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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.
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.
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
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.
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
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Jewish Studies Librarian
McGill University Libraries