Commentary Magazine


A Little Love in Big Manhattan, by Ruth R. Wisse

Baudelaires of East Broadway

A Little Love in Big Mahattan: Two Yiddish Poets.
by Ruth R. Wisse.
Harvard University Press. 279 pp. $25.00.

The story Ruth R. Wisse tells in her latest book is, like the poem from which she takes her title, ironic and bittersweet. It is the story of a group of young Yiddish-speaking immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York who lived for poetry. Their brief, doomed movement to fashion a purified Yiddish aesthetic, one which was committed not to any political or social ideal but to language itself, began in 1907 and was known as Di Yunge (“The Young”).

In the two decades between the first major wave of Jewish immigration in the 1880′s and the years when these poets arrived, Yiddish culture in America had already undergone a number of changes. The first Yiddish literature, typified by the “sweatshop school” of poetry, was didactic and blunt; it addressed itself entirely to the requirements of the working-class population, depended on a close alliance with the Yiddish press, and was cut off from the folk traditions of the prose masters—Sholem Aleichem, Men-dele, Peretz—who were then writing their best works in Russia and Poland. The sweatshop poets, responding to a totally unfamiliar tenement and factory existence, engineered a kind of literary expression that suited the needs of their uprooted, bewildered audience. Their poetry was little more than a bald testimony to this community’s hard new life.

By the time the future members of the Yunge appeared, conditions were somewhat altered. The daily routine for most of the immigrants was no less strenuous, but in twenty-five years an energetic, multifaceted Yiddish culture had evolved. Under the editorship of Abraham Cahan, the socialist newspaper Forverts (“Forward”) had grown into the largest foreign-language daily paper in America. Yiddish theater was a much livelier presence than it had ever been allowed to become in Europe. Literary cafes were buzzing with eager voices; Yiddish-language magazines with sections devoted to literature were starting to spring up regularly, their socialist editors constantly on the watch for new ideological positions. Perhaps the most radical of these magazines was Di yugnt (“Youth”), begun in the winter of 1907-08, which emphasized the importance of having no ideological loyalties at all.

The only allegiance the Yunge claimed for themselves was a duty to literature—Yiddish literature—for its own sake. They shut themselves off from political idealism and directed their firepower toward the Yiddish press, which for them symbolized the mass consciousness they sought to escape. As one of the rebels, Zishe Landau, asserted, up till then Yiddish poetry had been serving merely as “the rhyme department of the Jewish labor movement”; for the Yunge, by contrast, the importance of poetry lay precisely in its autonomous existence, its distance from everyday concerns.

The Yunge wanted the language of their poems to be hard, clear, and concentrated—somewhat like the imagist poems that were starting to emerge in England and America at about this time—but also to incorporate the refinement and subtlety of late 19th-century symbolist verse. Each word ought to resonate, simply but deeply, and the poem as a whole ought to be as musical as possible, with harmonizing meter and rhyme. Purity of language, for them, meant avoiding both newspaper jargon and German and Hebrew expressions which had found their way into everyday Yiddish speech. And if the use of the language was to be pure, the content ought to be purer: it was to contain no sentimentality and no bombast; it was to be understated, sensual, spiritual.

Perhaps the example of Yunge poetry which manages best to incorporate all these high-minded ideals is Mani Leib’s “Shtiller, shtiller” (“Hush, hush”), a poem about waiting for the messiah, which opens this way:

Hush and hush—no sound be
   heard.
Bow in grief but say no word.
Black as pain and white as death,
Hush and hush and hold your
   breath.

