Moyshe-Leyb Halpern's 90th Yortzeit



August 31, 2022, marks the 90th anniversary of the death of the eminent Jewish poet Moyshe-Leyb Halpern. He passed away at the age of 46. His literary activity lasted only 24 years, but it left the brightest mark on the Yiddish poetry.


Halpern was born in 1886 in Zloczew, Galicja, studied painting in Vienna from 1898, later he became interested in socialism, and began writing poetry in German. In 1907 he returned to Zloczew, where influenced by the Jewish poet Shmuel Yankev Imber who later died during the Holocaust, he switched to Yiddish and began to publish in the Jewish press.

In 1908 the poet emigrated to the United States and settled in New York. He experienced all the hardships of the life of an immigrant, working hard and still living in need. In 1910 Halpern became friendly with the "Di Yunge" group, the first Jewish literary association in America, whose members based their literary work on a subjective perception of reality and sought to convey a free and romantic worldview in literature. In 1921 he began to cooperate with the communist newspaper "Freiheit" (Freedom), but left it because of disagreement with the ideological guidelines of the editorial board.


M.L. Halpern died of a heart attack in 1932. After his death, in 1934, a two-volume collection of his poems was published.


Halpern's early period was characterized by the common influence of German romantic poetry among Jewish poets of those years. Later, like other members of the "Di Yunge" group, he sought to distance himself from the social issues typical of Jewish proletarian literature, although his poetry was full of themes related to the plight of the Jewish proletarian. For a living, Halpern wrote, among other things, satirical and humorous poems, as well as prose, and dabbled in painting.


Despite Halpern's collaboration with the "Di Yunge" group, it was difficult for him to keep up with any movement, his individualism being his way of life and thinking. He remained to the end a "lone wolf" in the Jewish literature.


Halpern was also drawn to publicism. The ever-bubbling cauldron of Jewish life beckoned him, and he was not afraid to see and describe it in black and white categories.


He had a clear formulation of the nature and form of poetry, yet he was not afraid to shock with his verse. His rhythm, the long line, the unexpected rhyme, the uncomplicated vocabulary was at one time a novelty in Jewish poetry. In this aspect his poetry must have been influenced by Heine, whom Halpern translated into Yiddish. But despite all his innovativeness, he always remained a sad and lyrical poet. His poetry combined and coexisted several hypostases: a Galician aristocrat, a wandering poetic star and a truly Jewish fighter against social injustice. In his short life he was able to establish his right to be "different", to discover hitherto unexplored layers of Jewish poetry, and thereby to exert a significant influence on many poets of subsequent generations.




Moyshe-Leyb Halpern

The end of the Book

So I ask my dear wife

How to finish the affair

Of my little booky –

Says she: Let happiness leave on a train

And wave back with a hanky.

Says I: Hanky-panky –

Says she: Booky-shmooky –

And asks me whether I’d like

With my coffee a cooky.

Says I: Cooky-shmooky –

And tell her to put a case on my pillow

And not to play hooky.

Says she: Hooky-shmooky.

And tells me to repair her shoe

By hook or by crooky.

Says I crooky-shmooky.

So she jumps up, and points at my head:

I am bald and spooky.

Says I:

Spooky-crooky-hooky-cooky-hanky-panky-booky-shmooky.

But she cannot say it as fast as I can, as fast as I can:

Spooky-crooky-hooky-cooky-hanky-panky-booky-shmooky.

So we laugh together –

Laugh so nice.

Till she closes my eyes –

Closes my eyes.

And rocks me with the song of rain and light,

Rain and light,

That you sing to little children at night,

Children at night.*


*Translation from the book "American Yiddish Poetry. A Bilingual Anthology" by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav. University of California Press, 1986.




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