How to Build Bridges to People? Benjamin Harshav and Yiddish

Shachar Pinsker

Benjamin Harshav, one of the most important literary scholars of the last decades, was born in Vilna in 1928, immigrated from a DP camp in Germany to the young State of Israel in 1948, and passed away in New Haven in 2015, where he had been a professor at Yale University since the late 1980s. His life extended over three continents, and these shifts of times and places were accompanied by complex, even traumatic transitions. In spite of this, Harshav himself functioned as a “bridge”: a mediating figure who created links between Europe, Israel, and North America, between Hebrew, Yiddish, and European languages, between poetry, translation, and scholarship, between Jewish life before and after the Holocaust, and—last but not least—between people in all of these places and periods. Within his rich and voluminous literary and scholarly corpus, many years in the making, the most important building material for Harshav’s massive and resilient bridge is Yiddish—the language, its literature, and culture. The crucial role of Yiddish in his entire oeuvre has not always been recognized and understood, but it has been investigated with fresh eyes in the last few years, and there is a good chance that new aspects of this role will be discovered in the future.

One can find the keys to understanding Harshav’s life project of building bridges, and the crucial place of Yiddish within it, almost everywhere in the large corpus of his writings. One such illuminating example is found in a short prologue he wrote to a volume of Hebrew translations and studies of the Yiddish poets of New York City, published in Israel in 2002. In this prologue, the editor and translator Harshav writes:

At the beginning of the twentieth century most of world Jewry spoke Yiddish. In the great migration from the small town to the city, and from Eastern Europe to the West, a robust, multidirectional literature was created. Yiddish writers and readers lived and worked in an historical and cultural space that had much in common with Hebrew literature, which was created in parallel to it… . The individual who broke the traditional frameworks and tried to create “bridges to people” in the great metropolis, which was both bustling and alienating, stood at the center of Yiddish poetry in New York… . Now that Yiddish has stopped being the language of a modern and multifarious society, we should at least be attentive to its achievements, even in translation. Yiddish poets in New York had the maturity that Israeli poets only achieved forty years later. 1 1 Benjamin Harshav, “Author’s Introduction,” in Shirat hayaid benyu york (Jerusalem: Karmel, 2002). Translation mine.

This passage captures not only Harshav’s understanding of Yiddish and its literature, but also something essential about his own activity as a scholar, translator, and poet. It is typical of Harshav to write about wide-ranging historical and cultural processes, and at the same time to embed a quotation from a line of a poem that both exemplifies such processes and also sends the reader off on a slightly different trajectory. In the quoted passage, when Harshav uses the expression “bridges to people,” he quotes (and thus, obliges the attentive reader to search for the origin of the quote) the Inzikhist (introspectivist) poet Aaron Glanz-Leyeles, from his poem “February 15,” which is part of his 1937 cycle “Fabius Linds togbukh” (“Fabius Lind’s Diary”). Here is the poem, which Harshav translated first into Hebrew, and then, together with his wife, the translator Barbara Harshav, into English:

פֿעברואַר 15

זוך נישט קיין בריק צו מענטשן.
וואַרט מיט דער וועלט אויף דעם וואָרט,
וואָס זאָל זײַן ווי דאָס שטאַרבן פֿון אַ צדיק
נאָך אַ פֿול און אָפּגענאַרט לעבן.
בענק אויס דאָס וואָרט,
וואָס זאָל אָפּשטעלן די רציחה פֿון מידע בייזע מחנות.
זוך דאָס וואָרט,
וואָס זאָל פֿאַרציִען מיט אַ נעפּל די אויגן פֿון שטאַרקע לײַט.
טראָג אויס דאָס וואָרט,
וואָס זאָל רעדן ווי דאָס שווײַגן פֿון אַ גרײַז
ווען ער קוקט אויף דער זון אויבן און אויף אַ לוויה אונטן
מיט דעם זעלבן זעענדיקן בליק.
פֿון דײַן האַרץ שטראַלן זיך בריקן אין אַלע זײַטן.

