Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Forgotten Men: American Hebraism. Part One

             David Park, a bookseller for decades, most lately at Bolerium Books, used to work for John Quinn at Quinn's last bookstore, Valencia Books. There is so much history in that last sentence an hour wouldn't unravel it all. But those are stories for another day. John pretty much let David organize the shop as he saw fit. Towards the back of the store in an alcove by the stairs to the loft David created a section entitled "Unpopular Fiction." There all of the novels whose readers had long since come and gone or perhaps had never come were assembled purposefully and respectfully. Plenty of other booksellers might tolerate these items in their shops for a time clueless to their truly humble history.  But in their shops these books would have hidden in among other books better known and more likely to sell. David imagined readers who themselves were unpopular readers and thus sources for a natural demand for books that matched their own essence. (He himself is at least partially such a reader himself).
                 Remembering the forgotten and sometimes rightfully forgotten is a task for eccentrics and it here that I reveal my purpose. I can't say what exactly was the impulse that set my mind upon the American Hebraists, a group of writers, by some account as many as two hundred in number, who are now almost completely forgotten. Here I intend to bring raise a small banner for them.*
                 A review of the new edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica finds no entry for American Hebraists or Hebraism. The entry on modern Hebrew literature is lengthy, but completely omits any mention of Hebrew literature in America. A short entry on the Histadrut Ivrit, the organization of the American Hebraists receives a short recognition that is new to the Second Edition. Some of the major figures among the Hebraists receive entries that were created for the first edition. All of the ones I found are authored by Eisig Silberschlag who was one among their number and also one of the longest lived member of their fraternity. While a more detailed review of the literature will wait for a later post, suffice it to say the American Hebraists have until recently been largely set aside.
                Stephen Katz, in his 2011 work Red, Black and Jew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature, focuses on the treatment of Native Americans and Black Americans as subject matter. His focus falls on three separate authors though he mentions others. These are Binyamin Nahum Silkiner, Israel Efros and Ephraim Lisitzky. Michael Weingrad discusses the same works in the third chapter of his work American Hebrew Literature: writing jewish national identity in the united states, "Going Native: The Indian in the American Hebrew Imagination. Both of these scholars, whose works were published in 2009 and 2011, are of a younger generation than Alan Mintz acknowledge Mintz's influence in writing and in fellowship. Mintz's, Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry, credits the work of Katz and Weingrad heavily in his discussions of this aspect of the work of Silkiner, Efros and Lisitzky. Mintz discusses the three author's lyrical poetry in addition to these larger works. In that Mintz fills out larger pictures of the three authors well beyond Weingrad and beyond Katz.
                Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry, published in 2012, is the first thorough introduction to the wider project of American Hebrew Literature (at least in the poetic realm). Eisig Silberschlag and Jacob Kabakoff wrote about American Hebrew Literature, but Mintz's work in lengthier. He is genuinely appreciative of the genre and admits to taking actual pleasure in American Hebrew Literature. His work is in English, but includes sample poems from a dozen authors (in Hebrew and with translations into English) and discusses them at length in order to illustrate important aspects of their poetics. His readings are close and glisten with clarity.
                In one of the longer introductory chapters he tries to explain the appeal of Hebrew Literature to its American practitioners. I hope he will forgive my quoting a bit of it at length:
"Yet indignation and ideological commitment are not sufficient to explain the phenomenon this study documents. Instead, I propose we understand Hebrew in the lives of the poets as an essentially religious and sensual experience that flooded their daily lives and provided them with direct access to the object of their desire. This may seem like a perverse claim given their professed secularism and the Puritanism of much of their verse; but this is only because we underestimate the wealth of personal meaning their derived from their private relationship to the Hebrew language. Yes, they were marginalized, ignored and provoked. Yet rather than being long-suffering martyrs, the American Hebrew poets possessed creative lives marked by a kind of linguistic jouissance that came from the intimate daily experience of kneading the language, reshaping it, and being enriched by it in return. The dimension of sensual pleasure was matched by the unofficial but tangible gratifications of a kind of religious experience. It is easy to see the transcendental authority provided by participation in and service to the Jewish nation and its historical tongue. Less evident are the benefits that accrued from the devoted daily praxis of the Hebraist, who lived within the rules and conventions of Hebrew even as he picked and chose from the language's vast resources to fashion his individual path. It is not an exaggeration to say that next to the world of the true ish hahalakhah, the practitioner of Jewish law, the Hebraist's practice of Hebrew was a key variety of Jewish identity that was genuinely transportable into the Diaspora in modern times, specifically because of the daily tangible discipline it provided." p. 67.
                Members of the European Hebraists arrived beginning in the 1880s with the mass immigration from Eastern Europe, but their production was neither great in quantity nor in quality. The strains of adapting to the new country were generally overwhelming. (I'll briefly return to this below.)

