American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

The Ghetto through a Spiderweb

with 5 comments

I’ve been taking notes on Yiddish poetry, as time permits, hampered by limited access to a library — the one near at hand is not, alas, rich in relevant materials — but I’ve managed to find a few useful leads online. As well as a few things that are truly incredible. one of which I thought to share right away: Berthold Feiwel’s German translation of Morris Rosenfeld’s poetry, Lieder des Ghetto (Benjamin Harz Verlag, 1902),  which features breathtaking graphic work by E. M. Lilien. Truly, one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen, starting with the colophon, which is printed in the shape of a Star of David:

The colophon appears on the verso of the title page, to the left of the following illustration, I guess a combination frontispiece/half title, which shows a drooping, leafless tree twined with barbed wire, holding up a harp with torn stings. An image of despair, though the carved-dove corner of the harp gives an illusion of escape, as it seems to be alighting from the branches, its head poking out from under the gate that reads Songs of the Ghetto:


The book includes a number of other full-page illustrations. I’ll show only a sample. This one opens the section “Lieder der Arbeit” (Songs of Work):


And this one, which makes plainer Lilien’s debts to Jugendstil, opens the section “An der Nähmaschine” (On the Sewing Machine):

rosenfeld-yiddish-lieder-des-ghetto14There are also a few two-page spreads, including this one for the section “Der Jüdische Mai” (The Jewish May):

rosenfeld-yiddish-lieder-des-ghetto10Amazingly, the left- and right-hand sides were reversed when the image was reused for volume 1 of Rosenfeld’s collected works, creating of course a very different effect:

rosenfeld-yiddish4But Lilien’s contribution was not limited to these full-page graphics. He also created a series of backgrounds. Some of them are purely ornamental, but not all. My favorite is used for “Lieder von der Armengass'” (Songs from Poverty Row). The text is like a placard on a fence in front of a factory, except that the fence is a spiderweb. And, as with the harp, whose torn strings seem to be vines, there are plumes of smoke that at first seem to be tendrils. And there’s a spider feeding on a human heart. Or maybe it’s a bedbug, since it has six legs instead of eight. Or maybe not a bedbug, since it wears a cross and the heart is obviously allegorical:


rosenfeld-yiddish-lieder-des-ghetto5The images from Lieder des Ghetto link to a copy of the book from the University of Toronto library, scanned or anyway housed by the Internet Archive. A zoom function makes it possible to see the images in all their detail.  The image from The Works of Morris Rosenfeld also comes from the Internet Archive, also from a book in the University of Toronto library.

Haim Finkelstein has written an article on Lilien and Zionism that touches on these illustrations. It appeared in Asaph 3 (1998). A .pdf of the article is available here. Also available online: an essay on Lilien contemporary with Lieder des Ghetto, from the Jewish Encyclopedia. The essay (available here) includes image files of the original encyclopedia pages.

rosenfeld-yiddish-lieder-des-ghetto13Lilien’s illustrations were also used for postcards. Several of those are on display at the website of Commemoratives International. His full name, by the way, was Ephraim Moses Lilien. He was born in Galicia in 1874, studied art in Kraków, and helped found the Jüdischer Verlag in Berlin. He died in Germany in 1924.

This post touches only tangentially on Rosenfeld, though he’s the connection to nineteenth-century American poetry. Leo Wiener’s 1898 prose translations available from the Internet Archive, again in a copy from the University of Toronto Library. Though called Songs from the Ghetto, it’s not the same book as Lieder des Ghetto. Wiener’s text is especially helpful for readers who can’t read the Hebrew alphabet since his translations were printed on facing pages with transliterations of the Yiddish originals. Perhaps to retain some sense of the differentness of the Hebrew alphabet, however, the transliterations are given in fraktur. Also available (from Google Books): the later, and somewhat overlapping, Songs of Labor and Other Poems (1914), translated by Rose Pastor Stokes and Helena Frank.

I’ll save other notes on Rosenfeld for another time.


Written by Ben Friedlander

August 6, 2009 at 2:29 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Amazing stuff. Some similar illustrations were in one of Benjamin Harshav’s pioneering anthologies of Yiddish-American poetry…

    Interested folks might like to know about the Yiddish Book Center, which collects, you guessed it, Yiddish books:


    August 6, 2009 at 2:51 pm

  2. For whatever reason I’ve never read Yiddish poetry before, or not much of it, but I’m beginning to appreciate its importance as fin de siècle American poetry. Those years — say, between Whitman’s death and the first Imagist poems — are such a strange period, so hard to get a fix on.

    Will have to check out the book center.

    Ben Friedlander

    August 6, 2009 at 4:04 pm

  3. I’ve long felt that Jacob Glatstein (or Glatshteyn) is one of America’s greatest modernist poets. A fair amount of his work has been translated, some of it reasonably well. But he’ll never get his due, I suspect.


    August 6, 2009 at 4:08 pm

  4. I’ll have to check him out! I’ve also been meaning to read Malka Heifez Tussman:

    Her son was my philosophy teacher at Berkeley.

    Ben Friedlander

    August 6, 2009 at 4:16 pm

  5. Thanks for very interesting art and history. Ephraim Moses Lilien is discussed in the terrific biography and history, “The Orientalist” by Tom Reiss (see pages 238-239 in the paperback edition re Lilien’s illustrations for books by von Munchhausen and the theme of the “orientalized” Jew).


    February 23, 2011 at 3:24 am

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