ZISHE (ZISHO) LANDAU (1889-January 16, 1937)
He was born in Plotsk (Płock), Poland. His father, Mendl Landau, was the grandson of the saintly wise man Rabbi Avrom Landau, author of the religious texts Bet Avraham (Home of Abraham) and Zekhuta davraham (The merits of Abraham). Zishe was left an orphan [on his mother’s side] when he was a child, and his father married his late wife’s sister. He studied in religious elementary school and with tutors, later Polish and secular subject matter. For a time he also studied Hebrew with Sh. Penzon, who was extremely popular in Płock. Penzon had a great influence over him and implanted in him a profound love for Heine’s poetry. At the same time as he worked at his studies, he helped his parents in their dry-goods store, and when this business went downhill, he left for Vilna and worked there for two years in his uncle Yankev’s shop. In 1906 he moved with Yankev’s family to New York. He debuted in print in Forverts (Forward) with a poem entitled “Mayn lid” (My poem) under the pen name “Yude” (Judah), using this name he published a series of his own poems and those he translated in a variety of publications: Tsayt-gayt (Spirit of the times), Dovid Pinski’s Der arbayter (The laborer), Avrom Reyzen’s Dos naye land (The new country), Chaim Zhitlovsky’s Dos naye leben (The new life), and others. In his sole volume of poetry, which appeared after his death, are included poems which he wrote from 1911; he never thought to include the earlier poems, those that he wrote over five years (1906-1911), in a book, and his friends who compiled this volume did not do it as well. It was characteristic that Landau’s earlier poetry was in the style of that era and gave not the least hint that in those five years he would change his poetic path and become the rebbe of a new school in Yiddish poetry. This feature was characteristic also of others in the “Yunge” (Young ones) group, such as: Mani Leyb (Leib), Ruvn Ayzland (Reuben Eisland), and to a certain extent Yoysef Rolnik. With Landau the Yunge launched a new chapter, as the group led Yiddish literature generally and Yiddish poetry in particular into new artistic paths. He was the guide along these paths for the Yunge. His poems in these early years were models of the way in which a poet ought write a poem. As Mani Leib wrote: “We were still young, restive, with a haughty attitude for poets—beginners…. Our poetry was a poetry of trite language, without life, grating, without gusto, and without genuine poetry.” And, along came Landau and chastened those “beginners” that they were writing “poetry.” He argued therein that they write old-fashioned poems, and with full poetic consciousness he said to them: “Yiddish poetry must start with us from the pure artistic poem.” He called upon them to learn “from Gentile poetry, from the Jewish folksong, and from our folksingers.” He wanted the Yiddish poem to become elevated to genuine poetry, which “arises out of concrete experience and through precise expression in words. Genuine poetry comes from simplicity, from intelligent simplicity.” And although the other poet-beginners of that time were actually older than he, they listened to him and turned to the new pathway of the “purely artistic poem.” They introduced motifs of the individual to the poem, often supported in content, though sonorous, flexible, even coquettish. In the main they imitated modern Russian poetry, though more outwardly. Landau led this “holy” war against the earlier generation of poets, against outspoken ideological poems. He also competed against Perets, and in his militant articles, he called Perets “the literatus of Warsaw.” Along another route, though, the Yunge refined the Yiddish poem, introduced folk motifs, raised individual experience to pure lyricism, and even in their own way began to write poetry of an ethnic and social character. Landau alone, whose early poems were examples of “poetry for poetry’s sake,” experimented a great deal with his work. He wrote folk motifs based on pure lyrical experiences. He wrote narrow, individualistic poetry, in which he attempted to convey sensitivity to a variety of aromas. He celebrated women, although it often appeared as if, despite this, he himself vulgarized his own ideal. He sought to convey the boredom and the emptiness inwardly by singing about lying on the couch and “spitting at the ceiling.” He ridiculed himself in a poem: “Zishe landau zitst af der verande” (Zishe Landau sits on the veranda). All of his poems had a charm, mainly as Landau himself wanted to sing out “poem for poem’s sake,” but the impression was that he was carrying around nostalgia for a poetry with deeply Jewish content, with rootedness. Once he was freed from the playfulness of his youth, he arrived at a fuller poetry which had both an ethnic and a social essence. Poems of this sort would include: “Tsum tshenstokhover” (To the man of Częstochowa), “Der strikover” (The Strikov rabbi), “Di strikover rebitsin” (The Strikov rabbi’s wife), “Iz der heyliker bal-shem tov” (It’s the holy Bal-Shem Tov), and even the poem of Rebbe Elimeylekh and R. Naftole the Ropshitser Rebbe, which on the surface was ironical, possessing a narrow folkish tone and a hidden Jewish chill.
