Each Thursday, the Arty Semite features reviews and excerpts of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, however, the poet and poem are contemporary in spirit, if not in fact.
Morris Rosenfeld, born in 1862 in Russian Poland, became famous in the early 20th century as one of the Yiddish “sweatshop poets” of New York. When the Triangle Waist Company fire killed 146 workers on March 25, 1911, Rosenfeld responded with a poem printed on the front page of the Forward. (To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the fire, the Forward is sponsoring a poetry contest — see here for details.)
It didn’t take a tragedy, however, to prompt Rosenfeld to lament the poor labor conditions that characterized the lives of many immigrants. In another poem titled simply “The Sweatshop,” translated by Forward Association Vice President Barnett Zumoff and published in “Pearls of Yiddish Poetry,” Rosenfeld described the drudgery of menial labor and the constricting effect it had on the life of mind and spirit. While the world of Lower East Side garment factories is now part of history, sweatshop labor has far from disappeared.