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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Shmaryahu Imber

Shmaryahu Imber

1868 in Zlotshev (Złoczew, Zolochiv), since 1914: Vienna, Karaoke (Krakow), Eretz-Israel.

The father of Shmul Yankev Imber, who, while no more than five years my senior, was nonetheless my poetic teacher, a sort of poetic father to me. It would logically follow then that Shmarayahu Imber, Shmul Yankev’s father, would be my grandfather, my poetic grandfather...but that is not the case, it is rather, so to speak, a bit of a prank, and you really could play a prank on old Imber. All told, he wrote very little. Almost nothing.

Famous neighbors he had.

His brother was Naftali Herz Imber, the Hebrew poet, the author of “Hatikvah,” the world traveller and the almost prophet, the man who would allow the friendly blokes in bars to buy him glass after glass of liquor only to, later in the night, throw a glass back in the face of one of those crude boys with a few bitter truths to boot. He was a kind of feral prophet and, so people say, the prototype for [Israel] Zangwill’s King of the Schnorrers.”

On one side there was his son and on the other his brother--it was hard for him to have a literary career of his own.

Nevertheless he would sometimes write a story or perhaps an article, imitating his son but doing so entirely unknowingly, and he wouldn’t say a word about it at home. Or else he might edit the occasional newspaper. Most of his work was in Hebrew.

And when people talked about Imber literature, they were invariably talking about either his son or his brother. Once--it was in Vienna, in 1913--I was standing in a loge shoulder to shoulder with Shmaryahu Imber during the conclusion of the Zionist Congress. It was right after Bialik’s speech and the entire audience had stood up to sing “Hatikvah.” A crowd of 2000 people. And Shmaryahu Imber (upon whom fortune had bestowed the most poetic first name of all the Imbers) simply couldn’t resist whispering in my ear “And who would believe that here in the crowd is standing a quiet Jew, who was this poem’s first ever reader? And that he really didn’t much care for it…”

But most splendid of all things in Shmaryahu Imber’s life was his impoverished little teacher’s house, the house of a Baron Hirsch Foundation school director in the Galician town of Azyerne (Jezierzany, Ozeryany). It was no mere house, it was a shard of literature. M[oyshe] L[eyb] Halpern was from the area, A[vrom] M[oyshe] Fuks was in fact an Azyerner. But above all, it was the house of Shmaryahu Imber. Three beautiful girls lived there, Tsipore and Khana and Adele, and there was also a boy, Izye, who went on to become a university lecturer in Italy, Dr. Isidore Imber. Everything was full of wit and humor and poetry, and if a good, new poem was ever discovered, the entire house would stop in the middle of the day--they’d even get up in the middle of the night--just to listen to the new poem. On the tidy bridge there, fresh copies of the Lemberger Tagblat (Lemberg Daily Paper) were always spread about, and old Mrs. Imber--her son, the poet Shmul Yankev Imber, immortalized her in verse with his line “your mother is a quiet dove” (dayn muter iz a shtile toyb)--would play a prank of her own with these newspapers. She would always say that by spreading the newspapers all over the bridge, she was fulfilling a commandment written in that very paper, for there it was, printed in black white: “read and spread the Tagblat”...

I once spent a few days as a guest in that splendid and poetic, poor little teacher’s house of Shmaryahu Imber’s. I was seventeen years old at the time and as shy as a seven year-old. The house, which drank a great deal of tea, simply couldn’t understand why I didn’t drink even a drop of the stuff. Shmaryahu Imber was the first to discover the cause: the young man was too embarrassed to ask for sugar--indeed he was. I can still see him clearly, a gaunt man, a short, prickly, salt and pepper beard, eyes full of irony and contempt, so much contempt, but a contempt he would never give voice to, for his own flesh-and-blood were already quarreling with half the world out of sheer pride.

Another manifestation of Shmaryahu Imber’s house--which was so intellectual that even the cat would yawn at a bad poem and lick itself with joy for a good one--existed later on in Vienna, but Vienna was no Azyerne, and yet another in Krakow, but there Imber was already living with his son-in-law Avrom Zeynfeld.

Now but a trace of all that remains. And from all of Shmaryahu Imber’s writings, only a few brochures in Yiddish and Hebrew.


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