Toil and Testament: Sweatshop Poets

Sweatshop poet Morris Rosenfeld

At the end of the nineteenth century, a Jewish working class emerged in America’s cities, the result of the large-scale immigration of Eastern European Jews. The verses of the so-called “Sweatshop Poets” offer a window into the working conditions and political struggles of these immigrants. Influenced by a range of poetic traditions, from badkhones (wedding riffs) to romantic poetry, the Sweatshop Poets, only some of whom had labored in the shops, viewed themselves as spokespersons for the Yiddish-speaking masses.

Morris Rosenfeld (1862–1923) voiced the workers’ despair and portrayed the dehumanizing nature of sweatshop toil. In poems such as “In shap” (“In the Sweatshop”), “Mayn yingele” (“My Little Son”), and “Dos oreme gezind” (“The Beggar Family”), Rosenfeld offered vivid portraits of spiritually and physically broken workers and families. Unique among the poets of his era, Rosenfeld achieved short-lived fame outside the Yiddish world when English translations of his poems galvanized support among American progressives. Dovid Edelshtadt (1866–1892), a devoted anarchist, voiced the revolutionary ethos of the time. His protest poems like “Mayn tsavoe” (“My Testament”) asserted the power of art to transform social conditions and “set the people’s heart aflame.” Although disparaged by younger, experimental poets, the Sweatshop Poets remained extremely popular among Jewish workers. Their poems were frequently set to music and sung in the shops and at labor rallies and political demonstrations.

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