Preface / Ruth R. Wisse
Introduction / Goldie Sigal
The Collection
Historical Background
Joe Fishtein and his Milieu
The Yiddish Language
Soviet Orthography
The Flowering of Yiddish Literature
The Catalogue
The Indices
Archival Items in the Collection
Technical Aspects
Table of Name Equivalents

The Catalogue Entries
Search the Catalogue
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Browse by Index
(Author, Title, Illustrator, Periodical, Series)


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The Flowering of Yiddish Literature
| Overview | Poland | Soviet Union | United States | Canada | Israel |
| Women Poets | The Later Decades | Yiddish Revival |


The period ushered in by the klasiker, and lasting roughly until the outbreak of World War II, is commonly referred to as the flowering of modern Yiddish literature. It was a relatively brief period, lasting less than half a century, but teemed with concentrated creativity. This time is eloquently evoked in the Introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse:-

"Is there, we may wonder, another body of imaginative writing in the modern era quite so rapid and cramped in its eternal development, quite so harried by the brutal pressures of modern history, quite so bloodied at its point of fulfillment? All the literary tendencies and impulses which in other, more fortunate literatures take centuries to unfold in leisurely and organic rhythms are in Yiddish pressed into decades, sometimes merely a few years. There is a dizzying speed of motion within Yiddish literary life, from school to school, subject to subject, style to style. But there is also a deep and finally unbreakable continuity with the Yiddish cultural past and, perhaps Iess visibly but at least as deeply, with the whole tradition of Jewish life, thought and writing, stretching by now across thousands of years" (Penguin, 1987, p.2).

Modern Yiddish poetry was frontierless. Creativity emanated from many centres - from cities like Vilna, Lodz, Warsaw, Berlin, Kiev, Moscow, Paris, New York, Chicago and Tel Aviv. There was so much interaction among them, and their common linguistic medium and cultural background were so strong, that their literary productions can be treated as parts of a single organic whole.

Two important Yiddish literary periodicals made their appearance in the early years of the twentieth century, marking the emergence of modernistic trends in the Yiddish literary world: Di Yugend (Youth) in New York (1907) [# 1682], and Literarishe monatshriften (Literary Monthlies) in Vilna (1908). Among the distinguishing characteristics of the new poetry in these periodicals were qualities shared with modern European symbolism: individualism, aestheticism and eroticism, expressed in new verse forms and fluidity of language. This modernizing trend had a great impact on young poets on both sides of the Atlantic until World War I - poets such as Reuben Eisland, David Einhorn, Moshe Leib Halpern, David Hofstein, S.J. Imber, Mani Leib, Leib Najdus [Naydus], and Israel Jacob Schwartz.

After World War I, expressionism took hold in the three main Yiddish literary centres - Poland, the Soviet Union and the United States - in journals such as In zikh (Introspection) (New York, 1920-1939) [#1643], Shtrom (Stream) (Moscow, 1922-1924) [#1611], Khalyastre (Gang) (Warsaw, 1922; Paris, 1924) [#1585], and others. Poets of the new generation had experienced the destruction and turmoil of war, pogroms and revolution, and the disorientation of rootlessness in a big city. Feelings of despair and anger against the mores of conventional society erupted in their work, often manifested in a break with traditional metrical forms. At the same time, they also created poems of lyrical sensitivity, voicing their nostalgia for the old and yearning for new horizons. These characteristics paralleled those of post World War I contemporary world poetry, but with subject matter generally reflecting Jewish concerns, and with a wealth of imagery often drawn from Jewish tradition and history.


The well-spring of Yiddish literature was Poland. Its environs - Galicia, Romania, Bessarabia, Latvia, and especially Vilna, in Lithuania - contributed substantially to the pool of talent. The hub was Warsaw, where great numbers of young literati were inspired and sustained by the mentorship of Isaac Leib Peretz. Hundreds of writers and artists joined the emigrating throngs to America, but many remained, unaware of the deluge that was to engulf them.