                Among the American Hebraists Binyamin Nahum Silkiner was viewed as the real father of a genuine American Hebrew Literature. Silkiner's major work was a novel in verse entitled Mul ohel Tumura: shiray po'ema (Before Timmura's Tent), Jerusalem, 1910, revised edition included in Shirim, New York, 1927. Silkiner arrived in the midst of the great era of Jewish immigration in 1905, but he was able to both Americanize himself enough to be employable and produce a work of significant size and seriousness. It is hard to say for certain how Silkiner found his way to the fantasized and idealized vision of Native American life that he entertain as the ground of his work, but once there his focus on the fading away of the Native Americans in the face of the encroaching of European settlement makes sense. His debt of influence to Longfellow is clear. Hiawatha was translated into Hebrew by Saul Tchernichowski (Odessa, 1903) and into Yiddish by Yehoash in 1910. Longfellow's Hiawatha clearly had a fix on the Jewish imagination.
                Katz makes a strong fair case that Silkiner's Native Americans are stand-ins for Silkiner's own concerns as a Jewish American (though Weingrad is less comfortable with that assertion). He discusses how Silkiner takes the very regular verses of Longfellow as a metrical inspiration. But despite the direction in both subject matter and poetic style Silkiner's approach departs in a fundamental way from Longfellow's. Despite Longfellow's fondness for his imagined Native Americans his ultimate conclusion sees them only as subject people's destined to disappear into the past or into a greater Christian nation. Silkiner sees his Native Americans as victims of European/ Christian oppression and corruption. Sadly I don't have a copy of either of the volumes of Silkiner's that include this poem to offer at this time.
               Silkiner was on of the editers of Ha-Toren, the main periodical of the American Hebraists in the period of their greatest relevance to the Zionist project. Mintz described his a kind of one man crusade for Hebrew literary periodicals in America. He promoted a plan to translate Shakespeare into Hebrew that ultimately succeed, though it did take decades. He went on to become a Hebrew and Bible teacher at the Teacher's College of Jewish Theological Seminary. Silkiner was a father figure for the American Hebraists that followed though he was not that much older than them. Though his followers were critical of his writing, he remained personally beloved. They helped him with his revision of Mul ohel Tumura. He was of more of a transitional figure than a man of the new generation. Though Silkiner died in 1933 his translation of Shakespeare's Macbeth was published Warsaw in 1939. I can offer one work of relevance to Silkiner:

Ribalow, Menachem. Sefer zikaron le-V. N. Silkiner. [New York], Histadrut Ivrith of America, 1934. Octavo, black cloth with gold stamped title on the front board, frontispiece photo, 96 pp.  Hardbound. Very Good. In Hebrew (37468)     $35.00
               [There ought to be some discussion here of Amerikkaniyut as called for by Simon Halkin in 1925. Briefly, Halkin one of Silkiner's young acolytes wrote a harsh critique of the American Hebraists for their failures to contribute anything truly American to Hebrew literature. Israel Efros, discussed below did really try to address that critique.]

