To Sing Away the Dark­est Days: Poems Re-Imag­ined from Yid­dish Folksongs

Nor­bert Hirschhorn
  • Review
By – October 22, 2014

Nor­bert Hirschhorn stud­ied thou­sands of Yid­dish folk­songs before he began to trans­late the poems in this book. Many of them are true to their orig­i­nal form and can be found for the reader’s lis­ten­ing plea­sure on the Inter­net, as Hirschhorn help­ful­ly details. Sev­er­al of the songs, how­ev­er, need­ed rework­ing in order to con­nect frag­ments that do not eas­i­ly trans­late to Eng­lish but con­vey the most accu­rate essence of their orig­i­nal verse form. Hirschhorn takes on this dif­fi­cult task with a love for the Yid­dish cul­ture and fiddler’s song,” dis­cern­able through­out these verses. 

The poet­ry in To Sing Away the Dark­est Days is bit­ter­sweet but not in our usu­al sense of that adjec­tive: the bit­ter pover­ty and suffer­ing of Jew­ish life turns to sweet appre­ci­a­tion of life that is noth­ing short of mirac­u­lous. In From My Mouth” the singer is the des­ti­tute wid­ow, daugh­ter of Zion” who describes how she whis­pers to her baby daugh­ter that for­ag­ing for scraps in the mar­ket like a goat is not to be her future; instead she will have her own cart to sell onions and become rich — this is her prayer from my mouth to His ear.” In Mak­ing A Liv­ing” the tai­lor, the cob­bler, and the shoe­mak­er speak for all: I drag around my pover­ty and bless the Cre­ator.” The per­sona of Abecedar­i­an for the Work­ers of the World” stark­ly points out the dif­fer­ences between the rich and the poor work­ers with remark­able accep­tance, evi­dent also in the song Sleep My Child,” a com­bi­na­tion of com­men­tary by Sholem Ale­ichem and Mitchell Kaplan — the for­mer extolling the dream of those who wait for spous­es to send mon­ey to trav­el to Amer­i­ca and the lat­ter inton­ing the pover­ty and strug­gles of the father liv­ing on char­i­ty in Amer­i­ca and hop­ing to bor­row mon­ey to send for his fam­i­ly. Nor­bert Hirschhorn enrich­es the Jew­ish lega­cy of find­ing relief from trou­bled times through song, a won­der for read­ers to expe­ri­ence them­selves by rel­ish­ing each of these folk­songs in writ­ten and musi­cal form in this remark­able lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al presentation.

Relat­ed content:

Deb­o­rah Schoen­e­man, is a for­mer Eng­lish teacher/​Writing Across the Cur­ricu­lum Cen­ter Coor­di­na­tor at North Shore Hebrew Acad­e­my High School and coed­i­tor of Mod­ern Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture: A Library of Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism, Vol. VI, pub­lished in 1997.

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