Between Jesus and the Besht

In: European Journal of Jewish Studies
Efrat Gal-Ed Heinrich-Heine Universität, Düsseldorf

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Two particular groups of poems from Itzik Manger’s largely unpublished early work (1921–1929), those about Jesus and those about the Baal Shem Tov, form a poetical polarity in his work; at the same time they act as complementary forces in the psychological unfolding of Manger’s creative process.

As an itinerant poet travelling on Romanian back roads, Manger encountered many wayside crosses with scenes of crucifixion, and found in the image of Jesus a tragic companion, who embodied homelessness, helplessness, and human pain. From 1921 to 1928 this companion mirrors in Manger’s work the shadows of the poet’s soul and also engages his fascination; in the figure of Christ Manger was able to name the unbearable in his own life, experimenting in that process with symbolist and expressionist forms and models.

In 1927, Manger discovered his deep connection to the Besht. Childhood memories of travelling with his grandfather in the Carpathian Mountains reinforced the connection. Mesmerized by the figure of the Besht, Manger then developed in a new group of poems a healing counter-world to the one depicted in the Christ poems, a world that is tangibly inhabited by the sacred.

Manger thus moved from Golgotha into the open space between Kosev (Kosov) and Kitev (Kuty), and in so doing created poems with a new sonority, poignantly evocative of Yiddish folk songs. The Christ figure disappears once Manger becomes aware of this poetic and psychological fault line in himself, though Christian motifs remain part of his poetic vocabulary.

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