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Loyt di Leyeners: Responses to “New Yiddish Poetry from the Israel-Gaza War”

The Editors

INTRODUCTION

We recent­ly pub­lished a col­lec­tion of new Yid­dish poet­ry respond­ing to the Israel-Gaza War, our lat­est in a series of relat­ed pub­li­ca­tions, which have includ­ed a list of teach­ing resources and trans­la­tions of a sto­ry by Avrom Karpinovich and a poem by Ber Kotler­man. We have received a num­ber of respons­es to this most recent col­lec­tion, both in appre­ci­a­tion and in strong­ly felt cri­tique. We have tremen­dous respect for our read­ers in all their con­vic­tions, even — espe­cial­ly — when they express con­cerns about what we pub­lish. We are pleased to share these respons­es with you in order to broad­en con­ver­sa­tion about poet­ry in the midst of disaster.


The following is an exchange of letters between a contributor and our editor-in-chief (republished with permission) that inspired us to issue an open call for responses to the poetry collection:


February 20, 2024

To the Editorial Board of In geveb,

I am reaching out with a concern that has weighed heavily on me since your publication of the collection “New Yiddish Poetry from the Israel-Gaza War”, including the Yiddish original and the English translation of my own work, “The Destruction of Gaza.” While I am grateful for the platform to share my poem and its English translation, I am writing to you today to address a serious issue that has troubled me deeply.

Among the collection, there is a poem that unmistakably calls for revenge for the atrocities committed on October 7th. The call for “sevenfold” revenge, a manifest reference to Genesis 4:24, struck me profoundly upon my reading of the poems in the collection. The reality is that the death toll in Gaza has horrifically exceeded the poem’s “pledge”, as we are witnessing a chilling progression towards the “seventy-seven times” vengeance mentioned in the continuation of that biblical verse.

My decision to write to you now comes after considerable reflection. Initially, I hesitated to raise this issue, fearing it might seem ungrateful. However, the gravity of my concern has grown with time, compelling me to speak up. The inclusion of a poem that advocates for revenge at a time when violence continues unabated in Gaza positions In geveb in a way I’m sure was not intended but is nonetheless morally problematic. Were the call for revenge confined to the realm of poetic fantasy, that line could have been dismissed as distasteful hyperbole; but the reality of mass killing in Gaza, which is fueled by discourse, must force us to recognize that words are, indeed, weapons of war.

While I understand and respect the desire to include a plurality of voices within your publication, I believe there is a significant moral difference between publishing works that might be controversial or unsettling and those that actively call for retribution amidst ongoing violence. The publication of such a poem does not merely document a range of emotional responses; it normalizes a discourse that is inextricably linked to the perpetuation of killing.

I ask you to consider the impact of the words you choose to publish, bearing in mind the proverb, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). It is with the highest respect for the editorial team and the mission of In geveb that I implore you to reassess the inclusion of the poem in question on your website.

This is a difficult letter for me to write, but in these times, it is פּיקוח נפֿש.

Sincerely,

Tal Hever-Chybowski

---

February 21, 2024

Dear Tal Hever-Chybowski,

Thank you for taking the time to write to us about your concerns. We take them very seriously. We agree that words are powerful, and we’re grateful to be able to share your powerful words with our readers.

As noted, the collection is not intended to represent our personal views on the horrific situation currently unfolding, but to showcase how Yiddish writers are responding to it -- even when they are responding in ways that we personally do not condone. We do not want to represent a Yiddish world that is made up only of people who we agree with. Our publication will have little impact on the war, but it might have some impact on the world of Yiddish and we’d like to do our part to hold that world together, somehow, despite the vehement divisiveness of this moment.

Publishing these poems was a risk for us - we are careful to avoid presenting In geveb as representing a political stance or position, while we work to publish scholarship and writing representing a variety of positions. Of course, as you write, our editorial work always has ethical considerations. We weighed these poems and how to present them carefully, worrying about potentially angering or alienating our readers from a variety of political convictions. What we ultimately decided was that the poems allowed us an opportunity to demonstrate the continued urgency and relevance of the Yiddish world and how its writers feel called upon to respond to horror through the strength of Yiddish - and that is an end unto itself, and worth taking a risk for.

