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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Shmul Yankev Imber

Shmul Yankev Imber

1889--born in Sasov (Sasiv), Galicia, lived in Lemberg (Lviv), Vienna, New York, Kroke (Krakow), and again in Lemberg. Travels: 1911 Russia; 1912 Eretz-Israel; 1920 America; 1939--Tragic news about him. However, he survived and was active in Lemberg. Since June 1941--who knows.

Imber was my literary teacher. The strictest of all my teachers. Had I not already had a vegetarian soul in 1910, I really would have murdered him for the sadistic operations he performed on my firstborn poems. He was one of the greatest interpreters of poetry in Yiddish literature. It was his uncompromising belief that literature ought to consist solely of poet-experts and not--of readers. Therefore it was dangerous to give him the task of publishing an anthology. But he did it.

When Imber, my teacher, left Lemberg for Eretz-Israel for a few months in 1912, I seized the opportunity, the freedom, to publish my first chapbook. Just as the last sheet was being printed, Imber suddenly returned. White as chalk and terrified of my teacher, I stood in the corner of the printing shop while Imber’s steady hand corrected my firstborn poems. My head was spinning and it seemed as if all of my once dislocated limbs were being popped back into place. If I was ever in my life brutal to a young writer, it was in my reaction to the surgical brutality which Imber showed to my firstborn poems; I acted like that corporal who exacts his revenge on the recruit: Here, have a taste of this!

Imber was a Galitsianer. Having lived in so many worlds, even after five years living in New York, he finally returned to the city of his firstborn book “What I Sing and Say” (Vos ikh zog un zing), which was and remains one of the most tender and unknown books in the whole of Yiddish lyricism.

Imber was a nephew on his father’s side of the creator of Hatikvah, the proud king of the Jewish poet-beggars Naftali Herz Imber, so Zionism was, as it were, in his blood.* It was his inheritance. And he never liberated himself from a principled Hebraism, although he was, in fact, thoroughly Yiddish--no, that’s not all. In fact, he was Yiddish-Polish. In general he had a truly pathological talent for language learning. He genuinely mastered the Polish languages, in which he wrote polemics against anti-semitic idiots, no worse than those by the Polish masters.

Imber is somewhat marginal in Yiddish lyricisms--everything is in Galicia, with Galitsianer complexes and Galitsianer fantasies, it’s as tragic as a stork standing on the still-standing chimney of a charred provincial house, yet again weaving its nest in lonely Spring...He didn’t try to communicate with the larger movements of Yiddish poetry or literature. Like so many tender lyricists--which he was--he was blessed (or just the opposite?...) with a polemical spirit as sharp as a tack. He often tried to puncture a path for himself in Yiddish literature, but in the field of Yiddish literature, one must either clear out a path, or smile through to a path...Imber could do neither.

25 years of Imber poetry!

30 years of Imber poetry!

Not even a breeze moved in the forest of Yiddish newspapers.

Yet, in that wonderfully ripe early autumn of his poetic development, Imber sang:

In middle day--come dreams, in middle night--long strolls,

A life without account--though All votes in single voice

And still I am the same: through windows and through thresholds

Love comes here to remain, cruelty comes and dissipates to noise.

Inmitn tog--khaloymes, inmitn nakht--shpatsirn,

A lebn on a khezhbm--khotsh alts ineynem shtimt--

Ikh bin nokh alts derzelber: durkh fentster un durkh tirn

Kumt libe af tsu blaybn, kumt rishes un tseshvimt.

Neither Yiddish criticism, nor the grateful Yiddish readership will raise Imber to the height of Yiddish lyricisms to which he absolutely belongs--if relatively overshadowed. It will be done by the Yiddish Franz Schubert, who will come and so completely transform Imber’s poetry into music, just as the first Schuber did with Heine’s.

It is my great fortune that 27 years ago I had the soul of a vegetarian. Otherwise I would have murdered Imber for his cruelty to my firstborn poems. I did write more than one brutal poem solely to spite my poet-teacher’s musical and too-tender ear.

I can still see him, his boyish figure, even at forty, his always smiling, almost mischievous, eyes, his tall, pale forehead, his bald at thirty head, his full mouth, full of light and kisses for the whole, whole world.


*- I believe he was a paternal great-nephew, specifically.

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