Yiddish Genius in America

The autobiographical novels of the great Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, Ven Yash iz geforn and Ven yash iz gekumen (When Yash Set Out and When Yash Arrived), were his literary response to the trip he took back to Lublin in 1934 to visit his dying mother. Coinciding with Hitler’s political takeover in Germany, this voyage at what turned out to be the midpoint of his life (1896–1971) left him feeling that the person returning to America bore greater responsibilities than the one who had left. The novels, which were published together in excellent translations as The Glatstein Chronicles by Yale University Press’ New Yiddish Library a few years ago, reflect that new sense of responsibility. (Caveat emptor: I edited the volume.)

Jacob Glatstein. (Courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center.)
Jacob Glatstein. (Courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center.)

Glatstein had arrived in America just before the outbreak of the First World War as a young man of 17. After struggling to get a foothold in New York, he gradually became part of its Yiddish literary community. When he felt confident enough of his English, he began to study law at NYU night school, but soon after he felt confident enough to quit law school to devote himself to poetry. In 1919 with Aaron Leyeles and Nahum B. Minkoff—another fugitive from law school—he issued the Introspectivist Manifesto, which is the most ambitious such artistic mission statement ever written for Yiddish literature. In 1926 he got an editorial job at the Morgn Zhurnal, a politically moderate, Zionist-tending daily newspaper. He remained an avid reader of Anglo-American literature and collected his Yiddish poems every few years in slim, elegant volumes.

Glatstein’s biographer, when he gets one, will probably want to linger on the 1920s and early 1930s, before his trip back to Poland, as a time of literary ripening. Take his poem “Zing Ladino,” which was first published in 1929 and appeared in book form in 1937 in a section called zilbeccentrishkayt, syllable-centricity. Even the non-Yiddish reader can see, or rather hear, the poet creating what seems like a language of his own as he sings of that other Jewish vernacular, Ladino:

 

Zing ladino, blonder zenger,

Undzer tsoyberzhargonino

Alkolirte rederay

Altsetsungte shprakheray

Zunfargino, gino, gino.

Gingoldiker oyfshtral, oyfpral—

Algefarbgedankeray.

Ale broytn, ale toytn,

Ale taygn, ale tundren,

Ale vundren alkolirn

Alkharuzin

Alushpizin

Ale knoytn, ale hoytn

Gelroyt un falashino,

Palestino daberino,

Undzer, undzer universladino

Blonder aladino zing.

 

“Zing Ladino” eventually appeared in Glatstein’s 1937 collection Yiddishtaytshn, which Benjamin Harshav brilliantly translated as “Exegyiddish,” and the poem playfully invites its own exegesis.

The poem resembles a drinking song in which poets raise a toast to their literary brotherhood. The slightly scrambled language complicates and rejuvenates the theme as the Yiddish poet salutes his Ladino counterpart by adapting Yiddish to Sephardi sound patterns. He affirms their artistic affinity despite the differences in the alkolirte rederay, “multicolored talkabouting,” of undzer tsoyberzhargonino, “our marvelous jargon.” People may say that these are not real languages, but the speaker is there to demonstrate the wondrous malleability of vernaculars that are too often scorned for their instability and lack of grammar. Ostensibly singing the praises of sun-drenched Arabic-tinged Judezmo, the poem actually shows off Yiddish through a run of sound-plays and neologisms with what Janet Hadda calls komponentn-visikayt, or component-awareness.

Zunfargino gino, gino evokes the generosity and absolution of the setting sun. Al Charizi is the 13th-century poet and translator of Maimonides and kharuzim are verses, making Alkharuzin the fictional creator of intellectual versification. This provokes Alushpizin, which plays on the seven heavenly guests who are traditionally invited into the sukkah. The play between al, the definite article in Arabic, and Yiddish ale which means “all,” fuses east and west: Ale knoytn, ale hoytn are all the wicks and all the skin colors of our yellowed people who include the Falashino—Sephardi-Ethiopians. Palestine is trying to get people to speak Hebrew, hence Palestino daberino from the Hebrew verb daber, to speak. People say that Jews are a mongrel people, but their Falashino mixture is really Aladino, wondrous as Aladdin’s lamp. The poem revels in its alleged illegitimacy, invites celebration of its ingenuity, and unapologetically integrates whatever it needs for self-expression. Though some of Glatstein’s poems of this period comment on the decline of Yiddish and on his personal difficulties, one has the sense of an exuberant poet in his prime.

