Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays -- Research Guide

Yiddish-American Literature

The Collection

Yiddish-American literature in the Harris Collection, amounting to over 1,000 titles, is centered on the collection of Menache Vaxer, acquired by the Library in 1968. This description of its holdings is excerpted from an article by Prof. Alvin Rosenfeld, who was instrumental in bringing the Collection to the Library. The article originally appeared in Books at Brown in 1968.

Mrs. Bessie Thomashefsky in the breeches part of The Green Boy"Although Yiddish authors came to America less than a hundred years ago, Yiddish writing in this country has developed into a large and impressively diverse body of literature. The present collection of Yiddaica represents this literature at many of its high points, and, at least in terms of its poetry and drama, includes works by most of the major writers and a number of the more interesting minor ones. "

"The collection was acquired. . . from Mr. Menache Vaxer, a book seller specializing in Hebraica - Judaica. . . Mr. Vaxer collected for himself poetry and drama written in Yiddish. His collection included volumes in Yiddish published by A merican authors as well as earlier volumes published in Europe by writers who later settled and continued their writing careers in America."

Illustration: Mrs. Bessie Thomashefsky in the breeches part of The Green Boy in the musical of the same name by Louis Friedsel. Detail from the cover of the song Yidelach-Bruderlach

Yiddish Poetry
Self-portrait of Moshe Leib Halpern"The first Yiddish poets in America were primarily poets of social protest, and a generous collection of their works is to be found here. This group of writers, with strong roots in the Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe and a will to maintai n Yiddish as a literary language in America, with is the direct line of the great Yiddish fiction writer, [Isaac Leib] Peretz. It includes Abraham Reisen (1876-1953), David Edelstadt (1866-1892), Joseph Bovshover (1873-1915), and Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923). Of these Rosenfeld was by far the most important.

"The number of social poets, Bundists, Anarchists, poets of the picket line and labor movement was great - there were too many, in fact, who were not poets at all but verse pamphleteers - but no one of this stripe either contemporary with Rosenfeld or following him was as much a major writer. After Rosenfeld Yiddish poetry in America had to find new direction to advance, and it did so with the more personal poetry of Yehoash a nd the group of younger writers that succeeded him, 'Di Junge.'"

"Perhaps no group of Yiddish writers in America attracted so much attention as 'Di Junge,' a loose organization of poets, playwrights, and novelists who flourished in the fifteen years or so after 1907. . . The poets of 'Di Junge' have be en compared to the writers of Sturm und Drang, German impressionism, Russian symbolism, the Imagists of America, Bohemianism - almost every coloration of poet, in fact, except the poets of social protest and sentimentality. They were in rebellion against both of these trends, which they thought dominated Yiddish poetry to too great an extent and which they set out to change."

"The writers who participated most importantly in the movement and who are represented in the Vaxer Collection include Zishe Landau (1889-1937), Moshe Leib Halpern (1886-1933), H. Leivick (Leivick Halpern, 1888-1962), I. J. Schwartz (1885-1971), Mani Leib (Mani Leib Brahinsky, 1883-1953), Reuben Iceland (Reuben Eisland, 1884-19 53), Joseph Opatoshu (1885-1953), A. M. Dillon (1883-1934), David Ignatoff (1885-1953), and Berl Lapin (1889-1952)."

"The writers in this list are interesting in various ways and published a considerable amount of provocative poetry. . . Like Yehoash, they were often more willing to be fascinated by America than were most of their predecessors, a fact t hat one often meets in their writings. . . Special if only brief mention must be made of H. Leivick, the one poet of truly great stature among 'Di Junge' and the one whose career most successfully transcends the group's limitations. . . He is a meditative poet and a deeply religious poet and one who consistently allowed himself to be challenged by the heaviest and most difficult themes. That he handled them successfully is reflected by the opinion, held by many, that Leivick is among the supreme poets wh o have given voice to human suffering, Jewish martyrdom, and messianic hope. As the author of the famous play The Golem, he is also one of the most acclaimed of Yiddish playwrights. "

"Reaction to 'Di Junge' and a turn towards post-impressionism were manifest in the works of three poets who established the Inzikhist, or Introspectivist, movement in Yiddish poetry. The three were Aaron Glanz Leyeles (1889-1966), Nahum Baruch Minkoff (1893-1958), and Jacob Glatstein (1896-1971)."

