Page 41 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 33

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LANDIS / AMERICA AND YIDDISH LITERATURE
31
situation was a source of unendurable and unescapable guilt
and anguished impotence. If, as in Leivick’s poem of lamentation
“Ikh bin in Treblinka nit geven,” the American writers were
not in Treblinka, they could nevertheless never escape it. The
towering tragedy of those years brought to maturity the powers
of Leivick, Jacob Glatstein, and others who in their youth had
been proud rebels; and it also ended the love affair with America
and with American optimism. Bitterly defiant of a western world
whose civilization and culture had bedazzled them a score of
years earlier, Glatstein thundered:
Good night, wide world,
because I want to,
big stinking world.
going back to the ghetto.
Not you but I slam shut the gate.
Damn your dirty culture, world.
With a long gabardine,
I wallow in your dust
with a fiery yellow patch,
even though it’s forsaken,
with a proud stride,
sad Jewish life.18
If Leivick became, in Glatstein’s words, “Our majesty,” Glatstein
himself became “Our dignity,” as he expressed the disillusioned
mood of many of his contemporaries.
Since the Holocaust, America has appeared far less frequently
as either subject or hope in American Yiddish writing. The
Russian oppression and to an equal extent Israel have become
major motifs, but the predominent motif is the destroyed world
of the shtetl. It is especially strong in poetry, whether in such
works as Glatstein’s
Shtralndike Yeedn
or most recently Eliezer
Greenberg’s
Gedenkshaft
in which he recalls with astonishment
and pain:
How great were the riches we once possessed
How great were the riches we now have lost!
and reminds us of Abraham Reisen’s lines:
There was so little then—
Why is there so much left?
This elegiac note is struck again and again whether in the verse
of Chaim Grade or Meyer Shticker or of a dozen other poets of
stature.
During the sweatshop years, writing about the shtetl was a
longing for a still living world. During the teens, twenties and
after, the longing became a nostalgia which no one seriously
18 From ‘‘Good Night, World,” translated by Ruth Whitman.