Recently I discovered a Jewish poet named Isaac Berliner who emigrated from Poland to Mexico in 1922. He started out here in Mexico City as a street peddler selling (maybe ironically) saints’ images. He loved Mexico City and the people he lived and worked among in the crowded streets. I found Berliner in an article accompanied by some translations of his poems by Eli Rosenblatt in Tablet. Looking for some personal rather than academic insight into Jewish DF I discovered Ilan Stavans, a Mexican, now Mexican-American, Jew from DF who is a professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts and an incredibly prolific cultural critic and novelist. The book I chose to look at is Return to Centro Histórico: A Mexican Jew Looks at his Roots. This is an informal bit of autobiography (he has a more formal one called A Critic´s Journey). Its charm lies in the myriad family and local pictures which he includes and comments on. It seems to me that in the 20th century, Jews in Mexico City particularly followed a trajectory not all that different from Jews in New York City. My great grandfather who lived in Brooklyn in the first part of the 20th century sold vegetables from a pushcart. His son, my grandfather, was a printer (and a socialist), a skilled trade. He and his family (my grandmother, my dad and two sisters) started out in an apartment on St. Ann’s Avenue in the Bronx and went sort of upscale to the Grand Concourse. My grandparents lived there for the rest of their lives, and as they aged, so did their building so that it was a bit worn down and shabby even when I was a child.
My father and his sisters left the Grand Concourse though my father became a doctor with a practice in the Bronx and so took a while to move, with my mother and me, to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. My aunt Addie married a large, handsome man with black hair who could have been Mexican. He headed a firm of "interior architects." They did the big lobbies and courtyards of big businesses and big apartment stores. They moved to a fancy subdivision in West Hempstead, Long Island. My Aunt Phoebe married a dentist and moved all the way to Utica in New York State where she served for a time as mayor.
Jewish immigrants in Mexico also started as pushcart sorts of people and then became owners and managers of small businesses and factoriesand then moved to the suburbs. Stavans’s parents, as of the writing of Return to Centro stayed in DF, where they had moved, too, to a bit more upscale neighborhood. But among his relatives were an actor: his father; and an orchestra conductor: an uncle. His father did run a small factory to pay for his art. Apparently nowadays, many Jews live in the more prosperous suburbs of Mexico City which are in fact in the state of Mexico.
But I should return to Isaac Berliner. He is seen as a transitional poet. Stavans doesn’t think he is very important, but Rosenblatt has a greater appreciation, with which, based on my scant exposure, I would agree. Rosenblatt says, “The language is marked by its subversive use of allusions to the Jewish past.” He also notes Berliner’s surprising imagery. Rosenblatt says he is a “modernist Yiddish poet,” more stuff for me to look up. By the way, Berliner became good friends with Diego Rivera who illustrated his book of poems, City of Palaces.
Berliner wrote in Yiddish. I’m not at all sure how much Spanish he ever learned. My grandparents came to the U.S. speaking Yiddish and reading in Yiddish. They only learned English after they arrived. A heavy Yiddish accent marked their speech all their lives, and it was easier for them to fall back into their mother tongue than to try to explain complicated things in English. I sympathize! My grandmother wrote her first letter (or anything besides a shopping list) in English to me when I was in Uganda in the Peace Corps.
Here are some of Berliner´s poems as they appear in Rosenblatt´s translation:
Godl Treads a New Land
(Fragment From a Long Poem about Immigrant Life in Mexico)
The sea behind is already suspended in green jelly
having been cast by a front of waves checkered and fluttering
like Jonah’s whale-fish, the ship remains, still by the coastline.
Here he encounters here a sun glowing with dust and pollen
He raises his eyes up to the heavens and prayerfully deep-dreams.
His still lips manage—Praise God, may His name be sanctified!—
I have just crossed the sea and arrived here in one piece.
Foreign-tongued voices deafen like the beats
Strange men hand off the suitcase he carries
His valise between valises, lifted on a wagon
two dark bodies flank him like two reyshes, bent.
Two palms lift and push the wagon hard
and Godl is off through the sunburned streets and intersections
He looks around and gazes upon it all, naked children in sand
Big houses. Small, low-slung shanties bending down in prayer.
He touches the pocket in his overcoat to check if his tefillin
are there—if he had left them on the ship—God forbid—Deprivation.
He arrives at a house. An inscription on a board: “Hotel Espana”
A man opens the door to a room for him, better to say merely, “lodgings”
He washes his hands in a basin and wastes no time.
He takes a look through the shaded window to the eastern heavens astride,
fastens his tefillin upon his forehead and wraps the straps on his left arm
Forget it! He’ll pray in solitude, because here the Jewish street does not exist.
Let Us Relate the Power
It burns in me—the evil sin of Adam and Eve.
My troubles are soaked through with boiling tears and blood
I have never praised the Creator, I have never prayed.
I have never allowed God one tear through my wails.
My dreams dangle bloody on every picket
of this bright prison-world—I will beg, moan
My God—I come to you now with a holy quaking and panic,
Girded with prayers, like a devout Jew on Rosh Hashanah.
Each adversarial hour is a stumbling block,
Every coming day is for me a cold cruelty
Every bloody spot is a letter of Unesanneh Tokef
The red, agonized earth—an open page in the prayer book.
There, put those letters in all the corners of the earth:
Who from hunger? – Who in winter? – Who by fire? – and Who by water?
and I will stay a fleck of dust between red flecks
until the end of generations I will scream scream scream.
The Punishment Should Come
It became black it is a sunburned face
a piece of black coal
the light cries with red tears
toward a desolate destiny and unto horror
The Image of God wails
What has the world deserted?
There is no synonym
for sorrow that bullies
It is every letter
of a poem
an open mouth
for beginning and end
for mourning-rips in cloth
upon a world of compassion and good
for us who have been dealt what we’ve been dealt
here, besides a variety of folk
for every bloody hour.
blood, for a Jew
from each punishment.
The heart of time
has opened up a black secret
heated up my calm mood
God does not scream
in my song’s chamber
the blood of the Jew, it screams
it screams, it screams out to
a variety of folk
and it moans my every sentence
from a folk among wandering folk
through generations eternally in sorrow
through distant paths
for the ascent of a new day.
The path so muddy
A man, on the earth on the mist
Moving along lazy-stepped
with feet, like heavy pendulums
eyes, alight like candlesticks
small flames aroused, fall upon
womanly flesh and hips,
on girlishly tender faces.
What a waste!
He can’t avert his gaze.
Why, if man could master himself
slake in his eyes
these erotic flames.
The man smokes marijuana
The dream-effect places him in a harness
The earth is not muddy.
He lays upon divans
that caress his feet, treading:
He doesn’t hear the laments,
The children on grimy corners,
Here, thousands of singers sing
A man collapses from hunger?
They extend their hands and wail?
Their skin dried out?
Of red and bloody luminations
It smokes a man, that marijuana.
He’s harnessed to the divan.
upon the earth, which is filthy.