A Biographical Memoir of Alter Esselin

Born in the Pale
His Early Years

Off to Work at the Age of Ten
Off to America
His Discovery of Poetry

Widening Reputation

What the Critics Said

Esselin's Salvation -- Poetry

back to main poetry page







Born in the Pale

My father has always been a large presence in my heart and mind...and even now well into the third decade since his death at the age of eighty-five my memories of him are as vivid as any memories can be. I write about him with a familiarity that comes from having been very close to him all through the years, and most especially during the last twenty years of his life when we worked together on these translations of his poetry. .

He was a man who lived his life in accordance with his own special view of what was important in his life. And he was a perfect exemplar of the adage, poeta nascitur, non fit. Poets are born, not made. If ever a man could be said to have been self taught and self made, it was Alter Esselin. He was born in Tchernigov in the Ukraine in April of 1889 and died on November 22nd 1974.

The only formal education he ever had--the conventional cheder of the Ashkenaz Jews--came to an abrupt end when his father was gored to death by his prize bull. My father was then a very lively ten, the eldest of five siblings. His widowed young mother, Tzivia, in her despa ir decided that she had too many mouths to feed and fearing she would not be able to take care of all her children decided that she had at least to minimize somewhat her burden, and decided to send her eldest child--her lively ten year old--off into the world as an apprentice. My father told me of that event without complaint, but his quiet description of what he went through was unforgettable, rendered perhaps all the more poignant since I was myself ten when he told me the story.

Back to Contents


His Early Years

Thus, his early years were not what one would expect to be the start of a life passionately devoted to the writing of poetry. Yet, surprisingly, it may very well have been his need to confront the anguish of that beginning that led him to seek solace and joy in creating poetry--poetry that enabled him to wrest beauty and strength precisely by facing his feelings fully and without flinching. He was not the first to use literary means to do this, but what was distinctive with him is that he made the discovery on his own…there was nobody there to tell him to do it. He simply came to it on his own.

The story of his apprenticeships--please note the plural--was one he told me at bed times, and the accounts held my interest because he was a master story teller.My memories of the stories he told me are among the most vivid of my childhood. He knew the power of language, and he used words with such power that the scenes of his Tchernigov childhood were as vivid to me as the Milwaukee neighborhood we lived in then.

The first years of his life in that shtetl in the Ukraine on the outskirts of Tchernigov, were evidently quite pleasant. It was a close-knit family with a father, Yosel Serebrebenik, who was somewhat older than his mother, Tzivia.
The marriage had been hastily arranged because the young woman, Tzivia, nee Wilenchik, had begun to show signs of being potentially a wild one.

Tzivia It had been noticed that Tzivia had taken to talking and joking with "shcotzim"-- non-Jewish boys, and it was decided that she should be married off as quickly as possible, before she could get into trouble. The nearest candidate had evidently been this "alter bocher", a somewhat long-in-the-tooth but mild and pleasant fellow, Yosel Serebrenik, a cattle dealer. Not a very successful one evidently. The family lived in a large room on, literally, the ground floor. There was only earth under their feet. They weren't prosperous which was probably why Tzivia found it necessary to earn extra money. One way she did this was to huckster produce and chickens at the open air farmer's markets. My father said that it was a scene worth seeing when she would declaim the virtues of her poultry…"fat, fat, the wings will melt in your mouth"…she would announce, holding the birds high in the air and swinging them by their legs. And her celebration of her vegetables was equally eloquent.

Even more interesting to me was my father's description of the act she would put on of a Saturday night. For this performance she would enlist the help of my father. Together they would carefully put a small quantity of ordinary table sugar into pieces of paper folded the way apothecaries would wrap medicines. The young peasant girls of the neighborhood would be invited into the Serebrenik household for a kind of séance. Tzivia would put on a "gypsy" scarf, seat herself on a bench near the fireplace, and proceed to read the palms of the wide eyed girls and to predict their futures. Naturally, this almost always concerned the likelihood of their marriages in the near future. And to help bring about her prophecies, she would allow the girls to buy the "love potions" which my father had helped her to prepare. The girls were told to serve a prospective suitor some tea into which they had secretly poured the magic potion, and all their dreams would come true. My father told me that watching his mother weave the spell of fantasy for the peasant girls had given him his first inkling of the power of language and imagination.

