A few days ago, I embarked on a 49-day project marking the counting of The Omer which began on the second night of Passover.
“The omer refers to the 49-day period between the second night of Passover (Pesach) and the holiday of Shavuot. This period marks the beginning of the barley harvest when, in ancient times, Jews would bring the first sheaves to the Temple as a means of thanking God for the harvest. The word omer literally means “sheaf” and refers to these early offerings.” (myjewishlearning.com)
This project is an offering, a creative way of connecting with and honouring my female ancestors for whom Yiddish was the “mame loshen” (mother tongue). The plan is to journey through a rich landscape of poetry, art, story, song and perhaps even some recipes! It’s a rather loose plan, as I want to leave plenty of room for the grandmothers, bubbes, and babas to have their say.
The title for this project comes from a poem by the Yiddish poet, Anna Margolin, ‘Often I Walk as if Behind a Veil’, (from the collection ‘Drunk from the Bitter Truth’ translated by Shirley Kumove.)
Often, I walk as if behind a veil,
my steps mingling with yours
sadly beautiful, blood and flowers
of my demented springtime.
Cautiously, I carry
your voices, smiles, grimaces
through raw, rushing streets
as one carries a song on one’s lips,
or a costly ring on one’s finger.
Go I don’t know where are bring back I don’t know what
Another name for this journey is: “Go I Don’t Know Where and Bring Back I Don’t Know What.” This is the title of a Russian fairy tale but to me it also sounds Yiddish: “To where should I go? Show me on the map.” The map is written on my heart. The landscape is etched in my muscles and my bones. “And what could I possibly bring back?” Ah, to answer that question, we will have to set out on the road…
“Amol iz geven…”
Once upon a time…
A forgotten refrain
When was it? I can’t remember.
It follows me like forgotten refrain.
From the poem, ‘City by the Sea’, by Anna Margolin, translated by Shirley Kumove.
I should be a-steppin’
I should be a-steppin’ all across the land. I should be a-steppin’ but I can’t hardly stand.
Today’s page in my Omer journey comes from a wonderful article I read on In Geveb this morning. In ‘The Yudika Variations: Translating b’chevruta’, Faith Jones and Annie Sommer Kaufman explore different ways of approaching the translation of a beautiful poem by the Canadian Proletariat poet, Yudika.
I was fascinated by their process – spanning several months last year – in which they tried out all sorts of different methods of translating, including literal translations, combining the styles of modern day song lyrics, and even comics poetry. There was something in each version that spoke to me, but this one – in the style of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra – really resonated with me because of the references to the propulsion to get out there and go places and yet not being able to stand.
One of the reasons I embarked on this project was to deepen the connection between myself and my Yiddish-speaking ancestors, not just as a leap ‘backwards’ into another time and place, but also as a leap forwards into my own life.
At a time when everything seems to be opening up again, starting up again, revving up again, I feel hesitant to be ‘a-steppin’ all across the land’, partly because I seem to have lost the knack after a year of lockdown and partly due to the fact that ‘I can’t hardly stand’ due to the chronic pain in my foot.
I shared with some soul-sisters the other day how, at the moment, for me, backwards feels like the new forwards. As I read these poems, listen to the songs, and hear the stories of these remarkable Yiddish women writers, I feel as though I am consulting an ancestral oracle, searching for clues and reflections, connecting with a well of inspiration, wisdom and understanding that might help me move forwards.
This page is inspired by a Yiddish lullaby that has been haunting me for months.
In ‘The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk’, which was performed last December by Kneehigh at Bristol Old Vic Online, one of the actors sang a beautiful Yiddish Lullaby. It may or may not have been this one, but I remember it containing the words “liu-liu” and to me they were pure magic (as was the entire production!).
A few weeks later, I heard a similar lullaby sung by Kitka Vocale Ensemble on their album ‘Evening Star’ as part of a medley, ‘Three Yiddish Lullabies’. This beautiful rendition of the song went straight to my heart. I listened to it over and over, imagining that a long line of bubbes and grandmothers were singing to me.
On the day I made this page, I searched online for Yiddish lullabies, I found it once again on the ‘Yiddish Song of the Week’ website with a 1954 recording by the Yiddish linguist, Mordechai Schaechter.
I also heard a wonderful version on the Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell and Veretski Pass album, ‘Convergence’ adapting ‘Hayda-liu-liu’ and ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’ — an African American folk song.
Hayda-liu-liu my little one,
Hayda-liu–liu my beautiful one,