Page 55 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

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GOLDSMITH / YIDDISH POETRY AND AMERICAN JEWISH IDENTITY
47
the continuous funeral-like echo of dying . . . Out of apathy to
language, Yiddish litera tu re in America created language-
consciousness, and for a declining generation it created a beauti­
ful linguistic instrum en t.”10 The Yiddish poets o f America
helped preserve and stimulate loyalty to the Jewish people and to
Jewish religious and cultural values and ideals.
STRESS ON INDIVIDUALITY
It is also in American Yiddish poetry that the awareness of indi­
viduality first surfaces in collective Jewish consciousness in
America. The Yiddish poets celebrated individuality and con­
cretized it as a major component of modern Jewish identity. Al­
though Judaism and individuality are far from incompatible, in­
dependent thought and feeling were discouraged in traditional
Jewish society. “In the congested Pale,”writes Judd L. Teller, “the
individual had, literally, not enough room in which to become a
complete and sovereign human being, and the world outside the
Pale refused to grant him any autonomy and status apart from
the group to which he belonged. Thus, it was only natural that in
the fiction produced by the writers o f such a community the indi­
vidual should possess importance only insofar as he exemplified,
or departed from, the ‘folk’ condition.”11
Individuality is as rare in Yiddish poetry as in Yiddish fiction
until the emergence o f Edelshtat, Rosenfeld, the later Yehoash
and the
Yunge
in America. In American Yiddish poetry, the mod­
ern Jewish individual
qua
individual and
qua
Jew comes into his
own. “The function of literature, through all its mutations,”
writes Lionel Trilling, “has been to make us aware of the particu­
larity of selves, and the high authority of the self in its quarrel
with its society and its culture. Literature is in that sense subver­
sive.”12
In giving voice to the emergence of the sensibilities and con­
flicts of individuality in modern Jewish life, American Yiddish
poetry has both reflected and participated in the creation o f that
individuality. The changing image of the Jewish people in Amer­
10 Jacob Glatstein,
In Tokh Genumen, Eseyen 1949-1959,
Buenos Aires, 1960, vol.
II, pp. 367-368.
11 Judd L. Teller, “Secular Hebrew and Esoteric Yiddish,”
Commentary,
June
1956, p. 545.
12 Lionel Trilling,
Beyond Culture,
New York, 1965, p. 89.