There was another member of the household who loved language, Tzivia's father, Nachman Zalman Wilenchik. He had been a lehrer, a teacher, but had lost his post because he was that anomaly, a Jewish drunkard. However he must have had a lively spirit because he managed to earn a bit of money by writng little morality fables intended to entertain and enlighten a fenale readership. I have often wondered about the several generations in my ancestry that seemed to involve the delight in language effectively used, and whether there was a genetic aspect to the tendency.

My father always described the very early years of his life as a short lived idyll. He delighted in running across the fields and swimming in the nearby rivers, he was not so pleased however by his father's insistence that he accompany him regularly to the synagogue in order to help him to follow the passages in the prayer book-Yosel Serebrenik was very nearsighted, and for some reason never got corrective glasses. It was, alas, a condition that may have been partly responsible for his untimely death. He was gored by a prize bull, and died immediately. The neighbors who had seen the encounter brought his body back to the home on a door that served as an improvised stretcher. ( Steps and Kaleidoscopic )

Back to Contents


Off to Work at the Age of Ten

That scene is one that is often portrayed in my father's poetry, and it isn't hard to understand why. The event put an end to the idyllic childhood, and sent him forth into a very unfriendly world. His mother first arranged for an apprenticeship to a tailor, sending him off with only one possession--a cushion for him to sleep on. The apprenticeship was a nightmare to the ten year old lad. He was left handed, and the tailor was insistent that my father learn to sew using his right hand. To drive the lesson home, the tailor bound my father's left hand with thread so that it was immobilized, and the thread cut into his skin so deeply that it bled. After one week, my father in the dead of night took his cushion and proceeded to walk home, some twenty five miles. When he got home and told his mother what had happened, she was sympathetic but she was still faced with the problem that had prompted her to apprentice him to the tailor.

She found another apprenticeship for him, this time to a cigarette maker. The ten year old arrived to find that he was the only male in the cigarette factory…all the other employees were young women who spent the whole day filling paper tubes with tobacco. The new "apprentice" had to do all the errands that the girls asked him to…and there was a malicious spirit to the tasks and the way the orders were given. In their misery, the young girls found some solace in making the boy even more miserable than they themselves were. After a short time, my father, again in the dead of night, took his pillow and marched home, again a matter of twenty- five or more miles.

This time his mother was not so sympathetic. She found another apprenticeship for him, to a carpenter, and when he left, his mother said to him, "Orkeleh, kum nisht tzurik." My dear Orkele, this time don't come back." And my father went off to five years of what amounted to indentured slave labor. Throughout the years of his servitude he had to arise at dawn, build the fires, sweep the floors, sharpen the tools, and make himself available for every task required till the sun went down and he was allowed to sleep. Particularly onerous was the sawing of logs to create boards. It involved his being at one end of a two man saw, the other end of which was usually wielded by a particularly sadistic, embittered old man. s father) was very nearsighted and had to lean forward to see the marked line for the cut they were making. This made it possible for the older man to have the pleasure of pushing the saw into my father's chest. The procedure occurred repeatedly over the years and caused him to have a permanent indentation in his chest where the saw handle at his end was so often pressed into him by the force of the other man's deliberate thrusts.
He did, evidently, learn the carpenter's craft, a mastery that he celebrates in a number of his poems…(To the One on the Cross)but the celebration as in so many of his lyrics has a darker edge as well. The mixture of the sweet and the bitter, of "honey and arsenic" that he himself refers to in the poem Epitaph."

