MOYSHE-LEYB HALPERN (January 2, 1886-August 31, 1932)
He was born in Zlotshev (Złoczów), eastern Galicia (according to D. Kenigsberg, he was born in Sosev but raised in Złoczów). His paternal grandfather, Yisroel Halpern, came from Odessa, and after marrying he settled in the eastern Galician town of Busk where he was in charge of birth certificates and head of the Jewish community. Moyshe-Leyb’s father, Ayzik Halpern—or “Ayzik the haberdasher,” or “Reb Ayzik”—and his mother Pesl who descended from lessees were both born in Galicia. Halpern’s grandfathers were both well off. They adored their grandson Moyshe-Leyb, and he returned the affection (see “Portret: mayn zeyde” [Portrait, my grandfather] and other autobiographical poems by Halpern), but someone once told him something to the effect that his grandfather was a miser—“R. Zaynvl from Czarne Borohai, my mother’s father, was quite stingy”—with whom the poet took stock in his poetry. Halpern’s father was a worldly Jew, always with a bon mot on his tongue and a jokester. Moyshe-Leyb loved his father’s “bits” and boasted of his father with his friends. At home Moyshe-Leyb was the oldest of four siblings, two sisters, Fride and Ratsye, and a brother, Shmuel, who died soon after birth—“O, shmuel, mayn bruder” (Oh, Shmuel, my brother), in Moyshe-leyb halpern, poems, vol. 1 (New York, 1934), p. 45. He attended religious elementary school, studied the Hebrew Bible, and even “studied a bit of [Talmud tractates] Bava Kama and Bava Metsia with Yitskhok-Yoysef the Talmud teacher,” but he had no love for religious primary school. On his own he studied the Bible at this time. He also later attended the Polish Baron Hirsch School in his town. He demonstrated ability in painting, and because his father’s business dealings were not going well, he turned his son over “as a test” to Naftoli the sign-painter, but Moyshe-Leyb did not remain with him for long. When Naftoli told him to paint (on a sign for a tobacco shop) a Turk with green pants and a long pipe in his mouth, he painted a Turk with patched pants and without a pipe. “That’s how I see a Turk,” he said with an attitude to the distraught master craftsman, “and we can take a pipe from the tobacco shop and hang it on the sign. Is the shop owner stingy when it comes to pipes?” Right after this unsuccessful “test,” in 1898 his father sent the twelve-year-old off to Vienna—there to study sign painting. Halpern spent nine or ten years in Vienna, living throughout among Gentiles, much involved in sports and becoming an excellent swimmer, played much soccer and was a fine dancer, but at the same time studying German literature in the evenings, and coming under the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche, Detlev von Liliencron, and Richard Dehmal, he began on his own writing in German, even publishing several poems in a Viennese German-Jewish journal, and becoming acquainted with German socialism. These formative years for Halpern in Vienna are the least well known and form a giant hole in the poet’s biography. Halpern returned home in 1907 to Złoczów, where he met Sh. Y. Imber and Yankev Mestl, both of whom had already published their own poems, and they encouraged Halpern to switch into Yiddish. So, Halpern wrote a poem in Yiddish and sent it to Lemberger togblat (Lemberg daily newspaper). The editor of the newspaper, Moyshe Kleynman, did not publish the poem, because it was too good for a beginner, and he assumed it was a “patchwork” (so he wrote in a letter to Halpern). An idea then occurred to Halpern: He signed some subsequent poems with his sister’s name—Frida Halpern—and sent them to Kleynman, and these poems Kleynman actually published. At that point, Halpern wrote to Kleynman an angry letter, but later, when they came to know one another personally, they made up and Halpern’s poems were published in the newspaper under his own name. He also published poems in the Labor Zionist weekly Der yudisher arbayter (The Jewish worker) from the Cracow-Lemberg area. He did not remain long in Złoczów, and in 1908 (“to avoid military service,” according to Zalmen Reyzen’s Leksikon) he departed for the United States. En route he stopped off in Czernowitz and took part in the first Yiddish language conference (late August-early September 1908).
