Yiddish poetry for Palestine

on 39 Comments

My Palestine is that of poets. I have broken bread at a table with Mahmoud Darwish before his exile. I played in the yard of Emile Habibi and was nourished by the love of Toufik Zaiad. I have touched the face of Samih al-Qasem and have recited poetry with the living poets of the Galilee in the Galilee.

These are poets of Palestine. They are some of the most important poets of Palestine. In a normal world they would also be the poets of Israel, for they too are as I am Israeli. But for now they are my poets, they are the poets of the refugees, they are my story, and they are Palestine’s story.

Like many Palestinian boys I began writing poetry early. I have written thousands of lines of poetry. These hordes of lines, in fact, wrote themselves over the years. I rarely share them but have decided to do so here in the coming months.

You see, for decades I have been disappointed in my poetry, it is the poetry of the defeated. My poetry reconciles itself to the eternity of the Palestinian refugee experience. The cold, bleak, grey and decidedly slow existence of  the permanent refugee camp. 

For decades I did not understand the influences that drove the sadness of my expression. Was it Suffi poetry? Perhaps. But I happened a few years ago upon translations of Yiddish poetry. It seems that although I memorised Mahmoud Darwish’s poems, though I have recited those of Samih al-Qasim, it was the hints of Yiddish poetry that I heard as a child  whose rhythms have so obviously consumed my soul. The poetry that I have written in Arabic, as well as English, contains undoubtable faint expressions of Yiddish poems.

This ‘Letter from the Shtetl‘ shakes me to the core. I wish I had written something so beautiful. It is to me an expression of my Palestinian existence. It well introduces my own poetry, which I hope you will enjoy over the coming weeks.  For now ‘Letter from the Shtetl,’ Yiddish poetry from my Palestine:

Letter from a Shtetl

The clock’s sounding gently its dreary tick-tock,
The house is so still, the walls are so grey…
It’s achingly dismal, the silence is heavy,
How slowly the hours are slipping away…

The windows start shaking – it is a cart passing,
Accompanied by a cold autumn gale.
It’s dim in the house, in the darkening stillness
You hear a child next door, as it starts to wail.

Weary, Father’s asleep over Talmud,
Mother fretting patches a vest,
Pale pensive Daughter sits hunched in a corner
And writes to a Brother who has long flown the nest:

‘My brother, gladly I’d spare you the truth
And soothe you with lies, for your woe too, is deep.
But lying is hard and I cannot keep secret
The sobs that I stifle at night, robbed of sleep.

Father earns nothing, I’m ailing and broken,
Mother is worn out from bearing the load.
We’re yoked to the wagon and straining to pull it,
Yet cannot reach what we’re aiming for – bread!

It’s true of our neighbour and of every household,
The shtetl is more like a cemetery now.
The shops are all empty, the factory’s idle,
The young folk are restlessly leaving for town…

The clock’s sounding gently its dreary tick-tock,
The house is so still, the walls are so grey…
It’s achingly dismal, the silence is heavy,
How slowly the hours are slipping away

About Simone Daud

A Palestinian academic. A progressive internationalist with a wholly secular outlook. Meticulously pacifist and a militantly anti-reactionary perspective. An interest in progressive advocacy spanning gay rights, refugee rights.

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39 Responses

  1. seafoid
    September 14, 2011, 9:47 am

    Yiddish is a great language with which to explore delusions of grandeur and the accompanying incompetence. These ones remind me of today’s Israeli leadership as they drive towards the cliff.

    Hot a kop vee a shpilkeh kepl dee grais -Has a head the size of a pinhead
    Klert tsee a floy hot a pipik-Wonders if a flea has a belly button.

  2. Simone Daud
    September 14, 2011, 10:01 am

    I heard Yiddish a lot when I was a kid. But it has now almost entirely disappeared from the Hadar area of Haifa.

    • seafoid
      September 14, 2011, 10:08 am

      Yiddish and the other languages of the Jews who came from elsewhere had with them a lot of knowledge that was lost in the rush to Hebrew and the modern project. In reality the modern project is a crock of sh*t and it will never be possible for any people to abandon its past because some political leaders decide it must be so.

  3. seafoid
    September 14, 2011, 10:18 am

    And you knew Tawfik Ziyad? I would have loved to have met him.