Back to Contents


Off to America

With the completion of his five years of servitude, there came the golden opportunity. He was chosen to be the one of the family to go on ahead to "der goldene medinah," the Golden New World, America. The hope was that he would get established and in due course bring the rest of the Serebreniks over. He was fifteen. Somehow his mother had gotten together the money to pay for his passage to the United States, and she sent him off on the several thousand mile expedition with a very large cheese which was to help provide him sustenance on the journey.

He traveled by train across Europe, a trip that took several days and got to Antwerp, the city where the ship to take him across the ocean was anchored. The ship wasn't ready when he got to Antwerp, and the passengers had to wait for several days before boarding,

During all this time he had not eaten any of the cheese…it was all he had been given by his mother and despite his hunger, didn't want to eat it out of a childish sentimentality. Instead he made do with any snacks he could find. But he did not eat any of the cheese. Finally the ship was ready for boarding, and it went off on its voyage, with Orkeh Serebrenik and hundreds of others deep in the steerage section of the ship.

They were midway across the Atlantic when a delegation of bearded, solemn Jewish men approached my father and his large cheese. He was sitting down and they stood over him, with grim, unsmiling faces. They told him quite simply that he had a choice, either the uneaten very moldy cheese would go over the side of the ship into the ocean…or he would himself be tossed over the side. Reluctantly, my father said farewell to the only souvenir he had of his mother.

He arrived in America to find that sudden death had made another visit to his family. This time, it was his uncle, his mother's brother--the relative that was to be his sponsor in the New World, who had died. And, to complete the symmetry. The uncle had left behind another young widow with five small children. Once again, my father found himself thrust into an unfriendly, inhospitable world. His aunt could not keep him in her household with her husband gone, so she sent the young boy to live with one of her own brothers, a man who had no direct relationship with my father.

The new situation was very uncomfortable for everyone. My father according to his own description was then a very cocky youngster, temperamentally unable to be calculating or diplomatic. The uncle quickly arranged for the boy to be enrolled in the Carpenter's Union--it was the occasion for his re-naming himself because the beefy clerk at the Union office had trouble dealing with the name Orkeh Serebrenik. My father chose the first name Artur--in honor of the pianist Artur Rubenstein--and he chose the surname Solomon in honor of "the wisest man who ever lived." Thus for most of the time he was in the Carpenter's Union he was Art Solomon.

And as Artur, the uncle got him a job in a millwright shop. Alas, my father had no sense of his place in the household. He took the first pay envelope he got and bought some clothes with it instead of bringing it to the household as the family expected him to. This action, and some silly things he said, made the atmosphere in the household very chilly. In a short time it became necessary for him to move out and he had trouble finding himself in this confusing world. He made a very bad choice. After a couple of years of being a fancy free youngster he married a girl as young as he. Her name was Faegeleh, Yiddish for little bird. And she was evidently somewhat birdlike from his description of her. They were both very young and quite foolish. The marriage was-- not surprisingly-- rather shaky and came to a quick end when Faegle, as bird like as her name, ran off…with a circus acrobat.

My father was devastated, and so shaken that he took to a life as a wanderer, which meant that for a while he became a hobo, riding the rails, accompanied by another immigrant Jewish carpenter. They traversed the country, going wherever the trains happened to go, and ended up one morning in the railroad yards in Montreal…where they were seen disembarking from the freight car they had occupied, and were shocked to find that shots were fired at them. My father and his friend then and there decided to stop riding the rails right then and there. My father found a way to get back to the U.S. and set off on another pattern of life.

For the next several years, he would work as a journeyman carpenter in various cities in the eastern part of the country. Such towns as Wheeling West Virginia, McKeesrocks Pennsylvania, Canton Ohio, and so on. He would work for a few weeks, saving enough money to keep himself alive for a month or two and would then spend day and night reading voraciously. He read world literature, adventure stories, history, poetry…anything he could lay his hands on. Thanks to the benefactions of Andrew there were libraries almost everywhere that provided him with the means to satisfy his hunger for words, words, words.

