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The Riches of Rags

A revival of Yiddish poet H. Leivick’s play reveals a genius at the center of a turn-of-the-century literary scene

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New Worlds Theatre Project’s production of H. Leivick’s ‘Welcome to America.’ (Conte.nu)

Leivick’s heroic past as a revolutionary gave him enormous prestige with his readers; even more impressive was the maturity of his political thinking. He continued to follow his ideal of a better world, but with a steady wariness about the ideologies that prize the collective over the individual. He expressed misgivings about Bolshevism during a visit to the Soviet Union in 1925 and then seriously fell out with the Communists when the Soviet-leaning Yiddish newspaper Frayhayt, for which he then wrote, endorsed the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine as a legitimate revolutionary expression. He broke with the Soviet Union completely at the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and began writing for the Zionist daily Der Tog.

In a speech he gave in Jerusalem in 1957 titled “The Jew and the Individual” (still untranslated into English, like much of Leivick’s work), he reflected on the core of his vision: the suffering yet hopeful individual. Communism, he remarked, had obscured that vision. Its ideological servants were idol-worshippers; Stalin had been their new Pharaoh. After the horror of the Shoah (which Leivick memorialized in some of his most moving poems), Communism was the worst modern affliction of the Jews.

During the last four years of his life, Leivick was paralyzed (he died 50 years ago, in 1962). But a constant stream of visitors came to him, awed by his life and work. The Montreal-born Yiddishist Ruth Wisse recently wrote, “In the school I attended his image had the moral stature that only Elie Wiesel commands today.” As editor of influential newspapers and anthologies, as a voice of conscience and visionary poet, Leivick had no equal in the New York Yiddish world.

In “The Jew and the Individual,” Leivick, speaking to his Israeli audience, declared:

I am, today, too proud to demand from Jews respect for Yiddish. I do what is mine, what I am fated to do. … But I must tell you, I am full of unhappiness when I see how, in America, such large numbers of Jews push away the living Jewish spirit, whether Yiddish or Hebrew: both languages, which have given us such great national achievement and so much great art—a great national literature, which is filled with figures of our own, with song and symbols.

Plaintive and rebellious, Leivick here sounds a little like his own ragpicker hero Mordechai Maze, who clings to tradition and insists on his own poor place in the world: the standard-bearer of a disappearing culture. Yet contemporary American Jewish audiences are realizing what a wealth of great writing exists in Yiddish—the Yale New Yiddish Library series and New York Review Books’ publication of Der Nister’s novel The Family Mashber are just two recent examples of the Yiddish literature revival. Let’s hope that the revival of Rags will kindle renewed interest in the work of one of our greatest Yiddish-language writers.

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The Riches of Rags

A revival of Yiddish poet H. Leivick’s play reveals a genius at the center of a turn-of-the-century literary scene

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