The recently published second volume of The Fiery Mountain, Simcha (Sam) Simchovitch’s, RIGHT, career-spanning compilation of his poems, is like the first one, a uniquely bilingual Yiddish-English collection.
That might sound odd, considering that Simchovitch is equally adept in both languages, but the vagaries of the publishing industry have meant that his 18 books, prior to The Fiery Mountain, had to be written in one or the other language, since putting the two together, facing each other in different typefaces, was deemed too complicated by his publishers.
It’s also why the 87-year-old Toronto poet is self-publishing The Fiery Mountain, which when complete in three volumes, will contain some 500 poems.
The title of the three-volume series, says Simchovitch, sitting in his north Toronto kitchen, “is a metaphor, first of Mount Sinai [where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments] and as a metaphor of the Holocaust.”
The horrors of the Holocaust weigh heavy on Simchovitch, who lost all of his family except for a sister and aunt during that time, but he is unusual among Canadian Yiddish poets in that he is just as likely to address current, less specifically Jewish concerns such as nuclear war, which he refers to memorably in his poem A Kaddish for the World.
“In an eyeblink haughty skyscrapers crumble, wrapped in flame – clouds, blasted in successive jolts, fiery debris carried over the horizon,” he writes. “It’s a danger all the time,” he says somberly about the possibility of this occurring. “I’m socially aware,” he adds, “following the news and so on.”
Simchovitch, who was born in Otwock, Poland, spent World War II in the USSR, where he met and married his late wife and they had the first of their two daughters. After a brief return to Poland and a stint in Paris, the family immigrated to Montreal in 1949.
“For the first two years, I worked in a factory,” he says. “Then I was accepted in the United Jewish Teachers Seminary [in Montreal].” After studying there for three years, Simchovitch became certified as a full-time teacher (of Yiddish and Hebrew) and taught in Montreal, Ottawa and, finally, in Toronto where he moved in 1961. Until his retirement in 1988, he was the librarian and curator of the Beth Tzedec Museum (now the Reuben & Helene Dennis Museum), where he still works on Sundays.
Simchovitch has written books, essays and articles in English, Yiddish and Hebrew; many of his English-language books have been published by the respected Mosaic Press and favourably commented upon by such well-known Canadian poets as Raymond Souster and James Deahl, as well as the author and activist Elie Wiesel.
Simchovitch also had a unique relationship with the poet Irving Layton. “Layton was my teacher of English [at] the beginning of his career,” he says, adding that Layton offered the ultimate compliment to his poem Sanctifying God’s Name by saying it “should be recited in the synagogues.”
Simchovitch, who has won several Toronto Jewish Book Awards over the years, also translated more than 80 Yiddish poems of Mordechai Gebirtig in The Song That Never Died: The Poetry of Mordechai Gebirtig (2001) and has written one autobiographical novel, Stepchild of the Vistula, a 1990 Yiddish novel, which was translated by Simchovitch into English in 1994 and then translated into Polish in 2005 by Marian Domanski, and issued in a handsome edition, with an introduction by Wiesel.
Simchovitch’s hometown of Otwock invited him and Domanski to visit there last summer for the commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the liquidation of the city’s ghetto, an experience he wrote about in The CJN.
Two years ago, vocalist Lenka Lichtenberg and guitarist/pianist Brian Katz combined forces to put 10 of his poems to music on the CD Pashtes (Simplicity).
Simchovitch’s poems – and the modest man himself – can also be said to evoke simplicity, his plain-spoken words underlying strong, emotional themes, as in the poem Yiddish Tongue.
“Wherever, I go,” he writes, “I carry the orphaned voices of those who are no more – my Yiddish language and lore.” O Yiddish language,” he goes on, “mother tongue, you are sweet like honey and, like wormwood, bitter. With you I have risen and fallen, with you I mourn and sing, in your pained letters I sink, until my heartbeat will stand suddenly still.”
That poem also forces one to contemplate the state and future of Yiddish as a living everyday language. Simchovitch, who names 22 Yiddish poets in his poem Yiddish Poets of Canada, says he’s “the last Yiddish poet in Canada,” the others having passed away or like Chava Rosenfarb, moved onto writing Yiddish novels.
“I have a prayer not to be silenced,” is how he explains his continuing to write in Yiddish, though he adds that “it’s harder lately to write poetry.” The Fiery Mountain, then, can be seen as his legacy for the ages. “It looks like I wrote already everything that I wanted to say.”
The Fiery Mountain can be purchased for $25 in Negev and Israel’s Judaica stores or by sending a cheque for $32, including shipping and handling, to the Simcha Simchovitch Book Fund, 4266 Bathurst St., Apt. 803, Toronto, Ont., M3H 5Y7.