Introduced and translated by Julian Levinson
In 1928, during a spell of especially acute financial difficulties, the poet Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, hero of New York’s avant-garde Yiddish literary scene, moved to Los Angeles to set up residence with his wife and child. A tiny Yiddish literary community had been developing on the sunny coast for nearly two decades. Meager as it was, the Los Angeles Yiddish community already boasted one notable literary figure, the talented but erratic Lamed Shapiro. Now it seemed poised to embrace Halpern, the poete maudit and celebrated renegade member of the neo-Romantic school of poets and novelists, Di yunge. Halpern’s experiment in West Coast living lasted less than two years, however. Clashes with ideological rivals in the Communist camp, frustration with the system of patronage supporting Yiddish letters, and a series of newly hatched schemes (including one involving emigration to Poland) all combined to dampen whatever enthusiasm Halpern may have felt for his new digs. By the summer of 1929 the Halperns were back in New York, where they would remain until Moyshe-Leyb’s death three years later.
Of the poems Halpern wrote during his California sojourn, “Los Angeles” offers the most direct statement of his impressions of life on the coast. A rare example of a Yiddish literary work about Los Angeles, the poem quickly fades the city itself into the background for a rambling, tortured, and darkly comedic internal monologue. “Los Angeles” exemplifies a type of poem Halpern began writing in his later years, a type that Benjamin Harshav has characterized as Halpern’s “talk verse.” Unlike traditionally structured lyric poems, these do not trace a coherent theme from some clearly-defined beginning towards a point of closure. Instead, they stack up a concatenating series of thoughts, impressions, scenarios, and images — all connected by a madcap logic of loose association. Such poems generally eschew metaphor in favor of what Harshav calls “analogue situations,” though at times the only clear connection is to be found in mood and tone.
In “Los Angeles,” Halpern presents a series of situations in which some kind of outward image of beauty is exposed as a fraudulent display or false promise. The music of a “Wunderkind” is immediately interrupted by the whining of an old fiddler (“a klezmer an altn”). It is unclear whether this “klezmer” is actually present or an imaginary figure, appearing through the involuntary agency of memory. Whatever the case, the point is that the twin illusions of youth and beauty are shattered, leaving the poet “farmatert” (wearied, dismayed). Variations on this theme appear in stanzas 3-7: the poet dreams of a cure in the tropics only to be sliced into pieces like cake; he keeps still as a feather but is blown about by a broken fan; the women parading in fine clothing are supported by wealthy, but sickly-looking men. By enumerating these situations, the poem criticizes those who would desperately seek to overcome the diseased and decrepit underside of life, whether through art, reverie, or material goods. The fantasy of remaking oneself, even in this quintessential city of dreams, will never amount to anything but a grotesque, absurd masquerade. Halpern’s immediate target in the poem would appear to be wealthy Jews who sought to recreate themselves in their new land, but his message can be applied more broadly to anyone chasing the American Dream.
As despairing as this vision of the outside world may be, the poem reminds us that these impressions all issue from the subjective perspective of the poem’s speaker. Thus in stanza 8, the poet tells us that just as a shoemaker among women will notice their shoes, so does he notice blemishes. In stanza 10, we find a moment of self-castigation (“I should throw myself to the watery depths”) reminiscent of J. Alfred Prufrock’s statement in T. S. Eliot’s famous poem that he “should have been a pair of ragged claws . . .” A poem that is ostensibly an attack on a corrupt world turns back upon the poet himself, who may be just as much a part of the problem as everything he sees.
Increasingly, this disturbed speaker is accompanied by a female figure, associated with domesticity, affection, and practical wisdom. This figure holds forth “like an angel sent from heaven,” and it is she who delivers the poem’s final lines, an admonition against beguiling reality coupled with an acceptance of those who try to do so: “[I]t’s nobody’s fault / If we look for rainbows everywhere.” This epigrammatic summation suggests that even the gaudy excesses of Los Angeles (where people apply lotions “to impersonate the young”) might be seen in terms of a universal human impulse to chase the ideal. Everybody is chasing rainbows, it turns out. And in such a world, the poet’s attacks on falseness and self-delusion suddenly come to seem irrelevant. For how can people so deluded ever be brought back to earth? Even worse, the poet’s attacks on everyone come to seem like merely another sort of pose: Lampooning others is satisfying, but where does it lead?