    Unadikum is such a powerful text

    link to youtube.com

    It reminds me of John Trudell’s poetry from another continent against the same settler colonialism


    The people cry out
    Tears of anger
    Tears of sorrow
    Giving birth to resistance
    Young ones
    To remember struggle
    For the people cry out
    Tears of happiness
    Tears of joy
    Washing the pain
    Cleaning the spirit
    Giving strength
    The generations
    Remembering the past
    To rebuild the future
    For weeping is
    Another way of laughing
    And resisting and
    Outlasting the enemy

    Living in Reality

    Calling us red Indians
    We have been the colors
    On a chameleons back
    Changing with time
    Altering the larger pattern
    Surviving genocide
    Because we have to
    Living in reality
    We are targets of your unfairness
    With warriors for targets
    You create your own destruction
    This is how we bring you down
    Target by target you wound yourself
    Using your greed we watch
    Your spirit fade
    Living in reality
    We can endure your cages
    Your bullets your lies
    Your confusion
    We know you have
    Destroyed your peace
    Living in reality

    • Simone Daud
      September 14, 2011, 10:33 am

      I knew Tawfik Zaiad the best of all of the poets that I listed. At a very human level. He once spoke to us “young ones” and said “now you carry your books, but in the future you will carry something heavier.” At the time the only job opportunities for Arabs were in manual labor, so I took it to mean heavy bricks. Other’s more poetic than me understood it as the burden of the Palestinian tragedy. A few understood it as guns…

      I’m presently exploring poetry from southern Ireland from the time of the rising. But I am more drawn to the new young poets of Cork city. They are fantastic and so many of them.

      • seafoid
        September 14, 2011, 10:42 am

        Did you ever come across John Hewitt? He was from Northern Ireland.

        His poem “the Colony” is a masterpiece and it could have been written about Israel.

        link to books.google.ch

        Another Irish poem I love is “A disused shed in county wexford” by Derek Mahon.

      • Simone Daud
        September 14, 2011, 11:07 am

        This may be embarrassing in the comments section of a Palestinian post on Yiddish poetry. But nonetheless, I am presently madly in love with Leanne O’Sullivan, a poet from Cork county. Look her up. She doesn’t write about colonialism but about normal life. My dream is that Palestinians one day have such a normal life that their female poets can write something like this:

        In among these wet, melon skins
        I sit with my back to the bar,

        cross-legged, smiling my red mouth.
        I’ve painted myself black and leather.

        My eyes move quickly, circling
        the high, loud limbs of the night.

        In the centre of the dance floor
        a lioness shrieks in her own bath.

        Like red pearls, dry lips pucker
        to the eager glass. I drink and blaze.

        An animal going mad for the garland
        of a woman rolls over to the end

        of the bar like a devil’s tongue, red
        and greasy, stoned on his own poison

        and licking his lips. A man in love
        spreads a flock of fingers on my thigh.

        I undo them until he hates me
        and raise a finger to his back.

        The room is flooding, people float
        as if on water and music. I stumble

        onto my heels and drown with a wrong boy
        while the moon turns onto her white belly

        and is fed secrets by crippled mouths;
        a boyfriend passed out, a glass shattered,

        a woman tasted, a child coming to seed
        with her legs wrapped around a man,

        the night moistening the darkness
        with its many breaths.

      • seafoid
        September 14, 2011, 11:23 am

        Do you know the Salmon Poetry site?

        link to salmonpoetry.com
        Elaine Feeney

        For Finn

        You wear a prickly rash all over your furry back.
        I’m not even allowed discover what you smell like,
        because I have not yet become your mother.

        Doctors and cleaners and candlestick makers flitter in and out.
        A priest stands next to the girl with the tumor.
        She’s no bigger that a baby chicken.
        He throws water.
        Banishing these blind tiny birds from sin!

        He asks me would I like a baptism,
        he’s a fine big boy to look so sick.
        I run out screaming.

        A bird next to you squeaks in a transparent incubator.

        It is to be her only home.

        This is the shortest ward,
        here you do not walk,
        there are no beds.

        I’m put out again,
        it’s better not to see the tubes
        and drips and sharp things at feeding time.
        So I chat to the weeping clown on the
        olive wall of the parenting room.
        The TV doesn’t work.
        The coffee machine has been fucked against the wall.

