Glatshteyn

by Mark Chmiel

Janet R. Hadda, Yankev Glatshteyn
Twayne Publishers, 1980

Having read translations of Yankev Glatshteyn from Howe and company’s Modern Yiddish Poetry,  Whitman’s Selected Poems, Zumoff’s I Keep Recalling, and  also Fein’s Selected Poems, I treated myself to this study by Janet Hadda, also biographer of I.B. Singer.  Part of the Yiddish modernist In Zikh movement in the 1920 and 30s,  Glatshteyn later had to face the enormity of responding to the catastrophes that were inflicted on Jews in the 1930s and 40s.   Over the decades I have read  religious thinkers, philosophers, and novelists trying to grapple with the Nazi and Soviet “totalitarian barbarism” (G. Steiner).  Regardless of Adorno’s pronouncement on the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz, Glatshteyn has produced powerful works of mourning for his community and of assailing  the fraud of “western civilization.”   To name five: Good Night, World; Our Neat and Tidy Language; Lamentation for the  Souls of Jewish Cities; Reb Levi Yitzhok’s Voice; and I Keep Recalling.

At mid-century Glatshteyn was preeminent in the U.S. Yiddish community; his literary production included  three novels, eight volumes of essays, and ten volumes of poetry.   Yet, writing of him in 1943, Hadda acknowledges: “Everything was doomed: his people, his tradition, its language, his artistic freedom, his chances of contributing to a continuing literature. Even his awesome responsibility as the chronicler of the last days of Eastern European Jewry was infused with an ironic futility: [he would write about it] but who would read it?”  The Yiddish Book Center has made available a Youtube  of Glatshteyn addressing the mission of Yiddish poetry and responsibility a decade after the end of World War II (English subtitles available).

Near the end of her study, Hadda asserts that the poet’s “commitment to Yiddishkeyt as a national, historical, philosophical, geneaological, and even psychological entity—all of which have common borders with theological Jewishness—was total.”  May new generations of readers and seekers find sparks in Glatshteyn’s works,  both in the original Yiddish and their translations.

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