The Poetry of Alter Esselin

Accolades, Significant Dates & Articles

1923 - Freiheit Award

1927 - Publication of Knoitn (Candlewicks) First Book
1938 - Publication of Unter der Last (Under the Yoke) Second Book
1939 - A memor written by the great Yiddish poet H. Leivick describing Esselin as being a kind of special hero
1954 - Publication of Lider fun a Midbarnick (Poems of a Hermit) Third Book
1954 - Article by J. Potsford covering Esselin on the event of "Liber fun a Midbarnick" being published
1954 - Harry Kovner Award
for "Liber fun a Midbarnick"
1968 - Entered into the Biographical Dictionary of Modern Yiddish Literature
1963 - The History of The Jews of Milwaukee includes caption on Alter Esselin
1969 - Publication of Selected Poems of Alter Esselin in English Translation - Fourth Book
1969 - People of the Book TV show Interview of Alter and Joe Esselin on the Selected Poems of Alter Esselin in English
1969 - Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle - Y. Glatshtain honors Joe Esselin in his answer to "What Will You do With the Bequest?"
1969 - The Milwaukee Journal - L. Cross makes note of Alter's many accomplishments

- The Forward - On the occasion of his 80th birthday about his life by Yitzhok Perlov
1972 - A History of Yiddish Literature
includes caption on Alter Esselin
1986 - The Perhift Players Award for a lifetime dedication to Yiddish Poetry
1989 - Speech made by Alter Esselin on the occasion of the publication of his poetry in english translation.

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Freiheit Award

Alter Esselin received his first significant literary recognition for his long poem, Proletarier--an evocation of the lives of those who work with their hands. He received the first prize in a literary competition sponsored by Der Freiheit, the anarchist newspaper. When Moishe Laib Halperin visited Alter in Los Angeles, he showed Halperin the uncashed award check for a hundred dollars, hanging on the wall in a frame Alter had made for it. Moishe Laib, characteristically, was enraged. He pulled the check out of the frame and ordered Alter to cash the check, and use the money to buy some clothes, some food, and to enjoy the prize.

(Moishe Laib, who had been the chairman of the prize committee said to Esselin "You idiot, we gave you the prize because we knew you needed the money." Esselin did not keep a copy of the prize winning poem in his archives--he said that he recognized on reflection that it was an immature poem--even though he was happy to have received the award.)

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Knoitn (Candlewicks) First Book

Esselin with wife and son.
(Family friend at rear left)
Evening celebration
on the occasion of the publication of Alter Esselin's first collection of poetry. Knoitn,
Milwaukee, Fall 1927.

Knoitn (Candlewicks) was published September 23rd, 1927 and bears the imprint of L.M.Stein., Chicago. 96 pages.
I believe that the total number of copies printed was rather modest, but the entire press run was hardbound, and there was a multicolor dust jacket, no examples of which have survived. There are 45 poems in the book, divided into three sections: the first section is called "From a Lyrical Well," the second is labeled, "From my Wanderings," and the last is "At My Own Doorway." Sixteen of the poems are translated in this web site. The poem, Ai-le-lu, appears in the second section, and is the strangely melancholy lullaby that my father wrote for me. I vividly remember that I recited it in Yiddish at the Arbeter Ring (Workman's Circle) gathering in my white sailor suit…when I was four.

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Unter der Last - Second Book

Unter der Last (Under the Yoke) was published in 1936 and bears the imprint of M. Ceshinsky, Chicago. 140 pages, plus a 3 page table of contents. The entire press run was hardbound. And the total number printed was a thousand. There was no dust jacket. The book is dedicated "To My Wife, Becky." And it is appropriate to bear that dedication, my mother was a devoted wife, and unfailing in her emotional support of his obsessive passion for his creative efforts. There are eighty-eight poems (which includes a prefatory ballad) and the book is divided into six sections: "To Those Unfound," "Under the Yoke," "With Overflowing Eyes," "In the Evening Sun," "Walking on Glass." The poems tend to reflect the time, which was that of the Great Depression. Many describe the bleak aspects of a time when there was no work for my father-except for employment on WPA projects. The heaviest kind of construction work-which did not make use of his craftsman skill as an accomplished carpenter.


