The Glatstein Chronicles: Reading Resources
The Glatstein Chronicles: A 2023 Great Jewish Books Club Selection
In the summer of 1934, 37-year-old American Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein boarded a trans-Atlantic ship for Europe to visit his dying mother. From New York he sailed to France, traveled by train to Paris, crossed through Nazi Germany, and stopped in Warsaw before continuing on to his hometown of Lublin. After his mother’s death, he spent several weeks recuperating in a resort hotel in the village of Naleczow before making the return voyage to New York. We do not know when Glatstein first conceived of the trip as material for a book, but the journey resulted in two masterful novellas written after his return: Ven yash iz geforn (When Yash Set Out), published in 1938, and Ven yash iz gekumen (When Yash Arrived), from 1940.
The first part of the duology—titled “Homeward Bound” in English and grouped with the second as The Glatstein Chronicles—presents the narrator as a passenger aboard ship, and the majority of the section is taken up by his impressions of fellow passengers. These include a socialist geography teacher from Schenectady (“I have always loved the ring of the word Schenectady,” the narrator remarks. “Schenectady! It sounded like the cracking of a hard Turkish nut”); a Jewish prizefighter; an unbearably pompous physician; a lonely Wisconsin school teacher; members of a college band; a misanthropic concert pianist; a Haitian diplomat; and a group of young Soviet engineers returning home after several years in America. Between these conversations, the narrator reflects on his past: his family background in Lublin; childhood experiences of the abortive revolution of 1905; his first trips to Warsaw; adolescent immigration to America; and his struggles as a new immigrant working menial and low-paid jobs, including his eventual employment in the Yiddish press. “The ship seemed to be carrying me back to childhood, as though it were sailing back in time,” he reflects. “The two decades I had passed in America crumbled to dust between my fingers . . . I was awash in memories.”
In the second section—here titled “Homecoming at Twilight”—there is a change of scene. Now we are in a sanitarium in the Polish countryside, where we meet a different assortment of characters: Steinman, an elderly German-trained historian who, like the writer I. L. Peretz, has become a Yiddish popularizer of Hasidic tales; Buchlerner, the overly solicitous proprietor of the hotel; a group of wealthy Hasidim; a henpecked property owner named Finkel; a precocious sixteen-year-old Hasidic poet; and a former lawyer, Neifeld, who takes the narrator to visit the village of Kazimierz. There was supposed to be a third installment of the series titled Ven yash iz tsurikgekumen (When Yash Returned); that book never materialized, although a portion of the planned text was published in 1958 in the Israeli Yiddish journal Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain). Curiously, the ostensible purpose of the trip, the death of the narrator’s mother, is barely described or discussed.
Although the book is fictionalized, it is demonstrably autobiographical. The name of the narrator, Yash (which is only mentioned in the titles of the original Yiddish works), was Glatstein’s own nickname, and the dates of the voyage, which can be derived from circumstantial details, correspond to Glatstein’s own trip. As editor Ruth Wisse points out in her introduction, “There are no apparent discrepancies between the author’s biography and the parts of it he discloses here.” Although the fictional format allowed Glatstein to take liberties with the literary structure of the books, which ranges from memoir to literary reportage to surrealistic dreamscape, to disguise the identities of the characters, and perhaps to invent or embellish some details, it is reasonable to assume that the narrator’s thoughts, feelings, and observations are the author’s own.
Glatstein, one of the preeminent Yiddish poets and public intellectuals of the twentieth century, was born to Isaac and Ita Ruchla Glatshteyn on August 10, 1896, in Lublin, a mid-size Polish city that was home to a large and illustrious Jewish community. He grew up as part of a sprawling family with literary and artistic leanings, especially on his father’s side. One uncle was a religious school teacher; another was a tailor who introduced his nephew to secular literature. A third, R’ Moyshele Glatsheyn, was the Lublin city cantor whose two sons became choir directors and composers. Although Glatstein’s father, a maker of ready-made clothing, was a follower of the Jewish enlightenment movement who encouraged his son’s literary ambition, Glatstein received a traditional religious education through his teenage years, with secular instruction on the side.
At age thirteen, Glatstein traveled to Warsaw to visit the eminence grise of Yiddish letters, I. L. Peretz, as well as other Yiddish writers and intellectuals. It is likely that he was writing even at that age. As Wisse notes, “literature was a popular sport” for Glatstein and his peers, and they “debated the merits of writers the way Americans did baseball greats.” In “Homeward Bound” the narrator describes his friends as “well-read youths who were preparing themselves to becoming critics and who went around with volumes by Taine, Sainte-Beuve, Belinsky, and, especially, our Brandes.” He had himself, he confesses, “already written whole packs of poems and stories.” At age seventeen one of Glatstein’s pieces was accepted by the Warsaw newspaper Der fraynd (The Friend), but never appeared. His first publication wouldn’t come until after he left Poland for America later that year.
