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A Wanderer in the Desert

How a tubercular shoemaker became a great Yiddish poet

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Three-quarters of the way through Mario Puzo’s first novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, the long-suffering, street-smart, Italian immigrant heroine chastises her daughter for marrying “the only Jew who does not know how to make money.” This anomalous individual, we’re told, has “a secret vice”—a vice we’ll never encounter again in one of Mario Puzo’s novels, despite their increasingly vice-friendly subject matter: “He was a poet. Not only in English, but—much more terrible—in Yiddish. Worse, he knew only one thing thoroughly: Yiddish literature—a talent he himself said was less in demand than any other on earth.”

How I wish Puzo had given us more details. In his preface to the 1996 reissue of the book, first published in 1964, he states, quite straightforwardly, that the novel is autobiographical, that its long-suffering heroine is his mother. Did he, then, have a Yiddish poet for a brother-in-law? Did they stay in touch? And did this brother-in-law envy him the success of The Godfather, as he continued to scribble his poems in a language with only a tiny smattering of living speakers? His Yiddish literary interests, after all, were deemed useless—by Puzo, at least—before the beginning of World War II, when the world was still teeming with speakers of Yiddish.

Mani Leib in an undated photo
Mani Leib in an undated photo

As an American Jewish poet, I’m no stranger to uselessness myself. But I can still remember my utter astonishment at coming upon an anthology of Yiddish poetry in a remainder bin. Or maybe it was one of those tables set outside used bookstores in the hope of theft and subsequent insurance payments for books with no chance of being sold. I bought it out of sheer amazement that there existed such a thing as Yiddish poetry. Up to that point, I associated Yiddish with being told to go to sleep, bad smells, confusion, a host of adjectives for everything sub-par, and, above all, mayne tsuris, which I was told I looked like for the first ten years of my life. (As a kid I believed Mayne Tsuris to be an actual unkempt person of my parents’ acquaintance and was shocked to discover, at 16 or so, that it was the Yiddish phrase for “my troubles.”) I grew up hearing everything wrong with the world labeled fashtunkeh and knowing that the misadventures of our Chevy Bel Air occurred because my father was fadrayt. How would you make poetry out of that?

And, yet, there it was: Howe and Greenberg’s A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry. (That particular copy has long since disappeared; the one currently on my shelf technically belongs to my synagogue library, of which I was once conveniently and, somewhat detrimentally, librarian.) And the poet I was first drawn to—immediately and irrevocably—was the man who used the name Mani Leib.

I suppose I would have found Mani Leib eventually. But my first chance encounter, at that particular time, probably changed the course of my life as a poet. In those few anthologized poems I heard a voice I knew intimately and loved with my whole heart—but which I’d never dreamed could be associated with poetry. Reading Mani Leib, I understood that it no longer mattered that I couldn’t sound like Emily Dickinson. My problem was I couldn’t sound like Mani Leib.

And so I stole my favorite of his lines, made a poem around it and brought it, excitedly, to a bunch of writers with whom I used to meet in a Chelsea apartment. Here was a poem, I thought, that was entirely mine, even if I had stolen it from Mani Leib. To a person, they hated it, with one exception: a Venezuelan lawyer of German extraction who would die a few years later on a rock-climbing expedition in Yosemite. Only this man understood what I was after in that first attempt at a poem called “The Yiddish Muses.” Mani Leib’s line—“I, unneeded, a poet among Jews”—resonated with me for a thousand reasons, all of which I wanted to express at once. Mani Leib, I suppose, had enabled me to see that I could be my parents’ daughter and my grandparents’ granddaughter and still write poetry. Reading him, I realized that not only did poetry not require the abandonment of my true linguistic inheritance—the inimitable Yiddish inflection—but that poetry could absolutely soar with it.

In short: I was in love with the very notion of a Yiddish-speaking muse. I still am. Why Gustavo Brillenberg, of all people, responded when no one else did remains a mystery to me. Perhaps because he was himself so alienated? A Venezuelan in New York? A poet in a law office? A rock climber in a crowded city?

In any case, the sonnet from which I lifted the line, “To a Gentile Poet,” became a great favorite of mine and I began to take an interest in some other Yiddish-American poems as well. So a year or so ago—a quarter-century after that Chelsea workshop devolved into a poker game (of which I have much fonder memories, honestly)—when a Jewish literary organization asked me to give a talk on the subject of my choice, I decided to speak on the concept of American Yiddish poets as American poets. I have this crazy idea that there should be a collection of Yiddish-American poets in the Library of America. They were Americans, after all. Not that I knew anything about them. I still didn’t know much more about Mani Leib than I had found out in that first encounter with those few poems.

