Itzik Manger Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

In 1938, Itzik Manger published in the Warsaw Yiddish press his Noente Geshtaltn (intimate figures), a newspaper series of bittersweet, fictionalized portraits of twenty forerunners of Yiddish poetry: troubadours, rhyming wedding jesters, itinerant actors and writers of the nineteenth century and earlier. These popular artists expressed themselves in Yiddish when it was considered, even by its speakers, a language fit not for literature but for low-class entertainment. They were Manger’s first heroes; from their earthy folk style, he learned the art of simplicity.

Manger’s only novel, Dos Bukh fun Gan-Eden (1939; The Book of Paradise, 1965), is a fantasy set in Paradise—a humorous vision of the afterlife in which familiar human weaknesses and pains persist. In The Book of Paradise, fantasy is the everyday norm, and the wrinkles are provided by earthly reality: the reality of human nature and the folkways of the Eastern European Jewish community. In Manger’s novel, Yiddish culture—its folklore, faith, parochialism, and beauty—is celebrated, satirized, and memorialized. The Book of Paradise was published in Warsaw in August, 1939, and nearly the entire edition was destroyed at the printer’s a month later by the invading German army. Only a handful of review copies mailed to America survived.

Although Manger’s poetry places him in the line of the English and German Romantics and the...

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Itzik Manger’s place in the cultural history of the Jews was officially recognized in 1969 with the first annual awarding of the Manger Prize for Yiddish Literature. Among the twelve founding members of the Manger Prize Committee were the Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon (corecipient of the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature); two prime ministers of Israel, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir; the then-president of Israel, himself a poet, Zalman Shazar; and the committee’s chairman, Shalom Rosenfeld, editor in chief of the Tel Aviv daily, Maariv.

The committee made public what had been the private sentiment of many readers. Both for the older generation who knew the poet from prewar years in Europe and for the younger generation who had just discovered him, Manger was an intimate figure, a teacher, muse, and friend. For people whose beliefs in various opposing movements of Judaism and European humanism had failed, Manger’s gentle yet hardheaded, sensuous poetry was a spiritual renewal. His poems had the power to evoke feelings and discoveries of religious intensity, but with a light touch, a lighthearted, cheerful acceptance of the evanescence of all meaning. This acceptance made possible, or necessary, Manger’s anarchistic eclecticism. His poems assimilated and refined diverse sensibilities and philosophies, from Hasidism to nihilism, from Saint Francis to Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. Manger gleaned from these sources all that answered a human...

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Of the many kinds of poems that Manger wrote—ballad, lyric odes, mystical fancies, still lifes, prayers, confessions, ditties, love poems, elegies, children’s songs, lullabies, mood reflections, satires, autobiographies, scenes of local color—it is the ballads that have most interested literary critics.

In his essay “The Ballad: The Vision of Blood,” published in 1929, Manger acknowledged that he was influenced by the traditional British ballad of the supernatural. This influence was already apparent in “Ballad of a Streetwalker,” his first published poem, which appeared in 1921 in the Bucharest Yiddish journal, Kultur, edited by the fabulist-poet Eliezer Steinbarg. The poem anticipates Manger’s mature verse, with its emphasis on the primacy of the moment, provocative understatement and paradox, plain speech, twilight blurring of the natural and the supernatural, psychological realism, compassion for characters on the fringe of society, distant, detached perspectives, and word music. Indeed, of his essential traits, only lightheartedness and folk traditionalism were missing.

“In “The Ballad of the Bridal Veil,” published in Manger’s first collection, a maiden is spinning thread for her bridal veil. At midnight, when the thread runs out, seven aged women enter, and with the white thread of their hair they weave her a veil. At dawn, they depart, and the maiden turns to the mirror. Her face has turned white.

In the ballads Manger wrote after his twenties, there is a lighter touch, as if he had been released from a spell. While he...

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Religious Influences

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Manger’s folkloristic approach to family situations was in the tradition begun in the Book of Genesis, the collection of prose poems about sibling rivalries, marriage problems, and intergenerational relations that is the foundation of Jewish civilization. For adult Jewish men, the traditional course of study has been the interpretation and argumentation of the Talmud, the body of law that developed as an attempt to fix a detailed code of behavior based on the teachings of the Torah (the books of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament). For Jewish women and children, the path along which the tradition developed has been the study of the Old Testament stories themselves and of the Midrashim, legends included in the Talmud, which embellish the original biblical texts. In Manger’s religious education, the key influence was his mother, a woman who could read only haltingly and could not write at all. Her knowledge of the Bible came from the Tsena Urena, a sixteenth century Yiddish version of the Bible, adapted for women. The book is a rambling narrative of retellings of the original stories according to the Midrashim, interwoven with fairy tales, exhortations to piety, household advice, and anecdotes about modern-day heroes (such as Jewish tailors) and villains (such as Christian gentry). The characters in the Tsena Urena are portrayed with the quaint reverence of the rabbinic tradition, but with an intimacy and historical...

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The Holocaust

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

For a Yiddish poet, and one who was so intimately attuned to the yearnings of his people, Manger wrote surprisingly little about the Holocaust. He told an interviewer in 1958 that much time would have to pass before hatred of the Germans and their helpers faded enough for artistic objectivity. In his few poetic attempts to face the destruction of his people and culture, he took two approaches: involving Jewish folk motifs and legendary figures in the reality and its aftermath, and bringing the horror down to the small scale of a personal and subjective view. The sad streak that had always run through his poetry grew more pronounced in the 1940’s; the tone of some of his poems recalls the pessimism of Ecclesiastes, though Manger is more gentle. In his poetry, visionary experience prevails over sorrow. In poems that only obliquely show signs of struggle or historical awareness, he ekes enchanting meaning and music out of the quotidian. In the survey of Yiddish literature which appears in The Jewish People: Past and Present (an English-language reference work published between 1952 and 1955), Shmuel Niger, the preeminent Yiddish critic, referred to Manger as “a hopeless romantic”—an apt judgment, if taken as an affectionate tribute to the poet’s childlike capacity for wonder.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Davin, Dan. Closing Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. A collection of correspondence and reminiscences by several authors including Manger.

Kahn, Yitzhok. Portraits of Yiddish Writers. Translated by Joseph Leftwich. New York: Vantage Press, 1979. A collection of biographical essays on Yiddish writers, including Manger.

Roskies, David G. “The Last of the Purim Players: Itzik Manger.” Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History 13, no. 3 (September, 1993): 211-235. A biographical and critical overview of Manger’s life and work.