In hayzer oreme iz do azoy fil sheynkayt ...
In poor homes there is so much beauty ...
Mani Leib could have completed this opening
line of his poem, "In hayzer oreme", with any number of subject
nouns. Many another Yiddish poet would have written, "In poor homes
there is so much wisdom," reminding us that learning is the primary
value of Jewish culture, and Solomonic wisdom its highest ideal.
Around the turn of the last century, the sweatshop poets of the
Lower East Side of New York might have written, "In poor homes there
is so much suffering," or, alternately, "so much kindness," pricking
our social conscience, and waking us to human responsibilities. A
poet of neo-romantic or neo-Hasidic bent, extending Rabbi Nahman of
Bratslav's war against despair, might have exulted, "In poor homes
there is so much joy," or "so much song." Mani Leib recognized
sheynkayt - beauty -
whose spirit of generous refinement he evokes in the rest of the poem.
This line of Mani Leib's came to life for me one autumn day, about 1980, when I entered the small Bronx apartment of the late Joe Fishstein. The place was being readied for a move, and most of the furniture was already gone. But around the room, on white bookshelves, stood a library such as I had never seen. The walls sparkled, quite literally, with bright bindings, as almost each book had been provided with an extra decorative covering, and shone on the shelves like a bedecked bride. Mrs. Fishstein explained to me that her husband had fashioned all these covers by hand. Even before approaching the shelves, I felt that I had stumbled upon a treasure trove: Joe Fishstein had wanted his books to look as precious as they felt to him, so that their beauty should be palpable, the way they were in the great leather libraries of yore. He had transformed the modest room into a happy shrine.
I felt blessed to be there. Some days earlier my good friend Neal Kozodoy, then associate editor of Commentary magazine, had asked me whether I would be interested in seeing a collection of Yiddish poetry books that a family in the Bronx was prepared to donate to a university library. He had been told that several local universities had already turned down the offer, and wondered whether I might want to acquire the collection for McGill. To be honest, I might not have responded with any enthusiasm myself. From the moment I began teaching Yiddish literature at McGill University in 1969, people had been offering me Yiddish libraries for sale or donation. In Canada as in the United States, the children of avid Yiddish readers rarely inherited their parents' knowledge of the language, hence had no use for books in what had become a foreign tongue. At first, I had responded to every such invitation, but once the basic Yiddish library had been established at McGill, and once I had discovered that most of the homes I visited had a variation of the same collection, I either sent my students on these calls, or politely declined the offers. It goes without saying that when one of my students, Aaron Lansky, began systematically collecting books for what soon became the National Yiddish Book Center, I gave him every encouragement to pursue his important rescue operation.
What made me go out to the Bronx that day was the mention of "Yiddish poetry books." I was then writing a book about American Yiddish poetry and I wondered what had appealed to a reader of Yiddish poetry in the Bronx. Then, too, a reader specializing in poetry might have assembled something quite different from an amateur's home library. But I had never imagined a collection like Joe Fishstein's. This sewing machine operator and life-long member of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union had put in a standing order with a Yiddish bookstore for every new poetry title published anywhere in the world, and for any book or journal about Yiddish verse. He had made weekly pilgrimages to the bookstores, and on Saturdays, with what feels very much like transferred religious awe, he had spent the mornings reading, decorating his acquisitions, and copying his favourite poems into a private album. Needless to say, he had done everything possible to protect the books so that when they eventually came to McGill, they were in vintage condition.
The sense of sanctity still permeated his home. When I expressed my interest in the collection and began explaining to Mrs. Fishstein that I was not authorized to make her any financial commitment, she bridled and said that she would never accept any money for her husband's books. She only wanted them to be cared for with the some respect they had enjoyed in their home. Matters were not quite so simple for Fishstein's daughters whose affection for their father was mixed with a smidgen of resentment at the care he had showered on these objects; he had not invited his children to share in his pleasure, perhaps anticipating that they could not. But they, too, were generous in their desire to win appreciation for their father's legacy. If he had not involved them in his enthusiasm, he had certainly taught them to honour it.
I was not surprised
to discover from Fishstein's private album - the only book that remained in the
family's possession - that Mani Leib was one of his favourite poets. Mani Leib (Brahinski;
born 1883 in Ukraine, died 1953, New York) had arrived in America in 1905, not long before
Fishstein himself had immigrated. He was a leading figure in the group of American Yiddish
poets known as Di Yunge (The Young), known for the delicacy of their verse, for their
emphasis on quietude and harmony and sensibility in the face of life's exigent demands. The
immigrant community into which they had come was noisy and crowded. Mani Leib worked
most of his life as a skilled craftsman in shoe factories, making the leather uppers of boots, just
as Fishstein laboured over a sewing machine. These men had families to support; they were
harried and worn. Poetry was alchemy, transforming the commonplace into the precious,
extracting the timeless from the ephemeral. Poetry was the experience of a private self in the
midst of the public marketplace. They thought of poetry as secular, but both Mani Leib's poetry
and Joe Fishstein's approach to poetry bear the traces of the religious tradition in
which they had been raised.
Beauty is no
abstraction in Mani Leib's verse but manifest in melodious sound and
supple image. So, too, the library of Joe Fishstein makes manifest a
man's love of poetry and the place it held in his life. This
collection not only enriches McGill's holdings in the field of
Yiddish poetry, but lets us feel how Yiddish poetry was experienced
at the moment and in the place where it was being created. In later
years, the Yiddish poetess Kadya Molodovsky would edit a literary
journal in New York called Svive (Milieu). The
collection of Joe Fishstein evokes the svive
, the atmosphere, of Yiddish poetry in one of its finest hours.
Ruth R. Wisse