O, My Language
Original by Rashel Veprinski
Translated, from the Ukrainian Yiddish, by Reyzl Grace
O, my language,
you are silver-blue —
you are light-drenched gold.
And what do I do with you?
I play with you,
like little girls with their dolls,
with their toys on the floor —
I get wrapped up in my game.
But often I cut my lips across you,
pull you from my soft cells
and, like invisible gold rope,
toss you into the sky.
I braid you in forms fitting my own likeness.
I pluck you like blossoms from a white forest,
from a silver forest.
אָ, מיין שפּראַך
,אָ, מיין שפּראַך
—דו בּיסט זילבּעריק בּלוי
.דו בּיסט ליכטיקער גאָלד
—?און וואָס טו איך מיט דיר
,איך שפּיל זיך מיט דיר
,ווי קליינע מיידלעך מיט זייערע פּופּעס
—מיט זייער שפּילצייג אויפן דיל
.איך פאַרווירבּל זיך אין מיין שפּיל
,נאָר אָפט שנייד איך מיינע ליפּן איבּער דיר
,צי דיך פון מיינע זאַנפטע צעלן
און ווי אומזיכטבּאַר-גאָלדענע שטריק
.פאַרוואַרף איך דיך צום הימל
,איך פלעכט דיך אין פורעמס נאָך מיין געשטאַלט
,איך פליק דיך ווי בּליטן פון אַ ווייסן וואַלד
.פון אַ זילבּערנעם וואַלד
Rashel Veprinski only began writing poetry in her native Ukrainian Yiddish after emigrating to the United States. Although I am a second-language learner and she was a native speaker, our shared experience as minority-language users of Yiddish in North America forms a point of departure for me in approaching the text. Yiddish outside of New York’s Hasidic communities (where it remains a language of daily life) is often said to be in a “postvernacular” condition–more spoken about than spoken. Veprinski’s image of the language as dolls and toys on the floor to be pressed into imaginary roles at the whims of a child anticipates this. Yet, as a Yiddishist who spends far more time reading and writing the language than speaking it, I am struck by her sudden turn from the safety and innocence of manipulating the language by hand to the enchanted, liberating danger of drawing it across the lips, and I find myself looking to Veprinski’s expatriate experience to help me unlearn the gatekeeping dichotomy between the native speaker and what linguists call a “new speaker.” If I cut myself on Yiddish, as Veprinski did, will I not also bleed silver? The Shoah (or Khurbn, in Yiddish) more than decimated Ukrainian Jewish communities, and their distinctive dialect of Yiddish along with them. The present war with Russia now threatens what remains of the language there, through both the physical destruction of libraries and archives and the dispersal of remaining speakers. As Ukrainian forests burn, yet another generation of children will, like Veprinski, have to replant them from cuttings of a language that, somehow, they will need to draw from their own cells.
Rashel Veprinski was born in 1895 to a poor family in Ivanov, Ukraine, and attended a Russian Jewish school in Kyiv. Following the death of her father in 1907, she moved with her mother and siblings to New York, where she worked in a sweatshop and attended evening school. Inspired by American Yiddish writers like Morris Rozenfeld, she began writing at age 15 and, from the age of 23 on, became a regular contributor of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction to Yiddish newspapers and journals. She married fellow poet Mani Leyb in the 1920s and became the executor of his literary estate after his death in 1953. She also served on the executive of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and remained active in the trade union movement throughout her life. She visited Israel in 1958, and lived in Rockaway, New York, until her death in 1981.
Reyzl Grace is a transfeminine Ashkenazi writer and librarian originally from Cascadia, whose prior translation credits include work by the Ukrainian Yiddish poets Dine Libkes and Hinde Roytblat recently published in In geveb. She serves as copy editor for Cordella Magazine and is currently helping prepare a new edition of the Jewish Library Handbook for the Association of Jewish Libraries. More of her work can be found at her website, reyzlgrace.com, and on Twitter @reyzlgrace.