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Briv Funem Arkhiv: Jessica Kirzner’s “The Beach” (1996) and Rokhl Fishman’s “Yam mikh arum” (1962)

Alona Beach

INTRODUCTION

In geveb​’s briv funem arkhiv (let­ters from the archive) series high­lights archival finds that are too good not to share. You can learn more and sub­mit your own briv here, or see all briv posts here. This par­tic­u­lar briv is part of our Purim issue. Our tongues are plant­ed firm­ly in our cheeks (as in pre­vi­ous years).

Scholars have long urged attention to the multilingual context of Yiddish cultural production, noting that since few Yiddish writers wrote and read only in Yiddish, their literary output—and input—similarly resists the confines of monolingualism. 1 1 See, among others, Allison Schachter, Women Writing Jewish Modernity, 1919–1939 (Northwestern University Press, 2022); Hana Wirth-Nesher, Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009); Joshua L. Miller and Anita Norich, eds., Languages of Modern Jewish Cultures: Comparative Perspectives (University of Michigan Press, 2016); Saul Zaritt, “A Taytsh Manifesto: Yiddish, Translation, and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture,” Jewish Social Studies 26, no. 3 (October 11, 2021): 186–222, and many Yiddishists’ use of multiple sets of magnetic poetry kits in English together with the Yiddish one they receive from distant relatives every Hannukah. From Abraham Cahan’s Yekl to Debora Vogel’s Polish translations and criticism, engaging with Yiddish writers’ non-Yiddish work can offer insight into the full range of their stylistic experimentations and influences, and more thoroughly reflect the cultural milieu in which they were situated.

Indeed, the newly-rediscovered “The Beach” (1996) is a striking early example of Yiddish writer, translator, editor, and teacher Jessica Kirzane’s non-Yiddish work. (At this stage of her career, she was writing under the moniker “Kirzner.”)

Formally, “The Beach” is a bold “bild” (etude) that straddles genres, illustrating the development of Kirzane’s distinctive prosody that is masterful in its attention to rhythm. Readers of Kirzane’s later translations of Miriam Karpilove (1888–1956) will also recognize Kirzane’s characteristic attention to the interplay between setting and emotion, between interpersonal connection and spirited interiority. As in Diary of a Lonely Girl and Judith, we see the central female character of “The Beach” coming into her own voice as she relays, post facto (“later […] while lying in bed”), her experiences of awakening as a liberated individual with creative potential.

“The Beach” is brief, but complex and tightly-structured. Kirzane’s modernist experimentations with tense—wavering always between present and past, between immediate experience and its later transformation into memoiristic poetry—carry the reader repeatedly onto and back away from the shore of the present. Critics who dismiss the etude’s ending (“And so it was.”) as “too simplistic, too easily resolved” would do best to remember that all literary production is historically situated and inextricable from its sociocultural context. Things were simpler in the pre-smartphone era.

Though Kirzane’s etude was written originally in English, recent research suggests that this work may have been initially conceived as a pastiche of Rokhl Fishman’s (1935-1984) “Yam mikh arum” [“Ocean Me (in Your Embrace)”], which had first been published in 1962 and had long been in circulation by the time “The Beach” was penned.

The parallels between the two works are tantalizingly direct, manifesting not only in “The Beach”’s littoral imagery, but also its Fishman-esque playful language—the bivalent homophony of the motes/moats; the verbs (“swims,” “splashing”) transformed impishly into nouns, just as Fishman’s nouns have been transformed into imperatives. Though Kirzane’s ebullient waves (juxtaposed with the impotent “motes” which cannot restrain them) mirror Fishman’s waves (which the speaker commands her lover to crash through her), the erotic, destructive sensuality of Fishman’s poem is reimagined here instead as an innocent love between two sisters, collaborative and constructive. Kirzane’s seaside sketch epitomizes turn-of-the-millenium Yiddish optimism: violence is overwritten with tenderness, transforming “thundering memory” and the “pearling voice” of the lover of Fishman’s poem into a jaunty, inviting refrain: “Tum, Tiddley, um.”

