Itzik Manger was born in 1901 to Hillel and Khava Voliner Manger, the first of three children close in age. His birthplace was the ethnically Romanian and Jewish city Czernovitz (now Chernovtsy, Ukraine), capital of Bukovina, a province of the Austrian Empire. The city was situated at the intersection of Bukovina, the Russian-ruled Ukraine, and the independent state of Romania; its official language was German. When the Russian army invaded Bukovina in 1914, the Manger family fled to Jassy, capital of the Romanian province of Moldavia, and settled there. The Mangers moved often, going from one single-room apartment or basement to another when the rent was due. Their home served also as the family’s tailor shop. “A roof I didn’t inherit from my parents,” Itzik Manger wrote, “but stars—plenty.” They were a happy family. The mother was pious and barely literate, but she knew thousands of Yiddish folk songs.
The future poet, together with his brother and their younger sister, spent childhood summers in the country, in their paternal grandparents’ home. Riding through the countryside with his grandfather, Zaida Avremel the wagon driver, revealed wonders of nature and perspective to the boy from the slums. The misty Carpathian Mountains, where the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, had roamed seven generations before, haunted Manger, and over the years in his poetry he returned again and again to this setting.
After finishing the traditional Jewish school for boys, Manger was enrolled in a state secondary school in Czernovitz but was expelled in the second semester. This left him time to frequent cafés and wine cellars where Gypsy fiddlers played and to volunteer as a stagehand in the Yiddish theaters of Czernovitz and later Jassy, where he absorbed the folklore of his nineteenth century forerunners.
In Czernovitz, an apprentice-tailor working for Manger’s father introduced the boy to the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Heinrich Heine. At thirteen, Manger began writing poetry in German. His teens were an exhilarating time for him and his brother, Nota; together they discovered Rainer Maria Rilke, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Verlaine, and “Saint” Baudelaire. (Manger gave that title to only two others: Homer and the Baal Shem Tov.)
Before the late nineteenth century, Yiddish had no tradition of poetry other than primitive folk writings and inspirational polemics. During Manger’s childhood and youth, the stories of I. L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem created a body of modern Yiddish literature. Their example attracted the young writer of German poetry to his mother tongue and its speakers. At fifteen, Manger started to write in Yiddish, wondering whether modern poetry could be written in the language of wagon drivers, Hasidism, peddlers, and uneducated women. His doubts were banished when, in his late teens, he encountered the work of two immigrant Yiddish poets who were writing in New York. The gutsy and delicate lyricism of Moishe Leib Halpern and Mani Leib gave new power to Yiddish and set Manger on his course: He would refine the spirits of his ancient and modern fathers in the language of his mother’s lullabies.
During his twenties, Manger was based in Bucharest, where he was active in the Yiddish avant-garde grouped around Eliezer Steinbarg. The group’s influences were Russian, French, and German literature mixed with Slavic, Gypsy, and Jewish folklore. The spirit of the group reflected that of the times: Europe was in ferment and the Jews were in turmoil. World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Russian Civil War broke up what was left, after the mass migration to America, of the old Eastern European Jewish communities. In 1923, the immigration quotas set by the United States Congress closed the “Golden Door,” and Jews came in increasing numbers to the large cities of Eastern and Central Europe.
Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the religious faith of the Jews had been eroded by contact with the outside world and its liberal ideas. A minority clung zealously to fundamentalism; for the rest, the intensity of the lost faith became converted into various new drives: assimilation, economic and professional ambition, public service, leftist radicalism, political and cultural nationalism, intellectual activity, and art. In the popular Gentile mind, the traditionally despised Jews became the symbol of all the changes that were hitting Europe too fast: inflation, labor conflict, sexual revolution, and radical “modern” ideas of all kinds. Anti-Semitic parties and economic boycotts proliferated in Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and Germany. For the newly...
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