        You are naked.
        The little bird speaks from inside a fabric elastoplast mask,
        she stabs a twenty-four week matchstick leg to the air.
        You pant to the rhythm
        of an old Austrian waltz,
        Ray drums, one, two, three
        one, two, three,
        on the rim of his paper mug.
        My black roots drip over,
        even now I think of my appearance.

        In the lactation room my new breast friend sobs,
        only a teaspoon.
        Nurses reassure us it’ll come sometime.
        And all my thoughts of sex and
        beauty and love and your eyes and looks
        and flashes of stubble
        and hand holding and Led Z and
        The Beatles
        and every missed acid trip

        Of being
        Of eating
        Of laughing

        Are distant and stained

        My back is aching and my breasts
        hum to the lonely bird.

      • Simone Daud
        September 14, 2011, 11:48 am

        Lovely, just lovely.

  4. Simone Daud
    September 14, 2011, 10:19 am

    I recall in one of Isaac Deutscher’s essays Ben-Gurion insisted that Deutscher address him in Hebrew and not Yiddish. Deutscher at the time had considerable fame as a Yiddish poet. I can’t recall what Deutscher’s attitude to that request was.

    That said, I encourage my Palestinian students to appropriate Jewish history as though it is their own, and colonize the Jewish past as though it was their own return to Palestine.

    • seafoid
      September 14, 2011, 10:36 am


      Do you know anything about the mechanism by which Yiddish was suppressed by the State in favour of Hebrew? Were kids forbidden from speaking Yiddish in school ?

      I saw a video recently of a load of Mizrahi Betar Jerusalem fans singing abusive chants in Hebrew regarding the Nazis to a crowd of football supporters in Poland and it was one of the strangest things I have seen in some time. I guess they wouldn’t have done that in Yiddish.

      • Simone Daud
        September 14, 2011, 10:55 am

        I’m not sure. The old people that I knew from that time were more comfortable speaking German than Yiddish and they had difficulty with Hebrew till the end.

        However, let’s not forget that hebrew came at the expense of Arabic much more than Yiddish. You had masses of Arab speaking/reading/writing Jews immigrate and lose their native language.

        Arabic has always been as important a language in Judaism and Jewish culture and its development as German/Yiddish. The latter was devastated by the European genocide, the former was destroyed by the reintroduction of Hebrew as a secular language.

      • seafoid
        September 14, 2011, 11:18 am

        The whole Arab Jewish history of the past 60 years is such a mess. I occasionally watch Arab Jewish videos on Youtube . You can take the singer out of the Arab world but you can never take the Arab world out of the singer.

        I suppose losing a language is deeply traumatic from the cultural point of view wherever it happens.

        The problem for Israelis is that they lost contact with their “mother cultures” which were then replaced by a shared political ideology that is now no longer fit for purpose.

      • Walid
        September 14, 2011, 2:58 pm

        “The whole Arab Jewish history of the past 60 years is such a mess. I occasionally watch Arab Jewish videos on Youtube . You can take the singer out of the Arab world but you can never take the Arab world out of the singer. ”

        Seafoid, de-Arabization of the Arab Jews was part of Ben-Gurion’s master plan starting with the DDT and followed by the forced erasing of the Arabic language and culture. Yehuda Shenhav talked about it in his essay that covered among other bogus stories spread spread by Israel concerning Arab Jews, the bogus mass expulsion Jews from Arab countries:

        “… During the Second World War, as the reality of the mass extermination of Jews in Europe sank in, the Zionist movement increasingly shifted its view to the Jews in the Islamic countries. In 1942 Ben Gurion presented to experts and to leaders of the Yishuv (pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine) his ‘Plan for Mass Immigration’ (Tochnit Ha’Million) which aimed to bring a million Jews to Palestine. In this project the Jews in the Islamic lands were accorded a central demographic role. In practice, the plan to bring Jews from Arab countries was not implemented until after Israel’s establishment. In Israel the Mizrahim (Jews from Arab countries) were subjected to a process of de-Arabization. As Ben Gurion put it, “We do not want the Israelis to be Arabs. It is our duty to fight against the spirit of the Levant that ruins individuals and societies” (Shohat 1988:6). The Arab past of the Mizrahi Jews threatened to affect the coherence of the homogeneous Israeli nation and to blur the boundary between Jews and Arabs. The thrust toward modernization that was implemented as state theory and practice served as a major rationale for creating a non-Arab “homogeneous public.” The negative status of Arabness among the Israeli-Zionist public induced the Mizrahim to cooperate with the Israeli modernization and de-Arabization project. ”

        link to prrn.mcgill.ca

      • seafoid
        September 14, 2011, 5:25 pm

        The link didn’t work, Walid

        “It is our duty to fight against the spirit of the Levant that ruins individuals and societies’

        The arrogance is breathtaking. They’ll be playing backgammon and smoking shisha long after the fall of the Zionists. With aseer farawleh.

