Raysn: The Belarusian Frontier of Yiddish Modernism

Mikhail Krutikov


On the eve of World War I, Yid­dish poets in the Belaru­sian-Lithuan­ian lands began devel­op­ing a par­tic­u­lar sen­si­tiv­i­ty to nature as a mark of their local iden­ti­ty. Leyb Nay­dus looked at the land­scapes of his native west­ern Belarus through the lens­es of neoro­man­tic nos­tal­gia, draw­ing his inspi­ra­tion from Russ­ian and Euro­pean mod­ernist poets. Moyshe Kul­bak, who came into Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture after the war, invent­ed a poet­ic per­sona of a Jew­ish vagabond tra­vers­ing the fields and forests of his native Belarus and cel­e­brat­ing his belong­ing to its pri­mor­dial land­scape. His fol­low­er Elkho­nen Vogler turned this fig­ure into a rad­i­cal exile flee­ing the hos­tile word of urban civ­i­liza­tion in order to reunite with his home­land in nature. This poet­ic embrace of Belaru­sian nature reflects the attempt of the Lit­vak intel­li­gentsia to reclaim the imag­i­nary Jew­ish ter­ri­to­ries of Lite and Raysn as their home­land space in future Europe.

For a pdf of this arti­cle click here.

At the turn of the twentieth century, landscape and space acquired central importance in Yiddish culture. This cultural trend was correlated with the ideological concept of national-cultural autonomy, known in Yiddish as doikayt (hereness, a neologism formed from the adverb do, here). Doikayt was particularly popular among the young provincial Jewish intelligentsia of the Russian Empire, which was searching for a “third way” between assimilation and Zionism and was looking for Yiddish as the alternative both to Russian (or Polish) and Hebrew. Young Yiddish poets in Ukraine and Lite, a Jewish name for a large territory that includes today’s Belarus, Lithuania, and parts of eastern Poland, invented fresh metaphors for the familiar rural and urban landscapes which emphasized the bond between Jews and their environment. The catastrophic events of World War I with the ensuing revolutions and conflicts added new urgency to the search for adequate means and modes of Yiddish cultural expression. 1 1 See also Mikhail Krutikov, “Slavishe erd vehapoetika shel hamodernizm beyidish,” in OT: Ktav et lasifrut velateoriyah, 5 (2015), 201-222. In more detail, the poetics of doikayt is analyzed in Madeleine Cohen, Here and Now: The Modernist Poetics of Do’ikayt, Ph. D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2016. In the autumn of 1915 Lithuania and western parts of Belarus were occupied by the German military, which dramatically changed the linguistic and cultural situation and opened new opportunities for Yiddish. The German authorities prohibited the public use of Russian, which was until then the official state language and was spoken by the Jewish urban middle classes and intelligentsia. Faced with the reality on the ground, the Germans had reluctantly recognized Yiddish as the de facto Jewish language, thus providing it with an unprecedented degree of legitimacy. After the defeat of Germany and withdrawal of its army at the end of 1918, the territory of Lite became an object of intense political struggle and brutal military conflicts among the newly emerged states of Soviet Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic. Now the issues of ethnic, religious, and linguistic identification acquired direct political importance for nationalist politicians who justified their territorial claims by the ethnic and linguistic composition of the population. However, nationalist thinking evolved differently among different nations. Whereas Poles had a long history of nationalist anti-imperial struggle for the restoration of their independent state, Belarusian nationalism was just emerging on the eve of World War I.

