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Original Yiddish poems are presented with their English translation on the facing page.
Rivka Basman Ben Haim’s poems are witty and wise. Lyrical and personal, their length belies their depth. Rarely more than a page long, the poems often pack a punch. They are thought-provoking even as they sing. As a young teenager, the poet witnessed the Nazi destruction of her Jewish world. She tells the reader about this loss often, but never directly. She knows pain well, and she can tell the reader all about it.
turns to the spot
where it hurts
and there it wants to be
But there is much more to the poet’s world. She has known the safety of love, and she celebrates it:
“With you I am restful and near
and I need not withhold any words,
as leaves in a shining crown
anchored to their earth…”
She understands full well the shared reminiscences of long-term friendships, and she captures that as well:
“There is an old friendship
younger than time.
It comes and inquires
about each separately.
A silence that’s concealed
rejuvenates the mind.
This poet is one of the unsung heroes of our time. As a young bride, she helped her husband gather the stateless Jews whom no country would accept once WWII was over. The two helped send these unwanted, “displaced persons” to what was then Palestine, in the effort known as the “brikha”- the escape. Years later, when the poet and her husband were in what was then the Soviet Union, she met with Yiddish writers clandestinely, and did what she could for them.
As a teenager in a Nazi work camp, the young poet composed and recited Yiddish poems. And the words themselves gave her the strength to live on. She has continued to compose Yiddish poems all these many years. She believes that Yiddish writing will live on as long as poets continue to write Yiddish poems and readers continue to read them.
Praise for Rivka Basman Ben-Haim’s work:
Rivka Basman Ben-Haim is one of the very last representatives of the golden age of Yiddish poetry; I am delighted that there will now be a bilingual Yiddish-English edition of her selected poems. Zelda Kahan Newman’s translations are very fine and sensitive. Thanks to Mayapple Press for making this available. — Yitskhok Niborski, formerly Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris
Rivka Basman Ben-Haim masterfully conveys entire worlds through the elegant, thoughtful, profound, and devastating poetic windows which she skillfully opens to her readers. Kudos to Zelda Kahan Newman for bringing these gems to both Yiddish speakers and non-Yiddish speakers with keen insight and sensitivity. — Motl Didner, Associate Artistic Director, The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene
They remember how I used to write poems,
on the red cobblestones.
Remember me at the barbed fence,
my young skin
tattooed from barbed points,
to see a teeny-thread of sunset,
of my own setting in the last sun.
I sang then
and my poem—
was itself our sun.
About the Author and the Translator
Author Rivka Basman Ben-Haim was 14 when the Nazis took over her town, and 18 when WWII ended. She began composing Yiddish poems in the Vilna ghetto, and at 90 years, she is still writing poetry. She has won every award known to the world of Yiddish writers.
Translator Zelda Kahan Newman, who formerly held the post of Judaic Studies at Lehman College/CUNY, is a linguist whose specialty is Yiddish, the language and its culture. For more than two decades, she has translated the Yiddish poetry of the Israeli poet, Rivka Basman Ben-Haim. She presently lives in Beer Sheva, Israel.