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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author
Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, page 1 of 4
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Moyshe-Leyb Halpern: Biographical Essay

by Dr. Julian Levinson

Moyshe-Leyb Halpern was born in 1886 in the Galician town of Zlochev (today in northwest Ukraine), half of whose 10,000 inhabitants were Jews. His father’s dry-goods store provided a relatively secure income for the family, and Halpern was educated in a traditional Cheder as well as a Polish-language school. At the age of twelve, he was sent to Vienna to work as an apprentice to a commercial sign painter. Amid the cultural ferment of this vibrant city Halpern developed his interest in literature, coming under the influence of Yung wien (Young Vienna), a group of writers whose artistic experiments were challenging the moralism of nineteenth-century literary culture. Halpern published a few poems in German while still in Vienna, but he switched to Yiddish upon his return in 1907 to Zlochev, where he discovered a burgeoning literary culture in his native language.

To avoid the draft, Halpern moved in 1908 to New York City, quickly associating himself with the emerging neo-Romantic school known as Di yunge (The Young Ones). These poets and novelists, including Mani Leyb, Reuben Iceland, Zishe Landau, and Joseph Opatoshu, strove for aesthetic seriousness, pushing Yiddish literature beyond the narrow political focus of the “Sweatshop Poets.” Halpern’s wit and penchant for daring metaphoric flights in his poems made him one of the group’s most dynamic and idiosyncratic voices.

Halpern’s aloof persona and rebellious streak marked him as an outsider among his generation. “We learned to adapt ourselves,” recalled fellow poet Mani Leyb. “We ripened and eventually turned into real Americans. Not Moyshe-Leyb. He couldn’t compromise or bend.” In his writing Halpern sought to mirror the realities of urban chaos, poverty, and psychic pain. As he writes in “A Rogue’s Prayer” (A tfile fun a lump): “Oh, help me God. / May disgust come from my words / As it comes from a dead cat rotting in garbage” (o, helf mir got / az eklen zol fun maye reyd, / vi fun a toyter kats in mist). Here Halpern parodies traditional religious piety along with the traditional image of the poet as singer of beauty. Like Charles Baudelaire, with whom he has sometimes been compared, Halpern cultivated the image of the “poete Maudit,” the accursed poet living on the fringes of society. The theme of urban chaos pervades Halpern’s first collection, In New York (In Nyu York, 1919), which culminates with the most fully realized apocalyptic work in American Yiddish poetry, the nightmarish cycle “A Night” (A nakht).

In 1922 Halpern became a staff writer of the newly-formed Communist daily Di frayheyt, contributing feuilletons as well as poetry. He went on several speaking tours over the next few years in the Northeast and Midwest, billed as “the great proletarian poet.” While he was sympathetic to the Frayheyt’s criticisms of capitalist society, Halpern also chaffed against the orthodox Marxism of the editorial board. His poems from this period, collected in his second volume The Golden Peacock (Di goldene pave, 1924), move into a more personal register. They include works dedicated to his wife, his young son, and friends such as Moyshe Nadir along with a series of pensive mediations from the perspective of an older, wiser, often sorrowful poetic persona named “Zarkhi.” Among these works is his famous send-up of shtetl nostalgia, “Zlochev, My Home” and a surrealistic meditation of the New York subway, “In the Subway.” Halpern was also an accomplished visual artist, and this collection contains portraits of himself and his family along with prints in a neo-primitive style.

By 1926 he was on the outs with the Frayheyt, having been criticized for the obscurity and coarseness of his poetry and for his obstinate refusal to toe the party line. After a period shuttling for a period between Brooklyn and the Bronx, he moved with his wife and child to Detroit. Then, in 1928, during a spell of financial difficulties following his departure from the Frayheyt and suffering from severe abdominal pain (eventually diagnosed as an ulcer), Halpern moved to Los Angeles with his wife and child. They were initially hosted by a wealthy couple they knew from New York, and later moved to a tiny house on Boulder Street in City Terrace near Boyle Heights, a working-class district East of the Los Angeles River that was, at the time, the epicenter of Los Angeles’ fledging Yiddish cultural scene. His house was just a few blocks from another Yiddish writer who had been affiliated with Di Yunge in New York, Henry Rosenblatt, who likely helped introduce Halpern to the rest of the small but growing community of Yiddish writers there. Having hosted another notable literary figure, the talented but erratic Lamed Shapiro, a few years before, the Yiddish writers in East Los Angeles were it was eager to embrace Halpern, whom they regarded as a poet-hero and possible mentor.

Halpern’s experiment in West Coast living lasted less than two years. Initially he benefitted from the local patronage system supporting writers and artists. (In a reminiscence of Halpern’s Los Angeles period, local writer Yehezkel Bronshteyn [Ezekiel Brownstone] writes that Halpern spontaneously gave him a hundred dollars to purchase a new jacket.) He was invited by the local composer Paul Lemkin to provide poems for musical compositions, and he found a local venue for his work, the magazine Pasifik, edited by his neighbor, Henry Rosenblatt. But Halpern ultimately found it difficult to find his bearings amid the community’s warring ideological camps. For the Communists, Halpern’s break with the Frayheyt was an enduring mark against him; for the anti-communists he was still regarded as a political rival. On one occasion he had to defend himself against charges by the Communist magazine The Waker that he had been seen passing around a hat for himself at parties; he protested that the money was for a fellow destitute writer. Less than two years after his arrival, Halpern abandoned his Los Angeles adventure. Consumed with various newly hatched schemes (including one involving emigration to Poland), he returned with his family to New York in the summer of 1929. He would remain there until his death three years later.