Arriving in New York, Halpern stayed for just a few days with an uncle downtown. He then worked for a short time as a waiter in a restaurant and took up an assortment of other modes of employment, but the man with the “broad, strong hands” (“Mayn portret” [Portrait of myself]) was not fit for physical labor. Many times in those first years in America, he went hungry and had nowhere to lay his head to rest. On more than one occasion he spent a night on a bench in the park. Certain images of Halpern’s life at that time can be found scattered throughout his poems—“In destitute bars I spend my nights, A harsh grayness pervades all of my days” (in his In der fremd [Away from home]); “The young man who dreams in the snow, And drags his feet like two wooden beams, In the middle of the street at night” (“Gingeli”), and the like. One finds this as well in Moyshe Nadir’s depiction, “Mit moyshe-leyb halpern” (With Moyshe-Leyb Halpern), in Teg fun mayne teg (Days of my days) (New York, 1935), pp. 169-82, and in Yitskhok Blum’s description, in Folks shrift (People’s writing) (Los Angeles, 1933). Halpern’s bitter material condition in those years can also be seen in his father’s letter to him which Eliezer Grinberg cites in his biography of Halpern (published in the first volume of Halpern’s poetry, 1934 edition). Among other things, Ayzik Halpern wrote his son that he and his mother knew about success in America and that they did not wish for a ship ticket for him but at a better time they would “send for him to come home.” At the time, Halpern was sending poems to Idisher kemfer (Jewish fighter), Dos yidishe folk (The Jewish people), Fraye arbeter shtime (Free voice of labor), and other New York publications. In 1912 Halpern was summoned to Montreal, Canada, to collaborate—namely, to serve as an assistant editor (the editor was Leon Bazanovitsh who had known Halpern back in Galicia), reporter, news writer, and proofreader for the new weekly Folks-tsaytung (People’s newspaper), published by an association that was comprised of social democrats, socialist revolutionaries, anarchists, and Labor Zionists. Shortly after Halpern arrived in Montreal, a general strike erupted among the male garment workers in the city, and Folks-tsaytung (June 7, 1912) brought out a special publication devoted to the strike containing a poem by Halpern “Tsum strayk” (To the strike) in three two-line verses on page one. The poem greatly inspired the strikers. After twenty-four issues, the newspaper had to cease publication, and they even lacked sufficient funds to cover the cost of Halpern’s trip back to New York. Someone thus arranged a banquet for him so as to collect the necessary few dollars. He offered his poem “De la hester” (From Hester St.) that evening. When he returned to New York, he wrote a great deal (using the pen name “Hel-pen”) in the humor periodicals Der kibitser (The joker), Der idisher gazlen (The Jewish thief), and Der kundes (The prankster), but he was unable to maintain himself from the royalties received. At the time, he belonged to the group of poets known as Yunge (Young ones) and contributed to their literary publications: Literatur (Literature) (1910) and Shriftn (Writings) (beginning in 1912), but in essence the artistic program of their generation of poets suited him poorly.