Even as we do not plan to remove the poem from the collection, we thank you for your candor and for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. We are also open to submissions and ideas for further content we can publish as the war continues to impact Yiddish studies and culture.

Sincerely,

Jessica Kirzane

editor-in-chief, In geveb

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February 21, 2024

Dear Jessica Kirzane,

Thank you sincerely for your thoughtful response. I have no doubt that your decision to publish the collection was based on careful and thoughtful consideration. My respect for In geveb, and for your editorial work in particular, remains immense.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to revisit my concerns, risking becoming a nudnik. There are few moments in life that call for being a nudnik, and I fear this is one of them.

The matter at hand lies not in the realm of potentially angering or alienating readers but in the amplification of a discourse that calls for mass revenge during an ongoing conflict. Such discourse is not merely a backdrop to the violence; it forms the material basis upon which violence is committed. This is as true today as it was in the past, such as the incitement broadcast by Rwandan radio stations in the early 1990s. Words do not merely represent opinions; they have the power to kill.

You mentioned that the publication of the poem will have little impact on the war. However, even a minimal impact carries immense weight if it has the potential to save even a single life: כל המציל נפש אחת.

Given the ongoing violence and the indiscriminate killing in Gaza, I urge you to reconsider the inclusion of the poem without any form of critical engagement or contextualization. If removing the poem is not within your editorial policy, I implore you to at least consider adding a note of distancing to the use of the word “זיבנפֿאַך”. It is very important not to leave such a call for revenge without comment.

I appreciate the open dialogue. Thank you again for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Tal Hever-Chybowski

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February 27, 2024

Dear Tal,

Thank you, again, for your email. We are so appreciative to hear your thoughts on this - even when we’re in disagreement about the course of action.

We have been discussing the matter at length. We do not intend to remove the poem, but we agree that there should be room for comment on this matter, so that the poem does not stand as uncontroversial on our site. What we have decided upon is to issue a call for readers to respond to the poems, and we will compile these responses into a “Loyt di leyeners” feature. We hope very much that you will allow us to use your previous letter, or that you will write something similar for us, that we can publish in this compilation. You can do so anonymously or with your name attached.

I have not yet publicly posted the call for responses - I will do so later today. For now it is posted as “hidden” on our site (published, but it does not appear on our home page). You can read the call here: https://ingeveb.org/blog/call-for-responses

I hope this will address your concerns at least somewhat, though I know it is not the result you were hoping for.

With great respect,

Jessica (and the rest of the editorial team)

---

February 27, 2024

Dear Jessica and the entire editorial team,

Thank you for your considerate response to my concerns and for the thoughtful deliberation you have given to this matter. Your proposed solution is commendable, and I suggest publishing our entire correspondence, consisting of four letters: my initial letter dated February 20th, your reply on February 21st, my subsequent letter also from February 21st, and your latest reply from today, February 27th. I believe that making our dialogue public would provide valuable context to the call for responses and serve as an honest introduction to the planned publication.

By sharing our exchange, we would not only document these perspectives for the future but also model a respectful and constructive discourse, which is sorely needed at the present moment.

I stand behind my words and trust that you do the same. Thus, I would kindly request that our correspondence be published with our full names, honoring the sincerity and integrity with which we have communicated.

Thank you once again for your openness and willingness to engage in this dialogue. I look forward to your thoughts on publishing our correspondence.

With deepest respect and anticipation,

Tal Hever-Chybowski

March 10, 2024

Dear Editors,

I was very moved by In geveb’s special feature of contemporary Yiddish poetry written in reaction to the October 7th Hamas attacks and the Israel-Hamas war. This mini-anthology of poems born of grief is a dramatic refutation of the mistaken assumption that contemporary Yiddish literature, if it exists at all, is focused on an imagined past that either ended in about 1918 or is solely about the Holocaust.

Twenty-first century Yiddish literature, both in the Hasidic world and outside of it, has largely left the shtetl behind. Recent bestsellers in the Hasidic world have been set in colonial America and colonial Brazil, contemporary Israel, the USA, Belgium, etc. A great recent Yiddish novel by Berl Kotlerman is set in Harbin China among the nineteenth century Yiddish-speaking traders who worked as middlemen between the Chinese and Russian empires. On the journalistic front, contemporary Hasidic magazines have in recent months been full of stories of political crises in Myanmar and Sudan, espionage rings in China, “pig-butchering scams” and so on.

