Walt Whitman among the Yiddish Poets

By Levinson, Julian | Tikkun, September/October 2003 | Go to article overview

Walt Whitman among the Yiddish Poets


Levinson, Julian, Tikkun


When Jewish writers from Eastern Europe began composing poems in their native Yiddish during the late nineteenth century, they were confronted by a difficult challenge, unique, perhaps, in the history of modern literature: they were writing in a language that had been spoken for a thousand years, but had almost never been shaped into formal verse. Unlike English writers raised on Shakespeare, Italians raised on Dante, or Germans raised on Goethe, Yiddish writers did not have the luxury of a towering figure or set of canonical classics to use as a model for their own work. Previous generations of Jews had, to be sure, composed Biblical commentaries, homilies, and prayers in Yiddish (the genre of tekhines-the prayers of early modern Jewish women-being a case in point), but these sorts or writings did not directly aid the would-be Yiddish poet, who sought to express his or her personal response to the world, not the specifics of Jewish law or devotion.

Without an established literary tradition to turn to, Yiddish poets found themselves in a position akin to homelessness. Their lack of a literary tradition in which to root their imaginative lives mirrored the uprooted quality of modern Jewish life. What emerged was a restless effort to adapt materials from foreign sources to build up a tradition they could call their own. To find models for their writing they had to reach into the poetry of other nations, other languages.

In spite of the strain this need for literary models placed on young writers, one benefit was that Yiddish poets could allow their own sensibilities to guide them through the process of apprenticeship. East European Jews tended to know several languages in addition to Yiddish and Hebrew, and they often gained inspiration from Russian, Polish, and German literature. Not surprisingly, most Yiddish poets also tried their hand at translation, especially during their early years. In the most resourceful of the modern Yiddish poets, then, what we discover is a fascinating and complex dialogue between the language of composition and foreign influences. Because of this dialogue, their work exemplifies what is often called "hybrid" literature-various styles, perspectives, and value-systems converge in the formation of a poetic discourse in Yiddish.

In the work of American Yiddish poets, most of whom circulated in and around New York City, different writers turned to different models. The great modernist innovator, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, drew upon the work of German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine to fashion his own ironic and painfully bitter poetic voice. Mani Leyb, Halpern's colleague in the poetic group known as "Di Yunge" ("The Young Ones"), modeled himself after Russian symbolists such as Alexander Blok, whose poems were considerably more delicate and abstract than Heine's.

But what about influences from American literature itself? As they became American citizens in a political sense, did these immigrant writers also join the republic of American literature?

The answer is that a surprising number of Yiddish poets discovered a guiding inspiration in the work and personal example of Walt Whitman. Whitman was by the 1870s an internationally acclaimed figure, hailed by many as an avatar of a new, unbridled poetry. In his great work, Leaves of Grass, rewritten over the course of his lifetime, he had cast off the ornamentation of Old-World forms and opened the door to free verse and to a democratic poetry of the here-and-now. He asserted that the purpose of the poetic imagination was not to dwell in legend, myth, or romance, but "to give ultimate vivification to facts, to science, and to common lives, endowing them with the glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only" (from "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads"). He developed a style of poetry aimed at celebrating the energies of everyday life, asserting that individuals are organically linked to each other and to the natural world. …

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