Glatsein’s emigration from Poland—a response to rising antisemitism and brutal economic conditions—took place in the spring of 1914, just months before the outbreak of World War I and his own eighteenth birthday. Upon arriving in New York, where he joined his father’s youngest brother, Glatstein did what many new immigrants did: he worked in sweatshops, studied English, and struggled to get by. By 1918 he had learned enough English to enroll in law school at New York University, though he would find that law was not his calling.
Glatstein had written intermittently since coming to the United States, publishing his first piece, a story titled “Di geferlekhe froy” (“The Dangerous Woman”), in the anarchist newspaper Fraye arbiter shtime (The Free Voice of Labor) a few months after arriving. But it was only after meeting Nokhem Borekh Minkoff, another NYU law student and soon-to-be fellow dropout, that he started writing in earnest. In 1919 he began publishing in the journal Poezye (Poetry), and made his first forays into Yiddish literary circles. The same year he got married and began writing for the Yiddish press, which would provide most of his livelihood.
In 1920, together with Minkoff and Aaron Glanz-Leyeles, he founded the Inzikhistin (Introspectivists), a new movement of American Yiddish poetry that advocated a subjective perspective and embraced the use of free verse over metered stanzas, believing that each poem should find its intrinsically appropriate rhythm. Like their predecessors, Di yunge (The Youth), the Inzikhistn were adamant that Yiddish poetry did not have to be about Jews, Judaism, or Jewish themes of any kind. Just like poetry in any other language, it could embrace anything and everything, from the most universal to the most particular. The next year Glatstein published his first volume of poetry, Yankev Glatshetyn, and became a staff member of the newspaper Naye varhayt (New Truth). A few years later he also joined the editorial staff of the Morn zhurnal (Morning Journal) and, in 1945, of Yidisher kemfer (Jewish Fighter); between these newspapers, along with other publications, he would publish thousands of opinion columns and pieces of literary criticism.
Throughout the 1920s and early ’30s, Glatstein, though not particularly famous, was one of the most creative and energetic forces in New York Yiddish literature. His poetry from this period bursts with life and experimentation. When he returned from Poland in the mid-1930s, it was apparent that the trip had marked a turning point in his creative life and career.
In the opening pages of “Homeward Bound,” the narrator observes how being at sea is like living in a different world, removed from the cares of everyday life. Onboard ship, passengers shed their identities and become part of a new society with its own rules and conventions. “We had escaped, leaving behind all sentimental reminders of relatives and attachments to terra firma,” the narrator remarks. “Now that the Olympic had pulled away from land, it formed its own little planet, with its own population, its own way of life, even its own invisible leader, the captain, whose existence you could deny without any damage to your peace of mind.” A few pages later the narrator confesses: “I feel aboard this ship as Jonah must have felt in that first moment when he thought he had escaped God’s wrath. I breathe easier, having at last broken free from the whole abracadabra of my existence.”
The metaphor is well-chosen. Like Jonah, the narrator finds that his escape is temporary; in this case, the specter of current events still haunts the voyage. It is 1934. The Nazis had taken power in Germany the previous year, with Hitler as chancellor. Early on Yash reads of the June 30 purge of the Sturmabteilung, or Brownshirts, an event known as the “Night of the Long Knives.” Finding the gentile passengers largely indifferent (the event is reported by the ship newspaper “as if this were no more than a sensational tidbit, the severed heads of a dozen or so Nazi pederasts served up on a silver platter for the delectation of the passengers after their rich breakfast . . . ”), he seeks out other Jewish passengers with whom he can discuss the news.
At the end of the section, the precarious situation of European Jewry comes more clearly into focus. On its way through Germany en route to Warsaw, the train is boarded by a group of Hitler Youth. “My first reaction wasn’t rage but childish surprise, that what I had only read or heard about I was seeing with my own eyes,” the narrator notes. “I thought of New York, where giant rallies were being held, protesting these very salutes, and here I had spanned the magical distance and come face to face with the actuality.” Later, upon arriving at his aunt’s home in Warsaw, he observes: “My aunt had never been known to keep a neat house, but now the gloom stemmed from poverty, not sloppy housekeeping. The difference was obvious. Poverty wasn’t merely black but muddy black, the earthy color of things about to crumble.”
