To Sing Away the Darkest Days

Norbert Hirschhorn

Poems: Bound Up in The Bond of Life

Sample Passages

  • The Happy Conscript

    Call me Yosl Ber. You can call me pisher, it’s sweet fuck-all to me. I used to be a cobbler’s lackey licking boot soles, dawn to dark. Now I’ve joined the Czarist army and clomp around in combats. I eat regular in the army, pork sausage with cheese. In the shtetl when a Jew eats a chicken, one of them is sick.

    What do Jews ever inherit but hemorrhoids and heartburn? I wear a uniform, I carry a gun. When a worm sits in horseradish it thinks it’s in heaven. Nine rabbis can’t make a minyan, but they’ll take ten of the likes of me. They hate me, those whiskers, declare me a meshumad, spouting Talmud from their mouths like turds from a goat. They should run to the toilet every three minutes. They should grow like onions with their heads in the dirt.

    To be a Jew is like being buried in the ground baking bagels. But being in the Czarist army, ah! a resurrection. I can go to any tavern in my fine uniform, boots and sword and give the barmaid a wink. And she’ll give me a wink. And then we’ll wink together. For a glass of milk, you don’t have to buy the whole cow.

    minyan – gathering of ten men required to begin prayers; meshumad – apostate

    The Happy Conscript is one of the poems in To Sing Away the Darkest Days – Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs. The poetry book can be bought from this page.

  • Yiddish Folksongs which inspired Norbert Hirschhorn

    Cave Song
    A re-imagination of the poem in Yiddish, Zog Maran (‘Say, Marrano’) by Abraham Reisen (1876-1953), set to song by Samuel Bugatch (1898-1984).
    Link to song

    Scapegoats
    A re-imagination of Dos Kelbl (‘The Little Calf’), also known as Dona, Dona. Rendition by the duo, Zupfgeigenhansel.
    Link to song

    Ten Brothers
    A re-imagination of traditional lyrics set to music by Abraham Ellstein (1907-1963). A fine rendition by André Heller.
    Link to song

    Make a Living
    A re-imagination of the Yiddish folksong, Bin Ikh Mir a Shnayderl (‘I’m a Little Tailor’), author unknown.
    Link to song

    The Little Stove
    A re-imagination of the classic Yiddish song, Oyfn Pripetshik (‘Atop the Stove’) by Mark Warshavsky (1840-1907).
    Link to song

    From My Mouth
    A re-imagination of the song Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen (‘Raisins with Almonds’), one of the best beloved of Yiddish folksongs, written by Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1906) for his operetta, Shulamis, based on a traditional song, Unter Yankeles Vigele.
    Link to song

    From Podwoloczyska To Ellis Island
    A re-imagination of the traditional folksong, Her Nor, Du Sheyn Meydele (‘Listen, Pretty Girl’).
    Link to song

    My Cousin The Greenhorn
    A re-imagination of a popular Yiddish song, Di Grine Kuzine (‘The Greenhorn Cousin’), music by Abraham Schwartz (1881-1963), lyrics by Hyman Prizant.
    Link to song & link to the Klezmer version

    Mayn Rue-Plats
    A re-imagination of the Yiddish song, Mayn Rue-Plats (‘My Resting Place’) written by Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923).
    Link to song & link to alternative version

    To Life!
    A re-imagination of A Glezele Lekhayim (‘A Little Glass to Life’), words by B. Bergholtz (n.d.); original music by Joseph Rumshinsky (1881-1956).
    Link to song

    The Happy Conscript
    A re-imagination of the several-versioned song, Yosl Ber, original words by Itsik Manger (1901-1969).
    Link to song

    Tristesse
    A re-imagination of Di Goldene Pave (‘The Golden Peacock’); original poem by Anna Margolin (1887-1952).
    Link to song

