YISROEL-YANKEV SHVARTS (Y. Y. SCHWARTZ, ISRAEL JACOB SCHWARTZ) (September 25, 1885-September 19, 1971)
He was a poet and translator, born in Podeloy (Podu Iloaiei), Romania. His father was a rabbi in the town. He attended religious primary school and yeshivas until age sixteen. He debuted in print with a translation of Ḥaim Naḥman Bialik’s poem “Hasade” (The camp) in Dos yudishe folk (The Jewish people) 7 (1906); and his own poem entitled “Blumen” (Flowers) in Dos yudishe folk 11 (1906). Together with Zalmen Shneur, he translated Bialik’s “Shire haḥoref” (Winter songs) in Dos yudishe folk 2 (1907). In 1906 he emigrated to the United States. He was a teacher in a Hebrew Talmud-Torah in New York. Over the years 1918-1928, he lived in Lexington, Kentucky, where he built a big business. Later he was back in New York and later still in Florida. His last years were spent in a home for the elderly. He died in New York.
He was connected to the “Yunge” (Young ones) group, but he distanced from them, especially at first with his eternal Jewish rootedness. His first poems happened to be about nature landscapes and love, but even his nature poems were full of Jewish elements. Shvarts contributed to various anthologies put out by the Yunge: Literatur (Literature) (New York, 1910), vols. 1 and 2; Di naye heym (The new home) (New York, 1914); Velt ayn, velt oys (World in, world out) (New York, 1916); and their main collection Shriftn (Writings) (New York). He explained that, when he was first in Kentucky, he attained “the necessary calm, such that I could see people, things, and images differently…. I suddenly noticed concrete people; I observed prototypes of what I was depicting.” Shvarts’s first book (aside from the translations) was Kentoki (Kentucky) (New York, 1925), 260 pp., which made quite a stir. It was an epic work which described in masterful verses how a Jewish pioneer discovers new terrain and through hard work creates a place for himself in the new world. It was one of the most important works on Jewish life in America (second edition, New York, 1948; Shvarts’s own translation into Hebrew, Tel Aviv, 1962). Kentoki is included in the collection Pyonern in amerike (Pioneers in America) (Buenos Aires, 1964).
His other books include: Yunge yorn (Years of youth) (Mexico City, 1952), 235 pp.—a narrative poem that describes with nostalgia his hometown and home; Geklibene lider (Selected poems) (New York, 1961), 199 pp.; Lider un poemen (Poetry) (Tel Aviv: Di goldene keyt, 1968), 132 pp. He devoted much time translating from Hebrew to Yiddish: Ḥaim Naḥman Bialik, Der masmed (The diligent Talmud student [original: Hamatmid]) (New York: Kaempfer, 1908), 24 pp.; Bialik, Di fayer-megile (The burning scroll [original: Megilat haesh]) (New York: S. Druckerman, 1909), 34 pp.; Fun rabi yude haleyvi, lider (Poems from Rabbi Yehuda Halevi) (New York, 1910), 24 pp.; Unzer lid fun shpanye, di goldene shpanish-hebreishe tkufe (Our poetry from Spain, the golden Spanish-Hebrew epoch) (New York: Idishe Kultur Gezelshaft, 1931), 301 pp.; Bialik, Lider un poemen (Poetry)—Bialik’s original poems in Yiddish and Shvarts’s translations from Hebrew (New York: Jewish National Labor Alliance, 1935), 294 pp.; Erets-yisroel 1936, a zamlung lider fun hebreish (The land of Israel, 1936, a collection of poems from Hebrew) (New York: Idisher kemfer, 1936), 36 pp.; Hebreishe poezye, antologye (Hebrew poetry, anthology) (New York: Jewish National Labor Alliance, 1942), 368 pp.; Bialik, Shriftn (Writings)—from Bialik’s essays, speeches, letters, and two stories (New York: Jewish National Labor Alliance, 1946), 314 pp.; Seyfer hashabes, shabes in yidishen lebn durkh ale doyres (The book of the Sabbath, Shabbat in Jewish life through all ages) (New York: Jewish National Labor Alliance, 1947), 2 vols.; Moyshe rabeynu, loyt medresh un agode (Moses, our teacher, according to midrash and homiletics) (New York: Tsiko, 1953), 344 pp.; Saul Tshernikhovsky, Lider un idilyes (Poems and idylls) (New York, 1957), 172 pp. A portion of his translations from the poetry and prose of Bialik may be found in Oysgeklibene shrift (Selected writings) (Buenos Aires, 1964). He also translated Shakespeare’s Geklibene verk, yulyus tsezar, hamlet (Selected writings: Julius Ceasar, Hamlet) (New York, 1918), 237 pp. A translated fragment from John Milton’s Der farloyrene gan-eydn (Paradis Lost) was published in Dos naye leben (The new life) in New York (March-April 1911). His work was also included in: Akhisefer (New York, 1943); Moshe Basok, Mivḥar shirat yidish (Selection of Yiddish poetry) (Tel Aviv, 1963); and Shimshon Meltser, Al naharot, tisha maḥazore shira misifrut yidish (By the rivers, nine cycles of poetry from Yiddish literature) (Jerusalem, 1956). Shvarts was awarded the Tsvi Kessel Prize and the Manger Prize (1964).
