As my children get ready to go back to school, I find myself going through our keepsake boxes of their various art projects, essays, and the like. It’s such a pleasure to find flashes of their budding creativity. As a librarian at one of the world’s great Judaica libraries, I am in the privileged position of getting to revisit similar creativity from previous generations of young people. Just the other day I got to catalog a little booklet entitled “Fríling” (Spring) subtitled “Péysekh-zhurnál fun di kínder fun der ídisher folk-shul” (Passover journal from the students at the Jewish Folk-Shul), a little 16-page creative-arts publication from the middle-school students at the Folk-Shul in Los Angeles, published in 1928.
The journal starts off with a little self-deprecatory anecdote by the noted Yiddish writer Lamed Shapiro (1878-1948). He had been asked by a delegation from the students planning the journal to contribute to it. He politely declines. After a night of unsettled dreams in which the Prophet Elijah chides him for his unsympathetic behavior, he offers them his remorse and his story. The journal’s pages contain the kinds of poems and stories one might expect—about springtime, about local scenery, and the like. There is a playlet on the subject of “Elijah and Ahab.” But most heartening are the contributions: “Der stráyker” (The Striker) and “Di árbeter” (The Workers) by 10-year-old Shimon Ring; “Yúdzhin Víktor Debs” (Eugene Victor Debs) by 14-year-old Nokhem Halpern; and “A bagégenish mit a stráykern” (A Meeting with a Female Striker) by 11-year-old Leah Targen.
School is a place for the nurturing of empathy and fellow-feeling. Sometimes the political needs to be met head-on and not ignored. Clearly these students were encouraged to think creatively about precisely that. I will give you a taste of their writing with Shimon Ring’s poem “The Striker.” First, Yiddish culture never shied away from poetry, and this little journal is no exception. While there are some places in need of a little polish, you can sense Shimon Ring getting a feel for the shapes of the phrases. More than that, I find wonderful how he tries to capture the frustration—not just with the boss’s cruelty, nor only with the family’s abject state, but with the failure of those in power simply to listen and to hear.
In a kleyn, tsebrókhn hoyz,
Vu ále nakht krikht um a moyz,
Zitst a múter af a tsebrókhenem shtul,
Mit kínder, vos vintshn zéyere báykher zoln zayn ful.
In a little ramshackle house,
Where there crawls every night a mouse,
A mother sits on a rickety stool
With her children whose bellies want to be full.
Ir man, er straykt far abísl mer gelt,
Vos iz an ónshikenish af der velt.
Er krigt nit keyn gelt mit voyln,
Derfár krigt er in fus koyln.
Her husband’s on strike for a little more money
Which is in the world an agony.
But no money can he seem to get,
And as a result has nothing but sore feet.
Es géyen avék a gántse nakht un a gántser tog.
Nor der bálebós hert nit zéyer klog.
Der bálebós iz áyngeshpart, geméyn,
Un er hert nit dem stráykers kínders gevéyn.
A whole night and a whole day pass.
But he doesn’t hear their lament, that boss.
The boss is stubborn and base
And doesn’t listen to the striker’s children’s cries.
As always, “léyent gezúnterhéyt” — read it in good health.
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