A Bard of the Diaspora https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/arts-culture/2022/01/a-bard-of-the-diaspora/

January 21, 2022 | Jake Marmer
About the author:

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.

Read more on Tablet: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/yiddish-bard-daniel-kahn