One by one they declared their devotion to this pure, self-contained aesthetic: Mani Leib, Reuben Iceland, Zishe Landau, Moishe Leib Halpern. Barely twenty, fresh from various parts of the Jewish Pale, working endless hours in bootmaking factories or as window washers, they gathered at night in the cafes to discuss the French symbolists and Walt Whitman. They were lucky to steal a few moments alone in a crowded, noisy apartment, these Baudelaires of East Broadway, to write longingly of stillness, quiet, trees, snow. To their heated debates they brought the zeal of the formal religious practices they had all but abandoned. They called themselves “a new kind of minyan”; for them, poetry was like the promise of the Sabbath or of Mani Leib’s breathlessly awaited messiah—it brought the redemption of the world into closer view. They saw themselves as dandies, as aesthetes, with “their elegant canes, their long hair and their wide, sweeping hats,” but what one notices first about them is how close to the shtetl they still were, and how young, how full of books and spite and cheerfulness and strength.

A less sensitive writer than Mrs. Wisse might have been tempted to sentimentalize this story, but she is scrupulously aware of the danger. Her documentation is careful and steady, her tone reserved; she allows the poignance in the story she tells to express itself through the poetry and through the facts of the poets’ lives. Mrs. Wisse had originally planned to write a literary history of the whole Yunge movement, but in the end she has concentrated on two members, Mani Leib and Moishe Leib Halpern, letting the others serve as “voices of the chorus.” Because the two poets she chose are on the surface so different, their stories together make a fine natural structure for the book.

_____________

 

Mani Leib grew up in a city called Niezhin in the Ukraine, the birthplace of Gogol. Before he emigrated at the age of twenty, he was apprenticed to a bootmaker and later imprisoned for agitating against the czar. Incarceration in this cause was a point of great pride for him, and he was glad to have the free time to devote to writing poems. When he was arrested a second time, however, he decided to escape to America. Shortly thereafter, employed as a bootmaker in New York, he was able to bring his sweetheart Chasia to America; they married and had five children in ten years, living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

Most people considered Mani Leib to be the most attractive member of the Yunge. Gentle, dreamy, wistful about his childhood, writing poems noted for their musicality, he was called a Joseph among his brothers. But life was not particularly full of rewards for this sweet-tempered poet. His marriage was almost immediately unhappy, but his wife refused him a divorce. He fell in love with a writer named Rochelle Weprinski, with whom he lived intermittently, and was obliged to support both his own large family and Rochelle’s household on his factory salary. One of the happiest periods of his life was spent in a sanatorium where he was treated for tuberculosis; there, as in prison, he at last had the uninterrupted leisure to write his poems.

Moishe Leib Halpern had a nearly opposite personality; if Mani Leib was a Joseph, Halpern was an Esau crouching over his mess of pottage, rough, angry, mocking, suspicious. He came from a relatively wealthy family in the town of Zlochev in the Austro-Hungarian empire and was sent at twelve to Vienna to be apprenticed to a commercial artist. When he returned to his hometown in 1907 he felt himself a stranger, steeped as he was in German literature and culture. But he decided to return to a Jewish way of life and voluntarily chose Yiddish—rather than German, Hebrew, Polish, or Russian—as his literary language.

When Halpern arrived in New York in 1908 he immediately tried to become the most eccentric of all the young individualists in the literary community. He refused to seek steady employment, writing verses for Yiddish humor magazines only when he needed a few dollars. He took pleasure in taunting and outraging potential publishers of his work and showed a reckless contempt for both sides of every ideological battle: he mocked both lapsed Jews and observant ones, those who had lofty goals for Yiddish literature and those who thought it should address the common people; when there was a split among the Yunge in 1914, he took neither side and published parodies of both.

For all his crankiness, Halpern was no crackpot. What made him unable to take a position was his sense of irony, a troublesome gift for seeing all sides of an argument down to the most meticulous details, so that in every point of view he could spot the seeds of its opposite and thereby reject it. In his speaking tours across the country for the Communist newspaper Freiheit—whose views he eventually, and characteristically, came to repudiate—he became a wandering promoter of Yiddish culture, an emblem of its rootlessness and its portability. In one of his poems he called himself a “street drummer,” a rhythmic noisemaker, “reckless and free, on alien dirt.”

