MANI LEYB (LEIB) (December 20, 1883-October 4, 1953)
The pen name of Mani-Leyb Brahinski, he was born in Nyezhin (Nizhyn), Chernigov region, Ukraine, into a poor family. He father would travel to markets as a buyer of horse and animal hides, and he also would write letters to the United States for abandoned wives and deserted brides. Mani Leib would listen to his father’s letters, watch as the brides and abandoned wives drenched themselves in tears, and quietly would cry to himself. His family lived in a poor home with a straw roof. The children slept on the floor, on straw, covered with sheepskin. Inscribed in the poet’s memory were the Saturday evenings at his father’s table. Sitting around the table were low-level buyers and sellers of farm products, horse merchants, and storytellers. They would drink up six samovars full of tea, “describe in detail an entire world”—wonder upon wonder—about snow-covered, enchanted forests, about horse thieves, about treasures of stolen gold, horses gone astray, lost boots, Jews—travelers with sacks, about Elijah the prophet, also tales of highwaymen, corpses, and wizards. His mother brought six sons into the world (Mani Leib was the first-born) and two daughters. She was the breadwinner in the family, because her husband earned very little. She sold vegetables, chickens, and eggs in the market. She was also a sayer of sayings, a rhyme-maker, and a singer. Until age eleven he attended religious elementary school, after which he entered an apprenticeship to a bootmaker and five years later became his own boss, with six employees. At that time he joined the revolutionary movement: initially, he was a Ukrainian socialist, later he stood with the Socialist Revolutionaries, later still an anarchist, and finally a social democrat. In 1904 he was arrested and spent several months in jail. When he was arrested again somewhat later, though, he escaped and fled to England, and there over the course of a year he contributed to the revolutionary movement of young Jewish immigrants. Y. Ḥ. Brenner encouraged him there by to write poetry, and he made it possible for the socialist weekly newspaper Di naye tsayt (The new times) to publish Mani Leib’s first poems which were later republished by Forverts (Forward) in New York. In 1905 he came to the United States, settled in New York, where he lived for the rest of his life. He soon found work as a bootmaker, was an exceptional expert, and remained with his trade for a long time. In America he began to publish poetry in a large number of periodicals and magazines. The poems were utterly new in every detail in terms of theme, versification, and expressiveness. He became the most representative agent of the “Yunge” (Young ones) writers’ group. This direction was a reaction against everything formalistic. Youth now had to renounce age. “Age” in the Yiddish literature of that era meant in practice—the social, the ethnic. The “Yunge” wanted to free themselves from every tendency and moral, introduce the motif of the individual, create a new poetic lexicon and form, and even establish poetry for poetry’s sake. Later, a portion of this group broke off along another path of their own. There were but three poets who always remained faithful to the credo of the “Yunge”: Mani Leib, Zisho Landau, and Ruvn Ayzland. Mani Leib went on to place work in the most diverse of Yiddish periodicals and anthologies in America: Fraye arbeter-shtime (Free voice of labor), Idisher kemfer (Jewish fighter), Di varhayt (The truth), Der arbayter (The worker), Do yudishe folk (The Jewish people), Dos naye leben (The new life), Di tsukunft (The future), Di naye velt (The new world), and Troymen un virklekhkeyt (Dreams and reality), among others. Special, though, were the publications of the “Yunge”: the collections Yugend (Youth), Literatur (Literature), Shriften (Writings) 1-4, Fun mensh tsu mensh (From person to person), and Der inzl (The island), among others. He had ties to Forverts in which he had published his first poem, when he had just arrived in America, and he proceeded to place there a great number of original poems and translations, becoming a regular contributor to the newspaper in 1946, when he stopped working in a factory as a bootmaker, and he published his poetry in all the Sunday issues of the newspaper. When he was in his fifties, he contracted tuberculosis and soon thereafter had abscesses in his stomach, making it impossible for him to work any longer in the shoe factory. The Jewish bakers’ union gave him an office job, and he subsequently became the publicity agent for the union which added something further to his salary. Every day, 1933-1934, he published (using the pen name Khevreman) in Tog (Day) and labor-features in prose, with which he was himself not terribly pleased. His fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays were celebrated with the warmest exchanges for the beloved poet. There were special editions of journals (e.g., Oyfkum [Arise] and Epokhe [Epoch]) dedicated to the poet. Throughout his entire literary activity as a poet, only a small number of his poems appeared in book form, but his poetry and children’s stories were published in wide variety of serials. A collection of his poems and ballads in two parts appeared posthumously. It was missing, however, numerous