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H. Leyvik's 60th yortzeit

Updated: Jul 13, 2023


December 23, 2022, marks the 60th anniversary of the passing of one of the most important Jewish poets and playwrights, H. Leyvick.


H. Leyvik (real name Leyvik Halpern) was born in 1888 in shtetl Ihumen (now Tcherven in Belarus).


From the age of five he studied in a cheider, from ten in a yeshiva, where he became interested in Haskalah literature and began to write poetry in Hebrew. In 1901-1903 he attended a yeshiva in Minsk. In 1905, he became an active member of the Bund. In 1906, he was arrested for possession of revolutionary literature. In Minsk prison, while awaiting trial, Leyvik wrote a dramatic poem in Yiddish, "Di keit fun Moshiach" ("Chains of the Messiah," 1907) and a number of poems, one of which appeared in 1907 in the New York newspaper "Zeitgeist." At the trial in 1908, Leyvik refused to defend himself, declared himself a convinced fighter against tsarist autocracy, and was sentenced to four years hard labor and life exile in Siberia. In 1912 he was transported to the place of hard labor in Siberia, from which he did escape in the spring of 1913. By the in incredibly difficult ways he managed to come to the United States.

In 1914. Leyvik began working in a children's clothing factory in Philadelphia, and then up to 1932, even after becoming an acclaimed writer, he worked as a house painter in New York. At the same time he began to publish his works in Yiddish publications. In 1918 his first collection of poems "Hinter shlos" ("Under lock"), was published. These were poems about a miserable childhood, about an irascible father and an eternally anxious mother, about prison, exile, escape from Siberian hard labor (the cycle "Oif di vegn sibirer" ("On Siberian roads"), about longing for freedom and happiness (cycles "Ergetz wayt" - "Somewhere there", "In keynems land" - "In nobody's country"). The same themes are reflected in Leyvik's second collection, "Lider" ("Poems"), published in 1919.

The bloody events of World War I, the revolutions, the Civil War, and the Jewish pogroms in Russia moved Leyvik from the realm of personal experience into the realm of universal and national problems. Four poems about the pogroms, whose prophetic message (especially "Der wolf" - "The Wolf") was only fully revealed in the years of rampant Nazism, were written in 1917-20. At the same time, Leyvik worked on the dramatic poem "Der goylem" ("The Idol"), which made him famous, published in 1921 and first produced in Moscow by the Habima Theater in 1925, translated into Hebrew.)


Leivik focused on the redemption of the world and Judaism, the role of the masses and the individual in the renewal of life, as anticipated by the revolution, through the relationship between the Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Liva Ben Betzalel from Prague) and the goylem he had created of the spiritual and the material. In so doing, Leyvik drew on medieval Jewish legend in a modern form and content.


The relationship between the individual and the crowd within the framework of revolutionary changes in society, the clash of social and personal interests became the themes of Leyvik's other dramatic works ("Shmates" - "Rags", 1921; "Shap" - "Factory", 1927; "Hirsh Lekkert", 1927; "Keit" - "Chains", 1929, and others). Plays based on his dramatical pieces were staged by many Jewish theaters in Europe and America.


A tour of Europe (England, France, Germany, Poland) at the end of 1925 - the beginning of 1926, Leyvik ended with a visit to the Soviet Union, where he was welcomed (collections of his poems were published in Moscow and Kiev), but soon one of the irreconcilable ideologists of the "Evsektsiya" M. Litvakov rebuked the poet for his lack of loyalty to Communist ideals, and after the publication of his travel notes, "Oifn rand fun onheib" ("At the Beginning Line," Kiev, 1925), he was also accused for misjudging the role of Yiddish literature in the Soviet Union and the collectivist consciousness of the Soviet people.


In the 1930s Leyvik turned to traditional and biblical themes and created a number of dramatic works using motifs from the Tanakh and Jewish folklore. In 1937 he visited Eretz-Israel and published a collection of essays "H. Leyvik vegn Eretz-Israel" ("H. Leyvik on Eretz-Israel", 1938).


Leyvik devoted the drama "Der nes in ghetto" ("Miracle in the Ghetto", 1940), a collection of poems "In Treblinka bin ikh nit geven" ("I was not in Treblinka", 1945) to the catastrophe of European Jewry, a dramatic mystery poem, "Di hasene in fernwald" ("A Wedding in a Distant Forest", 1949), and notes, "Mit der sheiris ha-playte" ("With the Surviving Remains" (Refugees), 1947) about visits to Jewish refugee camps in postwar Germany.


Leyvik paid particular attention to editing a collection compiled by Schmerke Kaczerginski, "Lieder fun ghetos un camps" ("Songs of the Camps and Ghettos," 1948). In the introductory article to this collection he wrote:

"In the bitter days of our nation's death - yes, even then - none of us doubted the spiritual strength, the courage of the souls of our brothers going to Kidush-Ha-shem (self-sacrifice for faith)... The world was closed off by barbed wire. Even the daily cries of pain from the ghettos and death camps barely penetrated the deadly fences. Who then could have thought or imagined that in the ghettos and camps the victims were composing poems and creating melodies to sing them"...


In 1950 and 1957. Leyvik visited Israel and met and heatedly debated with Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders about the historical role of the Yiddish language and culture and the fate of Yiddish in the Jewish state. In 1958, paralysis confined the poet to his bed.


His dramas and poems have been translated into many languages, including Russian and Hebrew.


In his introductory article to the collection "Shtudies in Leyvik" ("Studies on Leyvik" 1992), Prof. Gershon Winer shares his personal memories:

"The figure of Leyvick has always commanded special reverence and respect.


Three episodes associated with him resurface in my memory. The first was when I was a child of about ten in Toronto. I heard that Leyvick will perform in our city. In the thrall of all the excitement of Leyvik's name, I made my way to the auditorium on that cold Friday where the meeting with the poet was to take place. I didn't understand much at the time, but the atmosphere at the event and the poet himself made an unforgettable impression on me. He was reading his drama "Der dichter iz gevorn blind" ("The Poet is Blind"), based on an episode from the life of Maurice Rosenfeld.

The second was a couple of decades later: Leyvik was speaking in our little congregation somewhere in the midwestern United States, where I served as rabbi. A mostly English-speaking audience came. I introduced him in English, but Leyvik still spoke in Yiddish. Not much was understood from his presentation, but the impression was immense. By some unknown strings of the soul, if not by linguistic means, he drew the listeners to his word, which they may not have understood literally, but on a more sacred level they felt deeply.


And a third episode. The poet was ill. He lay paralyzed, confined to bed. For almost four years he had been mute and cut off from the outside world. I went to see him, went into his room and saw before me not a helpless fading patient, but a king on a throne with a crowned head. I reminded him of my previous meetings and the masses of enthusiastic readers, who wished him a speedy recovery. He answered me with a mere movement of his eyes. This movement sent shivers down my spine. I felt in his presence a special sublime feeling, a certain flight of mind. It was for me not an ordinary visit to a sick man, but literally a pilgrimage...".


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