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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Shia Miller: "I" and "We"

"'Ikh' un 'Mir' ('I' and 'We')
From Pasifik no. 2 (June 1929): 36-40.
Translated by Hershel Hartman with assistance from Tamar Schneider Levin.

“Individual writer! Be aware that “I” has been sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal. The word is “We.” That which is individual is bourgeois, is reactionary; “We” is proletarian, revolutionary. Please be so kind as give up the “I” and write “We.” Your name should not glow above the poem, the story. The Collective writes for the Collective, the Working Class.”
The individual replies:
“My name? I’ll give it to you with pleasure. Woe betide me were a poem of mine to be recognized solely by my name above it. I hope that my poem will be so individual, so “mine,” that among ten other poems it would be recognized as my own. Thus I saw the world, thus it was lived through, lived along, suffered through, suffered along, and so I re-created it, sang it out, retold it. Satisfied?”
“No!” Reply the Literary Draymen. (With apologies to the Literary Cavalry. Since Pegasus was ‘harnessed,’ she sadly had to trade in her spurs for the whip.) “Your distinct form, your mode of expression is a sidelight for us. Even your scenes, your characters, the ‘little people’ that you will depict for us are important to us insofar as they mirror a specific environment, express the Revolutionary Ideal, help us in the struggle for the Ideal. Were you to write of the synagogue or church, your intentions might be super-pious, but for us you are an apostate. And you’re aware of the fate of every apostate — excommunication. Were you to write about pretty damsels, your words might be of clear-cut crystal; for us those are silly playthings. We are Serious People, you understand?”
“Understood. You don’t want any creative writers, you want a pen, a writer, a sort of living fountain pen. I admit that pens, fountain pens, are good work-tools in expert hands. Pens are necessary, they can also be obtained. There were once court-poets, so there can now be Prolet- Poets. Order them at wholesale and you will get them at a cheap price, but leave me out of it. I don’t want to be a pen in someone’s hand, even if that someone is the Working Class, the Working Class that will eventually bring redemption for all of humanity.
“What, it’s beneath you to serve the Working Class? You have more important things to do than to bring about Redemption for all of Humanity?”
“Serving the Working Class? With all my heart, with my body and soul, but in my way, as I will understand and feel. And as for liberating humanity...
‘For neither Good nor Evil is our goal
In redeeming the Human Soul,
But to the Will, to him who creates,
Poetic craft is a God-like state.’
So wrote Ricard Dehmel."1
“There is no god, there is no power. There are Classes and might.”
“Well, why doesn’t the Class take power in its hand and...write?”
“The Class has more important things to do. It leaves writing to the writers, but it knows
precisely what the writers must write and it determines the boundaries which the writers must respect.”
“Well, well, complete the biblical verse already...‘and we must remain firm in the conviction that hymns to the gods, I mean to the Working Class, and peons to its Leaders, is the only poetry that can be permitted in the State.’”
“What’s he talking about there?”
“Familiar words, ha? So spake the old Greek. Back in Plato’s Republic they spoke of censoring Homer, and the blind man kept smiling and singing.”
“What’s Republic to me, who’s that Plato! Read Marx! Lenin! Man is a product of his environment. [Hebrew saying]: From your environs you come, toward your environs you labor. And the environment, Society, is divided into Classes. To which Class d’you belong? Which Class d’you serve?”
“I have neither a geographic nor a social passport. I belong to the world. I relate to the planet Mars, to a stray puppy in the street, to a blade of grass in the field, and I am I.”
“There is no ‘I,’ you’ve already been told. We, Society, the Working Class.”
“I heard; fine, good. Hand me a sheet of paper and I will, in my calligraphic handwriting, sign as follows: ‘I, Scribe, son of Script, insist that the present unjust and absurd economy that is designated as the Capitalist System, shall be transformed into the Righteous and Good arrangement that is today called Communism.’ Satisfied?”
“He’s doing us a favor, he is! Such a Great Thing, a signature. Scribe, son of Script, gives his approval to Marx’s and Lenin’s torah. Better tell me what you are ready to do to have that transformation take place, and quickly, according to all of Lenin’s Rules and Regulations. The deed is the thing; what will you do?”