My arguments were fairly simple: I looked at Whitman, singing America’s various tradesmen, and pointed out that Leib did him one better. He was the tradesman:

I am Mani Leib, whose name is sung—
In Brownsville, Yeheputz and farther, they know it:
Among cobblers, a splendid cobbler; among
Poetical circles a splendid poet.

I noted that the Yiddish novelist Joseph Opatoshu described the achievement of American writers in distinguishing themselves from their British literary forebears in terms that were even more appropriate for Yiddish writers: “they gave birth to a new language: unpolished words, lively, full-blooded, that drove out the genteel and rigid diction of the English.” Both traditions, I pointed out, were anti-intellectual. I also compared my favorite Leib sonnet to Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel”—outsiders writing in a traditional poetic form about their exclusion from the tradition—and went on to claim that Leib and his fellow Yiddish-American poets merged the two great strands in American poetry, the one from Whitman, the other from Dickinson. I was absolutely convinced that I was right, despite the fact—which I made clear enough to my audience—that I didn’t know anything. Didn’t speak Yiddish. Had only read what was translated. Knew nothing much about the poet’s lives.

But whereas ignorance may be an advantage for writers of poetry (poetry is, after all, like midrash; we write it to fill gaps in our understanding) it’s rather a handicap when one is giving a lecture. A few months after giving the talk, I finally learned a little something about Mani Leib’s actual life and realized I’d been entirely mistaken about him. In part, he was to blame. He had such a light hand as a poet, such a sense of humor, that I had a hard time truly taking in the genuine difficulty out of which his poems were made. But I, of course, was really at fault. I loved those poems so much that I couldn’t imagine the life that produced them as anything but, ultimately, a triumph. They were so good that I imagined them as the long-thought-out results of deliberate choice. Surely they were the ideal products of their maker. What else could he possibly have wanted to do?

But, in truth, it was no picnic to have been born Mani Leib Brahinsky in Neizhin, the Ukraine, in 1882, to a family so poor that Leib left school at 11 to serve as apprentice to a bootmaker. Four years later the bootmaker ran away to America with his customers’ money, leaving his young apprentice with the business. But Leib, at the ripe old age of 15, had been so taken with communist ideals that he had no interest in being an effective boss. He was eventually imprisoned for his revolutionary activities and fled Eastern Europe to escape a second imprisonment. After a year in England, he set sail for New York, where he found work in a shoe factory, and sent for his shy childhood sweetheart. The couple had five children in ten years, before Leib left his wife for the poet Rochelle Weprinski, who abandoned her husband for him. The strain of supporting two households made it even more imperative that he work long hours as a bootmaker, long hours that eventually ruined his health. At age 50, he came down with tuberculosis. He wrote much of his best work during an 18-month stint in a sanitarium.

Suddenly being a “splendid cobbler” doesn’t look so attractive, particularly when one wishes he could make a living as a poet. But Leib mediates the painful facts of his situation with humor. The poem ends:

In Brownsville, Yeheputz, beyond them, even,
My name shall ever be known, O Muse.
And I’m not a cobbler who writes, thank heaven,
But a poet, who makes shoes.

Of course, it is funny. How may poets long for immortal fame in Yeheputz? But Leib’s “beyond them, even” is not merely self-mocking, but wistful, full of longing for all the lost geography that the Yiddish language—with its Hebrew and Aramaic components—comprehends. For that matter, even “Yeheputz”—the old country—is “beyond” Leib now, from his new vantage point in Brownsville. I was wrong to think that Leib’s making shoes had anything to do with Whitman’s shoemaker. It’s the poet that Leib values in himself, not the cobbler.

And though I wasn’t exactly wrong to point out a similar anti-intellectual bent in both Yiddish and American poetry, there, too, I was slightly skewing things. Whitman’s bragging about having left “the learned astronomer’s . . . proofs . . . figures . . . charts and diagrams” and “look’d up in perfect silence at the stars” is a bit different from the anti-intellectualism of Yiddish, which comes out of a tradition in which “intellectual” means “religious.”

Yiddish poetry is, by definition, an anti-intellectual enterprise within a tradition that prizes the study of ancient texts in ancient languages, not poems written in zhargon. That said, Leib’s poor Hebrew and probably nonexistent Aramaic were marks of poverty, not of defiance. By all accounts, he profoundly lamented his lack of knowledge—even if Yiddish does refer to a Jewish intellectual as someone “who really understands the little black dots.” (The phrase is substantive as well as wickedly funny: unlike Hebrew and Aramaic, Yiddish is written out without the black dots that serve as vowels.)