In that context it’s not surprising on one level that there’s been a surge of Yiddish poetry written about the Israel-Hamas war. On another level, perhaps it is surprising that these particular poems, written by poets from outside of the Hasidic world, exist. Most, but not all, of the poets featured in this mini-anthology are exophonic writers who learned Yiddish as adults. Berl Kotlerman and Eli Sharfstein are native Yiddish speakers but speak/write Hebrew and Russian and other languages on an equally high level. Kotlerman has been writing in Yiddish for decades, Sharfstein only began relatively recently. In both cases they could, on the surface, be creating just as easily in another language. But as Berl told me once when I asked him why he wrote scholarly articles primarily in English and Hebrew and Russian but fiction and poetry almost exclusively in Yiddish: “I could write fiction in another language but then I would be writing different stories and they wouldn’t be as interesting.”

Which is just a roundabout way of saying that all of these poets could have written poetry about the Israel-Hamas war in other languages, but they would have been different poems, never created as they exist now even in English translation. These works are exophonic, (arguably) post-vernacular, perhaps, but despite their at times diametrically conflicting political perspectives, they are all deeply rooted in the same culture and literary heritage.

This is an interesting moment for Yiddish literature, born of profound and unspeakable tragedy, a time when regular words fail so poems emerge from tears. If there are survey courses of Yiddish literature in fifty years, I have no doubt that some of these poems will be among those being taught, read, discussed, and debated.

Jordan Kutzik

(A fellow exophonic Yiddish writer)

March 20, 2024

To the editors of In geveb, regarding “New Yiddish Poetry from the Israel-Gaza War”:

Dear colleagues, the simplest thing to say, and the first, is a heartfelt yasher koyekh and hartsikn dank to all those whose work is represented in this remarkable feature: the poets, the translators, the editors. Yiddish poetry is alive, Yiddish translation is alive, the great Jewish art of anthologizing is alive.

The second thing is a set of observations. The variety of form and diction is striking. I note with pleasure the precise, evocative rhyming of Zackary Sholem Berger’s “No,” and its virtuosic translation by A. Z. Foreman. (The royt: toyt rhyme, almost inevitable in Yiddish, is no less powerful for that, and no less powerful here than it is in, say, Anna Margolin’s “Mary and the Priest” or Itzik Manger’s “Eve and the Apple Tree.”) I note also the powerful multilingualism of so many of the poems, with the loshn-koydesh component of Yiddish especially poignant, as if the language of Israel were exerting an eastward gravitational pull on these poems, and the incorporation also of colloquial and technical English and modern Hebrew. Yiddish poetry is always at least bilingual, and here it is more than that. I note the haunting evocations of poets who have come before, from Yehuda Halevi to Bialik and Abba Kovner. (I hear also, though she is not named and I am not claiming she is present, Rokhl Korn and her poem ikh vil tsugeyn amol, in Ber Kotlerman’s lines “that fence, that watchtower/ That should have protected them from/ From the slaughter.” Korn’s lines are: “Un vos far a brokhe hobn zey gelozt/ Di kinder – fun groys beiz mezinke,/ Az zi hot zey bashermen gekent un bahitn/ Far belzshets, maydanek, treblinke?”) And I note the power of that classic Jewish form the acrostic in Miriam Trinh’s astonishing poem in that form, maybe the most capacious of these poems because the form allows and even invites such capaciousness. (I note with something like awe Zackary Sholem Berger’s alphabetically precise translation of the acrostic.)

The third thing, however, is an absence. The range of views and moods is great. But some views and moods are outside that range: rage, vengeance, curse. I wondered why. Jewish tradition is rich in curses and desires for vengeance, of course. Psalm 137, for example: voyl tsu dem vos vet onnemen un tsehakn dayne kleyne kinder on feldz, “a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks.” Nor are such curses only a thing of the long past, which we have transcended. I keep coming back to Frank Bidart’s great poem “Curse,” written after the attacks of September 11th, to which the attacks of October 7th are sometimes compared: “Now, as you wished, you cannot not for us/ not be. May this be your single profit./ Of your rectitude at last disenthralled, you/ seek the dead. Each time you enter them/ they spit you out. The dead find you are not food./ Out of the great secret of morals, the imagination to enter/ the skin of another, what I have made is a curse.”

