Anthology of Yiddish Poetry
of Poland between the two
World Wars (1918 - 1939)

אַנטאָלאָגיע פון דער ײִדישער פּאָעזיע
אין פּוילן צווישן ביידע וועלט מלחמות
(1918 - 1939)

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  Home > Zalman Shneour > About Zalman Shneour > Zalman Shneour (1886 - 1959): his poetry  

  Zalman Shneour (1886 - 1959): his poetry      


It was in the decade before the First World War that Shneour became widely known to the Yiddish-speaking world. Daringly licentious verses such as Karshn, but above all the poem he originally entitled simply "Tra-la-la-la"  which was set to music and became the beloved folksong "Margaritkelekh" made him famous. It opens his book 40 yor lider un poemen, 1945, from which these four later, inter-war poems have been selected.

Admittedly, it stretches the point to claim Shneour as a "poet of Poland between the Wars", when in this period he was a cosmopolitan East European Jew living mostly in Paris -  but he did live in Warsaw and in Polish Vilna before World War I.
Zalman Shneour

My mentor Romek Mokotow (b1924) remembers hearing Shneour called a shmadnik (a Jew ripe for conversion) in Warsaw, as a result of his focus on sexual desire. Shneour did embrace modern European culture with a passion. Our selection shows his familiarity with the ennui of the fin de siecle decadents, with Goethe's Faust and Nietzsche's Superman. His generation of readers was well acquainted with mythology through "The  Golden Bough," and references to Hindu mythology were common. In the poem "We live with memories" he describes the modern machine as an idol who destroys our young, like Kali the destroyer.

All four poems are urbane, and Paris cafe living is their backbone, even if We live with memories(1929) seems to deal with successful Jewish immigrants in New York, a city Shneour had visited ten years previously. This poem expresses concern for the loss of community values of the old country, and contempt for merely material success.

A Cafe Song (1930) elegantly describes the sad life of a proud, solitary emigre - including his struggle with lust.

In Face to Face (1927) Shneour describes the existential loneliness of a modern city dweller, and contrasts a cowardly with a courageous  approach.

In the earliest of these poems, Between (1924),  Shneour gives a frank account of a writer's moodiness - with alternating ego deflation and inflation -  and its effect on his creativity. We would like to think that he calls himself Master with self-irony! The sculpting metaphor used reminds us that in Paris at the time one famed hero-artist was Rodin the sculptor (whose secretary, the poet Rilke had been thrilled to become).

Shneour assumes a well-read audience that will comprehend his literary and philosophical references. His concerns were at once Jewish and universal - as with Sholem Ash, though Shneour never achieved Ash's success in translation.

In the poem "Between", the first verse neatly summarizes Macbeth's Faustian temptation. The poem makes other literary references as well, which Beni Gothajner has detailed with his translation of the poem. Nevertheless, the images used  convey the theme of artistic integrity clearly enough, even for unsophisticated readers. Shneour's liberal sympathy for the poor is expressed as well.


Andrew Firestone, 2012.
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Floris Kalman for her assistance in making the final selection of poems.



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