“I will write good poetry and prose.”
“That’s all?”
“What else do you want? My little boy? (German: bübchen).
Waving the hand — “Eh!”
“Wait a bit. Don’t run off. Can you tell me what Society, the Working Class, will do for me? Don’t be scared; I’m not talking about golden consommé in a bronze urn. I get along without it now and will not be sated by it when I will, if Lenin wills it, obtain it.”
“Is that so? Perhaps we should give you birds-milk or the moon in the sky?”
“Why fly in the skies when the globe of earth shines before our eyes? Better tell me what the Working Class can do to keep me from dying? That I should never die, not even for a one and only time. And not only I, but you and all humans and your animals and cattle, and if you wish, perhaps the flowers, as well. I mean — death, the shadow that pursues life until it catches up with it; d’you intend to do away with that death?”
“To a certain extent, yes; in a Proletarian World people will live longer, people will...”
“Hold on there, person; excuse me, Proletarian that you are, a hundred and one is all the same. I speak of death, that Abel left us as an inheritance and that reduces everything to nothingness.”
“Well, perhaps we won’t; therefore, so what?”
“So nothing. May one write about this death?”
“No, death is reactionary. You yourself say that it leads to nothingness, to pessimism, to bourgeois feelings, to ‘I.’ Write about Life, about vibrant Life, about Struggle.”
“Those who struggle also die.”
“Certainly, but they die differently. It is the bourgeois who trembles over his pelf, doesn’t want to die, lest he die an ugly death.”
“Have you read Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad?”
“Read it; well, what then? No one wants to die, but the Proletarian dies differently, more beautifully, more humanly, calmer than the bourgeois.”
“Hm...beautiful deaths. I recall Franz Werfel’s, The Death of a Petty-Bourgeois."2
“Haven’t read it.”
“There, the petty-bourgeois doesn’t want to die, and actually doesn’t die until his life insurance policy pays off. The Jewish doctor in the story says: ‘the petty-bourgeoise doesn’t want to die because they believe they have certain business affairs to conclude. The Proletarian dies peacefully — all is done.’”
“Wait, that’s only half the story...”
An angry stare.
“The Christian doctor in the story replies with a ‘broad’ smile: ‘Only one type of people don’t die willingly — you Jews.’”
“Both doctors are correct, because we Jews are petty-bourgeois.”
“If so, then tell me, may one write about this new nuance in death?”
“No! Only about Life, about stormy life, about Struggle!”
“Fine. May one write about the struggle among men and women?”
“Might it be that you’re a grandchild of Rip Van Winkle? Don’t you know that there was a Revolution in the Soviet Union? D’you know of the ‘zags’ institution, where one signs in and signs out?3 D’you know that the woman is now totally equal with the man in all respects?”
“May it not occur to you, I’ve been to ‘zags.’ Ibsen’s portrait is hung there, every woman can see it; Strindberg’s spirit floats over it and every man feels it and, who knows, perhaps every woman, too.”4
“What’re you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the seventh rib. That’s the rib from which Eve was created, and every time that Eve approaches Adam, he feels a stab in his seventh rib, just as a legless person feels a knife-wound in his missing leg. When she (Eve) leaves, it’s as if his (Adam’s) crutch has fallen. Without her, he cannot move; without her, he can’t take a step. When he looks at Eve, he sees flesh of his flesh and Adam himself. D’you know the meaning of that?”
An honest sigh. “Oy, do I ever!” An obligatory peek to determine whether anyone had observed the unexpectedly lost sigh...”But the woman has equal rights, she becomes a person, a comrade, an equal member of society.”
“When one looks down at shoes, all people are equal; as to what’s above the shoes...”
“Yes, but...”
“May one write about that?”
“No. That is a damnable question. That is ambiguous soul-searching. What’s the use of self-tormenting? We’re Activists, we are. We must do things. Now is the time of Renewal, of Technology, of Industrialization, Electrification. Philosophizing, meditating — that’s bourgeois work. We must do, struggle, live by the rhythm of the big city, shouting along with the roar of machines.”
“Were you ever in a factory producing nails?”
“No, what about it?”
“D’you know that everyone who works there is deaf?”
