The Arty Semite

Walt Whitman in Yiddish

By Shoshana Olidort

  • Print
  • Share Share
Wiki Commons

Perhaps the greatest American poet ever to have lived, Walt Whitman was not always regarded as such. Thanks, in part, to the emergence of modernist forms in poetry toward the end of the 19th century, Whitman’s work did not attract critical attention until after his death in 1892. But for Jewish immigrant poets living in New York City at the turn of the century, Whitman was an iconic figure — a poet and even a prophet. The famous American Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld wrote an ode to Whitman, shortly after his death, which concludes “Prophet, immortal, I praise you / I fall now into the dust before your dust and sing!” And the legendary Yiddish writer Avrom Reyzn, in a study delineating Whitman’s influence on Yiddish poets, called him the “Prophet of New America.”

Indeed, many Jewish poets drew inspiration from and were influenced by Whitman, and quite a few took to translating his work into Yiddish. These translations will soon be made available through The Walt Whitman Archive, as part of a project whose goal is to give readers access to translations of Whitman that have long been out of print. Matt Miller, Assistant Professor of English at Yeshiva University’s Stern College and Senior Assistant Editor at the Archive, is working together with student and intern Shoshana Singer to put Yiddish translations of Whitman on the Archive’s website. A book-length translation of Whitman’s works by the Yiddish novelist and poet Louis Miller, is scheduled to go online this summer, and will be available in two formats: as TIFF images of the original book, as well as transcriptions of the work.

Interest in Whitman among Yiddish poets, said Miller, can be ascribed to the American poet’s celebration of the ordinary, working man and those on the margins of society. Through his poetry, said Miller, “Whitman invites everyone to feel as essential parts of the American experience … regardless of religious or ethnic backgrounds.” In addition, Whitman’s formal approach — long, unrhymed lines, echoes that of the Hebrew prophets, another possible point of appeal for Yiddish poets.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Poetry, Shoshana Olidort, Walt Whitman, Yiddish, Morris Rosenfeld, Matt Miller, Louis Miller, Avrom Reyzn

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.