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Lider fun a Midbarnick - Third Book

Lider fun a Midbarnik (Poems of a Hermit) was published in 1954, and the Perhift (The Peretz Hirshbein Group) provided the basic subsidy for the publication. Perhift was at the center of theYiddish cultural life in Milwaukee, and their theatre activities were a miracle of continuity in the city throughout more than six decades. The troupe provided a vital basis for Yiddishkayt. Many of the members were dear friends of my father and many times presented performance evenings devoted to the recitation of his poems, done with the enchanting skill of fine actors. Howard Weinshel, one of the most dedicated of the Perhift group became one my father's closest friends…in his diary, he wrote in 1927, "Today, I have met a most unusual man, Alter Esselin…I believe he and I will become good friends." And so they did. There are 65 poems in this collection (including the prefatory poem, "Epitaph." There are five sections: "Destiny," "Requiem." "Alienation," "Kaleidoscopic," "Melancholy on a Sunday Evening," It was of course for this collection that my father received the very welcome honor of the Harry Kovner Award for the best collection of Yiddish poetry.

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Selected Poems of Alter Esselin - Fourth Book

If you'd like to have a copy of the 1969 Publication of Alter Esselin's poetry
in English translation
(55 poems plus biography of the poet
and an album of pictures)

please send to:
Joseph Esselin
Esselin Publishing
629 Deming #703
Chicago, Illinois 60614

..with a check,
made out to Joseph Esselin,
for $10 (paperback edition)
$15 (cloth bound)
(No charge for shipping)


The collection of translations into English which appeared in 1989, his eightieth year, included 53 poems. All of the translations were a collaboration between my father and me, and were the result of 15 years of work.This collaboration-that of a father and son translating the father's work-is unusual, perhaps even unique. It was a labor of love for both of us. We spent many hours going over the Yiddish, and striving to find ways to convey the true meaning of the poems, while still maintaining a semblance of the craftsmanship and structure of the originals. It was never easy, and the collaboration often became an emotional one, with voices raised to fortissimo levels at times. But the outcome was worth it all, I believe. When the book finally appeared in his eightieth year, and showed him that his unique view of life had the possibility of reaching a wider audience than he had ever hoped for.
Not all the poems in the book of translations had appeared in his three published volumes. Some half dozen had been written in the years following publication of Lider fun a Midbarnik, and represented the very finest level of his creative talent. In addition it's important to note that after my father died, I continued to work at translating his poetry, so some twenty translations are included that he never saw. I hope they do justice to the originals. I had the indefatigable help of Howard Weinshel in that


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The Perhift Players were a long standing theatre company in Milwaukee,
devoted to Yiddish Literature in general, and especially devoted to the poetry of Alter Esselin, their local hero. .


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(The place was the Jewish Center in Milwaukee. There were 200 people there and the date was June, 1989. A couple months after his April 23rd date of birth.)

Honorable Chairman and Friends:

From my childhood on I have had an antipathy against standing in the limelight and being the center of attention. And if it were up to me, I would try to avoid it…even now.

But you can relax. I have carefully prepared a speech which I guarantee will be brief. I know that not everything a man wants to say can be expressed in words. Sometimes they fail altogether. There are some especially delicate feelings that can only be expressed by a Chopin clavier piece, or a Vivaldi violoncello sonata…or through tears.

For what I have to say tonight, a computer would be needed which could make manifest the innermost feelings of a man in the happiest moment of his life.

If such a thing were possible, you would not recognize me. You would instead see me as an example of a strange phenomenon. Just imagine this-a man lives for forty-five years in a city like Milwaukee, involved in himself like a moth in its cocoon. Year after year goes by in ever more intensified solitude and exaltation. Not because he dislikes people. Oh, no-he loves people. But he lives in isolation because he is subject to a higher obligation. His solitude is dear to him because he is a poet…and in solitude, one writes better.

All art creation is better if it is pursued in solitude.

A whole life went by and no one noticed this man, or felt the need for him.

Then, all of a sudden, during the last few months he has become transformed into something which he never was before. For example, you see him now, on a stage, in a brightly lit room, surrounded by new friends and in full view of an audience of the most respected people who were invited to celebrate his eightieth birthday. And they honor him with open hands and full measure…joy and generosity in their eyes, just as if he were the favorite son of a noble clan, sent to usin order to be admired for his secret beauty.

But if you look into his eyes you see the marks of torture which do not go well with this status-the result of his not living peacefully with his destiny, and his carrying around with him controversial secrets, which cannot please everyone.

Why is this? I cannot undertake to tell the answer. You see, the man of whom I speak is a very dear friend…and who would reveal the secrets of a friend?

