Leon H. Gildin review of Yiddish Genesis

When I was asked by the editor of Prof. Richard J. Fein’s collection of essays, Yiddish Genesis, to review the work, I was hesitant to do so in that the editor would not tell me anything about the material. Since it was written by a professor I felt that I did not have the scholastic background to judge writing that might be beyond my comprehension. Nevertheless, when the work was received it did not take me long to decide that I was competent to review it because it became obvious that Prof. Fein was a man who wanted to live the life that I had lived.

If the truth be known I did become literally frightened after reading the Preface. If the rest of the essays were going to be in the incomprehensible language of the Preface I would be in trouble. Permit me to quote: “Whatever the conceptions and chimeras that rove here, I ride them to travel more deeply into Yiddish and Genesis.” The Preface then ends with the following sentence: “To adapt the Chagallian image, I eye the horse that eyes me in my village of memory and reading.” That’s tough stuff to understand.

In my opinion this collection of essays should have been published separately. I find little connection between them other than the fact that they are bound together in one book. The Yiddish portion of the book deals with two basic issues. The first is the author’s regret that he came to Yiddish so late in life. Having been brought up in a Yiddish speaking home and having lived and enjoyed a Yiddish secular life, I understand Professor Fein’s regret. From a reader’s point of view, however, the same regret is expressed in almost every essay and while it may have been relevant at the time the essay was written, it does become a bit repetitive.

The second issue which is gone into in depth is the question of translations, more particularly the translation of Yiddish poetry. I understand Prof. Fein’s emotional attachment to the issue having done poetry translation for many years as a matter of personal achievement and having had many of them published. The essay, “The Companion-Translator,” correctly states: “The task of translators is to capture, in their language, what the poem possess in the original.” Prof. Fein has done just that in the few examples of his translations that appear in the essays. There is, however, a very serious omission. Prof. Fein writes at great length about the works of H. Leivick and cites a translated portion of one of Leivick’s poems that happens to be in free verse. I am sure that it will make Prof. Fein jealous to learn that from the earliest days of my life up to today, my oldest friend is Leivik’s son and I spent many a supper at Leivick’s home (speaking Yiddish, of course). I am more than familiar with Leivick’s body of work and it is fair to say that ninety five percent of it is in rhyme. So now we come to the real issue of translation that Prof. Fein does not deal with. If the original is in rhyme then the translation should be in rhyme. The rhyme, in many instances, dictates the meter. If the translator ignores these elements then his work is nothing more than a poem, in English, on the same subject as the Yiddish poem that he attempted to translate.

And now we go to Genesis. The reason I feel there is no connection between the two sets of essays is the fact that, although there exists a translation of the TANAKH, The Five Books of Moses by Yehoash, a truly monumental work, and although Prof. Fein chooses a line here or there in English and shows how it appears in translation, the connection is, at best, tenuous. His essays on Genesis are learned and if published separately would be just as learned and just as unrelated to Yiddish and to the translation of poetry.

Yiddish Genesis is a scholarly work and, as I said in the first paragraph of this review I am not a scholar.

Leon H. Gildin is a retired lawyer who was active in the Yiddish secular world of New York and now resides in Arizona. He is the author of the following books: You Can’t Do Business (Or Most Anything Else) Without Yiddish, Hippocrene Books, New York, 2000; The Polski Affair, Diamond River Books, Canada, winner of the 2010 International Book Awards for historical fiction, 2009; and the sequel, The Family Affair, Diamond River Books, Canada, 2011.

The Arts Fuse reviews of Yiddish Genesis and B’KLYN

“The brief, jewel-like essays of Richard J. Fein’s Yiddish Genesis touch on the Jewish short story, translation, poetry, and the Old Testament. The collection, spanning 1968 to 2010, signals the two dominant sources of inspiration for Fein’s work as a poet-translator: the Yiddish language and the Book of Genesis. The title is nearly an oxymoron, as Genesis is origins and creation, while Fein’s beloved Yiddish is shadowed everywhere by death, destruction and disappearance.”

So begins Susan de Sola Rodstein’s recent review of Yiddish Genesis in The Arts Fuse.

Of Fein’s book B’KLYN, she states that “the wonder of this volume is the capacity of Fein’s work to contain a palimpsest of encounters and a lifetime of reading and re-readings. He gives us the gift of a truth that must be lived to be known: that things do not happen only once but resonate in many directions through time.”

For the full reviews, click here.

Another excerpt from B’KLYN

The following poem is another selection from Richard J. Fein’s latest collection, B’KLYN.

From the Diary of Yankev Rivlin

(Feb. 26, 1934)

How strange, growing up inLodz

or growing old here onBroome St.,

never having danced for joy—

yet last night, stamping home

after the Fred Astaire movie,

the only footprints my own,

I watched bulbs burning

under their snow-ribbed helmets

tilted rakishly from wind and wear, snow

tufting the numbered tags

on telephone poles, meringue-treated

cars deserting their models, curbs

softening to pavement, and

I could

romp in my boots anywhere.

Excerpt from B’KLYN

A small taste of the prodigious Richard J. Fein’s work. BHB has published multiple collections of poetry from Fein. The following poem is from his most recently published collection, B’KLYN. 

The Patient

Lunar antlers sprout from ears,

droop, blacken, thicken, merge

into a cold zodiac roving

on my chest and back, followed

by two thumping fingers.

A chaste-white duster—

starched, creaseless, glossy,

its flat, crisp, linear pockets

like slits sealed into the cloth—

deploys, Indian file, four-eyed

buttons that light on me:

“A CATscan, EKG, carotid duplex.”

A punctured neck bells out

from a clipboard and a bulbous thumb

presses on a nub, and a point scurries

across a pad I never see,

and my gurney’s steered away

while I’m staring at the ceiling

panels’ systematic perforations

that change to random wormy nicks,

and slabs of fitted frosted glass

that change to ice tray grids

with their neon cubes—

and I’m delivered to an alcove

where a technician jiggles my bracelet,

my name purplish, stamped and smudged,

and I hear my blood gurgling on a screen.


Richard Fein brings Brooklyn to life in this amazing collection. Fein draws upon his Jewish heritage and childhood memories to create an eclectic experience filled with both tradition and exploration. It touches on both the past and movement into the future with strains of Whitman and inspiring energy.

This upcoming collection is a must-read.

If “only the dead know Brooklyn”—then only the living can know theB’KLYN of Richard J. Fein: in poems that take us all around the boroughin despair and exultation. Love the heartbreaking and heartfelt poetry of Richard J. Fein!

—Ted Richer

Pre-order B’KLYN by Richard Fein