_____________

 

They seem very different, Moishe Leib Halpern and Mani Leib, the lion and the lamb, the street drummer and the wistful balladeer, yet in their poetry they prove themselves more fundamentally alike than one might imagine. In an excellent analysis, Mrs. Wisse explains that Halpern’s poetic identity is divided into two parts, the “mocker” and the “mourner”:

The mocker is the principle of energy, the mourner of impotence and death. The mocker is protean, vivid, inventive. The mourner is passive, helpless, leaving earth without even a trace of his presence.

It is this ability to hold contradictory identities in his head that makes Halpern a complex and interesting poet. And Mani Leib’s verses display similar dichotomies: between the earthbound heart and the upward-reaching soul, isolation and solidarity, doubt and faith. Both poets share that very serious sense of irony, of understanding too well all sides of a situation. No doubt it was this quality that led them both to seek refuge in the intellectually pure atmosphere of the Yunge.

If desire for purity brought the poets together, it was purity that dissolved the group; the atmosphere eventually became too thin for them to continue. World War I signaled the ruin of Jewish life in Europe, a grim milestone marking the end of these writers’ innocent youth. Many of them could no longer ignore the political situation erupting around them and were drawn into various socialist and Communist causes. Others were forced to give up poetry as a profession in order to support their growing families. In the wake of the Yunge arose another group known as the Introspectivists, who rebelled against the smoothness and disengagement of the earlier movement’s verse.

But Yiddish culture was on the decline even as this new group gathered. Like most immigrants in the interwar years, the Introspectivists were becoming more formally educated than the Yunge, more American, more interested in mainstream culture than in retaining their own cohesion. Yiddish literature was endangered both by the economic poverty of its readers and by their eventual economic success: in poverty nobody could afford to buy volumes of Yiddish verse; in wealth the push to become assimilated meant abandoning mameloshen altogether.

_____________

 

Mrs. Wisse’s book is more than a memorial to these most interesting writers; it is an attempt, as she writes, “to return to modern Jews part of their lost inheritance and, more important, to locate for American Yiddish poets their rightful place in the American canon.” The first goal she achieves with remarkable judiciousness, economy, and skill. The question of how well she has accomplished the second has much to do with the large issue of how Yiddish has survived as a language without ever having had a permanent geographical home.

Yiddish is by definition an independent tongue, a language of homelessness. While it is true that some of the Yunge wrote verse that owes its existence to the American landscape—Joseph Rolnick’s country-life portraits, which bear a resemblance to those of Robert Frost, or I.J. Schwartz’s Kentucky, a Whitmanesque quasi-epic—the group’s contribution on the whole belongs more to world, and specifically European, literature than to the American canon. Its models were the 19th-century European poets: Pushkin, Blok, Rilke, Hofmannsthal, Baudelaire. In later years, when the work of the Yunge was known to most European Jewish poets, they were often invited to participate in transcontinental exchanges. They enthusiastically translated into Yiddish Slavic songs, Scottish ballads, and Shakespeare.

It was only with the Introspectivists that attention began to be paid to American poetry beyond Whitman. But not even the Introspectivists can be said to have become part of the American poetic canon, though they came the closest. Yiddish culture was too self-contained within its own traditions on the one hand, and too engaged in world literature on the other, successfully to assimilate itself into American literature.

The Yunge were expatriates of a kind; indeed, by the time they reached America, expatriation was a point of view that had already been integrated into their consciousness. Theirs was a small, stubborn voice which could be taken anywhere, although (as they themselves predicted) it was not guaranteed to survive anywhere. And yet the literary merits of the Yunge, so brilliantly displayed and explicated by Mrs. Wisse, are undeniable, and their work remains properly of great interest to modern American Jews in search (as she puts it) of “their lost inheritance,” to lovers of poetry, and to American literary critics and historians. Mrs. Wisse ends her book with a sad question which is also a challenge to these diverse readers: “Was the new Yiddish psalter imprinted for all time in the stones of East Broadway, or did it sink with the poets into a place as lost as Atlantis?”

_____________

 

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