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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Itshe Meyer Vaysenberg (Isaac Meier Weissenberg)

Itshe Meyer Vaysenberg

Born 1881 in Zhelekhov (Żelechów). In Warsaw since 1904. Short trip to America. Died in late 1938.

For thirty-four years, from 1904 to 1938, there existed in Jewish Warsaw a strange One-Man-Organization by the name of Itshe Meyer Vaysenberg. In one way or another--something was always going on with Vaysenberg. Look, he’s just published a new book of short stories and you simply have to have an opinion about it, for Vaysenberg’s writing was always changing, even back when he could hardly write a bit of belles lettres. And he never could write essays, although he wrote great masses of them. And look, now he’s editing a new journal, now he’s discovered a new talent, now he’s written a chapter into someone else’s book and it’s caused quite the stir. Now he’s causing a scandal over there. Now he’s gotten sick and it’s tugging on the heartstrings of his hundred opponents--who aren’t really his opponents and in fact he’s their opponent--and now they’re all interested in helping him. Now he’s taken money from someone and cursed him out with some real doozies, and, look!, now he’s gone and died right in the middle of this mess, despite the fact that he had the constitution of an ox. Not physically of course, but internally. Externally, he appeared boney, gaunt, and rather small. But as soon as he shook your hand, you could feel in his grip that Vaysenberg had the strength of an iron typewriter (mashin.)

He had a Mongolian (mongolish) appearance and a wind beaten skin, with little eyes and a jutting chin--and he had a bit of a stutter, in the way that a peasant stutters, speaking word by word, a gold piece (rendl) for every word, for one has to be careful with words, considering each one ten times over before allowing it to be uttered. And when he spoke a word which did not particularly please him, he would immediately snatch it back up, and when he spoke a word which very much pleased him, he would start laughing up his sleeve, a kind of snickering, a distant inheritance, perhaps, from Genghis Khan’s horde (desyatkes)...*

Vaysenberg was Polish and he made a whole song and dance about it, only it was a strange kind of song and dance, like a polka set to a dirge (er hot fun zayn poylish-yidishkayt gemakht a gantsn tsimes, nor es iz epes a modner tsimes gevezn, epes a gezaltsener un a gefeferter tsimes.) His performance didn’t interest a soul, but that hardly stopped him from shoving it in your face.** No Polish-Jewish writer had the faintest interest in or feelings about a Polish-Jewish race, at most, someone might crack the occasional joke about a Litvak; but to wage a holy war for Polish-Jewishness? It never even crossed a writer’s mind, save for Vaysenberg. Every Yiddish writer speaks primarily in the dialect of the nation or city of their birth and every such writer endeavors--as much as is possible--to reconcile their dialect with others. In this way, a kind of Yiddish literary dialect has been created. But Vaysenberg wanted not only not to forget his Zhelikhov dialect, but to incessantly enrich it with invented words. Instead of saying forshlog (proposal) he indulged himself in saying furshlug, instead of ikh (I), yekh--and, no less, he insisted that the entire world ought to adopt his orthography and his pronunciation. Something was grumbling in him and he didn’t know exactly what. After [Y. L.] Peretz’s Hasidic romanticism, [Sholem] Asch’s earthy romanticism, and [Hersh Dovid] Nomberg’s tattered souls, he brought true naturalism into our literature--true naturalism, brutal and instinctual. As an antidote that’s perfectly fine, but that alone cannot sustain a literature. As it happens, Vaysenberg was himself a bit of a mystic. And so he raged not only at the world around him, but also at the world within him. Life and literature caught him up in far too many tangles and he lacked the intellectual scissors necessary to cut himself loose. Nu, he spent 34 years in those tangles, until death came and untangled all his webs.. However cruel he was to others--he reserved the worst of it for himself…

He aspired to justice and truth, but he wanted truth as his sole property, and justice the province of his own court. The road was hard and rocky and led, in the end, to nowhere. He lived in such perpetual want that he hungered only for the recognition of his grievances. One morning he could have signed a deal with a newspaper for the publication of one of his novels (and his novels and stories have, as of late, been pamphlets--not literature), and that same afternoon taken some poor, provincial newcomer’s last five zlotys to print some entirely graphomaniacal exercise in verse they wrote in his journal “Our Hope” (inzer hofning.) And he was entirely incapable of recognizing the injustice. Somewhere in the depths of his albeit crude, but nonetheless complex soul, there was rooted the conviction of a kind of mission, one which he could never articulate in human language or logic. But, somewhere deep within him, it was there. Perhaps he was the Amos of our century…

People say that a few days before his death, he called upon one of his sworn enemies to inform everyone that he--Vaysenberg--asked for forgiveness and forgave. Finally, on his deathbed he had discovered the simple blade with which to cut the knot of his life. He left behind a four-hundred page volume of exemplary stories (it still needs to be compiled) and an unwritten novel, the life story of one of the most interesting Yiddish writers, the Don Quixote of our Literature.


*- The term desyatke (דעסיאטקע), from the Russian десятка, appears to refer to 10-man units of Mongolian warriors.

**- This sequence is an extended play on the Yiddish expression makhn a tsimes (to make a fuss.) A tsimes is a kind of sweet-savory stew. Ravitsh comments that Vaysenberg’s proverbial tsimes was odd because it was seasoned with salt and pepper--perhaps best understood as an excess of lachrymose seriousness and fiery conviction. I opted to attempt to follow the word play in English, with mixed results through the roughly analogous idiom “to make a song and dance.”

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