Back to Contents

His Discovery of Poetry

And then there came his discovery of the Yiddish poetry of Moishe Laib Halperin. Moishe Laib's work shared the view of the world that my father had come to see as his own. And he found the poetry so moving that it startled him. Halperin wrote about sadness, his disgust at the hypocrisy of respectable people, anguish at the thought of death, loneliness…all feelings that my father recognized within himself. Moishe Laib became for him an inspiration, and ultimately a model. My father's poem, "Gracious Angel" is dedicated to Moishe Laib. My father described the poignant moment of discovery in what I am sure is exactly the way it happened. He had taken to copying out the poems of Moishe Laib's that especially moved him when on one occasion he said to himself that perhaps he too could try to compose verse like those himself. He became obsessed with writing melancholy lyrics about death, loneliness, feelings of despair…the themes that were to preoccupy him for the rest of his life.

Once when I asked him what writing poetry meant to him at that time, he was silent for a minute or two, and then with great vehemence, he raised his arm and struck his closed fist on the table and said to me, "Yosel, it is what saved me from suicide. I could not have survived if it had not been for being able to create di lider - the poems."
( I am in love with poetry )

From then on he would compose poems during his wanderings, stopping for a time in one town or another whenever he had saved enough to last a few weeks. One such town was Canton, Ohio, where there was a community of immigrant Jews from Poland and found some encouragement from them in regard to his poetry. This took the concrete form of publication. One of the women translated a poem of his--Di Fodim fun Gloibn-(The Thread of Belief)--into Polish, and arranged to get it published in the community's newspaper. This event so delighted him that he became brave became brave enough to send some of his compositions to a Yiddish newspaper in Detroi-t-Der Veg {The Way). And to his great delight, one of his poems appeared in one of the next issues, and then a second.

Back to Contents


When the second poem appeared in the paper, it was accompanied by a boxed notice from the editor that said, "We are printing for the second time a poem from a new source, Artur Esselin, a voice that has great promise. We ask ourselves is this a new star that will continue to shine, or a rocket that will glow for a while and then disappear."

By then my father had devised for himself a pen name--it evidently was a very fashionable thing to do among the Yiddish writers of the time. For the time being he continued to use the first name, Artur, but as his surname, my father took most of the consonants of Solomon - S, L, N - and got Esselin as a euphonious result.
A few years later he gave himself a new first name, as well. He chose Alter--meaning the old one--as his first name because as he explained to me, among Ashkenaz Jews when the father has died suddenly and young, it was quite customary to re-name the eldest son Alter as a way of letting the angel of death know that he had already visited the family and should let them alone accordingly.

Seeing himself in print, and so highly praised, the newly minted Artur Esselin decided that he had to go to Detroit and thank the editor of the newspaper. He told me that he just took the train from Canton, Ohio and got to the office of the newspaper so early in the morning that nobody was there as yet. He sat in the doorway in his work clothes and when the young woman who was the editor's secretary arrived, she was visibly unhappy to see this unshaven fellow on the steps. My father quickly moved aside, and waited for the arrival of the editor, a certain Mr. Gordon, who asked him what he wanted. My father said, "I am Artur Esselin." And the editor embraced him, invited him in, and that was my father's modest entry into the Yiddish literary world. An entry that was always to be a relatively quiet one because of his temperamental inability, or perhaps an unwillingness, to play the "literary game."
He stayed on in Detroit for a few months, appearing a few more times in Der Veg, and was happy to have achieved a local success, even though he was, by choice, not known by sight to most of the readers of the newspaper. As additional poems appeared in Der Veg as well as in a New York paper, Kundus, he would sit off in a corner of a café patronized by the readers of the paper and listen for discussions of his poems.