    A Punter’s Lament
    A re-imagination of a raucous folk song, Dem Ganevs Yikhes (‘The Thief’s Pedigree’), also known as Far Vos Bistu Ketsele Broyges (‘Why are You Angry, Pussycat?’)
    Link to song

    A Yiddishe Mama Laments
    A response to the classic paean to all Jewish mothers, Mayn Yidishe Mame, sung by the famous cantor Yosef Rosenblatt (1882-1933).
    Link to song

    Confessions
    A re-imagination of the song Moyde Ani (‘I confess’). Lyrics by Mark Schweid (1891-1969), music by Michel Gelbart (1889-1962).
    Link to song

    The Quantum Rebbe
    A re-imagination of the song Der Filosof (‘The Philosopher’) (originally Dos Gute Kepl by Wolf Zbarzher (1826?-1883))
    Link to song

    To Sing Away the Darkest Days, a collection of poems re-imagined from these Yiddish folksongs, was launched on 11 June at 7pm at the London Jewish Cultural Centre. Enjoy the photos!

Sample Information

Summary

To Sing Away the Darkest Days – Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs – is the culmination of a five-year project which saw Norbert Hirschhorn source more than one thousand Yiddish songs from several archives and from collections on the Internet, as well as from CDs.

Ruth Rubin, pioneer archivist of Yiddish folksong, wrote: ‘Yiddish folksongs are in a vernacular closest to the popular speech of the folk.’

For Norbert they helped him to rediscover and trace his own Jewish cultural history. However, some of the songs ‘spoke’ to him as a poet and begged for a new translation, or ‘re-imagining’ as he calls it, into English poems.

The resulting collection of poems tells the story of the emigrant, the Jew in the Diaspora. Norbert adds his unique view: he personalises the Diaspora, and at the same time brings a vanished culture back to life. The collection is funny and poignant and captures the Jewish experience, but the struggle and questioning of the poet add an extra dimension.

Western poetry often looks inwards; it frequently deals with the troubled poet, whereas Eastern and Middle Eastern poetry deals with important facts about society. Czeslaw Milosz was one poet who combined these two elements: he wrote about weighty subjects – belief, war, the influence of the state and history – but from a personal point of view.

It is interesting to note that Norbert has done exactly this in re-imagining Yiddish folksongs. They are about love, belief or loss of belief, war, expectations, failure, history and mortality.

As in Milosz’s work, there are poems with rhyme and metre, free verse and prose poems. And, as in Milosz’s work, the poems tell a story. Norbert is a storyteller and makes us hear the songs.

The Poems

Basherte
Cave Song
Ten Brothers
Make a Living
Three Sisters
The Little Stove
Jump Rope Songs
From My Mouth
From Podwoloczyska to Ellis Island
My Cousin the Greenhorn
Mayn Rue-Plats
Abecedarian for the Workers of the World
A Punter’s Lament
A Czarist Conscript Bids Farewell
The Happy Conscript
Scapegoats
A Yiddishe Mama Laments
A Marxist Lullaby
Sleep My Child
A Yiddish Divorce
The Last Branch Pleads for Release
The Neighbouring Village
Ecclesiastes Redux
For Sure
The Wandering Jew
The Quantum Rebbe
When Our Rebbe…
Tristesse
To Life!
Confessions
A Tailor’s Song

The poems are preceded by a wonderful introduction by Norbert Hirschhorn and followed by comprehensive details of the background to each poem: the Yiddish text of the original folksong, the literal translation, some notes about its origin and even a link to a sung rendition of the original folksong.

Listen to Norbert reciting The Little Stove.

To Sing Away the Darkest Days is not only a wonderful collection of poems but also a unique historical document.

‘For me personally, it is rescuing my own family history.’ – Norbert Hirschhorn talks about To Sing Away the Darkest Days – Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs in In geveb

The Morning Star has featured ‘The Neighbouring Village’ on their website.

Jewish Book Council has featured ‘The Quantum Rabbi’ on their website.

