HIRSH SEKLER (HARRY SACKLER) (August 22, 1883-February 28, 1974)
He was born in Brodshin (Bohorodchany), near Stanisle (Stanislavov), eastern Galicia. Until age twelve he studied in religious primary school, later with his great-grandfather, Rabbi Fayvl Shrayer, author of Sefer gidule hakodesh (The greatest of the holy), president of Ahavat Tsiyon (Love of Zion) in Torne (Tarnów), and writer for Hamagid (The preacher), from whom he acquired his love of Yiddish culture and of Hebrew. He later turned his attention to a secular education and was an external student in Radovits (Radovychi), Czernowitz, and Vienna. In 1902 he made his way to the United States, where he initially engaged in a variety of physical labor and later was a teacher of English and other subjects, while at the same time preparing to enter college. Over the years 1906-1908, he studied law at New York Law School, but he did not practice as a lawyer. He began writing poetry and religious texts in Hebrew at age fourteen. He debuted in print with a monologue set in an insane asylum, entitled “In goldene keytn” (In golden chains), in Forverts (Forward) in New York (1907), and from that point he went on to place work in both Yiddish and Hebrew periodicals, such as: Tsayt-gayst (Spirit of the times), Fraye arbeter-shtime (Free voice of labor), Der tog (The day), Forverts, Dos idishe folk (The Jewish people)—a Zionist weekly of which he was also assistant editor (1909-1911)—Morgn-zhurnal (Morning journal), and Der amerikaner (The American); in Hebrew, Hadoar (The mail), Shevilim (Pathways), Luaḥ aḥiasef, and Hadror (Freedom); in English-language Jewish serials, New Palestine Maccabean and The Reflex, among others—in New York. Over the years 1916-1918, he served as secretary general of the Jewish community council of New York. At the time he organized the first investigation of Jewish community life in New York and published the materials from the study in Pinkas hakehila denu york rabati (Records of the Jewish community of New York) (New York, 1918), 6 pp. + 1597 pp., which includes detailed treatments, statistical data, tables, illustrations with maps concerning the religious, philanthropic, educational, and communal life of Jewish New York, as well as reports with lists of the Jewish theaters of the time, and of the Yiddish press and literature. As a correspondent for Tog (Day) and Hatoran (The duty officer) in New York, he visited the land of Israel in 1915, which “gave him a new orientation in regard to the Jewish question and our perspective on our own home.” Aside from journalistic and community activities, he found his actual field of creativity in fiction and poetic-philosophical essays, but drama had for him a special force of attraction, as “the sole medium for his literary inspiration.” Aside from journalistic articles on a variety of issues of the day, Sekler wrote essays, sketches, and stories (and the start of a novel of Jewish life in America, published in Dos idishe folk in New York in 1915); as well as poetry and poetry in prose. He came to distinguish himself as one of the more penetrating and interesting Yiddish playwrights. His first dramatic endeavors (under his regular pseudonym, “Tsvi N’ Sholem”) were: the one-act plays, Yukel ganef (Yukel the thief) of 1908 and Untervelt (Underworld)—both published in Fraye arbeter-shtime; the three-act play Dos toytenlid (The death song) of 1912 and Fayer-tants (Dance of fire) of 1913—both published in Dos idishe folk. All of his dramatic attempts were staged many times by drama clubs and professional troupes over the course of the years 1909-1914. A new direction in his dramatic works was embraced with the play Yosi fun yokres (Yosi of Yokeret) of 1915, in which Sekler used the story of ancient Mishnaic sage in the land of Israel, who left his only son and only daughter to be murdered (tractate Taanit [Fasts], daf 24), as a war of the old dogmatic Jewry against compromising on behalf of other gods and beliefs; he translated the play himself into Hebrew and published it in Hatoran (1921) in New York. The play was staged at the Irving Place Theater in 1923 under the title Der heyliker tiran (The divine tyrant). He had a huge success with his dramatic legend Yizker (Remembrance) in 1922; it took place with the background of a romantic folktale (recorded by Sh. An-ski during his ethnographic expedition through Ukraine). The play centers on the devotion of Leybke, the hero of the drama, to Jewishness, for which he sacrifices the worldly love of the beautiful princess. It was first produced by Maurice Schwartz in 1923 for the Yiddish Art Theater in New York and later by Mark Arnstein for Warsaw’s Kaminski Theater, Teatron in Israel (1927), as well as in a variety of Yiddish stages in Europe and the United States. Yizker (Jiskor) was also filmed (1924) by Maurice Schwartz in Vienna. Also belonging to Sekler’s staged dramas at the Yiddish Art Theater was Dos tsadeks nesie (The saint’s voyage) of 1926—for which “workaday reality has no place” and the “dramatization must serve as a prism of a night which smolders barely in memory, and through the entire fantastic web must permeate the discrete smile—the smile of the great-grandfather, while he recounts to his great-grandchildren the tale of the seven thieves”—and Mayor noyekh (Major Noah) of 1928 (performed at Habima in Tel Aviv in 1933). His miniature drama Der zeer zet zayn kale (The seer sees his bride), published in the journal Oyfkum (Arise) in New York (1927), was staged in 1929 by the Vardi-Yoelit Studio in New York. Among Sekler’s books: Dramen (Dramas), vol. 1 (New York: Nekhemye, 1925), 217 pp.; Dramen, vol. 2 (New York: Nekhemye, 1925), 171 pp.; Dramen, vol. 3 (Kenig ashmeday [King Ashmodai]) (New York: Nekhemye, 1927), 120 pp.; Dramen, vol. 4 (New York: Nekhemye, 1928), 191 pp., which was awarded a prize from the Shtiler Vinkl Group in New York (1929)—included in these four volumes: Der veg tsu got (The path to God), Dem tsadeks nesie, Yizker, Yosi fun yokres, Mayor noyekh, Rokhev fun yerikhe (Raḥav of Jericho), and Der zeer zet zayn kale. In English: The Seer Looks at His Bride (Boston, 1932), 29 pp.; The Legend of Luz: A Play (Boston: Walter H. Baker Co., 1932), 25 pp.; Festival at Meron (New York, 1935), 424 pp. In Hebrew: Sefer hamaḥazot (Volume of plays), nine plays (New York: Ogen, 1943), 416 pp., which was awarded the Louis Lamed Prize in 1944; Hakeshet beanan, shiva sipurim (The rainbow, seven stories) (New York, 1948), 344 pp., winner of the Louis Lamed Prize in 1949; Usefer hakokhavim, roman histori (And count the stars, a historical novel) (Tel Aviv-Jerusalem, 1961), 388 pp.; Hilula bemiron, roman histori (Festival at Meron, a historical novel), translated from the Yiddish by the author (New York, 1963), 373 pp. (also appeared in English in 1935); Ben erets veshamayim, roman (Between earth and heaven, a novel) (Tel Aviv: Yavne, 1964), 455 pp.; Masakh umasekhot (Curtain and masks), a volume of plays in Hebrew (Tel Aviv, 1964), 336 pp.—including Haderekh leelohim (The path to God), Yizkor (Remembrance), Ashmodai, Ets haḥayim (The tree of life), Harav et ribenu (Who takes up our grievance), and Lo taaminu ki yesupar (You will not believe though it be told [to you]). He published a long story serially, “Shpil afn shpits barg” (Play on the mountain peak), in Der tog (The day) in New York (1942). Sekler’s work also appeared in the anthology Hasifrut vehaḥayim (Literature and life), edited by Ḥ. M. Rotblat, vol. 2 (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1943); A Golden Treasury of Jewish Literature, edited by Leo Schwarz (New York, 1937); and A Bar Mitzvah Treasury, edited by Azriel Eisenberg (New York, 1952). Aside from community activities, he held a number of administrative positions in the Zionist Organization of America (General Zionists). Over the years 1923-1927, he was secretary of the Jewish Educational Society. He was press chief for the Joint Distribution Committee in New York. On his eightieth birthday, celebratory articles about him appeared in the Yiddish and Hebrew press. He died in New York.