“Los Angeles” was published just after Halpern relocated to New York. It appeared in Vokh (The Week), a newly-established literary and political weekly modeled on Warsaw’s Literarishe bleter (Literary Pages). Vokh was formed in the wake of the 1929 riots in Palestine, when a group of American Yiddish writers severed their connection with the Communist Freiheit because the latter supported the Arabs for their “anti-imperialist” action against the yishuv. Vokh sustained the overall leftist agenda of Freiheit, but it steered clear of Communist party propaganda, leaving room for expressions of more nuanced positions including ones that included Jewish and even Zionist sympathies. Halpern’s relentless suspicion of any sort of group-think, along with his own highly idiosyncratic Jewish loyalties, made him a natural ally of the group surrounding this magazine. Indeed, “Los Angeles” was perfectly suited for its venue: it expresses the strident anti-materialism that his readers had come to expect from him, using language peppered with references to the traditional world of east-European Jews, from klezmorim to Purim graggers to shabes and, finally, the Ne’ila prayer from the Yom Kippur liturgy. This is unambiguously a poem from the Jewish left: it offers a bitter view of capitalist society while insistently foregrounding its view as that of a displaced Yiddish-speaking exile from eastern Europe.
In the Yiddish original, the poem keeps to a regular meter and rhyme scheme. The meter adheres to a ballad form, with a four-beat line followed by a three-beat line and with rhymes in the even lines. This form recalls the work of the brilliant and often darkly ironic Heinrich Heine, one of Halpern’s primary influences.
At the concert of a Wunderkind, I was exhausted
By the whining of an old fiddler
Whose rheumatism is so bad,
He can hardly hold his bow.
To keep himself calm, he’s made a decision:
Keep playing, keep hoping.
And this reminds me of my fate,
Which is so frightful, it keeps me up nights.
I came out to this tropical land,
A sick man in search of a cure,
Only to be sliced into pieces
Like honey-cake dished out at a party.
I try to keep still, like a feather
Pushed by the wind of a broken fan.
And above I see black dirt — and everywhere red
Like chimneys over rooftops.
Like a boy at a summer farm, I look for
A tree with a few ripe cherries,
But they send me old tailors who take measurements
Like village clerks cutting shrouds for the dead.
In my sorrow, I await an encouraging word,
As if through a window darkened with bars,
While they . . . like children with noisemakers on Purim,
Spread secrets from ear to ear.
The men look sickly and gaunt,
Though one is richer than the next,
And the women in velvets and silks — and paunches
Like sausages hooped round the waist.
The shoemaker takes his seat
And watches the women displaying their feet.
But I peer like the attendant in a ritual bath,
Who clenches her eyes like a hen.
The murderer’s feet are bound in chains
(He was born to a crooked life, it seems);
While the poet assumes his modest flirt
With reclining women, their legs spread wide.
It’s improper for me to throw myself
To the watery depths like a sack filled with dogs,
Though there’s a group of bespectacled folk
Who call me, insistently, “misanthrope.”
And my consort, her blood still fresh,
Persists in her latest campaign:
“It is truly rude, ” she says,
“To gaze beneath their shirts like that.”
But the tongue does not blow like wind
Spinning blades of an old mill,
And sadness is not an infant in a crib,
Calmed by gentle words.
And should you eat a home-cooked meal, she says,
You’ll be strong well into your dotage;
And when you shiver at night,
Wrap yourself in a nice, warm scarf.
Out on the street, a blind man asks:
“Where shall I find a guide for the blind?”
But you don’t have to wait until Sabbath eve
To scrub your head until it’s clean.
There’s no star in heaven, she says, that shines
As brightly as the woman you watch
On Sunday evenings, under a dim lamp,
Bent over her work, darning a sock.
What is true is true. When I hear her speak
Everything is perfectly clear,
Why, for instance, they become hostile
When I dance with her – once in a blue moon.
As it is written: you may not parade
before her with a woman younger than she,
They’ll have you gnawing at stale bread
As fresh rolls are passed before you.
They keep themselves from spoiled meat,
Which becomes poison in the belly,
And the lotions they apply to impersonate the young –
Well, you’ll just have to put up with that.
My wife holds forth, like an angel sent from heaven
To shield me from the plague.
“To suffer,” she says, “is in any case better
Than to reach the end of all suffering.”
And life gives birth to benevolence,
Even in the cruelty of women,
Even at night when they hide their tears,
Like holy men sobbing during Ne’ila.
You simply cannot, she says at last,
Demand of the mirror what isn’t there,
And it’s nobody’s fault
If we look for rainbows everywhere.
