Lyrical Voices of Zion

Alan Mintz's New Book Examines Hebrew Poetry in America

By Jerome Chanes

Published May 12, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry
By Alan Mintz
Stanford University Press, 544 pages, $65

Hebrew poet Gabriel Preil reads his work at YIVO in 1983.
itzik gottesman
Hebrew poet Gabriel Preil reads his work at YIVO in 1983.

The 19th-century German writer Heinrich Heine foresaw what would happen to his fellow Jews: “If Europe were to become a prison,” he mused, “America would still present a loophole of escape… Then may the Jews take their harps down from the willows and sit close by the Hudson to sing their sweet songs of praise and chant the lays of Zion.”

Well, they did come, and the retelling of their history, like a Hindu god, has taken many forms. Missing, however, has been a comprehensive discussion of the social history of American Jews’ “singing of sweet songs” — the literature in Hebrew, especially the poetic expression, of the American Jewish experience.

But wait! American Hebrew poetry? What’s that? Surprise is understandable, as the creation of a serious Hebrew poetry in the America of the first half of the 20th century is one of the best-kept secrets of American Jewish history. Why the poetry appeared is itself semi-mysterious; after all, most Jews who left Eastern Europe around the turn of the century did not go to the new Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, but came to the United States. But among those who came to America were those who created the Tarbut Ivrit movement: The name means “Hebrew Culture,” but the movement was about much more. Ivrit was embedded in a person’s identity; Hebrew was “not only the dynamic force in Jewish life but the living tissue in daily life as well.”

The story of Hebrew in America and of American Hebrew literature (especially poetry) has been, for the most part, lost. The tale is now, at long last, deftly, winningly and compellingly spun by Alan Mintz in his watershed book, “Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry.”

“Sanctuary in the Wilderness” has two contexts. First, there is the Israeli context, primarily that of sh’lilat ha-golah — rejection of the Diaspora — the ideology that was regnant in the Yishuv, and was a basic Zionist assumption. The “American moment”? It simply did not exist; or if it did, it was retrograde. There was one center, and that was Palestine and later Israel.

Second, the American Jewish context, the context of pluralism, of urbanization, of American motifs: the romance of Native Americans, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the lure of “California.” The story is that of the huge emigration from Russia from the 1880s to the 1920s, and an important part of that story is how ideologies and movements — absolutely central to the Eastern European Jewish persona — were lost, or became diluted, in America.

Mintz’s book is nothing less than a tour de force of literary and social history and literary criticism. Mintz, who is the author of a number of acclaimed works on Hebrew literature, including the masterful “Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature,” weaves the Israeli and American contexts into a tapestry of portraits of 12 Hebrew poets who worked in the United States and who created an indigenous American Hebrew culture. Some of the poets — Hillel Bavli, Simon Halkin, Eisig Silberschlag, the great Gabriel Preil — are yet read, by some, years after their deaths. Others are forgotten, deserving of rescue, and Mintz reintroduces them to a new generation of American readers and historians.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.