Academic journal article The Space Between

Modernist Yiddish Aesthetics, I. L. Peretz's Middlebrow Yiddish Poetics,and the Place of Yehoash in Modernist and Middlebrow Literary History

Academic journal article The Space Between

Modernist Yiddish Aesthetics, I. L. Peretz's Middlebrow Yiddish Poetics,and the Place of Yehoash in Modernist and Middlebrow Literary History

Article excerpt

Yehoash (the pen name for Solomon Bloomgarden, 1870-1927) was a revered Yiddish poet during the interwar period, the Holocaust, and the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust.1 This essay establishes a critical methodology for recovering the work of this important Jewish poet. Before Yiddish poetry became closely identified with modernism, Yehoash's inclusive and comprehensive aesthetic received broad approval for its function as a bridge between the sacred and secular dimensions of modern Jewish expe- rience.2 That bridge offered the possibility of cultural survival during the Holocaust, especially for American Jews whose Yiddish speaking relatives were being murdered in Europe. Although the conservative, preservative function of Yehoash's poetry runs counter to progressive modernist notions of emancipation from tradition, it serves an important role in the ongoing restoration of Yiddish literature after the Holocaust. Even the skeptical modernist Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, a writer whose interwar practices of inward looking Introspectivism run counter to Yehoash's encyclopedic poetics, goes so far as to say that Yehoash foresaw the catastrophe of the Holocaust and strove to provide "a guarantee against the decline of our language" by "rescuing thousands of Yiddish words" from the "here and newness" and "say it straight compulsion" of an interwar international Jewish world whose creativity had been diminished by violence and as- similation (Glatstein, in tokh gekumen 65-66). For Glatstein, Yehoash's project of "renewal and revitalization" through the "harmonizing" of the modern and the traditional (Glatstein 67) represented a fulfillment of the "organic integration" (Winer 93) of secular and sacred literature, a process popularized in the early twentieth century by the revered Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz, and continued by Yehoash after Peretz's death in 1915. Yehoash's chumash far kinder [Bible for Children] was a popular text for children who could not read Hebrew, his trilingual (Hebrew, Yiddish, and English) edi- tion of pirke avot [Sayings of the Fathers] made Jewish learning available to a variety of readers, his translation of the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] was a best seller, particular in an inexpensive two volume posthumous edition published during the Holocaust, and his later poetry (1919-1921) captures the "entire horror" of a catastrophe to come. Yet perhaps because the sacred and secularizing dimensions of textual Jewishness interact in such strange ways in Yehoash's poetry, and perhaps because these interactions offer strikingly different insights into Yiddish representations of modernity than those provided by more well-known modernist Yiddish poets, the work of this important poet remains obscure and forgotten.3 This abandonment is especially troubling because Yehoash's work was so highly regarded as a symbol of the redemptive power and tenacious toughness of Yiddish culture during the Holocaust. When the inhabitants of the Vilna ghetto looked for an example of consolation and hope in March, 1943, they staged an exhibi- tion of Yehoash's literary career, celebrating the triumph of Yiddish as an enduring force in Jewish culture.4

In this essay, I suggest that Yehoash's construction of a comprehen- sive, encyclopedic notion of textual Jewishness can be recovered if we read his work in terms of "middlebrow" patterns of literary textual production and consumption. Jewish literary histories that center around modernist aesthetics have left no place for Yehoash and the nearly messianic role he played in Jewish literary history. The middlebrow project of broad based cultural self definition begun by I. L. Peretz and continued by Yehoash, on the other hand, enables us to understand why such a wide variety of Jewish readers found their own hybrid dilemmas expressed in Yehoash's poetry. When Yehoash juxtaposes traditional Jewish conventions, literary norms, and traditional modes of representation with modern experiences of disorientation, disgust, wonder, and (often sexualized) astonishment, for example, he creates a "bundling" of optimism and "general terror" (Glat- stein, in tokh gekumen 66) that contrasts sharply with interwar modernist assertions of artistic autonomy, independence, and emancipation from tradition. …

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