NAFTOLI GROSS (December 15, 1896-April 8, 1956)
He was born in Kolomaye (Kolomyya), eastern Galicia, into a family that descended from rabbis and Hassidim. His first childhood years were spent in the Carpathian Mountains, where his father, Moyshe Gross, ran a forest and timber business. He studied initially with private tutors and with his father, a Chortkover Hassid. When he was six years of age, he was brought back home to Kolomaye where he studied in a religious primary school and in a Polish school, reading books in Hebrew and German, and he would later attend high school. In 1910 he decided to study to be a typesetter in a publishing house. In 1913 he left home and wandered until he reached Italy. From there he emigrated to join an uncle in Montreal, Canada, and three months later arrived in New York. He initially worked as a typesetter for a publisher. Then, in 1917, he became a teacher in the schools of the Jewish National Workers Alliance. Later, over the course of fifteen years, he taught in the elementary schools and middle school of the Workmen’s Circle. For a short he also worked in the schools of the Sholem-Aleykhem Folk Institute.
Gross began writing in Kolomaye while still quite young. The stories about Hassidim, about which he heard a great deal from his father at home, and the wonder tales that he would read aloud to his mother from Kool khsidim (The community of Hassidim), Mayse hagdolim (Tale of the great ones), and several storybooks had a powerful effect on the young Gross. He published his first poems in Montreal in Keneder odler (Canadian eagle), at the time edited by Reuben Brainin. From 1915 he published poems, stories, and essays in: Fraye arbeter shtime (Free voice of labor), Onheyb (Beginning), Oyfkum (Arise), Velt ayn, velt oys (World in, world out), Tsukunft (Future), Kundes (Prankster), Veker (Alarm), the anthology Shriftn (Writings), Idisher kemfer (Jewish fighter), Dos idishe folk (The Jewish people), Di feder (The pen), Di tsayt (The times), Forverts (Forward), Der fraynd (The friend), Tog (Day), Morgn-zhurnal (Morning journal), Kinderland (Children’s world), Kinder-velt (Children’s world), Kinder-zhurnal (Children’s magazine), Inzl (Island), Studyo (Studio), Epokhe (Epoch), and Dos vort (The word)—in New York; Der tsvayg (The branch) in Philadelphia; Tsayt (Times) and Renasans (Renaissance) in London; Kritik (Critic) in Vienna; and others as well. From 1943 he was a regular contributor to Forverts, and from 1946 he was responsible for the weekly section entitled “Mayselekh un mesholim” (Tales and fables). In 1917 he translated for the Yiddish edition of Heine’s works (New York: Farlag Yidish) the first three parts of Heine’s Buch der Lieder (Books of songs). He also translated songs by the German poets Richard Dehmel, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Goethe, among others. From American poets, he translated Edward Lee Masters and Edwin Arlington Robinson, and from the Romanian poets [?] he translated Khalil Gibran—two small volumes of stories. Together with Avrom Reyzen, he translated poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol for Dr. Iser Ginzburg’s Idishe denker un poeten fun mitelalter (Poets and thinkers from the Middle Ages) (New York, 1918); he also translated six Japanese poems (some appearing in Velt ayn, velt oys); and Richard Hofmann’s poem Jacob’s Dream (original: Jakobs Traum), which appeared in Forverts in New York in 1924. Gross edited: Kinder-ring (Children’s circle) in 1929-1930, a publication of the “Lerer-farband” (Teachers’ alliance) of Workmen’s Circle; the weekly children’s section of Tog in 1936; and during the 1930s the “Kinder- un froyen-opteylungen” (Childrens’ and women’s sections) of Der fraynd, organ of the Workmen’s Circle.
