АНТОЛОГИЯ РУССКОЙ ОЗЁРНОЙ ПОЭТИЧЕСКОЙ ШКОЛЫ СКАЧАТЬ

Лев Бердников

The Learned Jew. Translated by Nora Favorov

Leon Iosifovich Mandelstam (1819-1889) was the first Jew to graduate from a Russian university and to publish a collection of poetry in Russian. He translated the works of Alexander Pushkin into Hebrew, and the renowned twentieth-century poet Osip Mandelstam was his great nephew. But these impressive facts only begin to tell his story.

In his youth, Mandelstam did something that was utterly unprecedented for a Jew: he left his father’s home and set out for Moscow to study at the university. On the road to Moscow he met a cantor who, upon learning of the purpose of his journey asked, “Why go there? You could be the first among your own people, but you are leaving everything behind to be the last among Christian scholars.” “It is written in the Talmud that it is better to be the tail among lions than the head among foxes!” our hero parried.

The cantor was certainly not the only Jew to feel baffled by the actions of this young man. Most distressed of all was his own family, who perceived the step he was taking as a step away from their Jewish world. “Your father gave you clothing, and you are going to adopt different dress,” his brother appealed to the defector. “Your mother played with your curls, and you are going to cut them off. You will be speaking a language that we do not understand, and you will write in a hand that we do not know….”

This is not to say that Leon came from the most orthodox of families. He was born in the town of Zhagory in Vilna Province located near the border with Courland (a territory that comprised parts of modern day Lithuania and Latvia). Zhagory (present day ?agar?) was an important commercial center with a population of 3,000, half of whom were of Jewish descent. The ideas of the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment, and Moses Mendelssohn, its founder, which found lively and striking expression in the German Hebrew-language periodical Ha-Me’assef, fell on fertile ground here. The population of Zhagory, which was eager to take part in this enlightenment, were quite carried away by this periodical.

Leon’s father, Joseph (Iosif) Mandelstam, who was born circa 1780, was an erudite and energetic man. An eminent merchant, his business took him far and wide through Russia, Poland, and Germany. He was knowledgeable in the Talmud and Jewish literature and was no stranger to Enlightenment (Haskalah) ideals. Joseph saw that Leon was given not only a traditional Jewish education, but a general one as well, including foreign languages and European literature. Leon himself later wrote, “Day and night I studied the Talmud, and by the age of 12 I had earned myself the epithet of “iluy” (prodigy) and symptoms of tuberculosis. Thanks to my father and older brothers I read a great deal by the followers of Mendelssohn and, later, the philosophy of Maimonides and Spinoza.” Along with Hebrew he mastered German and French and even tried his hand at writing in these languages in the spirit of the romanticism, which was popular at the time.

At the age of 16 he began to immerse himself in Russian and mastered it so well that after a few years he was able to compose not only prose, but poetry in Russian. He demonstrated such an envious mastery of versification that he was able to contend with the intricate rhythms of the Russian sonnet. His poetic experimentation resulted in an entire book-length manuscript, which he took with him wherever he went.

Mandelstam’s self-education was interrupted for a time by his early marriage. Leon’s 17-year-old bride (the choice of his father, since it was he who insisted on an early marriage) belonged to an entirely different world. In the home of Leon’s father-in-law in the shtetl of Kedainiai in Kovno Province, where young Mandelstam moved after the wedding, militant orthodoxy reigned supreme. His “extra-curricular” activities – reading anything other than the Talmud – were viewed as blasphemous. Leon was not able to stay in this house for long. Soon he was again under the paternal roof and shortly thereafter divorced his wife.

Leon was consumed by an impulse to defend and enlighten his people, the great majority of whom, alas, lived in total alienation from contemporary European culture. This sense of a truly messianic purpose in life overcame him very early. At the age of 20 he committed his innermost feelings in this regard to paper.

Here I now stand – a wild, strong, free son of nature, full of love for my country and the language of my native land, but miserable for the misery of my coreligionist brethren. Their close-mindedness, which undermines their abilities, enrages me, but I am bound to them by ties of blood and a sense of their misfortunes. My life’s goal is to exonerate them before society and help them to be worthy of this exoneration.