The two nationalist movements differed in their attitude to the “Jewish Questions.” While Roman Catholicism played a central role in Polish national identity, the Belarusian program of national mobilization, according to historian Per Anders Rudling, was inspired by the program of the Bund, the Jewish social-democratic party: “Secular but ethnic, the two movements both rejected religion as an identity marker, building an identity upon linguistic basis.” 2 2 Per Anders Rudling, The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906-1931 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014), 57. Belarusian nationalists regarded Jews as allies in their struggle against the domineering Polish and Russian nationalist movements, both of which ascribed great significance to religion and statehood. Belarusians were more open to incorporating the “tuteyshie” [literally, “from here”] identity into their inclusive concept of nation as a territorial and linguistic unity. Polish and Russian nationalists regarded this kind of identification as a sign of cultural backwardness and lack of national self-consciousness, but for Jews it offered a possibility to identify with the territory and its population along the line of the concept of doikayt, instead of assuming the potentially vulnerable status as a “minority” imposed by the dominant national “majority.” This new socio-political situation presented Yiddish with a number of challenges. How does one create a new vocabulary for speaking not only about the internal Jewish affairs but about the world at large? Which parts of the traditional Jewish legacy should be preserved, which ones rejected, and which ones reformed? And how does one go about modernizing Yiddish? What are the useful models and methods? Poland incorporated the city of Vilna/Wilno/Vilnius and the surrounding area in 1922, but its neighbors, the Soviet Union and the Lithuanian Republic, never recognized this act. Due to its specific multicultural and multi-ethnic composition and the strong tradition of Jewish learning and communal autonomy, Wilno became a testing ground for a unique experiment of creating a new, modern, and secular Yiddish culture. Its social, intellectual, and cultural successes and failures have been widely discussed by scholars, journalists, and memoirists, but less attention has been given to such particular area of creativity as Yiddish poetry, which flourished in Lite before the Holocaust. This paper examines how three poets, Leyb Naydus (1890-1918), Moyshe Kulbak (1896-1937), and Elkhonen Vogler (1907-1969), each in his own way, created a new poetic language for speaking about his environment by expanding the limits of Yiddish prosody, vocabulary, and symbolic repertoire. Born within the relatively short period of seventeen years, they nevertheless represent three generations of Yiddish poetry, which came of age before, during, and after World War I. Their works engage in an intense conversation about the past, present, and future of the Jewish people in that very particular part of Eastern Europe.

One of the first poets who celebrated Jews’ belonging to the Lithuanian landscape was the self-styled aesthete Leyb Naydus. He was born and raised in Kustin, a small gentry estate in the vicinity of Grodno (today on the Polish side of the border between Belarus and Poland) which his father leased from a local official. Both in his life and poetry Naydus cultivated the image of an impoverished nobleman in pursuit of his aristocratic hobbies, such as hunting, long walks, and reading, while pretending to be aloof to political reality around him. In his poetry he methodically implemented the modernist program of appropriating the Russian and European poetic traditions through enriching Yiddish prosody with new meters and forms according to the foreign models of “high culture.” He translated Pushkin, Mickiewicz, Baudelaire, and Verlaine; the latter’s influence on Naydus was particularly strong. Even during the difficult years of World War I, Naydus actively traveled around the shtetlekh of the Vilna and Grodno area, where his readings always drew enthusiastic young audiences. Perhaps it was the detachment of Naydus’s poetic imagination from the miserable everyday reality of the war and deprivation that his admirers found particularly resonant with their dreams. During one of those trips Naydus got cold and died from diphtheria a few days later, at the age of 28. His last unfinished work was a Yiddish translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. During the 1920s Naydus’s poetry remained popular, particularly in his native region, as is evidenced by several editions of his works. In 1931 one of Grodno’s streets was named after him to mark his memory as a local poet.

Like Russian and Polish Romantic poets who served as his models, Naydus actively explored the metaphorical potential of nature and landscape. His lyrical hero, young but already worn by life, spiritually belonged to the past. He celebrates autumn, sunset, decay, decline, and wilting; he admires old objects and abandoned houses that have outlived their owners. To use Jordan Finkin’s imagery, Naydus harnessed “the power of nostalgia” to drive his “literary engine of innovation.” 3 3 Jordan D. Finkin, An Inch or Two of Time: Time and Space in Jewish Modernisms (University Park, Pa: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015), 77. By nostalgically depicting his hero’s wanderings through the landscapes of his Lithuanian-Belarusian countryside, Naydus “effectively spiritualize[d] the very notion of home and space.” 4 4 Ibid., 75. To achieve this effect, Naydus juxtaposed the “low” and the “high” registers of Yiddish by putting next to each other local Belarusian regionalisms and borrowings from loshn-koydesh (Holy Tongue, the traditional Hebrew-Aramaic language of Jewish religious learning). Such stylistic collisions enabled him to produce striking effects:

כ׳האָב ליב די זאַמד־פֿעלדער פֿון ליטע און זאַמוט,
די אַלטע, פֿרומע, מאָכיקע שטיינער בײַם וועג,
די לאָנקעס מיט זייער באַשיידענעם גרינעם סאַמעט,
ווערבעס, ווי נזירות, בײַ דער סאַזעווקעס ברעג.

