My steps mingling with yours (part 3)

I know I say this every time, but I am enjoying this project so much! My art journal is my log book, charting a rich journey through poetry, song, folklore, and – above all – language.

Memorial Candles

By Yiddish poet, Rokhl Korn,  in honour of Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) which began on the evening of April 7th.

Memorial Candles

The days
the nights
lie down
layer upon layer,
upon layer,
when I measure time
with memorial candles.
Between one memorial and another
there is but one step
through stillness,
through whisper,
through tumult,
as long as it took
to transform life into ashes.

– from ‘Generations: Selected Poems’ by Rachel Korn

Sonye di Khakhome (Sonya the Wise)

A. Litwin, one of the early Zamlers (collectors of folklore) in the Yiddish speaking world of Eastern Europe, describes his meeting with a renowned shtetl storyteller:

In the province of Molihev there lives an amazing old woman known as the town’s khakhome (wise woman), whom I met by accident. Her name is Sonye Naymark. She is eighty years old, takes good care of herself, and is so lively and cheerful that it’s a pleasure to spend time with her.

Text and source photograph from ‘Yiddish Folktales’, edited by Beatrice Silverman Weinreich (Pantheon)

Shtetl is Yiddish for “town,” and refers to the small pre-WWII towns in Eastern Europe with a significant Yiddish-speaking Jewish population. (from Chabad.org)

The Love Potion (Di libe trunk)

This page is inspired by ‘The Love Potion’, a folktale from the ‘Yiddish Folktales’ anthology. It was told by Peshe Rive Sher (b. 1864) in Koszlovitsh, USSR, who said she heard it from her mother. She refers to the tale as “not quite proper, but it is amusing.”

In the story, a man leaves home to find some money for his impoverished family. While he is away, his wife becomes wealthy and moves with her children to another town. After some time, the man ends up being a guest at her house for Shabbat. She recognises him but he does not recognise her. She salts the fish well and so he wakes up in the middle of the night, thirsty. She offers him some wine and, when he remarks how tasty it is, she says:

“The drink is wine
and you are mine
and I am thine.”

The tale ends: “And in the morning, she told her children, “This is your father.”

On a first reading, the story seemed to be much tamer than the title – and the storyteller’s introduction – suggests. But when I looked at it again, I saw how cleverly the woman creates a situation where her husband will wake up in the middle of the night in need of a drink.

While it seems on the surface to be nothing more than ordinary wine, the fact that he finds it so amazingly tasty, and the spell-like words the wife speaks, lend it magical properties.

What is not said in between the interchange over the wine and the last line of the story suggests a successful reunion between the two. It is, after all, a Friday night – a night where it is a mitzvah (positive commandment) to make love.

I will never look at my Kiddish cup of Palwin no.10 in quite the same way again! Note: Kiddush is the blessing you say over wine. Palwin no. 10 is a sweet dessert wine often used for making Kiddush.

One eye laughing, one eye weeping.

Eyn oyg lafing, eyn oyg veynt.

I love this saying. I have been searching around but there doesn’t seem to be one fixed way of saying it. (If any Yiddishist friends know of it, can you let me know?)

It sums up so well the intense and contrasting emotions that can arise while listening to Klezmer music, reading poems and stories by Yiddish women writers, the joy and sadness of connection with a time that seems both forever gone and yet here right now, creating itself anew.

Once I had finished, these pages looked to me like a Yiddish version of the eyes of TJ Eckleburg from The Great Gatsby!

Mayn Mame (My Mother)

This page is inspired by ‘Mayn Mame/My Mother’, by Yiddish poet, Celia Dropkin, which in turn inspired the passionate track by Ida and Louise on their album, ‘Shtoltse Lider’. (Which I have been playing on repeat!)

My mother,
Widowed at twenty-two
And left with two small children,
Chastely determined
Never to be anyone’s wife again.
Her days and years went by quietly
As if lit by a begrudging wax candle.
My mother was never anyone’s wife again,
But through many days, many years,
Many nights, the sighs
Of her young and loving being,
Of her yearning blood,
Entered my childish heart,
Deep within me I absorbed them all.
My mother’s hidden yearning
Poured into me freely
Like an underground stream.
And now my mother’s seething,
Holy,
Deeply hidden desire
Spurts openly from me.

– Translated by Seymour Levitan

I came across this poem on  ‘A Candle of Song’ לידערליכט
– a blog by Sheva Zucker dedicated to Yiddish poems about mothers.

This is a bay leaf

Once, when I was visiting my Bobba and Zeida in Dublin, my Bobba and I were walking down the street together. At a certain point, she stopped and picked a leaf from the bush by the side of the road. She showed it to me and said, “This is a bay leaf.” I don’t think she said much more about it than that and we resumed our walk together and turned to talking of other things.

I don’t have the best memory but for some reason this moment has stayed with me all these years later. When I think of it today, it has come to represent the huge richness my Bobba carried within her and how little I asked her about it. If I could go back in a time machine I would ask her so many things about her life growing up in Poland, about how she came to be in Dublin, about the things she knew. I would ask her more about the bay leaf.

The bay leaf makes me remember what a legendary cook she was. It also makes me wonder about her connection to nature, to herbs, and to the landscape she grew up in.

Today, in one of Ketzirah Lesser’s awesome newsletters, as if whispered to me by the ancestors, I heard about a book that has just come out called Ashkenazi Herbalism by Deatra Cohen and Adam Siegel. I can’t wait to hold it in my hands and learn more about the plants and herbs from the land of my grandmothers.

דאָס איז אַ לאָרבערבלאַט
‏Dos iz a lorberblat
‏This is a bay leaf.

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