When Kirzane’s etude debuted in print as runner-up in a CompuServ children’s writing contest, few of her English readers would have been familiar with Fishman’s Yiddish poem—no doubt part of the reason so few have commented on the connection until this point. But it must be the task of literary scholars to re-draw these entanglements, even (indeed, especially) when they cross linguistic boundaries. To reify any mekhitse between Kirzane’s English work and her Yiddish work is to compromise our understanding of both. Resituating “The Beach” within the context of Kirzane’s multilingual oeuvre, on the other hand, allows us to access a more complete portrait of her style and influences, and of the tapestry of postwar Yiddish cultural production overall.

We offer Kirzane’s text here in the original English as well as in a new Yiddish translation.

די פּלאַזשע

פֿון דזשעסיקאַ (עשקע) קירזנער

אַלט 9 יאָר

די זון איך געװען ברענענדיק־הײס, און דער רױשט אין גאַנצן שטיל. צװײ מײדעלעך האָבן זיך געשפּילט אינעם אײַז־קאַלטן װאַסער. עס האָט געבלאָזט אַ גרינג װינטל, נאָר קײנער האָט דאָס נישט באַמערקט. די מײדעלעך האָבן געהײסן עשקע און רבֿקה.

זײ זײַנען געשװוּמען, דערנאָך אַריבערגעשפּרונגען די כװאַליעס. נאָך דעם זײַנען זײ געזעסן בײַם ברעג ים און געלאָזט די כװאַליעס זיך איבערקוליען איבער זײ. זײ בויען בערג און האָבן זײ גערופֿן זאַמדשלעסלעך. זײ בויען אַזוי־גערופֿענע װאַסער־גר'באָבן, אָבער דער װאַסער איז אין זײ נישט געבליבן. זײ בויען היגלען און בערג און האָבן דערנאָך געבויט מער. זײ זײַנען נאָך אַ מאָל געשװוּמען, און צוריקגעשלעפּט עמערס װאַסער, כּדי אױסצופּרוּװן די װאַסער־גר'באָבן.

שפּעטער, אין בעט, האָט עשקע אויסגעטראַכט אַ ליד. עס גײט אַזוי:

בערג און בײמער,
היגלען, מילן.
טום־די־לײַ־דײַ־דום, די פּלאַזשע.
זאַמדשלעסלעך,
שװוּמען.
טום־די־לײַ־דײַ־דום, די פּלאַזשע.
כװאַליעס, פּליושקען.
װאַסער־גר'באָבן.
טום־די־לײַ־דײַ־דום,
לאָמיר זיך שפּילן אומעטום,
די פּלאַזשע.

און אַזוי איז געװען.

ס ו ף

THE BEACH

By Jessica Kirzner

Age 9

The sun was scorching hot and all shrubbery was still. Two girls were playing in the ice cold water. There was a slight breeze but no one noticed. The girls names were Jessica and Rebecca.

They were swimming and then jumping the waves. Afterwards, they sat on the shore and let waves tumble over them. They build mountains and called them sand castles. They build so-called motes but the water did not stay in them. They built hills and mountains and then they built more. They swam again and brought buckets of water back for trying out motes.

Jessica later made up a poem while lying in bed. It went:

Mountains and trees,
Hills and mills.
Tum, Tiddley, um, the beach.
Sand castles,
swims.
Tum, Tiddley, um, the beach.
Waves, splashing.
Motes.
Tum, Tiddley, um,
Let’s have some fun,
The beach.

And so it was.

THE END

MLA STYLE
Beach, Alona. “Briv Funem Arkhiv: Jessica Kirzner’s “The Beach” (1996) and Rokhl Fishman’s “Yam mikh arum” (1962).” In geveb, March 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/briv-funem-arkhiv-jessica-kirzners-the-beach.
CHICAGO STYLE
Beach, Alona. “Briv Funem Arkhiv: Jessica Kirzner’s “The Beach” (1996) and Rokhl Fishman’s “Yam mikh arum” (1962).” In geveb (March 2024): Accessed May 26, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alona Beach