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.
The Sweatshop (Fragment)
The machines are so wildly noisy in the shop
That I often forget who I am.
I get lost in the frightful tumult —
My self is destroyed, I become a machine.
I work and work and work endlessly —
I create and create and create
Why? For whom? I don’t know and I don’t ask.
What business has a machine thinking?
I have no feelings, no thoughts, no understanding.
The bitter, bloody work suppresses
The noblest, most beautiful, best, richest,
Deepest, and highest things that life possesses.
Seconds, minutes, and hours go by — the days and nights sail past quickly.
I run the machine as if I wanted to overtake them —
I race mindlessly, endlessly.
The clock in the shop never rests —
It shows everything, strikes constantly, wakes us constantly.
Someone once explained it to me:
“In its showing and waking lies understanding.”
But I seem to remember something, as if from a dream:
The clock awakens life and understanding in me,
And something else — I forget what. Don’t ask!
I don’t know, I don’t know! I’m a machine!
At times, when I hear the clock,
I understand its showing and its language quite differently;
It seems to me that the pendulum urges me:
“Work, work, work a lot!”
I hear in its tones only the boss’s anger, his dark look.
The clock, it seems to me, drives me,
Gnashes its teeth, calls me “machine,” and yells at me: “Go!”
But when the wild tumult dies down
And the boss goes away for his lunch hour,
Dawn begins to break in my mind
And things tug at my heart.
Then I feel my wound,
And bitter, burning tears
Soak my meager lunch, my bread.
I feel choked up and I can’t eat any more — I can’t!
Oh, frightful toil! Oh, bitter poverty!
The human being that is sleeping within me
begins to awake —
the slave that is awake in me
seems to fall asleep.
Now the right hour has struck!
An end to loneliness — let there be an end to it!
But suddenly the whistle, the “boss,” sounds an alarm!
I lose my mind, I forget who I am.
There’s tumult and struggling — my self is lost.
I don’t know, I don’t care — I am a machine!
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.
Morris Rosenfeld's Sweatshop Songs