Back to Contents

Widening Reputation

He began to get published in a number of literary periodicals and as he acquired a bit of a reputation in the world of Yiddish poetry, and it was logical for him to seek the light of the larger city, Chicago where he soon became well known to the circle of writers in that town in the years after the First World War. He got to know Moishe Laib and a number of other writers, and he also met and married his second wife, my mother, Becky. They moved to Los Angeles and lived there for a few years, and it was about that time that my father received his first significant literary recognition; his long poem, Proletarier--an evocation of the lives of those who work with their hands--received the first prize in a literary competition sponsored by Der Freiheit, the anarchist newspaper. When Moishe Laib Halperin visited my father in Los Angeles, my father showed him the uncashed check for a hundred dollars he had received for the poem, hanging on the wall in a frame my father had made for it. Moishe Laib, characteristically, was enraged. He pulled the check out of the frame and ordered my father to cash the check, and use the money to buy some clothes, some food, and to enjoy the prize.

In 1927 my parents moved back to the Midwest, settling permanently in Milwaukee where my mother's family lived. My father felt very much at home in that middle sized city, and was happy to have a circle of good friends in the Jewish community there. Even though the Jewish population of the city was not a large one, it provided him with a number of people who were aware of his special voice and talent. All through the years there were a good many occasions where his work was celebrated with "evenings" in his honor, especially at the time of publication of his three collections of verse. Knoitn (Candlewicks) was published in 1927; Unter der Last (Under the Yoke) was published in 1938, and Lider fun a Midbarnik (Poems of a Hermit) appeared in 1954. The latter was awarded the Harry Kovner Memorial Prize for the best book of Yiddish poetry, presented by the Jewish Book Council in 1955. He was published by most of the major literary periodicals in the world of Yiddish, including Di Zukunft, Di Literarishe Bletter and Di Goldene Kayt. In 1969, a collection of fifty-three of his poems was published in English translation. The present selection of translations include the fifty-three previously published plus another twenty done since then. I believe that the seventy-three poems represent pretty well the range of his work, although a good many of those not translated simply presented too many difficulties because of such factors as obscurity of subject matter and intricacies of rhyme scheme.

Back to Contents


What the Critics Said

Despite his having spent most of his creative years out of the mainstream of the world of Yiddish, he received a good deal of favorable attention from the most ighly respected critics in the often contentious and faction driven world of Yiddish writers. One of the most trenchant of the critics was the Viennese born critic, a polymath of prodigious talent, O. Rapoport. He had managed to escape the Holocaust and lived his best years in Australia. It is a measure of the global span of the Yiddish literary world that Rapoport's lengthy and influential piece about my father's poetry appeared in an Argentian journal called Davke. Under the title, Das Vort is Lebedig (The Word is Alive), he said of Alter Esselin's poetry:

Alter Esselin does not belong to that category of our writers to whom writing is an occupation, a trade; Those who busy themselves with writing for the world and for fame- but they themselves could get along without it. In reading Esselin's work one has the strong impression that his written poems are just a small portion of the poems he has lived through. It is for this reason that one must respect Esselin's strong poetic voice, and one feels actually his enjoyment of the bitter-sweet drink that poetry is, from reading his poetry.

The wit and inventiveness of his images, the freshness of his metaphors serve to counteract the effect of his themes. And there is an underlying strength which defies the sadness-- the reader knows that the very act in writing about such themes is an act of defiance. There are other paradoxes. He lived in cities ever since he came to the United States when he was only a boy, yet his poetry is filled with images of nature, ( Caprice and Elegy for a Tree ) and the reason is not hard to see: his poetic attitudes were formed during his childhood years in the Ukraine, a rural and highly poetic place. Another paradox: although his very limited formal education stopped when he was only ten, his work has shown him to have an educated mind. His references to the classics of world literature are frequent and accurate. The explanation: he educated himself by voracious reading.

