(1901–1969), Yiddish poet, playwright, prose writer, and essayist. Born Isidor Helfer in the multiethnic city of Czernowitz (then capital of the Habsburg province of Bucovina; now Chernivtsi, Ukraine), Itsik Manger attended heder and later the Kaiser-Königlicher Dritte Staats-Gymnasium. When he was expelled for bad behavior, his formal education came to an end. By then, however, he had fallen under the spell of German Romantic poetry, and his knowledge of world literature was henceforth to be gleaned in German translation.
Lamtern in vint (Lantern in the Wind), by Itsik Manger (Warsaw: Farlag Turem, 1933). (YIVO)
Yiddish song and a love of literature permeated the Manger home, where the father, mother, and sons worked at tailoring. His younger brother Note (1903–1942) had a sophisticated understanding of classical and contemporary European, as well as of Yiddish, poetry. Manger’s father, Hillel, whose “bohemianism” and bouts of depression kept the family on the move, coined the Yiddish phrase literatoyre, a felicitous pairing of “literature” and “Torah.”
During World War I, the family moved to Iaşi, which Manger came to love for its “old city, with [its] secluded crooked streets” and its legacy of Yiddish song, especially that of Velvl Zbarzher (Benjamin Wolf Ehrenkranz), the first Yiddish troubadour. It was in Iaşi that Manger began writing Yiddish verse. He returned to his native Czernowitz while serving in the Eighth Fusilier Regiment of the Romanian army. Sometime after being demobilized, though, he moved to Bucharest, where he became a leading spokesman for the Yiddish secular movement in Greater Romania, wrote for the local Yiddish press, and did the lecture circuit, speaking on the ballad as well as on Spanish, Romanian, and Gypsy folklore.
Manger was 27 when he arrived in Warsaw as a Romanian poet with thick, disheveled flowing hair, blazing eyes, and a lighted cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips. To the Yiddish literary scene of that city, Manger was an exotic newcomer. He would call this period (1928–1938) “my most beautiful decade.” It was by far his most productive.
Manger granted interviews and published articles in Literarishe bleter; gave readings at the Writers Club, where he recited his poetry from memory; published Shtern afn dakh (Stars on the Roof; 1929), a meticulously edited volume of his verse; put out 12 issues of his own 4-page literary journal called Getseylte verter (Counted Words; 1929–1930) and filled mostly with his own manifestos, poems, and literary musings; invented a new genre, which he called Khumesh-lider (Bible Songs; 1935); rewrote the Purim megilah (Megile-lider; 1936); penned a personalized history of Yiddish literature from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century (Noente geshtaltn [Close Images]; 1938); published three more volumes of verse, Lamtern in vint (Lantern in the Wind; 1933), Velvl Zbarzher shraybt briv tsu malkele der sheyner (Velvl Zbarzher Writes Letters to the Beautiful Malkele; 1937), and Demerung in shpigl (Dusk in the Mirror; 1937). He also compiled Felker zingen (Nations Sing; 1936), an anthology of European folk songs; wrote Di vunderlekhe lebns-bashraybung fun Shmuel-Abe Abervo (Dos bukh fun gan-eydn) (The Amazing Life Story of Shmuel-Abe Abervo [The Book of the Garden of Eden]; 1939), a fictional autobiography in prose; witnessed the production of two plays, loosely based on Avrom Goldfadn’s work: Di kishef-makherin (The Witch) and Dray Hotsmakhs (Three Hotsmakhs); composed lyrics for the Yiddish cabaret and the fledgling Yiddish movie industry; crisscrossed Poland knowing very little Polish; and entered into a common-law marriage with Rokhl Oyerbakh. In January 1930, Manger was one of the four youngest initiates elected to the Yiddish PEN club. The other three were Yisroel Rabon, Iosef Papiernikov, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Actresses Malwina Rappel (left) and Lili Liliana, members of the kleynkunst troupe Di Yidishe Bande (The Jewish Gang), performing Lobuslekh (Little Urchins), a play by Itzik Manger, Warsaw, 1937. The troupe’s name echoed the name of a popular Polish cabaret of the era, Banda (The Gang). Photograph by Leo Forbert. (YIVO)
As a Romanian national, Manger was forced to leave Poland in 1938 and headed for Paris, where he eked out a living by giving lectures on French literature to Yiddish-speaking audiences. When northern France fell to the Germans in 1940, Manger headed south to Marseilles, and from there made his tortuous way to England. In London, he was befriended by the bookstore owner Margaret Waterhouse. Although Manger eventually became a British citizen, he would characterize his 10 years in England as the worst period of his life. A collection of poems, Volkns ibern dakh (Clouds over the Roof), appeared in 1942, and the Hotsmakh-shpil: A Goldfadn-motiv in drey aktn (Hotsmakh Play: A Goldfadn Motif in Three Acts) in 1947.