February 15

Don’t look for bridges to people.
Wait with the world for the word
That would be like the dying of a saint
After a full and cheated life.
Dream up the word
That would stop the slaughter of weary, wicked hordes.
Look for the word
That would fog the eyes of strong men.
Bear in your body the word
That would speak like the silence of an elder
When he looks at the sun above and at a funeral below
With the same seeing gaze.
From your heart, bridges radiate in all directions. 2 2 Benjamin and Barbabra Harshav (ed.), American Yiddish Poetry, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 146-47.

The speaker begins this poem with a negative assertion: “zukh nit keyn brik tsu mentshn” (Don’t look for bridges to people). But this negative is countered by a sequence of positive declarations: “vart mit der velt oyf dem vort” (wait with the world for a word), “benk oys dos vort” (Dream up the word), “zukh dos vort” (Look for the word), and finally “trog oys dos vort” (Bear in your body the word). The poem then ends with the separate, final line: “fun dayn harts shtraln zikh brikn in ale zaytn” (From your heart, bridges radiate in all directions)

Thus, what starts in Leyeles’s poem as a negation of the possibility of creating a bridge to people, to the Other—especially in a world in which there is a “slaughter,” “weary, wicked hordes,” and the “funeral below” (pointing to the fascism and savagery that threaten Europe and the civilized world in 1937)—ends up as a positive, even normative proclamation. According to the speaker of the poem (the persona of Fabius Lind), the bridge cannot be created with good intentions and empathy, but only through a slow, difficult search for the precise articulation of the right Word. As Harshav shows in his studies and introductions to his translations, this search for linguistic precision is at the heart of the Inzikh Yiddish poetic project, and it had special significance in a time of political upheaval. This search is performed in this particular poem by listing four different verbs with a similar, but not identical, meaning: from searching, longing, and dreaming, to bearing—the “pregnancy” and the painful “birth” of the most accurate word. Only after all of this hard poetic work is done does it indeed become possible to create “bridges that radiate” outward “in all directions.”

Just as in Leyeles’ poem, the bridges that Harshav built in his life and work were created in a long and difficult process of searching and exploration, one which was nevertheless accompanied by the playfulness that was always part of his mischievous spirit. This process was most evident in the various names and personas that he used for different functions and needs: Binyamin Hrushovski, הרושאָווסקי , ה. בנימין, בנימין הרשב, גבי דניאל, and finally Benjamin Harshav, the name by which he was known in the United States in the last three decades of his life. This process also included sharp transitions from writing poetry in Yiddish and in Hebrew, to the “scientific” study of literature and semiotic theory. He engaged in pathbreaking studies of prosody, analysis of the relations between sound and poetic meaning, and the elucidation of multisystem theory (all also explored in the academic journals he founded, like Ha-sifrut, and Poetics Today). He translated modernist poets in various languages, edited and coedited anthologies like The Hebrew Poetry of Ha-tehiya, the Yiddish A shpigl af a shteyn (A Mirror in the Stone, a collection of Soviet Yiddish poetry), and American Yiddish Poetry. He pursued close readings of a poem or a modernist manifesto as well as broad considerations of sweeping historical-cultural phenomena, as in Language in a Time of Revolution, The Meaning of Yiddish, or the linguistic elements in the art of Marc Chagall.

For most people in Israel and around the world who were familiar with only one aspect of Harshav’s oeuvre, these sharp transitions seemed very strange, and were even considered as possible symptoms of a literary and scholarly multiple-personality disorder. The truth is, of course, very different. We don’t need to engage in psychological or even psycho-cultural analysis of Benjamin Harshav in order to understand that it was a necessity for him to constantly reinvent himself and find his place (at once central and marginal) within the sweeping upheavals of Jewish history, politics, and culture of the twentieth century in Europe, Israel, and America. Almost inevitably, this long and complex process of invention and reinvention was accompanied by a number of black holes, points of blindness, and amnesia.

