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KlezKanada '99

Wednesday: Kurt Bjorling, "Who What When Where Why Klezmer?"

Wednesday: Zev Feldman, "Coming to terms with sacred and secular sources"

Thursday: Adrienne Cooper, "Itsik Manger"

Friday: German Goldenshtyn interview: From Bessarabia to America

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[These are rough notes from a talk given by Adrienne Cooper. I was unable to transcribe the songs and poems, which means this is not as useful as it could be. But the subject material is fascinating, and I am hopeful that these notes will serve as enticement to study further. Please excuse mistranscriptions and confusions. I will be most happy to correct mistakes.]

Medresh Itzik: Itzik Manger's Ballads

Adrienne Cooper

Lecture and singing, including much group singing, about the songs and themes if Yiddish poet Itzik Manger, 1901 - 1969. So much of this material, starting with a knowledge of Yiddish which I lack, is beyond me, so the notes, following, should be read as the few recognizable bits of scenery as a more interesting and longer talk developed. In some cases, as in the final poem we discussed, "Mit farmakhte oygn" (with closed eyes?) there is a class discussion. Adrienne brings up the issue of a poet dealing with his pain. To some degree there is also the memory of the pain of the Holocaust, but this is also a very strong Manger theme--that pain of alcoholism, plus the pain of life, and the difficulty of an artist to deal with the pain.

Opens with a reading by Manger of a play about potatoes and other good things, from a CBS recording done in 1969 by CBS. Has not been reissued on CD.

Born in 1901 in Tzernovitz, in the same year that Ginsberg and Marek poublished their folk song collection, Di Goldene Pave (the golden peacock), which symbolizes Yiddish folk song, a bird that neither sings nor flies.

In the song, the peacock approaches a turk and asks the way to yesterday. The turk laughs and draws up the reins and whips the horse and rides on and looks back and says, "a golden peacock is such a fool." The peacock comes and meets different people around the earth and gets nothing better from anyone, then comes to an open grave where the widow of yesterday is in mourning. Such women populate a number of Manger's ballads. Colors, as well: blue, gray, white.

Manger's hallmark is this folksy narrator, a folksy setting, and a simple refrain that makes you feel you are listening to a simple folksong, and then you find yourself someplace darker and more complex.

Manger was the son of a tailor, and at the end of WWI moved to Iasi, now in Romania. His education in Tzernovitz was formed by a large Jewish bougeoisie, and German romantic literature. He was thrown out of the Gymnasium in his second year, for bad behavior. In his official biography, claimed to have been born in Berlin, then to have moved to Iasi when he was 14, and learned Yiddish and worked as a tailor. His family loved his poetry, and at 19 returned to Tzernovitz and published his first books. He met [?] and was given the example of neo-folk poetry.

In 1928 he went to Warsaw, his cosmpolitan kind of coming out. And he planned to use this honed ballad form to retell classic Jewish texts. What Manger brought to the ballad was his use of dialogue and character. For instance, in "Rabeynu Tam" there is the dumb rabbi, his pissed off wife, a foreign woman suitor, and the song was "written" as though by a tailor who wrote it in honor of the rabbi, and then someone rewrote the songs on the shabbes, albeit in perfect rhyme.

Some of Manger's songs also relate to his life. In "Yosl Ber," he relates the experiences of a Jewish soldier, who is dressed up like an officer and looks so much better than he looked the way he did as a tailor, and he meets a woman who takes him into her kitchen and feeds him fish and wine and what more, I won't tell you.

Then, we look at Ovent-Lid (Evening Song). A quiet evening, dark gold, I sit with this glass of wine, what has become of my day...

[We try to date when this song was written--someone asks whether or not this was written in one of the grimmer periods of is life. Adrienne responds that this may not be tied to a particular period--to bear in mind that he was very much a serious alcoholic--and that there is more happening here, a day when he tries to be creative, and then looks out into the world and sees a Jew praying and wants that purity; sees the wind and wants that purity within himself. These are the intense desires of poets to take in the world in which they live, wanting to ingest these images and breathe life into their poetry. This is where the image of "dark gold" comes from. Dark, but not despairing. Someone in the audience says, "I think he is looking for his muse here."]

[We turn back a page, "Under di khurves fun poyln", under the ruins of poland, a post-war poem, in which he comes to the most simple ... he was horribly distraught. He had lost his world. He formally resigned from Yiddish poetry with rage-filled letters, that he couldn't write, there was no one to write to, any longer, and over time, refound a voice and lived the rest of his life among Jews, ending up in Israel.

Here, long before Stephen Spielberg and his girl in the red coat, Manger gives us the image of a blond head of a beloved little girl. "Under the ruins of Poland lies a head with blond head.... Pain is sitting at the desk, writing a long letter.... A large bird of mourning [shiva bird, shiva foygl] flutters its wings and bears this song of mourning."

In 1935, 36, he published his "humash lider" and "megillah lider" Some of us in New York in the late 80s, we had the pleasure of making a new production of the humash lider, which ran for about six months. A number of these had been set to music in the late Sixties as a bit of rediscovery of Yiddish in Israel. When they went to revive it in the late 80s, they couldn't use Dov Seltzer's music (argument about terms), and Rosalie Gerut wrote new music. The music was not as memorable as the original, although it is good.

[Question from audience whether he wrote the music. Usually it was set to music by others. It comes out that,among his lyrics for hire, was "Yidl mitn Fidl".]

In the Megilla Lider, he uses a little bird that is sent to fly over Queen Esther's room and to carry Faser's desperate intensity of love. This person is Manger's working class boy who objects to [her marriage to Ahasveros?] He asks if she remembers how she loved him? How could she make such a fool of him, talk to me, talk to me, "zog gib loshn Esther". He says, I want to go to the river and throw myself in, but I am afraid that even dead I would remember you."

The other wonderful enlivened character is Vashti, who has the world's greatest torch song. "My father told me not to marry this drunk, and now worms are going to eat my body." "Hangman don't come yet / give me another moment / don't make it night for me until I've had one more moment to laugh".

Apparently Manger went back after the war and wrote some sequels to the humish lider. One of the sequels is about Cain and Abel? In his great grief at the death of his brother Mote, and his anger at God, he has transformed these into the story of Cain and Abel.

Dov Noy's brother, Meir, who recently passed away, set a huge number of Manger songs to music. They will become available eventually.

Books to go to

  • Penguin book of modern Yiddish verse

  • Leonard Wolf has published translations of the songs of paradise

  • David Roskies, "The Bridge of Longing,"

  • Chava Alberstein, recording, "Songs if Itzik Manger"

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