Page 179 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 43

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HELLERSTEIN / DOUBLE-BIND OF DESIRE
1 6 7
called sensationalism.”12 In a statement of historical perspective,
Halpern attributes to Rosenfeld a strength and purpose in rela­
tion to his contemporaries, which we might, in turn, apply to
Halpern:
I don’t doubt a wink that if Rosenfeld began to write today,
he’d aspire to beauty and purity in poetry exactly like all the
contemporary Yiddish poets. But — and the but is very
important, Rosenfeld came twenty years earlier. And who,
then, in Yiddish society, longed for purely artistic crea­
tions? . . . Rosenfeld stands, without exaggeration, among
his contemporaries like a roaring lion among meowing cats,
may God not punish me for this expression . . . And a
rhythm runs through [Rosenfeld’s political poems] wild
and hard as the stroke of a hammer swung by a giant smith
whose muscles are hard and brown as poured bronze.
There was a time when the oriental wandering-folk, blood
singing in their veins, needed a singing folk-agitator, and
then Morris Rosenfeld was born .13
Halpern’s poems combine the strength of the “giant smith,” in
the folk-agitator tradition of Yiddish poetry, with the craftsman­
ship and delicate control of a jeweler. The result is a turning of
communal aspirations and ideals inward and askew, a skeptical
revaluation of myths and hopes, and a cautiously passionate
redefinition of what a particular man can want and do.
EARLY POEMS
In his first book of poems,
In New York
(1919),14 Halpern
makes his poems transform some of the truisms of his day about
the promises of the “Promised Land” into sharp criticisms of the
expectations and desires of the immigrant. The immigrant’s ex­
pectations of America as a land of plenty prove false and
disappointing, as in “Our Garden”:
12 Halpern, “Rosenfeld,” pp. 103-104.
13 Halpern, “Rosenfeld,” pp. 106-7.
14 All translations quoted here are by the author. The poems from
In New York
are available in
In New York: A Selection
(abbreviated as
INY: AS).
Translated,
edited, and introduced by Kathryn Hellerstein. (Philadelphia: The Jewish
Publication Society, 1982). Page numbers are noted beneath each poem.