If the plight of European Jews is mostly offstage in “Homeward Bound,” it becomes the predominant theme in “Homecoming at Twilight.” Although Glatstein could not have predicted that the deteriorating state of Polish Jewry would end in mass murder, the book seems eerily prophetic. “They are pogromists by instinct . . . They’d be happy to bathe in our blood . . .” one character at the sanitarium remarks. To which the historian, Steinman, answers: “They want to destroy us, nothing less. Yes, to destroy us . . . They want to exterminate us, purely and simply.” Many of the people that the narrator encounters, upon learning that he is visiting from America, beg him to contact their American friends and relatives in the hope of receiving some money or assistance.
Throughout both books, Glatstein flexes his observational and descriptive abilities. Although his employment in the Yiddish press was primarily as a columnist, rather than a reporter, here he writes as a first-class literary journalist, describing the events of his voyage with a novelist’s technique and skill. In one of the work’s most memorable passages, a Bessarabian Jew from Bogota praises the narrator for his “golden ears.”
“Why do you think I love you so much? Because you’re such a great listener, you have golden ears. Your ears are worth a million dollars. You sit there and listen and listen and listen and listen. You could bury me six feet under, my words could be going in one ear and out the other, and still you’d be sitting there, listening with your pair of golden ears . . . when I talk to you, I know that I’m talking to a real pair of ears. You hear that? You’re not the best judge of your own worth. If I had your ears, I’d have them insured.”
It is that ability not only to listen, but also to hear, that makes the narrator, and Glatstein, such a sensitive and sponge-like observer of his fellow passengers, hotel guests, and circumstances.
Upon returning to America, Glatstein planned to turn the material from his voyage into three books, with the third focusing on the trip back to the United States. The reason why he never finished the trilogy is unknown. It was possibly the Holocaust, to which Glatshteyn devoted many powerful poems, that made the conclusion impossible. How could he write of his return as if nothing had changed, when everything had changed? According to Wisse it wasn’t the Holocaust but America, and American Judaism, that prevented Glastein from finishing the work. After reconnecting with his Polish roots America seemed superficial and unserious, a subject to which he devoted a few satirical poems. In this book too, Glatstein is wistful about the alienation between European and American Jewry. On the train ride to Paris the narrator reflects: “ . . . it occurred to me that in twenty-five years such travelers returning to pay respects to the graves of forefathers will have disappeared. . . Should their children ever think of visiting Soviet Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania . . . they would not be returning home but traveling to see the sights so that they might slap yet another sticker on their suitcase.” The newborn State of Israel, to which Glatstein also devoted several poems, could not be the subject of “return” for either himself or his narrator, who had, for better or worse, made his home in the U.S. But after returning from Poland, Yash could no longer find himself in America, either.
Whatever the explanation, Glatstein’s trip to Poland, his return to the United States, and the Holocaust, had a transformational impact on his work. Whereas he had once been a consummate modernist, embracing the possibilities of universalist experimentation, he now became a passionate advocate for the Jewish people and Yiddish. In both his poetry and newspaper columns he took up the plight of European Jewry, trying to elicit the sympathy and support of his American compatriots for their European coreligionists. The same year that he published “Homeward Bound” he wrote what would become his most famous poem, “A gute nakht dir, velt” (“Good Night to You, World”), a bitter protest against the world’s indifference to Jewish suffering.
Good night, wide world
Big stinking world!
Not you but I slam shut the door.
With my long gabardine,
My fiery, yellow patch,
With head erect,
And at my sole command,
I go back into the ghetto
While some see this as a foreshadowing of the Holocaust, it was also a reaction to the dreadful condition of European Jewish life even before the catastrophe. The piece elicited an enormous response in the form of roughly two hundred newspaper articles—a rare feat for a poem, even in 1938. Whereas Glatstein once embraced a sunny sort of universalism, he now made no apologies for a culturally, nationally, and linguistically rooted point of view.
In the final decades of his life, Glatstein saw his greatest fame and recognition, even as Yiddish, and with it his readership, declined. In 1940 he won the Louis Lamed prize for Ven yash iz gekumen, and again in 1956 for a volume of collected poetry titled Fun mayn gantser mi (From All My Toil). His work was translated not only into English and Hebrew, but also Russian, Spanish, and French. He became a sought-after speaker on the Yiddish lecture circuit, and his journalistic career flourished. Although he is primarily remembered as Yiddish poet, he was also celebrated as one of the language’s finest essayists and critics.
Glatsteyn died on November 19, 1971, at his home in Elmhurst, Queens, having claimed his place as one of the most creative and insightful Yiddish writers of the century. “No one has such distinctiveness, such a Yiddish of his own as Yankev Glatshteyn,” wrote the preeminent Yiddish literary critic Shmuel Niger. “ . . . His poetry and prose are so closely knitted together . . . that one can not separate them—such is his work. The rhythm comes from speech and, it would appear, from prose, but his speech, his prose has such rhythm . . . that you experience it as poetry.”