Still another noteworthy surprise in his poetry. He was not after his boyhood years, a formally observant Jew, and yet in poem after poem, Alter Esselin speaks as a religious man. He addresses many of his poems directly to God--pleading for help, asking for mercy, denouncing Him and praising Him in a way that only a religious man would employ ( Open the Door ). In his poetry he adopted the tone of a prophet writing often from the edge of an abyss ( Interlude ), perched on the very brink of existence. His third book is called Lider fun a Midbarnik (Poems of a Hermit), and the metaphor is clear-- the poet is letting us know that his circumstance is self-created. Milwaukee is not a desert; but to a prophet it doesn't matter where he lives, isolation is the result of his vocation. ( If I am Like the Worm )

Esselin was self-made, a product of his own will and craft. He earned his living as a carpenter, a maker of things- a matter of some importance to his view of himself. Take as an example of this, his poem To the One on the Cross, which speaks of the joy of making beautiful, useful things.

In a reminiscence by Yitzhok Hurvich we get a vivid picture of the combination of a carpenter and poet:

Esselin was then a young journeyman carpenter. He would go around with his box of tools and not even feel its weight on his young shoulders…I remember a hot day on the street in Los Angeles. That was in the year of 1925. I was at that time putting out the quarterly journal "Meirav" (West). Esselin had submitted two poems. Suddenly, I encountered Esselin on the street with his disarrayed shock of hair, and with the box of tools on his shoulder, a tired and sweaty man. He asks if I have the galley proofs of his two poems. We stand together in the middle of the street with the long narrow strips of paper and we read. That is, we read and we fight--the young editor for his journal, and the young poet for his poems. We fight over a letter and over a comma. And we don't even notice how the sun is burning on our bare heads and how the sweat soaks us both through. The letter and the comma are the issues. Esselin struggles with his literary dictator, he boils and jumps and the heavy box of tools jumps with him like a light and unnoticed bird on his shoulders.

Another critic, Melach Ravitch, has an interesting point to make about Esselin's work:

Alter Esselin is one of the most authentic Yiddish poets, a person-to-person poet. A "refined primitive." All of the poetic tricks and devices appear in his work with the greatest ease--as if somebody else were doing it. Writing of this sort can only be done by one who is either a consummate master of all the secrets of poetry, or one to whom God has given great poetic talent- endowed him with full pockets of poetic gold and not even told the recipient about what has been given so that when he takes out a nut from his pocket-it is pure gold. Alter Esselin is an astonishingly good poet.

Esselin writes about subjects that are usually called sad or melancholy-- loneliness ( Desolaton of Soul ), decay, the death of a bull engulfed by a snowstorm ( A Bull in the Snow ), the desperation caused by poverty ( On Our Street ) and the sufferings caused by the persecution of the Jews ( Come Enemies Disperse Us ). Yet his poems do not make one fell depressed. The wit and inventiveness of his images, the freshness of his metaphors serve to counteract the effect of his themes ( My Shadow ). And there is an underlying strength which defies the sadness--the reader knows that the very act in writing about such themes is an act of defiance ( Death ). This paradoxical aspect of Esselin's work has been described by Rapoport:

He is at times cynical, but his cynicism is the child of great suffering…it is one of Esselin's life-elements… Not anything, not even his devouring pessimism and skepticism can silence the blood of a poet, and that is: his belief, his naïve longing, his pious prayers (there is also such a thing as a pious desecration--and I find it in Esselin).


40lbs 2.5' X 11" X 8"

The toolbox and the hand tools pictured here belonged to my father and they reflect a bygone time. My father made the toolbox for himself about eighty years ago. He hand crafted it to a design that he drew up himself and its dimensions were such that it could hold the tools he would need for most jobs. Fully loaded with the tools you see in the pictures-saws, hand drills, files and so forth-the whole thing weighs forty pounds. It is an artifact from an era that is almost lost to memory. Nobody makes their own toolboxes, and carpenters don't use hand tools very often. These days. It's understandable.They require strength and great skill. I used to watch my father making something useful for our home-a step stool, a mailbox, a picture frame-and was always impressed by the care he would apply and the speed with which he would work Once I asked him why he was working so hard at the task. He said, "I'm so used to the foreman standing there watching me-I can't help working hard when I use tools. If the foreman sees you not working at full speed, he'll tell you to go home and he'll replace you."

