The Golden Peacock


Birds are songsters, and, unsurprisingly, there are lots of songs about them in Jewish – if not most – languages. They are magical beings, mediating between heaven and earth, embodying our desires to fly free from the chains of mundane experience and to reach spiritual heights. They are small creatures, nestled in the branches of trees as our own babies are cradled within the home. For centuries, quills fashioned out of their plumes have enabled us to communicate with distant lands, and these feathers may embody the most wondrous of colours.

This webpage is devoted to one of the most beautiful birds of all, the “Golden Peacock” – “Di Goldene Pave” – the mythical symbol of Yiddish literature and song.1

 
 
"Goldene Pave",  by Harriet Kessler


Peacocks, with their golden “eyes” or “stars” and lustrous feathers, are in many ancient cultures symbols of the cosmos, all-seeing wisdom, immortality and light. In Greco-Roman mythology, the peacock is identified with Hera (Juno) who created the peacock from Argus, whose hundred eyes symbolize the vault of heaven and the “eyes” of the stars. Many Hindu deities are associated with the peacock, and in Buddhist philosophy, the peacock represents wisdom. In Babylonia and Persia, the peacock is seen as a guardian to royalty, and is often seen in engravings upon royal thrones; it is also associated with paradise and the tree of life. In Christianity, the peacock symbolizes the “all-seeing” church, as well as resurrection, renewal and immortality. (For more information, see these websites featuring peacock symbolism). The peacock also has negative connotations, with its raucous call and prideful bearing.

According to Buddhist folklore, Buddha-to-be “was once born as a golden peacock, residing on the golden hill of Dandaka in the Himalaya mountains. When day dawned, the golden peacock used to sit upon the summit watching the rising sun, and it composed a prayer to protect himself in his feeding-pasture. … In the evening when the sun went down, the bird came back to the hilltop on which he rested to watch the setting sun, and he meditated to utter another prayer to protect him from dangers during the night time.” (Read the parable here).

The Jewish “goldene pave” may possibly have descended from these antiquities – we don’t know (see some amusing anecdotes about the origins of folksongs here). We first hear of the mythical bird in two variants of Yiddish folksongs about an unhappy bride, banished from her parents’ home and sequestered in her mother-in-law’s domain. In Beregovsky's collection of Jewish Folksongs (1938), the girl turns herself into a golden peacock and flies to her parents' home; this is reminiscent of European ballads on the theme of the cruel mother-in-law. In Ginzburg & Marek’s anthology, Jewish Folksongs in Russia, 1901, the golden peacock, able to fly the impossible distance between the young bride and her parental home, functions as a messenger between the girl and her family. Russian folklorist Zinoviy Kiselgof (1878-1939) interpreted the folksong metaphorically: "'Di gilderne pave' [the golden peacock] is an allegorical symbol of the Jewish nation and 'Di gilderne feder' [the golden feather] means our Holy teaching, the Torah. 'Shver un shvigers kest' [board with parents-in-law] is the existence in Golus [Exile], i.e., far from mother's house." (The reference in both variants to a lost feather is reminiscent of what happened to Pegasus, the mythical winged horse and inspiration of the Muses, when he was turned into a constellation). The loneliness of the new bride is a common theme in many traditional cultures. Here, for example, is a similarly-motivated Yemenite song, "Abdah", sung by a new bride at the pre-nuptial henna ceremony: "Dear mother, I wish I were a bird that spreads her wings and flies to your doorstep." 2

 

According to Itsik Manger (1901-1969), “The golden peacock is a rare bird. You can travel around the world and you will not encounter it. You’ll find it only if you make yourselves familiar with Yiddish folksong. There she is born.”3 For Manger, not only was the peacock was like Pegasus, capable of travelling to distant, imaginary places; it also expressed the breadth and depth of longing for a world lost for ever. Manger returned to the image of the golden peacock again and again. He refers to it humorously in “Der rabeynu tam” [Our Rabbi Tam] where it represents the mysteries of the Orient and ironically in “Der shnayder-gezeln Note Manger zingt fun der goldener pave” [The tailor's apprentice Note Manger sings about the Golden Peacock] where it represents spiritual freedom. In “Dos lid fun der goldener pave” [The song of the golden peacock] (1948), the peacock sets out on a search for “di nekhtike teg”. This phrase, which literally means “days of yore”, is used colloquially to mean “nothing of the kind” or “nonsense”. The peacock travels east, north and south, only to be met with incredulity and indifference; finally, in the west, it realizes that its quest is irretrievable. (Here are five different translations into Hebrew of Manger's poem).

