“The truth of poetry,” Hans-Georg Gadamer has written, “consists in creating a hold upon nearness.” In the 1930s, according to Amelia Glaser, nothing was nearer to the generation of politically radical Jewish poets than the oppression of ethnic and racial minority groups, as well as the proletariat. Near to them also was a recognition that Jewish culture was in mortal danger on both sides of the border between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Leftist Yiddish poets, Glaser maintains, tried to avoid choosing one struggle over the other. Offering their own version of Stalin’s prescription for the Soviet republics (“national in form, socialist in content”), these writers developed a vocabulary for group identity that drew on their traditions to create and embrace a “metaphorically Jewish” global community.
In Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine, Glaser (a professor of Russian and comparative literature at the University of California, San Diego, and author of Jews and Ukrainians in Russia’s Literary Borderlands) rescues long-forgotten poems from communist periodicals in the United States and Soviet Union and shows how they used Jewish “passwords” in behalf of a vision of multi-ethnic and racial solidarity. Challenging but accessible, poignant and provocative, Dark Times makes an invaluable contribution to Jewish studies, Yiddish literature and transnational political discourse.
The Arab uprising of 1929 in Mandatory Palestine, Glaser reveals, resulted in a rift between poets who stood with the Soviet Communist Party in celebrating a blow struck by workers against Zionists and British imperialists, and those who identified with the Jewish victims. Aaron Kurtz equated Jewish clannishness to American racism and used the Western Wall as a password to indict Zionism for supporting an unjust power structure: “The wall, the wall/crumbling and moldy/the dead Zion wall – made heavenly/and holy/the wall, the wall/of bleak desert faith/a net for dying believers/a wellspring for robbers.” That said, Glaser insists the fundamental conflict between the Yiddish poets rested less on whether to support Zionists or communists than on “how to define the boundaries of internationalism.”
Jewish poets aligned with the Communist Party, Glaser demonstrates, used Yiddish and African-American passwords to signal support for the nine “Scottsboro Boys” falsely convicted of raping two white women in Alabama; heighten concern about antisemitism; identify blacks as “class war prisoners”; and embrace all members of the human family. In “The Lynching Crow,” Menke Katz told the story of a Jewish woman and her African American lover: “So what if you’re as dark as primeval forests/God plunked us from one human trunk.” In 1936, Berish Weinstein connected lynching in the American South with the rise of Nazism: “Negro, the fate of destruction has befallen not only you... they now die everywhere/in Wedding [Berlin], in Leopoldstadt [Vienna], and in Carolina.”
PETRIFIED THAT the Spanish Civil War might end in catastrophe, Glaser’s Yiddish poets wove together the 15th-century Inquisition (and expulsion of Jews) and the rise of Nazism, avoided “competitive victimology,” and crafted an internationalist message. Yakov Glantz’s “In the Wide Wanderings of My People” enlisted Jews murdered during the Inquisition to fight alongside the Loyalists: “Dress yourselves in bodies/And together with the bricklayer against the Inquisition/register in the ranks of the militia.” In “The Orchestra,” Aaron Kurtz heard “the harmony of a hundred nations in one brigade/the guitarist is a romantic Venetian/the cornetist – a matter of fact Belgrader/a Jew plays the violin/you name it-/Germans Swedes Yankees, Indians.”
In the late 1930s, when Stalin intensified suppression of political speech, Glaser indicates that poets used translation as a subtle form of self-expression that strengthened Yiddish language, culture and identity and acknowledged, without overtly challenging, the often uneasy coexistence of ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union. She illuminates this phenomenon with a close reading of Dovid Hofshteyn’s translations into Yiddish of the poetry of Taras Shevchenko, who was active in a Ukrainian national movement in the 19th century. In these translations, Glaser demonstrates, Hofshteyn, who had once hoped to establish a Jewish colony in Crimea, implied that separation from one’s national traditions “is tantamount to separation from one’s community for all eternity.” As he conveyed “Shevchenko’s flower-filled Ukrainian landscape, negative Jewish stereotypes included,” Hofshteyn hinted at rising antisemitic sentiments in the northern cities of the Soviet Union.
Along with millions of Soviet citizens, Jewish poets were murdered in Stalin’s purges. Others turned against “the God that failed” after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. And some, in the United States and the Soviet Union, Glaser reminds us, wrote poems of tshuva – publicly acknowledging their apostasy and their return to the Jewish community. Accompanying their shift toward “the centripetal force of Jewish particularism,” cultural and religious, in the years following World War II, she writes, came a shift away from the centrifugal force of internationalism, signaling the “end of a utopian dream.”
In the ensuing years, however, Glaser detects a revival of internationalism among American-Jewish artists. The poet Allen Ginsburg and the composer Leonard Bernstein, she suggests, used “Kaddish” as a password not only to highlight Jewish suffering but to protest injustice to secular, multi-cultural audiences. In his “Kaddish,” Aaron Kurtz tied a church bombing in Alabama in 1963 to the Holocaust: “Face to face with Abe Lincoln, face to face with/Negro martyrs/A rabbi says Kaddish. I am not/a Kaddish sayer. But today’s mamas the world over bitterly wept/and mourned the four black girls/I responded to the rabbi’s Kaddish: omeyn! And/I heard not the rabbi himself, not the rabbi. I heard/across the world/A million of my orphans saying Kaddish: beneath weeping clouds.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.
SONGS IN DARK TIMES: YIDDISH POETRY OF STRUGGLE FROM SCOTTSBORO TO PALESTINE
By Amelia M. Glaser
Harvard University Press
353 pages; $39.95