To the Editor:
Ruth R. Wisse’s article, “The Politics of Yiddish” [July], is absolutely perfect. I have never read anything more just, wise, and balanced about Yiddish. A real wonder!
To the Editor:
In her article Ruth R. Wisse refers to the First Yiddish Language Conference in Czernowitz, Bukovina, in 1908. Readers who seek more information on the conference, on its leading participants (Nathan Birnbaum, Y. L. Peretz, M. Mieses, and Chaim Zhitlowsky), and on most of the “political” issues pertaining to Yiddish, will find it in my book, Architects of Yiddishism at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1977).
Emanuel S. Goldsmith
New York City
To the Editor:
Since the Freiheit is mentioned in Ruth R. Wisse’s “The Politics of Yiddish,” permit me to comment.
Mrs. Wisse divides the Yiddishists of some years back into two groups. One considered that
Yiddishism could not exclude the Jewish bourgeoisie. A second group objected strongly. The national character of Yiddish, they said, had to do exclusively with its source in the life of Jewish workers, farmers, and the small tradespeople who tomorrow could be among the ranks of the workers or the unemployed. One of the most eloquent proponents of the latter view was the Yiddish poet, H. Leivick.
To ascribe such an attitude to the great Yiddish poet H. Leivick is questionable, but this, we are told, was “the centrist position.” To prove this point, Mrs. Wisse states:
When Leivick complained that the Freiheit, the Yiddish-language Communist paper, lacked any appreciation of artistic merit and was forcing Yiddish writers into a proletarian straitjacket, the editors mocked his fastidiousness.
And this, according to Mrs. Wisse, is what the editors of the “Communist” Freiheit told H. Leivick: “Doesn’t Leivick understand that one’s attitude toward Yiddish is not the most pressing problem of the local Communist movement?”
Now, I am willing to assume that this is a correct quotation from the Freiheit. But is Mrs. Wisse under no obligation to supply her readers with a date, inform them when this statement was made and in what connection, and point out the reason Leivick made his charge against a paper of which he himself was a contributor, together with (among others) such well-known Yiddish writers as Abraham Reisen and Moishe Nadir, who is so highly praised by Mrs. Wisse as an extraordinary Yiddish artist?
H. Leivick left the Freiheit in 1929, not for artistic reasons: he disagreed with the policy of the paper on the Arab attacks on Jews in Palestine that year. Later, Leivick was an active participant, with the then-Freiheit editor M.J. Olgin, in the First World Congress for Jewish Culture held in Paris in September 1937. Present at this congress were delegations from Jewish communities in twenty-three countries, including North and South America, Europe (France, England, Belgium, Austria, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Rumania), as well as South Africa and Eretz Yisrael (Palestine).
The manifesto issued by that congress, composed by a committee consisting of M.J. Olgin, H. Leivick, and Ben Adir, a prominent Jewish cultural personality in Paris, had as one of its main slogans: the Jewish people cannot be separated from Jewish culture; Jewish culture cannot be separated from the Jewish people. The emphasis here is not on class but people, the Jewish people. Besides Olgin and Leivick, Joseph Opatoshu was also present as a member of the U.S. delegation, the same Opatoshu who is highly praised in Mrs. Wisse’s article, and correctly so. Opatoshu delivered an important speech at the congress, as did Leivick, Olgin, Chaim Zhitlowsky, and others (Zhitlowsky was unable to make the trip to Paris; his speech was read by the poet Z. Weinper, a member of the American delegation).
Mrs. Wisse mentions the 1908 Czernowitz conference—truly a historic conference, but her article completely ignores the 1937 Paris congress, which was the biggest of the international Yiddish gatherings, and which was held at a time when the millions of Yiddish-speaking Jews who later perished in the Holocaust were still alive. Could it be that politics are the reason for the omission of this important congress?
Mrs. Wisse is a teacher of Yiddish literature at McGill University in Montreal. She may not follow the Yiddish press in New York (three Yiddish weeklies). But she has no right to mislead the readers of COMMENTARY as to the character of the Morning Freiheit, which for nearly thirty years now has been an independent, progressive Jewish labor and people’s newspaper, although in earlier years the Freiheit did support a party line. That support ended in 1956, as it did for millions of other people, with the publication of the well-known speech of Nikita Khrushchev regarding the criminal misdeeds of Stalin. The record shows that after the Freiheit published the text of Khrushchev’s revelations and conducted a prolonged discussion of this document among our readers, a national conference consisting of Freiheit committees in various cities, the Freiheit editorial staff, outside contributors (writers, poets), and the National Management Committee was held in New York in January 1957—over twenty-eight years ago! That conference unanimously decided that the Morning Freiheit should become—and it did become—“an independent, progressive Jewish labor and people’s newspaper.” It is possible that Mrs. Wisse is not acquainted with the character of the Morning Freiheit and unwittingly applies false labels to it, or is this, too, part of her politics?
