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Manger's M'gilah, and Ours

Itzik Manger.

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?

Relevant Links
Itzik Manger  David Roskies, YIVO Encyclopedia. On the life and work of the Yiddish poet, playwright, prose writer, and essayist.
On the Road Stands a Tree  Itzik Manger, YouTube. The poet reads in Yiddish. For “Wander Years,” another poem, click here. (Audio)
With Eyes Closed  Itzik Manger, YouTube. A haunting Manger poem sung by Chava Alberstein. (Yiddish with Hebrew subtitles, video)

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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Lawrence Kaplan on March 16, 2011 at 10:51 am (Reply)
Superb article. Made me want to go back and reread Manger.
Shirah H. on March 16, 2011 at 11:40 pm (Reply)
Great article, amidst the sanitizing of this holiday, presumably for the children. And here's another dark interpretation of Purim that we've lost. Instead of the morally odd hiding of one's Jewish identity, I'm told it was also said that Esther did not know she was Jewish, and only learned it later, once she was Queen. That, too, adds an interesting darkness to the Purim story maybe. Source: my mother, 85, who also saw a performance of Manger's work by a traveling family theatre troupe.
Ellen on March 18, 2011 at 9:26 am (Reply)
"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."

Yes, this is our world, and glad to see an accurate description of it in a Jewish journal. The greatness of the old Yiddish writers and Theater (which my parents remember from its 2d Avenue glory days) was their synthesis of traditional, if bowdlerized and melodramatized, Jewish culture with a somewhat modern but clearly Jewish sensibility. What passes for secular Jewish culture today in America is a pale, pale, anorexic ghost of this culture.

It's not hard to see why, given the lack of familiarity with traditional Judaism of most contemporary secular Jews and the absence of any living secular community with a living secular culture. The last generation of Yiddish writers were not representatives of an "identity" group, but rather a real "culture" that represented the hopes, aspirations, and views of real group of people. Instead of talking endlessly about identity (per another essay on this blog), I'd like to see the organized Jewish world invest its money in rebuilding a "community" that can produce a living "culture."
Shirah H. on March 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm (Reply)
To Ellen, Thanks for your comment on this article. Taking a Hebrew Ulpan class now, I am aware that the best-educated non-dati Israelis, such as my teacher, have that sensibility - they may be carriers of that now, and we should give them credit. It's a mechayeh, as one used to say, not to have to choose between rigid Orthodoxy/observance and no connection to the complex richness that is in Jewish sources as culture.
Ellen on March 18, 2011 at 3:05 pm (Reply)
Yes, there is still a rich secular Jewish culture in Israel. But that culture cannot be transferred to the American Jewish experience, as secular Israeli emigres quickly discover with their own children, and it has only a modest relevance to American Jews in their daily lives.

If you read any major Federation-controlled Jewish newspaper, you will see that their coverage has mostly been about Israeli politics and antiSemitism, for the last 60 years, because they have nothing meaningful to say about the cultural condition of the American Jewish community. Looking at that "condition" in the case of today's secular Jews is more like looking at an autopsy of a corpse.

Secular Jewish culture came historically from Jewish communities that were created and sustained by their religious life, even if it was in a state of decay (as was the case when Yiddish theatre was in its brief flowering phase). By revitalizing Jewish religious life, the secular culture will be revitalized along with it, but can't survive on its own - as we can clearly see.
Shirah H. on March 19, 2011 at 1:43 pm (Reply)
I agree with this last comment.
M. Brukhes on March 8, 2012 at 8:04 am (Reply)
A wonderful appreciation of the most inexhaustably likable and entertaining classic in modern Yiddish literature: Follow Yehudah Mirsky's advice and read Medresh Itsik. Yasher-koyekh, Yehudah, un a freylekhn Purim, Marc

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