One can see the marks of such absence in a laconic sentence of the same prologue quoted above, the author’s note to the 2002 volume: “Yiddish poets in New York had the maturity that Israeli poets only achieved forty years later.” What did Harshav mean by this assertion? There is no further explanation in the text, but anyone familiar with Harshav’s life and work must realize that he hints to the hidden, submerged links between Yiddish poetry (in America, but also in Europe), and Israeli-Hebrew poetry of the 1950s, specifically through the poetic group Likrat (Towards), which gradually became known as Dor ha-medina (The Statehood Generation), with such famous poets as Nathan Zach and Yehuda Amichai. Binyamin Hrushovski (he was known then by his original, given name), was one of the founding members of Likrat, and he had a decisive influence on its poetics, in spite of the fact that he did not write many poems in Hebrew during these years.

Many acknowledge that Hrushovski served as a kind of poetic “midwife” who enabled the birth of the Israeli poetic movement of the 1950s. But what is the connection between the modernist Yiddish poetry of groups like Di Yunge and Inzikh, produced in the first decades of the twentieth century in New York City, and what Harshav called “the parallel poetry that was created forty years later” in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv? How was the link created? Why is it that most people did not, and still do not, know about this connection? Harshav both reveals and conceals crucial information in his retrospective writing about these links, because there was something difficult that had to remain submerged and hidden: Could it be that the “old” and “forgotten” Yiddish, the despised language of Jewish Diaspora, lurks at the most crucial moment in the birth of Israeli-Hebrew poetry? The answer is yes, and this has only become evident in the current work of Chana Kronfeld (Harshav’s student, and my teacher and mentor), and in my own research. In these recent studies the submerged, unacknowledged links between Yiddish and Israeli-Hebrew poetry are gradually being excavated. What has been revealed is the central role Hrushovski/Harshav played in this process, as he functioned—in this case as well—as a bridge, a mediator between Yiddish and Hebrew literature during the 1950s and 1960s in Israel.

During the early years of the Likrat group, the young Hrushovski was the only one of its members who had both practical and theoretical knowledge in poetry, not only because he knew modernist literature in the major European languages very well, but also because he was the only one who had already published a pathbreaking modernist book of poetry—in Yiddish. This was Shtoybn (Dusts), the first book that the nineteen-year-old Binyomin wrote, when he was at a DP camp in Germany after World War II (he had been hiding in the Ural Mountains in the Soviet Union during the war). The book was published in Munich in 1947 and was highly praised in the dwindling world of postwar Yiddish literature.

Moreover, at the same time that Hrushovski was a central member of Likrat, he was also one of the founding members of Yung-Yisroel, a group established in 1951 by young Yiddish writers and poets who had recently immigrated to Israel. The group was guided by the slightly older and more established poet Abraham Sutzkever, and it was likely that Sutzkever was the first person in Israel to identify Hrushovski’s poetic talent. Under the name and poetic persona H. Binyomin, Hrushovksi mostly published his Yiddish poetry, written in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the Yiddish journal Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain), edited by Sutzkever. The journal had been founded in 1948 and had established itself as a journal for Yiddish around the world, not merely an Israeli journal. H. Binyomin’s poems were included in a special section that featured the writing of Yung-Yisroel, alongside members like Yossel Birstein, Avrom Rintsler, Rivke Basman ben-Hayim, Moshe Yungman, Rukhl Fishman, and others. In the early 1950s, Hrushovski was very involved in the group’s activities. He participated in meetings that took place in Kibbutz Yagur, where Tsvi Ayzenman lived, and was involved in the publication of the group’s journal (named Yung-Yisroel).H. Binyomin wrote and published during these years many wonderful Israeli-Yiddish poems like “Ponem el ponem mitn almekhtikn” (“Face to Face with the Almighty,” a self-translated Hebrew version was published in an issue of the Likrat journal soon after), “In heysn land” (“In the Hot Land”), Benkshaft (“Longing,” which was rewritten in a Hebrew version, also in Likrat), and “Shney in Yerusholayem” (“Snow in Jerusalem”). The last stanza of “Snow in Jerusalem” is one of the most powerful lines of Binyomin’s early poetry, found in parentheses as if to conceal its poetic and emotional importance:

(ווייסט, שניי – מיר זײַנען דאָך ביידע אויף דו,
אַז ס׳וועט די היץ דיר ניט לאָזן צורו
אין דער הייליקער שטאָט –
איז איידער מיר צעגייען ווידער,
לאָמיר זיך פֿאַרקלײַבן זאַלבעצווייט אין אַ סוד,
וווּ קיינער זעט אונדז ניט,
וווּ קיינער טרעט אונדז ניט, –
און כ׳וועל דיר לייענען מײנע לידער…)

