Oct 21, 2021
Amelia M. Glaser, Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine. (Harvard University Press, 2020). xi+353 pp. $39.95.
The first chapter of Amelia M. Glaser’s Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine introduces the question of whether and how stereotype and sympathy can coexist—one of the animating questions of the book. In a study of Russian-born Canadian Esther Shumiatcher’s late 1920s poems about Chinese communists and Russian Jews, Glaser demonstrates how, in writing about each group’s trauma, Schumiatcher’s “gaze was at once Orientalizing and self-exoticizing” (7). Based on her travels throughout Asia and using the language of pogroms, she depicted Chinese workers’ horrific experiences, particularly the experiences of women: in her poem “May lid” (May song), for instance, Shumiatcher writes, “I have sought in dark eyes a familiar interpretation, / and recognized in those eyes the sound of the hammer and sickle” (44). In this merging of Chinese communist and self, she “merg[es] the exoticized Other with the exoticized Jew” (44).
Shumiatcher’s poetry is just one example of the possibilities and complexities of leftist Yiddish poetic engagement with the experiences of non-Jewish ethnic and national minorities. Songs in Dark Times traces how she and many other interwar poets engaged with these other groups, “reflect[ing] what [Glaser] believe[s] is the most formally complex Party-aligned poetry and the most relevant to the twenty-first century” (x). The book’s chapters are organized around topics and events that span the globe and the (long) 1930s: the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, the oppression of Chinese workers, the 1929 violence in Mandatory Palestine, the Scottsboro trial, the Spanish Civil War, the Soviet oppression of Ukrainians, the post-Hitler-Stalin pact abandonment of Communism by many Jews, and the post-Holocaust poetry of mourning. Glaser has also included ten never-before-translated poems in both Yiddish transliteration and English translation, each a fascinating document of poetic empathy and solidarity: H. Leivick’s “A Sacco-Vanzetti Year,” Esther Shumiatcher’s “At the Border of China,” Moyshe Teyf’s “Sing, Desert Wind,” Shifre Vays’s “Accusations,” Malka Lee’s “God’s Black Lamb,” Peretz Markish’s “Spain,” Aaron Kurtz’s “Kol Nidre” and “Kaddish,” Dovid Hofshteyn’s “Ukraine,” and Moishe Nadir’s “Close.” Already the translator of Proletpen: America’s Rebel Yiddish Poets, Glasers’ new translations augment her valuable contribution to the study of leftist Yiddish poetics.
1Proletpen: America’s Rebel Yiddish Poets, ed. Amelia M. Glaser and David Weintraub, trans. Amelia M. Glaser, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).
Leftist Yiddish internationalist poets understood themselves as workers and world citizens. However, their vocabulary for this international identity drew from the Jewish traditions and history of their parents and grandparents, and they wrote and published their poetry in a language primarily read by Jews. By applying the vocabulary of Jewish experience and trauma to other marginalized groups or vice versa, these poets were, in Glaser’s words, “bringing other peoples into the fold, making them metaphorically Jewish” (2). Through each chapter, Glaser traces the use of one or more passwords, “a culturally coded word, name, or phrase that conveys group identity” (3). Following the trails of these passwords leads to fascinating insights into how Jewish writers framed international anticolonial and antiracist causes. For instance, in H. Leivick’s 1932 poem “A yor Sako Vanzeti” (A Sacco-Vanzetti year), the poet uses the rabbinic term kateyger or “prosecuting angel”—rather than prokuror or “legal prosecutor”—to refer to the Italian anarchists’ accusers, a specifically Jewish religious resonance. In another example from a later chapter, Glaser demonstrates how Y.E. Rontsh’s 1936 poem “Skotsboro” (Scottsboro) also echoes the language, imagery, and structure of the Black leftist modernist Richard Wright’s 1934 poem “I Have Seen Black Hands”; many Yiddish poets imported imagery of antisemitic pogroms when writing about the Scottsboro trial, but Rontsh’s specific use of Wright’s poetry creates a multiply translated depiction of Black suffering.