 

Glatstein conceived of his fictional autobiography as a trilogy. Part One was the trip from America back to Poland, Part Two was the time spent in Poland, and Part Three would have described his reentry to America. He published the first two parts in 1938 and 1940, but he never wrote the third. In the first two books and elsewhere, he wrote about the looming catastrophe in Europe.

On his return from Europe, Glatstein began writing a weekly column in his newspaper first under the pseudonym Itzkus and then, at the editor’s urging, under his own name. Introspectivism had insisted that everything including current events was grist for poetry, but Glatstein’s new job came at some apparent cost to his poetry, since during the late 1930s he published relatively little verse. He concentrated on the Yash novels and on journalism.

In addition to ringing what he called “the silent bells” of warning for Polish and European Jewry, Glatstein wrote about the anti-Semitism of such literary figures as Theodore Dreiser and Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s Jew-hatred was a lifelong sore point: How could a writer who “put God on his table/like a bottle of whiskey/and guzzled” fail to appreciate the God-intoxicated Jewish people? He also wrote with rare prescience about Stalin and communism, once proposing a rejection of the Comintern (Communist International) in favor of something he called the Yidntern. Although he refused to soften his stance on communism and the Soviet Union because of its opposition to Hitlerism, he also despaired of the tepid response of the world’s democracies to events like Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia or Hitler’s steady suppression of freedom in Germany. And, of course, he worried over the fate of Yiddish.

These preoccupations coalesced in his most famous poem dated April 1938, in which he loudly slams the gate against Western civilization, saying: “Good night, wide world./Big, stinking world./Not you, but I, slam the gate.” Glatstein recorded this poem, so one can still hear him in his own strong voice damning:

 

Swinish German, hostile Polack,

Thievish Amalekite—land of swill and guzzle

Slobbering democracy,

With your cold compress of sympathy

Good night, brash world with your electric glare.

 

A joke circulated at the time about a German or Polish Jew who goes to a travel agent to arrange for his departure from Europe. The man names one destination after another and the agent explains why immigration is impossible to each country in turn. Finally the exasperated Jew says, “Haven’t you got another globe?” Against that plaintive Jewish question “Good Night, World” slams the door.

Glatstein is, after all, an American, not the captive Jew looking for a visa, but the man in the freest country on earth. As that free man in a free country, he hands the world back the “Jesus-Marxes” the Jews bequeathed it and curses the bad bargain Jews made in leaving the nigun, the hummed melody of the Shabbos table, for Wagner’s idol-music. “Choke on each drop of our baptized blood!” Glatstein says to the Gentiles, reversing the direction of the Jews who pleaded to be allowed into Western civilization.

This was still 1938. Then came the war and rhetorical postures gave way to the dawning horror at the realities of Hitler’s Final Solution. Glatstein became one of the great eulogists of European Jews. His lamentations, poems of the Khurbn in unusual forms of paradox and wit, many of them addressed to God, will probably remain at the heart of Glatstein’s legacy.

 

Did all this somehow preclude writing the third part of the Yash trilogy? Glatstein’s problem was certainly not writer’s block: He filled several thick collections of essays and literary criticism during and after the 1950s, and he was a more prolific poet after the war than he had been before. The literary scholar Dan Miron reports that shortly before his death in 1971, the poet told him that learning of the destruction of Polish Jewry made it impossible for him to complete the “Yash proyekt.” This seems at best a partial explanation, since Glatstein did announce a forthcoming novel entitled Ven Yash iz tsurikgekumen (When Yash Came Back), and an excerpt he published in the Tel Aviv quarterly Di Goldene Keyt in 1958 indicates that he was following the style of the second volume that combines imagined scenes with memories and reportage. This would have required describing the way of life to which Yash returned. Judging from what Glatstein did write in the post-war years, it was the return to America rather than the destruction of Polish Jewry that he could not handle.

Here is a short lyric from the early 1950s, “Vi a pastke” (Like a Mousetrap), that is typical in tone of Glatstein’s 1956 collection, Erdene Reyd (Earthbound Speech):

 

Like a little mousetrap

A little shul stands in Long Island.

The congregants are few.

No-one has yet discovered

Whether God

Ever drops in there for a while.

 

The rabbi’s piety

Is Conservative.

From his silent synagogue-study

He sends God a letter

At the old address:

Come and hear my sermon about you on Sabbath.

Don’t forget.

 

The congregants are small in number.

There’s room for God’s honor.

But no one knows whether God

Drops in there for an hour.

