As is true with probably all Yiddishists, Leon Gildin's book is not just a work of love but a cause, the preservation and celebration of an Eastern European language familiar to Jews worldwide. Indeed, among Gildin's published works is one entitled You Can't Do Business (Or Most Anything Else) without Yiddish. But this collection especially is dear to Gildin since it collects and translates the poetry of his best friend's father, H. Leivick. Moreover, the son, Gildin's friend of nearly eighty years, Shmuel, died only a year ago. This volume is dedicated to his memory.
While the original Yiddish versions of the poems in this volume do not appear alongside the English translations, the titles appear in the table of contents next to the English translations, in their transliterated forms. The spoken language mixes German dialect, but the alphabet consists of Hebrew characters. Thus, the Yiddish title of Leivick's poem translated by Gildin as "Endlessly and Forever" appears as the transliterated word "Eibik." Interestingly, the poem translated as ""Eternity" is likewise entitled "Eibik" in Yiddish, giving a fascinating insight into the art of translation.
The anthology opens with thirteen poems by Leivick with such titles as "A Kind of Dream" (A Kholem Aza), "Somewhere Far Off" (Ergetz Veit), "In Each One's Heart" (In Yeden's Hartz) and "I Have a Friend in a Land Far Away" (Ikh Hab a Freindt in a Land in a Vaitn). As the titles suggest, the poems are imbued with a kind of aspirational nostalgia for a better world that already exists. In the poem, "New York in Beauty" (New York in Sheinkeit), Leivick evidently refers to Gildin's friend Shmuel in the verses:
Be a man, father —
I obey and I am,
I become close, closer,
To Sarah, my wife, to Daniel and Sam.
This also displays a mood of aspiration and sentimentality, a theme is found in the other poems in this anthology. Besides Leivick, the collection includes work by ten other twentieth century Yiddish poets, among them one Chaim Gildin who one supposes is related to the translator. The poem, "To My Sister" (Tzu Myn Shvester), dates to 1908 Siberia. A grandfather?
Of the ten additional poets, Chaim Grade and Avram Sutzkever may be familiar to the casual reader of Yiddish poetry. Unfortunately there is no biographical information about the poets included in the collection and the reader is left to wonder why these people were included instead of others. Favorites of Gildin? The common sentimental themes?
There are seven poems by Anna Margolin (another familiar name, actually), more than any other besides Leivick. One of the more intriguing of these is a 1929 poem entitled "The Gangster" (Der Gangster), which reflects the conditions of the immigrant on the lower east side in the early part of the twentieth century:
In the door of the tenement, at the bottom of the stairs,
The darkness is rent by the eye of a lantern.
There appears, as in holy light, his head.
On the stony face, eyes of metal,
Circular and bright, with no recall.
The street, with every pedestrian and every head light
In hungry emptiness devoured.
He shrugs his shoulders, light and sharp,
A shove, a nod, in his pocket the cool stiletto,
The street lies before him like a golden harp,
And his wild fingers rush to play.
In his introduction, Gildin wryly notes that when Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, he received the award because he was read in translation, not because he wrote in Yiddish, saying in his acceptance speech, "Ghosts love Yiddish. They all speak it." Gildin's anthology is a welcome addition to the translated works.