Anecdotal evidence suggests that Yiddish is on the rise, even as those well versed in the Eastern European tongue seem to be on the decline. And Zackary Sholem Berger’s new collection of poems demonstrates that the mamaloshen of the past is a sufficient medium with which to reflect upon the issues of today.
For sure, Berger, founder of Yiddish House LLC and local children’s book translator who also happens to be a physician, is not the first Yiddish poet. And this rough collection of verse — it also includes some English poems — is not the most polished of works. Produced by Apprentice House, which bills itself as the nation’s first entirely student-managed book publisher, the volume feels more like a notebook than a tome of poetry, but therein lies its charm.
Ultimately, poetry is a reflection of the thoughts and struggles, as well as insight, of its author; just as the at-times emotional reactions to it are a reflection of the reader. Berger’s work succeeds in challenging perceptions, whether one perceives that Yiddish is a dying language or that biblical stories aren’t meant to be used as vehicles for irreverent commentary.
To quote from just one poem, “The Ballad of Nadav and Avihu”: “We were told to rejoice. And rejoice we did! Squeeze the juice from life, they bid. Climb to the top of the Tabernack. Coal your pan and don’t look back.”