Multimedia Resources from our website:
In addition to The Glatstein Chronicles, many of Glatstein’s poems have been translated and included in anthologies of Yiddish poetry in translation. However, you can also read many of Glatstein’s works in the original Yiddish in the Center’s Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.
Read Glatstein's books in Yiddish.
If you want to read a few of Glatstein’s poems in English, here are two of them—“Be Hallowed” and “Mode”—translated by Andrew Sunshine.
Of all Glatstein’s works, his 1938 poem “Good Night, World” is perhaps the most frequently read and taught. Here you can access a teachers’ guide and resources for that poem.
Glatstein was a frequent visitor to Montreal’s Jewish Public Library, where he often read from his work. You can hear all of the JPL’s Glatstein recordings as part of the Center’s Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio library.
One of those appearances was not at the Jewish Public Library but on a bench in Central Park. In this subtitled interview with poet and critic Abraham Tabachnick, Glatstein discusses the role of a Yiddish poet after the Holocaust and the changing place of poetry in Jewish history.
As one of the great modern Yiddish writers, Glatstein has been featured more than a few times in the Center’s programming. Here you can watch a lecture from 2021 on “Jacob Glatstein and Yiddish Rage,” with Sunny Yudkoff and Saul Noam Zaritt.
It’s an open question as to whether it’s more appropriate to refer to Glatstein by his English name—Jacob Glatstein—or his Yiddish one, Yankev Glatshteyn. However, Glatstein also went by the even more anglicized name Jacob Gladstone, which he passed down to his descendants. Here you can watch an oral history interview with one of them, Glatstein’s grandson Geoffrey Gladstone.
Other Multimedia Resources:
There is not yet any definitive biography for Glatstein, a lacuna that some scholar will hopefully someday fill. However, a brief biographical overview can be read in the Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur (Biographical Dictionary of Modern Yiddish Literature), which has been translated into English here.
The English translation of The Glatstein Chronicles was edited by the eminent Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse, who also wrote the volume’s introduction. Wisse has also written and spoken about Glatstein elsewhere. Here is an essay about Glatstein she wrote in 2015 and a lecture she gave at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in 2014, titled “Jacob Glatstein: A Yiddish Genius in Anglicizing America.”
The Glatstein Chronicles is about the narrator’s return to Poland and specifically to his hometown of Lublin. Here you can learn about Glatstein’s Lublin at the time he grew up there and read some speculation about where his family might have lived.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Glatstein did not become well known to an English-reading audience during his lifetime, but he was not totally ignored. Here is his story “Citizen God,” which was translated by Nathan Halper and published in 1947 in Commentary Magazine.
Glatstein was particularly appreciated by the cognoscenti of Yiddish literature, including the great critic, historian, and editor Irving Howe. Here Howe reviews Glatstein’s 1956 poetry collection Fun mayn gantser mi (From All My Labors), also in Commentary.
Glatstein was well enough recognized outside of Yiddish-speaking circles that he received an obituary from the New York Times.
Glatstein’s poetry in English translation can be found mainly in print anthologies, but a few of his works can also be found online. Here you can read a translation by Cynthia Ozick of his poem “Without Jews”.
While we are big fans of Glatstein here at the Yiddish Book Center, he’s also received a fair amount of attention from our friends at In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. Here are all of their Glatstein-related materials, consisting mainly of translations of his work.
To get you started before you crack open the collection, here are four questions to keep in mind while you read.
- Despite telling us a great deal about his history and background, the narrator casts himself as a listener and observer rather than an active participant in events. What impression did you get of the narrator? Did you get a clear idea of his personality, or does he seem like an enigma?
- Throughout the book, Glatstein explores different forms of Jewish identity, from the aggressively assimilationist Dutch Jew on the ship to the Hasidic youth at the sanitarium. What do you think the narrator’s own views on this subject are, and how are they affected by the people he meets? Have your own views on Jewish identity been affected by reading this book?
- The Glatstein Chronicles is sometimes seen as prefiguring the Holocaust because of its depiction of Nazism, antisemitism, and the desperate state of Polish Jewry. Did you read it this way? What would it have been like to read it in 1940, without knowing what was about to happen to Eastern European Jews?
- Glatstein is a master prose stylist, and his metaphors and images jump off the page. What are some of your favorite metaphors, images, or turns of phrase? How much of the style do you think is original to Glatstein’s Yiddish, and how much of it comes from translation?