Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Complete Yiddish Poems of Menke Katz. By Menke Katz. Translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav. 2005; 779pp; Hardcover; The Smith, 69 Joralemon St., Brooklyn, NY12201.$35.00.

Here we have another volume that both libraries and readers interested in modern poetry/cultural history/Jewish history/world religion can't really do without. Katz was a Rabbi originally from Lithuania (born in 1906, died in upper NY state in 1991), who came to the U.S. in 1920. He was a mystical kabbalist and spent a few years in Safad in Galilee, the home of kabbalism. For some twenty years I visited him two or three years a year in upper state NY, up in the Catskills, with the publisher of this volume, Harry Smith, and I found him to be a kind of incarnation of Judaism, perhaps the most profound Hebrew scholar I've ever met. Reading through this volume is like taking a time-trip back to old Yiddish-Jewish Europe, to Israel, NY. And to top things off, there is a 134 page expository introduction to Katz and his work by his son, Dovid, who, after years as a professor of Yiddish at Oxford, is now at the Vilnius University in Lithuania. Lots of Yiddish translations in the introduction, so you don't really need them throughout the whole volume, although it would be nice to see another volume perhaps of selected poems with both the Yiddish and English on the same page. Katz's poems about Lithuania evoke the Jewish European past as no one else does: In Michaleshik, a spasm of silence,/The huts huddle in danger.../The ferry raft is moored, the guard has gone.../Over the nearby graveyard they hear/The wind saying Kaddish through the grass. (p. 155, from Bk.1 of Burning Village.) Kaddish, incidentally, is the Hebrew prayer for the dead. But Katz isn't all remembrances of times past. How about his NY poems, before he moved out into the country: in my alleys -- the gray houses/Clamor for light...//Young robbers run/Like sleepwalkers on housetops./In dirty courtyards/Cats are pregnant -- and sick nights hear/The distant, choked rustle/Of half-slaughtered children.You might get the impression that Katz is pure anguish and gore, the incarnation of angst and horror. But the Katz I knew was Rabbi Optimism, more than that, Rabbi Pure Joy, always referring back to the Torah, singing old Jewish songs from the old days, just talking, just being: Wandering at a table is the oldest voyage around the world./A friend at the table is more beautiful than the beauty of all travels./What sunrise can lighten the world like a friend at the table?...//All the good things remain baffled by this dazzle of joy, zest and plenty--/The earth grows young, man is new as Adam's first gaze at Creation. (Friends at a Table, from Midday, 1954,p.671) Maybe he was happiest in Safad, totally immersed in the Kaballah, learning Arabic, not one word ever against the Muslems, who accepted him as if he was one of theirs: All the/alleys of/Safad become in/the sunset holy/meandering paths where/stray angels beg each dying/ray of the sun: O take us with/you, O lead us....back/home to the Garden of Eden. This is a book not simply to read but to immerse yourself in, like reading the work of The Buddha until you finally feel his sanity descend upon you like warm rain, washing everything away but nirvana.

Hugh Fox/Ibbetson Update

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