 

The comic analogy between rodent and omnipotent is reinforced by the connection of the Yiddish terms zikh araynkhapn and khapt zikh arayn (to drop in) with khapn, to trap. Everything here is puny, the synagogue, the number of congregants, the divine rendezvous. Not the rabbi but his piety is conservative, exemplifying the caution and constraint of the denomination. In place of God’s majestic call to Abraham and giving the Torah through Moses we have the American rabbi summoning God to listen to him, with the rhymes driving home the irony: konservativ, sends him a briv; at the old adres, come and nisht farges (Don’t forget). The intimate passion of the Hasidic ideal of dveykes, cleaving to God, has been exchanged for the possibility of an occasional drop-in.

Corresponding to the American rabbi who treats God as a potential congregant is the subject of a second poem, the American prophet (Der novi) who substitutes facts for faith. Not like Elijah fed by ravens, but a well-fed high earner, today’s prophet is a young orator. He is a psychologist, an economist, or a Pew Report sociologist, one of those experts who serves the goddess statistics. After a little more in this vein the poem concludes: “The mitzvoth that he demands are banal./Applause thunders in the hall.” Quantification and the methods of social science have replaced Judaism’s moral and spiritual categories.

Nor does the poet’s censure stop at leadership. A businessman driving to shul in his fancy car is portrayed the way anti-capitalist literature often sets up its mark—as the man of wealth who thinks he can buy happiness:

 

The automobile devours

And elegantly desecrates

Chunks of Sabbath boundaries.

A retired businessman hastens to shul

Where prayers are offered

For good health and length of days.

 

The adjective tsurikgetsoygener (retired) suggests the man is both retired and drawn back to synagogue, expecting compensation for his attendance in the form of improved health. The rhyme of mekhalel (for desecrating) with mispalel (for praying) makes the point that the vehicle of his faith is now the car, entirely free of the structure of observance that once defined the boundaries of Judaism by prescribing precisely how far one could travel on the Sabbath. Since this businessman walks to shul from only the parking lot, it is technically his car that transgresses.

Satire tends to direct its barbs from an elevated perch. Mendele Mokher Seforim did this, for example, when he described Jews arguing in a bathhouse as if they were members of the British Parliament: The distance between the benches of Parliament and the benches of the bathhouse points up the absurdity of the way Jews practice imaginary, rhetorical politics, while letting the world determine their fate. Glatstein’s satire comes from the other direction. He describes American Jews in the terminology of their forefathers. Portraying them through the prism of mitzvot, sanctity, God, the Ba’al Shem Tov, Isaiah, and Abraham shows up how stunted their Jewishness has become.

The very title of “Sunday-shtetl,” one of the most biting poems in this vein, implies that the Jewish Sabbath is now subject to the Christian calendar. Here is Cynthia Ozick’s marvelous translation:

 

Rabbi Levi Yitskhok’s drayman—the one who wore

tales and tfiln as he smeared the wheels

of his wagon with tar—

turns up in the shape of a bunch of Jews

hanging around their houses,

washing the car

(while the shtetl drowses

in its Sunday snooze),

adding up bills and working out deals

to pay up what’s owed to the pinochle fund-raiser

they attended last night at the Center.

 

The ideal reader of this poem would know the story of the disciple who informs the Hasidic rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev that his drayman has been desecrating his tales and tfiln by wearing them while greasing the wheels of his wagon. To which Levi Yitzhak replied, “How marvelous are Your Jews, O God, that they worship You even while performing menial labors.” As opposed to those bygone Jews, their American descendants nervously turn down the pressure of their hoses when they wash their cars on a Sunday morning lest the noise offend Christian neighbors on their way to church.

 

Our draymen-in-disguise,

hosing down their wheels,

cut the stream to cut the noise.

Lost souls, they look for safekeeping

to the deserted synagogue

that waits to fill up on Yom Kippur.

 

These Sunday Jews are secret Jews

smiling for the neighbors.

The church bell tolerantly skips over

the doorposts of the Jews.

They listen

with pricked-up ear,

in Marrano fear.

 

Glatstein was hardly alone in belittling the conformism of the suburbs and the declining vitality of Jewish religion in America; his originality lay in the form in which he shaped his criticism. Surveys and sociological essays chart the decline of Jewishness in America in the language of the problem they describe, and novelists like Philip Roth have generally taken as their standard an even higher degree of assimilation than that of the bourgeois Jews they satirize, but Glatstein’s poem embodies the Jewishness from which American Jewry has fallen. When they lived as slaves in Egypt, Jews were assured that God would pass over the homes whose doorposts marked them as Jewish, but in suburban America they depend on the tolerance of the church not to identify them as Jews. Glatstein’s Yiddish wit implies that American Jews have lost not only the original strength of their faith but also the ironic self-awareness of the first-generation of Yiddish renegades like himself. The allusive language is what makes the point; they no longer even get the joke.