In March 1951, after being feted in Paris on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, Manger was on his way to Montreal, and from there to New York. He married Genia Nadir, the widow of the poet Moyshe Nadir, and a jubilee committee chaired by the poet Mani Leyb published a beautiful edition of his Lid un balade (Song and Ballad) in 1952. By contrast, the last volume of Manger’s verse published in his lifetime, Shtern in shtoyb (Stars in Dust; 1967), is replete with errors.
In 1958, Manger made his first trip to Israel, where he finally settled, found a new mass audience in both Yiddish and Hebrew, and died in that country. In 1966, CBS Israel issued an LP of Manger reading his own verse (CBS 62693; reissued on CD and included in Itsik Manger, Dunkelgold: Gedichte. Jiddish und deutsch (Dark Gold: Poetry, Jewish and German; 2004). On 31 October 1968, the Itsik Manger Prize was established in Israel. His notebooks, manuscripts, and correspondence are housed at the Manger Archive at the National and University Library in Jerusalem.
Title page of Di vunderlekhe lebns-bashraybung fun Shmuel-Abe Abervo (Dos bukh fun gan-eydn) (The Amazing Life Story of Shmuel-Abe Abervo [The Book of the Garden of Eden]), by Itsik Manger. (Warsaw: Farlag H. Bzhoza, 1939). (YIVO)
There are three distinct periods in Manger’s career: 1918–1928, 1929–1939, and 1940–1967. During the first period, Manger developed a sense of himself as a regional poet. Romania, he averred, was the font of the modern Yiddish “fable, grotesque, and ballad.” By fable he meant, of course, the Czernowitz-based pedagogue and poet Eliezer Shteynbarg, who had turned that classical genre into a high-literary medium. It was Shteynbarg who formally launched Manger’s poetic career in the July 1921 issue of Kultur. By grotesque, Manger meant the satiric and sentimental operettas of Avrom Goldfadn, which were but one step removed from the zany theatrics of the purim-shpil. Influenced by the ballad revival in Germany and by American Yiddish poets searching for indigenous traditions, Manger was now intent upon turning the ballad into “the second Yiddish folk epic after Peretz’s Folkstimlekhe geshikhtn (Stories in the Folk Vein). Manger emerged from this period having adopted the persona of the hard-drinking, local rhymester—a combination Broder Singer, troubadour, and Purim player.
During the middle period, essentially coterminous with his sojourn in Warsaw, Manger became the preeminent modernist folk bard in the annals of Yiddish culture. (Almost upon arrival, he changed his name from the formal Yitskhok to the folksy Itsik.) His programmatic essay “Di balade—di vizye fun blut” (The Ballad: The Vision of Blood; 1929) celebrates that genre for its apocalyptic temper, at once primeval, demonic, and dark. Through the ballad form, Manger learned both to impersonate the folk voice and to reveal an alternative vision—grotesque and difficult. Focused more on feelings than on narrative, the latter ballads produce their effect through a combination of surreal imagery and rigidly formal poetic structure. Manger’s exploration of folklore genres led him, paradoxically, in two opposite directions: to the figure of the suffering Christ, enshrined at every crossroad, where folklore is the universal repository of myth, on the one hand; and back to the Bible, as the eternal and untapped source of drama, on the other. In his 1939 manifesto, “Folklor un literatur” (Folklore and Literature), published in the prestigious Paris-based Afn sheydveg, Manger called for a synthesis between the lyric-romantic school of Y. L. Peretz and the realistic-grotesque school of Goldfadn and Sholem Aleichem. Manger had already achieved that creative synthesis in his lyric-dramatic Khumesh-lider (later expanded into Medresh Itsik [Itsik’s Midrash]; 1951).
