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  • Modernism from Below:Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and the Situation of Yiddish Poetry
  • Julian Levinson (bio)

It is to works of art that has fallen the burden of wordlessly asserting what is barred to politics.

—Theodor Adorno1

Of the poetry written in Yiddish in the early twentieth century, the work of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern (1886-1932) has aged particularly well. Universally acknowledged by his contemporaries as a unique and captivating new writer, he was also among the most controversial of his generation of American Yiddish poets. Initial reviews of his work reflected the ambivalence of a literary community besieged by a radical and destabilizing force. Writing in 1917, the critic Noyakh Shtaynberg celebrated Halpern's sheer energy: "He sings from his blood, and his blood is of revolution." But Shtaynberg also voiced a complaint typical of the time, arguing that much of Halpern's poetry is simply "not Yiddish....To set different lines mechanically side by side is a fabrication of 'poetry.'...Halpern's lyrics suffer from an internal formlessness."2 A few years later, Halpern would find himself the target of much criticism on account of his so-called grobe reyd (coarse speech). Readers of the communist daily Frayhayt, where Halpern was employed as a staff poet from 1922 to 1924, protested the seemingly deliberate ugliness of his verse, his refusal to offer any of the familiar consolations of art. These apprehensive views carried over into English-language appraisals of his work, which appeared a few decades [End Page 143] after the poet's death. In The Flowering of Yiddish Literature (1963), for instance, Sol Lipztin offered him dubious praise: "he was a colorful figure...the strangest and most restless poet" of his generation.3 Lipztin and his colleagues reserved more unadulterated praise for Halpern's contemporaries Mani Leib or H. Leivik, whose work seemed to display more conventional forms of poetic virtuosity.

All of this has changed over the past 25 years or so, however. Halpern has come to be seen by contemporary scholars as perhaps the crucial American Yiddish poet of the interwar years. His innovations, threatening to many of his early readers, have been held up as exemplary instances of modernist experimentation. In Chana Kronfeld's 1993 study of Yiddish and Hebrew modernism, On the Margins of Modernism, for example, Halpern is given pride of place, singled out as the representative figure—the "deviant paragon"—of the Yiddish avant- garde.4 In Jewish American Literature:ANorton Anthology (2001), the editors dedicate more space to Halpern than to any other poet. He is also the only Yiddish writer to be given alternate translations of a work, an editorial gesture aimed at emphasizing Halpern's complexity and richness. And, finally, Halpern is the only member of his literary circle, Di Yunge, whose poems are included in the list of the 100 greatest works of modern Jewish literature, recently compiled by a group of scholars under the aegis of the National Yiddish Book Center.5

Among the reasons for Halpern's contemporary popularity, I would suggest, is that recent readers, critics, and scholars have read Yiddish literature of the interwar years through the lens of international modernism, which accords positive value to literary innovation and the defiance of formal regularity. In order to gain academic respectability for Yiddish literature and to correct the misconception of Yiddish writers as aesthetically unsophisticated, critics like Irving Howe, Ruth Wisse, and Avrom Novershtern have positioned Yiddish texts in relation to established classics of the Western literary tradition, identifying parallel developments and parallel representative figures. So where earlier generations of scholars and readers may have championed those writers that seemed most clearly to speak for the "folk"— epitomized by S. Niger's assertion that "[literature] comes from the folk and returns to the folk"6—more recent critics have underscored the triumph of the individual talent. From this perspective, Halpern's disruptive, experimental style comes to appear not as an irregularity in the tradition of Yiddish verse but as a triumph of modernism. Writing about Halpern's long narrative poem, the apocalyptic "A nakht" (A Night), for example, Novershtern praises it as "the first significant work to stand entirely under the sign of modernism...


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pp. 143-160
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