A thirst for the most diverse knowledge provoked in him the desire for a systematic education, which would only be possible far from hearth and home, in the capital. One is reminded of “The Lottery Ticket,” a story by Sholom Aleichem in which a young Jewish man leaves the shtetl and goes to study in the big city. The story has a tragic ending: in order to get ahead in life, the educated Jew renounces the faith of his ancestors, for which his family curses him and considers him dead. But this was not the case here. Leon not only did not betray his faith, but centered all his aspirations around the Jews, making his concern for his coreligionists the meaning of his life. Here is the “Parting Thought” he dedicates to his native Zhagory the night before his departure:

 


Paternal hearth, sleep, for your friend,


Your genius watches over you;


For you alone, you can depend,


He left to join the fray and hue,


For you he travels hills and narrows,


For you he faces fortune’s arrows,


No other purpose drives him forward


You are his glory, his reward.

 

Mandelstam managed to evade “fortune’s arrows,” indeed Russian Fortuna clearly favored him. He moved to Vilna in order to take an examination at the provincial gymnasium to demonstrate he had had an equivalent education. It turned out to be no calamity that his first attempt did not succeed, as his second one bore fruit. The superintendent of the Vilna school district wrote about him to the Rector of Moscow University:


On Mandelstam’s second attempt, the council of the Vilna Gymnasium, although it does not recognize in him knowledge corresponding to a full course of gymnasium study, finds his knowledge sufficient for entry into the university… Based on this finding and bearing in mind the natural ability of the aforementioned Mandelstam, who constitutes an exceptional phenomenon among his coreligionists, his love for scholarship and extraordinary gift for languages and literature…, I have decided to send him to Moscow University as an auditor.

By order of the Minister of Education, Count Sergei Uvarov, Mandelstam was admitted to attend university lectures “without further examinations.”

Rather strange, is it not? The Jew fell somewhat short on the examination, and yet the superintendent gave him a diploma and, on top of that, wrote him a letter of recommendation. His Excellency the Minister immediately enrolled him as a student. Somehow this preferential treatment is hard to reconcile with the Jewish quota system we usually associate with tsarist Russia.

Mandelstam would ultimately live to see such restrictive (not to say Judophobic) measures. But then, in the thirties and forties of the nineteenth century, Jews were hardly clamoring to enter universities – they kept to their shtetls fully walled off from Russian life, language, and culture. For this reason, the government’s educational policy toward them was quite different from what it would later be. Blaming Jewish separatism on the Talmud and rabbinical “fanaticism,” the authorities proclaimed their main objective to be the moral and religious transformation of the Jewish nation – basically making the empire’s Jewish population more like its Christian one. For this it would be necessary to create a network of schools and public colleges in which, together with Judaism (and a modernized Judaism at that, since the goal was to eliminate the Talmud from the curriculum, although study of the Bible in its German translation and with Mendelssohn’s commentaries was highly recommended), general subjects would be taught, including mathematics, physics, rhetoric, geography, foreign languages (Russian first and foremost), Russian history, and literature.

The Minister of Education, Count Uvarov, began to bring this reform to life. It was during his tenure that the semi-official division of Jews into “useful” and “useless” began to emerge. The maskilim  were included among the “useful”: it was on them that the government of Nicholas I was counting. Minister Uvarov, unable to find a “Russian Mendelssohn,” recruited the German Jew Max Lilienthal to become involved in Jewish education in Russia and corresponded with a number of Western European Jews in order to “import” teachers for Jewish schools. One can only imagine that it must have been music to his ears to hear that within the borders of the Russian Empire, in Vilna, there was a Jew seeking to enroll in Moscow University. This is why Mandelstam’s enrollment in Moscow University (and later in St. Petersburg University) was worthy of a ministerial decree. Furthermore, Uvarov kept close track of Leon’s academic progress.

Being, by nature, a rather complex person, Leon combined a propensity for scholarship with poetic dreaminess. Soon after his arrival in Moscow he made his debut as a writer, publishing – under the patronage of an unknown sponsor – a book entitled The Verse of L.I. Mandelstam (Moscow, 1840). If for no other reason, this book is of interest because it is the first collection of Russian poetry published by a Jew.

A letter survives from Mandelstam to a certain Alexander Vasilyevich (could this possibly be the mysterious sponsor?), in which Leon reveals the book’s creative impulse, its goal and purpose. He writes of the imperfections of his work and asks critics to point out to him “errors of expression, meter, and word,” among other things. But the inspiration of this work is exceptionally significant. Mandelstam writes, “I look at my verse as a translation from Hebrew, a conceptual and literary translation…; the gloomy, martyred specter of a disembodied spirit, like Judaism, weaves its way through my writing…. You will find here that fervent passion, those anguished sighs, that are characteristic of “the world’s unfortunate outcasts.”