I love the poor sandy fields of Lite and Zamet,
The old, pious, mossy stones by the highway,
The meadows with modest green velvet,
Willows, like female nazirites, at the banks of ponds. 5 5 Leyb Naydus, Litvishe arabeskn (Warsaw: Sz. Jaczkowski, 1924), 176.

The first line of this poem evokes the official title of the Russian Emperor which listed, among his many other possessions, Lithuania and Samogitia, the northwestern part of Lithuania known in Lithuanian as Žemaitija and in Yiddish and Hebrew as Zamut/Zamet. 6 6 I am grateful for this suggestion to my colleague Professor Marcin Wodziński Thus the Yiddish poet asserts his intimate link to the core historical lands of the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania which had been long ago appropriated by Russia.

Remarkably, the entire last line has no nouns of Germanic origin. Naydus brings together the Hebrew word nezeyre (feminine from nozir - nazirite) and the Slavicisms verbe (willow) and sazevke (small pond, from Belarusian sažeŭka) with the characteristic for the Lithuanian dialect phonetic change from zh to z. The willow with its long branches hanging over the water is compared to a female nazirite, a woman who has taken a vow to dedicate herself to God and refrain from cutting her hair according to the Torah commandments (Bamidbar/Numbers 6:1-21). 7 7 I am grateful to my colleague Philip Schwartz for this insightful suggestion. In the Russian translation of the Gospel of Matthew (2:23), Jesus is (erroneously) described as “nazorei” (nazirite) because he came from Nazareth (all English translations render this Greek word correctly as Nazarene). Naydus most likely was familiar with the Russian New Testament, though whether this additional Christian connotation of the word nezeyre in his poem was intentional is an open question. What is certain, however, is that this image adds a peculiarly feminized Biblical dimension to the melancholic Lithuanian landscape.

Naydus’s “spiritualizing” of home landscape does not necessarily mean its “Judeomorphization,” the term Naftule Vaynig uses to characterize Naydus’s creative method. Like many modernist Yiddish poets of his age, Naydus liberally used Christian imagery, presenting it as an organic element of the Belarusian-Lithuanian landscape:

בײַם שייד־וועג הילצערנע צלמים, וואָס זעען הייליקע חלומות,
קליינע שקצים־פּאַסטעכער, פֿרעמד און ווײַט פֿון כּרך,
איינצעלע בעריאָזקעס ווי פֿאַרבלאָנדזשעטע יתומות,
אַלטע קלוגע וועגן, ואָס ווייסן אַ סך.

At crossroads stand wooden crosses, seeing holy dreams,
Little shepherd boys, far away from the big city,
A few birch trees like lost orphans,
Old clever highways that know so much. 8 8 Leyb Naydus, Litvishe arabeskn, (Warsaw: Sz. Jaczkowski, 1924), 176.

Naydus draws the dividing line not between Jews and Christians but between nature and civilization, the countryside and the metropolis. Jews and Belarusian peasants, Judaism and Christianity, lived peacefully side by side in his melancholic rural landscapes. As a poet, Naydus belonged to aristocratic culture and felt uneasy in the bourgeois urban environment. And like other Yiddish modernists, Naydus intentionally distanced himself from the narrative tradition of Mendele and Sholem Aleichem, who composed their language by appropriating different registers of oral speech, folklore, and ethnographic customs. Rather than practicing “creative betrayal” by imitating “authentic” speech of the “typical” shtetl Jew, Naydus, like his fellow young Yiddish poets in America and Ukraine, sought new linguistic resources in diverse stylistic layers of old and new Yiddish and world literature. From this primary material, he constructed a new high poetic style according to the formal models of European poetry. Landscape imagery enabled him to appropriate cultural and religious tropes and patterns from traditions that normally would be perceived as alien and even hostile to Jews and Judaism, such as aristocratic culture and Christianity.

