Saying ‘Thank You’ to Ehud Manor on His Yahrtzeit

Ehud Manor on his 60th birthday

I remember the evening clearly enough, though I had no idea that it would someday, years later, change my life.

It was a damp, Jerusalem evening during the winter of 1998/1999 at the Merkaz Hamagshimim campus on Dor Dor Ve-Dorshav Street in German Colony. And on this particular evening, Merkaz Hamagshimin – the Young Judea-run cultural center known for its outstanding programming — was bringing the renowned Israeli songwriter and lyricist Ehud Manor to speak in English in front of a crowd composed mostly of new olim and overseas students. Just about everyone knew the lyrics to Bashanah Ha-Ba’ah, but few of us knew any of his other work. Or so we thought…

Ehud Manor began the evening quietly. He talked about his childhood, about being a shy, aloof boy who was embarrassed by his red hair, pale skin and numerous freckles. He thought them terribly unattractive and extremely un-Israeli.

(He references those freckles in his song Binyamina Days.)

He went on to tell us about the great tragedy of his life, the death of his younger brother Yehuda who fell in 1968 in Israel’s War of Attrition. Manor’s poignant lament Li’l Brother of Mine, Yehuda quickly became one of the nation’s most performed and most memorable songs about bereavement. It signaled an inflection point in the tenor of Israeli literature and popular culture – a move away from the collectivization of feeling (each fallen soldier is one of Israel’s children) to a more personalized expression of grief and mourning.

It was this poem that first brought him recognition, but also attracted the attention of people in the music industry. The musical “Hair” was coming to Israel and the producers were looking for someone to translate the counter-cultural and sometimes surreal lyrics.  The clever verbal gymnastics of Dan Almagor – the eminent Israeli playwright who had translated “My Fair Lady” and “Guys and Dolls” and dozens of other shows – just wouldn’t do for this production. They needed a younger voice, someone who could tap into the pain and confusion, and joy and liberation, of America’s Vietnam/hippy era. The producers said: “Let’s meet with the person who wrote Li’l Brother of Mine, Yehuda. He speaks to that sort of sentiment.” Thus began Manor’s long history of translating for musical theater.  Over time, he became Israel’s most prolific lyricist, writing and translating over 1,000 songs, many of them classics of the Israeli songbook.  I’ve translated a small fraction of those songs here.

So nu, you might ask, how did this evening change my life?

No, I did not meet my future wife there (though coincidentally she had also attended an Ehud Manor lecture the previous year at a Merkaz Hamagshimim shabbaton.) Nor did I change my career to follow in his footsteps. But a seed was planted, a seed that would come to fruition a decade and a half later, when I began translating Hebrew poetry for my blog Poems of a Life Twice Planted.

Ehud Manor explained to us the technique he employed in his translations. To capture the lyricism of a song written in a different language, he would first look for words in Hebrew containing the same sounds and meter and proximate meaning of the original. Capturing the lyricism was paramount, and more important than duplicating the literal meaning of the original text.

As an example, he noted his translation of the song “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables.

The original Alain Boublil lyric begins with the words: “God on High” and concludes with the phrase “Bring him home.” Manor’s translation begins with “Elohai” and concludes with “Be-shalom.”

“God on High” → “Elohai
“Bring him home” → “Be-shalom

That was far from a literal translation.  But as a lyric, it was extremely effective and deeply moving. In my opinion, the translated Hebrew version surpasses the original. Listen here and decide for yourself.

When in 2014 I started publishing my own translations of Hebrew songs, I realized that it was this quality that was – for me – missing from many otherwise outstanding translations of Israeli poetry. I started to employ Ehud Manor’s technique, but in reverse.  I sought to capture the lyricism of the Israeli originals in my English translations.  The translated poem needed to sing as much as the original, and still stand on its own two feet as a cogent and beautiful work, faithful to the imagery of its parent.

This is the great debt I owe Ehud Manor: over the course of one hour of one night in 1998 or 1999 – with an intervening delay of fifteen years – he had taught me how to translate a poem that I could love in its new form as much as I loved in the original.  That had never happened to me before.

Until now, I’ve been talking about the content of Manor’s lecture.  Let me speak for a moment about the emotional experience of sitting in that now-defunct German Colony theater.  Within the first few minutes, I felt like I had met the grandfather I had never known, someone so willing to give of himself – his experience, his pain, his doubts, and his ultimate successes – to an audience that he had primed to receive that message. There was no hint of false bravado in any of his words – his talk radiated nothing but love and humility.  To this day, whenever I hear the term “generosity of spirit”, I immediately think of Ehud Manor.

Ehud Manor passed away 17 years ago on the 3rd of Nissan, 5765 (April 12, 2005). His death came as a blow to me. I never got the chance to tell him how deeply his talk had affected me, how he had left his poetic imprint on my soul.  Today, on his yahrtzeit, I take the opportunity to thank him publicly.

May his memory forever be a blessing, and may his songs continue to awaken that uniquely Israeli generosity of spirit in all of us. Halevai

About the Author
Elli Sacks is a software product manager whose interests include writing musicals and translating poetry. A native New Yorker, he has lived in Modi'in with his family since 2000. In 2014, he began publishing his blog: "Poems of a Life Twice Planted: Hebrew Poetry in Lyrical Translation"
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