Avraham Sutzkever’s Yiddish Winter Wonderland

At the age of two, Avraham Sutzkever, the great Yiddish poet-to-be, was expelled by the Tsar’s army from his native shtetl along with its other Jewish residents. He then spent the next five years in the Siberian city of Omsk until, after his father’s premature death, he left with his mother for Vilna and as a young man joined the city’s Jewish literary scene. Today he is best known for the poems he wrote during the Holocaust and thereafter. But Dara Horn draws attention to his 1936 masterpiece Siberia, narrated by a child who stands in for the author:

Yiddish literature is often caricatured as being either tragic or comic, or both at once; according to the stereotype, Yiddish is not the native language of unironic joy. But Sutzkever, the premier 20th-century Yiddish poet, is the quintessential joyous Jewish artist, and one of his many masterpieces is a poetic cycle about the joy of a childhood spent dashing through the snow. This luminous work is set in the cheeriest, jolliest place you can possibly imagine: Siberia! Welcome to the Yiddish winter wonderland. . . .

Sutzkever doesn’t merely use breathtaking imagery and sound orchestration. Unlike many of his English-language peers, he does all this in metered rhyme, which in Yiddish is utterly hypnotic. . . . To achieve this, Sutzkever stretches the language as far as it will go, verbing nouns as needed and making every word work overtime. The Yiddish word for “sun,” itself a major character in the poem, is identical to the Yiddish word for “son”—a pun Sutzkever employs like a musical variation. Yet this isn’t mere wordplay. Language emphasizes distinctions: people versus nature, for instance. But for Sutzkever, people are nature. . . .

When [his] father dies, . . . [the narrator] runs behind the sled-borne coffin “to catch up with your memory.” The scene is painful, but the many chases that surround it—after the sun, after music, after a melting river—suggest an awe that includes yearning as part of its power. Two stanzas later, when the speaker praises a snowman (“monument to childhood, guardian/ Of a cold treasure!”), the happiness he derives from it includes his father’s memory. But that doesn’t diminish its joy: the poem builds around that memory, art trapping time in imagination’s ice. . . .

Sutzkever’s Siberia is pure joy, deepened by sorrow but untouched by irony. And the Holocaust neither created nor destroyed this joyous artist’s work. Here already are the themes of time stopping, the eternally present past, and the ongoing possibility of wonder, painful and joyful and triumphant [that one finds in his later work]. The live wire of imagination races through the poet’s awful, wonderful life, as tortured and inspired and indestructible as the Jews—neither innocent nor ironic, but abidingly true: a joy to the world.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Arts & Culture, Avraham Sutzkever, Holocaust, Poetry, Yiddish literature

An Israeli Buffer Zone in the Gaza Strip Doesn’t Violate International Law

 The IDF announced on Thursday that it is safe for residents to return to some of the towns and villages near the Gaza Strip that have been abandoned since October 7. Yet on the same day, rocket sirens sounded in one of those communities, Kibbutz Mefalsim. To help ensure security in the area, Israel is considering the creation of a buffer zone within the Strip that would be closed to Palestinian civilians and buildings. The U.S. has indicated, however, that it would not look favorably on such a step.

Avraham Shalev explains why it’s necessary:

The creation of a security buffer along the Gaza-Israel border serves the purpose of destroying Hamas’s infrastructure and eliminating the threat to Israel. . . . Some Palestinian structures are practically on the border, and only several hundred yards away from Israeli communities such as Kfar Aza, Kerem Shalom, and Sderot. The Palestinian terrorists that carried out the murderous October 7 attacks crossed into Israel from many of these border-adjacent areas. Hamas officials have already vowed that “we will do this again and again. The al-Aqsa Flood [the October 7th massacre] is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth.”

In 2018 and 2019, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad organized mass marches towards the Israeli border with the goal of breaking into Israel. Billed by Palestinians as “the Great March of Return,” its name reveals its purpose—invasion. Although the marches were supposedly non-violent, they featured largescale attacks on Israeli forces as well as arson and damage to Israeli agriculture and civilian communities. Moreover, the October 7 massacre was made possible by Hamas’s prepositioning military hardware along the border under false cover of civilian activity. The security perimeter is intended to prevent a reprise of these events.

Shalev goes on to dismantle the arguments put forth about why international law prohibits Israel from creating the buffer zone. He notes:

By way of comparison, following the defeat of Nazi Germany, France occupied the Saar [River Valley] directly until 1947 and then indirectly until reintegration with Germany in 1957, and the Allied occupation of Berlin continued until the reunification of Germany in 1990. The Allies maintained their occupation long after the fall of the Nazi regime, due to the threat of Soviet invasion and conquest of West Berlin, and by extension Western Europe.

Read more at Kohelet

More about: Gaza Strip, Gaza War 2023, International Law, Israeli Security