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Is the War Over Yet?

Yiddish and Hebrew Literature in Israel


In winter 1949, the first issue of Di Goldene Keyt (The Golden Chain) was published in Tel Aviv. Founded and chief-edited by Avrom Sutzkever, the prominent Yiddish poet who had fled the Vilna Ghetto in 1943 and settled in Tel Aviv in 1947, the literary journal served as an international forum for Yiddish writers from across the borderless, world-spanning Yiddishland. Titled in reference to Yitskhok Leybush Peretz’s drama, where the golden chain symbolizes the continuity of Jewish culture, the periodical quickly developed into one of the most important institutions stimulating Yiddish literature after the Holocaust.

First issue of »Di Goldene Keyt«, winter 1949.
First issue of »Di Goldene Keyt«, winter 1949.

The journal’s opening article was written by Yosef Sprinzak, then the secretary general of the Histadrut, Israel’s General Federation of Labor. Part and parcel of the Zionist establishment, it was the Histadrut who funded the establishment of Di Goldene Keyt and financed it throughout its long existence. It followed thereby the emerging policy of the Israeli state towards Yiddish, one that supported elitist cultural initiatives while constricting or even suppressing the development of Yiddish mass culture. With Di Goldene Keyt, the Histadrut sought to bring Yiddish and Hebrew literature together, for example by regularly including translations of Hebrew texts in the journal.

In his article, Sprinzak declared that the war between Hebrew and Yiddish in Israel was over. He referred thereby to a conflict that had been going on for many years surrounding the national language of the Jewish people, and especially of the Jewish state. The so-called »language war« drove a wedge between Hebraists and Yiddishists since the nineteenth century, as the former tried to revive the ancient ritual language while the latter strove to elevate the tongue commonly spoken by Jews in the diaspora. In Palestine, the conflict even turned violent when radical proponents of Hebrew sabotaged Yiddish cultural events. Founded after the destruction of the centers of Yiddish culture in Europe, Di Goldene Keyt, a cooperation between a leading Yiddish poet and a Zionist Israeli body, was thus presented as a reconciliation of the previously conflicted factions.

Sutzkever himself reconciled this conflict in his poetry. In the years 1948/49, and again in 1956, the former partisan who had fought the Nazis in the Lithuanian forests served as a military correspondent in the Israeli army, in which capacity he accompanied IDF forces to the Negev Desert and to the Sinai Peninsula. In 1957, shortly after the Suez Crisis, he published the long poem In midber sinay (In the Sinai Desert), which poeticized the landscape of the southern desert. By addressing the landscape of Erez Israel and celebrating Israeli military heroism with a biblical imagery, the poem followed the Zionist literary bon ton of the time. On 29 January, Sutzkever read it in public before prominent Hebrew authors and members of the Histadrut.

In a letter from 25 March 1958 to Jacob Glatstein, a Yiddish poet based in New York, Sutzkever commented on the reception of his desert poem. In contrast to the pacifying message published in his journal by Sprinzak, however, Sutzkever now described a persistent rivalry between Yiddishists and Hebraists. The »foolish jealousy« of the Hebraists, he complained, led them to believe that only they were »allowed to celebrate Erez Israel« in their poetry. »For example, our Reb Dovid really liked my poem ›In midber sinay‹, but«, Sutzkever quoted the critique in Hebrew, »it was written in Yiddish«.

With »our Reb Dovid« Sutzkever most likely referred to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s prime minister at that time. The Israeli founding father, whose political essays had even appeared several times in Di Goldene Keyt both in translation and in the Yiddish original, seems to have approved of the subject matter of Sutzkever’s poem – yet insisted that it should have been written in Hebrew, Israel’s national language, rather than in Yiddish, a language associated with the diaspora. This critique, Sutzkever admitted in the letter, deeply offended him.

A letter from Avrom Sutzkever, Tel Aviv, to Jacob Glatstein, New York, 25 March 1958. Source: Sutzkever Archive, National Library of Israel, ARC. 4* 1565 1 423.12.
A letter from Avrom Sutzkever, Tel Aviv, to Jacob Glatstein, New York, 25 March 1958. Source: Sutzkever Archive, National Library of Israel, ARC. 4* 1565 1 423.12.
A letter from Avrom Sutzkever, Tel Aviv, to Jacob Glatstein, New York, 25 March 1958, page 2. Source: Sutzkever Archive, National Library of Israel, ARC. 4* 1565 1 423.12.
A letter from Avrom Sutzkever, Tel Aviv, to Jacob Glatstein, New York, 25 March 1958. Source: Sutzkever Archive, National Library of Israel, ARC. 4* 1565 1 423.12.

In the same letter, Sutzkever complained that no Yiddish poets based in Israel had been considered in the distribution of prizes on occasion of Chag ha-Meshorer, the Israeli poet’s day. This exclusion from the national canon persisted in the years to come. In 1968, after twenty years of constant efforts to promote Yiddish culture in both Israel and the diaspora, Sutzkever hoped for an official recognition of his work by the Israeli state. In a letter to Glatstein from 7 July 1968, he claimed that he was a leading candidate for the Israel Prize, an award regarded as Israel’s highest cultural honor. As he reported, »the decision about the Israel Prize hung by a thread. I was supposed to receive it. But at the last minute, Zalman Aran, the Minister of Culture, was intimidated by a couple of fierce Hebraists«. And indeed, the Israel Prize for literature was eventually bestowed that year on Natan Alterman and Avigdor Hameiri, two acclaimed Hebrew authors. Sutzkever was forced to wait for his official distinction almost another twenty years. Only in 1985 did he receive the long-awaited prize.

Sutzkever’s private correspondence, then, sheds a different light on the declaration of peace between Yiddishists and Hebraists made in the first issue of Di Goldene Keyt. Behind Sprinzak’s reconciliating statement from 1949 about the rapprochement between Yiddish and Hebrew literature in the State of Israel, Sutzkever’s letters reveal a reality of persistent exclusion and marginalization. From the very first moment on, Jacob Glatstein, the trusted recipient of Sutzkever’s letters in New York, was skeptical about this half-hearted rapprochement. In a letter sent to Sutzkever shortly after the publication of the first issue of Di Goldene Keyt, it was reported that Glatstein had refused to contribute poems to the new journal. He was said to have perceived Sprinzak’s article »an insult to the Yiddish language and the Yiddish writer«.

Jowita Pańczyk is a PhD candidate at the Shirley and Leslie Porter School of Cultural Studies at Tel Aviv University. She has been associated with the Jonah Goldrich Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture since October 2022. Her research focuses on Di Goldene Keyt as a transnational network of world literature | jowitap@mail.tau.ac.il.

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