H. Leivick is the Russian among the American Yiddish poets. The Russian Symbolist; Dostoevsky. The Dostoevsky comparison comes from his biography. A dirt poor Ukrainian Jew with a painful but serious yeshiva education, he became a socialist radical enough that he was exiled to Siberia – for life! – at the age of eighteen. He escaped, eventually, crossing, Siberia, Russia, Europe and the Atlantic to his new life in New York City as a wallpaper hanger and Yiddish poet.
Maybe it is too easy to make a poem on that subject interesting.
from “On the Roads of Siberia” (1919)
On the roads of Siberia
Someone may still uncover a button, a lace
Of my torn shoe,
A leather belt, a shard of a clay mug,
A page of a holy book.
His remnants are on the other side of the world. His parents are buried “In a small town in a Russian field.” “What am I doing here, in New York’s Hester Park?” (from “The Sturdy in Me”). Another poem answers that question:
from “Here Lives the Jewish People” (1923)
I walk for hours in the streets of the Jewish East Side
And imagine in the fiery whiteness before my eyes
Fantastic gates, soaring columns,
Rising from all the dilapidated stands
Upward, to the far and empty New York sky.
Gates – on all their cornices
Glowing, sparkling signs, inscribed:
Here lives the Jewish people.
A glimpse of Leivick’s mystical side, a visionary side. Years ago I read two of Leivick’s plays, The Golem (1922), a philosophical portrait of the legendary monster, and Shop (1926), a piece of well-detailed union propaganda, both with strong Modernist elements – the political play climaxes in modern dance! – but otherwise not seeming like they were by the same author. The poems reconcile the differences, or show how many different Leivicks there are.
from “Yiddish Poets” (1930s?)
When I think of us – Yiddish poets,
A sorrow grabs me – sharp, acute;
I want to scream to myself, to pray –
And just then the words grow mute.
So outlandish is the look of our poems –
Like stalks the locusts have possessed;
One comfort: get disgusted with yourself,
Slink on God’s earth, an alien guest!
The American Yiddish Poetry anthology has facing-page Yiddish, in Hebrew characters, so mostly useless to me, but here I can look at the original lines and laugh at the metaphor. Here is another good one from the poem:
Sometimes, like frazzled cats, dragging
Their kittens around, distraught,
We drag our poems between our teeth
By the neck through the streets of New York.
The alphabet, the poems, are literally “outlandish” in America. Leivick never shakes the sense that he is a refugee. The first poem in his first book is “Somewhere Far Away,” where “a prisoner” searches for the road to “the forbidden land.” The last poem in this anthology ends with an attempt at closure, a long piece of Yiddish Whitman called “To America” (1955), in which he again mourns “the evil lot / [that] has scattered all Yiddish poets over New-Siberias,” but now accepts his Americanness, and sees himself on America. “You too, America, walked close with [Abraham and David], / You too, have absorbed in your heart God’s commandment and blessing.”
If I were to write a poem titled “Yiddish Translators” it would be effusively thankful but would also include a polite, urgent request for a Collected Poems of H. Leivick and a number of other American Yiddish poets.