Page 45 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 20

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ip t z in
— T
h e
id d i sh
“Mai Ka-Mashmalon,” a pensive song of the wandering Torah
student, has moved millions with its plaintive melody. Reisen
was the singer of the poor and the rejected, the gray colorless
beings whose yearnings and frustrations rarely interested poets.
He attempted a synthesis of the biblical and the modern. He did
not brood on his own sorrow; he buried it in the common
sorrow of his people. Despite his adoration of Pushkin, Shelley,
Heine, Baudelaire and Leopardi, he preferred not to follow these
alien models but to emulate the rhythmic prayers of the syna-
gogue born of millennial martyrdom and prophetic vision. Reisen
charmed. He did not devastate. His simplicity was his greatest
asset. He compressed in minimum words a moment of eternity.
His humor was mild, not bubbling. His tragedy was elevating,
not depressing.
Reisen spent his last four decades in America, which became
more and more the center of Yiddish literary activity. Ever
since the eighteen-eighties young intellectuals abroad envisaged
the United States as the promised land of freedom. On arriving
there, they did indeed find political freedom. But they also
experienced economic oppression and fought against the sweat-
shop system with the same zeal as they had fought against Czarist
tyranny. Out of this struggle arose the great Jewish labor move-
ments such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union
and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. This
struggle was sparked by kindling verses about poverty’s heavy
affliction, the dignity of labor and the joy of self-sacrifice. The
most gifted of these poets were David Edelstadt (1866-1892),
Joseph Bovshover (1873-1915), Morris Vinchevsky (1856-1933)
and Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923).
The first two were adherents of the Jewish anarchist move-
ment whose chief organ was
Die Freie Arbeiter Stimme,
and the
last two were adherents of the Jewish socialist movement whose
chief organs were
Die Zukunft.
Rosenfeld alone
among them gave affirmative emphasis to his Jewishness while
the others espoused internationalism and cosmopolitanism. He
was also the only Yiddish poet of the sweatshop to attain inter-
national fame and to be translated into English before the end
of the century. His
Songs from the Ghetto
appeared in 1898 in
an English transliteration and an English prose rendering by
Professor Leo Wiener of Harvard University.
In his best lyrics Rosenfeld, who called himself a teardrop-
millionaire, deals with personal experiences and communicates
feelings rather than ideas or slogans. He sings of the little boy
who dreams of his father but rarely sees him during waking
hours because need drives the breadwinner out of the house too
early in the morning and brings him home too late at night.
He sings of the pretty girl who hurries at daybreak through