In any case, Mani Leib’s incomprehension of the little black dots hardly kept him from engaging in intellectual discussions. And the one eyewitness account I’ve found of him is hardly a description of an anti-intellectual. According to Reuben Iceland, Leib could generally be found at Goodman and Levine’s, the Lower East Side dairy restaurant which was the hang-out of Di Yunge, the self-consciously innovative group of turn-of-the-centry American Yiddish poets, “a finger rocking in front of his nose like a pointer—his green, visionary eyes squinting.” Conversations with Leib, according to Iceland, would “boil—an hour, two, three. From one topic we would leap into a second, from a second to a third. Soon we were back at the first, each trying to prove a point with a quotation from an essay or a poem.”

Once I understood the demands of Leib’s day-to-day life, those intense conversations—at a place where you could sit all night over the cheapest possible cup of tea—took on a new pathos. Here was a genuine American tragedy: a man with a great gift, spending his days in a shoe factory, welcoming tuberculosis because it won him the time to write his poetry in peace. The sonnets that I argued were just like Countee Cullen’s—the work of an outsider proving that he can write the most traditional form with the best of them, even as his subject is his own artistic alienation—turned out to be Leib’s last burst of artistic expression. They were the compromise of a man who, in fact, always wanted to write an epic. And while this is a common phenomenon among the great lyric poets (Didn’t Petrarch want to write long pieces in Latin and just toss off those Italian sonnets? Didn’t Keats, genius of the odes, long to write an epic?) it was somehow sadder when I thought of all those hours spent making, however expertly, shoes.

But still, those sonnets are quite an achievement. My favorite remains the one I ripped off all those years ago. At first, Leib addresses the “goyisher poet,” who has a “yirish fun Shakespeare”—a man “who has only to twitter to receive a response” from the world. In comparison, Leib goes on:

And here I am, unneeded, a poet among Jews,
Growing from wild grass on a soil not ours . . .
In an alien world I sing of the tears
Of wanderers in the desert under alien stars . . .

Despite all his alienation, I’m not sure Mani Leib would quite change places with the goyisher poet. His “And here I am” certainly has something of the implication of, say, so this goyisher poet is living in a mansion on Long Island and here I am in my fifth-floor tenement walk-up in Brownsville, but Leib is also declaring a space for himself—even in the world that “inherited Shakespeare.” You may be his direct inheritor, he tells the goyisher poet, but, nonetheless, here I am—unnecessary though I may be. And he makes this self-declaration in Shakespeare’s own preferred poetic form. It’s not Leib’s world. They’re not his stars, but he is, nonetheless, here singing.

Mani Leib, 1952
Mani Leib in 1952

But, as the sonnet’s last line makes clear, Leib’s problem isn’t the goyisher poet, with his inheritance from Shakepeare, but the great Hebrew writers of the Bible. After all, the true reason that Leib is a an “unneeded thing” is that his subject: “vagler in di midbar” (wanderers in the desert) has already been exhaustively covered in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It’s the enormous weight of his own literary inheritance and the fact that he—as a “poet bai yiddin”—must keep singing that same song. And yet Leib’s song has as much urgency as Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Ultimately, however, Leib’s tone more resembles that of the other great poet of 19th-century America—Whitman’s diametric opposite: the unpublished, unknown genius, Emily Dickinson. She declares herself with the same kind of irony, the same mixture of making a place for herself and announcing her uselessness, when she proclaims “I’m Nobody. Who are you?”

But Leib’s tragedy is profoundly different from Dickinson’s. Leib had many, many readers; she had none. But Dickinson had the luxury of devoting her days to poetry, while Leib spent his days making shoes. Still, who knows? Maybe it’s possible to see Leib’s life as inspiring rather than sad. Perhaps a tubercular shoemaker writing brilliant poems in his almost nonexistent spare time is not a tragedy but a miracle. Perhaps his poems flew to him, fully made, from some inaccessible place. Or maybe the miracle is poetry itself, and the way it defies the material world, even the very words out of which it’s made. Or maybe the miracle is that this man wrote poetry at all, much less great poetry. Perhaps the real lesson of Mani Leib is the extraordinary power and magic of his medium, how it enables someone in an alien country, slaving away with his hands, to rise above the burdens of his world, even though those burdens are his subject. For me the thrill of his work is the jokey conversational tone and the pathos, the way—in the course of a few lines—he can be both poet and shoemaker, both a good-for-nothing and a singer in competition with the narrator of the Five Books of Moses. That poetry can take a homey, hybrid language and make it truly sing.

Maybe, after all, he is singing America—maybe I was onto something in my talk, after all—as well as poetry and Yiddish and himself. Maybe he’s singing the remainder bin, from which I fished him out. And surely he’s singing my old friend Gustavo, not a lawyer who wrote poems, thank heaven, but a poet who wrote briefs. Maybe all American poets are wanderers in the desert.

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A Wanderer in the Desert

How a tubercular shoemaker became a great Yiddish poet

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