Only six years younger than Naydus, Moyshe Kulbak belonged to a new literary generation that was formed under different circumstances. The watershed was World War I, which radically changed life in the western lands of the disintegrated Russian Empire. Kulbak was born in the town of Smorgon and received some basic Russian education which was followed by years of study in the famous Lithuanian yeshivas at Volozhin and Mir. Attracted by the modern trends in European culture, he traveled to Berlin in 1920 and spent nearly three years there. Remarkably, the new urban environment left practically no trace in his poetry of that time. Instead Kulbak celebrated the nature and people of Belarus, developing a new modernist poetics, which stands in opposition to that of Naydus. The contrast comes through in their respective treatment of the motif of wandering, which, according to Finkin, was “one of the common descriptions of many visions of the home landscape in Jewish modernism.” 9 9 Finkin, An Inch or Two of Time, 75. Kulbak’s wandering hero seeks to unite with nature, while Naydus’s wanderer is an aristocratic aesthete who admired nature for the wealth of its reflexes, but was not part of it. Kulbak’s wanderer is “a bokher a hultiay,” a homeless vagabond roaming endlessly and aimlessly across the fields and forests of Belarus, whereas Naydus’s wanderer always comes back from his walks to his manor house. Kulbak’s lyric hero wholeheartedly embraces the land of his native Raysn together with its primitive inhabitants, animals and people alike. His language is direct, simple, and free from allusions to high European culture:

באַגינען, אין וועג, צווישן פֿעלדער.
אַ ביס פֿון דעם ברייטל – דעם הונגער געזעטיקט,
און ווײַטער געאײַלט זיך אין וועג.
איך האָב קיין מאָל צו גאָרנישט פֿאַרשפּעטיקט.

Sunrise, on the way, among fields.
A bite of bread – to satiate hunger,
And rush on the way.
I have never been late for anything. 10 10 Moyshe Kulbak, Lider (Berlin, Klal-farlag, 1922), 30.

The wandering motif has a long history in the Jewish mystical and folklore traditions. It was taken up by Sholem Yankev Abramovich who entrusted the vagabond bookseller Mendele with representing him as the narrator of his tales. But whereas the traditional Jewish wanderer figure served as a living link connecting isolated islands of Jewishness into an imaginary Yiddishland separated by religious, cultural, social, and linguistic borders from the surrounding Slavic world, Kulbak’s vagabond does not differentiate between Jew and Gentile. Unlike Mendele’s Binyomin, who was barely able to communicate with Ukrainian peasants, Kulbak’s first-person vagabond is perfectly at ease with the local population. When a Belarusian peasant asks him “tsho tshuvatsh na svetshe” (literally: what’s heard in the world? In another version of the same poem the verb “tshuvatsh” (to hear) was replaced by “tsibatsh” (to see)), he playfully responds: “Svetshe? Petshe metshe.” The apparently meaningless expression “petshe metshe” sounds like as a dialectical variation of “peti-meti,” an expression that occurs in Sholem Aleichem’s stories (from French petit métal – small change). 11 11 I am grateful to Valery Dymshhits and Boris Sandler for this reference. In this brief exchange, the values of the money-driven bourgeois civilization are dismissed as insignificant trifle by both the Jewish vagabond and the Belarusian peasant.

Kulbak achieved international fame among the Yiddish readership with the publication of his poem Raysn in 1922. The poem was set in his native region of Belarus, written in Berlin, and published in the leading New York Yiddish monthly Di tsukunft, which attests to the global spread of Yiddish modernism after World War I. Composed in twelve parts, each one in its own style, this poem resonates with allusions to the stories of the biblical patriarchs, which are transposed to the fields and forests of the Nieman region. The epic tale of the patriarchal family of the narrator’s grandfather and his eighteen sons includes a Belarusian historical ballad performed by a blind bandura player. It celebrates the legendary Belarusian-Lithuanian past, mentioning such historic locations as Kreve, the site of the first union between Lithuania and Poland in 1386. This ballad is interesting not merely as being “spatial, referencing numerous Byelorussian locales” 12 12 Finkin, An Inch or Two of Time, 81. (which at Kulbak’s time were mostly small villages), but also as an expression of historical nostalgia for the past glory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In the rest of the poem Kulbak makes no references to specifically Jewish historical events, representing Jews as an integral part of the Nieman landscape and reserving the historical narrative for Belarusian folkloric memory.