Bam kontsert fun a vunderkind hot mikh farmatert
Dos geveyn fun a klezmer an altn.
Er hot rumatizm azoy, az er ken shoyn
Keyn fidl in hant nit haltn.
Nor tsu treystn zikh – hot er gezogt, r’et nokh shpiln;
Er hert nit oyf tsu hofn.
Un dos hot mikh dermont on mayn eygn goyrl,
Vos lozt mikh keyn nekht nit shlofn.
Gekumen aher in der varemer gegnt
A kranker zikh do tsu heyln,
Un men shnaydt mayn layb azoy vi lekakh
Oyf a simkhe oyssteteyln.
Ikh bin shtil, dakht zikh, vi in vint a feder
Fun a tserisenem fekher,
Un zey iber mir koytik-shvartse un royt
Vi koymenem iber di dekher.
Ikh zukh vi a kind oyf datshe a boyml
Mit karshn etlekhe royte,
Un zey shikn mir skeynes mikh tsu mestn
Vi kool takhrikhim oyf toyte.
Ikh vart vi durkh a fentster mit grates
Oyf a treystvort in mayn troyer,
Un zey – vi kinder mit purem-gragers,
Mit soydes fun oyer tsu oyer.
Zeyere manen, dakht zikh, oysgedarte
Khotsh eyner fun tsveytn raykher,
Un zey – durkh samet un zaydns – mit kneytshn,
Vi mit vurstn arum di baykher.
Zets a shuster anider tsvishn froyen —
Zet er shikh ven er zitst geboygn.
Ikh ze vi in merkhets a tukern eybik;
Beyln mit hineroygn.
A merder – azoy geboyrn efsher –
Bindt mit di fis in keytn,
Un a dikhter lozt men zikh kheyndln mit froyen,
Vos zitsn mit shoys tseshpreytn.
Mir iz rekht nit eynmol aleyn zikh tsu varfn
Vi a zak mit hint in vaser,
Un faranen layt azoyne mit briln
Vos rufn mikh mentshnhaser.
Nor mayn frayndin, — dos blut dos yunge,
Krigt zikh un git zikh nit unter.
Men darf take – zogt zi – nit kukn efsher
Biz unter’n hemd arunter.
Nor di tsung iz nit keyn vint – zi zol dreyen
Di fligl fun alte miln,
Un umglik iz nit keyn kind in vigl
Vos lozt zikh mit reyd farshpiln.
Un volt men in tsayt – zogt zi – vetshere kokhn,
Ken men sheyn zany oykh oyf der elter,
Un zol men zikh onton a shal oyb se drozshet
Farnakht ven di luft vert kilter.
Un fregt zikh in droysn a blinder – tsu vemen
Ken men unterfirn dem blindn?
Un dem kop zikh tsu vashn darf men nit vartn
Biz fraytik far shabes-likht-tsindn.
Un keyn shtern in himl – zogt zi – loykht nit
Vi a froy aza far di oygn,
Ven men zet zi zuntik baynakht bay a lempl
Tsu a shkarpetke tsugeboygen.
Un vos vor iz vor. Ven ikh her zi reydn
Vert mir shoyn klor ingantsn,
Farvos men iz beyz, ven men zet mikh mit ir
Amol in a yoyvl tantsn.
Men tor – vi geshribn shteyt – nit vayzn
Keyn ingers fun ir, far der ishe,
Zey heysn dikh grizshen broyt farelterts
Ba a multer mit bulkes frishe.
Zey hitn aleyn zikh far fleysh farelterts,
Vos ken vern sam in mogn,
Un di shmirekhts oyf zey, undz tsu narn mit yungshaft,
Darf men laydn un ibertrogn.
Nor mayn froy – nit andersht a malekh fun himl
Geshikt, mikh krankn tsu hitn,
Tsu laydn – zogt zi – iz alts nokh beser
Vi tsu hobn shoyn ibergelitn.
Un dos lebn geyt tsukind mit gutskayt
In der beyzkayt fun froyen afile,
Un banakht ven men zet nit veynen zey efsher,
Vi a tsadik yom kipper tsu nile.
Men ken dokh nit – zogt zi – monen bam shpigl
Vos men zet nit mit di oygn.
Un s’iz nit zeyer shuld vos mir zukhn eybik
In altsding regnboygn.
Julian Levinson teaches American Jewish studies at the University of Michigan and is author of Exiles on Main Street: Jewish American Literature and American Literary Culture (2008). He would like to thank the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture for generously supporting his translation work.