Readers who think that Yiddish literature in America began and ended with Nobel-prizewinner Isaac Bashevis Singer will find a new book from Stanford University Press to be a revelation. American Yiddish Poetry: a Bilingual Anthology by Benjamin Harshav and Barbara Harshav is a virtuoso production, 813 pages of essays, original texts, and deft translations of seven worthy, yet often overlooked, early 20th century poets like A. Leyeles and Jacob Glatshteyn.
Benjamin Harshav, a Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Yale, has published prolifically on the painter Marc Chagall. This vast new tome, in collaboration with his wife Barbara Harshav, who teaches translation at Yale, underlines the influence of many writers on these erudite poets.
A. Leyeles (born Aaron Glantz, 1889-1966), a poet and journalist, was a multilingual master of prosody who translated Whitman, Verlaine, Goethe, Keats, and Pushkin into Yiddish. In a Whitman-like way, Leyeles buttonholes readers, addressing us in poems of formal beauty. An example is Leyeles’s Villanelle of the Mystical Cycle:
Mystical cycle of seven times five,
Five times seven, a ring in a ring.
Shell swept away, the core will survive.
Ground by the years, and in years revived.
Young when a man, and gray in young spring.
Mystical cycle of seven times five . . .
In Night, Leyeles offers a hypnotic cityscape of 1920’s Manhattan:
Now all is calm. The window-lights spent.
Lanterns slip silently into the pavement.
Towers stand watching like monsters of stone.
Massive Flatiron: imposing, gray, cold.
Then Metropolitan: heavier, grayer.
Others hang gloomily, crowd like a forest. . .
In Storms and Towers, inspired by New York architecture, Leyeles invokes admired poets like the medieval Frenchman François Villon:
Villon my brother, Maître Villon,
You did not see
The Tower of Woolworth
In a storm of snow . . .
Leyeles’s friend and colleague Moyshe-Leyb Halpern (1886–1932) was more concerned with self-exploration and self-definition, as in his ardently questing My Restlessness is of a Wolf (which prefigures later introspective Jewish poets like Delmore Schwartz):
My restlessness is of a wolf, and of a bear my rest,
Riot shouts in me, and boredom listens.
I am not what I want, I am not what I think,
I am the magician and I’m the magic-trick.
I am an ancient riddle that ponders on its own,
Swifter than the wind, bound tightly to a stone . . .
Somewhere between these extremes of landscape and introspection are the poems of Jacob Glatshteyn (1896-1971), an avant-gardist who speaks of personal relationships, sometimes with violence, as in A Song:
In summer I shall slice little tomatoes and think of your lips,
And you will stroll over the roads and sing to every passer-by.
And I shall regret that I didn’t mark your face with a scar,
Or that I didn’t burden your walk with a child . . .
In 1978, when Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel, he declared, “Yiddish has not yet said its last word.” He was right, as the remarkable labors of the Harshavs demonstrate.