Di Rayze Aheym/The Journey Home

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Poem by Irena Klepfisz, 1990

The most salient stylistic feature of Irena Klepfisz's poem " Di rayze aheym /The journey home" is its English/Yiddish bilingualism. During her work on the Jewish women's anthology The Tribe of Dina (1986), Klepfisz became increasingly aware of, as she wrote in Dreams of an Insomniac, "how the Holocaust had robbed [her] generation of the language and culture which should have been [their] natural legacy" and was "struck that as a poet … [she] had never thought about the discrepancy between … the Jewish experiences [she] was trying to write about, and the language [she] was using." Influenced by Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa, who mixed Spanish and English in her poetry, Klepfisz began experimenting with bilingual poetry. She characterized " Di rayze aheym, " one of her first bilingual poems, as an attempt "to duplicate in language and form the thematic conflict in the poem itself—the loss of language and voice, the efforts to regain them."

Polish, not Yiddish, was Klepfisz's first language. She recalled that she had no language in which she felt "completely rooted" until her late teens. After immigrating to America in 1949 her Polish atrophied, never progressing beyond a childlike state. Although she thought and dreamed in English, it "seemed alien and lacked both intellectual and emotional resonance." The Yiddish she learned at the Work-men's Circle School and which was the language of the secular Jewish community in which she was raised "had the emotional and cultural substance" but "simply didn't feel natural." Although she has conceded that the Yiddish of her poetry was neither the same mame-loshn she would have used had she "been born into a different Poland" nor the anglicized Yiddish of American Jews, she insisted that her Yiddish was authentic and that Yiddish was not a dead or dying language. The Yiddish of her poetry "was very much alive. Not unlike a … survivor of an overwhelming catastrophe, it seemed to be saying … 'I am not what I once was … But I did not die. I live."'

Although clearly autobiographical, inspired by Klepfisz's return to Poland in 1983, " Di rayze aheym " is written predominantly in the third person. In " Der fenster /The window," the first of nine cantos, the poem's "she" looks out the window, alienated and estranged from the American cityscape. In America "All is present/The shadows of the past fall elsewhere." The shadows are the "shadows of Jewish-Polish culture" that Klepfisz encountered on her trip to Poland, an experience she describes in Dreams as "like stepping into a negative rather than a photograph." For Holocaust survivors, whose present is permeated by the past, America's constant present is perceived as a threatening wilderness, and the wilderness has "dried out our tongues and we have forgotten speech." The absence of Yiddish from this canto underscores the loss of language.

In the wilderness and isolation of the eternal present, "she" tries to hold on, "clinging like a drowning person to a flimsy plank," to her memory, which holds "the entire history of the people." In an attempt to rescue fleeting memory and restore lost speech, "she" flies "like a bird" to Poland, landing near the wall of a Jewish cemetery. The cemetery wall, however, does not separate the living from the dead, " Der moyer a beysoylem oyf der zayt un oyf der zayt, " as there is no living Jewish present on the other side of the fence. In her travel diary " Oyf keyver oves : Poland, 1983," Klepfisz concludes, "the major Jewish activity in Warsaw occurs in the Jewish cemetery and consists of the unchecked sinking of gravestones into the ground. Deeper and deeper." Cantos 5-8 further explore the inadequacy of language in mediating between present and past, the living and the dead. "Among strangers on this side" and "among ghosts on this side," she wonders "with whom," "how," and "with which words" she should speak and is ultimately driven to silence, " un zi shvaygt."

Canto 5 lists four questions (kashes ) but leaves them unanswered, underscoring the impossibility of dialogue. In canto 8, " Di tsung /The tongue," communication breaks down completely, "She lacks the words and all that she can force is sound unformed sound." In this canto the gutter down the middle of the page, which throughout the poem serves as a visual reminder of the unbridgable gap between Yiddish and English, the past and present, widens. Silence dominates, embodied in the empty space between the vowel sounds, the Yiddish words they signify, and their English translations. In the final canto, " Di rayze aheym /The journey home," "she" returns to America, concluding, "Among strangers is her home. Here right here she must live. Her memories will become monuments." Together with her travel diary, in which Klepfisz states, "Poland remains undzer heym, our home … Amerike iz goles, America is exile, a foreign land in which I speak a foreign tongue," " Di rayze aheym " denies the possibility of a definite distinction between home and exile for the Holocaust survivor. Klepfisz has revisited this dilemma in her poem " Bashert, " in which the narrative voice explains: "I am almost equidistant from two continents. I look back towards one, then forward towards the other. The moment is approaching when I will be equidistant from both and will have to choose. Maintaining equidistance is not a choice."

—Elizabeth Loentz