poems, and his translations from various languages still found no place in book form. In early 1953 he became ill again. He was taken to Deborah Sanatorium and then to Liberty Sanatorium (run by Workmen’s Circle), where he took his last breath. On his sixtieth birthday, he was given as a present a large house (the idea was initiated by Yankev Pat, and the present was given to him by Forverts and special friends). The poetess and storyteller Rochelle Weprinsky was his truest and closest friend for the last thirty years of his life. The critics argued that Mani Leib was in essence a romantic, lyrical poet. Frugal was his byword, a condensed image, and not a “voluble” plot. His lyric with its wonderful sound, rhythm, and rhyme peels off its wordy garb, from its thought-provoking concreteness, and enters completely into the sphere of music. He was also an authentic balladist and storyteller, and a master of the children’s poem which in his hands approached a classical level. His lyricism accompanied the mysterious, melancholy ballad; the descriptive, recounted tale which played with all the charms of naïveté, simplicity, and good-natured humor; the poem for children that sings and dances and plays every instrument. The wonder of his poetry in general is not so much the topic but the vivid language which is refined and simple; the innovative music of living rhythms, sounds, rhymes; the joint, concerted working of tones and colors; the lyrical mood which trembles through the genteel turns of phrase and the tender experiences of his verses. The entire world was full of wonder for him—and full of beauty. On numerous occasions, he reminds us of the wonder atop wonder and beauty on top of beauty—and like every genuine poet, he marveled even more than anything at that which is ordinary. He was among the only poets who for him “beauty rides on the word, like a horseman in the distance.” He succeeded in playing the secular tune on a Jewish instrument of the vibrant word and the vigorous idiom; the simplicity and sincerity of the Yiddish language flow into the exalted and liberating secular motif; they introduce the beauties and the spirit of universalism. He was both folkish and ethnic. He never spoke about the “folk”—only about “Jews.” A man of the people, he could not employ the florid language of glorifying the abstract “folk.” He enjoyed speaking simply about Jews. Among Jews—even in remembrance—he felt like “a fish in water”; unprepared, he transformed himself into a cheerful, delightful, popular tone about the Jews of Vilna, who taught Torah to the simple folk of Nizhyn; he loved speaking in a serious Yiddish and recounting with charm and good-natured humor tales and wonders of Chelm, and primarily of the Jews of Chelm. He was Jewish to the core—although he lacked “Jewish” subject matter. Perhaps the “purism” in his poetry was not accidental, but a predetermined system. Perhaps it was the fruit of that inclination of the “Yunge” who held that one had to free oneself from every kind of tradition and create poetry for poetry’s sake. He did not, however, write random poems just to write poetry, for the poem itself was replete with content. The poem became the practical objective and therefore was imbued with ethnicity. He spoke about himself—though overly modestly and also not fairly—that he was “a whistler but such a one as no prophet am I.” All the elements are organic for Mani Leib: the delicate, charming word; the implicit jest full of significance; the elegant Yiddish idiom; the good-natured and all-forgiving humor; the delightful popular quality that smells of all the finest aromas and shines forth with extraordinary appeal, especially in the folktales and children’s poetry. “Mani Leib’s first poetic period,” wrote Ruvn Ayzland, “began with the series of poems that he published in 1910 in the second collection of Literatur…. In his first period, he was thoroughly romantic and his subject matter was the fruit of a dark mood of an individual who quarrels over the gray surroundings which he fears. On many occasions he never stops complaining about his fate. In another instance he struggles with himself or with his despised surroundings. And, in yet a further case, he envisions for himself a completely unreal world, but more beautiful and enlightened than the one in which he lives; on another occasion, he sings of the joy and the sadness of a great and mighty personal experience that brings about longed-for happiness…. The main characteristic of Mani Leib’s first poetic period was haze…. The reason for such haziness came essentially from…the fears he had himself of getting to the bottom of his own emotions. I don’t know precisely when he began to write his sonnets, the crowning achievement of his work and which constitutes his third and final poetic period…. He wrote some sixty sonnets…. I was amazed at the tone in which they are written and the wisdom of life that emerges from them. Now, though, when I have reread them many more times than before, this amazement returns to place for an unending and profound joy, for which Mani Leib was worthy—no, for which Mani Leib himself engendered the rare honor of creating something such that everything that he earlier wrote—as beautiful and important as it was—appears no more than a preparation for what would come later.”
