Page 39 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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Yiddish Poetry and American
Jewish Identity
h r o u g h o u t
t h e
a g e s
imaginative writing played a major role
in shaping the Jewish self-consciousness o f most Jews. T h e Jew ­
ish self-image was trad itiona lly the p ro jec tion o f poets and
philosophers, artists and dream ers. I t was the construction o f
ba’aley aggada,
masters o f Jewish lore — the weavers o f parable,
m e tapho r , parad igm and myth. In m ode rn times, the role o f the
ba’aley aggada
and the later
o r liturgical poets was as­
sumed by the poets and fiction writers o f o u r people, particularly
those who did the ir work in Yiddish and Hebrew.
One o f the major functions o f poetry is to convey the historical
meaning o f a civilization by crystallizing its self-expression. For
more than a century , Yiddish poetry in America escorted, com­
fo rted and insp ired American Jewry on its adven tu re in free ­
dom. It cap tu red the chang ing image o f the Jewish people all
over the world, both because o f the centrality o f American Jewry
in Jewish life o f the past one h u n d re d years and because the Yid­
dish poets o f America rem a ined overwhelmingly fa ithfu l to the
mission o f Yiddish lite ra tu re as a whole: to responsibly m irro r ,
in te rp re t and advance the life o f the Jewish people.
Creative writing in Yiddish in America was always a social act
fraugh t with bo th nationalistic and spiritual overtones, no m a tter
how vocally such links were eschewed. Ju s t as m ode rn Hebrew,
with its biblical and religious echoes, compels its writers to con­
fron t a legacy they may consciously seek to disavow, so Yiddish
with its deep Jewish associations and nuances forbids spiritual
and national amnesia o r anonymity. It is not su rp rising tha t in his
* Translations from the Yiddish in this essay are by the author.