A colourful, though typically shortlived, group made a startling appearance on the literary scene in the early 1920's. It was called the Khalyastre, a derogatory epithet meaning "gang", hurled at them by a critic in an influential Warsaw daily newspaper, which they gleefully adopted as their own. Under the triumvirate of Melech Ravitch, Peretz Markish and Uri Zvi Greenberg, the group adopted innovations of German expressionism and Russian futurism, and outraged public opinion with their explosive attempts at revolution of the spirit. After about a year, the leaders went their separate ways, literally and figuratively.

Yung Vilne was an important Yiddish literary group in Vilna in the 1930's, which published literary works, anthologies and periodicals, and whose members were also committed to political activism. They included the poets Abraham Sutzkever, Hirsch Glick, Chaim Grade, Szmerke Kaczerginski, Peretz Miranski, Elhonen Vogler, Leyzer Volf, and others. Although the group was destroyed by the Nazi Holocaust and the Soviet occupation, surviving members continued their literary activity around the world.

Soviet Union

The story of Soviet Yiddish literature between the two world wars is a tragic one. Most of the great literary figures, including the major poets, were severely harrassed; virtually none was to meet a natural death. The Soviet writers initially had the freedom to flourish, particularly in the early twenties, when many who had left after the revolution were encouraged to return. Before long, however, the Soviet government became suspicious of Jewish cultural institutions in general, and Yiddish writers in particular, and placed severe restrictions on their freedom of expression. The poets Izi Kharik, Moshe Kulbak, David Hofstein, Peretz Markish, Leib Kvitko, Itzik Fefer and Shmuel Halkin were among those to perish at the hands of Stalin and his confrères. The gifted prose writers David Bergelson, Der Nister and Shmuel Persov; the literary historian Israel Zinbeg and the famous actor, Solomon Mikhailovich Mikhoöls, shared a similar fate. In 1948, many Yiddish writers and Jewish intellectuals were arrested, and on August 12, 1952, a large number of them were executed, or received severe prison terms. Soviet Yiddish literature had experienced a blow from which it was never to recover.

United States

Yiddish literature, particularly poetry, flourished in the United States. Morris Rosenfeld, whose work was translated into several languages, and some of which was set to music, was the most popular of the late nineteenth century proletarian poets, sharing as he did the poignant experience of the average exhausted immigrant worker. Among his contemporaries were Morris Winchevsky, David Edelstadt, Joseph Bovshover, and others.

The modernist impulse in American Yiddish literature was first associated with the group known as Di Yunge (The Young Ones), who introduced the journal, Di Yugend [# 1682] in 1907 and whose influence extended far beyond its actual membership. The poets most consistently associated with this group were Mani Leib, Zishe Landau and Reuben Eisland, along with the prose writers Joseph Opatoshu, David Ignatoff and lsaac Raboy.

In the early twenties, another modernist group produced the New York periodical entitled In zikh [#1643]. Members of the new group, the Inzikhistn, rebelled against their older colleagues, who they thought had been paying excessive attention to form and mellifluous language at the expense of content. Like the modernist English language poets, the Inzikhistn embraced more cosmopolitan, expressionist themes and experimented with free verse. Associated with this movement were three major poets - Jacob Glatstein, A.Leyeless and N.B. Minkoff.

Despite the significance and influence of such literary movements, however, the affiliation poets had with them was often transitory, as were the movements themselves. In the words of Chone Shmeruk: "The clear personal imprint which distinguishes most of the writers places Yiddish poetry in the United States ... above and beyond the limitations of any literary or ideological school with which they identified themselves at any particular time" (Shmeruk, 1971/72, col. 822). The work of the major poets, such as Moshe Leib Halpern, Mani Leib, H. Leivick, Itzik Manger, Abraham Reisen, Aaron Zeitlin, and others, resists categorization.


Most of Canadian Yiddish literary activity has emanated from Montreal or Toronto. Writers generally followed their individual paths, and were minimally influenced by the various trends that surfaced in Yiddish literary circles in the United States.