‘The Neighbouring Village’ was featured on Berfrois during March 2013 and you can read it here.

‘A Tailor’s Song’ is featured in the Summer 2013 newsletter of Winning Writers.

In June 2013 ‘A Tailor’s Song’ won honorable mention in the 2013 Passager Poetry contest.

The ‘Quantum Rebbe’ is featured on Book a Poet.

To Sing Away the Darkest Days was launched on 11 June 2013 at the London Jewish Cultural Centre. Enjoy the photos!

Hirschhorn’s latest poetry collection Stone. Bread. Salt. will be published by Holland Park Press on 26 April 2018.

£8.99 – $16.00
You can buy To Sing Away the Darkest Days now by clicking on the ‘Buy this book’ button on this page. Your card will be debited in your local currency.

If you want to order in any other way, please email the publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-907320-35-4
Number of pages: 124
Price: £0

Reviews

‘Hirschhorn’s long poem ‘Confessions’ was laced with dark humour – “we are God’s Chosen People. / I wonder what we were chosen for” – and concluded with a painful, poignant vision. The poet comes upon a couple in Sainsburys, “a shrunken old man, straggled beard – Jewish, surely – and his tiny wife, too much lipstick” and suddenly sees them “holding hands, walking along a cobbled street / too slow for the men in boots, guns, and thumbs / in their belts.” ’ – Greg Freeman from Write Out Loud about To Sing Away the Darkest Days at the South Downs poetry festival

‘Norbert Hirschhorn enriches the Jewish legacy of finding relief from troubled times through song, a wonder for readers to experience themselves by relishing each of these folksongs in written and musical form in this remarkable literary and cultural presenta­tion.’ – Deborah Schoeneman on the Jewish Book Council website

‘If there is to be a revival of Yiddish, as the author states that there is, then Mr Hirschhorn will be at its forefront. This is a scholarly achievement and a brave book. It is a book that needed to be written.’ – Frances Spurrier on Write Out Loud

Norbert Hirschhorn has pulled off a kind of transformative magic in this collection. They reveal a civilized, liberal sensibility, concerned with inequality, but amused too by the quirks of human kind. – Lunar Poetry magazine

‘The fact that these are distinctly Jewish folksongs turned into poems, I would argue, makes them even more universal, more easily translatable across time and place.’ – Sarah Zaides on jew-ish.com

‘These are gorgeous poems in any context, tough and daring, elegantly put together. Whatever your background, read them and sigh.’ – Leah Fritz on London Grip

‘It is Hirschhorn’s own re-imaginings that speak most deeply to me, as a Gentile, of the power of song and poetry to address unspeakable hardship.’ – Robert Peake in the Huffington Post

‘Hirschhorn has done something wonderful here, and I encourage readers interested in Yiddish language and literature (as well as in poetry itself) to investigate.’ – Erika Dreifus on her blog

‘Norbert Hirschhorn’s re-imagings do add to the original songs, offering a new way of looking at them. Just like a good cover version of a favourite song enables listeners to hear something new in the original.’ – Emma Lee on her blog

‘Listen to these very free, flavourful variations of Yiddish songs. The gifted fiddler of words on the rooftop is the doctor-poet Norbert Hirschhorn seemingly painted by Chagall. The tunes he plays are Heine-like, humorously wry or bitter-sweet. Be seated.’ – Dannie Abse

‘Ludic and learned , comic and tragic, Norbert Hirschhorn’s ‘versions’ of Yiddish lyrics dress a poet’s unique imagination, humor, insight in the garb of another tradition to tell us about the present and the past. The book’s scholarly links and literal translations add another level to our appreciation both of Hirschhorn’s achievement and of the songs themselves.’ – Marilyn Hacker, Chancellor, Academy of American Poets

What a time you must have had with these songs\poems\stories\celebratons\laments. They seem a cultural treasure chest – full of surprises. – Polly Longsworth