Kingdoms of Jews
By Amos Goren | 19/08/2010
Jacob Glatstein travelled from New York to his hometown of Lublin in 1934 and wrote two autobiographical novels in wake of that visit: “When Yash Went Forth” and “When Yash Arrived.” Many years later, literary critic Dan Miron translated the two books. The combined efforts of the New York poet and Israeli scholar, who decided to devote his efforts to Yiddish literature, allow us to understand who the people living in Poland in the interwar period were, what their heritage was and how a thousand years of Polish-Jewish history flowed in their veins
Ven Yash iz gekumen [“When Yash Arrived”], Jacob Glatstein, from Yiddish: Dan Miron, Am Oved Sifriya La'am
Imagine for a moment that Federico Fellini had arrived in Poland in the mid-1930s, spent a few months among the Jews living there, recorded his impressions in his own unique style, with the result now being presented to us, seventy years and more later. We, the Israelis of the twenty-first century, would likely be fascinated by the work of the maestro, driven by both a sense of artistic curiosity and an understanding of the importance of historical documentation. Fellini, of course, did not visit in Poland, but something similar nevertheless occurred: The great New York poet Jacob Glatstein returned to the landscapes of his childhood, and in his novel, Ven Yash iz gekumen [“When Yash Arrived”], he provides a virtuoso portrayal of the people and atmosphere of Jewish Poland that is both sensitive and subtle. True, this is prose rather than cinema, but when a grand master writes, you feel that you can see everything, no less than if it were part of a Fellini film, if not more.
Rarely are great poets also great prose writers. Boris Pasternak is an excellent example of just such a poet/writer in the twentieth century and Victor Hugo in the nineteenth. Jacob Glatstein is perhaps the only Yiddish writer to belong to this very exclusive category. Born in 1896 in Lublin, which at that time was under Russian rule, his father earned his livelihood from a shop selling ready-to-wear clothing. The shop's weekly turnover was ten rubles, half of which Jacob's father designated for the boy's education with the other five going towards supporting the family. The young Glatstein studied religious texts and general high school subjects, and in addition, his father brought him home the works of the great Yiddish writers I. L. Peretz, Shalom Aleichem and Abraham Reisen, and loved hearing the boy read them aloud. Glatstein's family included numerous cantors and musicians (in that sense he resembled Itzik Manger), and this family trait affected the characteristic musicality of his work. Considered a child prodigy – at the age of 13, he arrived in Warsaw, where he was presented to I. L. Peretz – he was marked for a brilliant literary career in Poland, but at the age of 18, decided to leave for the United States, where he arrived just two months before World War I.
In his early years in America, Glatstein was simply lonely, but in 1919, he was among the three founders of a new literary movement in Yiddish poetry in New York. The two others, Aaron Glanz-Leieles and Nokhem Borekh Minkov, were also young Yiddish poets. They founded the introspective movement, which although its members wrote in Yiddish, was in fact a modern-American movement, which gave subtle and sophisticated expression to the rich emotion and intellect of the writers, on the background of the tempo of life and atmosphere of the big city. Here, for example, is a short poem by Glatstein, which was published in the journal Inzich (a combination of the words In zikh i.e. “inside the self” or “in of itself”), the name given to the entire group:
My friend's wife is ugly.
What do I care she's hot.
So I don't care and I do,
My friend's wife with the shy legs.
My wife has lovely eyes,
Day and night day and night
And her legs are open
And her lips locked,
Like the door of my friend's wife.
So I don't care and I do,
My friend's wife with the restless legs.
Quiet, quiet my wife.
This is an example of Glatstein's early writing, which – like the writing of the other “Inzichists” – was different and more daring, unlike the sentimental, rhymed and metered Yiddish poetry that was in vogue at the time.
Like other Yiddish poets and writers, Glatstein also earned his living from writing in the Yiddish press, which had an audience of close to two million New York Jews, most of whom spoke and read mainly Yiddish. As the author of articles on literary criticism and cultural matters, Glatstein was brilliant, polished, eloquent and stirring. As a poet among not too many poets, the reading audience of his sophisticated verse among the immigrant audience was not large, but as a newspaper columnist and editor, he was not only prolific, but also very popular and in demand.
