How the Left was Excluded from the Yiddish Canon
by Dovid Katz
History, they say, is written by the victors. That is the case not only for the military history of nation-states; it can even apply within the heritage of stateless minority cultures and in the university study of their literatures, where there should theoretically be no winners or losers.
In the 1950s, Yiddish literature was beginning to win respect as a serious endeavor in an American Jewish society that had a less-than-profound interest in the cultural and linguistic heritage of its recent East European ancestry. The grudging, piecemeal, and frequently superficial recognition of Yiddish as the language of a significant modern literature spread beyond the limited and dwindling circles of the East European-born Yiddish cultural activists themselves, largely thanks to English translations that were becoming fashionable. If some single literary event was the turning point, it was Saul Bellow’s translation of I. B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” in 1952 in Partisan Review. Attention to Yiddish poetry was soon to follow, in expectedly smaller circles of readers.
So it came to pass that Yiddish came out of the closet in America just as the McCarthy era was peaking and daily cultural ramifications of the Cold War were becoming omnipresent. In those years, Yiddish was also making its maiden appearance in American academia. In producing a sophisticated anthology, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, in 1954, Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg did for the study of Yiddish literature what Uriel Weinreich’s College Yiddish (1949) had done to pioneer the study of the language at American universities.
Howe (1920-1993) and Greenberg (1896-1977), like all serious translators, chose works they thought would work best in the target language, English. However, they also applied a McCarthyesque political litmus test. Howe, who had cofounded Dissent in 1954, was an old democratic socialist with Trotskyist leanings, thus anti-Stalinist from the start; Greenberg had been a member of the communist Yiddish literary movement before, like many others, “switching sides.” Their litmus test was based not on whether writers were still “among the communists” (none of these would be included, no matter how talented), but rather on when a writer “left the Left” to “join the Right.”
Here it is necessary to review some historical and cultural background and the vocabulary of the history of Yiddish culture in America.
Modern Yiddish literature is overwhelmingly a product of writers who were brought up in the traditional, God-fearing and strictly observant society of East European Ashkenazim. They became part of the minority segment of that society that underwent radical transformation from unquestioning religiosity to a Western-type openness to ideas, beliefs, doubt and action.
They developed the use of Yiddish for modern literary genres, as well as for an extensive didactic and political literature and a vibrant press — all in the spirit of a rising Jewish modernism and a new attraction to the form and content of secular culture. The parent of all of these developments was the 19th-century East European haskóle (Haskalah, or “Enlightenment”), which recast and remolded both Yiddish and Hebrew into powerful media of expression for the modern literary and societal aims of East European Jewry.
By the late 19th century, the new Yiddish literary movement was emboldened by various revolutionary tendencies. The most famous was the Jewish Labor Bund, founded in Vilna in 1897, but there were many other factions. By the early 20th century, there were Yiddish journals published by anarchists, communists, social democrats, socialists of various types, territorialists, Zionists, socialist Zionists, and more.
Emigré writers transplanted Yiddish literature to London’s Whitechapel and New York’s Lower East Side. In both cities, the first major Yiddish poetry was closely linked with the labor movement. The immigrant sweatshop and its surrounding poverty and social injustice became a key theme. The pioneers were the “sweatshop poets,” most famously Joseph Bovshover (1873-1915), Dovid Eydlshtat (1866-1892), Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923), and Morris Winchevsky (1856-1932).
From around 1907, a dissident group called Di Yunge (The Youngsters, a name taken from their detractors) set out to write poetry that would pursue art for the sake of art. They attracted writers who would come to be reckoned among the 20th-century masters of Yiddish verse, including Avrom-Moyshe Dillon (1883-1934), Mani Leyb (1883-1953), Moyshe-Leyb Halpern (1886-1932), Y.Y. Shvarts (1885-1971), and, after his arrival in New York in 1913, H. Leivick (1886-1962).
A follow-on movement in New York Yiddish poetry came around 1919 with the launching of Inzikh (“In oneself” or “introspectivism”).
Among the poets most associated with that movement were Aaron Glantz-Leyeles (1889-1966), Yankev Glatshteyn (1896-1971), N. B. Minkoff (1893-1958), and Yankev Stodolsk (1890-1962).