               Israel Efros' primary contribution to the treatment of Native Americans in American Hebrew Literature is Vigvamim Shotkim, He established himself as an academic on Jewish subjects and his major philosophical works are still widely read. His first collection of poetry was published in Tel Aviv in 1932. Vigvamim Shotkim (Silent Wigwams), a long narrative poem was published the following year. Efros established the Baltimore Hebrew College and Teachers Training School in 1919 and remained the dean there until 1928 when he took a position as a congregational rabbi in Buffalo, New York.

              In his time in Baltimore Efros became well acquainted with the area and set Vigvamim... among an imagined version of Native life in Maryland. Efros also owes a debt to Longfellow's Hiawatha. The hero of the story (so to speak) is a European colonist drummed out of his Maryland colony for his unsocial ways. He is taken in by a Native tribe and marries the daughter of the chief. He leads the tribe in battle against the settlers, but ultimately, as a result of home-sickness returns to his English wife.  In his absence his Native wife bears a stillborn child and takes her life. He returns to the Natives in time only to mourn for what he has lost. It is a sad story that Stephen Katz characterizes as containing, "A strain of anti-European and anti-colonial romantic angst about human foibles, coupled with latent Zionism." Efros' mix of concerns lead to the creation of a complicated non-Native protagonist, but the Natives are far less complicated. Although Efros has a clear sympathy with Native Americans he still sees them in the stereotypes of their treatment in non-native literature. Mintz mentions what was apparently a common (and probably correct) critique of Efros's Natives - they were characters out of the movies.
             Efros returned to Native Americans in his novel of the Gold Rush era in California, "Zahav," New York, 1942, but the treatment is as part of a larger phenomenon. The hero of this story also has a relationship with a Native woman that ends tragically. The epic poem ends with the hero realizing the foolish nature of his quest for gold only due to the influence of the father of the Native women.
Efros, Israel. Zahav. New York, Hotzaat Sfarim, 1942. Octavo, reddish black cloth, 168 pp. Hardbound. Very Good. In Hebrew (10376)      $30.00
Other titles by Efros in my stock include:

Efros, Israel. Anahnu ha-dor... New York, Hotzaat Ogen, 1944. Octavo, brown cloth spine with gold lettering and soiled gray cloth covered boards, 124 pp. Soiled front endpaper. Hardbound. Good. In Hebrew. (37772)      $25.00
           This is another important work for Efros which takes into account the unfolding events of the Holocaust.

Efros, Israel. Dorot: Shirim. Tel Aviv, Dvir, 1966. Octavo, paper covered boards, 218 pp. Hardbound. Very Good. In Hebrew (47222)      $20.00

Efros, Israel. Elegyot bereshit. Shirim/ Ancient Elegies. Tel Aviv, Dvir, 1966. Octavo, printed paper covered boards, 144 pp. Hardbound. Very Good. In Hebrew (46213)     $20.00

Efros, Israel. Meh amok hu shatul. Shirim/ From the New World: How Deep He Is Planted Poems. Tel Aviv, Dvir, 1966. Octavo, printed paper covered boards, 156 pp. Hardbound. Very Good. In Hebrew (47221)     $20.00

Efros, Israel. Min Ha-Olam Ha-Hadash: Shene Shirim/ From the New World: Two Poems. Tel Aviv, Dvir, 1966. Octavo, printed paper covered boards, 251 pp. Hardbound. Very Good. In Hebrew (46214)     $25.00

         As a translator Efros published:

