NOKHUM-BOREKH MINKOV (MINKOFF) (November 18, 1893-March 14, 1958)
He was born in Warsaw, Poland. His father Moyshe, a Hebrew teacher, came from Krasnaluki, Minsk district, Byelorussia, and studied in Moscow. His mother Elke came from a family of scholars, followers of the Jewish Enlightenment, in Shilets, Mohilev district, Byelorussia. Nokhum-Borekh studied Hebrew with private tutors and acquired a general education in Ptashnik’s school, later in Muravliev’s business school in Warsaw. In 1906 he entered the No. 7 Russian state high school. In 1914 he passed the baccalaureate examinations. He also studied music. With the outbreak of WWI, he made his way to the United States. He lived with his sister in San Francisco and contemplated a medical career, but he soon thereafter moved with his sister to New York, where he studied first at Columbia University and City College, before entering New York University School of Law in 1917. He graduated in June 1921 and befriended there Yankev Glatshteyn who was also at the time a student at the law school. He supported himself while studying by giving music lessons and playing violin in an orchestra. Minkov never practiced as a lawyer, as he was drawn to the world of writers, especially to the Yiddish writers’ world. He assiduously began to study the Yiddish language, which was for him virtually a foreign tongue before arriving in America. In 1921 he became a Yiddish teacher in Philadelphia, and in 1922 he was a teacher in the Jewish public school in New York. He also gave music lessons at the time in the Jewish schools in Harlem and in West New York, New Jersey, and he also worked as a teacher of Yiddish and Jewish history in the Middle School of the Workmen’s Circle in New York. In 1930 he and Khasye Kuperman (Hasye Cooperman) founded the “academic course of study” for Jewish subject matter at the YMHA (at 92nd Street), which he maintained under severely pressing financial circumstances over the course of four years. He also organized concerts of Jewish music and exhibitions of Jewish painting. In 1936 he worked as a teacher at the Jewish public school in Washington Heights. In 1940 he was a teacher of Yiddish language and literature in the Jewish teachers’ seminary and the People’s University in New York. In 1941 he was selected to serve as secretary to the editorial board (later, managing editor) of Tsukunft (Future); in these last two posts he remained active until the end of his life. In 1946 he became a lecturer in Yiddish literature at the New School for Social Research, where he gave his lectures in English. He was the initiator and cofounder in 1949 of the Jewish art center at the World Jewish Culture Congress in New York. In 1957 he became professor of Yiddish language and literature at the Academy for Higher Jewish Education (a school for rabbis) in New York. He was a gifted lecturer, holding his audience in suspense, and he gave lectures across many states in America, in Canada, and in Mexico. Once he began giving his lectures in English, he often received invitations from various universities around the country to present talks on Yiddish literature. In 1952 he became professor of Yiddish literature in the Philosophy Department in the Autonomous State University in Mexico City, and with great success he conducted a series of seminars on literature. There were numerous responses in the local press to his lectures in Mexico City. “His discussion,” noted Solomon Kahan, “flowed calmly and naturally. It is that calm which comes from deep knowledge and rooted conviction. It is scholarship imparted by the lecturer, as it were, with a smile on his lips. It is like a beautifully spoken essay.” In 1955 he contracted a heart ailment. His life was in danger, but he recovered later. Over the course of the subsequent three years, he was able to continue the majority of his earlier activities, but on March 14, 1958 he had a second heart attack, from which he did not recover. His wife, the writer Hasye Cooperman, whom he married in 1930, devotedly assisted her husband in his work during his life and brought out, posthumously, Nokhum borekh minkov (Nokhum-Borekh Minkov), in which she wrote a detailed biography of her husband.
