American Yiddish Poetry: Reading Resources
“It is a paradox that poetry rather than prose fiction is the prime achievement of Yiddish literature in America, while poetry in English by American Jews has not matched the prose achievements of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Harold Brodkey and so many others” (Bloom 1988).
The words are those of Harold Bloom, the celebrated writer and critic. Bloom grew up speaking Yiddish and recalled “reading poems by Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Mani Leyb and H. Leivick when I was still a boy, at about the time I first read William Blake and Hart Crane” (1998). Each of those authors, he writes, “helped me learn how to read the others” (1998).
Bloom’s juxtaposition of these American Yiddish poets and their more widely-known English-language counterparts may strike some as incongruous. It should not. Yiddish poetry in the hundred years from 1880–1980 is surely the crowning glory of modern Yiddish culture. It emerged “like mushrooms after a rain, unexpectedly and extensively,” in the words of poet Richard Fein (2009, vii). Remarkable for its thematic range as well as its stylistic and formal diversity, it’s a kaleidoscope of rhyming couplets, modernist free verse, propaganda lyrics, ballads, elegies, epics, sonnets, haikus, prayers, psalms, laments, odes, monologues, and anthems.
We are still a long way from understanding the full extent of this vast body of work. But the main contours of the Yiddish poetic landscape are clearly visible, thanks largely to a succession of distinguished anthologies. Ezra Korman’s landmark 1927 survey of Yiddish women poets was one of the first and is still one of the most widely-discussed. In more recent decades, several notable bilingual anthologies of world Yiddish poetry (Howe, Wisse, and Shmeruk’s The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse; Ruth Whitman’s An Anthology of Modern Yiddish Poetry: Bilingual Edition; and Joseph and Chana Mlotek’s Pearls of Yiddish Poetry) have appeared. Now we have this second edition of another distinguished compilation, edited by the husband and wife team of Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, each of them renowned as a scholar and translator.
Writing in the New York Times in 1988, Harold Bloom reviewed an earlier edition of this anthology alongside The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse. In Bloom’s estimation, “what emerges from both anthologies are two major poets by the standards of any modern language, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Jacob Glatstein, and a group just short of that eminence” (1988). However, Bloom also alluded to the different translation strategies in the two anthologies. Whereas the Penguin volume relies on the translations of renowned poets such as John Hollander and Irving Feldman, the Harshavs—in Bloom’s view—provide translations which are “very reliable as to form, but fail to convey the intrinsic qualities of the best poems included here” (1998). That judgement will strike others as somewhat harsh. Bloom himself describes it as a “blemish” which “does not seriously diminish the extraordinary achievement of the book” (1998).
The Harshavs’ aim here is to introduce English-speakers to what they call “probably the most coherent segment of twentieth-century American literature not written in English” ( 2007, back cover). It does not pretend to be a comprehensive survey of its subject, but five of the seven featured poets (Leyeles, Glatshteyn, Halpern, Teller, and Leivick) are each surveyed at near book length. Only one female poet is included, Malka Heifetz Tussman, who is given the least space in this anthology; there is no room for Anna Margolin, Celia Dropkin, or Kadya Molodowsky.
Anyone looking for an explanation of these choices will be disappointed; the Harshavs say only that “we selected a few poets from a large literature” (1986, 63). But as an in-depth survey of some of the greatest American Yiddish poets, it is an extraordinary achievement. It is also an extremely rich volume: the chronological approach allows for a sophisticated understanding of each poet’s creative evolution; there are sophisticated essays on the cultural and linguistic background, plus a fascinating article about the American artists who worked alongside these poets and frequently collaborated with them.
This anthology is highly sensitive to poetic form, meter, and rhythm, so it’s fitting that it opens with A. Leyeles—in Benjamin Harshav’s own words, a “form-minded Modernist” (2014, 176). Leyeles was a leading member of the In zikh (“Introspective”) group of American Yiddish poets, whose poetic credo is reflected in the “Chronicle of a Movement” in the appendix of this book. Explaining his creative process, Leyeles writes, “Each of the cited elements of musicality in poetry is important in itself. When a poet succeeds in combining all the elements at once, a wonderful effect emerges, a musicality which is—it seems to me—richer, more impressive than actual music because it is a music not of neutral sounds but of living words of the human language” (Harshav  2007, 791).