For many years, he yearned to go back to visit Poland, which was constantly on his mind:
Konskowola, Medzhybizh, Kuznica,
Lubartow, Poltew, Bachow
Glinsk, Piaski and Szebeszyn
Names of Polish towns, God only knows why
They still float, like leaves in a bath, in my memory.
He planned the trip for twenty years, but life kept him in New York. When his mother became deathly ill, he dropped everything and set off to see her. The journey from New York to Lublin – via Paris, Germany, which was already National-Socialist, and Warsaw – was not an easy one. His book, Ven Yash Iz Geforn [When Yash Went Forth], published in New York in 1938 (translated into Hebrew by Dan Miron, Hakibbutz Hame'uhad / Sifrei Siman Kri'ah, Tel Aviv 1994; published in English in 1969 as “Homeward Bound”) is about his experiences and the people he met on the ship during the transatlantic voyage. Glatstein managed to reach his mother's side in time to be with her in her final days. After the funeral, exhausted and drained, he decided to spend a few days in a Jewish sanatorium located in a resort town in the Lublin area. The second novel, Ven Yash Iz Gekumen [“When Yash Arrived”], published in 1940, records his impressions and experiences there.
Life alongside life
The protagonists of the book are neither the author's relatives nor close friends; they are strangers that he meets in a sanatorium frequented by Jews seeking out fresh air and a respite from their troubles – and each is carrying a large knapsack of misery and suffering. The guests in the sanitarium do not remain strangers for long. While Yash (a diminutive for Jacob, i.e. Glatstein himself) does not become a close friend of these Jewish men and women, he listens to them eagerly and most attentively. For their part, they realize that they are in the company of a good listener, a rare opportunity they do not want to miss. The Jew from Bogota, one of the passengers that Glatstein met on the ship in Ven Yash iz geforn, actually declares: “You have no idea how much I have been searching for you – like one searches for a treasure. Since this is the last night of our voyage, I confess that I love you as one loves a brother. And why do you think I love? Because you have a pair of golden ears. Your ears are worth a million [...] I have some things I need to unburden myself of, but try talking to someone who doesn't know how to listen. I talk and I see that there is another mouth there that also wants to open up and talk. Talking from one mouth to another is a catastrophe. And perhaps you think that I'm better than the others? Not at all, I don't have patience when people chatter in my ear either. But when I talk to you, I am talking directly into a pair of extraordinary ears. You hear? You yourself have no idea of your own worth. If I had ears like that, I'd insure them.”
In his afterward, Dan Miron explains that people are drawn to Yash and open up to him because they are unable to hold back what has built up in their hearts any longer. “This explains the enormous value they attribute to Yash's ‘golden ears' and their attachment to him without actually ever getting to know him. They need him like air in order to pour out their tribulations, their shameful secrets, their pathetic dreams and more. On the other hand, this particular speaking-listening situation creates a special kind of relationship between people (by means of the listening), in which a certain emotional equilibrium that is only rarely found is created” (from Ven Yash Iz Gekumen, p. 278).
The main character in the book is Shteynman, an energetic writer of popular Yiddish literature about the Hassidic world and life in the large Hassidic courts. Shteynman himself is not a Hassid, but rather someone who “understands Hassidism,” making him a typical instance of “living alongside life,” in other words, having extensive knowledge about various subjects without actually living them. With this characteristic, Shteynman is reminiscent of the father figure in Bruno Schulz, who although he can talk about a wide variety of cultural issues, feels that he is a failure and that he has wasted his life.
