Bintel Blog

Samuel Ullman: Japan’s Favorite Jewish Poet

By Benjamin Ivry

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Although Japanese society has been afflicted by the phenomenon known as “antisemitism without Jews,” as detailed in David G. Goodman and Masanori Miyazawa’s thoughtful study, “Jews in the Japanese Mind: The History and Uses of a Cultural Stereotype” (Lexington, 2000), remarkable cases of philosemitism also exist.

Of the latter, few are more surprising than the story recounted in Margaret Armbrester’s “Samuel Ullman and ‘Youth’: The Life, the Legacy”, newly reprinted from the University of Alabama Press. Ullman (1840–1924) was a German-Jewish poet who settled in the American South whose inspirational 1918 poem “Youth” (see below) became fantastically popular in Japan after World War II, along with other Japanese imported cultural obsessions like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and baseball.

Some explain that the poet gained celebrity from a framed copy of “Youth” in General Douglas MacArthur’s office when he served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in postwar Japan, thus making the Japanese attraction to it a form of obeisance to all-conquering America. Yet today, the hundreds of uncowed, unbowed and unconquered Japanese-language websites and blogs still featuring “Youth” argues for a more profound Japanese connection to the poem and its writer.

By including a selection of Ullman’s other, less famous, poems, as well as biographical details, “Samuel Ullman and ‘Youth’” establishes the crucial role Ullman’s Jewishness played in his life, as president of Temple B’nai Israel, Natchez, Mississippi, as well as his local B’nai Brith, not to mention this Christopher Smart-like list from his long, undated poem “Israel - the Dreamer” which proudly asserts precedence over Christianity:

The food economist in Joseph—
The sociologist in Moses—
The great soldier in Joshua—
The priestess leader in Deborah—
The melodious poet in David—
The wise moralist in Koheleth.
The profound philosopher in Job,
The spiritual poet in Isaiah,
The ethical teacher in Micah,
The seer in the prophet of Naz’reth […]
Thou, beacon to humanity,
Israel, an ever burning bush!
Israel is “the man of sorrows” of history—
The scapegoat of Nations,
Toiling for his Ideal, the Unity.”

Click here for a virtual tour of the University of Alabama’s Ullman Museum.

Youth

Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.

Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity of the appetite, for adventure over the love of ease. This often exists in a man of sixty more than a body of twenty. Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals.

Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust.

Whether sixty or sixteen, there is in every human being’s heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing child-like appetite of what’s next, and the joy of the game of living. In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the Infinite, so long are you young.

When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at twenty, but as long as your aerials are up, to catch the waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at eighty.


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