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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Menachem Mendl Hurvits

Menachem Mendl Hurvits

Born 1881 in Libavitsh (Lyubavitchi), Mogilev Gubernya, Belorus [now in Smolensk Oblast, Russia]. Spent almost his entire life in Warsaw. 1939--remained there.

To be named Hurvits and to be seen out of the hundreds of thousands of Hurvitses which the Jewish folk possesses, that is no easy task. Nor is it easy to be one Menachem Mendl among the millions of Menachem Mendls within the Jewish folk. To be named Menachem Mendl Hurvits and still to be noticed--only Menachem Mendl Hurvits could do that. Truth be told, he didn’t really stand out to the “Jewish people,” as it were; but for the Jewish people of writers and journalists, he was seen clear as day, despite his many, many flaws (zibn un ibetsik khesroynes).

First of all, he was a perpetual bachelor and he wasn’t exactly in the prime of youth (bokhershaft). He was capricious, prodigiously poor and it’s hard enough tolerating a rich man’s caprices, let alone a pauper’s. Second, Menachem Mendl Hurvits was very well educated in the sciences (ale visenshaftn) and he spent his entire life among people who may not have drank as deeply from the spring of knowledge as they ought to have--at best, many of them merely dipped their tongue in the water . And, in such a society, a person who knows everything may well feel a little uncomfortable. Third, Menachem Mendl Hurvits’ voice was as hoarse as a crow every day of his life and he spoke very loudly, which is to say that he did not so much speak as saw with a great hacksaw, which was, itself, old, rusty, and hoarse. I can’t say that it didn’t get on your nerves. To the contrary, it got on your nerves like a hoarse and rusty saw. Fourth, Menachem Mendl Hurvits was a bit disheveled in appearance: rarely shaved and with these great, bulging eyes which might jump out at you any second and start to crawl all over you like those creatures which are simply called--eyes...and they don’t walk on legs, no they just roll, and roll, and roll. What number are we on? Four. Fifth, Menachem Mendl Hurvits was a proofreader all his days (kol-yomev). And not just any proofreader. He was the kind of proofreader who, if only we had a few hundred more like him, would have changed the face of Yiddish literature entirely. He was a born proofreader. He loves to catch a mistake. It is quite probably that constant strain in search of errors that caused his eyes to bulge such as they did. It seems as if he has been a proofreader since the invention of the printing press. He smelled (es hot fun im geveyet) of Johannes Gutenberg and incunables, of the first bibles and Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Florence, of Elye the Bachelor (Elye Bokher, Elia Levita), a grammarian of the same sort and caliber as Menachem Mendl the Bachelor*... Sixth, Menachem Mendl (We used to call him by his two first names and everyone understood who we meant, for Menachem Mendl was the preeminent (הידוע) Menachem Mendl) was a poet with a good bit of poetic talent. And seventh, Menachem Mendl bore an eternal poetic wound: decades back, a volume of his poetry, ready for the presses, was lost. And although he had remarkable memory, and although he easily could have reconstructed the volume, he never did. For him, it was a kind of personal affront by the fates, and he never tried his luck again. It was like a man who loses his bride and--although the death of a wife is, this is written somewhere in the Talmud, no worse than hitting your funny bone, sharp but brief--swears never to marry again. Menachem Mendl’s lost manuscript was, as it were, his bride. He swore to mourn her forever. He took every opportunity to remind you of one of those lost poems and crow it out for you, but he would never again write those poems down. I do not want to say that the loss of a volume of Menachem Mendl Hurvits’ poetry has orphaned (faryosemt) Yiddish lyric poetry, but it would be better if we had it. His poems--and a few were well known and Menachem Mendl wrote a few new ones--were very melodic, and they had a leg and an arm and some sense and a properly poetic feeling.

Menachem Mendl loved to read poetry and he loved to play the poetry connoisseur (meyvn fun a gut lid). But before he could share his poetic expertise, he had to first share his opinion of the proofreading, then he would enumerate the poem’s idiosyncrasies (literarishe kuryozn), and only then would discuss its poetic worth. He always worked as a copy-editor for newspapers. And he suffered for it. More than once, he stopped the rotary printing presses (rotatsyons-mashin) due to a misprint. The whole edition could miss the train out of the city for all he cared, as long as there were no mistakes. The perfect newspaper will arrive tomorrow, but the stigma of a flawed newspaper lasts forever. “In the beginning was the word” says the gospel. The gospel of a good copy-editor asks “With a mistake or without one?” People say that he died at his desk in Warsaw. As long as a word of Yiddish was printed in Warsaw--until Hitler came in 1939--Menachem Mendl corrected it. Hundreds of immaculate Yiddish and Hebrew books stand as his silent monument, silent and nameless. Perhaps a collection of his lyric verse will come yet.


*-Bokher means Bachelor.

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