In 1913 Halpern published his major original work of poetry, In der fremd (see vol. 2 of his Shriftn [Writings]); in it he celebrated—and lamented—how his own decline, as well as the tragic sunset of a generation, an uprooted one whose fate brought him to a world in which “the blind goes around with open eyes,” and in a world in which there thunders wildly everywhere “the song of stone and steel—the immense madness of the great city.” He published in 1915—in the journal Literatur un lebn (Literature and life) which appeared just after Perets’s death—his poem “Pan yablovski” (Mr. Jablowski) and other poems. In that same year of 1915, he edited the anthology Fun mentsh tsu mentsh (From man to man); in 1916, together with Menakhem Boreysho, he edited the collection Ist brodvey (East Broadway), in which he published his longer apocalyptic poem “A nakht” (A night) which marked a new stage in Halpern’s poetic path. Each stage brought with it a subsequent portion of the poet’s route toward a vision of a “person who is utterly exasperated,” of a “bird that arrives with a crutch under its wing,” and on and on with such images from the subconscious, which remain dispersed through the poems in Halpern’s Goldene pave (Golden peacock). In 1919 he married Royzele Baron (born in Kalelishok, Vilna region). That same year witnessed the publication of his first volume of poetry, entitled In nyu york (In New York)—published by Vinkl (New York, 1919), 302 pp.; second edition (Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1927) 302 pp.; third edition (New York: Matones, 1954), 224 pp. together with Yefim Yeshurin’s “M. l. halpern-biblyografye” (Moyshe-Leyb Halpern bibliography). In nyu york is surely the largest and finest collection that Halpern produced in his lifetime. From the depictions of his childhood home in the distant Galician town of Złoczów to his poem “Memento Mori” in the city of New York, in which a lost soul “would become demented and tear himself apart” (“Benk aheym” [Homesick]); from the first poem “Undzer gortn” (Our garden) till the concluding poem “A nakht,” everything included in In nyu york is replete with his “restlessness of a wolf and with the calm of a bear,” and the distinctive, mournful, and sorrowful romanticism of “the magician and magic trick both,” “the fool who longs for a distant blue land” and “the heart, the gloom in a glimpse of the eye that yearned for home one hundred years ago.”
In 1921 the daily Communist newspaper Di frayhayt (Freedom) began publication in New York, and Halpern was a regular contributor to it. Aside from poems, he also wrote articles on literary themes and traveled around the country on behalf of the newspaper giving lectures and readings from his poetry. In the middle of a tour for Frayhayt in 1924, a conflict of sorts erupted between him and the owners of the newspaper, the tour was broken off, and Halpern gave his last lecture in Chicago. He thus left the Frayhayt group. After his break with Frayhayt, Halpern left Chicago for Detroit where he became ill, underwent a serious operation, and remained there for a protracted period of time. Around this time (October-November 1923), he co-edited (together with B. Grobard and Z. Vaynper) the literary journal Otem (Breath) in New York. Also in 1923 his only child, Ayzik, was born, and in 1924 the group “Idish” (Yiddish) in Cleveland, Ohio, brought out his second volume of poetry—Di goldene pave (302 pp.), with his portrait which he drew himself, and with drawings in the text by the artist Yosl Kotler who did not attach his name to those drawings; second edition (New York: Matones, 1954), 304 pp. On the whole, Di goldene pave included poems that he had earlier published in Frayhayt. This work constituted a turn toward the grotesque, to parody and circus-like scenes. In place of protesting pathos and profound dramatic challenge, now we find cynicism and contempt for spirit and knowledge in general. Regardless, the book also possessed a deep ethical underpinning, and behind the rampant derision stood the martyr who suffers because of life’s injustices.
Halpern and his family lived in Los Angeles, California, over the years 1927-1929, where he was not well, depressed, and cowardly the entire time, and he wrote little. In 1929 he moved with family back to New York, settled into a small apartment in the Bronx, and devoted his time to painting—self-portraits, portraits of his wife and young son, as well as of friends and acquaintances. He also tried to cut and dye clothing for his wife and to carve and color bizarre pieces of furniture for their home, all of it stylized, grotesque. His two rooms with a small kitchen at 1725 Wicks Avenue looked, thanks to his tinkering, spacious and comfortable. In 1929 when a group of Yiddish writers who had left Frayhayt because of excesses in Philistinism, began to publish Di vokh (The week), Halpern became a close contributor, but he did not remain with them for long. In 1932 he joined the editorial board of the monthly journal Oyfkum (Arise) and together with Z. Vaynper succeeded in editing the first three issues of the journal, but then suddenly the end came. On August 25, 1932, he was seen in a café, as always, at a table with colleagues until late into the night. The next morning he traveled to the ocean in Rockaway, where his wife and son had leased a room for two weeks. Halpern went into the water to bathe and swim, as always, a lengthy distance, and that evening went to visit a friend. On August 27 (Saturday), he wasn’t feeling well. A doctor was called and he reassured everyone; on Wednesday, August 31, though, he had a heart attack. He was discovered unconscious and was driven to a hospital in Brooklyn where several hours later he drew his final breath.
