Page 43 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 20

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HE past century has witnessed the rise and efflorescence of
the Yiddish lyric as an artistic medium of utmost refine-
ment. I t has also witnessed the whittling down of its potential
audience to ever fewer readers able to appreciate its subtle
nuances or to react to its unique rhythmic patterns, elusive
metaphors and old world imagery.
A century ago the Yiddish lyric was still primarily a medium
for mass entertainment by folksingers and Badchonim. The most
popular bards of the eighteen-sixties were Berl Broder (1815־
1868), Velvel Zbarzher (1826-1883) and Eliakum Zunser (1836־
1913). They delighted audiences at weddings and festivals with
their rhymed verses. They helped to lighten with their catchy
tunes burdensome days and sorrow-laden nights in ghetto com-
The more learned Hebrew poets of that period, however,
disdained to give expression to their innermost feelings in the
language of the jesting Badchonim. When Michel Gordon (1823־
1890) ventured to pioneer with Yiddish songs, he printed them
anonymously in 1868, lest his reputation as a man of learning
be jeopardized. The following year he composed his most famous
Yiddish poem, which began “Arise, My People!” In stirring
verses he told Jews the hour had struck for them to take their
place in the sun, side by side with other national groups. For
their rebirth they needed knowledge as a supplement to faith.
This knowledge could not be acquired in tongues unintelligible
to most of them. They must therefore learn Russian, German and
other European tongues. His naive faith in enlightenment col-
lapsed when pogroms broke out in the eighteen-eighties. Then
the militant singer of Russian liberalism became an elegiac com-
forter of a hurt generation. The non־Jewish world that had
seemed so entrancing and promising in the springtime of his
life disappointed him. Dying lonely and neglected, he under-
emphasized the extent of his influence upon the Yiddish lyric.
Among his talented admirers were Yehuda Leib Gordon (1830־
1892), S. S. Frug (1860-1916) and Mark Varshavsky (1848-1907).
The younger Gordon, who launched the slogan “Be a Jew at
home and a human being outside,” advocated Hebrew and