(You can tell, snow – yes, the two of us are already on familiar terms –
that the heat won’t let you rest
in the holy city –
so before we melt away,
let’s escape together to some secret corner,
where no one will see us,
where no one will follow us –
and I will read to you my poems…) 3 3 From Benjamin Harshav, Kol hashirim / Ale lider (Tel Aviv: Carmel, forthcoming). Translation into English by Saul Noam Zaritt.

The speaker of this poem addresses the snow that suddenly arrived in the winter of 1950 to the holy and very hot city of Jerusalem; and the speaker chooses the intimate language of Yiddish since the snow is so reminiscent of other, older places in the speaker’s childhood. He speaks with the snow in a familiar grammatical form as if they were close relatives or friends rather than mere acquaintances and reads to him from the Yiddish poems that he wrote. But this reading can only take place in “hiding,” in a place that no one would discover and ruin by ridicule. Mockery and derision of Yiddish, together with the fear of its widespread influence, was the common attitude towards the “language that must be forgotten” (to use Yael Chaver’s apt term), in the process of making Israeli culture. And yet, H. Binyomin and his fellow writers of Yung-Yisroel not only wrote Israeli poetry in Yiddish, but also used Yiddish in order to renew Israeli literature in Hebrew. The hidden, submerged links between Yiddish poetry in New York City and Israeli poetry of the 1950s, about which Harshav hinted in his later writing, were bridged and moderated by the explorations of young Yiddish writers in Israel, H. Binyomin among them.

As I have shown elsewhere, it is possible to see the links and cross-pollination between Yiddish and Hebrew in 1950s Israel in the poetry, fiction, manifestos, and articles written in the journals of Yung-Yisroel and Likrat. The links are most evident in the short-lived journals of the two groups, the ways in which they were edited and presented to the public, the combination of visual art and literature, and the implicit and explicit poetics of the groups. Both Likrat and Yung Yisroel were eclectic assemblages of writers without an official ideology or a uniform poetic credo. However, the two groups attempted—each in its own way—to create something that would be different from existing models of Hebrew and Yiddish literature of the time, in Israel and elsewhere. Still, the modernist Yiddish groups in New York and in Europe, and their poetics, remained foundational models for both the Hebrew and the Yiddish Israeli groups. And Hrushovski had a crucial role in this process of cross-pollination. 4 4 See Shachar Pinsker, “That Yiddish Has Spoken to Me: Yiddish in Early Israeli Literature,” Poetics Today 35:1 (2014), 325-56.

It is not difficult to identify Hrushovski’s hand in all of this, especially in the collective manifestos and in the articles written by his friends and colleagues in Yiddish and in Hebrew. Parallel to such influence, during the same years Hrushovski was also engaged in what would become a lifelong pursuit, namely the translation of the Yiddish poetry of Moyshe Leyb Halpern, A. Leyeles, Yehoash, and Abraham Sutzkever into Hebrew. Some of these translations were made in collaboration with young Hebrew poets from the Likrat circle—Aryeh Sivan, Moshe Dor, and others. Translation was, of course, another way in which Hrushovski-Harshav created a bridge between Yiddish modernism and Israeli-Hebrew literature. Hrushovski’s early activity as a scholar in the 1950s was also focused on Yiddish literature. His first major scholarly work was about the typical stanza of the Yiddish folk song, which originated from a seminar paper he wrote as a student under the supervision of Professor Dov Sadan, who taught Yiddish and Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Why is the activity of the young Harshav in poetry, translation, and scholarship, with its center of gravity in Yiddish, not widely known, even to people familiar with his oeuvre? Why was such a bridge mostly dismissed and almost always poorly understood? The answer to these questions is complex, and, as the poem “Snow in Jerusalem” clearly shows, has to do not only with Hrushovski-Harshav and his various personas, but also with the place of Yiddish in Israel of this period—a language and culture that was simultaneously derided and ridiculed, but also one that exerted significant influence on major literary and cultural figures. It seems that only now are scholars and writers able to excavate these submerged bridges between the Yiddish modernisms of the early twentieth century and Israeli modernism of the 1950s and 1960s. And Harshav was one of many figures who created these bridges.