At the time of WWI, Landau wrote patriotic poems, chiefly singing the praises of Great Britain, and with his poetic intuition he foresaw the danger of bombarding the Prussian: “No one wants the beast’s wild prey to continuing living.” He went on to compose an ode to Neil Primrose, the estranged English Jewish young man who fell in battle near the Dardanelles. His poem, “Far undzer khorev yidish lebn” (For our ruined Jewish life), an elegiac song for the Jewish life of Eastern Europe, is so fresh that it calls forth the experience of the more recent Holocaust. And, Landau wrote this poem in 1917 or 1918. He wanted to play with the poem on a theoretical level, but it is remarkable that poetically he anticipated the Shoah which was to be brought upon the Jews by Germany, and when one reads his poems from the period of WWI, one will be amazed that at that time he would have written: “For our destroyed Jewish life, / I fall down and beg for mercy. / I cry for our mother Vilna, / For Kolomaye and for Brod.” In a poem entitled “A hayntik viglid” (A lullaby for today), he writes of the Germans: “They do not spare the little children / And death accompanies them.” In another poem, he writes: “If it’s all the same, wouldn’t you like to live to see the time, / When Germany will enslave the world.” Landau’s heart shuddered at the fate of the Jews, for soon after the war, when the Poles “celebrated their independence” by cutting off Jewish beards and launching pogroms against the Jewish population, he wrote with bitter mockery the poem “Nisht mir” (Not us): “Who kissed the Russian military’s behind? / Not us, that was the brave Pole.” It was this national Jewish sensitivity, that Landau sought to disclaim from his early poetry in his transition to “Der man fun lid” (The man of the poem) [see below], that would later find great poetic expression in many poems of his. He also wrote hazy social poetry, like the symbolist drama Es iz gornisht nit geshen (Nothing happened). This was a satire on the events of the day, mainly regarding the Bolshevik Revolution and the Communists. Ideologically, but even more so poetically, he feared the Communists. His refined individualism endured against political imposition on literature. In one poem he wrote: “Black is Foch and red is Lenin, / Rose—Kerensky, Wilson—grey, / May they all have a good year, / I only like blue.”
Although Landau was “the man of the poem,” he was as well a celebrated prose writer, and not only of literary essays but also of routine journalistic work. For many years he held the position of publicity director for the federation of Jewish charity institutions, and he excelled in writing both a succinct, clear Yiddish as well as flashy ideas. Until the final days of his life, he held this post. Landau’s home was a meeting place for poets. He “carried on a poetic table,” like his forefathers would have held a Hassidic table [with their rebbe]. A certain warmth flowed from his personality. There gathered around him young poets, whom he influenced so that they would take the poetic pathway and coach them thus. To a young poet in whom he saw the continuation of the Yunge, he dealt with him lovingly, but at the same time he was strict with him and did not spare him any sharp criticism of his own. Landau’s untimely death—he passed away at age forty-six—hit the Yiddish writing world hard. His writer friends brought out a collection entitled Landau-bukh (Landau volume), compiled by Dovid Kazanski and published by Inzl Publishers (New York, 1938), 169 pp. This collection includes the following writers on Landau: Mani Leib, Reuben Eisland, Y. Rolnik, Kh. Gutman, Yude Tofel, Y. Kisin, Y. Y. Shvarts, Moyshe Shuer, Sh. Foks, and Dovid Kazanski. From the projected (by his friends and Inzl Publishers) “writings of Zishe Landau in four volumes,” there appeared after the author’s death: Lider (Poems); the translations Fun der velt-poezye (From world poetry); and the collection of “comedies in verse” entitled Es iz gornisht nit geshen. The work Eseyen (Essays) never appeared in print. Books by Landau include: Antologye, di yidishe dikhtung in amerike biz yor 1919 (Anthology, Yiddish poetry in America until 1919) (New York: Idish, 1919), 174 pp.; Der bloyer nakhtigal (The blue nightingale), a play in three scenes (New York: Amerika, 1923), 37 pp.; Es iz gornisht nit geshen, komedyes in ferzn (Nothing happened, comedies in verse) (New York, 1937), 150 pp., including Der royter nakhtigal (The red nightingale), Shipe zibele (Seven-month old), and Dzhimi fun skotland yard (Jimmy from Scotland Yard); Lider (New York: Inzl, 1937), 270 pp.; Fun der velt-poezye (New York: Ignatov-literatur fond, 1947), 206 pp., including Old English ballads, American and other people’s ballads, and Heinrich Heine’s Atta Troll; He also translated: Pauline Valmy, A geyeg nokh libe, roman (Chasing after love, a novel [original: Chasse à l’amour]) (New York: Idish, 1930), 224 pp., written under the pen name “A. Nirenburg”; Bernhard Kellermann, Dos meydl fun vald, Ingeborg, roman (The girl from the woods, Ingeborg, a novel [original: Ingeborg]) (New york: Idish, 1919), 240 pp.; and A. A. Goncharov, Oblomov, three volumes (New York: Kultur, 1921).