Of the poems Halpern wrote during his California sojourn, “Los Angeles” offers the most direct statement of his impressions of life on the coast. A rare example of a Yiddish literary work about Los Angeles, the poem quickly fades the city itself into the background for a rambling, tortured, and darkly comedic internal monologue. “Los Angeles” exemplifies a type of poem Halpern began writing in his later years, a type that Benjamin Harshav has characterized as Halpern’s “talk verse.” Unlike traditionally structured lyric poems, these do not trace a coherent theme from some clearly-defined beginning towards a point of closure. Instead, they stack up a concatenating series of thoughts, impressions, scenarios, and images — all connected by a madcap logic of loose association. Such poems generally eschew metaphor in favor of what Harshav calls “analogue situations,” though at times the only clear connection is to be found in mood and tone.

In “Los Angeles,” Halpern presents a series of situations in which some kind of outward image of beauty is exposed as a fraudulent display or false promise. The music of a “Wunderkind” is immediately interrupted by the whining of an old fiddler (“a klezmer an altn”). It is unclear whether this “klezmer” is actually present or an imaginary figure, appearing through the involuntary agency of memory. Whatever the case, the point is that the twin illusions of youth and beauty are shattered, leaving the poet “farmatert” (wearied, dismayed). Variations on this theme appear in stanzas 3-7: the poet dreams of a cure in the tropics only to be sliced into pieces like cake; he keeps still as a feather but is blown about by a broken fan; the women parading in fine clothing are supported by wealthy, but sickly-looking men. By enumerating these situations, the poem criticizes those who would desperately seek to overcome the diseased and decrepit underside of life, whether through art, reverie, or material goods. The fantasy of remaking oneself, even in this quintessential city of dreams, will never amount to anything but a grotesque, absurd masquerade. Halpern’s immediate target in the poem would appear to be wealthy Jews who sought to recreate themselves in their new land, but his message can be applied more broadly to anyone chasing the American Dream.

“Los Angeles” was published just after Halpern relocated to New York. It appeared in Vokh (The Week), a newly-established literary and political weekly modeled on Warsaw’s Literarishe bleter (Literary Pages). Vokh was formed in the wake of the 1929 riots in Palestine, when a group of American Yiddish writers severed their connection with the Frayheyt because the latter supported the Arabs for their “anti-imperialist” action against the yishuv. Vokh sustained an overall leftist agenda, but it steered clear of Communist party propaganda, leaving room for expressions of more nuanced positions including ones that included Jewish and even Zionist sympathies. Halpern’s relentless suspicion of any sort of group-think, along with his own idiosyncratic Jewish loyalties, made him a natural ally of the group surrounding this magazine. Indeed, “Los Angeles” was perfectly suited for its venue: it expresses the strident anti-materialism that his readers had come to expect from him, using language peppered with references to the traditional world of east-European Jews, from klezmorim to Purim graggers to shabes and, finally, the Ne’ila prayer from the Yom Kippur liturgy. This is unambiguously a poem from the Jewish left: it offers a critique of capitalist society while insistently foregrounding its view as that of a displaced Yiddish-speaking exile from Eastern Europe.

Another work from Halpern’s Los Angeles period is the poem “In a Corner Somewhere.” Originally published in the Los Angeles journal Pasifik, the poem once again features a “talk-verse” style, with stanzas connected by a logic of association, showcasing the improvisatory skill of the poet. Caustic in tone and sometimes grotesque in imagery, the poem can be read as an exploration of the psychology of despair. It begins by offering a hypothetical challenge to an interlocutor (the poet himself?): would “you” be willing to cling to a floating plank in the midst of a shipwreck? Could a meager remnant of stability suffice amid a dire situation? As a metaphor for Halpern’s sojourn in LA, these lines signal a crisis in cultural continuity: the Yiddish-speaking community – perhaps in America in general or in Los Angeles more specifically -- has been reduced to “floating” fragments in a giant sea. The image of the sea as a wilderness (vistenish) evokes the Sinai experience, though for Halpern there is no Promised Land in the offing, not even a New World to discover. After all, Halpern has now reached the Westernmost part of the United States, and what, he seems to ask, has he or any of his cohort truly gained?

In the sixth stanza the poem shifts gears; suddenly the addressee is accused of self-dramatization (“And what if these depths are merely imaginary”). Maybe this despair is but a self-generated illusion, whose hidden purpose is somehow, perversely, to provide comfort (by making the “you” feel important? by blinding him or her to an even worse reality?). At this point, the poet considers whether an assumed posture of suffering might be becoming in a mature individual. For a child, it may be passable, even sheyn, to dramatize emotions (“A child can still be pretty -- though weeping”); but for “old age” to do so is grotesque, a simple case of wetting oneself (so at least is suggested by the image of “waterlogged children’s britches”).

The poem concludes by indicting the “you” of just this kind of self-inflicted suffering – the “you” is “a sword turning against yourself.” In the final line the poet’s interlocutor has been reduced to a single strand of hair, lifting the body and complaining about the world (how could you not complain if you were a strand of hair being yanked?). This jarring image can be read as a critique of Halpern’s fellow leftists in the Yiddish-speaking world. Whereas the latter might attribute their suffering to the injustices of the capitalist system, the poem finds the sources of weltschmertz in human psychology, in the will to self-punishment. Halpern shifts the focus to the inner world and finds hypocrisy and perverse, willed suffering. Where does all this leave us? The solace of the poem seems to lie in the experience of liberation offered by its language, the defiant rejection of conventional poetic tropes and the pleasure the poet evidently takes in improvisation and jarring turns of phrase. Halpern’s Los Angeles poetry is pervaded by a sense of desperation, to be sure, but as art it also marks an exciting extension of his experimental poetics, a ripening of Yiddish avant-garde poetics.
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