Even more pronounced is the attachment to Belarus and its mythological past in the poem “A dude” (“A pipe”), subtitled “Dos kloglid funem altn Raysn” (The Dirge of Old Raysn). Using figures from Belarusian folklore, such as a gray raven or a pagan deity named Bialun, the poem laments the decline of the ancient culture of the pre-Christian Belarus:

מיר זײַנען געבליבן בײַ אַן עמער, וואָס מע קאָן מיט אים ניט שעפּן,
בײַ אַ לאַפּאָטע, וואָס מע קאָן מיט איר ניט גראָבן,
און בײַ אַ וואַסער, וואָס מע קאָן עס ניט אַריבערגיין.
היי, דו־דו־דו־דו.

We are left with a bucket that one cannot carry anything with it
With a spade that one cannot dig with it
And with water that one cannot cross
Hey, du-du-du-du. 13 13 Moyshe Kulbak, Gut iz der mentsh. (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1979), 25.

It was Jesus, the new “god from Jerusalem” who brought about the decline by chasing Bialun away and sending him wandering across the fields. Naive Belarusian peasants welcomed Jesus with bread and salt, but he took away their legendary forefathers and told them to worship the new abstract figure of heavenly father:

עס האָט דער נײַער גאָט בײַ אונדז געפֿרעגט:
– ווער איז אײַער טאַטע?
ווער איז אײַער מאַמע, ווער – די ברידער אײַערע?
אָ, אונדזער טאַטע איז דער וואַלד, דער יאַדלאָווער,
אונדזער מאַמע – די וויליִע אין זײַדענעם קלייד,
און די ברידערלעך – דער ברוינער ראָב און די סאָווע! –
ער האָט אויסגעצויגן דעם לאַנגן פֿינדער צום הימל,
נאָר מיר האָבן דאָרטן גאָרניט געזען…

The new god asked us:
Who is your father?
Who is your mother, and who are your brothers?
Oh, our father is the fir-tree forest,
Our mother is the Viliya river in a silk dress,
And the brothers – the brown raven and the owl!
He stretched his long finger toward the sky,
But we could see nothing there...
Du-du-du-du. 14 14 Ibid, 29.

The new Christian god brought a new worldview that disrupted the familiar bond between nature and people. In assimilating Gentile cultural idioms for his Yiddish creativity, Kulbak goes a few steps farther than Naydus. As an alternative to Naydus’s appropriation of aristocratic culture, Kulbak invents a “plebeian” idiom, using the rich potential of Belarusian folkloric tradition.

Kulbak left Vilna for Soviet Minsk in 1928, but his poetry remained highly popular among the Yiddish-speaking youth in Vilna. His direct follower was Elkhonen Vogler (Khonen Rozhanski), one of the leading figures in the literary group Yung Vilne. Prior to World War II Vogler published two poems as separate books: A bletl in vint (A Leaf in Wind, 1935) and Tsvey beriozes baym trakt (Two Birch Trees at the Highway, 1939). Years later Vogler reminisced about his mentor Kulbak: “In Kulbak’s world Jews live in peace with the Belarusian peasant. They are united by the blessing of the earth [di brokhe fun der erd]. Kulbak’s poetry is rooted in the Lithuanian daina [folk song], together with the oaks of the old tribe from which he draws his nourishment. He embodied Raysn, playing his songs on the pipe [dude] to the melody from Ecclesiastes and sitting on a stone in the fields.” 15 15 Elkhonen Vogler, “Moyshe Kulbak der dikhter fun royer erd,” Di Goldene Keyt, 43 (1962), 104. Vogler’s choice of pseudonym (Vogler – wanderer) was an homage to the popular motif in Yiddish modernist poetry, but his popularity cannot be compared to that of Naydus or Kulbak. As Justin Cammy describes Vogler’s poetry, “his book-length poems, rooted in the flora and fauna of the Lithuanian countryside where he grew up, are constructed of metaphor upon metaphor, of a Yiddish weighted down with Slavicisms and Hebraisms, and of a fabulist’s predilection for animating the natural universe. As a result, his writing claimed a strange position within the group as something that was admired for its originality, but never truly understood due to the difficulties of its style, language, and imagery.” 16 16 Justin Cammy, ‘Yung-Vilne’: A Cultural History of a Yiddish Literary Movement in Interwar Poland. Ph. D. Dissertation, Harvard University, 2003. P. 195. For Vogler, who grew up as an orphan in dire poverty in Vilna and spent a few years in a village during World War I, nature offered a refuge from the misery of life. Its bountiful largesse compensated for the material scarcity of the war years. In the introduction to his second book Vogler meditates: “Poverty is my fortune. […] I own the pale tubercular plains, the bumpy silky highways, the light sweet lakes and the blind desolate hamlets. The Belarusian mint meadows and the apiaries with wild strawberries are also mine […] And the song that I sing is also almost my own. I heard it from nobody, except for the gloomy murmur of grey Lithuanian rivers and the twittering of orphaned swallows.” 17 17 Elkhonen Vogler, Tsvey beryozes baym trakt. (Vilne: Literatn-fareyn un pen-klub, 1939), 3. As Justin Cammy explains, ”Vogler called attention to his fate as an orphan, to his emotional homelessness, and to the symbolic, associative quality of his writing that seemed to wander the Lithuanian countryside from metaphor to metaphor.” 18 18 Cammy, ‘Yung-Vilne’, 199. Vogler’s elaborate and complex landscape metaphors create a sense of familial bond with nature: “My brother is the Vilna highway / my wife is the Lithuanian earth.”

