The Yiddish poet H Leyvik
(or Leivick)

H Leyvik (also Leivick) is the pseudonym of Leyvik Halpern, born in Ihumen, a small town in Byelorussia. Though his first published work appeared in America, the experiences of his first twenty-four vears in tsarist Russia made a profound imprint on Leyvik's poetic imagination. He was the oldest of nine children who lived in a hut with one small room separated for the parents, "the rest-oven, table, two long benches and a chest, the floor of hard yellow clay." The father, "a cohen and a raging man" with a fiery red beard," used to beat his children. Though a descendant of a Minsk rabbi and author he was reduced to being "a girl's teacher," the lowest possible rank in Jewish education; from an epistolary manual he taught servant girls how to write letters in the "servant language," Yiddish.

Beginning at five, Leyvik received a traditional Jewish education in heder. When he was ten, he was sent to the Yeshiva in a larger town, where he spent several years studying from early morning until late at night, sleeping in the yeshiva on a hard bench, and "eating days"-that is, eating intermittently with host families in various private Jewish houses. He was often hungry and ill, suffering for a long period from leg wounds caused by starvation, which he later described vividly in "The Chains of Messiah." The master of the Yeshiva was ,an enlightened man": along with the traditional Talmudic education, he provided a supplementary teacher for Hebrew grammar (a Secular topic!) who introduced the students to secular books in Hebrew and in Hebrew translation.

During the Revolution of 1905, Leyvik attended illegal assemblies in the forest, and joined the Bund, the Jewish social-democratic underground party. The Bund promoted Yiddish as the national language of the masses, opposing the "clerical language," Hebrew. Leyvik, though a cohen, ceased attending synagogue and switched from writing poems in Hebrew to Yiddish.

In 1906 Leyvik was arrested by the tsarist police. He refused the services of a famous Russian defense lawyer and declared at his trial:

I will not defend myself. Everything that I have done I did in full consciousness. I am a member of the Jewish revolutionary party, the Bund, and I will do everything in my power to overthrow the tsarist autocracy, its bloody henchmen, and you as well.

The sentence was four years of forced labor and exile for life to Siberia. Leyvik was chained and spent his four years in prison, experiencing hunger strikes and solitary confinement, and witnessing whippings and hangings of political prisoners. In his solitary cell in the Minsk "Tower," he wrote his first dramatic poem, "The Chains of Messiah." Finally, in March 1912, Leyvik's years of forced labor came to an end and he was marched off to Siberia - a march from prison to prison that lasted four months; he then travelled for several more weeks on a prison ship up the river Lena, to the place of his exile, the village Vittim.

Comrades who had escaped to America and joined an organization to aid exiled revolutionaries in Russia sent money to the young poet. Leyvik escaped from Siberia. He bought a horse and sleigh and travelled for several months until he came to a train station; then, after crossing European Russia and Germany, he sailed for America in the summer Of 1913.

In America, Leyvik became the most prominent poetic figure in World Yiddish literature. He was hailed as "the greatest Yiddish poet and playwright of our time" (1960). Subliminated suffering, messianic fervor, a mystical tone, and a naive humanism, combined with a Neo-Romantic musicality of harmonious verse lines that were imbued with Russian Symbolism, marked the voice of his poetry. He transformed his father's humiliation and harshness into an apotheosis of a father figure. His childhood sufferings merged with the torments of his prison years and were translated into the language of traditional Jewish mythology. Job, Isaac's sacrifice, the Golem of Prague, the Messiah in chains - all informed the language of his vision, particularly, in his poetic dramas. For his readers, the details of Leyvik's biography became part of a symbolic suffering personality. In his verse they could find echoes of Dostoyevsky, messianic yearnings, frustrated revolutionary dreams and soft individual sensibilities in a harsh World. Such characteristics of a lyrical Neo-Romantic poet assumed a national dimension when the twin concepts of Siberian exile and social revolution - meaningful to a whole generation that revolted against the confining world of Orthodox Judaism - took on the Hebrew form of "Goles un Geule" (Galuth and Geulah), Exile and Redemption.

During the years when he achieved worldwide fame as a poet and his works were translated into many languages, Leyvik worked as a wallpaper hanger in New York. As a contemporary poet observed: "Many of us saw him striding in New York's streets with rolls of wallpaper in one hand and with a brush and a bucket of paste in the other." In 1932 Leyvik was forced to stop work and spend four years in the Spivak sanatorium for tuberculosis in Denver, Colorado. There he created some of his best, almost untranslatable poems, achieving a certain lucid serenity and writing, among other things, a beautiful sequel of "Songs of Abelard to Heloise" and a cycle of poems on Spinoza (the idol of Yiddish intellectuals).

