Walter Benjamin's writings on Charles Baudelaire offer one of the most influential accounts of the challenges facing the poet of modern urban experience. Had he known the work of the Yiddish poet Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Benjamin would have discovered striking parallels to the motifs and attitudes he traced in Baudelaire, including the emphasis on the crowd, the figure of the flâneur, and the deflation of the role of lyric poet. By reading Halpern's urban poetics alongside Benjamin's writings on Baudelaire, we can bring Halpern's modernism out of the exclusively Yiddish context in which it is generally read. Such a reading also helps us identify the unique resources available to the poet writing in Yiddish, resources that Halpern drew upon to project a different vision of the individual's fate in the modern city than the one Benjamin finds in Baudelaire. Through a close reading of Halpern's poems about the New York subway, it is possible to see how the Yiddish language summons memories of the landscape of East European Jewish life, providing an alternate frame of reference and a partial imaginative refuge for the Jew in the modern city. Halpern's representation of the modern city is thus palimpsestic (bearing traces of earlier times and places), whereas Benjamin describes Baudelaire's urban poetry as allegorical, pointing to a world of experience that has been irretrievably lost. Benjamin's meditations on Jewishness were largely restricted to matters of theology, but Halpern's poetry provides a model for a specifically Jewish modernist literature. By recovering Halpern's Jewish modernism, we can correct for the blindness about Yiddish culture that characterized Weimar-era German Jewish intellectuals such as Benjamin.


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pp. 63-88
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