I am a pacifist, and ardently and in anguish support a ceasefire. But the Hamas attacks were horrific, even or especially for a pacifist. And I wonder: what does it mean that none of these beautiful and diverse poems is cursing them?

Larry Rosenwald

Before “After Gaza”: language in the midst of disaster, then and now

In geveb published New Yiddish Poetry from the Israel-Gaza War in the middle of a graduate seminar, “Religion in Ruins,” which I taught at UC Davis during the 2024 Winter Quarter. I saw the publication the morning before class: I had previously read only one of the poems when I decided to discuss the collection with my students later that same day. We read them for the first time around the seminar table, each of us equally new, all six readers encountering this moment together in real time.

My course was planned long before October 2023. We would begin with Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, and sit with this ancient cry of horror at the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE: siege, mass killing, and starvation:

My eyes are spent with tears,
My heart is in tumult,
My being melts away
Over the ruin of my poor people,
As babes and sucklings languish
In the squares of the city.
They keep asking their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
As they languish like battle-wounded
In the squares of the town,
As their life runs out
In their mothers’ bosoms.
What can I take as witness or compare
To you, O Fair Jerusalem?
What can I match with you to console you,
O Fair Maiden Zion?
For your ruin is vast as the sea:
Who can heal you? (Lam. 2:11-13)

I read this text over and over as reports of starvation in Gaza hit the news. In this ancient poem, it is specifically these images of mass child death and starvation that prompt the incursion of the poet’s own voice. “What can I take as witness or compare to you, O Fair Jerusalem? What can I match with you to console you?” The poet’s question is about the capacity of language - and of comparison - to adequately witness to a catastrophe.

In Eicha, no divine voice speaks: in the wake of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the beginning of the Babylonian exile, the divine relationship is severed, no future is imaginable, Torah and prophetic vision have ceased, and the only possible speech is lament. Our class also read Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon,” which doubts that a “song of the Lord” can be sung anymore at all, and where the last word and only conceivable future is brutal revenge:

Fair Babylon, you predator,
a blessing on him who repays you in kind
what you have inflicted on us;
a blessing on him who seizes your babies
and dashes them against the rocks!

Both Eicha and Psalm 137 seem to me to cry out from the midst of a catastrophe. Whether the texts really do emerge from the midst, or whether this sense of immediacy is an effect of the poets’ verbal art, the disaster is still being experienced, not yet integrated and processed and turned into a historical event. In the biblical sources, there is not yet a “post-destruction,” no such thing as “after the exile.”

Our class traced how a text that questions both the applicability of language to shattering catastrophes, and the possibility of any cultural future, nevertheless became a vital source invoked again and again in the wake of every Jewish catastrophe. I first learned this history from Alan Mintz’s 1982 book Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature. Mintz begins with Eicha and its expression of rupture and despair, and continues to Eicha Rabbah, the rabbinic midrash on Lamentations written in the wake of the second destruction by Rome. While God is silent in Eicha, the rabbis supply the missing divine voice: they boldly present God as a mourner who needs the help of human beings - particularly women - to teach him to grieve. The destruction of the first temple becomes the paradigm of all catastrophes: the second temple, the crusades, pogroms, and the Shoah. Recited liturgically on Tisha B’Av, Eicha and its accompanying qinot sound the lament for them all, as if every disaster occurred on the same day, part of a periodically recurring hurban.

This is the context in which my class encountered New Yiddish Poetry from the Israel-Gaza War, beginning with Tal Hever-Chybowski’s “Khurbn Gaza” (trans. David Forman), “The Destruction of Gaza.” The editors’ note to the translation tells us that the Yiddish khurbn (which comes from the Hebrew hurban) is stronger than the English word “destruction”: it is used most often of the devastation of the two Temples, pogroms, and the Shoah. Reading “Khurbn Gaza” in class with Mintz’s Hurban in mind, I asked myself the obvious question: is this new Yiddish poetry the next chapter in the history of Jewish lament? Is it part of the same tradition as Mintz’s Hebrew catastrophe literature?