Between 1917 and 1920, Leyvik wrote four apocalyptic, visionary poems reflecting the waves of terrible pogroms in Eastern Europe. One of them, "The Wolf," was rediscovered during the Holocaust as a symbolic presentiment. His poetic drama, The Golem, published in 1921, in a period of revolution and messianic ferment, made an enormous impact on Yiddish literature. As the Lexicon of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1963) observed:

People read and re-read it, debated and wrote about the problems of the book: World liberation and Jewish redemption, the role of matter and the role of the spirit in the process of redemption, the Jewish Messiah and the Christian Savior, Maharal and the Golem of Prague, the masses and the individual, creator and creation, Realism and Symbolism - all this was stirred up in the 1920s by Leyvik's Gollem.

For many, Leyvik occupied the position in Yiddish literature previously granted to I.L.Perets (who died in 1915) - that of a spiritual, charismatic authority, a center of literary conscience, who found a national form for universal content.

In the 1920s, Leyvik published poetry and drama in the Communist daily, Frayhayt, and monthly, Der Hamer. He visited the Soviet Union and his hometown, Ihumen, and a book of his poetry was published in Moscow, but he was criticized there for his "pessimism." In 1929, when the Communists saw the pogroms against the Jews of Palestine as an expression of Arab revolution, Leyvik and other writers broke with the Communist journals and were branded as traitors. Leyvik voiced the deep concern of Jewish intellectuals for the preservation of ethical values vis-à-vis the idolized Revolution.

Like other writers of his generation, Leyvik was active as an editor and journalist. From 1932 to 1934, he co-edited the journal Yiddish. Between 1936 and 1952, Leyvik and Joseph Opatoshu edited eight thick volumes of Zamibikher (Assembies), bringing together the best Yiddish writers of the time. From 1936 to his death, he was a regular contributor of poems and article, to the New York daily, Der Tog.

In 1936, Leyvik represented the Yiddish P.E.N. Club at the international, P.E.N. congress in Buenos Aires. In his address, he said: 'The main problem of our literature in the twentieth century is how to find a synthesis between the national and the universal. Jew and world - this is the central drama of our lives and our literature." In 1937, Leyvik participated in the World Yiddish Cultural Congress in Paris; he was among the leaders of the cultural organization founded there, YKUF. The highly influential YKUF was molded on the "Popular Front" model, bringing together writers and cultural leaders of the left and the right from all over the world. In 1939, after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Leyvik broke off relations with the left and resigned from YKUF. In 1958, Leyvik received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College and in 1961, an honorary medal from the National Jewish Welfare Board. He died a year later.

For the last four years of his life, Leyvik was paralysed and unable to speak. During this time, he became an object of pilgrimage for numerous writers and friends. As the Lexicon of Yiddish Literature describes it: "His looks, his behavior with his visitors, the way he hugged and kissed his friends - reminded one of the sufferings of Job, the agony of Isaac's sacrifice; he reminded one of the elder Zosima in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov."

In 1914-15, Levvik was living in Philadelphia, working in a garment shop and learning to be a cutter and, at the same time, encouraged in his writing by the editor of the Philadelphia Yiddish newspaper. It was here that he wrote his famous poem, "Somewhere Far, Somewhere Far Away," which he considered to be his first authentic poem and which he placed at the beginning of his first book.

Leyvik later described how the poem was created. One cold winter night, after a long day's work in the shop, he returned to his tiny attic room. Lying in bed, by the light of a small gas lamp, he watched a snowstorm and felt "lonely, foreign and forlorn in this big new world":

"All of a sudden, something lights up in you: You are really in America, you are lying in an attic, but outside the window a blizzard howls. And before your eyes you see the Siberian landscape from which you just escaped, the distant white hills of immense Siberia, the snow-covered roads and rivers and forests and mountains; the full, absolute and dazzling whiteness, you may say: the dazzling of the world. And you are part of this whiteness and purity....I felt that something yearned-for emerged in me - a new start: going to the whiteness, to the untrodden, forbidden land."

Reflecting further on his poem, Leyvik shifted emphasis from the forbidden land with its unreachable covered treasures to suffering humanity:

To be the justified and chosen partner of suffering man who can never reach the forbidden treasures - perhaps here lies the secret of true human yearning, the fate of man both in his search for a link, to that which we call Creator-God, as well as in his connection with the whole world, with human life and death? Therefore, it is not enough to say that there are treasures, forbidden and covered; a second part is needed:

Somewhere far, somewhere far away lies a prisoner, lies alone.-

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Webmaster Jeff Malka.

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