Summoned Home

By Allan Nadler
Thursday, November 18, 2010

In June 1934, the celebrated American Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein (a/k/a Yankev Glatshteyn, 1896-1971) received an urgent summons to return to his native Lublin, Poland, where his mother lay at death's door. After almost two decades in the United States, during which he had earned acclaim for the linguistic virtuosity of his modernist verse—verse notably devoid of almost any hint of nostalgia—Glatstein found himself on an unanticipated and almost certainly unwanted return home, at the precise moment when so many Jews were desperately trying to make the reverse journey.

His record of that transformational trip, in the form of a fictional travelogue by the eponymous Yash (a nickname for Yankev), was published in two volumes, Venn Yash iz Geforn (literally, "When Yash Set Out," 1937) and Venn Yash iz Gekumen ("When Yash Arrived," 1940). In English translations skillfully edited by Ruth R. Wisse of Harvard, the two have now been re-issued in a single volume as The Glatstein Chronicles. Their appearance recalls one of modern Yiddish literature's richest and most original voices, whose work is today almost entirely unknown.

Fully aware of the terrible situation of Germany's Jews under Hitler, and of the decade-long war of attrition being waged by Poland on its Jewish citizens, Glatstein was setting out to confront not only his personal grief but the national anguish of his people. The latter he had determinedly avoided in his early poetry—even as he had increasingly been forced to deal with it in his journalistic work for the Yiddish daily Morgen Journal. No wonder, then, that upon embarking on a British ship filled with Gentile passengers, his initial feelings were of a great liberation:

Only one and a half days out to sea, and already I feel released from obligations to family, society, even from the political credos with which I had found it necessary to stock my brain. . . . I feel aboard this ship as Jonah must have felt in that first moment when he thought he had escaped God's wrath. Maybe here I will be able to scrape off the scabby crust of what has accrued to me as a writer for hire, a Jew in a bloody world that—pace Shakespeare—only demands my pound of flesh.

This same sense of liberation had attended Glatstein's beginnings as a passionate young American Yiddish poet. In 1920, he was among the founders of a daring group, the Inzikhistn (Introspectivists), whose manifesto proclaimed their independence from virtually every aspect of prior Yiddish writing. Rejecting the idea that Yiddish had to limit itself to parochial Jewish concerns or themes, to the traditional cadences of Jewish writing, or even to the use of Hebrew orthography for words borrowed from the sacred tongue, the Inzikhistn demanded instead a literature attuned to the universal themes and language of modernism and prepared thereby to gain an equal footing with all other world writing.

In the ensuing years, this hope would meet, unsurprisingly, with constant frustration on all fronts. A bizarre anecdote recorded by Glatstein with bitter humor in the July 1923 issue of the group's journal, In Zikh ("Inside the Self"), captures their frustration:

That Yiddish literature is still an unknown and almost outlandish thing among the Gentiles is well known. . . . Recently, [t]he American journal, Poetry, got hold of an issue of In Zikh. And here is what its editors wrote us: "Unfortunately we cannot read your journal. We would however like to know what language it is printed in. Is it Chinese?"

Poetry is published in Chicago. Several daily Yiddish newspapers are printed in Chicago. Yiddish periodicals, collections, books are published there. There are certainly also Chinese laundries in Chicago, and the lady-editors of Poetry have probably seen more than one Chinese laundry ticket in their lives. And after all that . . . to ask whether a Yiddish journal is Chinese!

Alas, not only were the universal hopes harbored by Glatstein and his Introspectivist colleagues never realized; in the end, they were literally reduced to ashes. Although literary scholars debate the extent of the transformation wrought in him by his voyage home, there can be little doubt that he returned a changed man. In the Chronicles, Yash undergoes scores of disillusioning, often brutal, encounters with both Gentiles and Jews.

