Niemandssprache: A Biography of Itzik Manger

Jenna Ingalls

Efrat Gal-Ed, Nie­mand­sprache: Itzik Manger – ein europäis­ch­er Dichter (Berlin: Jüdis­ch­er Ver­lag im Suhrkamp Ver­lag, 2016), 784 pages, 49.90 €.

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Some Yiddish figures are so important, so towering, that it is hard to imagine that a single critical biography about them has yet to be written. Until recently, such was the case with Itzik Manger. Although Manger is a man Yiddishists feel we know intimately, when we have looked to read more about his life, we have found little other than hagiographic portraits and short introductory biographical chapters. We may be familiar with some of Manger’s myths, such as being kicked out of his German language Gymnasium in Czernowitz for playing pranks, or that Warsaw would be his most productive literary home. But these stories pulled from introductions, anecdotes, and translator’s notes are far from satisfying. Enter Efrat Gal-Ed’s stunning new critical biography, Niemandssprache: Itzik Manger—ein europäischer Dichter [No-one’s language: Itzik Manger—a European poet].

Gal-Ed’s staggering work is ambitious in both scope and form. At nearly 800 pages, it endeavors to be truly comprehensive, covering every period of Itzik Manger’s life, as well as providing the reader with long cultural and historical introductions on pre- and post-war Jewish life. While the historical and cultural notes would not go unappreciated in a similar work written in English, the necessity of educating a German audience unfamiliar with Eastern European Jewish culture and Yiddishkeit is underscored from the start:

“Zu Itzik Mangers Lebensgeschichte gehört eine Sprach- und Lebenswelt, gehören politische und kulturelle Utopien, die vernichtet wurden. In Mangers Lebens- und Schaffensgeschichte verkörpern sich Entfaltung und Reichtum der jiddischen Kultur bis 1939, ihre Zerstörung und der tragische Bruch, den die Schoah hinterlassen hat.”

[To the story of Itzik Manger’s life belongs a linguistic and living world, as well as political and cultural utopias, all of which were destroyed. Manger’s life and the story of his creations embody the development and richness of Yiddish culture until 1939, its destruction and the tragic breach left behind by the Shoah.] 1 1 All translations are my own as there is no English version of the text.

For a German audience perhaps only somewhat familiar with this destroyed world, this introductory note performs two functions. First, to lay out the stakes of the book, and second, to present Itzik Manger as synonymous with Eastern European Jewish culture. 2 2 In aligning Yiddish culture with a modern man of letters, there is perhaps an impulse to define Yiddishkeit via literary-ness, rather than possible stereotypes and tropes of poverty and folk culture.
Manger becomes the surrogate of Ashkenazi Jewish life in all its richness, multilingualism, and the variety of forms it took both before the Shoah and in its persistence after. It is convenient to use one exemplary life to describe an entire culture, but it also speaks to the target audience of Gal-Ed’s biography: an educated German audience with little knowledge of Jewish culture. It is interesting that despite this general interest target audience, Gal-Ed experiments with a Jewish mode of text presentation for the biography. Arranged in what she calls a “Talmudic model,” Gal-Ed weaves together the narrative of Itzik Manger’s life and his poetry with the legends and stories abounding about him (many self-propagated), as well as various historical sources including contemporary paintings, photos, manuscripts, and postcards.

In practice, the format consists of two parts: 1) the biography proper along with 2) frequent supporting documentation. This documentation includes both primary texts (e.g. poems, manuscripts, photographs, newspaper clippings, and paintings) as well as midrashic additions (e.g. Manger’s own biographic interventions as well as apocryphal stories that would be told about him). Both are artfully dispersed throughout the narrative. Occasionally, this format can be difficult to follow, rather like a choose your own adventure novel; you may feel yourself compelled to follow one narrative but then find yourself returning to the others periodically and inevitably missing others along the way. (Luckily, unlike many German texts, Gal-Ed’s includes a register of names and themes, making it easy to go back and double check you didn’t miss anything on a given topic!) This format nevertheless allows Gal-Ed to introduce and immerse the reader in a Talmudic mode of scholarship in which multiple narrative strands create a nearly non-hierarchical network that presents a multiplicity of possibilities and avenues for interpretation. 3 3 Gal-Ed includes a lengthy introduction to Talmudic scholarship and midrash at the beginning of the biography to orient the reader.
The format, in Gal-Ed’s reading, echoes the Talmudic mode evidenced in Manger’s poetry, in which he demonstrates an inventiveness and playful use of Biblical source material. The clever format of the biography allows the uninitiated a taste of the complex textual world of the Talmud and, by extension, Manger’s own poetic agenda. Gal-Ed also performs this traditional Jewish mode of interpretation within a German academic context and thereby both orients her reader to the textual tapestry of Jewish scholarship and de-familiarizes the literary form of the biography. Beyond the fact that this is the first critical biography of Itzik Manger in any language, this is Gal-Ed’s greatest intervention.