A dynamic Yiddish creative life existed - and still does to a large extent - in Montreal, often centering in the cultural hub created by the Jewish Public Library, an extraordinary institution founded in 1914 by the renowned writers, Reuben Brainin and Judah Kaufmann (Yehudah Even-Shemuel). The early poets and novelists, most of whom had emigrated from Europe between the world wars, included authors such as N.Y. Gotlib, Ish Ya'ir (Israel Stern), Ida Massey [Maz'e], Shabse Perl, Yakov Yitskhak Segal, M.M. Shaffir, Mirel Erdberg Shatan, A. Sh. Shkolnikoff, Esther Segal Shkolnikov, and Yaakov Zipper (who was also an educator). A large group of internationally known European Yiddish poets and prose writers joined them after World War II: writers such as Yehudah Elberg, Chaim Leib Fox [Fuks], Mordecai Hosid [Husid], Rachel Korn, Miriam Krant, Melekh Ravitch, Joseph Rogel, and Chawa [Chava] Rozenfarb. Aaron Krishtalka, the youngest of the above, is one of the few born in Canada (Cf. Kanader Yidisher zamlbukh, 1982).

Other figures have enriched the Montreal and Toronto Yiddish cultural scene - editors, translators, journalists, educators and scholars - among them, Chaim Spilberg, Joseph Kage, Moshe Menchowsky, Shloime Wiseman, Samson [Shimshon] Dunsky, and Leib Tencer. Toronto has been the home of Yiddish literary figures such as Peretz Miransky (a member of the famous Yung Vilne group), S. Mitzmacher, S. Nepom, Simcha Simchovitch, and Yudika (Judith Tsik).

The Fishstein Collection includes a number of periodicals produced in Canada, particularly Montreal: Nyuansn (1921) [#1701], Der Kval (1922) [#1613], Kanad'e (1925) [#1863), Royerd (1921) [#1702], Montreol (1932) [#1652], Heftn (1936) [#1653], Kanader zshurnal (1940) [#1645], Tint un feder (1949) [#1670], Montreoler heftn (1955) [#1654], and others.

The Montreal-based Yiddish newspaper Keneder adler (Canadian Eagle) (1907-1988) was published first as a daily, then as a weekly. For a major part of its existence (1924-1964), Israel Rabinowitch was at the helm. Der Yidisher zshurnal (The Yiddish Journal) was its Toronto counterpart. There have also been other weekly publications in Canadian cities.

The Yiddish theatre has enhanced the Montreal cultural scene under the leadership of such notable women as Chayele Grober in the earlier years and, after World War II, the indomitable Dora Wasserman, whose mantle has recently been passed to her daughter, Bryna.


There was a vigorous antagonism to Yiddish language and literature in Erets Yisroel (The Land of Israel) prior to World War II, an attitude that was bitterly resented by many Yiddish-speakers at the time. As the major diaspora tongue of the Jewish people, Yiddish presented a threat to the establishment of Hebrew as a living language there, and was associated with "ghetto mentality". However, some Yiddish poetry was produced, notably by Yosef Papyernikov, and by Arie Shamri, Abraham Lev and I.Z. Shargel. In the wake of the Holocaust and after the establishment of the State of Israel, Yiddish literature had a renaissance of sorts there. Israel has since been the generator of most of the Yiddish literary production of the world. The work of the poetess Rukhl Fishman appeared at this time. Perhaps the most respected Yiddish poet in Israel and the world today is the gifted Abraham Sutzkever, a former member of Yung Vilne and founder-editor of the prestigious literary journal Di Goldene keyt in 1949 until its cessation in 1995.

Women Poets

Among the poets that flourished in the early decades many were women. The Fishstein Catalogue reveals evidence of the contribution made by such women years before feminism came into vogue. A perusal of the Author Index, bypassing names with initials only, reveals the presence of well over one hundred entries with women's forenames. Similarly, the forenames in the Illustrator Index reveal the presence of more than twenty women.

Perhaps the most prominent of the women poets was the talented and versatile poetess and editor, Kadya Molodowsky. A number of women poets have already been mentioned in the section on Canada; others include names such as: Ada Cohen, Hasye Cooperman, Celia Levin Dropkin, Devoyreh Fogel, Edith Glasser-Andrews (Ida Glazer), Bertha Kling, Bracha Kopstein, Malka Lee, Anna Margolin, Anita Piatigorskaia, Fradl Shtok, Esther Shumiatcher-Hirshbein, Malka Heifetz Tussman, Miriam Ulianover, Shifra Weiss, Rachel Weprinsky, Rajzell Zychlinska (Reyzl Zshikhlinski), and others. The beautifully-executed anthology, Yidishe dikhterins (Yiddish Poetesses) [#1812], edited by E. Korman and published in 1928, includes seventy women poets, along with portraits of many of them.

