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David Edelstadt's 130th Yortzeit

October 17 marks the 130th anniversary of the death of the poet David Edelstadt, who was one of the founders of proletarian revolutionary poetry in Yiddish. During his very short life (26 years!) he managed to have a tremendous influence on Yiddish literature.

Edelstadt was born in 1866 in Kaluga, Russia, whose father was a "Nikolay’s soldier" who had served many years in the tsarist army and who, as a benefit, was permitted to settle outside the Pale of Settlement. At this time there were almost no Jews in Kaluga, therefore David Edelstadt received no Jewish education, and his native language was Russian. For some time he studied with a Jewish teacher, and then with a private teacher of Russian. In 1881, at the age of 15, he left Kaluga and went to Kiev, where his three brothers lived. This period was difficult for the Jews of Russia as the Russian government fought against revolutionary tendencies, encouraging and provoking anti-Semitic sentiments in society.

On May 8, 1881, a Jewish pogrom broke out in Kiev. David Edelstadt witnessed this pogrom, where he was not physically injured, but fell into a deep depression as a result of what he saw. While in the hospital, he became close to a group of Jewish students who were helping the hospitalized wounded victims of the pogrom. From these students he heard songs and stories about revolutionaries fighting against autocracy. In the mind of the young Edelstadt, it was these self-sacrificing young revolutionaries who became the real heroes. In the pogrom, it was mostly poor Jews - artisans, workers and small tradesmen - who suffered. One of the results of this and similar tragic events that occurred that year was the Zionist awakening, the founding of the BILU group. Another consequence of the wave of pogroms in the Russian Empire was the founding of “Am Olam”, whose goal was to establish a Jewish agricultural colony in the United States, built on communist principles.

Edelstadt boarded a ship and arrived in Philadelphia on May 30, 1882, and departed for New York the same day. But he did not stay long in New York, and after a short time went to his brother in Cincinnati. There he associates with a radical circle that consisted of Jewish immigrants from Russia. In Cincinnati he learned how to sew on buttons and began working in a "light-shop." In 1885 Edelstadt was already deeply involved in the anarchist movement and was active in the radical "Truth Seekers" union. In 1886, when the Haymarket riots broke out in Chicago and a year later, when four anarchists were hanged, Edelstadt was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. At the same time, these events contributed to the flowering of his poetic creativity.

In 1890 he was appointed editor of the anarchist newspaper “Fraye Arbeiter Shtime” (The Voice of the Free Worker), published in New York. In 1891 he became ill with tuberculosis and went to Denver, Colorado for treatment. His living conditions there were harsh because of material hardships. In spite of this, he wrote many poems and works of prose there. On October 17, 1892, he died.

Edelstadt’s literary work in the United States lasted only four years. Despite such a short period, he left a vivid mark on Yiddish literature. His poems were perceived as an ideological manifesto in radical anarchist circles both in the United States and in Russia. Edelstadt’s work is imbued with revolutionary romanticism. His poetry is simple and accessible. For him the roughness of style was less important, and the main thing was the ideological content. He considered the stylistic perfection of his poetry a luxury. He responded to one of his friends, who pointed out the formal flaws of his poems: "How are you not ashamed to pay my attention to rhyme, when the workers are dying of tuberculosis in mass in stuffy sweatshop factories?"

Edelstadt had an enormous influence on the Yiddish-reading public on both sides of the ocean. This influence was due not only to the subject matter of his poems, but also to his personality and his early demise. Edelstadt is not considered a poet of high literary style. His Yiddish is not noted for its lexical richness. The enormous influence he had on Yiddish literature is due to the inner truth expressed in his poems. He does not embellish, but writes what he thinks and feels. The poet Jacob Glatstein wrote of him: "About Edelstadt, if you like, you could say that he is a legend, and that legend is closely intertwined with his time. The legend of Edelstadt was already in his day a comfort to the thousands who sang his songs." One of his first Yiddish songs was “In Kamf” (In the Struggle), which was instantly taken up by the Yiddish-speaking public and became truly popular.

His ideal was a world without rulers and without tears; a world without social distinctions; a world where love and simple human virtues are neither bought nor sold for money; a world where crowns and bullets would remain only in museums; a world in which art and science would triumph over superstition and ignorance; a world where every human soul would be considered sacred and freedom would be universal. Although the subjects of his poetry were mainly the suffering of the working class and the war against the oppressors, from time to time he also wrote lyrical poems in Russian and, at the end of his life, in Yiddish.

Es shaynt mir der mond un shtern,

Di zilber-vaise lilien-blum,

Nor ful mit heise menchn-trern

Un zind fun shrekn blas un shtum.

Ven menchn laidn, klogn, zorgn,

Ken di natur den freilekh zain?

Nein, trern blutike farborgn

Zind in ire roite zunshain.


Oh, mench! Far libe, glik un lebn.

Iz di natur, di velt bashafn,

Dir iz a fraye velt gegebn.

Dokh yezt iz velt un mench farshklaft!


Un ven ir hot nor a bisl mut,

Graift tzu dem vafn,

Un mit ayer hartz un blut.

Farteidikt di lebedike shklafn!

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