Buried Jewish literary gems waiting to be discovered

Yiddish poet Moyshe Leyb Halpern, who lived in New York in the early part of this century, was every bit as compelling as such well-known contemporaries as T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, insists Chana Kronfeld, a professor of comparative literature at U.C. Berkeley.

"He's been known to change people who read his work," she says. Yet "he died of illness and neglect and some say of hunger in what he called the big lumbering wastebasket of New York."

Halpern's sad and anonymous end can be attributed, in large part, to his marginalization within the world of literature, says Kronfeld, associate professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Berkeley. She explores his case and others in her new book, "On the Margins of Modernism: Decentering Literary Dynamics."

The dense and highly scholarly work looks at the way in which modernism — which Kronfeld defines as a complex and contradictory mishmash of international artistic movements, often experimental ones — values the "marginal, the exile, the `other.'"

But the exiles valued are typically those writers who have composed in the most common European languages: English, French and German. She questions why work by some eminent Yiddish and Hebrew authors has not been made similarly accessible to mass audiences.

"What does it mean to be that writer, that reader on the margins of international modernism, in the corner of the picture yet part of it, when the crowd at the center clusters around a homogenized, privileged construction of difference?" she asks in her introduction.

"Had Franz Kafka written in Yiddish or Hebrew, his voice would have been marginalized within the same framework that now sings his praises," Kronfeld says in an interview. "Up until recently, neither Hebrew nor Yiddish literature had been `marginally correct.'"

Those groups of writings may be becoming more so as such Hebrew writers as Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai gain recognition worldwide.

But Kronfeld worries that many readers are still missing out on rich and invaluable works by such authors as Halpern and Hebrew poet Esther Raab because of the marginalization perpetuated even by those who value Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

"We choose our prototypes," she says. "People know Yiddish literature as `Fiddler on the Roof' on the one hand or Bashevis Singer on the other."

Those choices, she stresses, are made less on the basis of quality of an author's work than on what is fashionable in literary circles at a given time, as well as the many cultural factors influencing what readers pick up.

Even so, Kronfeld believes generations of Jews who live long after a particular point in literary history can in their own way contribute to keeping the circles of literary models closed.

"There's a sense in which the Jewish community participates in the silencing of our own literary tradition because of the lack of commitment to the very hard job of learning the languages," Kronfeld says. "That's why translation, with all of its pitfalls, is so important."

With an increasing amount of Hebrew and Yiddish texts becoming available through translation, Kronfeld encourages would-be literary archaeologists to excavate.

In uncovering cultural gems of the past, "there's a certain sense of pride and joy that's unparalleled," Kronfeld says. "There's just amazing stuff out there. It's just there to be discovered."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.