From Our Springtime: Literary Memoirs and Portraits of Yiddish New York: Reading Resources
Reuben Iceland’s memoir chronicles his literary friendships amongst the group of poets known as Di yunge—“the young ones.” These poets cultivated an image of themselves as not only young in age but as part of a vanguard of new literary energy, representing a dramatic change from older poetic styles. Coming of age in the era of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 and the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, they became quickly disillusioned with both religion and revolutionary politics and instead became enthralled with literary modernism.
Iceland (1884–1955) cofounded Di yunge in 1907, alongside Mani Leib, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Zishe Landau, I. J. Schwartz, and David Ignatoff. In retrospect, it is remarkable that such a distinctive group emerged so quickly from the founding generation of modern Yiddish literature. Mendele Mocher Sforim (1835–1917), the “grandfather” of Yiddish literature, began writing fiction in Yiddish in the 1860s, after writing in Hebrew for the previous decade. Sholem Aleichem (1859–1916) began writing in Yiddish, alongside Hebrew and Russian, in the early 1880s, and I. L. Peretz (1852–1915), the third member of the classical triumvirate of Yiddish writers, began writing in Yiddish in the late 1880s. Thus, only a handful of years separated the founding generation from those who broke away from it.
The writers of Di yunge also differentiated themselves from the Sweatshop Poets, considered the first true “school” of Yiddish poets in America. Morris Rosenfeld, Morris Winchevsky, Joseph Bovshover, and Dovid Edelshtat wrote poems exposing the harsh conditions of workers who struggled to retain their humanity amidst poverty and cruelty. In contrast, Di yunge eschewed overtly political messages in their work; Zishe Landau referred to the Sweatshop Poets as the “rhyme department of the labor movement.” In championing aesthetics over politics, Di yunge made a deliberate choice to distance themselves from other literary movements and to strike out in a new, modernist direction. Yet they still chose to write in Yiddish and to reinvent the language from the inside out, eliminating Germanic elements and scouring Hasidic folk tales and women’s religious literature, including tkhines (“supplications” or “para-liturgical prayers”) and the Tsene-rene, the seventeenth-century “Women’s Bible.” In upholding a “pure” literary Yiddish, Di yunge broke with the notion of writing specifically for the masses. Yet by utilizing older Yiddish sources, they demonstrated their connection to an authentic Yiddish literary tradition.
After leaving traditional religious and communal life behind, the poets of Di yunge found their new home in places like Goodman and Levine’s restaurant, where one could sit and talk for several hours for the price of a glass of tea and a roll. Working long hours at manual labor, these men and women still found the energy necessary to frequent the literary salons of the Lower East Side, staying out late arguing about literature and philosophy.
The “golden period” of modernist Yiddish poetry begins with the founding of Di yunge and ends with the rise of the Nazis. Di yunge paved the way for the next Yiddish literary school, the Inzikhistn (“Introspectivists”), whose members included Yankev Glatshteyn, A. Leyeles, and N. B. Minkov and who were more formally experimental in their modernism. In 1938, after the Nazis annexed Austria, Yankev Glatshteyn responded with his poem, “A gute nakht, velt” (“Good Night, World”), which was a fierce critique of Western culture, questioning whether Jews or Yiddish could truly be at home in a world where the promises of the Enlightenment had already failed.
As Ken Frieden notes in the afterword, there is an “astonishing discrepancy” between the significance of Di yunge to modern Yiddish literature and their status as relatively unknown, untranslated literary figures. Yet their literary movement marked the beginning of a new period of Yiddish creativity in America. Between the years 1905–1915, as Iceland describes in his memoir, Yiddish literature indeed experienced a kind of springtime, a moment of creative blossoming, restlessness, longing, dreaming, and growing.
Reuben Iceland was born in 1884 into a traditional Hasidic family in the small Galician town of Radomysl, then part of Austro-Hungary. He attended kheyder, a traditional religious school for boys, and also had private tutors in German, Polish, and Hebrew. His exposure to world literature led him to embrace secular culture, despite the disapproval of his parents. When he began to share his books with other young people, community members strongly objected. Iceland therefore decided to emigrate and arrived at Ellis Island in September 1903 at the age of 19. Iceland had already begun writing poetry, and he was excited to find other like-minded Yiddish poets in New York. He eventually married Minnie Gottfurcht, who lived in the same tenement as him, and they had three children. In order to support himself and then his family, Iceland worked as a packer in a hat factory and did many other forms of manual labor. He wrote later of his physical agonies from standing for ten hours a day and of the “eternal gloom” of factory toil. Iceland writes movingly that his “single beacon” of hope in those days was to fix his eyes on the “golden crown on the tip of a new skyscraper,” which would glow as it reflected the sun’s rays. From this kind of impressionistic sensibility, Iceland began to build his first modernist poems.
Iceland recalled that the poems were unsuccessful because he wrote with an “alien voice,” mimicking other authors’ forms of expression. Only later did he begin to master the poetic forms necessary to marry impression with expression. While Iceland’s early poems may not have been his best work, some were nonetheless published in journals and newspapers, which meant that other poets also read his work, as he read theirs. As these poets met at cafes and salons, they argued vehemently over the merits and demerits of each other’s work, eventually forging a literary community that would become Di yunge.
Iceland was eventually able to secure full-time at the Yiddish daily newspaper Der tog. He spent three decades with fellow poet Anna Margolin and published his memoir the year before he died, in Florida, in 1955.
Aestheticizing the Mundane
For the first time in Yiddish literature, Di yunge developed a credo based solely on aesthetic criteria. They argued passionately for “art for art’s sake.” Championing aesthetics ran contrary to traditional Jewish communal values and contradicted the values espoused by radical writers and intellectuals, who saw literature in functional terms as a vehicle for educating the masses. The poets of Di yunge also hated sentimentalism and nostalgia, refusing to romanticize the “alter heym” (old home). In consequence, Di yunge’s readers tended to be writers or intellectuals themselves, who could understand the poets’ intention, form, and content.
Members of Di yunge did not all agree on the group’s mission, however. Iceland believed in the “poetry of the mundane,” exposing the true nature of everyday life as impoverished shades of grey. Zishe Landau espoused “poeticizing the mundane” because he wanted to show that joy can be everywhere, regardless of circumstance. Mani Leyb, however, believed that, “poetry should concern itself only with the inner life of the individual, who throws off his gray, mundane surroundings and dreams of a more beautiful and brilliant life.”
Gender and Space
Cafés were crucial spaces in the creation of modern Yiddish literature and culture. As Shachar Pinsker writes in his book, A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture, cafés were “central to modern Jewish creativity and exchange in a time of migration and urbanization.” Cafés were not marked as “Jewish spaces” in particular, unlike the synagogue or shtetl or even a kosher deli, but they were spaces that were open and accessible to even the most impoverished Jews, especially those who had recently migrated to larger urban environments. Pinsker argues that cafés were integral to the creation of the Jewish public sphere, since the cultural exchange within café culture connected to the development of the press, literature, theater, and politics.
Cafés were also places for homosocial relationships; the café was considered to be a masculine space where women were nonetheless allowed. For Jews, Shachar Pinsker notes, the café became a modern substitute for the beys medresh, where young and old men would gather to learn Torah and forge friendships. As Iceland shows us, the poets of Di yunge relied on cafés because their homes were not suitable for hosting friends, since they were too poor to offer others food and drink, and they often had wives and children crowded into uncomfortable, small apartments. Spending nights together drinking, smoking, gossiping, and fighting, these men forged intimate bonds with each other, perhaps even more intimate than their relationships with their wives and lovers.
Yet some women did disrupt the homosociality of café culture, asserting their own place at the table. One of these remarkable women was Anna Margolin, Iceland’s longtime partner. Margolin (born as Rosa Lebensboym) would be rediscovered later as a poet of incredible skill and voice, but she faced many obstacles in her writing life, including entrenched sexism among male Yiddish writers, editors, and publishers. Margolin joined the staff of Der tog in 1914 and wrote about women’s issues, including suffrage. Margolin wrote poems pointing at the complicated gender and social dynamics of her social circle, including the poem “In kafe” (“At the Café”). She published her only book of poetry, Lider, in 1929.
"Purifying" the Yiddish Language
The poets of Di yunge believed in the “purification” of Yiddish, removing international loan words and, most essentially, stripping out daytshmerish, or Germanified elements. Iceland writes that the poets believed that “words could evolve, bend, be rebuilt and re-created so that they would serve our goals while retaining the spirit and sound of our language.” They believed that by “protecting” and “nurturing” Yiddish in this way, they were shaping the language into a “poetic instrument” for their own purposes.
Iceland and Landau in particular believed strongly that “our language did not lack words for the deepest experiences and finest moods.” By going back to the popular literature of women’s prayers and Hasidic stories, the poets were connecting with what they believed to be a deeper and more authentic Yiddish language, whose forms and moods suited their impressionistic purposes.
Iceland believed that life experience, including pain and loss, made poetry better because the poet would have a richer set of emotional experiences to draw from. He believed that his early poems suffered because he was too focused on impression — experience and sensitivity—and not enough on expression—rhythm and form. Although the poets of Di yunge were not explicitly borrowing from Anglo-European modernist poets, as the Inzikhistn did, Iceland remarks that he and his compatriots learned much about form and structure from reading Russian and Scandinavian novels, where pauses, winks, and unexpected turns of phrase brought out the poetic mood using a few simple words.
By stripping down Yiddish to its purest form and oldest essence, these poets believed they were, paradoxically, creating a new modern art form.
Yiddish in America / America in Yiddish
Iceland and his comrades dreamed that Yiddish literature would one day be recognized as an equal alongside English literature. Few of their poems were recognized outside of Yiddish literary spheres, and few were translated into English, during their lifetimes. They lived in America and had no nostalgic need to return to Eastern Europe or the shtetl, yet they were also not “at home” in American culture. But even though they tried to disdain American culture, it could not help but influence their words and ideas. They dreamed of an America where they could be Yiddish American writers, sustaining, nurturing, and creating new Yiddish culture.
- In this Wexler Oral History Project interview excerpt, Miriam Bienstock, z"l, cofounder of Atlantic Records, recalls her uncle, Mani Leyb, and her memories of him from her childhood.
- In this Wexler Oral History Project interview excerpt, Yehudi Wyner, son of poet Lazar Weiner, discusses his father’s art and his cultural life in the 1920s.
- David Mazower, Yiddish Book Center bibliographer and editorial director, writes in the Bronx Bohemians blog about the vibrant friendships and literary community that developed among members of Di yunge in the 1910s and 1920s.
- This reading resource page on Anna Margolin's Drunk From the Bitter Truth is a wealth of information on poet Anna Margolin, with further links to learn more about her. This page was developed for the 2019 Great Jewish Books Book Club.
- Read literary scholar and cultural historian Shachar Pinsker's article discussing the role of Jewish women in modern café culture. Pinsker is the author of A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish Culture. Listen to Pinsker discuss the book in 2018 with the Center's Lisa Newman on The Shmooze, the Yiddish Book Center's podcast. You can also watch one of the Yiddish Book Center's virtual public programs from September 2020 called "Kibbitzing in the Cafés of the New World," with Shachar Pinsker.
- Explore Mapping Modern Jewish Cultures, the mapping and digital storytelling website that acts as a counterpart to Pinsker's A Rich Brew.
- Read From Our Springtime in the Yiddish original, available in the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.
- How and why did Jewish men and women experience café culture differently? Why do you think Anna Margolin’s experience of being a Yiddish writer in New York was very different from Reuben Iceland’s experience?
- According to the poets of Di yunge, what is the goal of poetry? How does poetry reflect, connect to, or reimagine everyday life?
- Iceland believed that the poetry of Di yunge “could not have been written anywhere else but America.” What accounts for this assertion, and do you think he was correct?
- Yiddish literature is sometimes characterized as parochial or obscure. Yet the writers profiled in From Our Springtime read widely and incorporated many different non-Jewish influences in their work. How do you think they understand the role of Yiddish in world literature? What do you think they wanted Yiddish’s role to be?
- Iceland’s wife remarked ironically, “Look at the poet, carrying pickles on his back.” How do you think the poetry of Di yunge might have been different if they had had more comfortable lives and circumstances? Do you think their early suffering helped them create their art? What role does experience, suffering, and longing play in their poetry?
- The poems created by members of Di yunge largely ignore explicit analysis of immigration and urbanization. Do you think these themes play out in their work in other ways?