Julian Levinson is a professor of American Jewish studies and English literature at the University of Michigan. He is currently working on a book about the ways Jewish writers in America have defined themselves in relation to Judaism and the Jewish past.
This is the first in a series of articles dedicated to key Yiddish poets. These are writers who have remained unfamiliar to many readers, not only because poetry is inherently difficult to translate, but because of the lingering bias that Yiddish is a language of humor rather than serious art. As we sift through the multiple meanings of Jewish culture and identity, however, there are good reasons to pay particular attention to these poets today.
To be a Yiddish poet, it must be remembered, is to enter a curiously ambiguous position between tradition and private experience. All of these poets were, in one way or another, on the run from traditional Judaism, lured by the call of literature rather than Torah. Yet they refused to abandon the language of their youth, even though many had wandered far from home and were more than competent in other languages. The decision to write in Yiddish was fraught with some peril for anybody wishing to be wholly modern. After all, Yiddish carried along with it powerful associations from the Jewish past. What we discover in their writing, then, is an urgent striving to articulate idiosyncratic personal visions without erasing or forgetting the collective experience of East European Jews. In the best of their writing, they demonstrate that the borders surrounding "Jewish culture" can be redrawn to admit the radically new without reducing it to the already-known. Reading these poets today, we are reminded that we are not the first generation to experience Jewishness as an overwhelming question rather than a fixed set of responses to the world. We are also reminded that a question need not demand a quick and ready solution, but--if experienced in its entirety--can push through to a genuinely new awareness of ourselves and our world.
From the turn of the century through the 1930s--the period in American Jewish history associated with pushcart entrepreneurs and labor unionists--there appeared in New York City a great number of ambitious, energetic, and restlessly innovative Yiddish poets. Among the notable figures were Mani Leib, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Celia Dropkin, H. Leivick, Anna Margolin, A. Leyeles, and Jacob Glatstein. Gathering in coffee shops in Manhattan and the Bronx and publishing in tiny literary journals, they brought Yiddish poetry to a level of achievement unparalleled, perhaps, in the history of Yiddish literature.
There are several ways to explain this surge of literary creativity. On one hand there were sociological factors unique to Jewish life in America. The massive influx of new immigrants had made New York by 1910 the most populous and diverse Jewish community in the world. Jews from regions as far-flung as Bessarabia and Lithuania suddenly found themselves living in the very same neighborhoods. This concentration of Yiddish speakers assured the writers an audience and encouraged the sharing of viewpoints, experiences, and literary influences. On the other hand, there were trends in the broader cultural scene that inspired Yiddish writers. These were years of heady experimentation in the culture at large, a period known as the moment of High Modernism. Individual expression was given free rein in all of the arts; traditional forms became the playthings for a newly insurgent avant-garde. Numbered amongst the new movements were the Harlem Renaissance, the "Lost Generation," Italian and Russian Futurism, Imagism, and Cubism. Yiddish writers, too, responded to this moment of cultural innovation. Within a remarkably short span of time they cycled through a variety of literary schools and trends, ranging from neo-romanticism to imagism to surrealism.
But why was poetry the most vital literary form for American Yiddish writers rather than, say, the novel or drama? …