In another poem the speaker addresses the generation of Jewish grandchildren (“Eynikl-doyres”), telling them, “I did not run away as far (Ikh bin azoy vayt nisht antlofn) from the founder of Hasidism (fun bal shem) as you run from your grandfather (vi ir antloyft fun ayer zeyde).” The American youngsters are not even heretics; Yash could not hope to find his place among them.

 

How is it that the decline of Jewish religion, which had not surfaced as a subject in Glatstein’s first four books of verse or in either of the Yash novels, should trouble so many of these post-war poems? It is really, I think, the same question—or at least has the same answer—as the question of why he never completed his trilogy. Yash, the literary stand-in for Glatstein (it was, in fact, his nickname), had been altered by history, whereas American Jewry had not.

The transition from religious to cultural Jewishness had once seemed to most of the Yiddish intelligentsia part of an inevitable process. Because the Yiddish language was itself the repository of Judaism, those working in the language felt it was memeyle, inevitably invested with Jewishness. Glatstein had learned that this was not so. Soviet authorities and their American supporters used Yiddish to attract its speakers and writers with the illusion of Jewishness while demanding that they betray it for a supposedly higher ideal of revolutionary internationalism. Equally fatal, in Glatstein’s estimation, was the patina of sentiment indulged by many in his circles who romanticized the past while giving up everything of their tradition that had been of value:

 

Yiddish poets,

why such yearning

after what remembered burning

of Sabbath candles turning

to tapers round a bier?

 

Yiddishkayt—the subject and title of this poem—had been heralded by several modern Jewish movements as the cultural substitute for Judaism, on the assumption that the Yiddish language had absorbed religion’s universal humanistic values and could become their repository going forward. But once you stopped lighting Sabbath candles in the present, they turned into memorial candles for a sentimentalized past.

Glatstein was as hard on himself as he was on his co-religionists. Reflexively addressed to the Yiddish poet, “Yiddishkayt” ends with a challenge that I took for my personal motto when I became a teacher of Yiddish literature:

 

Nostalgia-yiddishkayt is merely a lullaby for the old

whose gums knead their soaked challah.

Should we provide the mushy portions,

the hollow, outlived words,

we who dreamed of being

men of a new Great Assembly?

 

The Men of the Great Assembly (Anshei Knesset Ha-gedola) appear at the start of perhaps the most familiar Mishnah, Pirke Avot (Chapters of the Fathers):

Moses received Torah from Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many disciplines, and make a hedge around the Torah.

To stand in this line of transmission was a far cry from the razzle-dazzler showing off his syllable-centricity. Yash, who aspired to be the chronicler of the Jewish people during the most critical period in its history, could not rejoin American Jewry.

 

But perhaps I have put the matter too strongly. Glatstein’s dismay at the condition of Jewishness and Yiddish in America may have interrupted the Yash project less than his exhilaration, his joy, at the rise of Israel. Along with other American Yiddish poets in the 1930s, Glatstein had voiced understandable resentment of “Palestino daberino,” the exclusive emphasis on Hebrew at the expense of Yiddish in the Jewish Yishuv of Palestine. Then, along with many of those same Yiddish poets, he was drawn to Israel after the Khurbn—if one may say so, more passionately than even the most passionate Zionist, since no one more than the Yiddish poet understood what Hitler had destroyed. The Khurbn obliterated the civilization that created Yiddish, leaving a worldwide network without its generative center. What Jews then needed was a physical place of refuge that neither Soviet Russia nor America could provide and a new spiritual foundation for Jewish life.

Glatstein’s reports on his trip to Israel in 1962 sound very much in tone like the reporting by Yash in the volumes that bear his name. Yash was always being buttonholed by people with stories to tell, and this is precisely what happens to Glatstein in Israel:

As I reached the national memorial of our catastrophe, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, I was approached by a Jew who introduced himself as follows: “You have the honor of speaking with one of the two surviving Jews who participated in the founding of Tel Aviv.”