The creators of today’s Russian-language Short Jewish Encyclopedia took these words literally and concluded that the verse was actually translated from Hebrew. In fact Mandelstam, who was completely fluent in Russian, had something else in mind: he was referring to that special Jewish spirit that imbues the collection’s poems (indeed, the author calls them “the fruits of my soul”). In so doing he underscores that his book does not so much belong to Russian literature as to Russian-language Jewish culture. In this he could not have failed to see himself as an heir to the Jewish writer Lev Nevakhovich, the author of Lament of the Daughter of Judah (1803), which was written in Russian in defense of his fellow Jews. Summarizing his own work, Mandelstam wrote, “This composition, as a rarity on the part of the Russian Jew, can serve as a pretext for various conversations about my nation, and, if possible, lend my coreligionists a few words of defense and comfort!” He angrily condemns here those Russian novelists and satirists who strive to “debase the Jew in society’s eyes.” Suffice it to recall the caricatures of Jews in the works of Nikolai Gnedich, Faddey Bulgarin, Ivan Lazhechnikov, and even Nikolai Gogol to understand that he had every basis for making such accusations.

But let us turn to the book itself. In a foreword “To the Readers” it is emphasized that the “author was born of Russian Jews and did not have the good fortune to be given a plastically-Russian upbringing.” It is also explained that the poems were taken from the author’s manuscript (and that they represent only a small portion of his work) and in their very order within the book “can be seen some sort of connection that, perhaps, will be entirely familiar to his relatives and closest friends.” It is obvious that the thread that connects these texts is the author himself. So it was Mandelstam’s pen that for the first time in Russian culture turned a Jew into the lyrical protagonist of a book and elevated himself into the realm of the aesthetic. The titles of his works (“To the Motherland,” “To the Singer,” “Reality,” “Dream, “Yearning,” etc.) lend them a confessionary tone.

 


Have not I had all a heart could command,


Love of family and friends in my father’s abode?


What is it that lures me to venture the road,


And pulls me away to an alien land?


For flowers of childhood, so to my heart near,


In alien regions hot tears I’ll be shedding.


Will they keep from wilting till homeward I’m heading,


The roses I love in the place I hold dear?

 

The emotions of a protagonist torn from his Jewish environment are natural and deeply felt, inasmuch as they have been keenly felt in the author’s own life. The poems suggestive of his time in Moscow are also emphatically biographical.

 


Oh, center of Russia! My city of dreams!


Will you take to your breast a poor outcast like me?


A true child of our land, could I ere to you be?


Your son stands in awe of your beauty’s bright gleam,


His heart aches, it races, as hit by a blow,


He thinks of his home and the tears start to flow.

 

At times the author strikes his readers with unexpected images that were clearly ahead of their time. In his programmatic poem “The Poet,” in the midst of developing the traditional theme of the creator and the ignorance of the mob, he suddenly exclaims:

 


The lilly of Eden’s no good for exchange!


The scent of a color, the crowd can’t conceive,


The sigh of the poet, its ear can’t perceive,


And to heaven’s son, the earthly is strange!

 

In the words “the scent of a color” is captured the entire unique artistic world of the poet. Such a metaphor comes straight from the world of the twentieth century’s Symbolists.

In general, what sets Mandelstam’s poems apart are a diversity of meters and, as a rule, rich, precise rhymes, which reveal him to be a skilled versifier. And although his experiments can on occasion feel forced or stray toward the poetic cliché, for a young author writing in a second language, the results are astonishing.

The book was published when Leon was already a student. It is interesting that Uvarov kept constant watch over Mandelstam. Consider the following: in 1843 he invited Mandelstam to take part in the work of the Rabbinical Commission. One cannot help but smile imagining the scene: a student, still wet behind the ears, sits at the same table with recognized religious leaders (among whom was the renowned Menachem Mendel Schneersohn) and contributes to decisions about the most important issues facing educated Russian Jewry!

