Songs in Dark Times: Yid­dish Poet­ry of Strug­gle from Scotts­boro to Palestine

  • Review
By – March 8, 2021

Between WWI and WWII, a group of com­mu­nist aligned poets used the Yid­dish lan­guage and Jew­ish his­to­ry as a spring­board to advo­cate for oth­er mar­gin­al­ized groups world­wide. They trav­elled from New York to Ukraine, Chi­na, Pales­tine, and Scotts­boro, vol­un­teer­ing their poet­ic voic­es, even when faced with anti­semitism from the groups they wished to aid. Because they wrote in Yid­dish, how­ev­er, very few expect­ed that any­one out­side the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty would ever read their work.

In Songs in Dark Times, Amelia Glaser recounts the his­to­ry of these poets, their caus­es, and their clash­es with one anoth­er. The last sev­en­teen pages of the book include an appen­dix of trans­lat­ed poems, some by Yid­dish poets whose names will be famil­iar even to casu­al read­ers of Yid­dish poet­ry, like H. Leivick and Peretz Mark­ish, and oth­ers by names that are less­er known, like Esther Shumiatcher.

The great­est val­ue of this book, how­ev­er, lies not in the trans­la­tions, but in the atten­tion Glaser pays to her remark­ably time­ly cen­tral ques­tion: Can an indi­vid­ual sup­port a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly sup­port­ing the left-wing net­works that have under­mined Jew­ish cul­tur­al prac­tices and, in some cas­es, tak­en Jew­ish lives?”

Some of the poet­ry she cites in an attempt to answer this ques­tion is shock­ing, includ­ing the work of Moyshe Teyf — a poet who remained in Hebron after the 1929 Arab riots split par­ty-aligned Yid­dish poets, dri­ving many of them away — and Peretz Mark­ish, who wrote pas­sion­ate­ly about the Span­ish Civ­il War, liken­ing it to the Inquisition.

The Jew­ish sup­port for the caus­es chron­i­cled in Songs in Dark Times is com­plex and mul­ti-faceted; rang­ing from true belief in the strug­gles of mar­gin­al­ized groups and in the prin­ci­ple of inter­na­tion­al­ism, to cul­tur­al self-preser­va­tion. The Span­ish Civ­il War, for exam­ple, was seen as a crit­i­cal first fight against fas­cism, and an entry point for Amer­i­can Jews to both rec­og­nize the priv­i­lege of being light-skinned, and acknowl­edge how Amer­i­can racism extend­ed to neglect for Jews vul­ner­a­ble to Nazi­ism abroad.

With the earth­quake of the Holo­caust, how­ev­er, and the mur­der and sup­pres­sion of Jew­ish voic­es in the Sovi­et Union, the focus of many of even the most ardent left­ist Yid­dish poets, like Moshe Nadir, would even­tu­al­ly turn inward, back to Jew­ish cul­ture. Songs in Dark Times is essen­tial read­ing for any­one seek­ing to under­stand that inward shift, and the rela­tion­ship between Jew­ish cul­ture and left­ism today.

Maia Evrona is a poet, prose writer and trans­la­tor of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture. She has received fel­low­ships from the Ful­bright Schol­ar Pro­gram and the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts.

Discussion Questions