Holding on to life
Shteynman, an impressive man of impassioned eloquence knows that his writings are not going to blaze any new trails, that they are not of any permanent value, and that Jewish society as a whole can manage quite well without them. This feeling of lost opportunity is compensated for by an over-inflated ego. He convinces himself that despite the mediocre results of his work, he is extraordinarily inspired and gifted, that he has a clear view of the course of Jewish history and that he has important things to say to the Jewish community of Poland. Shteynman's theatrical style wins admiration among his “disciples,” the other diners seated at the same table, who view him as an “exceptional Jew.” Yash receives a great deal more from him. Thanks to his nonjudgmental listening, he hears in Shteynman's monologues the distress of Jewish society in Poland, its despair with itself, its surroundings and future on the background of economic decline, the nationalist impasse and lack of a future.
Another character in the book is the son of a Hassid. He is an inquisitive and garrulous young man with a philosophical bent, who wants to learn not only about Judaism, but also about the state of humanity as a whole. Yash sees how Polish Jews, second-class citizens, and perhaps citizens in name only, are being increasingly abused and marginalized by the gentiles around them, and consequently escape into a form of barren intellectualism that can provide no salvation. The boy, only sixteen years old, indulges in elaborate hair-splitting polemics displaying impressive erudition. While on a stroll with Yash, he says, “I say to you that the next time we meet I will reveal to you with a hint how it is possible to reconcile faith and heresy, how it is possible to impassion heresy to the extent that it will soar up before the throne of God, and weep there among all the divine spheres, all the formulas, and all the questions and doubts. Don't worry. The Almighty can take it. I'll tell you a secret too, how a modern Hassid can find his way into Jewish life.” The words “Jewish life” catch Yash's ear and he immediately senses the desire of these Jews to hold onto life. And this is how Yash describes his response: “Around me, the desire hummed and throbbed. The hungry demanding mouth that had just shouted at me in different voices also had a head, an impassioned head. The hunger overflowed with desire to live and think.”
The beggarly Jews
Other characters include a flirtatious woman; veteran teacher Goldblatt, once considered a pedagogical authority but who now earns his living (like the Filipino workers in Israel) caring for an elderly hundred-year-old Jew; and a former lawyer, Neifeld, in whose company Yash takes a wagon to visit the picturesque village of Kuzmir. On the mountain, he meets a childhood friend, an artist, who tries with all his might to sell him some pictures. The artist is not the only one that tries to take advantage of the visiting guest from America. We see a parade of characters, each of whom represents a particular level of poverty and degradation, and who all want Yash to contact their relatives and friends in America to convince them to send them some money. Almost every single one of the people making these requests is on a much higher level intellectually and personally than one might expect given his shaky economic and family situation. All of Jewish society, which wants nothing more than to live and raise its children to be good people, is deteriorating into a situation that one of Yash's interlocutors, Gleichboim, a teacher of Polish, describes thus: “The Jewish people has not become proletarian; it has become beggarly – beggarly and nothing else. We are a bizarre class of humans. Among all the poor peoples, being filthy and destitute goes hand in hand with a degenerate mind. With us – God help us – the spirit, the intellect still work; they are a lamp that sheds light so that we can better see the dark.”
The beggarly Jews are irritable, envious and resentful of everyone, even themselves, are constantly consumed with worry, don't sleep well, they look forward to the triumph of humanity, the brotherhood of nations – but know that the next pogrom will come long beforehand. In the meanwhile, they fight with everything they have to give their children an education, to make sure that they learn the Bible, Talmud, Polish, German, Hebrew, literature, to play an instrument. Every father is willing to sell the last kapoteh off his back for his children, as long as something good came of them – an ophthalmologist, a lawyer, a rabbi, a wealthy community leader, and the best of all – a virtuoso.