Starting around the time of the First World War, a new wave of immigration to New York brought fresh young writers who became part of a third wave of Yiddish poetry that reflected an acute split within the labor movement: between those who supported or at least had high hopes for the daring new Soviet experiment and those who opposed it early on as a deceptive evil. By the mid-1920s, the two camps had coalesced around two daily Yiddish newspapers.
Opponents of the Soviet Union were led by Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), founding editor of the Forverts (the Jewish Daily Forward). The pro-Soviets grouped around Moyshe Olgin (1878-1939), founding editor of the Freiheit (Frayhayt). The Forverts had been around since the spring of 1897. The Freiheit arose a quarter century later, in the spring of 1922, as an enterprise of the pro-Soviet Yiddish movement, and had positive attitudes toward (and affiliations with) the American Communist Party, though most Freiheit writers and the vast majority of readers were not members.
Both Cahan and Olgin sought to attract to their newspapers serious literary talent in addition to popular writers. Cahan was the clear winner in prose, having on his staff such fiction writers as Sholem Ash (or Asch, 1880-1957), I. J. Singer (1893-1944), and, eventually, I. B. Singer (1904-1991). Olgin was the victor in attracting leading poets, including Menachem Boreisha (1888-1949), Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, H. Leivick, and Avrom Reisen (or Reyzen, 1876-1953), as well as the classic prose humorist Moyshe Nadir (1885-1943) and the “poetic novelist” Isaac Raboy (1882-1944).
The literary quality of the Yiddish used and the sophistication of the literary criticism were palpably higher in the Freiheit. Rather than try to sell papers through sensationalism, the Freiheit taught tens of thousands of immigrant workers to appreciate the creativity of the most serious modern Yiddish culture. Unlike all the other Yiddish newspapers in New York, which stuck to the late 19th and early 20th-century Germanized spelling, the Freiheit adopted the mainstream modern spelling used by nearly all leading American Yiddish writers of the 20th century. The Freiheit did not adopt the radical Soviet spelling, or its “compromise” offshoot, the YIVO variant proposed in the late 1930s; a typical page of a 1930s issue of the Freiheit, as irony would have it, is spelled almost identically to a number of Orthodox publications in the early 21st century.
The Forverts camp became known in Yiddish as Di Rekhte (“those of the Right”); the Freiheit camp as Di Linke (“those of the Left”). The twin mottos on the front page of every day’s Forverts, to either side of the name of the paper, were “Workers of the world unite!” and “The liberation of the workers depends on the workers themselves!” And that was the “rightwing” paper!
This third period of American Yiddish poetry may be referred to as the “Left-Right Rift.” The strife between the camps was its constant feature and, not infrequently, its genuine inspiration. A sense of after-the-fact regret frequently accrues to that sharp divisiveness within Yiddish literature in America and all the “might have beens” about the differences unity could have made. Who knows? A counter-argument is just as potent: that the contentious spirit of the times, and the intense literary competitiveness engendered between the two camps, were stimulants that spurred these circles to make New York a magnificent center of Yiddish literary output in the interbellum period. Much of the output of Di Linke remains unknown today, however, even to the most serious students of Yiddish literature — due to American Yiddish political correctness.
Between the world wars, the successes of Yiddish in the Soviet Union were impressive. Here was a language, without a country or serious ambitions for becoming the national language of a nation-state, being given official status as one of a number of national languages in areas where it was widely spoken; where the government financed a system of education in Yiddish, from kindergarten through university-level institutes; where post offices and courts “spoke in Yiddish” in regions with dense Yiddish-speaking populations; where Yiddish prose and poetry flourished and Yiddish writers were paid for their work (true paradise, it would appear, for the poets of, say, Delancey Street who worked in the garment industry and other manual labor jobs to keep themselves alive).
This perception of Soviet Yiddish culture was not limited to the Linke of Union Square and the streets to its south. Rather, it took hold around the world. Two examples can make the point: The Yiddish poet (and mystic prose writer) Moyshe Kulbak (1896-1940) migrated in 1928 from Wilno (Vilna) across the (then) Polish-Soviet border, eastward to Minsk; and after various sojourns in Rumania, the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Sweden, the famous novelist Dovid Bergelson (1884-1952), having “seen the choices,” settled in the USSR in 1934.
