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The Happy Conscript
To Sing Away the Darkest Days
Call me Yosl Ber. You can call me pisher, it’s sweet fuck-all to me. I used to be a cobbler’s lackey licking boot soles, dawn to dark. Now I’ve joined the Czarist army and clomp around in combats. I eat regular in the army, pork sausage with cheese. In the shtetl when a Jew eats a chicken, one of them is sick.
What do Jews ever inherit but hemorrhoids and heartburn? I wear a uniform, I carry a gun. When a worm sits in horseradish it thinks it’s in heaven. Nine rabbis can’t make a minyan, but they’ll take ten of the likes of me. They hate me, those whiskers, declare me a meshumad, spouting Talmud from their mouths like turds from a goat. They should run to the toilet every three minutes. They should grow like onions with their heads in the dirt.
To be a Jew is like being buried in the ground baking bagels. But being in the Czarist army, ah! a resurrection. I can go to any tavern in my fine uniform, boots and sword and give the barmaid a wink. And she’ll give me a wink. And then we’ll wink together. For a glass of milk, you don’t have to buy the whole cow.
minyan – gathering of ten men required to begin prayers; meshumad – apostate
The Happy Conscript is one of the poems in To Sing Away the Darkest Days - Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs. The poetry book can be bought from this page
Number of pages: 124
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What was said about To Sing Away the Darkest Days
‘Hirschhorn’s long poem ‘Confessions’ was laced with dark humour - “we are God’s Chosen People. / I wonder what we were chosen for” – and concluded with a painful, poignant vision. The poet comes upon a couple in Sainsburys, “a shrunken old man, straggled beard – Jewish, surely – and his tiny wife, too much lipstick” and suddenly sees them “holding hands, walking along a cobbled street / too slow for the men in boots, guns, and thumbs / in their belts.” ’ - Greg Freeman from Write Out Loud about To Sing Away the Darkest Days at the South Downs poetry festival
‘Norbert Hirschhorn enriches the Jewish legacy of finding relief from troubled times through song, a wonder for readers to experience themselves by relishing each of these folksongs in written and musical form in this remarkable literary and cultural presentation.’ - Deborah Schoeneman on the Jewish Book Council website
‘If there is to be a revival of Yiddish, as the author states that there is, then Mr Hirschhorn will be at its forefront. This is a scholarly achievement and a brave book. It is a book that needed to be written.’ - Frances Spurrier on Write Out Loud
Norbert Hirschhorn has pulled off a kind of transformative magic in this collection. They reveal a civilized, liberal sensibility, concerned with inequality, but amused too by the quirks of human kind. - Lunar Poetry magazine
‘The fact that these are distinctly Jewish folksongs turned into poems, I would argue, makes them even more universal, more easily translatable across time and place.’ - Sarah Zaides on jew-ish.com
‘These are gorgeous poems in any context, tough and daring, elegantly put together. Whatever your background, read them and sigh.’ - Leah Fritz on London Grip
‘It is Hirschhorn's own re-imaginings that speak most deeply to me, as a Gentile, of the power of song and poetry to address unspeakable hardship.’ – Robert Peake in the Huffington Post
‘Hirschhorn has done something wonderful here, and I encourage readers interested in Yiddish language and literature (as well as in poetry itself) to investigate.’ – Erika Dreifus on her blog
‘Norbert Hirschhorn’s re-imagings do add to the original songs, offering a new way of looking at them. Just like a good cover version of a favourite song enables listeners to hear something new in the original.’ – Emma Lee on her blog
‘Listen to these very free, flavourful variations of Yiddish songs. The gifted fiddler of words on the rooftop is the doctor-poet Norbert Hirschhorn seemingly painted by Chagall. The tunes he plays are Heine-like, humorously wry or bitter-sweet. Be seated.’ – Dannie Abse
‘Ludic and learned , comic and tragic, Norbert Hirschhorn’s ‘versions’ of Yiddish lyrics dress a poet’s unique imagination, humor, insight in the garb of another tradition to tell us about the present and the past. The book’s scholarly links and literal translations add another level to our appreciation both of Hirschhorn’s achievement and of the songs themselves.’ – Marilyn Hacker, Chancellor, Academy of American Poets
What a time you must have had with these songs\poems\stories\celebratons\laments. They seem a cultural treasure chest - full of surprises. – Polly Longsworth