Writing for an overwhelmingly secular and working-class readership (he dedicated Noente geshtaltn to the children of the Yiddish secular schools in Poland) and aligned with the leftist, Yiddishist politics of the Bund, Manger’s latter-day midrash met with opposition on two fronts: from the Orthodox camp, who viewed his mock-epic treatment of the patriarchs and matriarchs as sacrilege, and from the Zionist-Hebraists, who correctly understood his scripturalization of the shtetl to be a species of doikayt, a valorization of the Diaspora.
Undated Poem by Itsik Manger: Brif tsu M.R. [Melekh Ravitsh]. "Dear Meylekh / Please know that I am not too happy here / All day I am in the street and at night in bed / Sometimes I'm sad and sometimes I am okay with being a poet. . . . " Manuscript, Yiddish. (RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)
How Manger became the Yiddish poet for all seasons has much to teach us about Yiddish literature in the interwar period. Because he was ostensibly not a modernist, such archmodernists as Melech Ravitch, Perets Markish, and Uri Tsevi Grinberg never felt threatened. Indeed, having revived the symbolist poetics of Di Yunge long after its heyday in America; by adopting the Hasidic heartland at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains as the wellspring of Yiddish poetry and the turn-of-the century Galician shtetl as Paradise Lost; by aligning himself with the consensus politics of the Bund; and above all, by his self-representation as a troubadour, Manger turned his marginal status to his own advantage. He redefined the temporal, spatial, and poetic center.
From the moment Manger fled the European continent at the end of 1940, to his first trip to Israel in 1958, when he set out to “wallow” in his own home, Manger reimagined himself as a poet of exile. Left with an abiding hatred for the Germans, whose culture he had once so admired, and for the Yiddish literary establishment that treated its poets so piteously, Manger turned back to the past: to his dead brother Note; to the figure of Ruth, renouncing her home for the love and loyalty of another people; to the selective memory of his own childhood. His poetic powers mostly spent, Manger turned increasingly to prose, and from writing for the theater to writing about it. These prose writings are mostly assembled in Shriftn in proze, edited by Shloyme Shvaytser and published in Tel Aviv (1980).
Hayyim S. Kazdan, Itsik Manger (New York, 1968); David G. Roskies, A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), chap. 7; David G. Roskies and Leonard Wolf, “Introduction,” in The World According to Itzik: Selected Poetry and Prose of Itzik Manger, pp. xiii–xlvi (New Haven, 2002); Chone Shmeruk, “Medresh Itsik and the Problem of Its Literary Traditions,” in Medresh Itsik, by Itzik Manger, 3rd rev. ed., pp. v–xxix (Jerusalem, 1984).
RG 1171, Bertha Kling, Papers, 1907-1978; RG 1174, Isaac Metzker, Papers, 1930s-1970s; RG 1217, B. Margulies, Papers, 1942-1954; RG 201, Abraham Liessin, Papers, 1906-1944; RG 205, Kalman Marmor, Papers, 1880s-1950s; RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945; RG 353, Jacob Glatstein, Papers, 1920s-1960s; RG 366, Isaac Nachman Steinberg, Papers, 1910s-1950s; RG 367, Malka Lee, Papers, 1916-1964; RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu, Papers, 1901-1960; RG 459, Lippa Lehrer, Papers, 1920s-1960s; RG 491, Mani Leib, Papers, 1915-1953; RG 518, Mattes Deitch, Papers, 1920s-1960s; RG 526, Louis Lamed Foundation for the Advancement of Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, Records, 1940-1960; RG 561, Rashel Weprinsky, Papers, 1936, 1958-1966; RG 569, Shlomo Bickel, Papers, 1920s-1969; RG 584, Max Weinreich, Papers, 1930s-1968; RG 598, Moisey Ghitzis, Papers, 1927-1968; RG 601, Leon Feinberg, Papers, 1920s-1968; RG 609, Ephraim Auerbach, Papers, 1924-1969; RG 626, Berish Weinstein, Papers, 1928-1968; RG 650, Aleph Katz, Papers, 1920s-1969; RG 711, Lazar Weiner, Papers, 1908-1974; RG 722, Shea Tenenbaum, Papers, 1940s-1960s; RG 753, Reuben Iceland, Papers, 1906-1954.