Glatstein then relays the man’s description of how some 60 Jewish families had set out from Yaffo 53 years earlier to establish the first modern Jewish city. Did this encounter really occur at the entrance to Yad Vashem? Whether it did or not, by situating this account of the birth of Tel Aviv at the memorial for the Jews of Europe the author reverses the direction in which he had been headed.

The magnetism of Israel was enhanced for Yiddish writers by the presence there of a small but strong Yiddish publishing center that was supported by Zalman Shazar, the third president of the State. Yiddish writers provided warm welcome to those who came from abroad. Glatstein describes how the poet Avrom Sutzkever takes him on a walking tour of old Yaffo, of which he knows every nook and cranny. On the steps of a house near the Romanian restaurant where they dine on karnatzel, they are engaged (fartshepet) by three elderly women who want to know from the American visitor whether he has come to settle. Their conversation is in Hebrew, and one of the women tells him proudly that they are all native-born. She says she blesses every day that she lives in this land, but then, switching into Yiddish she adds a little mischievously, “[Ober] alts ineynem iz nishto bay keynem” (but you can’t have everything). Glatstein ends this report by echoing this sentiment, but he adds, “akhuts baym ineynemdikn yidishn folk,” “except as a member of ingathered Jewish people.”

Unable to report positively on the Jews of America, Glatstein can hardly stop beaming at the reconstruction of Israel where he is only a visitor, as he had been on his last visit to Lublin. Based as Yash was on the biography of Yankev Glatshteyn, he could not have “returned home” to Israel since he belonged in America, and he could not thrive in the third volume of a trilogy based on the idea of America as his home. Happily, what Glatstein could not in his memoirs, he could do as poet.

In the first poem of Glatstein’s last collection, Poems from Right to Left, the speaker is greeted on his arrival in Israel by a weary immigration officer, a pakid, who asks him with a yawn a standard question he has asked hundreds of times before, “Where are you from?” In Yiddish, “Shalom! Funvanen iz a yid?To which the Yiddish poet answers surprisingly, “Yeder yids funvanen/Iz fundanen, “Every Jew’s whence/is thence.” At first the official wrinkles his brow and fails to grasp the witticism. The poem then takes us, the way one takes a child by the hand, through every slow step of dawning appreciation. Suddenly, the pakid brightens up and the creases disappear from his forehead. “He asks me to repeat it again and again, and hey—I am not lazy and do his bidding.” Since when did a poem become a language lesson, a patient tutorial?

Glatstein’s ingenuity had formerly been spectacularly quick—blink, and the fireworks have shot up and disappeared. By contrast, the progress here is so painstaking that we feel poetry being pushed against its grain, subordinating novelty and the pleasures of surprise to a more prosaic process. In obliging the official, the poet seems to be teaching us something new about poetry when it tries to speak across a real linguistic boundary. The poet wants to be understood by the official who does not know that there is anything special to understand. But then once he gets it, he wants to spread the cheer. The official rings for others to gather—not for any emergency but to form a minyan of Jews who can appreciate, “intuitively, the meaning of the words that I no longer say but rather happily sing for them. They take up the tune and grasp the full meaning of my Jewish visa—my Yiddish visa.” The weary official becomes the conductor and, together with his colleagues and the poet, all are “caught up in dance like Lubavitch Hasidim.”

This light-hearted and apparently childlike poem speaks volumes. The language of European Jewry may appear foreign to the Israeli, but it contains in pure form the moral claim of Israel, which is that every Jew’s whence is thence. Though it sounds paradoxical, it couldn’t be more straightforward. The sustaining attachment to the Land of Israel that animated Yiddish—and Lubavitch—refreshes what otherwise threatens to become dulled.

Glatstein had conceived the Yash trilogy as an autobiographical bridge between the old home and the new, with titles of departure, arrival, and return marking the stages of his journey. The project was activated by the shock of going back to a birthplace in Poland that was much more threatened than the community he had left. But the transformation he witnessed in Poland and the cataclysm that followed also changed him and his world. He could not bring Yash back to an America that would serve as an alternative to the destroyed communities of Europe, and he could not take Yash to the place where he saw a Jewish future emerging.

It was enough that Glatstein wrote the elegy for the Jews of Poland; he did not want to write a requiem for Yash. So the work stayed unfinished. Writing in his own voice, Glatstein described and celebrated Israel, as Yash—caught between der alter heym and America—could not.

Comments

  1. jdnemetz

    Thank you so much for the article. I am a cousin, once removed, of Glatstein's. Is there a link that I can hear him speaking his poetry?
    Best wishes,
    Janet Nemetz

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