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People of the Book 101: Reuben Iceland and Di Yunge

May 4, 2014
by Murray Citron Reviewed in this essay: From Our Springtime, Literary Memoirs and Portraits of Yiddish New York, by Reuben Iceland, translated from Yiddish by Gerald Marcus. Syracuse University Press, 2013, 263 pages. springtimeIn the first ten years of the 20th century, a number of young Yiddish poets and other writers, born in Eastern Europe, arrived in New York. They met. They formed groups. They talked. They walked the streets of upper and lower Manhattan, and the “half-built” streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx. Reuben Iceland was at the centre of one of these groups, called “Di Yunge,” the Young Ones. From Our Springtime is his memoir of those days, published in Yiddish in 1954, and now translated for the first time. A collection of vivid, intimate, and witty essays, it was written over several years about writers whom, in different ways, the author knew well. When not working for a living, Reuben Iceland and his friends were walking, talking, and writing. As money allowed, they published short-lived periodicals and anthologies in Yiddish: Literatur, Shriftn (Writings), Inzl (Island), and others. Closest to Iceland and prominent in the book were Zishe Landau, a housepainter and poet, Mani Leyb, a shoemaker and poet, and David Kazanski, a novelist and poet. Iceland himself was a hat-shop packer shop and a poet. There are chapters for other writers known in Yiddish New York, and for Goodman and Levine’s Restaurant, a hangout. Early in the book, Reuben states the aesthetic of himself and friends:
When we appeared, Yiddish poetry was at the service of ideas and movements, social and national . . . We proclaimed the freedom of poetry and its right to an independent life. We maintained that poetry should not exist by reason of whatever ideas it has, because it lives for its own sake. It has its own place and its own function in life.
Art for Art’s Sake, in the sweatshop district. Reuben Iceland is confident of his group’s achievement:
More than anything, though, we purified the language. We protected it, we nurtured it, we made of it a wonderful poetic instrument.
Later in the book he is pessimistic about the future for Yiddish writing in America. He explains that the themes of the authors of his generation do not appeal to new arrivals in America, who want shabos-yontevdik material that reminds them in a sentimental way about the Old Country. It does not seem to have occurred to him that the tide of English was too strong, that Jewish writing in America would be in English. Almost all the writers mentioned in the book started out in families that were frum, and had some form of traditional religious education. By the time we meet them they are secular and largely left-wing. Ten years later, they would likely not have been admitted to the United States. There are marriages and children, remarriages and more children, but there is only one mention of any contact with a religious officer or service. It comes when Moyshe Warshaw, the depressed young roommate of Zishe Landau, kills himself by jumping off the Bronx building where he has a job as night watchman. The corpse is taken away in a hearse supervised by “a small man with a gray, curly beard that hugged a filthy, smiling face . . . the cemetery caretaker for the burial society.” In any language, life is hard for writers of romantic verse without money, and their families. Zishe Landau and David Kazanski died young. Reuben Iceland and Mani Leyb experienced ill health and marital breakdowns, but were apparently fortunate to find second wives who were compatible. Reuben married the poet Anna Margolin, who predeceased him. One of the essays in the book is devoted to her. The translation, by Gerald Marcus, is very good, with one or two infelicities that may be proofreading errors. 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.