Nor was he ever slipshod. Looking closely at the construction of the tool box, one can see that all the corners are precisely fitted, the hinges work smoothly, the drawer slides in and out without a sound. There is a special tool in the group that my father used to align the teeth of his saws. He was well known to be expert in saw maintenance, and other carpenters paid him to attend to their saws.

His concern with precision of craftsmanship extended to his poetry as well. I think there could be no better quote to demonstrate both his passion for true craftsmanship as well as his physical vigor than this reminiscence from Yitzhok Hurvich, an editor of a Yiddish literary journal:

Esselin was then a young journeyman carpenter. He would go around with his box of tools and not even feel its weight on his young shoulders…I remember a hot day on a street in Los Angeles. That was in the year 1925. I was at that time putting out the quarterly journal Meirav (West). Esselin had submitted two poems. Suddenly, I encountered Esselin on the street with his disarrayed shock of hair, and with his box of tools on his shoulders, a tired and sweaty man, He asks if I have the galley proofs of his two poems. We stand together in the middle of the street with the long narrow strips of paper and we read. That is, we read and we fight-the young editor for his journal, and the young poet for his poem. We fight over a single letter in one word and over a comma. And we don't even notice how the sun is burning on our bare heads and how the sweat works us both through. The letter and the comma are the issues. Esselin struggles with his literary dictator, he boils and jumps and the heavy box of tools jumps with him like a light and unnoticed bird on his shoulders.

I can see in my mind's eye an image of my father returning from his day of heavy labor as a carpenter. I would have been four or five, and I would be sitting at the front steps waiting to see him as he would appear turning the corner, walking with that same box of tools on his shoulder. I would run to him and he would lift me up onto the other shoulder, and carry me that way to where we lived.
Alter Esselin celebrated his devotion to the craft of carpentry in his poems. The first stanza of "To the One on the Cross" says it eloquently:

From grandfather's forests long ago
And black rafts floating in the Dnieper's flow-
Familiar to me the fragrance of wood.
The white gleam of springy shavings
Has often dazzled my eyes,
And how many times my heart has beaten with pride
After days of toil and victory over logs and boards.
There is a joy in making beautiful, useful things
When caressing with hypersense the smoothness
Of moldings, cornices and panelings,
Deeply the pleasure of creation sings
And heart beats with power.

Back to Contents




Esselin's Salvation -- Poetry

I once asked my father why he wrote so often about death. He said "It's very simple. I asked myself what is the subject that is most difficult for a person to deal with…and I knew the answer. Death. So I said to myself, if I can find a way to think about death ( Death ), to defy it, to laugh at it, that will give me the strength to face life and be glad to be alive. And so I write about it…and maybe make it less frightening."

I hope that the poems speak for themselves, but, of course, translations are a poor substitute for the originals. In the case of Yiddish, however, the loss of Yiddish speaking population has made translation an imperative necessity. It is an irony and still another paradox of Alter Esselin's poetic career, that he had always expressed the conviction that Yiddish had a short life expectancy--even at the time when he first began to write.

It is a measure of the strength of his devotion to his mission that he spent a half century writing poetry in Yiddish despite his certainty that the world of Yiddish speakers was coming to an end. It was not that he anticipated the Holocaust, he simply understood that his beloved language was not going to survive the easy assimilation available to the generations that would come after the immigrant population. I well remember the many late night arguments he had with his Yiddishist friends who accused him of being just a pessimist…and the accusations were often made with voices raised high. And he would reply with equal vehemence that he was not a pessimist…just a sad realist. And, sadly enough, he was right and they were wrong.

The translations are the product of more than thirty years of work. In most cases the translations substantially duplicate the rhythmic structure and the rhyme scheme of the originals…a task made all compromises as possible, keeping away from the temptations of "free" the more demanding because of Alter Esselin's fondness for structured verse with meter and rhyme schemes that required work. I've tried to be faithful to the originals. Making as a few compromises just for the sake of an easy rhyme, yet still striving to retain the aspect of careful craftsmamship of the original. .