Vogler’s first book A bletl in vint is written in a Symbolist key: nature is represented through the image of plum orchard. A more adequate title, Vogler clarified in the introduction, would have been “My Wedding with a Plum Orchard,” but for that, “a cruel reader would have hanged me on the alder tree that is the poem’s main character and an old friend of my orphan childhood.” The book-long poem told a tragic story of love and separation in three parts, titled “Wedding,” “Romance,’ and “Wandering,” which correspond to three seasons: spring blossom, summer ripening, and autumn withering. Lithuanian-Belarusian landscapes provide the setting for the unfolding romance between the narrator and his beloved, the Plum Orchard: “Undzer khupe vet zayn in di felder, / Di zaln fun leymikn palats – fun Lite.” 19 19 Elkhonen Vogler, A bletl in vint. (Vilne: Yung-Vilne, 1935), 12. (Our khupah will be in the fields, / The halls of a clay palace – Lite) During the summer, the orchard conductx a lively conversation with surrounding highways, fields, and rivers. These carefree elements of the landscape are contrasted to God, a greedy landowner, “a banker a Zionist,” who wants to lock up the treasures of nature in his closet. 20 20 Ibid., 17-18. Vogler depicts the struggle of nature’s proletariat against the divine capitalist using Marxist references, pointing to the class conflict between the landscape proletarians and petit-bourgeois plants, animals, and insects. Like Vogler, the Plum Orchard’s happy spouse earns his living by painting shop signboards as a day job, and writes poems by night. The approaching autumn fills his “sad strophes” with the fear of death. Its first victims are wheat and buckwheat fields that fall under the reapers’ sickles, leaving the highway that runs between them lonely like an old bachelor. In preparation for the inevitable death of his beloved, its spouse hides a long knife, in the image of the river Viliya, under the flap of his worn-out kapote, the dark Lithuanian forest, so that he can perform the ritual of kriye, cutting the edge of one’s garment as a sign of mourning for a close relative.

When the orchard’s turn to die comes, it leaves a bunch of orphaned plums to its devastated spouse. In the winter, these fruits of their love will be sacrificed in the “holy temples” of big cities. Plum wine made of their blood is poured over the golden altars of restaurants, while their souls cry silently: “O, koyhanim – mentshn – freser!” 21 21 Ibid., 58. (Oh, priests – humans – gluttons!) Having lost his spouse and children, the lonely protagonist sets off as a wanderer through desolate winter fields and forests, inscribing on them the words of his poem: “Der shney iz fun mayn bukh an oysgerisn blat…/ Oyf im hob ikh, der sumner geyer, / mit mayne trit fartseykhnt, az na-venad / iz Vogler Elkhonen ben Meir.” 22 22 Ibid., 59. (Snow is a torn-off page from my book... / On it have I, the summer wanderer, / recorded with my steps that a vagabond / is Vogler, Elkhonen ben Meir.) Vogler’s imagination transforms the vagabond wanderer figure into an eternal exile, a lonely and desperate poet able to communicate only with nature. To the nostalgic melancholy of Naydus and Kulbak’s cheerful pantheist unity with nature and peasants, Vogler added the lonely pessimism of na-venad, an eternal exile from the corrupt world of the greedy and cruel capitalist urban civilization.