“It seems,” wrote Shmuel Niger of Sekler years ago, “that Sekler’s artistic ability was not great enough or not great enough yet, not grown up enough for the big issues with which he dealt. His mastery manifested itself in the details more than in the principle, in the secondary personalities more than in the main heroes (an exception being Dem tsadeks nesie), but he is surely a new, fresh force in the world of the Yiddish drama. And an internal, a Jewish force (the ethical and God-searching spirit of his dramas is no accident).” Later, Niger wrote as follows: “One often senses in his dialogue a Shakespearean, though more often a playfully Jewish, lordly tone. Where once he was somewhat stilted and rhetorical, he is now mostly full of life and in happier moments full of spirit and wit.” “Sekler is a pungent aristocrat,” wrote Arn Tsaytlin, and “like a pungent aristocrat, he lives in the world of values and ideals, and those values and ideals are enveloped by him in artistic forms. Life for him does not denote the fleeting minute; life is anchored in generations, in history, and thus is Sekler a poet of Jewish historicity…. In his drama, just as in his stories and novels, he has an educational effect in the higher sense of the concept. These are the merits that one comes into contact with rarely in our time, very rarely. This lies along the line of Jewishness, I believe, of the Jewish approach to man and the world. Sekler is one of those who rightly grasped the mission of an artist.” “His dramas proceed,” noted Zalmen Reyzen, “via the glorification of Jewishness, of Jewish religious morality, as it is overseen by the Jewish tradition of the national Jewish collective. However, he brought into the motifs of this Jewish collective his own tone, and he gave it the atmosphere of the past, far and near…. He established the local color of the epoch, which lights up as if through a thin veil, amplifying the effect of the romantic and legendary qualities. He dresses large, eternal questions in Jewish garb…. Sekler has a distinctive inclination toward Jewish mysticism and its personages,…in both his dramas and his novels—their Jewish historical personalities—personalities from the most diverse of epochs and lands. In a certain sense, Sekler’s works are artistic conceptions of Jewish evolution.” “Sekler is a profoundly individual person,” wrote Yitskhok Varshavski [=Yitskhok Bashevis Zinger, I. B. Singer], “and he has his own ideas about everything: about Yiddish, about Hebrew, about Zionism, about literature. Sekler holds that writing about everything in a negative manner does damage to literature. The modern reader wishes only—argues Sekler—that one ought destroy everything: family, marriage, parents—everything that was sacred and dear. Readers are raised only to want everything turned to small change, for everything to be made loathsome. According to Sekler, there is no authentic literary theory to do such a thing. This is simply a fashion and a sign of the times. We are living in a generation that wishes only for everything to be blasphemed and desecrated. So that we know that Sekler himself practices what he preaches, he writes almost entirely about people who he reveres, be it Abraham our forefather or the Bal-Shem-Tov, Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai or Rabbi Leyb Sores [Leib Sarah’s].” “In contemporary Yiddish and Hebrew literature,” asserted Shmuel Margoshes, “H. Sekler is perhaps the only one who has consciously set as his goal to describe for us and to show us the creators and foundational figures in Jewish historical development. His writings are a gallery of historical figures who have essentially given form to Jewish life through the generations. Sekler is well-known as someone with a deep knowledge of Jewish nature, and when one generation hands over the spiritual inheritance to another…, the great individual has the greatest impact, perhaps more than the environment.” Hillel Rogof makes the following points: “H. Sekler is actually an American product. He was no more than nineteen years of age when he came to America from the city of his birth in Galicia. Here he began and here he has made a career as a writer in the languages of Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. Sekler brought with him from Europe the immense baggage of education both in Jewish and in secular learning. Here he continued his studies, especially in American knowledge. Among Yiddish writers and journalists, there are few who can be compared to him in knowledge of Jewish and secular, ancient and modern, literature, history, philosophy, and science…. In the 1920s when the Yiddish Art Theater was in full bloom, Sekler was one of its most important playwrights. His two plays, Yisker and Dem tsadeks nesie, were among the best in Maurice Schwartz’s repertoire…. In 1935 Sekler published his most ambitious and perhaps best work—a Yiddish work in the English language. The book was called Festival at Meron. It was a historical novel from the second century, from the time of the great rabbinic sage Shimon ben Yoḥai…. H. Sekler located in the drama of those tempestuous years a source of philosophical enlightenment of Jewish history for all subsequent times.”
