Zutra on Finkin, 'Exile as Home: The Cosmopolitan Poetics of Leyb Naydus'

Jordan D. Finkin
Itay Zutra

Jordan D. Finkin. Exile as Home: The Cosmopolitan Poetics of Leyb Naydus. Jerusalem: Hebrew Union College Press, 2017. 240 pp. $28.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4506-2

Reviewed by Itay Zutra (University of Manitoba) Published on H-Judaic (November, 2020) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Jagiellonian University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55816

The Yiddish Argonaut: Leyb Naydus and Diaspora Internationalism

Monographic studies on Yiddish poetry in English (or in any other language for that matter) are a rare commodity. The obvious reason, one might say, is the almost total lack of interest in any kind of literature in this technologically oriented universe, let alone sophisticated avant-garde poetry in Yiddish. Yet the growing interest in minority discourse and the ethnic dimension of cultural productivity has led serious scholars to explore the uncharted paths of modern Yiddish literature in Europe, America, and Israel. Scholars have examined and translated the works of the classics (Mendele Moykher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, and Y. L. Peretz), as well as Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Soviet writers David Bergelson and Der Nister, and female writers such as Blume Lempl and Yente Mash. Important studies and anthologies have been dedicated to Yiddish women literature, Holocaust literature, Yiddish literature in Zionist Palestine, and Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union. Scholars of different age groups, gender, political orientations, and research interests have emphasized not only the importance of modern Yiddish literature to the understanding of modern Jewish culture, but also its relevance to contemporary trends in the study of humanities. Scholars of Yiddish literature and culture, trained mostly, yet not exclusively, in North American institutions seem to be interested not only in the great inheritance of Yiddish creativity, but also and foremost in the relevance of this inheritance to contemporary secular Jews and their identity complex.

In this intellectual atmosphere of “identity crisis” it seems that typological and thematic readings of selective aspects of Yiddish literature are favored over more aesthetically nuanced and poetically rigorous analyses of literary texts. This practice can be justified when scholars are looking into offering a new understanding of canonical texts that are available in both the original and translation and were previously examined by generations of scholars. Other studies, of lesser-known texts by women, Soviet and Israeli writers, and Holocaust writers (to name but a few possibilities), demand the availability of these texts in reliable translations. The study of Yiddish literature today has become, therefore, also the politically charged project of mediating, translating, and more importantly, revaluating this culture for international readers.

In light of these cultural dynamics, several important studies of Yiddish poetry came out in English in the last few decades. For the purpose if this review it is important to mention but two: Ruth Wise’s book A Little Love in Big Manhattan: Two Yiddish Poets (1988), which is a pioneering study of the American modernists Mani Leyb and Moyshe Leyb Halpern, and Marc Millers’s monography of the American proletarian poet Moris Rozenfeld, Representing the Immigrant Experience: Morris Rosenfeld and the Emergence of Yiddish Literature in America (2007). Both books provide close readings of the poets’ oeuvre (mostly but not entirely available in previous translations) as well as historical and biographical analysis, and locate them within the internal canon of American Yiddish poetry moving from communal proletarian poetry to individual high modernism, and from Europe to America. References to English and world literature are also included, in an attempt to forge a firm link between Yiddish literature and Western humanistic traditions. The poetry of Rozenfeld, Mani Leyb, and Leyb Halpern is compared (despite its linguistic and ethnic foreignness) to concurrent trends in European and American poetry, such as Romanticism, Symbolism, and Expressionism. The reader is, therefore, expected to regard these poets not only as important pillars of Jewish secularism, but also as equal citizens of the universal “Republic of Letters.”

At first look it seems that Jordan D. Finkin’s new book, Exile as Home: The Cosmopolitan Poetics of Leyb Naydus, is following the footsteps of the aforementioned important monographs. Leyb Naydus (1890-1918), who was born in a modernized religious family in Lithuania and died prematurely at the age of twenty-eight in his hometown of Grodno (in today’s western Belarus), produced in a short career lasting only eleven years a valuable body of sophisticated and original Yiddish poetry as well as elegant translations of Russian Romanticism (Alexander Pushkin) and French Symbolism (Baudelaire). Naydus, who holds a rather marginal and modest position in the history of Yiddish literature was, nevertheless, regarded as an important importer of European poetic genres (especially the sonnet), as a unique composer of sophisticated rhymes drawing from eclectic linguistic sources, and as a poet of pure musicality à la Paul-Marie Verlaine.[1] Naydus’s aesthetic foreignness to the overly nationalistic Yiddish poetry brought him short-term fame in modernist Yiddish poetic circles in Europe and America before and after the war; however, not much of his extensive oeuvre was translated into English.[2] In his book, Finkin aims to correct this situation and humbly reveal some of Naydus’s poetic charm to English-speaking audiences.

Yet Finkin does not follow the historical and biographical narrative common to such monographs, nor does he reflect on Naydus’s poetic development in a systematic attempt to place his achievement within the context of Yiddish and world poetry (not that he does not partly answer these burning questions); he chooses an alternative, more typological (and in some respects more successful) way to examine certain aspects of Naydus’s poetics within the broader theoretical parameters of diasporic studies: “My own contribution to this conversation (about the works of Leyb Naydus) takes the form of a series of chapters on some of the more salient of Naydus’s themes and innovations. Salient, that is, from the point of view of early twenty-first-century Yiddish, Jewish, and world literary scholarship” (p. 10). The cosmopolitan poetics of Leyb Naydus, as the title of the book suggests, are examined through the theoretical twofold perspective of exile/home, or in other words, the modern Jewish diasporic complex.[3]

The motivation to write about Naydus came to the author from working on the work of the Lithuanian ethnographer Naftoli Vaynig (1897-1944), who perished in an Estonian labor camp. Right before his tragic death, Vaynig wrote a book-length article in Yiddish on the life and work of Leyb Naydus, “Naydus Studies,” that was published posthumously. Finkin poses the inevitable question: “Why Naydus?” (p. 4). Why was Vaynig, the ethnographer and folklorist, interested in an elitist, decadent poet in the face of personal and collective alienation? In order to answer this question among many others, Finkin has written his own kind homage to Naydus as well as translated and annotated Vayning’s essay, generously including it in an appendix to his book; an appendix that is unorthodoxly equal in length to the author’s own book. In this review, I will only discuss Finkin’s original study, with occasional references to Vaynig’s impressionistic vignettes. 