“One should see Landau’s poetry,” wrote A. Tabatshnik in his book Der man fun lid, “in the light of the troubadour tradition through which he grounded his poem…. Landau’s poetry should be seen in the light of the objectives that he set for himself; in light of his desire to attain a poetic form that would not be like the surrounding reality, as a conditional theatrical reality that stimulates, irritates, entertains, and soothes. One should see Landau’s poetry in the light of his desire for simple and brightly lit words and rhythm diverting ‘a heart saddened and hard,’ and illuminating a deeply melancholy mood…. This is a personality which can ignore the world and with the strength of belief and fantasy create for itself a world of illusion which is more real than reality…. Packed with internal conflicts and with an acute sense of the moods, aspirations, and problems that exist, he nonetheless responded to them not in a direct manner, because he did not believe that the poem should be the direct and open response to problems.”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2 (with a bibliography); Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 2 (New York, 1934); Kh. Krul, Arum zikh (Around itself) (Vilna, 1930); B. Y. Byalostotski, Lider un eseyen (Poems and essays) (New York, 1932), pp. 79-130, 157, 175ff; Meylekh Ravitsh, in Vokhnshriftn far literatur (Warsaw) (September 13, 1934); A. Almi, “Der estet in shturem” (Aesthetics in storm), in his Kritik un polemik (Critique and polemic) (New York, 1939); A. A. Robak, The Story of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1940), pp. 264-65; A Tabatshnik, Der man fun lid (The man of the poem) (New York: Shklarski, 1941); Reyzl Landau, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (January 14, 1944); H. Gold, Zisho landau (Zishe Landau) (New york, 1945), 160 pp.; B. Demblin, in Plotsk, bletlekh geshikhte fun yidishn lebn in der alter heym (Płock, pages of history from Jewish life in the old home) (Buenos Aires, 1945), pp. 153-55; Yankev Glatshteyn, In tokh genumen (In essense) (New York, 1947), pp. 126-43; Y. Y. Sigal, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (July 16, 1951; January 28, 1952); Y. Kisin, Lid un esey (Poem and essay) (New York, 1953), pp. 222-40; Ruvn Ayzland, Fun undzer friling (From our spring), memoirs and essays (Miami Beach and New York, 1954); N. Mayzil, in Yidishe kultur (New York) (August-September 1954); Mayzil, Amerike in yidishn vort (America in Yiddish) (New York, 1955), see index; Y. Rodak, Kunst un kinstler (Art and artists) (New York, 1955), p. 175; Sh. Slutski, Avrom Reyzen-biblyografye (Avrom Reyzen bibliography) (New York, 1956), no. 5066; Sh. Meltsar, Al naharot (By the rivers) (Jerusalem, 1956), p. 434; Dovid Ignatov, Opgerisene bleter, eseyen, farblibene ksovim un fragmentn (Torn off sheets, essays, extant writings, and fragments) (Buenos Aires: Yidbukh, 1957), pp. 33-51; Sh. D. Zinger, Dikhter un prozaiker, eseyen vegn shrayber un bikher (Poets and prose writers, essays on writers and books) (New York, 1959), pp. 43-49; Shmuel Niger, Bleter geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur (Pages of history from Yiddish literature) (New York, 1959), pp. 314-48; Sh. Grinshpan, Yidn in plotsk (Jews in Płock) (New York, 1960), pp. 31-33, 152-60.