Aboard ship, the initial sense of liberation lasts barely twenty-four hours. By the second morning, after receiving news of Hitler's consolidation of power in Germany in the "Night of the Long Knives," and discovering the utter indifference to this news on the part of his Gentile shipmates, Yash finds himself in search of fellow Jews. From that point on, while he still consorts amiably with others, these are the voices he listens to most closely. The persona of Yash himself almost disappears—except for the ears that hear and the pen that records his impressions first of the outbound travelers and then, in the second volume of the Chronicles, of the guests at an unnamed Polish Jewish resort where he goes to rest after grieving for his mother and in preparation for his return to America.

The two Yash volumes were published in 1937 and 1940. In between, in April 1938, Glatstein composed what was to become his most famous poem, "Good Night World." Responding to increasing anti-Jewish violence in Poland, this powerful work possesses all the defiant boldness of the 1920 manifesto of the Inzikhistn but moves in precisely the opposite ideological direction. The Glatstein who in 1920 was dreaming of a fresh and entirely subjective American Yiddish poetry equaling if not surpassing that of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and the rest here angrily slams the door on Gentiles themselves and every aspect of a merciless Gentile culture.

Not since Haim Nahman Bialik's turn-of-the-century "In the City of Slaughter," published in both Yiddish and Hebrew versions, had a poem made such a powerful impact upon the Jewish public or engendered such heated political discussions. In the Jewish periodical press, hundreds of essays appeared on this stunning work. But where Bialik's response to the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 had served as a Zionist wake-up call, a manifesto for Jewish national empowerment and autonomy, Glatstein's response to the events of 1938 was its antithesis. Remaining true to his subjective, introspective mode, it called for no political awakening, no national uprising, but, to the contrary, a resigned but fiercely proud return to the constraints of the Jewish world, the world of shtetls and ghettos. 

Later, after the Holocaust, Glatstein also began for the first time to engage in theological musings, recording—still in the introspective voice that he never abandoned—his anguished struggle to maintain some remnant of faith in a God who had so totally and cruelly abandoned His "chosen people." In these late poems, God is often portrayed as a powerless child or, even more strikingly, as a dissipating pillar of smoke: a radically diminished, pathetic former deity.

My Wander Brother

I love my sad God,
My wander brother
I like to sit with him on a stone
And silence him to all my words.

.   .   .   . 

The God of my unbelief is beautiful
How nice is my feeble God
Now, when he is human and unjust.
How graceful is he in his proud downfall,
When the smallest child revolts
Against his command. . . . 

.   .   .   . 

My God sleeps and I watch over him
My tired brother dreams the dream of my people.
He dwindles, grows small as a baby,
And I rock him into the dream of my people.
Sleep, my god, my wander-brother,
Sleep into the dream of my people.

(Translated by Barbara & Benjamin Harshav)

But if, for Glatstein, the Jewish God ineluctably shrank to powerlessness and ultimate non-existence—terminally asleep, in his wicked poetic subversion of the Psalmist's "The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps"—and if the formerly broad universe devolved into an ever diminishing, eventually suffocating space, his inner voice never lost an iota of its pride and dignity; nor was his undying love for Yiddish ever compromised: 

My Tent

Embrace me with choking devotion,
language mine, like a jealous wife;
confine me to my tent.

.   .   .   . 

Let no one coax me from your arms
Take my word, I don't want to be "universal."
When I take my leave,
I will become a pillar of cloud,
A gleam of light,
Above our tiny Sanctuary.

(Translated by Richard Fein)

Heart-wrenching but stubbornly defiant words. To the end, this faithful, unbroken husband of a language that choked the breath from his own life's work and consigned it to obscurity, never compromised his innermost, Yiddish self, insisting on its dignity and integrity no less after the Holocaust than during the heady days of his youthful rebellion. As Ruth Wisse pithily observes in her introduction to the Chronicles, "Glatstein came to understand that his fate as a Yiddish poet, in a Jewish language, was indivisible from that of its speakers."

Allan Nadler is professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.


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