Then the Soviet paradise became hell on earth. Kulbak was arrested in 1937 and subsequently murdered; a similar fate befell Bergelson and many other writers in the later postwar purges.
By the 1930s, there was extensive Communist Party meddling in the content and form of literature, and in the later years of the decade the Yiddish school systems were dismantled. The late 1920s Birobidzhan experiment — establishment of a Jewish “homeland” in the Soviet Far East — was also ringing hollow by the later 1930s, while Jewish settlement in Palestine, by contrast, was succeeding ever more in building a viable state with the newly-minted Hebrew-based language as its medium.
It would be easy to argue that history happened to go Abe Cahan’s way, not Moyshe Olgin’s, because Cahan was prepared to be more receptive to the Zionist cause than Olgin and the Communist Party were. But things are never that simple. Within New York Yiddish culture, the Freiheit took the lead in exposing Hitlerism for what it was from the first moment. Anti-Jewish laws and actions in Germany, even when directed against “capitalist Jewish institutions,” were exposed in front-page headlines. The unrelenting exposure of the fascist threat was no mean feat in the early and mid-1930s. Still, the balance of a rapidly evolving history was tipping in the direction of the Rekhte, a tilt encouraged, at least in part, by a number of concrete events, each of which led to the defections of major writers from the Linke to the Rekhte.
First were the Arab riots in Hebron in 1929, which left sixty murdered and sixty-seven injured Jewish men, women, and children. For the Rekhte, the need to support the Jewish cause in these circumstances changed their attitude toward Zionism from negative to sympathetic. For Olgin and the Linke, the cues on such matters came from the Party line, which considered it necessary to see the Arab perspective and not reach conclusions based on one’s own ethnic background. After first blaming Muslim fanatics, the Freiheit reversed itself and adopted the Party line, which saw anti-imperialist virtue in the Arab riots.
This led to the first major spate of defections to the Rekhte, including the masters Boraisha, Leivick, Raboy, and Reisen, whose declarations were published in the September 27th, 1929 issue of Literarishe Bleter in Warsaw. The editor of that prestigious journal, Nakhmen Mayzl (1887-1966), wrote an editorial two weeks later begging Yiddish writers of all political stripes to foreswear the new internecine war of mutual destruction, boycotts, public disownings, and constant personal attacks in the press. A leftist himself, he noted with dismay how the Soviet press had suddenly turned the Freiheit resigners into “enemies of the people” after years in which they had been “heroes of the people.”
A decade later, in August, 1939, the Hitler-Stalin pact engendered similar results in Yiddish New York: Moyshe Nadir was among the literary luminaries who walked away from the Linke. Others, however, saw the pact as a clever way to stop Hitler’s eastward advance that would open an opportunity for escape for as many Jews as possible — for after the dismemberment of Poland in September, 1939, the humiliation and ghettoization of Jews on the German-held side of the newly established border contrasted starkly with the situation in the Soviet-allotted territories to the east.
Notwithstanding the dismantling of cultural and educational institutions in the religious, Hebrew and mainstream Yiddish spheres, the Soviet side provided physical safety, the development of Soviet Yiddish culture, and, for the first time in these regions, anti-racist laws that even imposed a fine for the use of racial slurs. With all the faults of the Soviet system, the Nazi regime on the west side of the new line made life on the Soviet side look pretty good. And after the Germans attacked the USSR and overran the Soviet-held areas in late June, 1941, the Soviet communists became close allies of the Americans and British, and the Freiheit‘s position was strengthened for some years.
There was another arena in which the Freiheit‘s hand was strong: domestic policy in the United States. Following the stock market crash of 1929, and throughout the Great Depression, the majority of the Yiddish-reading Jewish immigrant masses in America suffered poverty. For many ordinary, not particularly political people, the communists were the folks who came to put your furniture back in your tenement after you were evicted for being late with the rent. They were the people fighting for the rights of the poor, the unemployed, the disenfranchised, and the victims of all sorts of prejudice, not least racial and religious. If these people also thought that something good was being built ‘way over there’ in Russia, so be it. In the 1920s and ’30s, there was not the issue of ‘loyalty to America’ that came to the fore much later during the Cold War.