In Glaser’s analysis, “[p]asswords exclude and include” (11). The shibboleths (which she traces to their etymological roots and through their poetic usages, in Yiddish and other languages) build to a larger argument about how poets imagined international and interethnic solidarity. By translating trauma, Glaser argues, these poets hoped to inspire a new sense of communal proletarian identity. While strongly sympathetic to the groups depicted, these poems at times rely on racial stereotypes and generalizations, and (due to their publication in Yiddish) were intended for a primarily Jewish readership. This process of what Glaser terms translocation—“the rewriting of a culturally specific text, event, or concept to fit a different cultural context, in the process likening two cultural experiences and shifting the established categories of group identity” (13)—can be read as cultural adaptation, analogy, imitation, even appropriation.
The Yiddish poets’ shared attempts to teach sympathy and inspire a new identity through their writings did not always mean that they were in ideological lockstep. In the second chapter’s study of poetic responses to the fall 1929 violence in Mandatory Palestine, Glaser explains how the event split leftists over their identification with Palestinian Arabs: “the ideological conflict that took place in the fall of 1929 was less about a specific political event, or even a region, than about how to define the boundaries of a Jewish revolutionary identity” (73). “Zing, vint fun midber!” (Sing, desert wind!), a poem by the Minsk-born Soviet writer Moyshe Teyf, for instance, imports imagery of Eastern European pogroms to Palestine, casting Zionists as the perpetrators of violence against Arabs. Like many Jewish leftists, Teyf followed the Communist Party in supporting Palestinian Arabs in what he viewed as an anti-Zionist, anti-imperialist revolutionary uprising. Others identified with the Jews of Palestine, regardless of their political or religious beliefs. The resulting rift over what Glaser terms “the boundaries of their internationalism” (97) led, among other things, to resignations and boycotts.
Other chapters demonstrate a much more unified anti-oppression poetics. The third chapter travels to Alabama, where the 1931 false accusations against nine young Black men for raping two white women turned “Scottsboro” into a shorthand for American racial injustice. Glaser traces a pattern of crucifixion and pietà images, an expansion of an existing trope within international leftist Yiddish poetry that depicted Black people as an othered, martyred minority within the United States, the victims of America’s version of the pogrom: the lynch mob. Drawing from the language of the trial and from Black poetry in translation (especially by Richard Wright, as I mentioned, and Langston Hughes), poets like Malka Lee, Menke Katz, and Betsalel Fridman placed themselves in artistic dialogue with Anglophone poets. They were not, however, in actual conversation: the poems Glaser analyses simultaneoously encouraged Jewish empathy with Black experiences based on their own histories of pogrom violence and at the same time did not seek an Black readership. Instead, Glaser argues that the poems implored working-class Jewish readers to “recogniz[e] Jews’ relative privilege as white Americans, despite pervasive antisemitism in the United States” (109), aligning nationalist antisemitism and fascism in Europe with anti-Black racism in the United States. (A similar comparison would later inspire many Blacks to volunteer for World War II service as the Double-V Campaign promised that victory over European Nazism would bring victory over American racism.)
Both Black and Jewish people were inspired to volunteer in the Spanish Civil War through a strong sense of empathy with the oppressed Spanish people. Glaser’s chapter on Yiddish Spanish Civil War poetry explores how the Soviet poet Peretz Markish, the American poet Aaron Kurtz, and the Mexican poet Jacobo Glantz wrote about a conflict now widely understood as World War II’s first act. The conflict began when Franco’s fascist armies, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, attempted an ultimately successful coup in the newly democratic Spanish Republic. The war inspired thousands around the world (many of them Jewish) to volunteer to defend Spain, even as the world’s governments mostly pledged non-intervention. Poetry cycles by Markish, Kurtz, and Glantz rely on Jewish and Communist passwords and Spanish Republican slogans such as ¡No pasarán! (They shall not pass!)—Spanish-language passwords common to the international, multilingual canon of Spanish Civil War literature. These Yiddish writers further incorporate the specifically Jewish history of the Spanish Inquisition into their Spanish Civil War poetry, a move paralleled in some Anglophone Jewish writers’ depictions (to give the example with which I’m most familiar). In Glaser’s reading, the shared construction of these three texts, “a triadic past-present-future structure,” “synthesize[s] the Inquisition and news reports about the Spanish Civil War to yield a collective, utopian future” (142).