Minkov began writing poetry in Russian during his high school years. He published his first poem in Yiddish in 1918 in Di naye tsayt (The new times), and later published poems in: Tog (Day), Dos yudishe folk (The Jewish people), and Fraye arbeter-shtime (Free voice of labor)—all in New York. He was interested in the newest directions in American poetry, especially the imagists as well as the modern direction in French, Polish, Russian, and German poetry. He became friends at this time with A. Glants-Leyeles, and as a threesome with Yankev Glatshteyn, in 1920 they produced the manifesto of the “In Zikh” (Introspectivist) group and published it in the collection Inzikh, in which Minkov also published a series of poems. The three men also published and edited the journal In zikh (1920-1922). In 1924 Minkov brought out his first collection of poems, which included works already published as well as a new cycle of sonnets. Together with Mikhl Likht, he also published the journals 1925 and 1926, in which, among other items, he placed the poem “Kid karter” (Kid Carter) about the Jewish underworld in New York and also a series of essays about modernism and classicism. His second volume of poetry appeared in 1927: Unzer pyero (Our Piero). The journal In zikh was revived, 1929-1930, and he published in it further poems and essays. Also in 1930 he brought out several issues of the journal Kern (Nucleus). At that time, Minkov was also involved with serious research work in the field of Yiddish literary history. He initially was researching the life and works of classical poets, later broadening the sphere of his interests and examining entire literary eras and, additionally, cultural historical issues of Jews in America. He published in the press (occasionally in Kinder zhurnal [Children’s magazine]) a series of stories concerned with heroes from Jewish history in America. Over the years 1934-1937, he edited and published the quarterly journal Bodn (Ground) which carried a large portion of his studies of the classical poets. This research appeared in book form in 1937 and contained essays on Shimen Frug, Y. L. Perets, A. Lyesin, Yehoyesh (Yehoash), Morris Rozenfeld, and Avrom Reyzen. He also wrote pieces for such journals as: Idisher kemfer (Jewish fighter), Kultur un dertsiung (Culture and education), Yivo-bleter (Pages from YIVO), and Unzer tsayt (Our time)—in New York; and Kultur (Culture) in Chicago; among others. In the early 1940s, he worked with Professor Yude A. Yofe on a research project concerning Old Yiddish literature. He then composed a work about Old Yiddish literature for “Jews G,” in Algemeyne entsiklopedye (General encyclopedia) in 1942, and a similar work for the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. On the basis of this research, Minkov wrote his monographs: Elye bokher un zayn bove-bukh (Elijah Bokher and his Bovo-bukh) and Glikl hamel, 1645-1724 (Glüchel of Hameln, 1645-1724). In 1946 he published Baym rand (At the edge), a collection of twenty-nine poems about the Holocaust, which are considered the high point of Minkov’s poetic creation. One finds expressed here the profoundly pained temperament of a poet who, to be sure, had not himself experienced the Nazi hell, but who deeply feels with all the fibers of his soul. Minkov’s most important works in the field of Yiddish literary research were published in the final years of his life. He completed his three-volume Pyonern fun der yidisher poezye in amerike (Pioneers of Yiddish poetry in America) just after his first heart attack. He assembled the materials for this book over the course of twenty-plus years. He treated twenty-two poets, who at the end of the nineteenth century laid the foundations for social poetry in Yiddish in America. A number of them (such as Morris Winchevsky) were known to the public, but the great majority of the poets were practically forgotten. In Minkov’s work, they were brought back to life and regained their true place. Minkov also left behind an unfinished work about national Jewish poets in America, which was to be a continuation of his work about the pioneers (according to the author’s plan this was to be three volumes in length). Minkov’s books include: Lider (Poetry) (New York, 1924), 79 pp.; Unzer pyero, fun der emotsyonele komedye (Our Piero, from the emotional comedy) (New York, 1927), 126 pp.; Sistem un relativitet in poezye (System and relativity in poetry), on Mikhl Likht (New York, 1927), 32 pp.; Avrom Reyzen, der dikhter fun lid (Avrom Reyzen, the poet of song) (New York, 1936), 48 pp.; Mayses fun letstn shotn, fun der emotsyonele komedye (Stories of the last shadow, from the emotional comedy) (New York, 1936), 104 pp.; Yidishe klasiker-poetn, eseyen (Classical Yiddish poets, essays) (New York, 1937), 224 pp.; Baym rand, lider (At the edge, poems) (New York, 1945), 78 pp.; Elye bokher un zayn bove-bukh (New York, 1950), 88 pp.; A shtern blit, lider (A star shines, poems) (New York, 1952), 79 pp.; Glikl hamel, 1645-1724 (New York, 1952), 151 pp.; Zeks yidishe kritiker (Six Yiddish critics), “an analytical history of Yiddish criticism, a ‘critique of criticism’ according to the designation of Shmuel Niger, including works by A. Tsederboym, Y. Y. Lerner, Y. Kh. Ravnitski, Y. Entin, Bal-Makhshoves, and Sh. Niger” (Buenos Aires, 1954), 344 pp.—recipient of the F. Bimko literary prize from the World Jewish Culture Congress in 1955; Literarishe vegn, eseyen (Literary paths, essays) (Mexico City, 1955), 307 pp.; Pyonern fun der yidisher poezye in amerike, dos sotsyale lid (Pioneers of Yiddish poetry in America, the social poem) (New York, 1956), vol. 1, 336 pp., vol. 2, 328 pp., vol. 3, 328 pp.—recipient of the Leib-Hofer Prize in Argentina. Minkov also edited the six-volume selected works of Mikhl Likht, which was published after Likht’s death by his widow. He also wrote prefaces to each volume separately.