In recent decades Harshav wrote that towards the end of the 1950s he stopped writing poetry altogether in any language and dedicated himself to scholarship. While this is not entirely true, it is clear that all of his scholarship, even the most “scientific” and theoretical scholarship of general and comparative literature, continued to activate this bridge. His work was always linked to Yiddish literature, and to what he called “the biography of my generation.” In fact, he continued writing Yiddish poetry (albeit with less frequency) throughout his life.

Only in the 1990s, and only after he moved from Israel to the United States to become a professor of Comparative Literature at Yale, did Hrushovski Hebraize his name to Harshav. This act of Hebraization—done not when he migrated to Israel in the 1940s (as was common) but only after leaving Israel—is highly idiosyncratic. The reason for this act was partly a matter of easing pronunciation (something that was always important for him), especially for American ears. It was also an act of davke (spite), and, I believe, a way to assert his Israeli identity, which was both precarious and stable at the same time.

At this point he was widely known as the mythological founder of the Department of Literary Theory in Tel Aviv University, the leader of the Tel Aviv School of literary and semiotic scholarship, and a highly regarded professor at Yale. Trying to sum up Harshav’s activity in the United States over a period of more than 25 years is beyond the scope of this short article. Two general trends are clear, though. One is the intensification of his translation projects, now mostly into English (for American audience), from Yiddish and Hebrew, which was carried out in collaboration with his American wife, the gifted translator Barbara Harshav. The second is the tendency in his published scholarship of the last decades to focus less on close reading of literary texts or on semiotic theory, and more often on broad, sweeping movements of Jewish literary and cultural history.

In 1994, he decided to collect a selection of his own Yiddish poems and publish a volume with a completely unknown publishing house in Wales. The result was one of the most wonderful books of Yiddish poetry published in the last few decades, a book with the title Take oyf tshikaves (an untranslatable idiom, meaning something like “just for kicks,” or “just for the fun of it”). Four years previously, he had collected his Hebrew writings in a book entitled Shirei Gabi Daniel (“The Poetry of Gabi Daniel”), following Hrushovski-Harshav’s pseudonym Gabi Daniel, the cosmopolitan artist who also wrote poems as a “hobby.” The book contains many poems in which Hebrew and Yiddish are mixed, and also poems that reveal some of the personal and collective traumas of immigration to Israel as a Yiddish speaker and Holocaust survivor.

In spite of the fact that Harshav understood himself, and was seen by others, first and foremost as a scholar of literature, in these two books of poetry—in Yiddish and in Hebrew—one can find in the most concentrated and exposed way, the keys to understating his life mission: the immense project of bridge-building, which he created both with his own hands and in collaboration with many people who were close to him. During the last months of his life, Harshav was hard at work on a large bilingual book, which includes the poetry he wrote during his lifetime in Yiddish and in Hebrew. This book, with the title Ale Lider/Kol Hashirim (“Complete Poetry”) is forthcoming, as is the last volume of his collected works that is being published by Carmel Publishing House in Jerusalem. It is, of course, profoundly sad that Harshav did not live to see this volume published, and yet it is some consolation that all lovers of Jewish poetry, in Yiddish and in Hebrew, will be able to enjoy, for the first time, the fruit of the lifelong work of one of the last bilingual Hebrew-Yiddish writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This forthcoming volume is, most likely, the last bridge that Harshav was able to create during his life, a bridge that will enable all of us to better understand and appreciate the most intimate and little-known part of his immense life project.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Haaretz, 12 June 2015.

Pinsker, Shachar. “How to Build Bridges to People? Benjamin Harshav and Yiddish.” In geveb, August 2015:
Pinsker, Shachar. “How to Build Bridges to People? Benjamin Harshav and Yiddish.” In geveb (August 2015): Accessed May 21, 2019.


Shachar Pinsker

Shachar Pinsker is Associate Professor of Hebrew Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan.