4.2. Moris Rozenfeld, poem ‘Sephirah’ (1898)

Born in Poland, Moris Rozenfeld (1862-1923) emigrated to the United States in 1886. In New York, he earned a living as a textile worker and wrote poems on Jewish themes, especially about the hard life of Jewish immigrants in the sweatshops. Leo Wiener, professor of Slavic languages ​​at Harvard University, discovered him and compiled an anthology of his Yiddish poems, adding an English prose translation. *Rozenfeld, Songs of the Ghetto (1898). Rose Pastor Stokes and Helena Frank published the translated anthology Rozenfeld, Songs of Labor and Other Poems (1914), in which meter and rhyme were retained and which is used here because it does more justice to Rozenfeld’s poetry than Wiener’s prose translation. This book, Songs from the Ghetto (1898), provided both of them with a few years of fame; Rozenfeld was praised as a role model for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe: “an old tailor’s soul . . . a hungry Jew who became a poet during sleepless nights, without him realizing it—through the hard trials of dire need.” *Berthold Feiwel, Lieder des Ghetto, Introduction to his German translation. Rozenfeld as a role model was the exact opposite of the protagonist in Sholem Aleykhem’s story Mr. Green Has a Job. *Chapter 4.8.

Songs of the Ghetto contains two poems in which the shofar plays an important role. The first is September Melodies. These melodies are produced not only by man, at the end and the beginning of the Jewish religious year, but also by nature, at the end of summer. The former consist of the daily tkiyes (“tekiot”) of the shofar blower in the month of Elul, which falls mainly in the month of September: *Cf. Chapter 3.3.

The Tkiyes-man has blown his horn,
And swift the days’ declining;

whereas the latter consist of bird song:

Already to the mourner’s prayer
the last wild bird is calling.

The decline of nature is connected with God’s judgment of man on the High Holy Days and man is compared to a tree:

Awake! O great and little trees!
The Judgment-day is nearing!

O men! O trees in copses cold!
Beware the rising weather!
Or late or soon, both young and old
Shall strew the ground together…

In the final stanzas, the birds are asked “whereto are ye winging?” and “when come ye again?” They answer: “We know only / That hence we are banished— / But God knows of coming again!” Here, the poet does not make an explicit connection with God’s judgment of man on the High Holy Days.

The second poem with a shofar is titled Sephirah. *“Sfēré” in Songs of Labor and Other Poems 48-50. Sfēré, in phonetic symbols /’sfirǝ/, is the Yiddish version of the Hebrew Sefirah. In this chapter, this generally-known Hebrew word is used. It begins with the invitation of the poet to his Muse to be cheerful:

[1] I asked of my Muse, had she any objection
To laughing with me,—not a word for reply!

In the English prose translation, he does not even ask this question. Anyway, both translations demonstrate that laughter is not in place during Sephirah, the seven-week Omer time between Pesaḥ and Shavuot, which was originally the joyful time between barley harvest and fruit harvest, but in the course of history turned into a mourning period. The rest of stanza 1 reads as follows:

You see, it is Sfēré, our time for dejection,—
And can a Jew laugh when the rule is to cry?

Then, the poet addresses an unspecified Jewish or non-Jewish addressee (in the German translation his father), who dares to laugh; in stanzas 2-13, the poet explains why this is not done. The smile of a Jew is “never a right one,” because with him, laughing and moaning converge; when spring breaks, he sits in sackcloth and laments his sad fate, and in summer, he finds no solace in nature’s beauty, but feels “bewildered and homeless,” knowing that Jews are doomed to wander. Anyone who hears a Jew singing and has an ear for music sympathizes with him and wipes away a tear, and the sounds of the shofar mollify even the most insensible heart:

[9] The blast of the Ram’s-horn that quavers and trembles,–
On this, now, alone Jewish fancy is bent.
To grief and contrition its host it assembles,
And causes the stoniest heart to relent.

If stanza 9 is supposed to give an impression of shofar blowing in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service, then this impression is problematic. The shofar blasts are not there to cause hearts of stone to relent, but follow prayers in which the congregation express their readiness to self-examination. Furthermore, the blasts are not addressed to the congregation, but on behalf of the congregation, to God, as can be read in a representative prayer from Malkhuyyot: “May our mouths’ words rise beautiful before You, / most high and elevated God, who understands and heeds, / looks on and listens to the sounds of our shofar blasts.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 606. Repenting is found in the prayer book for Rosh Ha-Shanah, but no “sobbing,” as in Rozenfeld’s stanza 11:

[11] Of all the sweet instruments, shiver’d and broken,
That once in the Temple delighted his ear,
The Ram’s-horn alone has he kept, as a token,
And sobs out his soul on it once in the year.

In stanza 12, the judgment of the shofar changes from one extreme into another, from the hyperbole “symbol of gloom and despondence” into the litotes “dry, wither’d Ram’s-horn”:

[12] Instead of the harp and the viol and cymbal,
Instead of the lyre, the guitar and the flute,
He has but the dry, wither’d Ram’s-horn, the symbol
Of gloom and despondence; the rest all are mute.

In stanza 9, the shofar is an expressive instrument; in stanza 12, however, it is “dry” and “withered,” contrasting sharply with the lost instruments; in stanza 9, it calls to “complaint and contrition,” to emotions that could lead to something positive; in stanza 12, however, it is the symbol of the negative emotions “gloom and despondence.” *Taken literally, stanza 12 is a one-sided account of reality. The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe 1229, states on Jewish music life in Russia, the country with the largest Jewish population, at the turn of the 20th century: “Beginning in the late 1880s and continuing through World War I, thousands of Jewish musicians flocked to the conservatories, leading to exceptionally high pre-World War I enrollments in cities such as Saint Petersburg (where Jews constituted roughly 50% of total enrollment) and Odessa (where they made up nearly 80%).” In stanzas 3-6, the flourishing nature is not granted to the Jew, who is doomed to suffer; and in stanza 12, all cheerful musical instruments are taken away from him. Stanzas 11 and 12 with their reduction of “all the sweet instruments . . . That once in the Temple delighted his ear”: “the harp and the viol and cymbal . . . the guitar and the flute” to “the dry, wither’d Ram’s horn, the symbol / Of gloom and despondence” contrast sharply with Psalm 150:3-6: “Praise Him with blasts of the horn 3 . . . with harp and lyre 4 . . . timbrel and dance . . . lute and pipe 5 . . . resounding cymbals 6 . . . Hallelujah.” In this way, the hopeful Past of Ps. 150 is altered by the gloomy Present; when the Jew laughs or sings, sadness can be heard in his voice, as in stanza 13:

[13] He laughs, or he breaks into song, but soon after,
Tho’ fain would he take in man’s gladness a part,
One hears, low resounding athwart the gay laughter,
The Suppliant’s psalm, and it pierces the heart.

The final stanza 14 is similar to stanza 1 and the poet seems to assume that he has convinced the reader that Jews can only mourn—at least during Sephirah.

In Sephirah, the shofar has a different meaning than in the traditional religious texts. Rozenfeld calls the ram’s horn “dry” and “wither’d” and the Talmud states, “If its sound is thin, thick or dry, it is valid[;]” *Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 27b for the poet, this dryness of sound is the expression of despair, whereas the Talmud attaches no importance whatsoever to tone quality. In the Bible and the prayer books, the shofar is never a symbol of “gloom and despondence;” instead, it is always associated with trust in God, most prominently so in the Amidah: “Sound the great shofar for our freedom, / raise high the banner to gather our exiles[.]” *The Koren Siddur 120. The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 620, 796. Moreover, the U-Netanneh Tokef with the words “But REPENTANCE, PRAYER and CHARITY avert the evil of the decree” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 568 contradicts any kind of fatalism. A verse as in stanza 9: “The blast of the Ram’s-horn that quavers and trembles” is in accordance with the Days of Awe with God’s judgment of man, but emotions as in stanza 11: “The Ram’s-horn . . . sobs out his soul on it once in the year” are not compatible with the prayers of Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, which do not reveal unrestrained grief. Moreover, the strict system of 100 shofar blasts in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service leads the emotions in the right direction.

The life of the poetical subject of Sephirah is perhaps no less oppressive than that of the protagonist of Perets’ short story Bontshe Shvayg. *Chapter 4.1. However, it is much less concrete; it lacks the many tragic and comical details of Perets’ short story, and moreover, of Rozenfeld’s own poems about work in the sweatshops. In his study about Rozenfeld and the emergence of Yiddish literature in America, Marc Miller states that the poet achieves his best results

by addressing the everyday life of the average shop worker. Rosenfeld’s poetic speakers and protagonists hate their jobs, long for rest, and spend little time with their families. Rosenfeld offered his readers a plot they could understand, a highly emotional, melodramatic narrative with which they could connect. *Miller, Representing the Immigrant Experience x-xi.

Whereas Sephirah offers a highly emotional and melodramatic narrative, the plot is rather weak and the shofar plays a passive role, expressing only grief and contrition, without hope for a better world. In contrast, the shofar in Perets’ Bontshe Shvayg plays an active role as a triumphal tool to welcome Bontshe in heaven and as a symbol of resistance, which could bring down walls.


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