"The poets of the Introspectivist school were interested in writing a more disciplined and intellectual poetry and a poetry that would establish the Yiddish poet more squarely in the modern world. They looked away from the symbolist and impressionist poets of Germany, France, and Russia and instead took Pound, Eliot, and Joyce as their models. They were interested in exploiting the natural rhythms of Yiddish speech and found free verse, which they perfected, to be their best medium. . . [Of these writers,] Jacob Glatstein [is] the one poet of the Inzikhistn who most successfully grew beyond the movement and who, with H. Leivick, is generally considered to be the most important Yiddish poet of the century."

"There are some other interesting Yiddish writers who are not easily classified within any school of Yiddish poetry but whose works make worthy additions to the Harris Collection. . . Of these writers Chaim Grade and Itzik Manger are the most highly regarded. Grade's poetry, like much of the later poetry of Jacob Glatstein, is centered in the catastrophe that overtook Jewish life in Europe. It is a poetry of extinguished villages, of the concentration camps, of a martyred people. As such it is deeply elegiac and has been described by one critic as the recitation of one long Kaddish. . . Itzik Manger, a highly esteemed poet, has been called the foremost balladeer in the Yiddish language. His experiments with archaic Yiddish, his original poetic renderings of Biblical figures, and his special turn of humor characterize his work."

Illustration 1: Self-portrait of Moshe Leib Halpern, 1922.
Illustration 2: Portrait of H. Leivick; detail from the cover of his Ale Werk, volume 2.

Yiddish Drama
Detail of Abraham Goldfaden"Unlike the situation with Yiddish poetry, Yiddish drama in America is somewhat better known, even among people who may be only slightly familiar with Yiddish. For while it lasted Yiddish theater in New York City. . . enjoyed an enviable popularity. . . When the story [of that theater] is finally told it will stress the importance of a few ingenious producers, a few able and imaginative directors, several fabulously popular actors and actresses, and a dozen leading playwrights. It is the playwrights that I wish to dwell on briefly here."

"First among them is Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), whose earliest attempts at drama in the town of Jassy, Rumania, in the year 1876, are generally recognized as the start of professional Yiddish theater. . . He wrote a great many [plays] - comedies about Jewish ghetto life, historical and biblical melodramas, dramas of Jewish national aspiration, and operettas - and although their literary value is questionable, Gold faden's plays, immensely popular and among the first in the repertoire of Yiddish theater, are of certain historical value."

Title page of Got, mensh un tayvel,"It was Jacob Gordin (1853-1909), the most celebrated of New York's Yiddish playwrights, who turned Yiddish drama away from melodrama and who is generally credi ted with reforming it. Gordin came to America from his native Russia in 1891, and in the following year his most famous play, Der Yudisher Kenig Lir ("The Jewish King Lear") was staged in New York with Jacob Adler in the lead role. It was an im mediate success, and although [it] by no means chased the melodramas of Lateiner and Hurwitz off the boards, it did initiate a new era in American Yiddish theater."

"[Also in the Collection are] the plays of Leon Kobrin (1873-1946) and Z. Libin (1872-1955) , Gordin's two most distinguished allies and playwrights who wrote in the tradition of dramatic realism newly introduced into the Yiddish theater by him. Of the playwrights who came after Gordin, six stand out. They are David Pinski (1872-1959), Peretz Hirshbein (1880-1948), Sholem Asch (1 880-1957), H. Leivick (1888-1962), Ossip Dymow (1878-1959) and Fishl Bimko (1890-1965)."

"Among theater critics David Pinski vies with Hirshbein as the formost playwright of the Yiddish Art Theater movement in America. A disciple of Peretz, Pinski frequently found his subject matter in the lives of the poor and underprivilege d, but he was a good enough artist to transmute his material and raise the level of the proletarian drama, of which he is considered one of the masters. . . While [H. Leivick is] celebrated chiefly as a poet, he was also respected as a dramatist, and at least one of his plays, The Golem, has won a lasting place in Yiddish drama."