After Halpern’s death there was created in New York a “Moyshe-Leyb Halpern Committee” which undertook to publish the poet’s literary remains, and in 1934 the Committee brought out two volumes of poems under the title Moyshe-leyb Halpern (vol. 1, 272 pp., with a likeness of the author and with “biobibliographic notes” by Eliezer Grinberg; vol. 2, 207 pp.). The first volume consists of poems that Halpern earlier published in Frayhayt, Oyfkum, and Di vokh in New York, Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves) in Warsaw, and other publications. Among others in this volume: “Salut” (Salute), “Fun mayn royzeles tog bukh” (From my Royzele’s diary), “Tsu di royte yidelekh” (To the little red Jews), “Ir man der kapelmayster makht probe” (Her husband the bandleader makes a test) which was one of the items that Halpern would sing with Royzele and their son in their apartment, “Hob ikh a lidl” (Do I have a song)—“I’m the scratcher from Hotsatsa”—“Arlekin” (Harlequin), “Der filozof mit der bulke” (The philosopher with a roll), “Zarkhi alev hasholem” (Zarkhi, may he rest in peace), and many more. The second volume, which includes mostly his longer poems, such as “Afn vokzal baym sherer” (At the station, by the barber) and “A banket-rede” (A banquet speech), “Du hunt, mayn bruder” (You dog, my brother), and “Mayn shrayedikeyt” (My crying out) consists of items that were not published anywhere earlier. Many other works of his remained in manuscript—poems, prose works, dramatic studies, fragments, and projects which await publication. At various other times, works by Halpern have been published: in 1914-1915 in New York, Y. P. Katz brought out his Yiddish translations of Schubert’s Serenade and Der katerinshtshik (The organ-grinder [original: Der Leiermann]), Heine’s Azra, der shlaf (Azra, the slave [original: Der Asra]), and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Di aynzame muter (The lonesome mother [original: Einsame Mutter]).
Halpern also translated Klabund’s Chinese play Der krayd-tsirkl (The chalk circle [“original”: Der Kreidekreis]), which on December 24, 1925 was staged by Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater in New York; and (together with Moyshe Nadir) he wrote a play entitled Unter der last fun tseylem (Under the burden of the cross), according to Z. Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 1.
In the last years before his death, Halpern’s poems showed a “quiet goodness and lyrical gentleness toward people.” In one of his late poems, “Mayn shrayedikeyt,” he wrote: “My crying out fell asleep in my hands.” A new tone entered his poetry, a tone of submissiveness, of submission to fate, of embracing in love what fate sent one’s way. “Life has struggle and love,” wrote “the scratcher from Hotsatsa” about himself, and “I have blood that screams and burns.” And his screaming blood burned out prematurely. He often saw death with his own eyes, he knew it well, and he welcomed it with his hand like a good friend from afar. No one believed Halpern, and he always complained:
And, should Moyshe-Leyb swear with tears in his eyes,
That he was drawn to death,
Just as one is captivated by desire in the evening,
To the window of a woman he adulates—
Would anyone believe Moyshe-Leyb?