“In his critique of criticism,” wrote Shmuel Niger, “N. B. Minkov strove as much as he could to be objective…. He wrote as a historian—namely, he adhered ever so closely to the materials and documents that he used, not as a critic who takes the writers’ works as a point of departure for his intervention. His goal—to inform the reader, to help him orient himself to this or that critic’s work, and in the connection that they have to their person and what’s more: to their times and to their surroundings…. Even where he touches upon non-literary-historical but pure literary and literary-critical matters, he wrote as a historian, as a researcher.” “In his five volumes of poetry,” noted Yankev Glatshteyn, “from the first modest poetry collection at the beginning of the ‘Inzikh’ period until his last book of poems, A shtern blit, Nokhum-Borekh Minkov did not relinquish his visionary world. He heard his own poems with a musical ear, heard them with eyes lit up in non-earthbound visions. In ancient times one might read into his lines all manner of predictions and foresight. His worthy verses possess a visionary pathos, and they lay well on the tongue, even when their meaning is less than clear. The concealed imaging of his poems, the mirage and shuddering sensation are both personal and communal, and as a result they move well and they speak to themselves with an exquisite tune…. He was a deeply ethical man who loved Yiddish with an ethical love. Everyone who has written Yiddish was for him a Hassid who stood under a bridal canopy, betrothed to Yiddish.” “Around N. B. Minkov,” noted A. Glants-Leyeles, “there was always vibrating little airwaves of deep seriousness, responsibility, and personal cleanliness. He was tidy in his entire appearance, carriage, interaction with colleagues, with people in general—near and far. This cleanliness also rang out of his word—both poetic and literary critical. He combined with spiritual cleanliness an extraordinary internal, never demonstrative, God forbid, pride. Such pride—which I have felt so very long that I can express it in words—was also a sign of talent and the creative man generally…. More than anything else, N. B. Minkov was a poet. A poet in song, in word, a poet in life as well. At that, not a poet-aesthete simply, but the poetic ethic in the best sense of the Jewish spirit and of the Jewish tradition.” “The main feature of Minkov the poet,” claimed A. Tabatshnik, “was the desire to intellectualize emotion, the will to express the heart through reason, the wish to give conceptual definitions for his premonitions, his apocalyptic visions which came to him as in a trance or as in a dream. Minkov wanted, though, with prudent, rational, and comprehending not only, so to speak, logically to substantiate the irrational, but he wished with understanding words to conceal the excess of emotion, to shield the ‘heart.’”… Much of what one calls darkness or incomprehension in Minkov is, on the one hand, the will not only to suggest but also logically to define the mysterious inklings that are so characteristic of him, and on the other hand, to conceal the sob, the heart, which cries and yearns.”
Sources: Nokhum borekh minkov (1893-1958) (Nokhum-Borekh Minkov, 1893-1958) (New York: N. B. Minkoff Committee, 1959), 348 pp., including a biography of Minkov written by his wife Hasye Cooperman (pp. 7-21) and a detailed bibliography of writings by Minkov and writings by others about Minkov through 1958, compiled by Yefim Yeshurin (with a total of 521 entries, pp. 314-48); Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2; Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 7; “N. B. Minkov,” in Di tsukunft (New York) (July-August 1958); Arn Glants-Leyeles, Velt un vort, literarishe un andere eseyen (World and word, literary and other essays) (New York, 1958); Glants-Leyeles, in Di tsukunft (February 1960); Glants-Leyeles, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 39 (1961); Glants-Leyeles, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (July 24, 1962); Hasye Cooperman, in Di tsukunft (February 1959; November 1960); Shloyme Bikl, Shrayber fun mayn dor (Writers of my generation) (New York, 1958); P. Shteynvaks, in Di shtime (Mexico City) (August 15, 1959); Y. Rapoport, in Heymish (Tel Aviv) (December 1959); Shmuel Niger, Kritik un kritiker (Criticism and critic) (Buenos Aires, 1959); Yankev Glatshteyn, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (March 6, 1959); Glatshteyn, In tokh genumen (In essence), vol. 2 (Buenos Aires, 1960); Shimen Ravidovitsh, Shriftn (Writings) (Buenos Aires, 1962); Arbeter-ring boyer un tuer (Builders and leaders of the Workmen’s Circle) (New York, 1962), see index; N. Mayzil, Tsurikblikn un perspektivn (Retrospectives and perspectives) (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1962), see index.