You can hear Leyeles’ paced and rhythmic reading of his own poetry here, or take a brief walk through the very same recording with Zackary Sholem Berger. And here you can hear the poet discuss his work in an interview with Abraham Tabachnik.
For some other poems and alternate translations, see a Facebook page made in Leyeles’ name.
Jacob or Yankev Glatshteyn (also known as Glatstein) was a towering figure in Yiddish poetry and American Yiddish cultural life over many decades. The Harshavs call him “the most celebrated ‘national’ Yiddish poet,” and they devote more space to him than any other poet in their anthology ( 2007, 204). As a result, Glatshteyn’s poetical evolution—his deep engagement with literary modernism as well as the world of traditional Ashkenazi piety—is brilliantly charted. According to the Harshavs:
“In 1938 and 1939 Glatshteyn was among the first to sense the coming disaster. In such poems as ‘A Hunger Fell Upon Us,’ ‘On The Butcher Block,’ ‘Here I Have Never Been,’ and the celebrated ‘Good Night, World’ he gave forceful expression to a sense of Jewish isolation in the face of the approaching catastrophe, although only its first signs were apparent at the time” (Harshav  2007, 204). Their translation of “A gute nakht, velt” (“Good Night, World”) brilliantly conveys its chilling rebuke to the world on the eve of the Holocaust and its renewed embrace of yiddishkayt and old-world values (Harshav  2007, 305):
Good night, wide world.
Big, stinking world.
Not you, but I, slam the gate
In my long robe,
With my flaming, yellow patch,
With my proud gait,
At my own command –
I return to the ghetto.
Glatshteyn was an acknowledged master of the Yiddish language, and a poet who was constantly experimenting. As his biography shows, he was also a celebrated essayist in the Yiddish press, a noted editor of literary journals, and, in the words of the Penguin anthology’s editors, “one of the most cosmopolitan and intellectual of Yiddish writers” (Howe, Wisse, and Shmeruk 1987, 425).
Further evidence of the range of Glatshteyn’s poetry is conveyed by these translations by Zachary Sholem Berger and the Yiddish Book Center’s own Asya Vaisman Schulman, as well as by this topical poem from the 1950s, in which Glatshteyn is highly critical of an Israeli army action in the West Bank. The challenges of translating Glatshteyn are discussed here by Barnett Zumoff.
Glatshteyn’s poetry and prose increasingly reflected his preoccupation with Polish Jewry—its traditions, its creative heyday, and its tragic fate. In this impressive piece of historical detective work, the Polish scholar Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska uncovers fascinating details of Glatshteyn’s visit to a Polish spa town in 1934—a trip which resulted in two heavily autobiographical novels featuring a character called Yash, the author’s alter ego. A companion piece to this investigation is this article by Dara Horn in Tablet magazine.
Finally, the Yiddish Book Center’s Frances Brandt Online Library has links to a historic collection of talks, readings, and interviews by and about Glatshteyn in the postwar decades, including this wonderful clip of Glatshteyn speaking about the role of a Yiddish poet after the Holocaust.
Moyshe-Leyb, as he was known to his contemporaries, was the admired and beloved bad boy of American Yiddish verse. According to Harold Bloom: “With Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, we come to the most distinctive voice, style and stance in all of Yiddish poetry, and to a literary persona of endless, bitter nuance and complexity” (1988). Bloom estimated Halpern’s late lyrics “the most powerful poetry ever written in Yiddish.”