As my students immediately noticed, this collection of Yiddish poetry is rich with quotations and allusions to Hebrew literature across its entire history, biblical through rabbinic and medieval to modern. Formally, Miriam Trinh’s “Untitled” is an acrostic lamentation, like Eicha. Ber Kotlerman calls his poem a qina. And Hever-Chybowski explicitly makes the destruction of the Temple the paradigm for all Jewish tears:

“How can you deny your origin
when the tears on your boy’s cheek
remind you of the Destruction
of the Temple?”

My students, then, experienced this brand new poetry in Yiddish as continuous with a tradition of Hebrew lament–a tradition that began with the paradigmatic Jewish catastrophe.

The implication should be spelled out. The destruction of Gaza is a Jewish catastrophe. That much is clear from Hever-Chybowski’s invocation of the Shma (“Shma Yisroel, in Your name and in mine, they are doing this”) and from Berger’s allusion of Pirke Avot’s commentary on cycles of revenge (The beheaded child. The floating skull …/The child under rubble/Lived hardly at all./Snuffed breath of Jew and Gentile will not blow/Anyone’s grief away. No.). These poems are among the first published attempts to respond to both the massacre of October 7 and the subsequent and continuing mass killing in Gaza from within a tradition of Jewish grief. But, just like in Eicha itself, we see here not only expressions of grief and horror at profound suffering, but also gestures toward a deep cognitive rupture, a reframing of possible Jewish futures that we cannot yet clearly see.

As my students and I read the collection in class, we reflected on a key theme of the seminar: catastrophe and theories of history. Two weeks earlier we had discussed Michael Rothberg’s article, “After Adorno: Culture in the Wake of Catastrophe,” where Rothberg analyzes the idea of “After Auschwitz” as a Bakhtinian chronotope by Adorno and his heirs: “After Auschwitz, Adorno implies, philosophical categories must themselves become chronotopes - time-places that serve as imperfect embodiments of historical events and tendencies.”

“After Gaza” will be such a chronotope. Reading this collection for the first time in class together, my students and I experienced being in the midst, as the poets of Eicha communicated being in the midst, of an unfolding catastrophe whose aftermath we cannot yet see: before “after Gaza.”

In the midst, my students, whose politics and personal commitments vary, returned again and again to questions of language and to comparison:

What can I take as witness or compare
To you, O Fair Jerusalem?
What can I match with you to console you,
O Fair Maiden Zion?

“It feels impos­si­ble to find words for the present,” echo the editors in the introduction to the collection. But words are found. And my students noted that the words from the Jewish lament tradition are both durable and capacious. They are up to the task of witness and comparison. Petichta 2 of Eicha Rabbah has the patriarchs lament the exiled community:

Woe over what has befallen our children! How have you become like orphans without a father; how do you lie in the afternoon and in the summer without garment and without covering; how have you walked on mountains and on gravel with shoes removed and without sandals; how have you carried bundles filled with sand; how have your hands been bound behind you; how have you been unable to swallow even the spittle in your mouths?

A community’s cultural memory and modes of literary expression can be used for closed, nationalist or supremacist ends. But they can also extend their reach and insist on a broader humanity, as does this collection as a whole. My class was particularly moved by the very fact of A.C. Weaver’s translation into Yiddish of “If I Must Die” by Gazan poet Refaat Alareer, who was killed in a targeted airstrike on December 6, 2023. The Jewish idiom of catastrophe and loss is not a scarce commodity to be closely guarded; it can be a humane resource that can be extended to build empathy with others who are suffering. My students and I were changed by In geveb’s New Yiddish Poetry from the Israel-Gaza War. This poetry, too, is up to the task of witness.

- Eva Mroczek

    MLA STYLE
    Editors, The. “Loyt di Leyeners: Responses to “New Yiddish Poetry from the Israel-Gaza War”.” In geveb, April 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/loyt-di-leyeners-responses-to-new-yiddish-poetry-from-the-israel-gaza-war.
    CHICAGO STYLE
    Editors, The. “Loyt di Leyeners: Responses to “New Yiddish Poetry from the Israel-Gaza War”.” In geveb (April 2024): Accessed Jun 22, 2024.

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