The Holocaust struck a devastating blow to all Yiddish writers, and it is hardly a surprise that many (by no means all) wrote much of their most original work before its full scope became widely known. The calamitous realization that the civilization in which their language was native had been destroyed in a mostly successful war of annihilation was, for the majority, demoralizing beyond description. But one moral issue hit the Linke harder than the Rekhte in the late 1940s and the decades that followed: With the age-old Jewish religious life of Eastern Europe, all those rabbis, yeshivas and God-fearing people that the Linke had rebelled against, savagely annihilated by the Nazis and their local collaborators, there could be little appetite for pursuing the old “anti-clericalist” line any longer.
When the Soviet campaign of destruction of Yiddish culture, culminating in the murder of the country’s leading Yiddish writers and Jewish intellectuals on August 12, 1952, became widely known in the U.S., a significant group of writers went over to the Rekhte. This wave of defections was the first to deprive the Linke of many of the very writers who had been the founders in the 1920s of the literary branch of the movement. Some of the best joined together in 1958 to move en masse to the Forverts-allied Workmen’s Circle, where they established a special branch for Linke-to-Rekhte defectors, called the Dovid Bergelson Branch No. 44. This pivotal crossing over was trumpeted in a Forverts article of June 11th, 1958, which has remained a sort of declaration of victory by the Rekhte. It reported:
Some two hundred people came to the inaugural meeting of the branch. It would appear that such a branch, an organization for former Jewish communists who had been deceived by a false ideal, humiliated, bitterly disappointed, is very much a necessity.
And so victory was declared by the right in the Yiddish Cold War in New York, over thirty years before the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, the Linke and their institutions continued to work tirelessly for modern Yiddish culture. The Freiheit was published until 1988, and the Zhitlovsky Foundation continued to publish fine Yiddish books throughout the 1990s (and through to 2006). The magazine Yidishe Kultur (Yiddish Culture), edited by the universally beloved, redoubtable Itche Goldberg, continued to be one of the best Yiddish literary journals in the world (it was last published in 2004). Goldberg, who celebrated his 102nd birthday this year, denounced Stalin’s crimes only slightly later than the Rekhte did, but like many others, elected to continue leading and working for a distinct branch of secular Yiddish culture in America — and he survived all the rest.
Considering all that happened, it is not particularly surprising that the 1950s anthologists were petrified at the thought of including Linke writers who would be considered ‘disloyal’ or ‘un-American.’ As they saw it, to do so would undermine the entire enterprise of winning acceptability for Yiddish in America. Moreover, they themselves were bitter enemies of the Linke, so they didn’t really need much encouragement to exclude them.
But one problem was insurmountable. Like Eliezer Greenberg, one of the major anthologists, many of the fine anti-communist writers were themselves former ‘fellow travelers.’ The phenomenon was so important in the history of Yiddish culture in America that Yiddish developed a special ironic term for such persons: gevézener (literally, “former one;” feminine and plural, gevezene). The word acquired the character of a Cain-like stamp on the forehead.
In the mid-1950s, the Rekhte, in their own literary publications, particularly the Tsukunft, were applying unwritten rules that can be summarized with a simplicity so stark that it is almost embarrassing: Whoever left the Linke for the Rekhte after the Hebron riots of 1929 was completely kosher; whoever left after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 was sufficiently kosher; whoever waited until confirmation of the Moscow murders of 1952 was treyf, banished from the canon; and whoever stayed with the Linke after that was not ever to be mentioned.
So it came to pass that the canon of American Yiddish literature in English translation that thrives to this day was a creation, in part, of 1950s American political conformity. The same handful of authors get translated, anthologized, taught at universities, and endlessly analyzed in dissertations and conferences, while many hundreds of writers, many of them women, remain untouched and undiscovered, not in desert papyruses or manuscripts lost in war, but in printed journals and books that are easily found in major Yiddish collections.
Dovid Katz is author of Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish and has written and edited numerous other books in Yiddish and English. He is professor of Yiddish studies at Vilnius University and research director at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. This essay is adapted from his Introduction to Proletpen: America’s Rebel Yiddish Poets, edited by Amelia Glazer and David Weintraub (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), and appears here with the permission of the Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture and Professor Katz.