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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author
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Lune Mattes: Biographical Essay

by Sunny Yudkoff, Ph.D.

with paintbrush, chisel, word and sound,
with your sensitive souls and visionary glance
Come here! [….]
and breathe in the deep-distant-quiet of the mountains.

For the Yiddish poet Lune Mattes, the American West was a seemingly endless resource of creative inspiration. Writing these lines while living in Denver, Mattes funneled the power of the Rocky Mountains into his own poetic explorations of snow-capped peaks, fiery sunsets, and cool, fresh air. All were subjects close to his heart—or, more aptly put, close to his tubercular chest. For like many Yiddish writers, such as Reuben Ludwig and Yehoash, Mattes first traveled westward not in search of employment, adventure, or opportunity but on account of his own ailing lungs.

Born in 1896 in what is now the Polish city of Białystok, Lune Mattes (né Mattes Luniansky) immigrated to America at the age of seventeen. After landing in Boston, he moved to Chicago where he lived with his sister and found work in a cigar factory earning $10 a week. In Chicago, he also began to acquaint himself with the local Yiddish publishing scene. But Mattes’ literary aspirations were soon interrupted. On December 21, 1915, he was hospitalized at the Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium and in April 1918, he was admitted to the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society (JCRS), a sanatorium for indigent Jews in Denver, Colorado. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Denver had become known as a health destination for pulmonary patients seeking relief in the cool mountain air. Nicknamed the medical “El Dorado,” Yiddish-speaking locals also referred to the growing urban center as the “gan-eyden fun der vest," the Eden of the West.

It was in that Edenic landscape, most generally, and in the JCRS, specifically, that Mattes began to seriously nurture his poetic voice and Yiddish literary skills. A patient from April 1918 to February 1921 and again beginning in January 1923, he spent much of his time “taking the cure” reading and writing. As a patient, he was provided with paper, pen, and pencil and had free access to the in-house library. There, in Mattes’ own words, patients could discover the breadth of “world literature” and borrow books in English, Hebrew, German, Russian and, of course, Yiddish. When discharged in August 1923, Mattes was subsequently hired back by the JCRS to serve as the librarian. According to the director Dr. Charles Spivak, Mattes was a gifted and organized librarian who boasted an extensive “knowledge of modern literature.” For Spivak, though, Mattes’ strength as an employee was not only a function of his acquired erudition. Rather, as Spivak would write in a letter of recommendation on Mattes' behalf, it was “because of his sympathetic nature he was [also] able to recommend to our patients the books they like to read and thereby contribute greatly to their enjoyment and incidentally to the regaining of their health.”* Echoing a notion then common among American physicians, Spivak considered literature not only to be entertainment but, potentially, an alternative form of palliative care.

For Mattes, poetry offered a means of creative release if not physiological relief. Throughout his writing—which would go on to include five volumes of poetry, one collection of children’s verse, and one five-act play—Mattes repeatedly located his speaker in the vast natural landscape of the American West. After leaving Denver and following a short stay in Chicago, Mattes moved to Los Angeles, settling at 900 N. Hazard Avenue in City Terrace near Boyle Heights, the center of Yiddish life in the city at the time. Perched on a hill overlooking the Los Angeles River, the neighborhood had a reputation for healthfulness and offered affordable single-family homes in a lush urban landscape, a fitting choice for a new arrival from the gan-eyden fun der vest.

In Los Angeles, to compliment the visions of silver snow melting on mountaintops, craggy cliffs that appear like waves turned to stone, and the flaming evening sun, Mattes turned his eye toward the red rocks and waterfalls of “Palm Springs Canyon” and to the enchanted architecture of “The California Poppies.” Similarly, when he observed the local streets in his poem, “Beverly Hills,” his eye rested on boulevards that were defined not by people but by the flowers and trees that overtook the built environment. Indeed, in “Beverly Hills,” Mattes also reveals the subtlety of class-consciousness that had been part of his experience ever since he had been a factory laborer in Chicago. In the poem, the speaker assesses the kind-un-keyt, the kith and kin, of the wealthy neighborhood. There, on a street devoid of a single child (kind), the speaker notices a dog barking while tied to a chain (keyt). Yet there seems to be no reason for the dog’s outburst. “A peddler,” reasons the speaker, “would never pass through here.” In this nouveau riche enclave of Beverly Hills, such a sign of impoverished Jewish life is foreign. Instead, the dog barks at a bluebird that stands on streets “born without joy;/between houses---/sunken in flowers.” At the same time as beauty and nature overtake the neighborhood, Mattes alerts us to the fact that the “land of eternal sunshine” is suffused with sadness and lacks a human presence.

