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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)

The final curtain had just rung down, and Maurice Schwartz—world-renowned star of the Jewish stage, founder of the Yiddish Art Theater—was feeling desperate. A few months earlier, Schwartz had triumphantly brought S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk from Vilna to New York, to the stunned admiration of audiences. But this new play, about a family of immigrant Lower East Side Jews caught up in a strike at a ragpickers’ factory, provoked smirks and outright laughter from his well-heeled Jewish audience. The ragpickers, worn-out, grumbling old men, demand a $3-a-week raise from their employer, the factory owner Mr. Levy; they are offered a measly 50 cents, which they accept and crawl back to work. The audience saw the ragpickers’ easily curbed discontent as farce, not pathos.

The play was H. Leivick’s Rags (Shmattes in Yiddish), and it premiered at Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater in December 1921. A few weeks after the disastrous first performance, Schwartz learned that Abraham Cahan, editor of the Forverts and kingmaker of Yiddish culture, was attending Rags that night. Cahan was staunchly pro-union, and Schwartz feared that he would dislike Leivick’s ambivalent portrayal of the strike, which deliberately flirted with the ridiculous, showing the workers as bewildered and weak. Increasingly nervous as Rags went on, Schwartz invented for himself a rabble-rousing speech delivered at a crucial point in the play’s action in which he urged the ragpickers to fight on. At the end of the night, even the normally reserved Cahan was standing and cheering.

Rags has now been revived by the New Worlds Theatre Project (under the title Welcome to America)—but with the strike scenes left out entirely. The play, fluently translated by Ellen Perecman and directed by Stephen Fried, focuses instead on the drama of one of the ragpickers: the play’s hero, the disconsolate patriarch Mordechai Maze. Mordechai’s younger daughter is about to marry the factory owner’s son, Morris Levy; his son, Harry, is a new-world “allrightnik” who cares only for baseball and business, not his parents; and his wife has had about as much as she can take of Mordechai’s black moods.

Welcome to America offers a dignified, well-crafted take on Leivick’s drama, but it doesn’t do full justice to the self-punishing rancor that inhabits Mordechai. Leivick’s Rags should be given a more Mamet-like brutal edge, as Mordechai denounces his family, his fellow workers, and, perhaps most of all, himself. Avoiding his daughter’s wedding party, he sits alone with a volume of the Talmud, locked in his solitude. He scorns the strikers because, he says, their demands can do nothing to change the essential poverty and emptiness of a ragpicker’s job. Mordechai insists that his ragpicker’s work, dull and unbearable as it is, defines him; the deluded strikers imagine otherwise. Though Arthur Miller was probably influenced by Rags, Mordechai has no trace of Willy Loman’s wistfulness; he is bitter and hard as nails.

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In the amazingly fertile Yiddish literary scene of the 20th century, H. Leivick was the vital, melancholy center. A paperhanger by day and a poet in his spare hours, he changed his original name, Leivick Halpern, when he came to America to avoid confusion with another major Yiddish poet, Moshe-Leib Halpern. He grew up in Byelorussia, the son of a poor village melamed, an angry man who often beat Leivick and his brothers. Young Leivick cast aside his yeshiva education and became a revolutionary socialist. On trial for Bundist activities in 1906, the 17-year-old Leivick defiantly stood up in court and announced,

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

“I will not defend myself. Everything that I have done I did in full consciousness. I am a member of the Jewish revolutionary party, the Bund, and I will do everything I can to overthrow the czarist regime, its bloody henchmen, and you as well.”

Exactly a hundred years ago, in 1912, Leivick began what was supposed to be a lifetime of exile in Siberia. (He had already spent years doing hard labor in a prison in Minsk.) He escaped from Siberia the following year, aided by money that some American admirers of his writing had sent him—Leivick was already becoming a well-known poet. He bought a horse and a sled and made his slow way across Russia and Germany; then, finally, he sailed to America.

Leivick was a remarkable and original poet; in his time, he was often called the greatest Yiddish poet. His many ballads resemble Heine’s, and Leivick shares Heine’s pure, dreamlike intensity. But his stark, tormented directness is all his own. Some of his best poems were written in the 1930s, when he spent four years being treated for tuberculosis in a Colorado sanatorium: Suddenly, the hard-working paperhanger had time on his hands. In his poem “Sanatorium,” Leivick sees himself as a refugee like the Bible’s Lot, spared from disaster, but carrying his sorrow with him. Here are its last three stanzas, in Cynthia Ozick’s translation:

The circling plain
Is fire and flame:
fiery snow
on the hills.

Look—this open door
And gate. Guess.
Hospital? Prison?
Some monkish place?

Colorado! I throw
My sack of despair
On your fiery floor
Of snow.

Leivick’s work had a powerful phantasmagoric side, too. The Golem, his rendition of the Frankenstein-like legend of the rabbi who, in order to defend the Jews against their persecutors, gives life to a monstrous man of clay, is a sublime, idiosyncratic fever dream, a towering achievement that took the Yiddish-speaking world by storm when it was published in 1921, the same year as Rags. When he depicts the dizzying intimacy between the Maharal of Prague and his golem, who is lumbering, childlike, and full of insight, Leivick invokes a closeness between creator and created that draws on the deepest springs of Jewish thought. Alone among the religions, Judaism invents a parent-child struggle between us and the God who has given us birth. As Leivick dramatizes the struggle between the Maharal and his lonely, uncanny son, the golem, he has Jewish tradition in mind; the fiery, mystical urges of the kabbalists color the speeches of both his protagonists. Both the Maharal of The Golem and Mordechai Maze of Rags are twisted, frustrated father figures—but the Maharal has the power to bless as well as curse, unlike Mordechai.

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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