"What Balm for the Heart ...?" the Yiddish Poetry of David Fram (1903-1988)
Sherman, Joseph, Midstream
In retrospect, it is amazing that a far-flung, troubled country like South Africa could have become a seed-bed for the ideal of "Yiddishism". Articulated by Khaym Zhitlovsky (1865-1943) and strongly canvassed at the Czernowitz languague conference of 1908, this ideal, which viewed Jews as a nation distinguished by extraterritoriality and deriving its cohesion from the cultural autonomy conferred by the Yiddish language, was encouraged when a Jewish delegation was received at the Versailles peace conference in 1919. This was the first time in history that Jews as a nation and Yiddish as a language had been recognised internationally. Also in the aftermath of World War 1, when the government of South Africa permitted a fresh wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe to join a sizable Yiddish-speaking community already established in the country since the end of the nineteenth century, it further encouraged committed Yiddishists. Among them was David Fram, a poet who became Africa's finest Yiddish praise singer.
Fram's verse, like his engagement with the social, political, and artistic life of his adoptive home, reflects the turbulent forces that shaped this rich sub-continent. Through the medium of what was once the lingua franca of most of world Jewry, Fram's work testified to the belief that secular Jewish culture could spread to the most remote corners of the Diaspora. With one of those ironic reversals for which history is notorious, however, that distant foreign land which like Lithuania before it--had offered a home to an earlier generation of Jews is now recalled, if at all, as the birthplace of a failed promise, a fact that lends poignancy to the refrain of disillusionment that echoes through Fram's poetry:
I thought at last to find my respite here, That here the days might give me limitless content, That now no more the beckoning path would call to me To wander on again, to somewhere else. Yet once again with weariness I long for still, white rest. I thought that local earth might yet be dear-- But destined all anew is wandering for me To seek another comfort somewhere else ... (1)
Born in Ponevezh (Panevezys), Lithuania, on October 14, 1903, Fram received a traditional Jewish education supplemented by secular instruction from private tutors. When Jews were expelled from the Pale of Settlement at the outbreak of World War 1, Fram and his family were cast adrift in Samara (now Kuibyshev), a city on the Volga in Russia. There he studied in the local Russian gymnazium, and at the age of eighteen he published his first poem, in Russian, in a student journal. Significantly, in terms of the emotional concerns of his later work, it was entitled "Zima" (Winter). In 1921, having matriculated at a Soviet workers' school, he returned to Ponevezh, but since the Lithuanian government refused to recognize Soviet educational qualifications, in 1923 he entered the Yiddish gymnazium in Vilkomir (Vilkmerge, later Ukmerge), a town 43 miles north of Vilna (Vilnius) and 30 miles east of Keidan on the Shventa River, in which Jews had been settled from the late sixteenth century onwards. There he lived in the house and under the tutelage of the great Yiddish linguist and scholar, Yudel Mark (1897-1975), who exerted a profound literary influence on him. Determined to make his mark as a poet, Fram contributed regularly to Yiddish papers in Kovno (Kaunas), and had some work accepted by the prestigious Warsaw periodical, Literarishe bleter. Only with the appearance of his long poem, "Reb Yoshe in zayn gortn" (Reb Yoshe in his Garden), in New York's Oyfkum (Rebirth) in 1927, however, did Fram truly enter the international world of Yiddish poetry. (2)
In 1926 the restlessness that characterized his whole life drove Fram to France, where he joined his four sisters, all long-time members of the vibrant Yiddish-speaking community of Paris, in whose midst writers and artists--Marc Chagall (1887-1985) among them--flourished. …