Judd Teller (see J. L. Teller, below) characterized him as follows: “He was a kind of vagabond poet, whose love verse was tender but also daring in its candor. The bravado element was underscored by his use of Yiddish slang and folk idiom…His mixture of irony and tenderness recalled Heine but his irregular rhythms were entirely his own and his range was wide. He wrote of the shtetl and of the savage beat of coins dropping in the slot machines as multitudes passed through the clicking subway turnstiles during the rush hour; he wrote of a comely young female at the beach at Coney Island, of anti-Semitism and of the inadequacies of Jewish life” (Teller 1968, 48).
Halpern arrived in New York in 1908 in his early twenties after some years living in Vienna, where he trained as a sign painter and immersed himself in German literature and socialism.
His first book of verse, In New York (1919) caused a sensation in the Yiddish literary world; his second, The Golden Peacock (1924) is described by the Harshavs as “a tour de force, combining elements of Yiddish and Slavic folk bards, direct naturalistic description with satirical and grotesque overtones and a lyrical romanticism” ( 2007, 388).
Hear Moyshe-Leyb’s son, Irving Halpern, talk about his father, and then listen to the eminent Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse talk about Halpern and his fellow poet Mani Leib at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. This biographical sketch has some good photos of Halpern; the poet’s brief sojourn in Los Angeles in the 1920s is discussed in this article, and Halpern’s facility as an artist and decorator of surreal pieces of furniture is the subject of this small feature and this excerpt from our Wexler Oral History Project.
J. L. Teller
Teller is perhaps the most surprising choice in this anthology, if only because for much of his career he was better known as a journalist and commentator on Jewish affairs than a poet. Remarkably, although he came to America as a child immigrant from his native Galicia, he managed to retain the sophisticated Yiddish of a modernist poet throughout his life.
This is easily the most generous selection of Teller’s verse in translation—another signal achievement of this anthology. His poetry is remarkable for its range, from the briefest miniatures to the dense, ironic, foreboding verse of “Poems of the Age” (1940), full of references to Freud and psychoanalysis.
Teller also wrote with remarkable range and fluency as a journalist and author in English. “Strangers and Natives,” his classic account of American Jewry’s transformation in the half century 1921–1968, is a dazzling survey of US Jewish culture and social change, an acute portrait of integration and the shedding of immigrant particularity.
He was also a regular contributor to Commentary. His essays for the journal include a series of autobiographical vignettes, such as “The Male-Forest of Tarnopol,” as well as distinguished articles on American Jewish politics.
A third strand of pieces consists of a series of dazzlingly erudite surveys of Jewish fiction, including this piece on the fate of Yiddish literature in America, a comparison of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literatures, and an insightful review of “Satan in Goray” by Isaac Bashevis Singer and “The Prophet” by Sholem Asch.
Finally, Teller’s long career as a roving reporter for the American Jewish press even included a stint in the 1930s as an intermediary between Jewish mobsters and Jewish communal leaders as they negotiated an acceptable level of violence to be used against American neo-Nazis.
Malka Heifetz Tussman
Malka Heifetz Tussman was born in 1896 and spent her early years on a farm in Ukraine, playing in fields and barns. Recalling her childhood, she wrote:
“I was left to grow like a wild weed. I started to believe that I did not even belong to this family. I thought they found me somewhere and let me eat at their table...Soon I began scribbling things on walls, tablecloths, and scraps of paper…Mother found [my first poem] and showed it to father. My father smiled and said, ‘Leave her alone. These are her own words. We don’t understand.’ (My father was also looking for hidden words in Kabbalah.) I ran out of the house, happy: maybe he really is my father” (Falk 1987, 22-23).
That spirit of independence and rebelliousness never left her. She came to America in 1912 and taught in a secular Yiddish school in Milwaukee. Later she moved to Los Angeles and finally to Berkeley, California. Her first poems were published in 1918, and her first book of poems in 1949.
Her friend and translator, Marcia Falk, met Tussman for the first time in 1973. She recalled “Malka’s demeanor, the intensity of her expressions, the dignified—one might even say proud—way that she carried herself…it was clear that she had pursued her own career and life with a willful autonomy—a proud, proto-feminist iconoclasm. Throughout, she never lost her passion for eros and her intense sensuality; and she scorned the belief that age diminished these capacities. She enjoyed providing living demonstration that it did not” (Falk 1987, 21-22).