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet: Nesikh Denmark. New York, Hotzaat Ogen, 1944. First edition thus. Octavo, brown cloth with gold lettering, 243 pp..  Hardbound. Very Good. Translated into Hebrew by Israel Efros. (26581)      $20.00
        This was part of Silkiner's project to translate all of Shakespeare.
        Efros served a substantial term as the head of the Histadrut Ivrit. In 1955, he was asked to serve as the rector of Tel Aviv University. He held the post for four years before retiring.  He later became honorary president of the university. He remained in Israel for the rest of his life, fulfilling in his later years the implied intent of all Hebraists. He experienced more success and prominence in the wider Jewish community than any of the Hebraists.
         The last major treatment of Native Americans in American Hebrew literature is Ephraim E. Lisitzky's Medurot do‘akhot (Dying campfires), New York, 1937. Lisitzky was younger again by about ten years than Efros and his attitude towards America was ultimately quite distinct from Efros'. Unlike Efros and Silkiner, Lisitzky took the trouble to really feel himself of America even though that presence was a torment to him at times. Although in later years he did visit the new nation of Israel twice he never made aliyah. Lisitzky's first collection in Tel Aviv and all of his major works were republished in Jerusalem in the 1960s.
       The plot of Medurot do'akhot is too complex to reiterate. It includes Lisitzky's recasting of many different Native folktales though frustratingly not folktales from a single tribe. Rather, they derive from tribes greatly different in location and culture, though they don't cohere among themselves. These folktales add an element of authenticity that was entirely lacking in the work of Efros and Silkiner. However, Lisitzky's use of unrhymed trochaic tetrameter, as in Hiawatha and the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, is entirely unauthentic and even jarring in relationship to the material. (per Katz). Additionally, Medurot do'akhot, is mired in notion of the tragic Native. Even in his use of authentic Native material Lisitzky cannot keep himself from recasting the material into a more Jewish ethic. Katz refers back to Lisitzky's surce material and explains the shift. Even reading Native words Lisitzky cannot depict the Native Americans as they are. This is the result of one thing that Lisitzky had entirely in common with Silkiner and Efros - a complete lack of personal familiarity with any live Native Americans. (Mintz feels that Lisitzky, unlike Efros and Silkiner had too much textual information about Native American history, tradition and literature).
        Lisitzky's writings about African Americans like those of many other American Hebraists and Yiddishists were based on personal familiarity. Jews and Blacks often lived in the same neighborhoods. Some of their appearances in poetry and prose were sympathetic. Some portrayals occasionally drifted into racism (conscious or unconscious). None engaged with the African American community with the thoroughness of Lisitzky.
         Lisitzky's first writings about African Americans were composed while he still lived in the north. His interest began before he had substantial knowledge. However, when he was hired to teach Hebrew in New Orleans he had the opportunity to dive into a substantial community in a way that he never had before. This collection of long poems Lisitzky ultimately published as Be-Ohole Kush: Shirim, Tel Aviv, 1953. This collection shows a liveliness that Lisitzky's previous poetry had lacked. Lisitzky created his own iterations of spirituals and blues based poems. He attended services at Black churches. He wrote his versions of preacher's sermons rich with Biblical allusion. This cut two ways. It allowed him to use his strong grounding in Hebrew Bible but also tied up his representation of African American homiletics in an inevitably classicist and specifically Jewish register.
          Philip Hollander, a professor of Hebrew Literature, himself late of New Orleans and a critical reader, took his greatest pleasure in the moments where Lisitzky's poetic rhythm seemed to catch a New Orleans stride. It is counted against Lisitzky that he does not try to engage in a pure mimesis, somehow "going native," to mix a metaphor. My own absorption in African American culture ought to bias me in favor of such a criticism, but as I reflect I feel that the path that Lisitzky took was correct from a number of points of view. I think that it is presumptuous to take on an ethnic identity that is not one's own. There is a kind of problem that occurs when the imitation comes too close. In animation it is referred to as "the uncanny valley." Right starts to look terribly wrong. Alternately,  Lisitzky would be false to himself if he effaced his own history and sense of self. Black New Orleans is one of the world's great cultures. New Orleans culture as a whole is a polyglot culture and Lisitzky can be part of the polyglot culture and close to the African American without posing as an African American himself.
            Lisitzky brings African American culture into a genuinely Hebrew context and by doing so expands what can exist within Hebrew literature. His conservatism is precisely what keeps his work from losing touch with the larger body of Hebrew literature. It is deeply American text, deeply Jewish and in Hebrew.
         Be-Ohole Kush is one of many titles by Lisitzky that I have in stock:

Lisitzky, Efraim A. Shirim. [Tel Aviv], Eretz Yisrael, Hotzaat 'Chaverim', BeAmerikah al yad 'Dvir', 1928. Duodecimo, gray cloth with a worn spine slightly frayed at the ends, 282 pp. Bookplates and minor ink stamps on the endpapers. Hardbound. Good. Text is in Hebrew. From the library of Herzliah Teachers' Institute Library. Inscribed by the author to Abraham Goldberg on the title page (11357)     $40.00

Lisitzky, Ephraim. Be-ohole Kush: Shirim. Jerusalem, Mosad Byalik, 1953. Duodecimo in edgeworn dust jacket with a few tears, 304 pp. Hardbound. Good. In Hebrew. Inscribed by the authot on the title page (38147)     $25.00

Lisitzky, Ephraim. Negohot me-arafel. Tel Aviv, Hotsaat "Ogen" ve"Masada", 1957. Duodecimo in dust jacket, 206 pp. Hardbound. Very Good. In Hebrew (38203)     $25.00

Lisitzky, Ephraim A. Naftule Elohim. Tel Aviv, Hotsaat Ogen - Dvir, 1934. Octavo, maroon cloth with gold lettering with minor wear at the base of the spine, 510 pp., errata. Hardbound. Very Good. In Hebrew. Inscribed by the author to S. Niger on the free front endpaper (37433)     $40.00

Lisitzky, Ephraim E. Adam al Adamot: Poemot. New York, Hotsaat Ogen al yad Ha-Histadrut ha_ivrit ba-Amerikah, 1947. Octavo, blue cloth with gold lettering, 256 pp.  Hardbound. Good. In Hebrew. With an introduction by Menahem Ribalow (37413)     $20.00

Lisitzky, Ephraim E. Bi-yeme sho'ah u-mesho'ah: mahazot. New York, Ogen shel ha-Histadrut ha-Ivrit ba-Amerikah, 1959. Octavo, paper covered boards, 153 pp., errata. Hardbound. Very Good. In Hebrew (53765)     $25.00

Lisitzky, Ephraim E. Medurot do‘akhot. New York, Hotsaat Ogen, 1937. Octavo, red cloth with gold lettering, 326 pp. Yellowed paper. Hardbound. Good. In Hebrew (23595)     $20.00

Lisitzky, Ephraim Eliyahu. Eleh Toldot Adam. Jerusalem, Mosad Bialik, [1949]. Duodecimo in edgeworn dust jacket, 287 pp. Hardbound. Very Good-. Text is in Hebrew. (42418)     $20.00

Lisitzky, Ephraim E. Bi-shevile hayim ve-sifrut. Tel Aviv, Mahbarot le-sifrut, 1961. Duodecimo in edgeworn dust jacket, 192 pp. Hardbound. Very Good. Text is in Hebrew. (79675)     $25.00

Eleh Toldot Adam, Lisitzky's autobiographical work was translated into English in 1959. In both Hebrew and English it portrays part of the earlier years of his experience among Hebrew writers in America. The chapters about his meeting with the writer Menachem Mendel Dolitzky are mildly comic and vastly sad. Dolitzky was a leader among the first generation of Hebrew writers. He was an old style Maskil. In order to make money for himself he turned to writing Yiddish shund novels which he sold from door to door. His cynicism fails to dissuade the young Lisitzky. I have a couple of Dolitzky's titles in stock:

 Dolitzky, M.M. Milhemet ha-tehiyah: sipur yesodato be-divre yeme Yisra'el. New York, Dzshuish Pres Pob. Ko., 1911. Octavo, green cloth with gold lettering, front endpaper cracked at the hinge, 464 pp. Hardbound. Good. Text is in Hebrew. (44640)     $45.00

Dolitzky, Menahem Mendl. Shire Menahem. Hegyonot we-hezyonot, meshalim u-miktamim, yeshanim ve-gam hadashim. New York, Zigmund Bacharach Sonneborn, 1900. Octavo, quarter leather lacking most of the back-strip (spine), black cloth covered boards, 188 pp. Hardbound. Good-. In Hebrew (49430)      $65.00

         Lisitzky also participated in the Shakespeare translation project. He translated The Tempest:

Shakespeare, William. Ha-Se'arah/ The Tempest. New York, Hotsaat Ogen, 1941. Octavo, maroon cloth with green lettering, mild fraying at the spine ends, 158 pp. errata. Hardbound. Very Good. Translated into Hebrew by Ephraim E. Lisitzky (37493)      $25.00

and much later Julius Caesar.
         Lisitzky struggled through life. Unlike Efros, he lived thin, a bit of a luftmentsch. In the late 1950s and early 1960s particularly in Israel he began to get a recognition that largely evaded him in America. (Professor Hollander believes that these were vanity or near vanity publications. so perhaps my judgement here is poor.) Though he was not praised in the critical literature the interest in him suggests that readers and editors might have found more there than the critics did.


Chametzky, Jules; Felstiner, John; Flanzbaum, Hilene and Hellerstein, Kathryn, edited by. Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology. New York, 2001

Feldman, Yale S. Modernism and Cultural Transfer: Gabriel Preil and the Tradition of Jewish Literary Bilingualism. Cincinnati, 1986.

Katz, Stephen. Red, Black and Jew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature. Austin, 2009.

Lederhendler, Eli. Jewish Responses to Modernity: New Voices in America and Eastern Europe. New York, 1994

Mintz, Alan, edited by. Hebrew in America: Perspectives and Prospects. Detroit, 1993.

Mintz, Alan. Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry. Stanford, 2012.

Weingrad, Michael. American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States. Syracuse, 2011.

*A final note for now: I am not a "real" scholar. I have books to sell. I have them for reasons that are wise and reasons that are foolish. They reside on shelves and I live with them sometimes for days and sometimes for years or decades. Some I know well and other remain strangers. Here I've made an effort to get to know a group that I never knew well enough. The titles mentioned above are part of a larger social group that I will return to, perhaps with greater understanding.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Holy Land Photo Postcards by The Bonfils firm

The Bonfils family, FĂ©lix Bonfils, his wife Lydie Bonfils and later, his son Adrien Bonfils were French photographers who emigrated to Lebanon in 1867. Their work was very popular with the many Holy Land visitors that were already arriving in steadily increasing numbers by the 1860s. They sold original photographs, but their work was distributed most widely in color tinted postcards.
The company ceased operations due to the war in 1917 and possibly simply due to exhaustion. These are offered as a group for $80.00.

Jerusalem - Valley of Jehosaphat
Jericho - General View
 Jerusalem from the Mount Olives
 The Jews Wailing Place, on Friday

This particular view is of great historical importance as it clearly shows women praying at the Wailing Wall freely just as they are no longer allowed to do today. 

 Church of the Annuniciation - Nazareth
 General View of Nazareth
 Nazareth - Mount Tabor
 Ramallah's Women
 Samaria - Mount Tabor
 Second Station [of the Via Dolorosa]
 Jerusalem - Street inside Jaffa Gate
  The Dead Sea
 Jerusalem - Water Carrier
 Rachel's Tomb
Jericho - Elisa's Fountain
Beyrouth - Promenade des Pins

Friday, March 4, 2016

A brief introduction to Todros Geller

Todros Geller was a significant presence in the Chicago Jewish community from the 1920s through until his untimely death in 1949. He is one of the best artists when it comes to the handling of Jewish themes. His art pushes past both positive and negative stereotypes. As I continue to research my planned posts on the American Hebraists I thought that I might present some graphic material of interest. Below are some of Geller's best known images. They were created for the 1928 book by Louis Wirth, "The Ghetto." Wirth was trying to explain to the larger community the concerns and folkways of the traditional Jewish community that continued to resist assimilation into the Chicago and American mainstream. Although Geller was politically radical and I suspect not particularly observant by that time his background gave him a very sympathetic understanding of his subject matter. There are a few short but worthwhile sources on Geller, but he is certainly not well enough known. Later posts will return to Geller and his work.

Horseradish Grinder


Maxwell Street

Street Musicians

Talmudic Scholar

Holy Emissary