Dos lid fun der goldener pave, sung by Batya Fonda

What does this “nothingness” mean? Who is the widow in black, bent over the grave? Note that this song was published after the war, in 1948. Two other poems in the same collection ("Der shnayder-gezeln Note Manger zingt" [Tailor-apprentice Note Manger sings]) which also feature the golden peacock are Yesoymim [Orphans] and Mit farmakhte oygn” [with closed eyes]. In Yesoymim, the lullaby sung at the empty cradle of Yankele, Manger mourns not only the million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust, but also the loss of Jewish tradition – di vayse tsigele [the white kid] and of Yiddish culture and enlightenment – di goldene pave [the golden peacock]. The peacock in “Mit farmakhte oygn” expresses the yearning felt by Manger for his brother Note, his inspiration.

 Ruth Levin sings Mit farmakhte oygn, above. Here is another version, by Chava Alberstein.

Two other Yiddish poets who were fascinated by the image of the golden peacock were Leyb Halpern (1886-1932), whose second book of poetry was named after the mythical bird, and Anna Margolin (1887-1952). In Halpern’s poem “Di zun vet aruntergeyn” [The sun will be setting], the golden peacock “will come / and take us to the place we long for”. The peacock here is a mediator, helping the singer to find what s/he is yearning for and, possibly, possessing a messianic, redemptive ability to cross over the boundaries of impossible distance. The poem has been set to music by both Ben Yomen (1901-1970) and Leibu Levin (1914-1983).

Di zun vet aruntergeyn, sung by Batya Fonda

In Margolin’s poem, Di goldene pave [The golden peacock], popularized by the beautiful setting of Chava Alberstein (from the disk Di krenitse [The well]), the golden peacock represents the transient nature of love.

 

The golden peacock was also a messenger, its golden feather possibly representing a quill with which to communicate with distant lands. H. N. Bialik (1873-1934) wrote about two golden birds with mythical matchmaking powers. One was “Tavas zehavi” [My peacock], and the other was the “dukhifat zahav” [golden hoopoe], in the song “Bein Nehar Prat Unehar Hidekel” [Between the Tigris and the Euphrates]. (As we can see with respect to translations of Manger's poem, above, the two birds convey similar connotations with respect to Jewish literature). The hoopoe, which is mentioned in the Bible and Talmud, is associated with the exotic court of King Solomon; there are legends explaining why it wears a golden crown and how it brought Solomon the flint stone [even hashamir] to build the Temple. Here is a video of "Bein Nehar Prat" taken at one of the community singing functions held by Zemereshet, an organization devoted to preserving early Hebrew songs.

 

The golden peacock continues to intrigue Yiddish writers to the present day. In the song “Vayl ikh bin a tsvayg” [Because I am a branch], poet-composer Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman (b. 1920) speaks of a rootless tree, referring indirectly to what has remained of Yiddish culture after the Holocaust and process of Americanization. For Simcha Simchovitch (b. 1921) whose poem, Di goldene pave, written in 1989, has recently been set to music by Lenka Lichtenberg (in the disk Pashtes [Simplicity]), the golden peacock has returned from afar, singing “a nayem nign, a lid” [a new tune, a song] – Yiddish literature is alive and undergoing a process of rejuvenation.

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1 Many collections of Yiddish poems and songs are entitled "Di goldene pave" [The Golden Peacock]. For example:
Fein, R. & Wolitz, S. With Everything We've Got: A personal anthology of Yiddish poetry [image of golden peacock on the cover]
Gorali, M. The Golden Peacock: Yiddish folksongs
Halpern, M.L. Di Goldene Pave [collection of poems]
Leftwich, J. (Ed.). The Golden Peacock: A worldwide treasury of Yiddish poetry
Livnat. Di goldene pave proyekt [musical programme]
Weisgall, H. The Golden Peacock [settings of folksongs for voice and piano]
Zucker, Sh. The Golden Peacock: The Voice of the Yiddish Writer [CD]

2 For more about pre-nuptial henna ceremonies, see the blog "Eshkol Hakofer". In particular, read about "Ya mashta", a Moroccan Jewish henna song, which expresses the distress of the bride being sent away from home.

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Tavas hazahav [The golden peacock], by Shem-Tov Levi

References

Becker, M. Fragen an den Goldenen Pfau: Heimat und Heimweh in der Yiddischen Poesie. Vortrag zum Symposium fur Jiddische Studien.
Manger, I. Shriftn in Proze, Tel Aviv, 1980
Manger, I. Bibliotheca Augustana

Websites about Peacocks

Monachos.net
The Meaning of Symbols
What's Your Sign?
Symbolism of Animals in Buddhism
Peacock Christian Symbol