Hebrew poet Gabriel Preil reads his work at YIVO in 1983.
Hebrew poet Gabriel Preil reads his work at YIVO in 1983. Photo by Itzik Gottesman / Forward
Text size

The creation of serious Hebrew poetry in the first half of 20th Century America is one of the best-kept secrets in 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.”

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.

Read more at the Forward.