give you cotton,
you give me leather.
One hand is related to all hands
brothers, forever and ever!

This is clear as a mountain stream:
A fence is for those who have means.
For us – namely, for me and for you
all the doors in the fence are askew,
the doors that you yourself contrive,
and let not even yourself inside!


A Chimney Sweep

And if one needs to sweep a chimney – they sweep it!
Where's the shame, and what about this is so wrong?
If one wants to kindle a fire they must
see, that the smoke too needs some place to go!

And if one needs to wipe their nose – they wipe it!
Laugh the children, laughs the villain, laughs the fool;
but you, who wallows the while in black breeches
for that you are rewarded with bright flame.

It is most likely destined to be so,
that they who sweep the chimney muddy themselves therefrom;
but if one needs to sweep a chimney – they sweep it!
Then they creep through the chimney to the sun!


Ollie Elkus is a Yiddish translator born in Cincinnati, Ohio who is currently living in Detroit, Michigan. His family was Litvish and Volynian, having immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century from Vilna and Volodymyr-Volynsk.  

Read the original Yiddish version of "Fences" in the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.

Read the original Yiddish version of "A Chimney Sweep" in the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.