Among his books: Psalmen (Psalms), “poems and meditations” (New York: Farlag “Amerika,” 1919), 96 pp.; Lider (Poems) (New York: Farlag “Fayer,” 1920), 8 pp. and 120 pp.; Der vayser rayter (The white horseman), “poems and ballads” (New York, 1925), 112 pp.; Idn (Jews), “songs and ballads” (New York: Farlag “Oyfkum,” 1929), 110 pp.; Yudzhin debs, a mayse fun a mentshn (Eugene Debs, a story of a man), second edition (New York: Workmen’s Circle, 1933), 64 pp.; adaptation and translation of B. Vaynshteyn, Bilder fun idishn arbeter-lebn in amerike (Sketches of lives of Jewish workers in America), illustrations by N. Kozlovski (New York, 1935), 144 pp.; Mayses (Stories), with drawings by Chaim Gross (New York, 1935), 4 pp. and 140 pp. (in a Hebrew translation by Sh. Meltsar: Tel Aviv, 1949); translation into Yiddish of Di finf megiles (The five scrolls), with a preface and explanatory statement (New York, 1936), 190 pp.; Idn, volume 2, “songs and ballads” (New York, 1938), 145 pp., translated into Hebrew by Sh. Meltser, in Al naharot (Bythe rivers) (Jerusalem, 1955); Lider, 1919-1956 (Poems, 1919-1956) (New York, 1958), 488 pp.; Vladimir medem, di legende fun der yidisher arbeter-bavegung (Vladimir Medem, the legend of the Jewish labor movement), illustrations by Chaim Gross (New York, 1938), 87 pp.; translation into Yiddish of Tilim (Book of Psalms), with an introduction and the Hebrew text (New York, 1948), 320 pp.; translation Shir hashirim (Song of Songs), with illustrations (Rio de Janeiro: Tsvi Yosem, 1949). His last book, Mayselekh un mesholim contained 500 items; it is a selection of stories and fables that Gross published on a regular basis for Forverts and in other newspapers and magazines. The artistic illustrations to this work were the work of the poet’s brother, the artist Chaim Gross.
Yankev Glatshetyn wrote of him: “Naftoli Gross, the translator of the five scrolls, of the Book of Psalms, and the poet who in his own poetry searched for the classical tone in a folkish Jewishness, in both language and contents, wanted in Mayselekh un mesholim to perfect a treasury that would demonstrate that the Jewish head and mouth were always graced with antiquity. All of these purified tales are a continuation of our oral literature—from the legends about Adam to the American Jewish stories of our own time and the people of our time.”
“Naftoli Gross would condense his form and style,” wrote B. Y. Byalostotski, “and his lines of prose would often appear like fungible lines, like sculpted works…. It seemed to me as though Gross would restrain his emotions too much in his poetic works; it frequently seemed to me that the word in his composition was alive and seething, like artistically molded clay or chiseled stone. Naftoli Gross, though, had his own way. His images were sedate, but they had speech. His poetic lines were tame but full of rhythm. His images could remain silent, but they could also recount a story—a story of human life; the story of blooming and daring; the story of the Jewish pathway through the generations.” In hammered out, sketchy verse, Gross created Jewish figures that were in their very crudeness festively exalted. He wanted with these figures to create a type of shtetl mythology with the purity and kashrut of the Jewish people. “The poet Naftoli Gross,” wrote Dr. Shloyme Bikl, “was an extraordinarily artistic portraitist. And, artistic portrayal meant for him wrenching figures from the surrounding noise, smoothing over their mental agitation, and converting them into monuments of calm and beauty.” He died in New York.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1; Y. Botoshanski, Portretn fun yidishn shrayber (Portraits of Yiddish writers) (Warsaw, 1933), pp. 270-77; Botoshanski, in Di prese (Buenos Aires) (March 2 and July 12, 1956); Z. Vaynper, Yidishe shriftshteler (Yiddish writers), vol. 1 (New York, 1933), pp. 40-45; Gershom Bader, Medina veḥakhameha (The state and its sages) (New York, 1934), p. 69; M. Yafe, in Fraye arbeter shtime (New York) (January 26, 1940); Y. Kener, in Proletarisher gedank (New York) (March 15, 1941); N. B. Minkov, in Kultur un dertsiung (New York) (February 1942); Shloyme Bikl, Detaln un sakhaklen, kritishe un polemishe bamerkungen (Details and sum totals, critical and polemical observations) (New York, 1943), pp. 242-44; Bikl, in Tsukunft (New York) (January 1956); Bikl, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (May 13, 1956); Bikl, (Dream and reality) (New York, 1956); M. Ravitsh, in Fraye arbeter shtime (New York) (February 17, 1950); Y. Rodak, Kunst un kinstler (Art and Artist) (New York, 1955), p. 172; Yankev Glatshteyn, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (August 26, 1955); Dr. A. Mukdoni, in Kultur un dertsiung (December 1955); obituaries in Forverts and Tog-morgn-zhurnal (April 9 and 10, 1956); B. Y. Byalostotski, Kholem un var (Dream and reality) (New York, 1956), pp. 120ff; Byalostotski, in Kultur un dertsiung (May 1956); Byalostotski, in Forverts (April 10, 1956); Sh. Slutski, Avrom reyzen biblyografye (Avrom Reyzen’s bibliography) (New York, 1956), nos. 4668, 4967, 4968.
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 172.]