Mendele II

Date: 6 September 2005
Subject: Re: Menke

As a long-time reader and admirer of Prof. Leonard Prager's work, and especially his excellent book reviews in TMR, I hope that it is in order that I write in reply to one review which seems to me deficient in both factual and conceptual accuracy, and at times even fairness. I do not believe that these possible deficiencies result from a lack of good will; they seem to me to be more attributable to haste and in some cases, certain prejudices common to yiddish literary studies today. On this last point, there is an important debate that needs to be aired, and one which the recently-published Proletpen: America's Rebel Yiddish Poets (ed. A. Glazer and D. Weintraub, Wisconsin 2005) will hopefully encourage.

I shall conclude with that larger point. But first I want to address a number of specific claims in the review that do a grave injustice to the life and work of the yiddish and English poet Menke Katz. The reader will easily be able to discern where the disagreements are about fact, and where they concern interpretation.

1. Prager writes:

"We are given numerous instances where the poet stood up to Party browbeaters, but he never broke with them, never moved to the camp of the 'rekhte' (rightists)...."

This is a shocking inaccuracy which almost makes it look as if the reviewer never got to the second half of the introduction! Menke Katz left the linke ("leftists") in 1952 and soon thereafter severed all his ties with the Frayhayt, never to return (after hearing no credible replies to the question: "then where are those Soviet Yiddish writers, if they have not been liquidated?"). In 1953, Menke started teaching for the Yiddish schools of the Arbeter Ring (Workmen's Circle) or rekhte. Many hundreds of Yiddish-lovers today remember him as a teacher of rare talent. He first published in the Tog in 1953. In 1958, he was one of the co-founders of the new Arbeter Ring (rekhte!) branch established to provide a home for those who had left the linke after learning of the Soviet atrocities of the early fifties. For me, one of the most poignant points in the introduction to the book by the poet's son, is his own recollection of how he had to beg his father to set up a one-time meeting with one old linker (leftist), so he would know what a leftist N.Y. Yiddish writer looks like (see Menke, cxvi-cxvii).

So, the long and short of it is, that Menke abandoned the linke environment in the early 1950s and had zero to do with that environment for the last forty years of his life; and, as we learn from Menke, he spent much of the preceding two decades as rebel within the Linke movement, who dared to challenge just about every literary orthodoxy of the leftist movement, continuing to write on erotic, kabbalistic and traditional Jewish themes in the face of editors' displeasure.

2. Prager entitles a section "Anti-Zionist Daubings" in which he disagrees with the research of the poet's son, Dovid Katz, about the campaign against Yiddish in Israel. As for Dovid Katz's views on that campaign and the failure of literary history to deal with it honestly, I can only refer the reader to the younger Katz's section on the subject in his Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish (N.Y. 2004), pp. 310-323, which is rich in documentation. There is vast evidence of the violent anti-Yiddish campaign sanctioned by the highest authorities in pre-state Palestine and early Israel. The language was snuffed out in a culturally ruthless campaign, and researchers who have tried to tell the truth have not fared well. Prof. Pilowski, whom Prager mentions, found his career going nowhere after he began to work on the subject, and he soon left the field. Reading Prager's review with its section on "Anti-Zionist Daubings", you would never know that a big chunk of Menke comprises the books Midday (Inmitn tog) and Safad (Tsfas) which are rich with Zionist poetry and imagery! You would think that because he left Israel (where he twice tried to settle) over the Yiddish issue, Menke Katz somehow became an "enemy of Zionism." Let me therefore cite for the sake of example two short poems from Menke, which do not find themselves among those reproduced by Prager:

This Little Land

Great, O great is the land of my people.
The tiniest path is endless as God.
A sunrise is like the eternal Burning Bush.
Great, O great is the little land of my people.
A first ray is a light-giving prophet of long ago.
Every step is new, of tomorrow's generations.
Greater than all lands is the little land of my people.
The tiniest path is endless as God.

(Menke, p. 700).

Another example:


He who never walked on the soil of my people
Never had his foot blessed with the joy of walking.
How much joy is in the simple wonder of walking?
O ask a star how many times the sun rose here,
Ask a leaf how many Mays passed through here.
The light of the Burning Bush never sets on your steps here.
No, he who never walked on the soil of my people
Never had his foot blessed with the joy of walking.

A step on the soil of my people is a step through everywhere,
All of time's distances are as close as your own step.
O my poem, be like the lily of the valley.
Where, if not in the Song of Songs, do eternal flowers grow?
A grain of dust in the valley seeks his father mountain in the wind.
In the most ordinary day, God celebrates endless holiday.
A step on the soil of my people is a step through everywhere.
All of time's distances are as close as your own step.

(Menke, p. 706).

Well, so much for Menke Katz's "Anti-Zionist Daubings!" The dead Yiddish poet seems to have fallen victim to a bogus charge, because his son, Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz, has dared to break the taboo about what really happened to Yiddish in Israel in a different book... Prager's review of that book was the place to pick those bones! Whatever the ins and outs, the field of Yiddish studies really needs to get over the notion that someone who researches the anti-Yiddish campaign in Israel is some kind of enemy of the state of Israel. But to put the "curse" on his father is a bit too much even for our "lively" field of Yiddish studies...

3. Prager writes "the poet [...] appended [...] the deeply political and subsequently emotive sovetishe […]" Thus Prager uses (abuses?) the poet's one use of the word in a poetic career spanning some seventy years to give a general (mis)impression. As Prager knows, that poem was written in late 1939, when just about every Jew from the Vilna region was (for a brief time, alas) thrilled that the region was captured by the Soviet Union instead of Nazi Germany which had already begun to put the Polish Jews under its dominion into ghettos and prepare them for extermination. To take it out of that context for poets who never before or after used such language, is dubious at best, especially when the same poet's many dozens of Zionist poems are glossed over in silence to give an impression that we are dealing with some kind of "commie", as the American red baiters used to put it in the McCarthy period and beyond.

4. Prager writes, yet again reviewing the son rather than the father: "Dovid Katz develops the notion that allegiance to 'right' or 'left' in the Yiddish-language world of New York's left-of-center Jewry in the first half of the twentieth century was accidental and ideologically of little import. He further draws this world as a genial debating society, an extended New England Town Hall Meeting, as American as apple pie. He intimates that the bogeyman of 'political correctness' prevents us from seeing the virtues of the Frayhayt and the linke. This reader cannot agree that the latter were some sort of debating society, or that they were notably 'American'".

And here I have to take exception. I was myself a sympathizer of the American left for decades, and I would respectfully submit to Prof. Prager that I am no less American than any other American. Yes, I fought racism and inequality, wanted social justice, and hoped for a better world altogether. I am shocked that a McCarthy spirit continues to misinform the field of American Yiddish literary history at a time when any number of
studies are published without so much as a peep about Soviet editors and writers who did collaborate with the Stalinist state, who did inform on Yiddish writers to a totalitarian state (e.g. some of the collaborators in Sovetish Heymland). It is a ship of fools that Soviet writers may be studied with academic impunity, while touching the old American linke remains taboo and gets you into trouble on the digital pages of the Mendele Review.

The leftist Yiddish writers of America did not inform on anyone, imprison anyone, curtail the political or human rights of anyone! Yes, Professor Prager, they were every bit as American as other citizens of this country.

It is not the readers of Menke Katz's poetry who need to engage in any kind of "apologia" as Prager dismissively calls the two fine introductions to the book. It is the professors of Yiddish who so often find that have to engage in "apologia" when they find out that one of their heroes was, oops, perish the word, a linker I just happened to come across an example recently. Another major professor of Yiddish literature, in a generally fine study of American Yiddish poet Yankev Glatshteyn, seems unable to handle that his beloved poet published in the Frayhayt back in the 1920s, and so he duly adds a footnote: "He did it for economic reasons. In his letter [...], where he asks that he be published in the Frayhayt, there is not one iota of a hint about a possible programmatic affinity to this newspaper." (Goldene Keyt 131, p. 171, no. 14).

In other words, if a great Yiddish poet who is part of the translated canon did "sin" by publishing in the Frayhayt, it requires some implausible excuse.

I recently browsed through some old issues of the Frayhayt from the first week of April of 1928. In that week alone, the writers published in the paper include Moyshe Nadir, Mani Leyb, Avrom Reyzen, and Morris Winchevsky. Are we going to write them out of the canon, too, or explain that they needed to make a living "and didn't mean it"? The fact is that nearly all the great American Yiddish writers were at one time or another associated with the linke. In his attempt to adduce evidence, Prager brings quotations from Irving Howe, neglecting to remind us that it was Howe himself (with Eliezer Greenberg, an ex-linker). and others, who created "our" canon with their English anthologies of the 1950s (coincidence, coincidence: McCarthy-time) and beyond. According to Dovid Katz's introduction to Proletpen, the criteria used for exclusion had everything to do with when a writer crossed over from the linke to the rekhte, and
hopefully this whole issue can now be studied. But it really is a great shame that a half century later, someone who left in the early fifties gets the rap of "he never broke with them" in Prof. Prager's review. Clearly, the history of Yiddish literature in America has to get its act in order.

Frank Handler