The literature on Halpern is rich and getting richer. Many poets devoted poems to him after his passing. Whole books have been written about his complicated personality, among which especially distinctive is Eliezer Grinberg’s Moyshe-leyb halpern in rom fun zayn dor (Moyshe-Leyb Halpern in the context of his generation) (New York, 1942), 136 pp. The most sensible characteristics of the poet belong to Mani Leyb’s two poems (especially the latter), entitled “Moyshe-leyb halpern” (in his Lider un baladn [Poems and ballads], vol. 1 [New York, 1955], pp. 178-80). The majority of what he wrote about Halpern until 1954 was assembled by Yefim Yeshurin in his Halpern bibliography; a portion of what was subsequently written about Halpern, as well as several items from earlier, were included herein.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with bibliography); Z. Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 1; Yefim Yeshurin, “M. l. halpern-biblyografye” (see above), pp. 227-48; Eliezer Grinberg, “Byobiblyografishe notitsn” (Biobibliographic notes) (see above), pp. 15-30 (with sources for the biography indicated); “Ven iz sofkl-sof moyshe-leyb halpern geshtorbn?” (When did Moyshe-Leyb Halpern finally die?), Morgn-frayhayt (New York) (February 13, 1933); D. Kenigzberg, “Moyshe-leyb halpern,” Di post (Cracow), republished in E. Grinberg, Moyshe-lebn halpern in rom fun zayn dor (see above), pp. 116-21; Y. Rolnik, “Moyshe-leyb,” Fraye arbeter shtime (New York) (August 8, 1941); A. Talush, Yidishe shrayber (Yiddish writers) (Miami Beach, 1954), pp. 32-35; D. Klinghofer, in Letste nayes (Tel Aviv) (April 23, 1954); R. Ayzland, Fun undzer friling (From our spring) (Miami Beach and New York, 1954), pp. 59, 109-14; M. Kats, in Zamlungen (New York) 3 (Summer 1954); Z. Vaynper, in Zamlungen (New York) 3 (Summer 1954); N. Mayzil, ed. and comp., Amerike in yidishn vort, antologye (America in the Yiddish word, an anthology) (New York, 1955), see index; Y. Rodak, Kunst un kinstler (Art and artists) (New York, 1955), p. 144; A. Manger, in Der veker (New York) (June 1 and July 1, 1955); Yankev Glatshteyn, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (October 28, 1955); Glatshteyn, In tokh genumen (In essence) (New York, 1956), pp. 98ff; Y. Hofer, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 23 (1955); Hofer, in Der holts-industryal (The wood industry), yearbook (Buenos Aires, 1956), pp. 219-31; Der Lebediker, in Tog-morgn zhurnal (New York) (November 27, 1955); B. Y. Byalostotski, Kholem in vor, eseyen (Dream in reality, essays) (New York, 1956), pp. 163-213; A. Tabatshnik, in Tsukunft (New York) (May 1956); Tabatshnik, Vogshol (New York) 2 (April-June 1959), pp. 4-28; Sh. Slutski, Avrom reyzen biblyografye (Avrom Reyzen’s bibliography) (New York, 1956), no. 4753; V. J. Jerome, in Morgn-frayhayt (New York) (September 23, 1956); Y. Y. Trunk, in Unzer tsayt (New York) (November-December 19560; L. Krishtol, in Forverts (New York) (August 31, 1957); M. Yafe, in Haboker (Tel Aviv) (September 20, 1957); Yafe, in Yisroel shtime (Tel Aviv) 17 (October 9, 1957); Sh. Bikl, in Tog-morgn zhurnal (New York) (September 15 and December 8, 1957); Bikl, Shrayber fun mayn dor (Writers from my generation) (New York, 1958), pp. 35-45; Y. Y. Sigal, in Zayn (New York) 14 (1957); Biblyotek-bukh (Library book) (Montreal: Jewish People’s Library, 1957); D. Ignatov, Opgerisene bleter (Torn off sheets) (Buenos Aires: Yidbukh, 1957), pp. 75ff, 91ff; Shmuel Niger, Habikoret uveayoteha (Inquiry and its problems) (Jerusalem, 1957), p. 348; B. Daymondshteyn, Eseyen (Essays) (Tahonga, 1958), pp. 6-9; Sh. D. Zinger, Dikhter un prozaiker (Poets and prose writers) (New York, 1959), pp. 33-34; A. A. Roback, The Story of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1940), pp. 286-87.