In 1844, after a brilliant student career, Leon graduated from St. Petersburg University and defended a dissertation entitled “The Biblical State.” He was given the degree Candidate of Philosophy (the approximate equivalent of a PhD) in literature. With Uvarov’s patronage, he set out to continue his research abroad by studying cuneiform tablets. He not only mastered the mysterious writings of the ancient Sumerians, but several European languages as well (including English, in which he penned lively feuilletons). In 1846, when he returned home to St. Petersburg, he intended to publish a Hebrew-language journal for Jewish intellectuals modeled after Ha-Me’assef. The journal, however, never got off the ground, possibly because the St. Petersburg Jewish community was only in its infancy and did not have sufficient collective funds to support such an endeavor. Another probable factor was that Mandelstam, after returning to the capital, was appointed by Uvarov to the position of “Learned Jew” within the Ministry of Education – a position that left him very little time for anything else. After all, he was charged with putting Uvarov’s plans for Jewish educational reform into practice and oversaw approximately 150 newly established public colleges. He was rarely in one place for long, with inspections taking him to the school districts of Vilna one moment, and Kiev and Derpt the next.

This job turned out to demand not only the talent of an organizer and administrator, but also Mandelstam’s literary gifts. The minister assigned him to compile a series of catechisms and teaching guides for Hebrew, German, and Russian. A passionate propagandist of Russian language and culture,  in 1847 Mandelstam published An Experimental Guide to Practical Russian Language Exercises for Jews, which (for the first time in history) included line-by-line translations into Hebrew of fragments from Pushkin’s novel in verse The Bronze Horseman and tragedy Boris Godunov.

Mandelstam also penned a five-volume work entitled Taken from Maimonides (1848) in Hebrew and German. The medieval Hebraist’s text, however, was modified and adapted to the conditions of Russian life. Primarily, these adjustments had to do with how relations between Jews and non-Jews were treated. The derogatory word goyim, which appears in Maimonides’ original text, is replaced with the more neutral akum, and it is emphasized that Jews live under the authority and protection of Christians (read: Russians) and are obligated not only to respect those of other faiths, but love them like brothers. In the name of the Torah he calls upon Jews to rigorously obey the laws of Russia and the will of its most august monarch.

Among the publications the learned Jew produced we find a Hebrew-language textbook entitled Chinuch Ne’arim (Educating Boys), published in 1849, and essays on civic duty Shnei Perakim (Two Chapters), which came out in 1852.

Of truly inestimable value was the two-volume Hebrew-Russian Dictionary that Mandelstam compiled (1859) and the Russian-Hebrew Dictionary (1860) that played such an important role in the emancipation of Russian Jewry. Generations of Russian Jews learned Russian using these references.

To understand what sorts of ideas Mandelstam introduced to Russian Jews, one must consider his Textbook of the Jewish Faith, which was issued in 1870.  Here is his commentary to the words of the prophet Moses, “‘Love your neighbor as yourself”: Who is our neighbor? Our neighbor is any person, no matter of what people or faith, everyone in need of our help and whom we are able to help…. Our Love of neighbor must be extended… even to our enemies.” This precept, especially concerning enemies, is traditionally associated less with Judaism than with Christianity. What we have here are universal values that bring both religions closer together. It is noteworthy that he pronounces the main occupation of Jews to be not the distribution of goods and trade, but the much less popular farming and handicraft (here he very fittingly cites Psalm 128, “You will eat the fruit of your labor, blessings and prosperity will be yours”). He thus called upon Jews to partake in productive activities, an appeal that was fully consonant with the programs of the Russian government, whose policies he, as a government official, steadfastly worked to realize. He paid special attention to the relationship between Jews and their native land: “We must love our Fatherland, we must strive to apply our efforts and resources to promote its prosperity.”

Mandelstam’s textbooks, which were made a mandatory part of the curriculum by the Ministry of Education, were rejected primarily by those Jewish conservatives who did not wish to stray beyond the boundaries of traditional education. They disseminated ridiculous rumors to the effect that the new schools would incline pupils to switch religions and that the learned Jew that had published one textbook after another was lining his pockets with the blood money of his coreligionists. The orthodox falsely interpreted the unfortunately fact that the textbooks were excessively expensive and were printed with funds from the so-called “Box Tax” – a mandatory tax on Jews. “There were no purchasers for these books,” one contemporary reported, “They were forced on the melameds teachers. But since the cost (approximately 20 rubles) was sometimes higher than the melamed’s income for an entire semester, the entire community had to take it upon itself in the form of an additional tax.”

There were those who accused Mandelstam of greedily profiting from his publications. But the reminiscences of his contemporaries attest to Leon’s extraordinary and indomitable authorial pride and sense of the importance of his labor, with no thought of personal financial gain. One witness wrote, “When Mandelstam took on the publication of some book, he did not ask how many copies could be sold over the course of some number of years, but simply ordered that five, ten, or twenty thousand copies be printed. If the books then languished on bookstore shelves without buyers, he felt no personal remorse, just a sense of scorn for his contemporaries, too few of whom were capable of appreciating something good; and when it came time to publish the next book, he would do the exact same thing. Surely he would not start penny-pinching like some shop keeper just because these ignoramuses were not able to know a good thing when they saw it?”