Cast portrait from the play Too Late by M. Richter"Special if only passing reference must be made to a grouping of fifty-three Yiddish plays and operettas in manuscript that [forms] a part of the Vaxer Collection. Written out in Yiddish script into bound notebooks or on separate pages, these may have been versions used by directors and actors in the Folksbiene, Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theater, or one of the other New York theater groups. Most are in fair condition and some carry marginal notes in Yiddish and Russian. Wh ether or not the authors of the manuscripts were in some cases the authors of the plays is unknown. In certain instances it is clear that they were not."

Illustration 1: Detail of Abraham Goldfaden from the cover of his Bar Kochba
Illustration 2: Title page of Jacob Gordin's Got, mensh un tayvel, with a portrait of the author.
Illustration 3: Cast portrait from the play Too Late by M. Richter. Detail from the sheet music A Glezele Wine, composed by J. M. Rumshisky for the play.

Yiddish Music
The Vaxer Collection includes a sizeable collection of Jewish music, over 850 pieces of piano-vocal or instrumental music. It has been added to in recent years by collections of the publications of Metro Music, and other New York Yiddish- language music publishers from the 1880s through the 1940s; today the Collection contains nearly 2,000 items. Its focus is on the Yiddish-language musical stage of the period, and includes many photographs of performers (often in costume) and composers.

"Also to be noted are the Yiddish song books and song albums. . . these include collections by Michl Gelbart, Samuel Bugatch, D. Meyerowitz, and others. . . The songs of Eliakum Zunser (1840-1913), the most celebra ted of the badchonim and in his day a vastly popular Yiddish folksinger, have been obtained in various editions."

Detail from the sheet music cover for A Glezele WineThe public domain (pre-1923) portion of the Yiddish sheet music collection is currently being digitized. It is available on the web site of the Library's Center for Digital Scholarship. There is also an online exhibit that gives a brief introduction to Yiddish sheet music.

"Of particular importance. . . is a group of twenty-five musical scores to musical operettas by the Jewish composer, Peretz Sandler. These are all in manuscript form, in pen or pencil notation, and have been well preserved. . . These are all well known pieces (some are classics of the Yiddish musical stage."

Illustration: Detail from the sheet music cover for A Glezele Wine

Source: Alvin Rosenfeld. Yiddish Poets and Playwrights of America: A Preliminary Report on a Recent Addition to the Harris Collection. Books at Brown, vol. 22, 1968. Copyright Alvin Rosenfeld. Excerpted by permission of the author.

See Also:
» Music

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Related Collections

The Library's Sheet Music Collection is the repository for the Yiddish-American sheet music from the original Vaxer Collection, and added since that time from other sources. There are finding aids to the Collection available in the Libra y. In addition to the Yiddish-language music, there are related small collections of Russian-language and other Slavic-language sheet music.

Many American popular composers of the first half of the twentieth century were familiar with Yiddish-language musical theatre, and grew up steeped in the culture. Their works are present in great numbers in the Sheet Music Collection, pa rticularly in the sections of the Collection devoted to the Broadway stage.

Brandeis University Library has a Yiddish Music Collection with a finding aid on its web site.

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Related Internet Resources

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Essential References

American Yiddish poetry : a bilingual anthology / Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, translations with the participation of Kathryn Hellerstein, Brian McHale, and Anita Norich
Berkeley : University of California Press, c1986

The Book peddler = Der Pakn-treger : newsletter of the National Yiddish Book Center
Amherst, Mass. : National Yiddish Book Center
Harris Collection holdings: no.8-no.21 1987-1996

A Century of Yiddish poetry / selected, translated, and edited by Aaron Kramer
New York : Cornwall Books, c1989

Federal Theatre Project (U.S.)
Anglo-Jewish one-act plays
[New York] National Service Bureau, 1938

Federal Theatre Project (U.S.)
Anglo-Jewish plays in English and Yiddish
[New York] National Service Bureau [1938]

Federal Theatre Project (U.S.)
Anglo-Jewish plays (religious)
[New York] National Service Bureau, 1938

Galvin, Herman
The Yiddish dictionary sourcebook : a transliterated guide to the Yiddish language / by Herman Galvin & Stan Tamarkin
Hoboken [N.J.] : Ktav, 1986

A Garment worker's legacy : the Joe Fishstein Collection of Yiddish Poetry : the catalogue / edited by Goldie Sigal
Montreal : McGill University Libraries, 1998

