Page 41 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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GOLD SM ITH /Y IDD ISH POETRY AND AMERICAN JEWISH IDENTITY
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L ieberman and Moshe Leib Lilienblum, and both bewailed the
lot o f the Jew ish p edd le r in America. T sun ze r was the b e tte r
poet, his poems rep resen ting the transition from prim itive folk
rhym e (set to his own tunes) to poetry. Abraham Go ldfaden , the
fo u n d e r o f the Yiddish th ea te r in Europe , jo in ed Sobel and
T sun ze r upon his arrival in the Un ited States. T h e work o f these
th ree early poets was associated with the conservative wing o f the
American Yiddish press, which sough t to preserve trad itional J u ­
daism in America and was obsessed with Jewish identity and
ahavat Yisrael,
themes to which Yiddish poets fa r removed from
the world o f trad ition would re tu rn ha lf a cen tu ry later.
N. B. Minkov estimated tha t in the 1880’s and 1890’s the re
were one h u n d re d and fifty Yiddish poets in America.2 They
wrote abou t n a tu re and love, on the one hand , and abou t poverty
and pro test, on the o ther. I t was the social m o tif and the revolu­
tionary outlook, however, which dom ina ted this poetry. Radical
free th inkers , socialists, anarchists and o thers conveyed to the
Jewish masses, in verse as well as in prose, the ir message o f a
working class solidarity th a t transcended all national and reli­
gious divisions. Jewish labor proclaimed the Yiddish poets its
spokesm en and tran sfo rm ed them into cu ltu re heroes. T h e
wealthy Jews and the observant traditionalists, who jo in ed in cyn­
ically accusing the un ion organizers o f being tools o f Christian
missionaries, could no t bu t be envious tha t the b e tte r poets always
seemed to be found in the radical camp.
T h e socialist and labor poets were not, however, devoid o f Jew ­
ish national feeling. Despite the ir conscious disavowal o f Jewish
nationalism and religion, the re were conscious as well as subcon­
scious allusions to the Jewish heritage and the Jewish plight in
the ir poems tha t are striking. “What good is life benea th the whip
o f tyrants, without freedom o r rights?” chan ted David Edelshtat.
“How long will we con tinue to be homeless slaves?”3 In his
“Tes tam en t,” the poet, who d ied o f tuberculosis in 1892 a t the age
o f twenty six, asked his com rades to bury him beneath the red
flag o f freedom , “sprinkled with the work ingm an’s b lood .”
As I lie ’neath the red banner
Sing me my freedom-song,
2 N. B. Minko
\ , Pyonemfun der YidisherPoezye in Amerike,
New York, 1956, vol. I,
p. 14.
3 David Edelshtat,
Geklibene Shriftn,
New York, 1923, p. 79.