How We Found Jacob Morgenstern
Going back as far as I can remember, my father Stanley Morgenstern longed to know more about his own father, Harry Franklyn Morgenstern. My dad was 13 when his father died and he had little more than a few photographs and these scraps of information: Harry came to New York City from somewhere in Poland, had a beautiful singing voice and Spencerian handwriting, and owned a women’s clothing store after moving to Cleveland. My dad also remembered that he had a grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins in NYC, but had lost touch with them after Harry died. My Cleveland grandmother added that my father’s grandfather (Szymon Wolf Morgenstern) was a famous Yiddish writer whose books were in the Rivington New York City Public Library. My dad had a vague memory of the words kaczka and lehru being associated with the writer and thought they were his pen names.
My dad’s longing became my quest when I reached my 20s. Pre-internet, pre-Jewish Gen, I waded through reams of old census, birth, death, and voting records and found almost nothing. I enlisted the aid of my mother’s cousin who was skilled in geneology searches. After she came up empty handed, she joked that maybe he had been in the witness protection program with all traces of him wiped out.
But I persisted. As the decades went on and an increasing number of documents became available on the internet, I hired a Cleveland researcher to help. Despite his best efforts, he joined the camp of frustrated researchers and recommended looking for records in Poland. That researcher solved the mystery; we had the names backwards–our family name in Lodz was Kaczka and Morgenstern was the pen name used not by my dad’s grandfather but his great-grandfather Yaakov Kaczka born 1820 in Pietrikov. From there, I used WorldCat to find that Jacob’s chapbooks are in libraries around the world: the British Library, Library of Congress, National Library of Israel, Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, Emery, University of Chicago, and many others. My dad, who is now 92, finally had the sense of his father and his family that he had been looking for.
We don’t have any pictures of Jacob. According to Itzik Manger, he was “a Jew of medium height, skinny, just skin and bones.” And C.L. Fuks described him “as a tall, pale Jew with an eternally sad face. Even when he was already old, he liked to make little jokes and also take a drink.” I can’t say that the physical description matches my dad, but they do have in common a sharp sense of humor, enjoyment of a glass of wine, love of good books, and devotion to family. Lucky us, to have them both.
Translator’s Note & Acknowledgements
When Patti Morgenstern-Clarren, JM’s descendent who generously sponsored this website, sent me a copy of Jacob Morgenstern’s chapbook, Simkhe Plakhte oder Der Velt Shvindler, to consider for translation, I was firstly attracted by the old Yiddish orthography. It was interesting to look at—vowels and punctuation were sparse and diacritics dotted the pages. How was I going to make sense of what looked more like a player piano roll than the Yiddish I was used to. But as I focused in to read, the words somehow innately poured forth. A comedic voice articulating absurdly buffoonish characters brought to mind a comic book that instantly lightened my air. The story was bizarre, especially the first paragraph that introduced a grotesque, unmarriageable orphan girl who was to become the bride of our hero Simkhe Plakhte. My gratitude goes out to Bridget Starr Taylor, the illustrator responsible for the drawings on this website who so deftly captured that fantastical creature. The narrator’s voice also fascinated me —a Germanic syntax fused with a homey Yiddish that ultimately mirrored the tensions depicted in the narrative. Add to that, Hebrew, the language of the bible that held such sway over the folk, and one emerges with a mélange of folklore, spirituality and a flavor for the epoch’s sociopolitical climate. The colorful tableaus rendered by the language transported me to the days of the shtetl and its inhabitants. I was fascinated and eager to deliver a translation, not least because it would bring me into the world of my ancestors, a world that I yearned to be more intimate with, but also because it would immerse me in the sense of humor that glided off Morgenstern’s pen. That ability to laugh at ourselves and others is to me the lifeblood responsible for the survival and thriving of a people that endured unfathomable hardship.
Having been raised in a secular Jewish environment, lacking religious background, undertaking the translation of this text was an opportunity for me to explore how deeply Talmudic thought was woven into the fabric of Jewish life up until the turn of the 20th century when the influx of modernity overtook that existence. In this endeavor I owe a wealth of gratitude to my basherte lebns-bagleyter, partner in life and in our research and translation business, my beloved Chana Pollack. Her knowledge and guidance made it possible to footnote the assortment of biblical references contained in the text.
In following up on the decision to transcribe the original text into current YIVO orthography a dilemma arose: should we keep the Germanic flavor of the dialect or convert the grammar as well as the spelling to standard Yiddish (klal)? After consulting with Itzik Gottesman, a folklorist, linguistic scholars and lovers of Yiddish, it was decided to stay as close as possible to the original voice and only adjust the spelling to YIVO rules. Punctuation was added to facilitate intonation and rhythm. A transliterated version of the text was created to make it readable to those not fluent in the Hebrew alphabet.
Thanks to Amelia Power, the developer of this website, the user is empowered with the ability to easily toggle between the three versions of the text. This feature makes the text more accessible and facilitates the learning of Yiddish. Gratitude also goes out to Sheila McManus for designing such a clean and easy-to-navigate website. Her confidence in the project guided me through my maiden voyage of seeing a website come to life.
Thank-you also to Barbara Schmutzler, a native German speaker currently in NY studying Yiddish after 20 years in Jerusalem, for painstakingly transcribing Morgenstern’s archaic text into modern Yiddish orthography. Her knowledge of all three languages was instrumental in creating the transcription. Barbara was a strong proponent of staying true to the original dialect, as altering vocabulary and/or grammar would have strayed from the writer’s voice.
Refoyl Finkl’s, shraybmashinke, Yiddish Typewriter program made the transliterated text easier to expedite.
I would also like to thank, IN GEVEB, the online Yiddish literary journal, where my translation of Morgenstern’s, Bintshe the Tsadeykeste, recently appeared. It was a pleasure to work with Madeleine Cohen and the lovely design and execution of the IN GEVEB website inspired me to endeavor to give Simkhe Plakhte similar exposure.
It is my hope that this work extends the offer of pleasure and enjoyment that Jacob Morgenstern intended when he prefaced his work with the following proposal:
enjoyment. Young and old, rich and poor, will be
equally entertained. The story will bring
the reader to his senses. Anyone who reads it will
be forced to laugh.
New York City
April 1, 2017