      • Walid
        September 14, 2011, 7:31 pm

        A second try for the McGill link:

        link to prrn.mcgill.ca

        It’s a great essay, Seafoid. Parts of it were published in Haaretz about 3 years back and if the link works, the essay is rather long, very historic and a very worthwhile read about what was behind emptying the Arab lands of their Jews to bring them to Israel, especially the part about Iraq where Shenhav’s parents came from.

      • seafoid
        September 15, 2011, 4:35 am

        Thanks very much Walid. It looks very good

        I’m really interested in how the ideology was constructed and what actions were taken in the 1950s to build the state .

  5. seafoid
    September 14, 2011, 10:23 am

    I thought it would be wonderful to drive a car with a big massive stereo system through the streets of East (but mostly West) Jerusalem with the music set on an infinite loop of unadikum.

    The thing about Yiddish is that it wasn’t moulded as a language in an army of occupation.

    • Simone Daud
      September 14, 2011, 10:41 am

      You do realize that unadikum was blaring in west Beirut during the siege in 1982, before the massacres.

      I guess I like Hebrew because I’m familiar with it, but I have to say Hebrew poetry is still really bad to my ears.

      • seafoid
        September 14, 2011, 11:48 am

        I didn’t know that. I just picked up when I was in West Jerusalem that arabic is not an acceptable language in Zionist territory. “Barely legal”.

        There’s a great Zochrot video where they ask people in Jaffa what they think abut the refugees returning and the last person they interview is Palestinian and he says he hopes the country can mature into less of a freak show in future.

      • Walid
        September 14, 2011, 1:46 pm

        “You do realize that unadikum was blaring in west Beirut during the siege in 1982, before the massacres. ” (Simone D.)

        It was also blaring over the giant loudspeakers at Maroun al-Ras on May 15, 2011 just after noon as the Palestinians rushed to plant their flags on the fence while the Israeli soldiers started cutting them down with live fire. I still haven’t figured out if the actual rush was triggered by the song as it came on, or if the the guy in charge of the recorded music quickly put it on when the rush actually started; the song was playing as the kids were being massacred during the first of several rushes over the course of over 90 minutes.

        For those interested, Translation of Unadikum, I call to you all, a poem for Palestine by Tawfiq Zayyad (1929-1994) and made into a Nakba Day song by the Lebanese Ahmad Kaaboor in 1974 :

        ‘I call to you all:
        I take your hand and hold it tightly.
        I kiss the ground on which you place your feet.
        I know that for you I would give my life.
        My life I would give for you.

        I offer you the light of my eyes,
        The fire of my heart:
        For this pain that I suffer
        Is only a small part of your pain.

        I never have sold my country
        And I have been willing to serve,
        To face the invader with steadfastness and courage,
        An orphan willing to die.

        Carrying my people on my shoulders,
        You will see my flag raised high,
        And a mountain clothed in the green of the olive branch
        For those who will come after.

        I call to you all!’

        Sung by Bosnians
        link to youtube.com

      • annie
        September 14, 2011, 2:08 pm

        what a fantastic video walid. just spellbinding. that little girl, and when she places her hand on her heart and then wags her finger with such unwavering surety. of course i had to cry.

      • seafoid
        September 14, 2011, 2:55 pm

        The Balkan clarinet is beautiful

        Bosnia is another country that will be voting against Israel at the UN. It will be like the Eurovision song contest ! Israel nul points.

  6. annie
    September 14, 2011, 11:57 am

    this is such new territory for me i almost don’t know how to respond. it’s fascinating. thank you so much for bringing this poetry to us. the essence of the sentiment is universal to those who wait, or suffer or strive.

    It is to me an expression of my Palestinian existence. It well introduces my own poetry

    looking forward to more that’s for sure. thank you again somine, as always.

