The Fiery Mountain – Collected Poems, A Bilingual Edition, Volume II, by Simcha Simchovitch.
Yiddish is at least 1,000 years old. In its earliest form, it was one of the dialects of Middle High German spoken by Jews in the Rhineland. Following the pogroms of the Crusades, many Jews fled to eastern Europe, bearing Yiddish with them as part of their cultural baggage. The flight of Jews eastward reached its zenith in the middle of the 14th century, owing to the massacres that resulted from the terror of the black plague.
Written in Hebrew letters, Yiddish gradually incorporated Hebrew words of a cultural and religious nature, as well as a wide-ranging vocabulary borrowed from the languages of countries in which Jews lived.
In the eastern European ghetto, Yiddish achieved special status. It was regarded as the only language in which the intricacies of the Talmud and kindred literature could be properly expounded. Even today, it remains the vehicle of instruction in most Yeshivot, even in Israel. Haredim regard Hebrew as a holy tongue that must not be profaned by secular use. They prefer to use Yiddish as their vernacular.
At its highest point in the 1930s, there were around the globe 12 million Jews who spoke Yiddish. In our own time, Yiddish has more and more become a subject of scholarship, nostalgia, or a respectful reminder of the Jewish past.
Yet, a dwindling number of Yiddishists refuse to believe that Yiddish is moribund. Convinced that it embodies the best of Jewish cultural traditions and values, they assert that its survival is inseparably linked with the preservation and continuity of Jewish spiritual life.
Simcha Simchovitch, an esteemed Toronto poet, is astonishingly creative. His latest volume includes about 150 poems, with the Yiddish text and the English versions side by side.
He writes with sensitivity, compassion, and great moral fervour on a wide variety of themes: love, the Jewish past, Canada, old age, the Holocaust, nature, Israel and admired personalities.
What follows are two of his typical briefer poems – accessible, elegiac and memorable.
The little flame of hope
flickers again before my eyes
like a star in a pitch-black night
for a faraway wanderer.
O God, do not extinguish
the only quivering light
in the long alien night
for us – lost wanderers.
* * *
Wherever I go, I carry
The orphaned voices
Of those who are no more –
My Yiddish language and lore.
I sucked it with mother’s milk,
I drank it like daylight with my eyes,
I hearkened to it in pious sighs
Of mothers, grandmothers.
O Yiddish language, 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.
The author concludes one of his poems with a tribute to those who have left “behind a treasure-trove to be discovered and admired.” He could have been speaking about himself.