Review of Moyshe Kulbak’s Ale lider un poemen, edited by Siarhej Šupa

Claire Le Foll

Moyshe Kul­bak, Ale lid­er un poe­men, gath­ered, intro­duced, edit­ed by Siarhej Šupa (Vesna/​Вясна, 2022). 2 vol­umes, 253 and 534 pages.

This new edition of Moyshe Kulbak’s complete poetry fills an important gap in Yiddish publishing and Belarusian cultural history. It consists of two volumes: the first volume is the Yiddish original with a short introduction by translator and editor Siarhej Šupa, a philologist and journalist who has contributed significantly in these roles to the development and diffusion of Belarusian culture; the second volume contains the Belarusian translation with a parallel Latin transliteration of the Yiddish, and bibliographical and introductory remarks. This is a remarkable and important publication for two main reasons, outlined by Šupa in his introduction. First, it brings to the Yiddish-reading audience the first ever published complete collection of Kulbak’s verses and poems, including his first poems written in Kovno in the early years of the First World War such as ‘Vinter’, the manuscripts of which were kept by his friend Fayvl Meltser and published only in 1957 in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv). It provides a wonderful opportunity to discover or re-read the ample and singular poetic work of Kulbak, from early romantic poems or works inspired by folk-motifs, to his more famous poems on Vilne (Di shtot; Vilne) or those dealing with the intricacies of modernity (Kultura; Disner tshayld-harlod) and more mystical poems where lamed-vovniks wander in Raysn-Belarus. Kulbak’s poetic writing continues to be striking for its close relationship to nature and the way he describes and pays homage to his heroes, untypical of Yiddish literature, described for instance in the poem Raysn as broad-shouldered Belarusian Jewish peasants, uneducated, living in hard and simple conditions. Thanks to Šupa’s very careful editorial work, the reader can find in the footnotes of the ‘Belarusian volume’ different variants of poems when they exist and enjoy Kulbak’s Yiddish, rich in dialectal expressions. Šupa reinstated the dialectical specificity of Kulbak’s Belarusian-Litvish Yiddish (in vocabulary, grammar and phonetics), which had been corrected in other editions of his work. For the wider readership, he also provides a biography of Kulbak, a bibliography, and explanatory notes of the words that can be difficult to understand nowadays.

This publication also has the ambition to contribute to the popularization of the Jewish and Yiddish culture in Belarus for Jews and non-Jews. It is particularly timely and important in the context of the post-2020 elections protest that fostered an inclusive and plural definition of Belarusianess and made use (sometimes controversially) of Belarusian-Jewish historical symbols and of a shared experience of suffering. More broadly, Šupa’s publication is part of an endeavor to spark interest in the Yiddish literary heritage of the country, which started a few decades ago. The renaissance of Yiddish in Belarus is embodied by the group of young artists and restorers named ‘Bastille’: in the early 1980s, they used the Yiddish translation of Brezhnev’s memoirs and the courses published in Sovetish Heymland to learn the language and started collecting Yiddish songs and proverbs as well as looking for traces of Kulbak’s Minsk as described in Zelmenianer. More formally, it can be dated to the opening in Minsk in 1989 of the Jewish library named after Izi Kharik (MOEK), where Hirsh Reles and Avrom Zhenikhovsky created a Yiddish-language class. Alongside continued publication of original Yiddish poetry by Felix Khaimovich and Alla Levina, and in spite of the passing of prominent figures of the Yiddish culture in Soviet Belarus (Zhenikhovsky in 1999, Rokhkind in 2000, and Reles in 2004), Yiddish language and literature has undergone a revival thanks to the continuous efforts of Alikasandr Astravukh and Wolf Rubinchyk, among others. Astravukh compiled the memoirs of Hirsh Reles depicting Soviet-Yiddish writers in Belarus (Logvinau, 2004) and edited the impressive and widely-admired Yiddish-Belarusian dictionary (Minsk, Medisont, 2008), while Rubinchyk re-published Yiddish poems by Il’ya Zlotnik (2008), Eli Savikovski (2009) and Izi Kharik (2018), or in the original and in a Belarusian translation poems by Kulbak (Vechna, in Belarusian and Yiddish, 2016). One of the most recent manifestations of this rediscovery of Yiddish-Jewish literature and of this Jewish cultural renaissance in Belarus was the creation in 2019 of the Belarusian-Jewish Cultural Heritage Center (BJCH) that organized high-profile and popular exhibitions and cultural events in Minsk (for example on Amy Winehouse, the artist Lazar Khidekel, or the photographer Moisei Napelbaum). The BJCH also contributed to the rediscovery of Yiddish literature by publishing a Belarusian translation of Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s Travels of Benjamin III (translation Pavel Kostyukevich, illustrations Mitya Pislyak, Lohvinau, Vilnius, 2021). Different projects of preservation or restoration of Jewish built heritage, initiated inside or outside Belarus (Together Plan, Ekomos, BJCH), have also demonstrated this renewed interest and concern for the Jewish culture in Belarus. While the harsh repression of the civilian population in Belarus following the 2020 protests and the forced closure of most independent organizations have led to the interruption of some of these projects in Belarus, the momentum has continued online and in exile. The international conference ‘The history, culture and heritage of Jews in Belarus’ that I co-organized with the BJCH in June 2021 with its 700 attendees was a powerful testimony to the interest in Belarusian Jewish culture in Belarus and internationally. More recently the Belarusian poet Khadanovich also published a translation of some of Kulbak’s poems (2022).

Šupa’s edition comes as a critical contribution to this movement of revival. Not only does he allow the Belarusian audience to discover Kulbak’s poetry—less known in Belarus than his prose, particularly the Minsk-situated Zelmenianer (translated in 2015) or Messiah of the house of Efraim (Belarusian translation by Šupa in 2019)—but he also invites them to familiarize themselves with the sound of Yiddish by providing a parallel transliteration in Latin letters. While the use of diacritics for the transliteration might be less comfortable for Western audiences, it will be more familiar to Central and Eastern European readers. With a view to make the Yiddish text as accessible as possible to non-Yiddish speakers, Šupa has also chosen to produce a “prosaic” translation, in his own words. Unlike Khadanovich’s more poetic translation, he translated the text as closely as possible to the original, prioritizing fidelity to the meaning of the text over rendering the rhythm, rhymes, and measures. He also provides useful comments in footnotes to explain the multiple senses and intertextuality of Kulbak’s poetry. This beautiful edition will hopefully set high standards and give impetus for the translation of more Soviet and non-Soviet Yiddish writers of Belarus.

Le Foll, Claire. “Review of Moyshe Kulbak's Ale lider un poemen, edited by Siarhej Šupa.” In geveb, April 2024:šupa.
Le Foll, Claire. “Review of Moyshe Kulbak's Ale lider un poemen, edited by Siarhej Šupa.” In geveb (April 2024): Accessed May 26, 2024.


Claire Le Foll

Claire Le Foll is Professor of East European Jewish History and Culture at the University of Southampton, UK (Parkes Institute/History).