There is also something refreshing about reading a critical Yiddish work that assumes so little prior knowledge on the part of the reader. Gal-Ed’s efforts to address the general reader extend beyond an extensive prologue on the origins and history of Yiddish into notes concerning Judaism and a review of Yiddish cultural history in non-traditional (that is non-Eastern European) centers throughout North and South America, such as in Montreal, New York, Buenos Aires and Mexico City. Given Gal-Ed’s concern for the general reader, it is important to note that her identification of Manger as a European poet is not a tokenistic gesture. Rather, she contextualizes his European identity within the framework of post-Habsburg Europe and under the umbrella of a transnational European “urban pluralism.” In fact, it is this concept of urban pluralism, embodied by Manger’s movement from one European and/or Yiddish center to the next, that provides the main organizing structure of the biography. The biography thus begins with Manger’s childhood in Czernowitz (today Chernivtsi, Ukraine), allowing Gal-Ed to link him to such German language authors as Rosa Ausländer (whom he knew) and Paul Celan (whom he probably did not). It then follows Manger as he moved to Jassy (Iași, Romania) and Bucharest and reaches a crescendo when Manger moves to Warsaw and experiences his artistic flowering. Warsaw is the centerpiece of the biography—a section that is a book in its own right at nearly 200 pages. After devoting attention to his time in Warsaw, Gal-Ed then traces Manger’s flight out of Nazi Europe to Paris and then to London, way stations of exile and survival. The final chapter sees Manger in Montreal and New York and concludes with his triumphant reception in Israel.

Throughout this galloping narrative, Gal-Ed engages with nearly every scholarly work on Manger in an impressive assortment of languages. 4 4 I noted scholarly citations in English, French, German, Hebrew, Polish, and Yiddish. Gal-Ed’s bibliography alone is a great resource for any Manger scholar.
Everything is cited, all opinions are noted, and any disagreement is presented in a most Talmudic way—weighed scientifically, but ultimately offered as a possibility. Gal-Ed’s fluency with Manger’s poetry is exceptional, a fluency made all the more accessible when one considers the companion piece to this biography: her 2004 Yiddish-German collection of Manger’s poetry Dunkelgold. 5 5 Efrat Gal-Ed, Itzik Manger: Dunkelgold. Gedichte: Jiddisch und Deutsch (Frankfurt am Main: Jüdischer Verlag im Suhrkamp Verlag, 2004). With or without knowledge of German, this volume should be on the shelf of every Manger scholar, as Gal-Ed works from the 1952 edition of Manger’s Lid un balade, but corrects errors found there with the help of the first edition and manuscript versions, as well as with poems not in Lid un balade from Chrone Shmeruk’s critical edition from 1984. The poems are presented in Yiddish on one side, with German translations facing. There is an appendix at the back that includes the Yiddish poems in German transliteration. There is also a fairly detailed appendix that provides commentary on the manuscript versions of the poems, as well as additional notes on the many religious allusions in Manger’s poems—a useful aid to everyone who hasn’t attended Yeshiva. There, as well as in this biography, all Yiddish quotes are presented in Yiddish with a following German translation. 6 6 German language scholarship on Yiddish often transliterates Yiddish text via German transliteration rules, rather than presenting the quotes in their original. An argument is often made that this practice opens the text to a German language audience who would be able to read the Yiddish, were it not for the Hebrew alphabet. On the other hand, it plays into a certain Latinate-Western bias and attempts to make Yiddish more like German.
It should be noted that when Gal-Ed presents a poem, it is done to further biographical aims, but this is perhaps not a shock in a biography.

Gal-Ed’s masterful biography is truly a must-read for all scholars of Manger and perhaps Yiddishists more broadly, but, as with Gal-Ed’s excellent dual language edition of Manger’s poetry, there is a stumbling block—it is in German. With English the dominant academic language and with fewer and fewer people studying German for academic purposes, this means few people will read it in the original German, though perhaps more than if it had been written in Yiddish or Hebrew. But it also signals a growing body of critical Yiddish scholarship in German, a scholarship at the outer margins of the Yiddish-concerned world. Which begs the question, what place does German hold in Yiddish studies today? As an American taught Germanist, who also busies herself with Yiddish, my interest in this question is great. Without a doubt, Yiddish is on the upswing in German academic life. Beyond the traditional Yiddish scholarly powerhouses of Düsseldorf and Trier, Yiddish is taught in more and more German universities, and a summer Yiddish program in Weimar has joined the ranks of other summer programs around the world.

I recently came across an interview by the Forverts last summer with Prof. Dr. Marion Aptroot, the chair of Yiddish studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität-Düsseldorf, where Gal-Ed is a lecturer. The interview explores both the general curiosity about Yiddish studies in Germany and suggests that perhaps German language research on Yiddish, with its energy and students, should be a larger part of the conversation in Yiddish studies. But there’s always the hurdle that this scholarship is in German. In the interview, former Forverts editor Boris Sandler asks Aptroot about the use of German, wondering in what language the advanced seminars on Yiddish literature are held. Aptroot responds, “German,” with the requisite caveats that the inclusion of theoretical texts and the need for a high-level discussion render Yiddish-only seminars unfeasible. It’s a response we Yiddishists trained in North America have heard time and again, yet with a different default language—English.

Ingalls, Jenna. “Niemandssprache: A Biography of Itzik Manger.” In geveb, October 2016:
Ingalls, Jenna. “Niemandssprache: A Biography of Itzik Manger.” In geveb (October 2016): Accessed May 19, 2024.


Jenna Ingalls

Jenna Ingalls is a doctoral candidate in German Literature at University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches German and Yiddish language courses.