The Later Decades

During the thirties, the concerns of modernism and its adherence to aesthetic autonomy became increasingly peripheral to the Jewish world. Such attitudes did not sit well for any length of time even for Yiddish literary rebels, since social responsibility is embedded in Jewish culture, in Yidishkeyt. Moreover, the threatening spectre of the Nazi Holocaust loomed on the horizon, and was soon to descend on six million of their people. The lingering memory of that darkness was to penetrate the Jewish psyche, as it did the work of the remaining post-World War II Yiddish poets. Among these, the work of the New York Yiddish poet, Jacob Glatstein, stands out, as does that of Abraham Sutzkever.

The constellation of Yiddish poets, along with the vibrant Yiddish culture that nurtured it, is no more. The scythes of Nazi annihilation slashed across the millions of Yiddish speakers and readers in Europe during World War II, and Stalin's subsequent destruction of Soviet Yiddish creative endeavour added the coup de grace. Ironically, in America, benign historical factors played their inexorable role as vvell, as the welcoming English-speaking environment beckoned. The creation of the State of Israel, the transformation of Hebrew from a classical language to a living tongue with a modern literature of its own, further deflected the need for a Jewish language rooted in the ghettos of the diaspora.

For those who wish to explore the delights of Yiddish poetry, and to savour the richness of the culture it embodied, the Joe Fishstein Collection of Yiddish Poetry presents a special opportunity. In editions which often look as if they have just come off the press, frequently protected by beautifully designed jackets that are a feast for the eyes, the Collection offers the reader the distillation of Yiddish poetry at its peak.

Yiddish Revival

The flowering time of Yiddish language and literature is past, and the rich soil and environment that nurtured their emergence is gone. However, Yiddish refuses to die. Individuals and organizations, though greatly reduced in numbers, continue to sponsor creativity in Yiddish on a national and international level. It is still the living vernacular of Jewish ultra-orthodox communities in New York, Montreal and many other cities in North America, Israel and elsewhere. The language, as the bearer of Yidishkeyt, has some status for them, but it does not approach that of Hebrew, the holy tongue. Yiddish is not regarded by them as a literary language in its own right.

The study of Yiddish language and literature has been undergoing a revival in the last few decades, both at the academic and grass roots levels. The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York continues to function as an active worldwide resource for Yiddish scholarship. Courses have proliferated in university Jewish Studies programmes and centres all over the world, and several Chairs in Yiddish have been installed in Jewish Studies Departments. Aaron Lansky, a former Jewish Studies graduate student at McGill University, is the founder of the remarkable National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. The Center houses and distributes some 25,000 titles, keeps hundreds of thousands of volumes in storage, produces an appealing English-language quarterly, Pakn treger (Book Peddler), and is a catalyst for Yiddish renewal all over the country.

Although nowhere near their former quantity, Yiddish publications continue to appear, as may be seen in bibliographies of current books (Baker, 1995/96; Vaisman, 1997; Denman; 1997). There are about 50 Yiddish newspapers and periodicals in the world today, in which the Haredi (ultra orthodox) press plays a prominent role (Yiddish Panorama, 1995, p.29). The New York Yiddish Forverts, a daily newspaper for most of its 100 years, continues in appear on a weekly basis, along with English and Russian editions. Di Tsukunft (New York, 1892-), Yidishe kultur (New York, 1938-), and Afn shvel (New York, 1941-) are long-standing Yiddish cultural periodicals. Several new journals, either in Yiddish, or about Yiddish, have appeared: Di Pen (Oxford, 1994-) is especially noteworthy.

Mam'e loshn groups, leyenkrayzn (reading circles), film festivals, summer camps and programmes, klezmer music ensembles, websites, an active electronic discussion group called "Mendele" and its offshoot, The Mendele Review, are some of the endeavours that have spontaneously arisen over the last few decades and claim enthusiastic supporters.

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Goldie Sigal
Jewish Studies Librarian
McGill University Libraries