His books: Baladn (Ballads) (New York: Inzl, 1918), 109 pp.; Lider (Poetry) (New York: Inzl, 1918), 140 pp.; Idishe un slavishe motivn (Jewish and Slavic motifs) (New York: Inzl, 1918), 110 pp.; Yingl-tsingl-khvat (Little boy-little tongue-dapper man) (New York: Inzl, 1918), 27 pp., illustrated by Z. Moud—later editions (Kiev-St. Petersburg: Jewish People’s Publ., 1919) and (Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1922), illustrated by El Lissitzky—Der fremder, der shlof (The stranger, the bed) (New York: Inzl, 1918), 39 pp., illustrated by Z. Moud; Gazlonim, di noyt (Thieves, hardship) (New York: Inzl, 1918), 7 pp., illustrated by Z. Moud; Dos liedel fun broyt, dray malokhim (The little song of bread, three angels) (New York: Inzl, 1918), 27 pp., illustrated by Z. Moud; Blimelekh-krentselekh (Little flowers in a group) (New York: Inzl, 1918), 24 pp., illustrated by Z. Moud; Kinder-lider (Children’s poetry) (New York: Inzl, 1918), 27 pp., illustrated by Z. Moud; In a vinterdiker nakh (On a wintry night) (New York: Inzl, 1918), 27 pp., illustrated by Z. Moud; Viglider (Lullabies) (New York: Inzl, 1918), 27 pp., illustrated by Z. Moud; translation of A. I. Kuprin’s Dertsylungen (Stories) (New York: Nay-tsayt, 1920), 248 pp.; Vunder iber vunde, lider, baladn, mayselekh (Wonder on top of wonder, poems, ballad, stories) (New York: Workmen’s Circle, 1930), 160 pp.; Mendele moykher sforim (sholem yankev abramovitsh), biografye tsu zayn 100-yerikn geburtstog (Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, biography on his 100th birthday), a biography for children (New York: Sholem-Aleykhem Schools, 1936), 32 pp.; A maysele in gramen fun dray zin mit a mamen (A story in verse of three sons and their mother) (New York: Kinder-ring Library, 1937), 44 pp., drawings by Immanuel Romana; Lider un baladn (Poems and ballads), vol. 1, collected and compiled by Nokhum Bomze, Sotshe Dilon, Rochelle Weprinsky, Avrom Tabatshnik, and Itzik Manger (New York: Mani Leib Book Committee and the World Jewish Culture Congress and Tsiko [Central Yiddish Cultural Organization], 1955), 341 pp.; Lider un baladn, vol. 2 (New York: Mani Leib Book Committee and the World Jewish Culture Congress and Tsiko, 1955), 408 pp., including his autobiography and Y. Yeshurin’s “Mani-leyb-biblyografye” (Mani Leib bibliography); Sonetn (Sonnets) (Paris: Di goldene pave, 1961), 71 pp.; Shirim ubaladot, Lider un baladn (Poems and ballads), translated from the Yiddish by Shimshon Meltzer (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1963), 263 pp., preface by Itzik Manger, “Mani leyb der liriker” (Mani Leib the lyrical poet) (pp. 8-29); Lider un baladn (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1977), 366 pp. He edited: Di yidishe velt (The Jewish world), community literary monthly, New York division of B. Kletskin Publishers, of Vilna (1915), with Ruvn Ayzland; Nyu-york in ferzn (New York in verse), anthology (New York: Inzl, 1918), 32 pp.; Inzl (Island), anthology (January 1918), with Dovid Kazanski; Inzl, a monthly, published with Zisho Landau and Ruvn Ayzland (New York, 1925); Dovid ignatov, finf-un-tsvantsik yor literarishe shafn (Dovid Ignatov, twenty-five years of literary creations) (Chicago, 1936), with Dr. Y. Rozenfeld; Epokhe (Epoch) in New York (April, August, and December 1945). Celebrating his twenty-five years in America, Mani leyb, a matone mani leybn fun khaveyrim (Mani Leib, a gift to Mani Leib from friends), compiled by Ruvn Ayzland (New York: Inzl, March 1931), 44 pp., appeared in only thirty-five copies. Over thirty poems by various poets were dedicated to him. Music was composed for his poems: “In di vign