“What d’you mean by that?”
“I mean that you’re so enthused by the roar of machines that you don’t hear your growing deaf and, eventually, dumb as well.”
“The wheel can’t be turned backward.”
“No, but you can imagine that a writer who does not want to be deafened by this simple, steely, gear-and-axle machine might want to don the deaf cap and listen to the most complicated, finest and most ungainly machine: to himself. To listen to the wild blood that runs faster than the fastest machine, to follow the rigorous thought, the wild fantasy, the overwhelmed day- and night dreams, to rise with them to the highest heights and sink into the deepest abyss. Watching as the machine is driven by so much energy, torn by so many impulses, and is yet not torn asunder...”
“Letting feelings loose? Gazing at one’s navel?”
“Yes, gazing at one’s navel that once bound him to his mother’s body, to a world, and is now torn off, no longer able to connect, seeking the way to the world.”
“Metaphysics. There is no world. There is Society.”
“And what if it’s Society? Is a poet not more than a bit of sugar in Society’s glass of tea? And what if he is the bee, providing honey and a sting, as well?”
“So [Hebrew] ‘no sting and no honey for you.’ We can do without it.”
“If that’s the case, why d’you call him out, why d’you complain about him, the writer, even more than about the musician, the painter and sculptor?”
“Because he can be useful to us. He more than those other three.”
“And what if he’s not concerned with ‘Literature’ and he wants only that his word-creation be heard as rippling water in a still lake that mirrors the bright sun and the shadowed tree? A still lake and yet it moves, and if the lake only sends nurturance to the tree that it mirrors, that is well, though the lake is unconcerned, it lives for itself.”
“Art for art’s sake? An old trick. It’s dead.”
“And if a Jew [Hebrew phrase] ‘dare not worship his beautiful tree,’ d’you think that’s new? And that [Hebrew phrase] ‘thou shalt not worship an idol’ was written yesterday? And that [Hebrew phrase] ‘what are we meant to learn’ is the newest melody?”5
“The melody is old, but the Gemora is new.6 You’re hearing a new Gemora for a New World. The trouble with you is that you’re deaf, you’re blind, you don’t see the New World that is being created before your very eyes.”
“But I thought there was no world, just a Society.”
“You’re playing with words now?”
“Certainly. Words are cheap to you, only action is dear. We ‘do’ through words, and therefore World is not Society. Society means herds of living animals on an island in a great sea, and the great sea — a drop of water in the great World. And the island is fiery, the sea stormy, and as for the World, who knows?”
“Let Einstein worry about that.”
“And what if the herds devour each other?”
“That’s something we will worry about.”
“And what if someone devours himself?”
“There is no individual, no loneness — just the herd.”
“[Hebrew phrase] ‘In general and in particular,’ individuals must exist.”
“Well, yes, an individual, but no loneness.”
“And what if the individual is not one of the herd, but one in the herd?”
“Then he is a black sheep.”
“[Hebrew phrase] ‘Alone in his faith’...”
“Who says that?”
“And ‘I?’
“‘I’ is already up against the wall.”
“No bullet hits him.”
“We’ll see about that. Bang!”

1 Richard Fedor Leopold Dehmel (1863-1920), leading German poet prior to WWI, whose works were set to music by, among others, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Alma Mahler, Anton Webern, Carl Orff and Kurt Weill. A supporter of the German working class whose mains themes were love and sex as a means to break away from conventional values and fetters.
2 Usually translated as The Man Who Conquered Death, short story (1928).
3 Pre-1926 arrangement whereby both marriage and divorce were obtained by simple declarations, often not even requiring personal appearances.
4 Respectively, famous Danish and Swedish iconoclastic authors/playwrights who scandalously challenged established concepts of sexuality and marriage.
5may ko mashme lon” was a popular Yiddish song, published in 1915, about a Talmudic student, written by Avrom Reyzen [Reisen], melody adapted by N.L. Zaslavski with verses beginning “What are we meant to learn from the rain...the candle...the life...,” all bemoaning the poor student’s life and fate.
6 Gemora (also transliterated as Gemara and Gemarah) refers to the portion of the Talmud comprised of rabbinical analysis of and commentary on the Mishnah.
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