America and I
Aaron Glanz Leyeles (1889–1966) was a Yiddish poet, writer, teacher, speaker, lecturer, and editor. His prose appeared under the name A. Glanz and his poetry under the pseudonym A. Leyeles. He was a founder and long-standing member of many Yiddish educational and cultural institutions in the United States and Canada, including the Jewish Writers Union, Workmen’s Circle Schools, Yiddish Culture Society, Congress for Jewish Culture, and the American branch of YIVO. Together with Jacob Glatstein and Nahum Baruch Minkoff, Glanz Leyeles published the journal In zikh, which existed from 1920 to 1940. Born in Włocławek, Poland, he moved to London in 1905, then immigrated to the United States in 1909, settling in New York.
In this poem, excerpted from his book America and I, the poet praises America. It is not the praise of a new arrival, not the response of a nervous migrant to the abrupt questioning of a border guard. It is the paean of a settled immigrant who has become husband, father, and grandfather on U.S. soil and managed somehow to bring together the halves of one personality: American and Jew. Why did Leyeles feel the need to do so, in a book published in 1963 (its constituent poems, presumably, written a few years before then)? Why then? And what was it that underlaid Leyeles’s love for his adopted land? This poem, the start of an epic that gives its title to the volume, has a domestic emphasis: Leyeles loved America because he found a home here, in the plainest sense: to eat his bread and love his love unencumbered.
Why 1963? The poems do not say specifically, but it is instructive to compare these poems to Robert Frost’s verses at JFK’s inaugural. Perhaps these are Leyeles’s blessings on the American Yiddish nation. —Zackary Sholem Berger
America and I
I should sum up, for myself perhaps,
The half century I’ve gulped American air.
I know that time can delude us, a thick wrap
Over all senses and thought, coarse embodiment. There’s
No delusion though, in oracular script
Who has slyly, wobble by wobble, step by step
Dragged me out of youth’s confusion and tested me in years.
Per the almanac and all the signs, my status should be
Spectating somewhere set below in a grotto or vale.
Looking up to blue velvet heaven, tree-green,
High up where only an echo of my voice can reach at all.
But I can see myself on long-ago mountain. He’s noisy,
Badly behaved, and disobeys the teacher
Asks loud questions, seeks a vanishing halo.
I can see all sorts of things. 50 years are over.
Every year’s a pomegranate packed with millennia
For the world, for each people and mine in particular.
The Vesuvius of German murder scaled by the Teutons.
Russia’s arch-cruelty, made red, rounded out.
Everywhere awash in blood and mud and wounded.
There seems no improvement, no end to it. Not any.
Only in America, among all Jewish polities
Did my people safely eat their bread, in their own bed rested.
Lived, worked, and built while breathing free
Remembered—when that demon-twin was burned to ash, dead
As if fate, according to some law on high,
Had prepared for that sacrificed people mercifully
reserving a healthy hand, healing pre-delirium.
In America I became a father, a zeyde.
Different loves—for my wife, child, child’s child—
Not without birth pangs, together kneaded
With love for country. And the worry that our heritage is left wild.
American and Jew. I’ve brought them (in myself) together.
How? Don’t expect some narrative thread
Brightly tying ring to ring, methodically styled.
A human life—at least mine, I know for sure—
Isn’t a structure, founded, erected per strict plan.
It’s quite sinuous. It’s a misty forest trail, rather,
Without a clear start. There’s definitely an end
which we don’t live to see. Not from directions in brochures.
You walk in transparent or blindfold cloth, you’re
Surrounded by whispers, wailing, laughter. Fated—or less than.
Zackary Sholem Berger is a poet and translator working in (as well as between) Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. His work has appeared in multiple venues, including Poetry magazine, the Yiddish Forward, and Asymptote; themes of his verse range from the philosophical and medical to the immediate problems of his adopted city, Baltimore. In the Yiddish world he might be best known as a regular contributor to the Forverts and the translator of Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat (as well as other Seuss creations) into Yiddish. His translations of prose poetry by Avrom Sutzkever are due to appear in book form in 2020, published by White Goat Press, the imprint of the Yiddish Book Center.