To America

Aaron Glanz Leyeles (b. Warsaw March 5, 1889; d. New York December 30, 1966) is one of two names most closely associated with the “introspectivist” movement of Yiddish modernist poetry, the other being Jacob Glatstein, fellow co-founder of In zikh, the introspectivist journal. Writers such as Jacob Pat and Ephraim Oyerbakh credited Leyeles with a knowledge of poetic forms largely foreign to the Yiddish poetic tradition, such as free verse, which eventually found expression in Yiddish due to his influence. Perhaps just as significant as his creative contributions to Yiddish literature were his ideological and pedagogical contributions to the Yiddish world. Convinced that territorialism was the sole answer to the “Jewish problem,” in 1911, just two years after his immigration to America, he spoke to the governor of Alaska regarding the possibility of opening a center for Jewish immigration, and in 1912 he traveled to a conference in Vienna as a delegate of the American Socialist Territorialists. As an educator he helped to establish the Workman’s Circle schools among other Yiddish schools in Toronto, Winnipeg, Rochester, and Sioux City.  Leo Finkelshteyn wrote of Leyeles that “All his life he has been a passionate fighter . . . on the whole a progressive humanist, ethnic secularist, Yiddishist, and above all—a socialist,” implying that, at least by Finkelshteyn’s account, to Leyeles, Yiddishism and socialism were not only natural compatriots but were so ideologically inseparable as to be completely blurred in the scheme of his imagination. Accordingly, the following poem, “Tsu amerike” (from Amerike un ikh, 1963), serves as an expression of Leyeles’s humanistic zeal as much as it does his Yiddishistic eloquence. —Oliver Elkus 

 

To America 

I love the braggart skyline of Manhattan, 
the rivers of this land, the thousand-year prairies; 
I love the automobiles, the streets, splendid as parquets, 
I love the dream of the reality that is called America. 

I love the youthful vigor and the autonomous breath, 
the hopeful tenor, the profusion of languages, 
the mixing of peoples, races, colors, tribes— 
from the sun land of the south to the snowy mountaintops of the north. 

I have found here bread to eat and clothes to wear, 
I have received here humanity’s greatest gift: 
the level look, the right to want, 
and I love you land, with tenderness, with longing. 

After degradation and after fear, after yellow patches and after ghetto, 
you are the last hope for refuge. 
Fate has made you a hallowed lambent mark— 
you won’t capitulate to enemy, to crook. 

Old hatred was also carried here often 
with the waves of the ocean, with the malice of an intrigant. 
But despite all sly minds, angry hearts, 
your Whitmanesque freedom dream fortified. 

As your skyscrapers burst towards the heavens, 
so too does your soul burst from the depths against rancor. 
As your automobiles hasten and hurtle 
so too does your restless spirit hasten to do justice. 

They are not in vain, your broken walls, far-flung limits 
Walt Whitman is not merely a shatterer of form. 
You have drawn strength from all peoples, whether rich or poor, 
and you remunerate with disdain for lecherous power-worshipers. 

In my house alone, or in the street with all streetly rumpus— 
I hear with angst the murderous, calamitous whirlwinds. 
You will not defame the casualties of Gettysburg, 
you will not disgrace my love, America! 

 
 

Oliver  “Ollie”  Elkus is a Yiddish teacher and translator who is currently translating his first full-length book project,  Mayn tatns kretshme (My Father’s Tavern) as a 2020 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow. Ollie also likes to bake bread, play drums, and drink tea.  

Subscribe Now