In 1857 Mandelstam left his post at the Ministry. Historians assumed that this was a result of his lively, independent character coming into conflict with the autocratic manners of some education bureaucrats. But even after he stepped down as the official “Learned Jew,” Leon continued to serve in this position de facto, a source of legitimate pride for him. His biographer S.M. Ginzburg writes:


Owing to his exceptional standing as the first Jew to finish university with a Candidate’s degree, owing to himself alone, to his abilities, energy, assiduousness, combining in himself tremendous Jewish erudition with vast and diverse scholarship in the area of philology and historical knowledge, and having mastered most of the languages of Europe, Mandelstam could not have failed to have a sense of his superiority over the generation of maskilim  of the thirties and forties, who were not able to participate in the mainstream of European education and even in the area of their own Jewish knowledge could not introduce the necessary systemization and discipline…. Everything he did he did on a grand scale and at a great pace.

After retiring, Leon Mandelstam took up residence abroad, but did not abandon his educational efforts. He published, primarily in German, major works on studying the Bible and Talmud. He also wrote for a number of German, English, and Russian periodicals. In Berlin in 1862 he published For the Benefit of Russian Jews, his Russian translation of the Pentateuch (in 1872 a second edition was published that included a translation of the Book of Psalms). Here too he was a pioneer, since this was the first translation of the books of the Old Testament into Russian by a Jew. Due to a prohibition on the use of Russian rather than Church Slavonic for scripture, the translation was not sold in Russia. The large number of copies printed, which the author paid for out of his own pocket, was financially ruinous to Leon. Only in 1869 did a decree signed by Alexander II allow these books to be sold within the empire.

Leon was tireless in defending the interests of his fellow Jews and weighed in on the issues of the day. One of his articles – “In Defense of Jews” – was prompted by the well-known polemic over the publication by the superintendent of the Odessa school district, Nikolai Pirogov, of an article on the Odessa Torah Talmud, which held up an aspect of Jewish education as a model to be emulated by Christian educators. Another, an apologia entitled, “A Few Words about Jews in General and Russian Jews in Particular,” was published in the popular newspaper The Russian Invalid (1859, No. 58).

Mandelstam did not give up his literary endeavors. In 1864 (again in Berlin and again at his own expense) he published a drama in verse entitled The Jewish Family. The censors, however, did not permit the play in Russia due to the “tendentiousness and reprehensibility of the content of this work” – this, despite the civic spirit of loyalty exhibited in the story, which concludes with a chorus of praise “God save the tsar!” and the oft-repeated glorification of a world order “where all the tribes of the Fatherland will stand like a wall around the Tsar!” But the censor did, in his own way, have a point: Mandelstam was not truly objective, and was not capable of being objective, when he sang the praises of the majesty and strength of spirit of his people. Here are some of the words he puts into the mouth of one character from the drama, Rabbi Joseph:

 


…Our books


Of ages past I need but open,


And I live, not just again,


Not just my youth, but lives of thousands


Of others I have never known;


Of all the martyrs of our faith,


Of all the greatest of our wise men,


Heroes, rulers just and good,


Sent us by our Lord and maker


Across three thousand years in time


And from earth’s one end and to the other!


And therefore it just cannot happen,


That a people such as ours


Could perish, disappear, and vanish,


As long as people walk the earth…

 

The author valorizes the martyrs of the Jewish faith. For example, Joseph tells his pupils the story of a Jewish child who refuses to bow down to the pagan god Zeus and is brutally executed with the words “Our God is the only God, O Israel!” on his lips.

Here, being a Jew signifies an unbroken continuous connection with the deeds of the renowned forefathers of the chosen people. Against this backdrop the plight of the family of an honest tailor, the Jew Baruch, a humiliated and persecuted outcast, appears particularly bitter and painfully unjust.

 


Not wishing harm, without intention,


The Jew bequeaths his family


A sense of shame; my deprivation


Afflicts my children’s destiny;


Just like a beggar, day in, day out,


I must beseech work from the grandees;


They shove me, they humiliate me,


I am the butt of ridicule;


They truly think I have no feelings;


No man am I, I am a Jew.

