Yiddish poems from ‘Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles’
Eybiker yam —Eternal Sea
by Rosa Nevodovska, From Azoy vi ikh bin (As I Am) – 1936, Translated by Miri Koral.
Sea, sea, eternal sea! I’ve come to speak with you today –
To grasp your endless striving, your wordless ceaseless talk…
Cramped in town, I'm here to part ways with the city’s restraints ,
And beside you, sea, I seek truth, beside you today I seek accord.
My eyes calm in the vast expanse. Your ceaselessly striving is nearby —
Wide as your waves, sea, is my little human heart.
Our cities, like you, oh, sea, brim with people and life—
Multicolored are our lives …and at times night-black.
What will you, my sea, what will you impart today?
Are you truly freed? Or are you stifled by your endless coast?
Waves and foam and noise—in infinite, tumultuous haste—
Between continents in continual back and forth.
Listen, listen, sea, to my human-tongue!
And let your vast waters rock my anguish and my ache.
My sadness that near you is stilled and quenched like sun,
Hangs over me again in town — as din, as echo, as scream.
Sea, eternal sea! I’ve come to speak with you today —
To grasp your endless striving, your foamy, ceaseless talk.
I stand beside you, sea, unable to take my leave;
Your endless unrest, like mine, seeks and is unable to find accord.
Rosa Nevadovska was born in the Polish border town of Bialystok in 1890. In 1928, she arrived in New York and shortly after moved to Southern California where she rented a beachside apartment for $12 a month in Venice, which Yiddish-speaking residents referred to as “baym yam” – by the sea.
Tsum vildn mayrev zing ikh – I Sing To the Wild West
By Henry Rosenblatt, From Mayrev no. 1 February 1925, Translated by Hershl Hartman.
Our ash-grey covered wagons did not move on,
Not drawn to you over white Sierra defiles.
We supplicated in our prayers
The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob,
Not bending our heads over loaded rifles.
It wasn’t our tents, ignited by your red-skinned foes,
That burned under your steel-blue, night-frigid sky,
On your black-bodied prairies
As fresh, red-bloodied wounds.
It wasn’t our arms, browned by the sun,
That, over clouded streams,
Shook your wet gold-sand in copper sieves.
It wasn’t our blood that streamed
From your bloodied scalping knife
On our chalk-white, expiring lips.
It wasn’t we who, mute, with bowed heads of sinners,
That dug the first grave in the desert.
It wasn’t our herds, flaming with thirst
And swollen by hunger,
That fed your blood-thirsty ravens.
It wasn’t our spines that bent over the manes
Of your hot-blooded broncos in wild gallop.
We did not dance with brown lasso-ropes
Against your buffalos’ anger-laden eyes.
It wasn’t our feet that were first to carve out the paths
Over your mountain-land.
It wasn’t our hands that first strewed
The towns and cities across your brown flatlands.
How can broken spines,
With which dust-grey peddler-sacks are laden,
Sway elastically to the rhythm of your gold in your copper pans?
How can the hands that held the wandering rod for generations and generations
On all the condemned roads of the Exile
Combat your copper arms and steel fists
And scalping knives?
We waited and waited and waited
Until our ears perceived
The blue songs of your steel-lightning rails —
The dance of the red-eyed devil with its disheveled locks of hair.
We were intoxicated by the steel-blue, white-wind wild singing,
The devils-dance under the whirlwind, smoke-brown, spark-veils —
Our bloods are poisoned,
Poisoned by the poison of the yellow metals!
We heard that your gold-sand has been washed out,
Cleansed of filth and purified of transgression;
Your prairies, they lie like cattle after a fat, satisfying grazing —
Full-bellied, heavy-bodied, rose-color uddered;
Your forests and gardens and orchards
Go on, enwrapped in eternal summer.
Your hills protrude like young, newly-developed, pointy breasts.
Overfilled with brown-blue milk…
That your nimble, red-skinned hee-ya,
Like a bear on a chain in the hands of a gypsy,
Dances drunkenly in your multicolored circus bedlam.
And your hot-blooded broncos go humbly yoked to garbage wagons.
The tomahawk, bow and scalping-knife have long
Decorated the shelves of your museums.
Your copper-poured, dark-brown-eyed buffalos
Stroll about in your zoos among multicolored peacocks.
And your many-colored fields —
They lie, ordered by brown-blue, snake-crooked streets.
Your villages and cities protrude out
From under your earth-skin below
Like mushrooms in the field after a warm rain.
And over the dark hill-silhouettes
That cut against your steel-blue, western-shore sky,
There drag the erased shadows
Of your white-grey covered-wagon caravans.
The fires lit on your brown-bronze prairies
By your red-skinned foes —
Barely, barely flicker while darkly enmeshed in the folds
Of your bundle of a multicolored swirl of peoples.
We, too, will be confused in the maelstrom of your big city streets,
We, too, will be blown about by the hot whirlwind
Of your nimbly-oncoming generations.
But a generation of ours will arise, still
Over the ash-hills of your long-extinguished generations,
As Phoenix arises from its own destruction and fire
With colorful, widespread wings —
Young, nimble, new!
Born near Lodz in 1878, Henry Rosenblatt’s big break came when he saw his poems published in Forverts, America’s larges Yiddish-language newspaper, which still prints today as The Forward. Moving to California in 1921, he soon became a prominent figure in the Yiddish cognoscenti as the editor of the Pasifik literary journal. Many of his poems provide vivid descriptions of the places and people of Southern California.
Poems reprinted with permission from the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies.