Manger's M'gilah, and Ours

By Yehudah Mirsky
Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Midrash, in all its forms, arises from the impulse to explain perceived gaps in Jewish canonical texts, first and foremost the Bible. And since all biblical books are both strange and familiar, each in different ways, all are susceptible of midrashic commentary. But what about the book (or m'gilah, scroll) of Esther, read on the evening and morning of the upcoming festival of Purim?

Part of Esther's strangeness lies, oddly, in its very familiarity. It takes place in a world where God hardly figures, where prophecy is but a memory, where lust, vanity, and arrogance call the tunes, and where flat-out redemption is too much to hope for.

Faced with the gap between that world—our world?—and the otherwise God-saturated and divinely directed world of the Bible, many midrashic commentators have done their best to coax the former back into the realm of the latter. Others, like Itzik Manger, have jumped right in.  

One of the greatest Yiddish poets, Manger was born in 1901 in Czernowitz, a provincial capital of the Austrian empire and a polyglot, raffish, multiethnic city on the border of East and West. The city, site of the first Yiddish writers' conference in 1908, was home to a vibrant Yiddish theater, long on melodrama and folklore.

Manger's early schooling in a traditional heder and a modern gymnasium (which expelled him for misbehaving), along with the tutelage provided by his younger brother Notte, a tailor and autodidact litterateur, left him with the rudiments of traditional learning and a love of German literature.  To this he added a passion for Yiddish balladry, which he began to write during World War I when he was at first drafted and then demobilized. In the ensuing decades he wrote, drank, and chain-smoked his way from Czernowitz to Bucharest, Warsaw, Paris (in 1938), London (1940), Montreal, New York (1951), and finally Israel, where he died in 1969.

In his poetic career, Manger was troubadour for the Jewish masses. In David Roskies's apt characterizations, he was a "modernist folk bard" while "ostensibly not a modernist" at all, a poet who synthesized a host of styles and genres: the lyric romanticism of I.L. Peretz, the realism and grotesquerie of Sholom Aleichem and the great dramatist Avraham Goldfaden, the universal myths of folklore, the human depths of the Bible, the otherworldly piety of hasidic tales, the endless travails of the Yiddish-speaking working class. In short, he was "the Yiddish poet for all seasons."

Biblical themes and imagery appear throughout Manger's work, but two books in particular are devoted entirely to his own imaginative retellings: Humesh Lider ("Pentateuch Songs," 1935) and M'gileh Lider ("M'gilah Songs," 1936).  Both were included in a 1951 volume titled, tellingly, Midrash Itzik. The M'gileh Lider appeared in a Hebrew translation by Mordechai Amitai in 1953, and during the 1960s a musical version of this modern "Purim Spiel" would become the longest-running Yiddish show in Israeli history. Last fall, the poems were reissued in a new edition containing the Yiddish originals, a new Hebrew translation and brisk commentary by the historian David Assaf, delightful illustrations by Noam Nadav, and a recording of the musical. In English, Leonard Wolf's elegant translation of these and other writings of Manger is available in a handsome volume, The World According to Itzik (2002).

Manger's Purim tale unfolds in modern Eastern Europe, where Jews scramble for survival amid capricious Gentiles and ornery co-religionists, alternately maintaining and breaking with tradition, falling in and out of love, dreaming, tossing in their sleep, and, of course, celebrating Purim.  The biblical gang is all here, suitably caricatured and transmogrified. King Ahaseurus is a fickle, inebriate fool; Haman, a perpetually fuming, inveterate anti-Semite. Mordechai, armed with nothing but his wits, bowler hat, and umbrella, is the archetypal "court Jew," currying favor with the powers-that-be while simultaneously defending his people and advancing himself.  Esther's triumph over Haman's malignity is just as much a triumph over her own shallowness as a young woman who, however fetching, is no match for the spurned queen Vashti, a flaxen-haired Slavic goddess who literally flirts with the sun and goes to her death with dignity.

Manger also introduces other characters of his own, especially tailors like his father and beloved brother. Fastrigossa, an apprentice tailor, is Esther's boyhood love, heartlessly cast aside by that upstart with her eye on the main chance. Driven mad by unrequited longing, he makes an attempt on Ahasuerus's life, giving Haman just the excuse he needs to get rid of the despised "Zhids" pouring into Shushan from Lithuania and Poland. (Assaf helpfully points out that the tragic Fastrigossa is likely modeled not only on Manger's brother Notte but on Hirsh Lekert, a young Bundist cobbler who in 1902 shot and wounded the imperial governor of Vilnius.) 

When deliverance comes for Manger's Jews, it isn't because of their prayers or anything resembling lobbying as we know it. Mordechai intercedes, but with Satan, who obliges by pushing Haman onto Esther's bed and thereby sealing his own doom. 

In the end, moreover, not God but Fastrigossa's mother has the last word. Lighting a yahrzeit candle a year down the road, the poor widow mourns her only child and breadwinner and curses both "the whore" who never even asked after him when he was in prison and her uncle the court Jew, hobnobbing with the rich.

In sum, in this most exilic of books, God is so absent that His providence, such as it is, appears only by way of the Devil. Moreover, as Assaf points out, by ending his carnival tale on a note of bitter elegy, Manger drives home the point that Fastrigossa is its real, if tragic, hero: "not a freedom fighter or great warrior but a simple man on the very fringes of society" who, along with his destitute mother, pays the steepest price for his own romantic dreams and the machinations of power.

So what sort of midrash is this? Most classic examples of the form interpret biblical texts in light of and often against other texts, in an effort to account for internal discrepancies and/or disparities between the world described by the text and the world experienced by readers in their own, various times and places. Manger's midrash is of a different kind: one in which the "commentator" fills in the gaps by riotously flinging himself and his times headlong into the text.

It is a hard thing to pull off, even in Hebrew or Yiddish with their multitudinously allusive capacities, and well-nigh impossible without a deep connection to the texts and the living Jewish communities who have read them. In Manger's case, it is precisely his faithfulness to the least heroic actors—the poor, traditional, forgotten, and ruined, precisely those to whom it is commanded to give gifts on the holiday of Purim—that endows this midrash with its uncanny power and focuses our minds on the deepest question posed by Purim itself: how to survive, and what it means to survive. 

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