Substrate Language or “Two-Shaded Blood”? Avot Yeshurun Writes Poetry in Yiddish

טיוטה לשיר קבר קובנר, 1988-1987, מתוך ארכיון אבות ישורון (409) במכון גנזים עש אשר ברש

Reading in Avot Yeshurun’s poetry often makes us feel as though we read some kind of translation of a hidden source – an unknown, inaccessible, or perhaps even nonexistent one. Usually, the source seems Yiddish, but in other cases it appears to be in another language, such as Arabic or Polish.

The translational character of Yeshurun’s poetry is manifested in four different aspects – two of them are evident in his published poems, and the other two mainly in his archive: (1) Adaptive translation of letters and statements by family members mostly; (2) Writing a word or a sentence in a language other than Hebrew and providing a close Hebrew translation, an approach inspired perhaps by rabbinical literature or Heder teaching methods. The translation is not always accurate, and sometimes the text in the other language is interpreted through the Hebrew; (3) Translations of poems by others; (4) Yiddish versions of poems published in Hebrew – as discussed in my lecture to the group.

The versions retained in the archive belong to two divergent periods: the 1930s, about a decade after Yeshurun’s immigration to Palestine, and the 1980s, his final years. In the early versions, I find that the goal is, “to clarify their complex language”, as he wrote to Dov Sadan about one of them, trying to meet the constraints of “Shlonsky’s style”. His motivation in the subsequent versions is unclear, but they appear to demonstrate his poetic statements about the need to write in “two-shaded blood”–Yiddish and Hebrew–or “to create a single word out of the two words [in both languages]”. As a rule, the Yiddish versions are indeed clearer than the Hebrew ones, but the fusing of Hebrew and Yiddish one into the other, one against the other, is what makes Yeshurun’s poetics unique.
The only poem for which several complete Yiddish versions have been retained is “Kovner’s Grave” (All His Poems, vol. 4, pp. 95-96), and I have used it to demonstrate most of my arguments. On the one hand, I have shown how the Yiddish version helps us understand the Hebrew version in several linguistic areas. On the other hand, it appears that even the Yiddish version often diverges from Yiddish language conventions, and its Hebrew component is more extensive than usual. The conclusion is that the Yiddish in Yeshurun’s poetry is not a “substrate language” in the classical sense, nor does it play a role similar to its role in the Revival literature. Its importance lies not only with remaining under the surface, but also in the tension created between it and Hebrew, and their mutual influence.
I have also pointed out several texts by Kovner that are fundamental to Yeshurun’s poem, and reading them may perhaps explain why this poem in particular has been “selected” for experimentation in bilingual writing. It also appears that the source of one of the inscrutable lines in the poem lies in an image from a letter Yeshurun wrote to Kovner, an image that has appeared at least four more times in Yeshurun’s works written between that letter and this poem. Ultimately, the Yiddish versions suggest that we rethink the poetic language in many of Yeshurun’s poems: bilingual poetry, self-translation (of what source?) or hybrid-language poetry.

Photo: Draft for the poem “Kovner’s Grave” (1987-1988), from the Avot Yeshurun Archive (409), Asher Barash Gnazim Institute

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