Itsik Manger’s Last Songs
Mandy Cohen (Hampshire College)
Itsik Manger (1901–1969) was considered by many to be the preeminent Yiddish lyricist, the folk singer of Yiddish speaking Jewry, the “prince” of a modern Yiddish poetry, which saw its birth, blossoming, and destruction all in the first half of the 20th century. In the impeccable rhythm and careful refrains of his modern folk songs and ballads, the reader is drawn into his cyclical or tidal movement of time, from folkloric past to post-War present and back and forth, through which motion Manger seeks to enact a transformation of life into poetry in form as much as content.
Itsik Manger published the poem “Ovntlid” (Evening Song) in his final collection of poetry, Shtern in Shtoyb (Stars in the Dust), published in 1967. “Ovntlid” begins with the invocation of evening, bringing to mind the shadows that Manger saw spreading over his world. In the fading light, the poem is almost like a prayer to the poetic muse, and its request is at once modest and tremendous: Manger asks that the essence of four small remembered moments become part of his poem. A flicker of golden light, the murmuring of a praying Jew, a sleeping breath, a tremble of butterfly flight—these memories Manger wants to contain in his poem. The transformation into song of these moments—hoping thereby to ensure their survival—is of the greatest importance to the poet. Considering the perilous position of Yiddish culture and Yiddish poetry in the time after the Nazi genocide, the earnestness of Manger’s “Ovntlid” is evident. Cultures can be transformed by creativity, but in the case of Yiddish the story is one of cultural creativity seeking to survive the catastrophic “transformations” of the genocide in Europe and the pressures of assimilation and exile elsewhere. The desire expressed in “Ovntlid” can be applied to all of Shtern in Shtoyb, where each poem is another moment Manger seeks to recover from the destroyed world of Eastern European Jewry.