 

Mandelstam sarcastically mocks the prevailing anti-Semitic bias of the time. He offers the following words spoken by a hapless Judophobe, who blames the Jews for Russian drunkenness:

 


To best ensure sobriety


And guard against all rabblerousing,


In every market in our land


Let all partake – except the Jews!

 

Only in 1872 was the book published in St. Petersburg in a heavily abridged version.

The last work that Mandelstam published was a collection of poetry written in German, Voices in the Desert: Selected Jewish Songs (London, 1880), which, like the verse he published in 1840, belongs first and foremost to Jewish culture. Confession and an immediacy of feeling are given an expressive artistic form that is entirely free of grandiloquence and importunate deliberativeness.

As he approached old age, life for Leon, bankrupt by decades of self-publishing, was not easy. He subsisted by writing for several Russian and foreign publications on a wide variety of topics – whatever paid: the working of the post office, the tax on alcoholic beverages, governmental borrowing, the railroad. The vast library that he had lovingly collected over the course of a lifetime, was inventoried and, with the consent of his creditors, remained in the hands of its compiler, although, technically, he was no longer its owner. Vitality of spirit, however, did not leave our learned Jew. In his hours of leisure he worked energetically on a comparative dictionary of Hebrew roots that had entered European languages, including Russian. Even in his declining years, in the words of an eyewitness, Leon exhibited a rare compassion for the misfortunes of others and a heightened sense of pride. “His hospitality, cordiality, and courtesy toward everyone who approached him,” writes his biographer, “were reminiscent of the wellborn nobleman of yore and matched his outward appearance, which he maintained with great dignity, even when, alone and forgotten, he lived out his final years in uncomplaining poverty.”

The vicissitudes of fate that buffeted Mandelstam in life pursued him beyond the grave. As it turned out he, a man who had devoted his entire life to Judaism, was at first buried in a Russian Orthodox cemetery. On August 31, 1889 Leon died suddenly on a boat that was crossing the Neva River in St. Petersburg. Since no identifying documents were found on the body, it was sent to a mortuary in the Vyborg district and was then buried in the Uspensky cemetery. Only after he was finally missed and the caretaker of the building where he lived identified his keys and clothing were Mandelstam’s mortal remains disinterred and, on September 6, transferred to the Preobrazhenskoye Jewish cemetery.

The great twentieth-century poet Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam (1891-1938) was Leon’s great nephew. Osip’s grandfather was our learned Jew’s brother, Benjamin Mandelstam (who died in 1886). Benjamin was also born in Zhagory, but while his learned brother was busy educating himself and studying languages, Benjamin was engaged in commerce. Later, however, he too took up writing and penned several works in Hebrew. He was an exquisite stylist and his writing is distinguished by striking imagery and rich and colorful language. In his book Hazon La-Mo’ed (The Time Has Not Yet Come, 1876), which takes the form of letters and memoirs, he presents a faithful picture of the daily life of Russian Jews in the 1830s-1850s. An advocate of Jewish religious reform, he proposed in this work radical measures that would be needed to create a “hand of authority” to lead the “deaf and the blind along life’s path.” In a short story entitled “Paris (1878), written under the influence of fresh impressions of a trip he took there, he focuses on the plight of Jews in France. To his pen also belongs a collection of parables and aphorisms Mishlei Binyamin (The Parables of Benjamin, 1884-1885). Like his brother, he became an ardent proponent of Jewish participation in Russian and European culture.

And what genetic memories were passed down to the descendant of the Mandelstam brothers, the poet Osip Mandelstam? It would seem that the strongest childhood impression his literary ancestors left on the poet took the form of a book shelf. “I will always remember the chaos of the lower shelf: the books did not stand spine to spine, but lay like ruins – brown-red Pentateuchs with torn covers, a Russian history of the Jews written in the awkward and timid language of a Russian-speaking Talmudist. This was Judaic chaos toppled into dust….”

It is surely symbolic that the brilliant Russian poet, who wrote for a Russian-speaking audience, is now revered and read in modern-day Israel. In 2007 Jerusalem’s Philobiblon publishing house (Leonid Yuniverg, publisher) released a collection entitled The Times of the Year in Life and Poetry that includes 20 poems by Mandelstam translated into four languages, including Hebrew (Peter Kriksunov, translator). “Judaic chaos” thus takes on new meaning and significance in apparent confirmation of the old adage: history is cyclical.

 

                                                                          Translated by Nora Favorov

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