The story told by Gleichboim, a minor character in the book, represents the futile ideological and cultural dashing hither and thither that was typical of Polish Jews in the interwar period. The teacher of Polish relates that he came from a highly assimilated family and that his father raised him to be a Pole. He wore the green uniform of a commercial school, danced beautifully and got along famously with the shiksas, until all of a sudden, at the age of eighteen, he almost gave his father a heart attack when he brought home tefillin and told him that he wanted to become an observant Jew. Gleichboim awoke every day at the crack of dawn and ran off to pray, even ran to pray the Mincha and Maariv afternoon and evening prayers, received permission from school not to write on Saturdays, and then suddenly decided to drop out of school, even though he was about to graduate. He then, in turns, took up Zionism, socialism, Polish nationalism and the Bund. He even became a public official and thanks to the excellent Polish he spoke represented the Jews before the authorities. He then became – alas! – a communist (the communists were persecuted in Poland between the two world wars), but suddenly quit without knowing exactly why. By the time he met Yash, he knows that all this will culminate with his return to the synagogue, in sharp contrast to his brothers and sisters, all of whom converted to Christianity. The problem with the solution of conversion and assimilation, to which people were drawn mainly for economic reasons, is also discussed in the book, and Yash understands the predicament of those who have abandoned Judaism and can now make a living thanks to their new Christian identity, but who continue to eat Jewish food and feel most comfortable speaking Yiddish, but are looked upon by their fellow Jews with fear and by the goyim with mistrust.
As to the structure of the book, the author effectively uses the genre of the hotel or shipboard novel, which was popular in the interwar period – for example Thomas Mann's novel “The Magic Mountain” (1024) and “Grand Hotel” by Vicki Baum (1929), which was even made into a Hollywood film of the same name. The temporary intimacy that the closed world imposes on its occupants, which is often employed by the authors of whodunits as well, enables the author to get to know his characters quite closely without being encumbered by any previous emotional baggage. A later echo of this genre can be seen in the film “Last Year in Marienbad” directed by Alain Resnais based on a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet (1961).
However, despite the special conditions that the sanitarium offers, Yash never truly befriends the other guests, because he knows that in just a few days' time, he will be on his way home to New York. This enables him to be an attentive, open, compassionate, involved listener, but whose emotional commitment is not deep enough to disrupt matters. This is a balanced observation point, ideal for a writer. Nevertheless, Jacob Glatstein returns from his voyage to Poland a different man from when he set out. He now considered the writing of prose to be his chief creative pursuit, and in his two books (he never completed the third, “When Yash Returned,” of what was to have been a trilogy: When he learned of the destruction of the Jews in Europe, he was no longer able to write it), he expressed, as Dan Miron put it, “his opening up to a life authentic, tragic, but filled with vitality that the poet found in his Polish homeland” (p. 265). Rather than urban American life, the Jewish people was now his foremost concern, and this deeply influenced his poetry too.
His two prose novels (to these should be added seven volumes of articles that have not yet been translated into Hebrew) can be read together or each on its own. One can read them after having read “A Guest for the Night,” which Agnon wrote about his hometown of Buczacz, Galicia. Agnon visited his hometown four years before Glatstein visited his, spent a week there in all, but left his protagonist there for several months. He too writes in the first person and describes familiar surroundings that have horribly deteriorated and about people whose miserable circumstances have bent their backs and spirits. “A Guest for the Night” was published one year after the publication of “When Yash Went Forth” and one year before the publication of “When Yash Arrived.” Dan Miron analyzes the differences in the perspective of someone who returns to his former hometown from a different exile, the United States, to that of someone coming from Eretz Israel, where Zionist ideology is in potent supply. Glatstein discovers the depth of Polish Jews in contrast to the superficiality America's Jews, whereas Agnon sees the Galician Jews as emotionally impoverished and debilitated, even before the Holocaust (pp. 259-262).
We in Israel are already familiar with Agnon. Now we owe a debt of gratitude to Jacob Galtstein too, as well as to Dan Miron, who translated his two books for us. The combined efforts of the New York poet and Israeli scholar, who decided to devote his efforts to Yiddish literature, allow us to understand who the people living in Poland in the interwar period were, what their heritage was and how a thousand years of Polish-Jewish history flowed in their veins. Here in Israel, we know a great deal about the Holocaust in Poland, but very little about the Jews that lived there between the wars. Now we have Yash, who has succeeded in injecting life into them for us so that we can hear them, speak to them, share their doubts, eat and drink with them, move our fingers over the crumbs on the tablecloth in their provincial sanitarium, and simply spend a day or two with these kin of ours who were lost even before we were born and who have now returned to us on the pages of these books.