Among the Harshavs’ selection is the poem “Widowhood” (“Do something / With the W in / ‘Widow’ / So it shall not be / Like a beetle / Like a / Gnat…”), typical of one enduring strand of Tussman’s poetry in its defiant refusal to accept society’s conventional estimation of women and their roles. “How Did You Get So Wise, Mama?” is equally personal but more lyrical.
Tussman also served as a mentor and friend to the Yiddish scholar Kathryn Hellerstein, who talks about her in this excerpt from the Center’s Wexler Oral History Project. You can listen to Israel Shtern read from Tussman’s poetry in this 1979 recording from the Montreal Jewish Public Library. And, for an art song rendering of one of Tussman’s poems, listen to the singer Helen Greenberg’s version of “Mit a nar” ("With a Fool"), with accompanying lyrics.
Vaynshteyn was born in the town of Reyshe (Rzeszow), then in Austro-Hungarian Galicia, today in Poland. He endured refugee conditions during World War I and Polish pogroms, lived illegally in Vienna, then came to New York in 1925 aged twenty. Between 1936 and his death in 1967, he published several epic poems and book-length selections of his verse, much of this centering on working-class life in New York or his hometown and his Hasidic milieu.
The editors of The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse say this about Vaynshteyn: “The material density of his poems…their down-to-earth and sometimes coarse subjects, seemed to fulfil the expectations of proletarian poetry that were current in the 1920s and 1930s. Sometimes overlooked was the narrative power that is released through Weinstein’s stately lyrical forms” (Howe, Wisse, and Shmeruk 1987, 609).
Listen to his epic poem Reyshe in this audiobook read by Cecylia Serlin. And then see how Vaynshteyn (Weinstein) is memorialized in the pages of the yizkor (community memorial) book of Rzeszow (Reyshe), published two years after his death.
“Leyvik...the Yiddish poet par excellence, so universal in his Jewishness, so Jewish in his universality. For the simple reason that there was no other Leyvik. He was a poet in the fullest meaning of the word. There was no borderline where his art stopped and his life began, and vice versa.” – Chava Rosenfarb, from a 1970 lecture on Leyvik’s dramas, in English
Leyvik was revered and venerated across the Yiddish-speaking world as few other Yiddish poets were, especially by workers and those on the left. He published widely in verse, prose, and drama. His writing is often marked by suffering and recalls his difficult childhood, his early years as an anti-Tsarist radical, years of hard labor and imprisonment, and his escape from Siberia (see the photos on pages 679 and 681). The last four years of his life rang with similar poetic tragedy as he lay paralyzed and unable to speak until his death in 1962.
Watch a biographical film on Leyvik, hosted by Boris Sandler on the Forverts’ “Tog bay tog,” the Yiddish Daily Forward’s “Day by Day,” series. Listen to this recording of a talk by the writer Chava Rosenfarb, this time in Yiddish. Explore Leyvik’s famous play, Der golem, read by Yanek Lewin at the Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club, and listen to why it means so much to Motl Didner, associate artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.
—David Mazower and Raphael Halff
Bloom, Harold. "Still Haunted by Covenant." The New York Times, January 31, 1988. Accessed July 17, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/31/books/still-haunted-by-covenant.html.
Falk, Marcia. "Mother Nature and Human Nature: The Poetry of Malka Heifetz Tussman." Lilith, Fall 1987.
Fein, Richard J. With Everything We've Got: A Personal Anthology of Yiddish Poetry. Austin: Host Publications, 2009.
Harshav, Benjamin and Barbara. American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.
Harshav, Benjamin and Barbara. American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.
Harshav, Benjamin. Three Thousand Years of Hebrew Versification. New Haven: Yale University PRess, 2014.
Howe, Irving, Ruth Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk, eds. The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987.
Teller, Judd L. Strangers and Natives: The Evolution of The American Jew from 1921 to the Present. New York: Delacorte Press, 1968.