Finkin’s book consists of four condensed chapters, not including the introduction and conclusion. In his first chapter, Finkin coins the term “diaspora internationalism” to explain Naydus’s dual commitment to both Jewish national identity and universalist tendencies. This hybridic and open metaphor helps explain the Jewishness of a poet who was often accused of not being loyal enough to his people. By using foreign words, formulaic experimentations, pleasing musicality, complicated meter and rhyme, and foreign (often erotic and exotic) themes, Naydus sought to broaden the limited horizons of Jewish culture and elevate and modernize Jews. Openness to Western and non-Western cultures was met with a renewed and complicated commitment to diasporic Jewish cultural inheritance. The second chapter of the book, “Judeomorphism” (a neologism taken from Vaynig), further explores the possibilities of Naydus’s diaspora internationalism transforming not only the Yiddish poetic language and form, but also its core thematic orientation. One can detect in Naydus’s poetry a consistent affinity for the “Judaization” of time and space, expressed in the use of decontextualized traditional terminology, folklore, and religious sentiment. It is not only that Naydus casts Jewish content into foreign form, but he also manages to bring Jewish form (morphology in the broad sense of the term) into foreign space.

The last two chapters of the book discuss, respectively, one formulaic and one thematic aspect of Naydus’s eclectic poetics, giving voice to the two major trends in the critical appraisal of his poetry: one favoring his formulaic innovations, the other his thematic broadening of the narrow paths of Jewish life (amplifying his national commitment). “Full of Gold and Perfume: Naydus and the Sonnet” elaborates on Naydus’s innovations in the field of the sonnet, regarded by many critics to be his crowning achievement. Here Naydus is revealed as an artistic maestro who singlehandedly made the classicist sonnet (made fashionable again by the symbolist Baudelaire, whom Naydus beautifully translated) sing naturally in Yiddish. The sonnet was for Naydus (in his own words quoted by Finkin) a form congenial for its own aesthetic attributions, but more than that, “an essential feature of the ‘sumptuous ivory palace’ he was building in Yiddish” (p. 58). The final chapter, “Eastward Ho!: Naydus’s Exoticism and Orientalism,” on the other hand, shows how these twin pillars played an organic role in the larger structure of Naydus’s diasporic poetics (p. 79). Here one can perhaps understand Vaynig’s interest in the ethnographic dimension of Naydus’s poetics. It is not that this young, sick poet who rarely left his native Grodno was invested in exploring the physical borders of his limited Jewish space; he used imagination, fantasy, and literary erudition to draft new symbolic and spiritual horizons in order to elevate his limited Jewish existence.[4] It is probably this brand of “cosmopolitan humanism” (p. 95), open to and receptive of all cultures and forms of human creativity, that attracted Vaynig (and Finkin). This is probably, in my opinion, what appealed to Vaynig in writing about Leyb Naydus during the horrible days of the Holocaust. Confined to a very limited space, facing almost definite death, Vaynig used Naydus’s eccentric and playful poetry to create a form of virtual ethnography—the spiritual ethnography of the self in captivity.

Jordan D. Finkin, a true lover of Yiddish, has written an elegant, engaging, and powerful book about an esoteric, ephemeral, and forgotten Yiddish proto-modernist poet; a poet who truly felt at home in exile and in exile at home. Or in other words, he turned his Yiddish poetry into his real exilic home. This is, perhaps, the only home for Yiddish in the twenty-first century. Finkin has provided literal translations to many of Naydus’s musically enchanting poems (not available in English until now), yet as he himself admits, they still await their enchanted translator.

Itay Zutra is I. L. Peretz Folk School Yiddish Teaching Fellow at the University of Manitoba.


[1]. For a summary of these attitudes toward Naydus’s poetry, see Avraham Novershtern, “Naydus, Leyb,” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, September 7, 2010, accessed July 23, 2019, http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Naydus_Leyb.

[2]. The standard English anthologies often omit Naydus, yet a few notable exceptions are Ruth Whitman, An Anthology of Modern Yiddish Poetry (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1995 [1966]) (two poems, pp. 158-61); Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wise, and Khone Shmeruk, eds., The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1987) (the short cycle “Intimate Melodies,” translated by Naomi Wolf, pp. 285-91.) Most of the translated poems emphasize Naydus’s explicit eroticism. These translations are not citied in Finkin’s book.

[3]. A recent important example for such an alternative monographic study of Jewish literature is Naomi Brenner’s book Lingering Bilingualism: Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literatures in Contact (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2016), which examines how interwar Hebrew and Yiddish writers developed new strategies to express their Yiddish and Hebrew bilingualism in an increasingly monolingual era.

[4]. Finkin points out that during his short life Naydus traveled only to nearby Kustin and Vilna (p. 5).

Citation: Itay Zutra. Review of Finkin, Jordan D., Exile as Home: The Cosmopolitan Poetics of Leyb Naydus. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55816

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