The collective, utopian future that still seemed a possibility before World War II—and the international workers’ identity that went along with it—soon gave way to concern for Jewish futures. The second half of Glaser’s book demonstrates how Yiddish poets created literary spaces to discuss Jewish culture and mourn Jewish victims. Chapter 5 studies the Yiddish modernist Dovid Hofshteyn’s translations of the Romantic poet Taras Shevchenko into language that emphasized common Ukrainian-Jewish experiences. Hofshteyn dedicated himself to bringing Shevchenko’s works to a Soviet Jewish readership, translating the Ukrainian writer’s poetry, biographies, children’s verse, and prose, from both Russian and Ukrainian. This wealth of resources by and about Shevchenko also allowed for subsequent readers and scholars to take up Hofshteyn’s covert discussion of Jewish culture by jointly projecting their concerns about the place of Soviet minorities onto Ukrainian experiences of alienation, patriotism, and diaspora.
The sixth chapter traces the American poet Moishe Nadir’s evolving poetry of teshuvah. While the term means a return to Judaism, it became a password for a return to the Communist Party and the related common practice of a self-critical confession. Nadir first used the term in his Communist poetry of the 1920s and ’30s, doing penance for his pre-Party bourgeois modernism. After the Hitler-Stalin pact, however, Nadir’s rejection of communism led him to another phase of penitent poetic reevaluation. In other words, he translocated this particular Jewish password to a communist context and then relocated it to a Jewish one. For Glaser, Nadir’s poetic performances of teshuvah indicate another, often unspoken, tragedy: “with the unbearable loss of Jewish lives and subsequent widespread turn inward from internationalism toward the Jewish community came a loss of faith in inter-ethnic collaboration that has been difficult to regain” (214).
The book concludes with a Kaddish, as World War II transformed leftist internationalism and leftist Yiddish poets redirected their writings to mourn the victims of the Holocaust. Pogrom passwords, translocated during the 1930s to apply to non-Jewish minoritized groups, were relocated to apply to Jewish victims once again. In this final section, Glaser draws from writings and translations by Soviet and American poets, from Aaron Kurtz to Allen Ginsberg, mapping diverse ways of mourning Jewish loss. Often, Glaser notes, the Kaddish prayer itself became a password: “a metonym for postwar Jewish mourning, across languages” (247). Sometimes, this Jewish password is transmitted to a non-Jewish, non-Yiddish audience; in other works, including those by non-Jews, the same password allows for participation in Jewish mourning. Kurtz’s Kaddish poem, for instance, extends this password’s application to mourn the victims of the Holocaust and the four Black schoolgirls killed in the 1963 Alabama church bombing, insisting on solidarity in grief, and on turning trauma into empathy.
Songs in Dark Times is timely and timeless. It is hard not to read the book as speaking to contemporary ideological conflicts and attempts at international and interethnic solidarities. The influence of these poems and poets endures, and studied together they present a nuanced vision of 1930s Jewish internationalism striving to be antiracist and anti-imperialist: “In the 1930s, American Yiddish writers asked the same question that many American Jews are asking nearly a century later: Can an individual support a Jewish community while simultaneously supporting the left-wing networks that have undermined Jewish cultural practices and, in some cases, taken Jewish lives?” (36-37). Poems and passwords of inclusion and exclusion speak to vital—often life-or-death—debates over crucial issues such as settler colonialism, systemic racism, and white privilege. These debates remain with us, as thinking through solidarities across identity groups—and even the construction or definition of those identity groups—remains deeply relevant.
Glaser’s archival research and translations also constitute a lasting contribution to leftist Yiddish literary studies. The book draws on an impressive amount of archival research in Yiddish newspapers and magazines to bring together the writings of Yiddish poets from around the world. In so doing, it serves as a corrective to the Cold War scholarship that often excluded far-left writers. Songs in Dark Times is also—and here’s a term that doesn’t always come to mind when describing academic monographs—gripping. The fascinating range of international topics, the intricacies of each password’s genealogy, Glaser’s many new and beautiful poetry translations—whatever one’s familiarity with 1930s history and the leftist Yiddish literary canon, there is something new and thought-provoking to encounter here.