But one thing that he confided to me I may be allowed to tell you. Where, he asks, where were you thirty-five to forty years ago when he was young, believing and stubborn…ready to pull the moon out of the sky? When it seemed to him that the moon belonged to him and he wore out his eyes looking for you?

He was waiting then as if for the Messiah, and he never arrived.

If then you were to have put on such a spectacular birthday party as you have honored him with today, what you would bestow upon him would have been sweet on his tongue and light on his young shoulders.

There were then among us poets more talented then he who had not enough honor during their lives…perhaps because they knew their own worth and that was sufficient for them. Or perhaps they didn't want it because the honors are cumbersome and can be a burden. That (said parenthetically) I have known about the during the last two weeks. Or perhaps, also because they died young and could not wait for the praise.

But this friend of mine is an exception. He has already lived long. He is already an octogenarian. Isn't that perhaps a little too late? Eighty years in a man's life is a serious date. It brings out sad thought. One is reminded that one has entered the time of borrowed years. You cannot know for sure how beautifully the sun will shine the next day…even if you are the weatherman himself. You cannot be sure how lightly or heavily the rain will fall the next day…you above it, or the rain on you. And you wouldn't need an umbrella.

And there is no computer that can show how a man will die with a smile…unless it is in cheap novels or in the extravagant work of such writers as Kafka, Beckett, or Bashevis Singer.

And, perhaps we will someday even reach the point where death will not be such a mystery, and frightening to the soul of a man. Something that only great poets could create. I perceived this once when I first read the poem * "Thanatopsis" by William Cullen Bryant, such an encouraging poem from a sad and thoughtful young man...offering consolation that is even more powerful and effective than the consolation that comes from belief in resurrection after death.

Forgive me my friends for the not joyous tone of my speech. Sadness is my inexhaustible them. I am not proud of it…but I am not ashamed of it either because I find myself always in the best society. Just in sadness can we tolerate the worst of ourselves. Only in sadness can we tolerate the lucky ones.

But let's turn back to my friend…the one I mentioned earlier in my speech. He waits for your answer to his question…why did you wait so long-this his eightieth birthday to do him honor?

* The famous poem Thanatopsis, whose title means in Greek "A view of death",
was written by the American 19th Century poet William Cullen Bryant, when he
was a very young man at seventeen, in 1810. Alter Esselin was deeply moved by the poem
and it prompted the tone and subject matter of much of his own poetry.

My dad knew he was going to have to give a talk on the occasion of the evening when they would give him the plaque and the book of translations was announced. So, characteristically, he began to develop his thoughts several weeks before the event. And, characteristically, the first drafts were much longer than he liked…they ran around 25 minutes or so. "Tzu fiel verter" (too many words) he would mutter. I was living in Chicago, but I would come up for the weekends and we would go over the most recent draft. These were always in Yiddish, and bit by bit the speech got pared down to where he felt it was concise and powerful. At that point, just a few days before the scheduled evening, we had a session on the long distance phone, me in Chicago, equipped at my end with a recording device. He read to me the speech in Yiddish all the way through, and then we went over it line by line so that we could find the English equivalent for his Yiddish. We were able on the phone to get full agreement on the entire text, I typed it up in Chicago, brought it with me to Milwaukee and he was able to deliver the speech you see above. It had a notable effect. Even though the English words were not the ones he started with, they did accurately convey his exact meaning. We managed to preserve the wit and the ironies, and the range of his feelings. The audience was enchanted…the speech was so brief that they didn't realize he was done until they saw him sit down. There was a silence of some seconds, and then the applause came belatedly but with full enthusiasm. He said to me later, "They were so grateful that I let them get back to their beds before the evening dragged on." But that isn't why the audience applauded.

Joe Esselin June 18, 2000

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"Leksikon Fun Der Nayer Yiddisher Literatur"
"Biographical Dictionary of Modern Yiddish Literature"
1968 Congress for Jewish Culture (Publisher)

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1963 - The History of The Jews of Milwaukee by Louis Swichkow
The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia

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1972 - Publication of A History of Yiddish Literature by Sol Liptzin
Jonathan David Publishers - Middle Village, N.Y. 11379

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1939 - "About Alter Esselin" by Leivick
The great Yiddish Poet, Leivick, was an admirer of Alter Esselin's poetry
and would find the time to visit him in Milwaukee. This is one of those remaniscence.


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1969 - Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle -
Y. Glatshtain honors Joe Esselin in his answer to "What Will You do With the Bequest?"

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1969 - The Milwaukee Journal - L. Cross makes note of Alter's many accomplishments


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