Vogler further elaborates on the dichotomy between nature and civilization in his second book, Tsvey beryozes baym trakt (1939). Here nature serves as a rich source of delicate metaphorical imagery, whereas the city embodies the brutal force of violence, corruption, and destruction. In the introduction Vogler apologizes for the abundance of Slavicisms and localisms, which he describes as “stones on the silver paths of the poem.” He explains that because of the “specific twilight color of our grey landscape,” he cannot “tear away” the “simple grey wreath of Slavicisms – the heart and the soul of my soul and the property of my poetry” and replace them with “other, noble and pearl-like words.” 23 23 Vogler, Tsvey beryozes oyfn trakt, 8. Full of local color, the Lithuanian Yiddish was a native tongue in which Lithuanian nature spoke to its poet. For the convenience of an outside reader, Vogler provides a special glossary at the end of his book. In this book Vogler adds a historical dimension to his natural symbolism by referring to the events of the early twentieth century. He portrays the main hero of his poem, a highway leading from Vilna to the countryside, as a “former rebel” who has run away from the city during the revolutionary upheavals in the Russian Empire, either in 1905 or 1917.

Vogler also revisits the complicated triangular relationship between Judaism, Christianity, and nature. He explains: “I am not in a position to solve problems in general and the problem of the cross in particular. The cross is the consciousness of the earth, and I perceive the hero of the poem as a close relative of the forest and birds, as a symbol of sufferings, justice and orphanhood. And since I consider the highway Jewish, I have also converted his brother-in-law [cross] to Judaism.” 24 24 Ibid., 5. Whereas Naydus depicts crosses as an organic element of the countryside landscape, and Kulbak interprets Christianity as an intruding alien force that ruins the harmony of the authentic local religion, Vogler provocatively “Judaizes” Christianity through giyur of the cross together with the rest of the landscape. Vogler’s ornate and sometimes enigmatic language, rooted in the local dialect of the Vilna region, grows directly out of the poetic experimentation of Kulbak. Writing in the 1930s, he could no longer project the optimism and energy of his mentor’s early poetry, so he sharpened the familiar dichotomies such as nature versus civilization, countryside versus city, life versus death by using concrete images derived from familiar regional landscapes.

By appropriating Belarusian language and folklore and drawing upon local nature to create a new symbolic idiom, Yiddish poets did not merely enrich their expressive repertoire. Naydus paved the way by showing how Yiddish poetry could reach across the old cultural borders and assimilate the forms of “high” European cultures. Going a step further, Kulbak expanded the expressive diapason of Yiddish modernism by integrating the oral dialect of Belarusian peasants. When Vogler entered Yiddish poetry in the late 1920s, it had already developed a solid modernist tradition. Building on its legacy, he developed a deeply personal and idiosyncratic symbolic idiom for giving voice to his worries and anxieties. For each one of these three poets, the poetic articulation of their doikayt had not only a personal, but also a broader socio-political significance. Naydus operated in the cultural sphere of the late Russian empire, and his stylistic experimentation challenged the perceived low status that Yiddish had in the eyes of both Jewish assimilationists and Zionists, as well as among Russians and Poles. For Kulbak and Vogler, the cultural situation was different. As modernists of leftist political orientation, they challenged the hierarchies of languages and cultures based on political hegemony, be it Russian, German, or Polish. In the increasingly aggressive nationalist atmosphere of interwar Poland, the young Jewish intelligentsia was searching for new and different openings into the outside world. The Vilna region offered them Belarusian as a cultural alternative to the hegemonic “high” cultures. The embrace of the “low” Belarusian culture with its rich rural vocabulary and natural imagery was a bold aesthetic gesture as well as a political statement. It was a radically new Jewish way of saying things in a modernist poetic idiom by asserting the local over the global and reclaiming old Raysn and Lite for an imaginary Jewish future – which never came.

Krutikov, Mikhail. “Raysn: The Belarusian Frontier of Yiddish Modernism.” In geveb, June 2020:
Krutikov, Mikhail. “Raysn: The Belarusian Frontier of Yiddish Modernism.” In geveb (June 2020): Accessed Jun 23, 2024.


Mikhail Krutikov

Mikhail Krutikov is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and in the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, University of Michigan.