veynen kinder” (Children are crying in their cribs), music by Pinkhes Yasinovski; “Shneyele” (Snowflake), music by M. Gelbart; “Dos lid fun broyt,” music by N. L. Zaslavski; “Nyezhin” (Nizhyn), music by Khayim Riterband; “Baym taykh” (At the river), music by Solomon Golub; “Der soykherl fun perl” (The little merchant of pearls), music by Shmuel Bugatsh. Mani Leib also translated a great deal, actually transformed poetry from Russian (formidably under the influence of Pushkin, Lermontov, Blok, and others), Ukrainian, English, German, and one poem by Bialik. He was himself translated into a variety of languages, though mainly into Hebrew. A considerable number of his poems appeared in the anthology Aḥisefer and in the anthology Al naharot (To the rivers) by Shimshon Meltzer. In Davar leyeladim (A word to children), his poem “Yingl-tsingl-khvat” appeared in Hebrew translation by Yehoshua Meltzer; and “Dem zeydns shtekn” (Grandpa’s stick) in Hebrew translation by Miriam Vilensky-Stekelis. A great number of his poems were translated by Moshe Basuk, Ḥaim Rabinzon, Sh. Meltzer, Shlomo Shenhod, A. M. Halevi, and others.
Sources: Yefim Yeshurin, “Mani leyb biblyografye” (Bibliography of Mani Leib), in Mani Leib, Lider un baladn (Poems and ballads), vol. 2 (New York, 1955), including works in Yiddish and other languages, covering through 1954 inclusive. We include below a portion of the bibliography concerning the poet from 1954 on: A. Leyeles (Glants), in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (March 6, 1954; March 13, 1954); N. Mayzil, in Yidishe kultur (New York) (June 1954; December 1954; February 1955); Mayzil, Tsurikblikn un perspektivn (Retrospectives and perspectives) (Tel Aviv, 1962), see index; D. Tsharni (Daniel Charney), in Kiem (Paris) (October-December 1954); N. B. Minkov, in Di tsukunft (New York) (December 1954); Yankev Pat, Shmuesn mit yidishe shrayber (Conversations with Yiddish writers) (New York, 1954), pp. 10, 12, 16, 139-210; Ruvn Ayzland, Fun undzer friling (From our spring) (Miami Beach and New York, 1954), pp. 65-108; M. Basin, Yidishe poezye af amerikaner motivn, zamlung (Yiddish poetry on American motifs, collection) (New York, 1955); A. Tabatshnik, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (January 19, 1955); Tabatshnik, in Vogshol (New York) (January-March 1959); Tabatshnik, in Di tsukunft (March 1963); H. Leivick, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (January 22, 1955); Itzik Manger, in Der veker (New York) (March 1, 1955; December 1, 1955; January 1, 1956); Yankev Glatshteyn, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (March 1956; March 8, 1963); Glatshteyn, In tokh genumen (In essence) (New York, 1956); Glatshetyn, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (November 11, 1962); Y. Tafel, in Fraye arbeter-shtime (New York) (October 1, 1960); Avraham Shaanan, Milon hasifrut haḥadasha (Dictionary of modern literature) (Tel Aviv, 1959), col. 490; Y. Bronshteyn, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (November 27, 1961); G. Pomerants, in Der yidisher zhurnal (Toronto) (December 4, 1961); Dr. L. Fogelman, in Forverts (New York) (December 9, 1962); Rochelle Weprinsky, in Forverts (December 30, 1962; June 2, 1963); Arbeter ring, boyer un tuer (Workmen’s Circle, builders and leaders) (New York, 1962); Y. R. (Rabinovitsh), in Keneder odler (March 18, 1963); B. Ts. Goldberg, in Tog (New York) (June 8, 1963); Briv-1918-1953, mani leyb tsu rashel veprinski (Letters, 1918-1953, Mani Leyb to Rochelle Weprinsky) (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1980), 61 pp.
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 365.]