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“Kafka’s Gay, Hasidic Hebrew Teacher”: Kenneth Sherman reviews Elana and Menachem Wolff’s translation of Georg Mordechai Langer’s Poems and Songs of Love

A Hunger Artist and Other StoriesPoems and Songs of Love is one of two titles that make up Guernica’s first-ever flipside book. This two-in-one work includes Franz Kafka’s late short-story collections A Country Doctor (1919) and A Hunger Artist (1924), newly translated by Thor Polson, and Poems and Songs of Love, Elana and Menachem Wolff’s first-time translation of Georg Mordechai Langer’s collection Piyyutim ve-Shirei Yedidot, originally published in Prague in 1929.

“Langer comes alive in the introduction Elana Wolff has written for the translation,” writes Sherman.

“Georg Mordechai Langer turns up from time to time as a curious sidebar to the life of Franz Kafka,” notes Sherman: “One biographer of Kafka describes Langer as ‘a medieval Jewish mystic born into the wrong century’; another refers to him as ‘the Orthodox fanatic.’”

In his Diaries Kafka himself describes Langer as the “western Jew who converted to Hasidism.” The two men met in 1915 and first connected over a mutual interest in Jewish folk and mystical  traditions.

Elana Wolff came to Langer through a study on Kafka for a biography course. She was intrigued by brief mentions of Langer in Kafka biographies as well as by references to Langer in Kafka’s own Diaries and Letters. She was particularly intrigued by an entry in A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia asserting that Langer’s importance in Kafka’s life had been “largely overlooked.” Also by references to an elegy for Kafka, written by Langer in Hebrew and published in a small collection at the Prague Jewish printing works in 1929. “Wolff’s search for the book,” relates Sherman, “led her to Israel’s National Library, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem,” where she discovered (in storage) a copy of the original volume.

The 12th poem, “On the Death of the Poet—after Franz Kafka,” composed shortly after Kafka’s death,” [was] the elegy Wolff was searching for,” reports Sherman. “But Wolff made a more surprising discovery as she read through the poems…Langer was gay—an item not mentioned by any of Kafka’s biographers.”

Wolff calls Langer’s disclosure of his homosexuality through his poetry “a daring act of self-expression,” writes Sherman, and she “tantalizes by proposing that Kafka may have been the love interest in Langer’s poems.” Kafka is, in fact, the only person named in any of Langer’s pieces.

Sherman praises the Wolffs’ translations for their success “in capturing the tone of an alienated and at times desperate man on the margins of his community.” He lauds Kafka’s “anti-poetic” restraint, “but for the most part,” finds “Langer’s poems archaic… florid… abstract… and heavy-handed. “

Sherman is especially fascinated by the prose piece, “Something About Kafka,” written by Langer in Hebrew and published in the Tel-Aviv journal Hegeh in 1941. The Wolffs bring this piece to the English-reading public for the first time as well, appended to Elana Wolff’s Afterword. Sherman quotes from this article at length and closes by commending the overall investigation.

To access Kenneth Sherman’s full article, visit Tabletmag: http://tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/186696/kafka-langer

Copies of A Hunger Artist & Other Stories; Poems and Songs of Love are available on the Guernica Editions website: http://www.guernicaeditions.com/title/9781550718676

Posted in Poetry, Reviews.