  7. Taxi
    September 14, 2011, 12:21 pm

    As a child, Shafiq al-Hout was a regular visitor to my father’s house and I had a particular fondness for him and his family. I last saw him at a London pub in 1999 and I’ll never forget this comment he made to a handful of friends: “We Palestinians are born farmers forced to either write or fight”. He’s right: the reputation of the people of the holy land for hundreds of years pre 1948 was that of the humble god-fearing farmer tending to land and flock, a song on his lips as he toils sunrise to sunset. I understood from Shafiq’s words that the very essence of a Palestinian is ancestrally agricultural, of the land itself and of the song about the land.
    link to guardian.co.uk

    It’s a shame he and other brilliant Palestinians of his generation aren’t around to see the current demise of the Apartheid state of israel. It breaks my heart that they all died with a broken heart and clenching their broken dreams of Palestine.

    R.I.P. all martyred writers and fighters for Palestine. May their children again pick up plow and bag of seeds.

    • annie
      September 14, 2011, 12:30 pm

      beautiful taxi

    • seafoid
      September 14, 2011, 5:15 pm

      From 2009:

      “Al-Hout has died a disappointed and frustrated man, his life’s work, for the foreseeable future, buried in a divided and moribund PLO and a Palestinian national movement in the worst straits in its 50-year history”

      That was before #Jan28

      I will never forget this video of Ken O’Keeffe walking in Gaza the night Mubarak fell saying this is the beginning of the end of Zionism.

      link to youtube.com

      at around 3.30 and the music…. American imperialism over, Zionism over

      Israel’s current distress has its roots in actions carried out long before 2009. Hard to believe Israel is now reduced to asking the Palestinians to respect international law.

  8. Newclench
    September 14, 2011, 12:25 pm

    I feel better asserting that I am Israeli and this Palestinian poetry is Israeli too. You say that in a normal world others would agree. Can’t I be normal in that the newspapers I read, the books I saw on shelves at my friends house, the opinions that were discussed – they included the names you mention, and many others besides.
    No, I don’t do poetry very often. But when I do Israel and Israeli culture, it is always in a way that embraces and includes our Palestinian giants.
    I think your approach to culture isn’t yet normative, but it will become so sooner if we act and speak as though it is, rather than highlighting that it is not.
    When I left Israel, I had a good bye dinner with one of my friends, a Palestinian from Ramle. We agreed that someday, a flag will go up that commands the respect of our children, an anthem will be sung that touches their hearts equally. For that, the best of our poetic traditions will have to be mixed creatively. Can’t wait!

    • Avi
      September 14, 2011, 1:17 pm

      Readers should note that the above commenter used to post here under a different screen name, “clenchner”. He is an apologist for self-styled Israeli leftists, not to be confused with Noam Sheizaf’s idea of “left”.

      • Taxi
        September 14, 2011, 1:33 pm

        Clearly, Avi, clenchy is trolling. (heyhowyabeen?!)

      • Avi
        September 14, 2011, 1:44 pm

        Taxi, I’m alright. Have a good summer?

      • Taxi
        September 14, 2011, 4:41 pm

        Avi I’ve had an incredibly beautiful summer here on the beaches of SoCal – made even more cheerful by the DAILY headlines all summer long of just how much zionists are “freaking out”.

        Hope your summer was chill and dandy too. So good to read your posts again.

      • annie
        September 14, 2011, 1:34 pm

        i’m not getting the pt of him coming back w/the same handle and slapping ‘new’ on the front of it. but he did, whatever. personally, i love shmuel’s takedown.

      • annie
        September 14, 2011, 1:38 pm

        well, on second thought maybe he is trying to turn over a new leaf. i did like that comment, just untrusting with the followups due to past history here. including the way he trashed our site over at dkos in assaf’s diary.

      • Avi
        September 14, 2011, 1:45 pm

        annie, I’m not surprised. There are establishment “leftists” and then there are leftists. DK befits him/her/it. A match made in heaven.

      • Newclench
        September 14, 2011, 2:50 pm

        How do you define ‘left’ and does it include the Israeli Communist Party? What is the distinction between ‘left’ and ‘self styled left’?

      • Richard Witty
        September 15, 2011, 6:26 am

        Its the difference between those few that are includable for their historically perfect animosity, and those that excludable for their sentiment of universal acceptance.

  9. seafoid
    September 14, 2011, 3:00 pm

    Taha Muhammad Ali was another great Palestinian poet. This biography is very well regarded.

    link to amazon.com

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