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), with a bibliography; Yoyel Entin, in Di tsukunft (New York) (July 1923); M. Vaykhert, Teater un drame (Theater and drama), vol. 2 (Warsaw, 1926), pp. 116-19; N. Veynig, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (April 20, 1928); Ḥ. Vayner, in Hadoar (New York) (March 1, 1929); A. Mukdoni, in Teater-bukh of the Yiddish Art Theater (New York) (1928-1929); Mukdoni, in Yorbukh fun amopteyl fun yivo (Yearbook of the American division of YIVO), vol. 1 (New York, 1938), pp. 257-72; Shmuel Niger, in Di tsukunft (August 1933); Niger, Habikoret uveayoteha (Inquiry and its problems) (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1957); Arn Tsaytlin, in Literarishe bleter (November 2, 1934); Tsaytlin, in Hadoar (June 25, 1948; Tevet 29 [= January 9], 1959; Sivan 18 [= June 2], 1961); Tsaytlin, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (April 17, 1964; September 4, 1964); Moyshe Shtarkman, in Tog (New York) (August 22, 1943; January 16, 1944); Y. Rabinovits, Hasifrut bemashber hador (Literature in the crisis of the generation) (New York, 1946/1947); A. Epshteyn, Mikarov umeraḥok (From near and from far) (New York, 1943), pp. 203-19; Epshteyn, Sofrim ivrim baamerika (Hebrew writers in America) (Tel Aviv, 1952), pp. 273-90; M. Ribolov, Im hakad el hamabua (With the jug to the spring) (New York, 1950), pp. 221-30; Sh. Perlmuter, Yidishe dramaturgn un teater-compozitors (Yiddish playwrights and theatrical composers) (New York, 1952); H. Rogof, in Forverts (New York) (May 9, 1953; April 23, 1961; May 5, 1963; December 20, 1964); Y. Mestel, 70 yor teater-repertuar (Seventy years of theater repertoire) (New York, 1954), see index; Y. Ḥurgin, in Hadoar (July 30, 1954); N. Sverdlin, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (November 14, 1954); Y. Likhtnboym, Hasipur haivri (The Hebrew story) (Tel Aviv, 1955), p. 522; Likhtnboym, in Hapoel hatsayir (Tel Aviv) (Iyar 23 [= May 9], 1961);Y. K. Miklishanski, in Algemeyne entsiklopedye (General encyclopedia),”Yidn 5” (New York, 1957), pp. 155-56; Miklishanski, in Hadoar (Tevet 29 [= January 9], 1959), commemorating his seventy-fifth birthday; S. Regensberg, interview in Forverts (December 20, 1958); Shmuel Margoshes, in Tog-morgn-shurnal (January 18, 1959 [in English]; January 22, 1959; June 17, 1961; June 13, 1963; April 17, 1964; December 19, 1964); Kh. Gotesfeld, in Forverts (February 3, 1959); M. Gil, in Moznaim (Tel Aviv) (Nisan-Iyar [= March-May] 1961); Meyer Vakhsman (Waxman), in Hadoar (Nisan 4 [= March 29], 1963); Waxman, A History of Jewish Literature, from the Close of the Bible to Our Own Days, vol. 4 (New York, 1938), pp. 984-87; Shloyme Bikl, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (August 18, 1963); Y. Varshavski (Y. Bashevis), in Forverts (August 20, 1964).