“For a national-lyrical poet,” wrote Shmuel Niger, “the intensity in Joshua’s biography rests on his becoming something other than a Jew; and this would follow the train of decline, of death, and it would be a dirge. Y. Y. Shvarts gives us more to sense that Joshua is an American, and this is a poem of establishing roots and blossoming, a poem of life. Another would see in this the tragedy of a dying Jewish community,…would find in it an opportunity to mourn or to ridicule ‘assimilation.’ Y. Y. Shvarts neither cries nor laughs. He described only what he sees and how he sees it…. For the epic artist, it is life—the fullness, the breadth, the abundance, the colorfulness, the genuineness, and the great simplicity of life. And thus there is nothing sad in ‘Nayerd’ (New earth). To the contrary, it sings with healthiness, sprouting cheer and freshness. It is not so significant what is explained, but mainly in the tone in which it is explained.”
“Shvarts’s strength as a describer of nature,” noted Yankev Glatshteyn, “is great—he is among a small number in Yiddish poetry. His poem Yunge yorn possesses unforgettable passages, which one can read and reread and study them in school as classic nature descriptions. Y. Y. Shvarts’s paintings of nature have a biblical charm, because he is so drenched in the language of Tanakh that it seems that he thinks biblically, and as an experienced translator, he translates right into Yiddish…. The poet Y. Y. Shvarts belonged for a period of time to the ‘Yunge.’ He was their poet of Jewishness and their Hebrew footing.”
“He succeeded,” commented Shloyme Bikl, “in his epic poetry in depicting Jewish life in Lithuania and America…. The author of the Jewish-American epic Kentoki came to the United States…at age twenty-one. And, from two decades of his life in a Lithuanian rabbinical home, Y. Y. Shvarts gives us lyrical, nostalgic songs of Lithuania and of its religious Jewish and scholarly Jewish landscape.”
“Although one of the group ‘Yunge,’” wrote Moyshe Gross-Tsimerman, “Y. Y. Shvarts mainly followed himself alone…. Perhaps it was his healthy, creative nature that bid him to wait until the vivid world of his epic…fully matured…. Perhaps the wild land of the American South drew him in—this was thus the first creative encounter of a Yiddish poet with the wonder of Gentile creation.”
“The poem [Kentoki],” noted Arn Leyeles, “offers in ringing, rhythmically flowing lines a bit of American life of whites, blacks, and between the two—the Jewish immigrant from an Eastern European town with his hopes, temptations, achievements, and failures.”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 4 (under the biography for Y. Y. Shvarts); Getzel Kressel, Leksikon hasifrut haivrit (Handbook of Hebrew literature), vol. 2 (Merḥavya, 1967); Yankev Glatshteyn, In tokh genumen (In essence) (New York, 1956), pp. 261-66; A. Mukdoni, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 24 (1956); Arn Leyeles, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (November 16, 1857); Leyeles, in Tsukunft (New York) 12 (1961); Y. Blum, in Tsukunft 1 (1961); Moyshe Gross-Tsimerman, Intimer videranand (Intimate contrast) (Tel Aviv: Peretz Publ., 1964), pp. 295-301; Avrom-Ber Tabatshnik, in Tsukunft 1 (1974); Shloyme Bikl, Shrayber fun mayn dor (Writers of my generation), vol. 2 (Tel Aviv, 1965), pp. pp. 37-40; B. Rivkin, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (October 22, 1971); Shimen-Dovid Zinger, in Forverts (New York) (October 31, 1971); Dov Sadan, in Folk un tsien (Jerusalem) (November-December 1971); Shmuel Niger, Yidishe shrayber fun tsvantsikstn yorhundert (Yiddish writers of the twentieth century), vol. 2 (New York, 1973), pp. 131-45; Elye (Elias) Shulman, Portretn un etyudn (Portraits and studies) (New York, 1979).
Elye (Elias) Shilman