A Bard of the Diaspora

Jan. 21 2022

In 2016, Daniel Kahn translated Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” into Yiddish; he occasionally sings it in his concerts, where he weaves together English, German, and Yiddish in the many songs he has written or adapted. The German-based, Detroit-born Jewish singer recently spoke with the poetry critic Jake Marmer about his new album, Word Beggar, the title of which is drawn from a piercing 1947 poem by the author, playwright, and poet Aaron Zeitlin. Kahn translated that poem, titled “Six Lines,” and set it to music:

I know, this world will never find me necessary,
me, a lyric beggar in this Jewish cemetery.
who needs a song—let alone in Yiddish?
the only beauty in this world is in hopelessness & pain,
and godliness is only found in that which won’t remain,
and the only revolt is in submitting.

Despite the song’s despairing tone, Marmer finds a hopeful and redemptive quality in Kahn’s work, while Zeitlin’s poem evokes scenes from Marmer’s own childhood in Ukraine:

Though brevity is the central characteristic of the poem—as underscored by the title itself—it packs enough heartbreak to embrace a century’s worth of Jewish history. Who in the world would “find” the poem’s beggar “necessary”? If anything, it is the opposite—the beggar is usually seen as a sore thumb, a parasite, who continues to take without giving back. This, of course, would be the view of a culture that measures a person’s worth through its “necessity” or usefulness. Thankfully, other paradigms exist too, and the poem is a yearning for these other worlds.

As a child in Ukraine, I frequently encountered scores of folks asking for alms at the cemetery’s gate, perhaps because it is there that one’s sense of humanity is heightened by the proximity to one’s own mortality, with feelings of loss sharpening one’s need to do what’s right. In that way, to be a poet, especially a Yiddish poet, is not terribly different from being a “beggar.” Poetry is not “necessary” in any kind of a utilitarian sense, but our humanity hinges upon its existence.

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More about: Jewish music, Poetry, Yiddish

 

The End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the Rise of the Arab-Israeli Coalition

Nov. 30 2022

After analyzing the struggle between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors since 1949, Dan Schueftan explains the current geopolitical alignment and what it means for Jerusalem:

Using an outdated vocabulary of Middle Eastern affairs, recent relations between Israel and most Arab states are often discussed in terms of peace and normalization. What is happening recently is far more significant than the willingness to live together and overshadow old grievances and animosities. It is about strategic interdependence with a senior Israeli partner. The historic all-Arab coalition against Israel has been replaced by a de-facto Arab-Israeli coalition against the radical forces that threaten them both. Iran is the immediate and outstanding among those radicals, but Erdogan’s Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria—and, in a different way, its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood—are not very far behind.

For Israel, the result of these new alignments is a transformational change in its regional standing, as well as a major upgrade of its position on the global stage. In the Middle East, Israel can, for the first time, act as a full-fledged regional power. . . . On the international scene, global powers and other states no longer have to weigh the advantages of cooperation with Israel against its prohibitive costs in “the Arab World. . . . By far the most significant effect of this transformation is on the American strategic calculus of its relations with Israel.

In some important ways, then, the “New Middle East” has arrived. Not, of course, in the surreal Shimon Peres vision of regional democracy, peace, and prosperity, but in terms of a balance of power and hard strategic realities that can guardrail a somewhat less unstable and dangerous region, where the radicals are isolated and the others cooperate to keep them at bay.

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More about: Abraham Accords, Israel-Arab relations, Middle East, Shimon Peres, U.S.-Israel relationship