Grynberg, Berl
Yidishe shrayber in Amerike
Nyu York : Ykuf Farlag, 1963

Handbook of American-Jewish literature : an analytical guide to topics, themes, and sources / Lewis Fried, editor-in-chief ; Gene Brown, Jules Chametzky, Louis Harap, advisory editors
New York : Greenwood Press, 1988

Heskes, Irene
The resource book of Jewish music : a bibliographical and topical guide to the book and journal literature and program materials
Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1985

Heskes, Irene
Yiddish American popular songs, 1895 to 1950 : a catalog based on the Lawrence Marwick roster of copyright entries.
Washington : Library of Congress, 1992

Howe, Irving
A treasury of Yiddish poetry. Edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg
New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston [1969]

Kogos, Fred
A dictionary of Yiddish slang & idioms
New York, Citadel Press [1968, c1967]

Leftwich, Joseph, editor and translator
The golden peacock; a worldwide treasury of Yiddish poetry
New York, T. Yoseloff [1961]

Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur. 8 v.
Nyu-York : Alveltlekhn Yidishn Kultur-Kongres, 1956-1981.

Lifson, David S.
The Yiddish theatre in America
New York, T. Yoseloff [c1965]

Liptzin, Solomon
The flowering of Yiddish literature
New York, T. Yoseloff [1964, c1963]

Liptzin, Solomon
A history of Yiddish literature
Middle Village, N.Y., J. David [1972]

Madison, Charles Allan
Yiddish literature; its scope and major writers
New York, F. Ungar Pub. Co. [1968]

Marmor, Kalmon
Der onhoib fun der yidisher literatur in Amerike, 1870-1890
Nyu York : Shrayber-Sektsye baym IKUF, 1944

New York Public Library. Reference Dept.
Catalog of Hebrew and Yiddish titles of the Jewish collection
Boston, G.K. Hall, 1960

The New York times great songs of the Yiddish theater / arr. for voice, piano, and guitar; lyrics transliterated [and music editing by Zalmen Mlotek] ; selected by Norman H. Warembud ; foreword by Molly Picon
[New York] : Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., [c1975]

Nulman, Macy
Concise encyclopedia of Jewish music
New York, McGraw-Hill Book Co. [1975]

The Penguin book of modern Yiddish verse / edited by Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk
New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking, 1987

Prager, Leonard
Yiddish literary and linguistic periodicals and miscellanies : a selective annotated bibliography / by Leonard Prager with the help of A.A. Greenbaum
Darby, Pa. : Published for the Association for the Study of Jewish Languages by Norwood Editions, 1982

Roback, A. A.
The story of Yiddish literature.
New York, Yiddish scientific institute, American branch, 1940

Rosenfeld, Alvin H.
Yiddish poets and playwrights of America; a preliminary report on a recent addition to the Harris Collection
Providence, R.I., Brown University, 1968

Rosenfeld, Lulla
The Yiddish theatre and Jacob P. Adler. Introduction by Harold Clurman
2nd revised edition
New York, NY : Shapolsky Publishers, 1988

Sandrow, Nahma
Vagabond stars : a world history of Yiddish theater
New York : Harper & Row, [c1977]

Schulman, Elias
Geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in Amerike 1870-1900

Seiger, Marvin Leon
A history of the Yiddish Teatre in New York City to 1892 [microform]
Thesis (Ph. D.)--Indiana University, 1960
Nyu-York : I. V. Biderman, 1943

Slobin, Mark
The music of the Yiddish theater : manuscript sources at YIVO
[New York : Yivo Insititute for Jewish Research, 1983]

Slobin, Mark
Tenement songs : the popular music of the Jewish immigrants
Urbana : University of Illinois Press, c1982

Recording to accompany the book Tenement Songs [sound recording] / Mark Slobin. 1 sound cassette
[Urbana : University of Illinois Press], 1982

Weinreich, Uriel
Modern English-Yiddish, Yiddish-English dictionary
New York, Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, [and] McGraw-Hill, 1968

Wiener, Leo
The history of Yiddish literature in the nineteenth century. With a new introduction by Elias Schulman
2nd edition
New York, Hermon Press [1972]

Whitman, Ruth
An anthology of modern Yiddish poetry / selected and translated by Ruth Whitman
Bilingual edition. [2nd edition]
New York : Workman's Circle, Education Dept., 1979, c1966

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