Perhaps surprisingly, Mattes presents a similarly uncomfortable vision of Californian life in describing his own working-class neighborhood in the poem “Ganahl Street.” Here, unlike in “Beverly Hills,” a troubadour—a street peddler of song—ventures along city blocks to hock his wares. Yet he is confronted by empty balconies. Between “flowers and vines and justcutgreen lawns,” the guitar-player ambles along empty streets. There is something beautiful about Ganahl Street and something similarly melodious about the troubadour’s song. Yet, as in “Beverly Hills,” Mattes alerts his reader to a landscape devoid of interpersonal relations. The troubadour is alone and Mattes’ California neighborhoods—be they upper or working class—offer no companions.

Yet what sustains Mattes’ oeuvre throughout his career is not merely an impulse to capture natural beauty in verse nor to poeticize the tension of urban anomie. Rather, throughout his writing, Mattes contrasts the vastness of the Western landscape with his own physiological constraints. In "Colorado," the poem with which this entry began, the speaker praises the heights of the Rocky Mountains if only to fall breathless at its feet, laying his consumptive body on the ground. Elsewhere, Mattes wrote in the first person of a man who places his foot on the ground “and leaves behind a sign of death.” “Like my phlegm,” the poet continues, “my footstep—is blood-red.” Throughout his writing, Mattes toggles between the possibilities of escape into the great outdoors and the limitations imposed on him due to his illness. The great American West—a symbol of freedom and escape—is the constant counter to his own necessary hospitalization and retreat into the sickroom. Again, Mattes was a writer whose career was born in the sanatorium—in a confined space where, like his future Californian neighbors, he often observed nature from an indoor vantage. In the same volumes that Mattes poeticizes the Rocky Mountains and Palm Spring Canyons, he also places his speaker in claustrophobic gray rooms, where the four walls close in the speaker, and a shut window offers the only possible poetic perspective.

These confined spaces, moreover, would also inflect his chosen poetic form. Beginning in his second poetry volume, Momentn (Chicago, 1926) and reaching its apex in Vayse trit (White Steps; Los Angeles, 1932), Mattes experimented with writing one, two, three, four, and five-line poems, capturing brief moments of life and reducing them to a series of colors, sentence fragments, and modernist verse reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s own imagistic verse. Mattes called these poems Lamatlakh, a name derived from the much-reduced phrase: Lamed Mates Lidlakh (“L. Mattes’ Little Poems”). One such poem, “Under the Nail” (1920) reads in full:
“Sun bleeds, ecstatic, under the nail of night."   
".זון בלוטעט, אַ פֿאַרצוקטע, אונטער נאָגל פֿון נאַכט"
Although brief, the reader is left with an impression of intense heat and pain caught in a personified struggle between night and day. Once again, Mattes points his readers’ attention to nature’s grandeur, to celestial bodies, if only to compress them together in a masochistic and bloody tangle. Even while looking out into the vastness of the heavens, Mattes compresses his poem into a single line and into a single instant of physical agony.

On November 1, 1929, Lune Mattes passed away in Duarte, California at another Jewish Sanatorium. Eight years after the founding of the JCRS, the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association (JCRA) had been funded by a group of Yiddish-speaking socialists who attempted to confront the needs of an ever-growing indigent patient population. At the time of his death, Mattes’ work was known only among a small group of readers, many of whom had been personally acquainted with Mattes, either during his stay at the JCRS in Denver or from his time in Los Angeles. In a review in the LA-based Yiddish journal Pasifik (Pacific)Shia Miller recounted Mattes’ strength as a poet “hypersensitive to the short little lines (shurelekh)” with which he wrote. According to Miller, evidenced in these lines were the shallow, short breaths of their author. Indeed, from his earliest writing in Colorado, Mattes’ did not shy away from linking his writing to his breathing, nor his breathing to his surrounding landscape. As he instructed his fellow artists, “breathe in the deep-distant-quiet of the mountains.” He did so, inhaling natural vistas from the Rockies to the Pacific, while poeticizing these moments in succinct, evocative, and intriguingly tight verse. While other writers made their way westward on account of their ailing lungs, Mattes lived his life as a “tubercular poet,” rendering his disease both subject and style across his oeuvre.

*"Morris Lune Patient Record," JCRS Folder 6361, JCRS Archive. 
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