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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author
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Henry Rosenblatt: Biographical Notes by Israel Osman

"Biographishe shtrikhn" ("Biographical Notes") by Israel Osman
from H. Royzenblat Yoyvl-bukh, tsu zayn zibetsikstn geboyrntog (H. Rosenblatt Jubilee Book for his 70th Birthday), Los Angeles, H. Rosenblatt Jubilee-Book Committee, 1948, pp. 5-12. 
Translated by Hershl Hartman.

No less than the fountain of eternal youth revealed itself to H. Rosenblatt and its waters refresh and quench him constantly. Seventy summers have not managed to parch him and seventy winters did no more than make his head snowy. He has remained as fresh and warm as once he was and bathed in light. Under his crown of gray sparkle deep blue eyes that cannot be rimmed by glass. Nimbly and energetically he moves to awake in early mornings, sits wide-awake at evening, and age has no power over him. All the heavy waves that engulfed him did not drown him, nor did any evil winds uproot him. A spring of joy bubbles within him and wherever he arrives he spreads a holiday mood and song. Fresh and hearty and full of dreams, he blooms with new, succulent and powerful poems. His age has encompassed his youth. His deeply-rooted Yiddish is a wonder and a puzzle for us, and his lively folkiness surprises us. A long time before becoming bar mitsve he arrived in America. And the melting pot did not melt him down. Here he goes about and treads powerfully on his old-home soil and draws his nourishment from the deepest Jewish sources. And if he is asked:
“Rosenblatt, where do all these physical and spiritual strengths come from?” he smiles lovingly and replies:
“For that I thank my bobe [grandmother] Sima’s upbringing.”

* * * * * *
Village and city were married and the match produced Rosenblatt. Both sides affectionately raised him in early youth. He was born on the 15th of May, 1878, into a family that was blessed with more good health and longevity than with riches and honor. His grandfather, Elkhanon Nisn Royzenblit, was a noted and wealthy landholder in whose elder years the unjust Czarist laws reduced him to a lessor and a miller. He lived in the large village Risoshe, near Kamenets-Podolsk, where some three thousand Ukrainians lived and approximately a minyan of Jews belonging to the Royzenblit family. Elkhanon Nisn had twelve children, all tall, sturdy and strong. The third son, Tsvi Hirsh, was a giant of a Jew, six feet tall and with broad, strong shoulders on which rested [responsibility for the family’s] two rented mills. He married an attractive and accomplished daughter, named Dobrish, of a diminished [former] dry-goods manufacturer of Ladizhin. She was educated, able to write and do math, and was an expert housewife. She opened a small store and helped provide income. They were the parents of H. Rosenblatt.
The few Jews in Risoshe, as was the custom, supported a melamed [elementary religious teacher] for their children, for the boys and girls, to prevent them from becoming village-gentiles [lit., shkotsim, a derogatory term]. Among those village melamdim two stood out through their good traits and left a strong impression on little Khayim. One was a poor fellow named Lipe, with large blue eyes, rosy cheeks and an unusually sweet voice. He was an ordained rabbi and also a good companion to the children and accomplished much with them in a short time. However, he did not remain there for long. He left behind in the attic several booklets in a language that was strange to the village Jews. Later they learned that he was somewhere in Odessa and was studying in the “shkoles” [secular schools of the Jewish Enlightenment].
The other melamed was named Gabriel and was a Jew with a light-blonde beard, two loving blue eyes and a tender nature. He liked children very much and played with them more than he taught them. In summer, he would spend hours with them in the river, teaching them to swim and carrying on as one of them. In winter, he would pour lead into molds to make dreydlakh [khanike-hanuka tops], draw khanike-hanuka greeting cards, and make handcrafted gragers [noisemakers] and Haman-clappers for Purim. He had the hands of an artist and boasted that the famous “mizrakh” [decoration on the Eastern wall] of the great Teflik synagogue was his handiwork. In addition to all this he was a wonderful teller of stories and legends. The children loved him very much and called him The Angel Gabriel. Khayiml, a boy of six or seven, was his best pupil. He stuck to him. A pretty little boy with a good head and a sweet little voice who prettily sang all the “exegesises” [Biblical interpretations], he was the most-beloved child of the entire tiny settlement. “The Angel Gabriel” spent more time with him than with all the other pupils. He taught him writing, [Hebrew] calligraphy and drawing. He fulfilled [the child’s] requests, telling him the prettiest stories he knew, transmitting Jewishness and warmth.
There was also an Uncle Avreml, a grain-trade agent, who traveled around the surrounding villages and was a frequent guest in Risoshe. He was an adherent of the Jewish Enlightenment and an expert in the Yiddish literature of that time. He would bring along “zhargon” [jargon, i.e. Yiddish] pamphlets and gather the entire family around him to hear him read, as everyone lent him their ears and listened with great attention. Khayiml would not leave his side. Through him, Khayim, in his very early years, became acquainted with Crazy Yisrolik, Benjamin the Third and Fishke the Lame
Khayiml absorbed all that he could from the village melamdim and his wise and knowledgeable mother, Dobrish, sent him to her parents in Ladizhin. He was already a young fellow of eight years and they had to be concerned about his future. He studied there with the best melamdim, all of whom he enthused. His bobe Sima guarded him as the apple of her eye, hoping that he would grow up to be a gadol b’yisroyl [a Great Man in Jewry].
He was not fated, however, to fulfill the hopes that were placed upon him. The [18]80s arrived with their calamities and unjust decrees that drove Jews out of the villages. His grandfather — in his eighties — settled in Teflik and died shortly thereafter. Tsvi Hirsh Royzenblit and his family set off into the wide world, seeking their fortune. After a year of wandering, illegal border-crossings and many journey’s legs, they arrived in New York.
This journey left a very deep impression on the 12-year old Khayiml, and fifty years later he described them masterfully in his Harudes (Lumps).
The Royzenblit family settled in Brownsville.
A bitter economic crisis was then raging in the land. Tsvi Hirsh Royzenblit, a giant of a Jew, thanks to his height and strength, obtained a “position” to learn pressing men’s clothing, immediately earning the huge wages of all of two dollars a week. In his honor, Khayiml also obtained work there as a basting-stitcher, and since he pleased the boss, he was also paid two dollars a week. In addition, Dobrish, the woman of valor, “took home” shirts to be finished and also earned almost the same amount. Their landslayt [fellow-townsmen immigrants] envied the “green” family for its prosperity.
Understandably, it was not possible at the beginning to tear such a gold-spinner as Khayiml from his labors and to send him to study. In addition, he had the good fortune of attracting the attention of the self-styled “Famous Odessa Cantor” of Brownsville who accorded Khayiml a fabulous salary, predicted a great future for him, meanwhile robbing him of his meager evening free time after long working hours by day.
When the crisis subsided, Khayiml was a lad of about fourteen. The Royzenblit’s income had become secure and he could begin to think about some sort of outcome for himself. For a time he studied sign painting at the “Baron de Hirsch School.” He even showed a good talent for it — but it was not to his liking and he wanted to achieve something greater.
At that time in New York, preparatory schools were beginning to spread, enabling a large number of our future professionals to enter universities. Khayiml studied there until entering Jamaica Normal College to become an English teacher. He obtained a newsboy-territory and every day, from 4:00 to 8:00 AM, he ran about delivering newspapers before going off to the Normal College.
This, however, also did not satisfy him. He did not grow up to be an English teacher. But he did become absorbed in English literature, especially in its poetry.
This time was the dawn of socialism and anarchism on the ‘Jewish streets’ of America. The escapees from police and prison in Russia had become somewhat settled and began to carry on their work here. Our youth transferred the religious fervor of the “isms,” singing with pious intensity the songs of Vintshevski [Morris Winchevski], Edelshtat [David Edelshtadt] and Morris Rozenfeld [Rosenfield]. The Jewish tailor poured out his heart and the pain of hard work in the shop, finding consolation and courage in those songs. The “Jewish Kingdom” of East Broadway and Brownsville was growing, new waves of immigrants arrived and a Yiddish-Jewish life was created. Khayiml was also caught up and threw himself into the work. It is a time for creating and working, not for cramming. It is somewhat vulgar, grating — but it is battle, something is created. Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Tennyson, Longfellow — great poets, giants — but they pull one away from the earth. They occupied no place in the hearts of the American masses, their songs are vary rarely sung. It’s a cold surrounding world, foreign. And here there is one’s own poverty, hearty and wonderfully warm. One needs to co-create, to help with whatever one can, to bring one’s own contribution.
Khayiml began quietly to write poems, Yiddish poems.
The great English poets had a strong influence on him; he learned much from them and from the Yiddish poets — Rosenfeld and, still more Yehoash [Solomon Bloomgarden].
H. Rosenblatt had already written quite a fine packet of poems, but they had not yet been published. He was too modest and withdrawn to take them for an editor to see. Imagine — an editor! Especially an editor at that time in this land — a foreman in a party or in a shop — with their [negative] approach toward young writers. But it was his fate that in the Forverts the new literary editor was a Jew with much warmth, heartiness and literary taste, and not too kosher a party-member — Moyshe Katz (not Moyshe K”tz). In January, 1900, he published two of H. Rosenblatt’s poems at the same time. He, the beloved, good-natured Moyshe Katz was H. Rosenblatt’s sandek, David Pinski was his kvater [respectively, the officiant and ‘godfather’ at the Jewish circumcision ritual].
A decade passed before Rosenblatt dared to issue his first collection of poems. Five years later, in 1915, the M. N. Maisel publishing house released Rosenblatt’s second volume, and a second edition in 1917. Rosenblatt was read and sang and published volume after volume until the present day, when we have reached the tenth collection of his poetry, to be released at this celebration.
In 1916 H. Rosenblatt moved to Detroit, where he edited the Detroyter Vokhenblat (Detroit Weekly Newspaper) for a year’s time, during which it was an attractive literary journal, involving the best Yiddish writers in the land, handsomely remunerated.
Rosenblatt became deeply beloved in Detroit and it was there that he published his third collection, Unter Got's Himlen (Under God’s Skies), which also achieved a second edition in Maisel’s publishing house. It was there, too, that he met his life’s companion Malke Bayer (Bayarski) whom he married in 1920. Right after the wedding the couple embarked on a tour across the States and Canada. The tour was sponsored by the Yiddish Teachers’ Seminary and was very [financially] successful. He was warmly received everywhere and left behind many new friends. He came as far as Los Angeles and the city pleased him greatly; he settled there in 1921 and has remained until the present day.
His talented only child, Rina, was born in 1923.
Upon his arrival in Los Angeles in 1921 there was a fine Jewish population of some thirty thousand. Even then there was a very fine folk-intelligentsia, for whom Rosenblatt’s arrival in the blooming and growing city was a great event. The always-summery, warm and bright city grew warmer and brighter. The city grew at the fastest tempo. With it grew the Jewish population in size and breadth until it became almost the third largest Jewish city in the land. All the important Jewish cities became as a dough for Los Angeles, each taking khale [sacrificial portion] for it from its fairest and best. H. Rosenblatt contributed much to this; he became an important name and contact address. To this very day it is he who brings warmth, bright light and festival-joyousness into the Yiddish life of this eternally sunny city.

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