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Mameloshn: Tuberculosis and the Yiddish Poets

Murray Citron
March 9, 2015

by Murray Citron

Reviewed in this essay: Yiddish Poetry and the Tuberculosis Sanatorium 1900-1970 by Ernest B. Gilman. Syracuse University Press, 2015, 187 pages.

TNACADEMIC WRITERS OFTEN LIKE making a synthesis, that is, putting topics together in an unexpected way. Professor Ernst B. Gilman, who has taught at Columbia and the University of Virginia, and is now at New York University, is especially well qualified for this one: He is a specialist in “Renaissance literature and in the literary history of medicine and disease,” and he grew up in Denver, Colorado, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains and the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society’s sanatorium, where his father was a patient.

Tuberculosis (consumption, TB, the white plague) was historically the most literary, even romantic, of all diseases. Just mentioning it brings up literary names: Keats, Kafka, Orwell, maybe Heine, certainly the doomed heroines of La Traviata and La Boheme. From the late 19th century till about 1960, tuberculosis was what AIDS later became: a disease with no cure that took away many creative people.

W10JCRSWGilman’s book has a cover photograph of a dozen or so youngish women sunning themselves on a sanatorium patio, with the Rocky Mountains in the background. The author comments, “Before antibiotics, sunlight was no worse than any other treatment available, although skin cancer was a possible side effect.”

Chapter One is called, “The Poetics of Lunger Lit.” It gives a brief social and aesthetic history of sanitoria in North America in the first part of the 20th century. The authorities who ran them advised that recovery required “the will to get well, freedom from worry and discouragement, and satisfactory cooperation and obedience.” In other words, as with other diseases for which medicine does not have a cure, it’s up to the patient. TB in North America and Europe was eliminated by antibiotics in the 1960s — but the book warns us it is coming back with resistant strains.

AFTER SETTING THE SCENE, Gilman gives us one chapter each about three remarkable Yiddish poets, all born in Eastern Europe, who came to North America and found themselves in sanitoria.

Yehoash was the pen name of Solomon Bloomgarten (1870-1927), born in Vilna, trained in the Volozhin yeshiva, who showed his early poems to I.L. Peretz. Peretz called him “our Byron.” Yehoash worked in a glass factory in New York; the glass dust may have caused his TB. In the JCRS sanitorium in Denver, and later, while recovering, he produced a verse collection, collaborated with another writer on a Yiddish dictionary of Hebrew and Aramaic words used in Yiddish, and composed a Yiddish translation of “The Song of Hiawatha.” (In the first quarter of the 20th century, Longfellow was still the dominant American poet.)

When H. Leivick died in 1962, just shy of 74, the New York Times obituary said he was thought by many to be the greatest Yiddish poet of his time. His masterpiece is considered to be the play, The Golem. Leivick was born in tsarist Russia in 1888, became a revolutionary, was exiled to Siberia, escaped (tsarist prisons were less thorough than Soviet ones), and reached America. The book contains a photo of him in chains. Tuberculosis took him to the same JRCS sanitorium in Denver, and there is a photo in the book of Leivick with Jack Gilman, the author’s father. Leivick was a highly productive poet. One of his last works is a long poem, “The Ballad of Denver Sanatorium.” Professor Gilman, early in his own career published a verse translation, which appears in the book as an appendix.

The song of time is first sung out in holiness
Here in the kingdom of tuberculosis:
Through flutes — the cellular web of lungs
The thinnest seconds are breathed out in full.

The break is only with the world of bodies,
But not with the world of spirit born in dreams;
Those martyred in battle — he calls to them,
And look, he begins to stride, or so it seems.

The third poet studied by Gilman is Sholem Shtern, who came from a shtetl near Lublin to Montreal in 1927 at age 20. He was for many years a leading figure in leftwing Yiddish education and literature in Montreal. His TB treatment was at Mount Sinai Sanatorium in the Laurentian Mountains of southern Quebec, where he met the nurse who became his wife. Many years later he published Dos Vayse Hoyz (“The White House”), a verse novel set in the sanatorium. It has been translated to Hebrew. Shtern died in 1990.

A CHRONIC ILLNESS is an intense life experience. A merit of this book is Gilman’s sensitivity in showing, for each of the three poets, how the experience affected the work. Another is his use of translated quotes from their poems to make his points. Most of the translations are his, and are very good.

The book is part of the prestigious series, “Judaic Traditions in Literature, Music and Art,” produced by Syracuse University Press. The series editors are Professor Harold Bloom and Ken Frieden. It is sad that the publisher didn’t go the extra dollar for a graduate student to proofread the text. Proofreading seems to be an abandoned skill. Spell-check doesn’t help when words are just left out and the text can be made to seem a bit silly when the wrong word is spelled right and put where it doesn’t belong, as when “ambiguous” is meant and “amphibious” is what shows (page 111).

Nevertheless, the book is an excellent blend of literary analysis, literary history, and medical sociology. Gilman’s conclusion notes that “By working to recover the imagery of the tuberculosis sanatorium, this book positions itself at a moment in the history of the disease between recollection and foreboding” — foreboding because of the disease’s modern return in antibiotic-resistant strains. “Although the lunger generation may have passed into history,” their “literature belongs to the genre of writing about AIDS, cancer, and the plague” and “to the history of Yiddish poetry.”

Murray Citron’s bilingual chapbook of poems by Itzik Manger, There is a Tree, steyt a boim, was published in 2011 by Tree Press, Ottawa. His translations have appeared in a number of periodicals in Canada, England, and the U.S.

MAMELOSHN is supported at the Jewish Currents website and in print by the Atran Foundation.