At the outset, I need to say that I am only reviewing half of this book. Half is in Yiddish and half in English, and I don't read Yiddish! However, the themes and the tone — whimsical, urgent, mystical, fond — are consistent throughout and display Berger's talents as a poet, his sharp intellectual curiosity and his scholarly depth. His immersion into all things Jewish is evident throughout.
The poems address Biblical themes, many of the titles taken from the parshe, the weekly Torah portions read during Shabbat services, and riffing on those. For instance, the poem "Korach" refers to a portion beginning at Numbers 16, in which Korach rebels against Moses ("WE ARE HOLY! they burst out together..."), but it's not a simple narrative, more free-associative meditation. "Vayikra" (Leviticus 1), "Vayeshev" (Genesis 37), "Vayigash" (Genesis 44), and "Acharei Mos" (Leviticus 16) are others.
"Ki Sovo," which refers to blessings and curses — which happen all throughout the Torah - is a great example of Berger's wit and versatility with of language. Take the first verse:
I put before you this day a blessing
and a plate of bratwurst, a missing
link, a chalkboard sketch of a curse;
full birdbath, an incomplete course.
A mountain full of blessers, in chorus.
Amen. A valley freshly rained on. Horses
not to touch the mountain.
Blessers on one mountain, cursers
over there. Mistaken mixed up feelings
in the middle.
Blessed are those who open doors!
A friendly and helpful Amen!
Cursed the non-replacer of the twist tie!
A weakly braided plasticbagtop Amen!
Blessed be the overworked, unloved cursers.
Cursed the funloving, lazy blessers.
Amen! Say it again:
Bless and curse! Amen amen!
How does that old joke go? Two Jews, three opinions? You can practically hear the oddly harmonious discord in that stanza. They could be haggling over corned beef sandwiches.
Other poems, both in Yiddish and in English, address that pivotal moment of the birth of the Jewish nation — the exodus from Egypt celebrated every Spring during Pesach. Indeed, two have the same title, "Hagode shel Peysekh," and the latter concludes with these lines, referring to the story of the parting of the Red Sea:
Our eyes were too dry to witness this
Have you ever seen one nation taken
out of another?
Hence, the title of the book, One Nation Taken Out of Another, really comes in the form of a question, and this highlights a significant stylistic aspect of Berger's poems. The question mark gets a heavy workout in these pages. Whether it's in dialogue ("Vos iz mitn goyish? I say. What's with the goyish? Speak Yiddish like we do at home."), the poet speaking to one of his characters ("Nachshon, need a shower?/Nachshon, foxy fish down there, huh?/Nachshon, one small step for man?" — "Hagode shel Peysekh"), a riddle asked of himself or the reader ("How do you English a Yiddish nation?"), the effect is to put the reader on the spot, get him/her involved.
Questions also suggest doubt, moral doubt. Take these lines from the poem (most of it in Yiddish) entitled... well, the Yiddish transliteration is "Lech-Lecha," which means "Go," from the parshe in Genesis in which God commands Abraham to leave his father's idol- making workshop:
From the word Go, I went.
It was a double go. Go — if you want.
You should go? I should stop you?
You should have stopped me. I should
have gone somewhere else. Did I know?
I should have stayed? Go, you said
with the pronoun. Not "You go," but
"Go you." Translate yourself somewhere.
It had to do with my translation.
It wasn't even the first Go I heeded.
It was a copied declaration, a mimeographed
suggestion, a Hebrew word tied to the tail
of a shampooed Manhattan poodle.
You can hear Abraham's indecision. ("Oy! Did I make a mistake?") This great big WHAT SHOULD I DO? which is the essential moral/ethical question any of us must answer.
The great twentieth century Yiddish poet of the Holocaust, Abraham Sutzkever, is like the muse of this collection. Sutzkever appears in at least three of the English poems; he may be in the Yiddish as well. A leader of the Vilna ghetto, Sutzkever's most famous prose poem, is "Green Aquarium," in which he proposes the transcendence over death in poetry, art over destruction. In a seeming response to this, Berger writes in the poem "Avraham Avinu" (again, transliterated from the Hebrew for "Father Abraham"),
to wish for revival when everything dies.
Like Jesus, I am standing graveside
but for resurrection I might be lazy
or insufficient. Would revivication
do the trick? Who died then
who Sutzkever carried - capsuled - in his pen?
How do you Yiddish an English nation?
Sutzkever also appears in "Acharei Mos," which means "after the death," in an almost man-walks-into-a-bar stand-up line: "Moses Rabeynu came upon Sutzkever and Amy Winehouse/Languishing together in the empty pit..."
And so finally a word about Yiddish to end this review, since half the book is written in Yiddish, after all. It was at one time the international language of Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. At its height it was understood by about two-thirds of the world's Jews. It's derived from Hebrew and German, and the word actually means "Jewish." Today less than half a million people speak Yiddish, most of them in New York. But Yiddish Studies programs have sprung up at several universities and the language is being revivified — resurrected, brought back from the dead! — and Zackary Sholem Berger is part of this. This remarkable book of poems, One Nation Taken Out of Another, shows the way.