One final point in regard to her remarks about Leivick. In 1950 Leivick received an Honorary Doctorate from Hebrew Union College. In 1961 he was awarded a medal by the National Jewish Welfare Board, for his “literary creativity for the last fifty years [which has] won him recognition as the greatest Jewish poet and playwright of our time.”
It is puzzling how a teacher of Yiddish literature can misrepresent Leivick’s role to the extent that Ruth R. Wisse does in her article. Jewish workers and small trades-people—and women generally—did play a basic role in the upsurge of Yiddish, as pointed out by Y. L. Peretz at the 1908 Czernowitz conference. But to single out Leivick as the proponent of this role, to the exclusion of his concern with the Jewish people generally, does not tally with his creativity as a poet and playwright. The formulation made at the 1937 Paris congress, of which Leivick was a coauthor, is the correct one: the Jewish people cannot be separated from Jewish culture; Jewish culture cannot be separated from the Jewish people.
Editor, Morning Freiheit
New York City
Ruth R. Wisse writes:
I am deeply grateful to Simon Markish for his letter.
Since Emanuel S. Goldsmith is providing us with bibliography, let us not omit Joshua Fishman’s significant account of the 1908 conference in his book, Never Say Die! (Mouton, 1981).
The Freiheit and Paul Novick may have broken with Stalinism, but not with its attitude to history or to political discourse: the attitude, that is to say, according to which history is clay in the hands of the ideological potter and discourse is hitting your opponent over the head with the finished product.
I divided Yiddishism of the interwar period into three positions, not two, else the term “centrist” would have had no meaning. When Leivick wrote for the Freiheit in the late 1920’s he was fighting a running battle against the anti-Communist Yiddish writers on the one hand, and against his newspaper on the other hand, which was allowing more loyal writers, like Moishe Nadir, to criticize him in its pages. Leivick wanted the Yiddish writer exempted from the discipline that bound the rest of the Communist camp, and it was in this context that Shakhne Epstein (later exposed as a Soviet agent) accused him in the Freiheit of October 26, 1927, of hyper-refinement. The paragraph reads in full:
Comrade Leivick declares that he considers himself a Communist, that he is coming toward Communism and that he wants to approach still closer. We don’t for a moment doubt Leivick’s sincerity, just as we don’t doubt the sincerity of Moishe Nadir and other writers who come to us to serve Communism with their art. But doesn’t Leivick understand that the attitude toward Yiddish is not the most pressing problem in the local Communist movement? In reality the problem does not exist for Communists. It may sound odd to Leivick and his kind, but there it is.
Of course Leivick broke with the Freiheit in August 1929. Even at this remove, Mr. Novick is shy of reminding us that the “policy” of the paper, once it had received its instructions from Moscow, was to blame the Jews of Palestine for the Arab riots that were killing them, and to hail these pogroms as the beginnings of the Arab revolution. When he heard of the Freiheit’s position, Leivick wrote:
The Freiheit takes the part of the Arabs, deliberately takes its stand against the victims, justifies and wishes to encourage the dreadful pogrom, interpreting it as revolution. Even if it is revolution, you have to be simply insane to take such a terrible stand against the Jewish yishuv [community in Palestine], the workers’ yishuv that with its own sweat and life cultivated the land. One can be against the Zionist organization, against the Balfour Declaration, and I am. But to dance like demons on the blood of innocent victims—that leaves me speechless. What should we do, we Yiddish writers who are for Communism, for the Soviet Union, what should we do?
One of the things that Leivick and Menahem Boreisho, recipient of this letter, did do was to found their own weekly. It was here, well after the break with the Freiheit, that Leivick defined the position on Yiddish that I summarized in my article. The break with the Freiheit, far from turning these Yiddish writers against Communism, as one might have thought, made them all the more eager to defer to the moral authority of the Soviet Union, for now that they were no longer part of the Freiheit they had to work harder to maintain their distance from the Zionist and “right-wing” socialist circles of the Jewish Daily Forward. This is the ideological balance that Leivick tried to maintain throughout the 1930’s, until the Hitler-Stalin pact created another crisis of disaffection.
Why should Leivick not have attended the 1937 World Congress for Jewish Culture which was enthusiastically promoted by the Communists as an element of their interest at that time in a common front? The conference did present a serious problem for the anti-Communist Yiddish writers, many of whom publicly dissociated themselves from it, but the pro-Communists participated, though Leivick is said to have had misgivings. As for Leivick’s undisputed prominence, that is precisely what prompted me to take him as the example of what can only ironically be referred to as Yiddish “centrism.”
As a “teacher of Yiddish literature”—a concept that seems to fill Mr. Novick with particular scorn—I am neither a hagiographer nor an apologist. The Freiheit and Leivick clearly stated their views about the Jews and the Yiddish language during the period between the wars, and it is these 1 described in my article.