Another aspect of Alter Esselin's work was his economy of language. He would often say to me as we were working on the translations, "Yosl, vas veniger. ( The Simple Word )" The equivalent of what in English is often heard, "Less is more."Or also, "Small is beautiful."

In that same spirit, he loved craftsmanship whether it was in his work as a carpenter or as a poet or a story teller. When I was a youngster I would often find on waking from a good night's sleep that my father had been up all night, bent over his writing desk, a huge mound of cigerette stubs in a the big bowl he used as an ashtray, and a pile of paper…drafts of one poem that had gone through dozens of changes during the night. He would ask me to listen to the most recent draft, and wouldn't even wait for my reaction…he was already working on a new revision. Later in the week we might take the ceremonial walk to the nearest mailbox, a block away, and with some hesitation he would drop the poem in the slot, standing silent as it disappeared from view. He would think about the poem for a couple of days, and often would have to send a telegram asking that there be a line change. He would perhaps get a payment of two or three dollars for the poem (it was the Depression after all) and the telegram would have cost more than that.

Another picture I have is of my father preparing a speech for some literary occasion (which often enough would be a local celebration of his work) and I would see the successive versions of the speech being written out and then read aloud with my mother and me as his audience. The first versions of the speech might be twenty minutes long. Each successive draft shorter and shorter…until the final one would last at the most three or four minutes.And he had learned a lesson early in life from his mother. When he would get up to give the talk--almost always he would have chosen to be the very last one on the program--he had a special trick which always seemed to work. He would deliberately speak in a very soft voice, so soft that people had to lean forward to hear him. He felt that forcing them to make the effort to hear him also gave them the incentive to think about what he was trying to convey. And he strove always to be done before anybody in the audience realized that he was finished. He would say to me afterward, "You see how grateful they were for my being so careful not to keep them any longer from their beds."

There is one more anecdote that is amusing and significant.While my father received a certain measured respect within the Jewish community of Milwaukee, he was not among the influential people-the "smetana" (the cream) of the Jewish community. However, there was a certain revision of his place in their world as a result of a visit that the influential members of the community paid to the then young state of Israel. In due deference to their being influential people--the group was granted a visit with the then President of Israel, Zalman Shazar. When they had been ushered into his presence, Shazar looked them over and said that he noticed they had all come from Milwaukee, a city which had a very good reason to be proud of one of their own. Naturally, they all thought he would go on to mention Golda Maier, who indeed had spent her girlhood years in Milwukee. To their astonishment, he said that he was referring to the distinguished Yiddish poet, Alter Esselin. Shazar was himself a man who wrote some poetry, and needless to say, the delegation on their return let my father know that they had more reason to regard him with added respect. My father felt a certain understandable glee that they had been given the small surprise.

My father was fond of quoting the frequently cited notion that "poetry is what is lost in the translation." I have more recently run across a contrasting notion, to the effect that "poetry is what survives the translation." I hope that a good deal of the poetry has indeed survived the translations.

In doing these translations I had considerable help from the poet himself, and the collaboration was a most interesting adventure for me. As his son, I think there could have been no more pleasant literary task. Nor was it solely a literary one--as must be obvious. I acknowledge the help of many others who have suggested solutions to a lot of the problems which translating poetry must impose. Howard Weinshal a ver devoted friend of my father was most helpful. And in addition I am most especially grateful for the multifarious help provided me by Dr. Ernest Rappaport.

Joe Esselin May, 2000

Back to Contents

 uses WebTrends Live to analyze traffic to this web site.
WebTrends Live does not create individual profiles for visitors.
Unlike some tracking services WebTrends Live does not have a database of individual profiles for each visitor.
WebTrends Live only collects aggregate data.
For more information about WebTrends Live privacy policy,
please click here