Writer Jacob Glatstein was born in Lublin in 1896 and immigrated in 1914 to New York, where he began his career as one of the most notable Yiddish poets and novelists in America during the 20th century. Despite his Western education at New York University and literacy in the English language, Glatstein chose to compose literature in his mother tongue, Yiddish. Glatstein was a trailblazer in propelling Yiddish writing into modernist literary thought and forms. In this way, Glatstein was successful in utilizing the Yiddish language, an instrument from the Jewish “old world” of Eastern Europe, to participate in and contribute to a new, wider world of modern American literature. By examining this creative duality in Glatstein’s work, we may uncover the condition and character of American Jewry that the poet brings to life in his 1929 poem “Sheeny Mike.”
The creative environment that Glatstein inhabited in New York at the end of World War I was “in ferment as a new generation of poets … announced themselves as In Zikhistn (Introspectivists)” (Fein, xiv). As one of the founders of this new movement, Glatstein rejected traditional poetic conventions and instead embraced free verse and experimental language. He composed the first collection of Yiddish poems written entirely in free verse, which illustrates his revolutionary contributions to the canon of Yiddish literature. As an immigrant, Glatstein’s writing portrays bi-continental influence, continually alluding to Jewish, European, and American literatures in his works. This mishmash of influence takes form in the use of language within this poem. Rachel Rubin writes,
“Glatshteyn’s Yiddish plays out semantically the choices that face American Jews. ‘Sheeny Mike’ contains within it an unusual number of Hebrew works (even when there is a Yiddish alternative)—and a large number of English words. Similarly, Sheeny Mike’s Yiddish-speaking father struggles to translate from Hebrew into English” (Race and the Modern Artist).
Dedicated to expressing the fragments of selfhood and employing multiple perspectives, Glatstein “advocated a modernist engagement with free verse and highly individualistic experimentation with word, sound, and form,” often mimicking Yiddish speech patterns and creating new words (Kerbel, 346). While Glatstein asserted the place of Yiddish in modern American literature, his position as a Yiddish American writer became more and more precarious. Richard Fein explains the fragile state of In Zikhistn writers in his book With Everything We Have Got,
“Their move toward modernism came at a time when their readership was shrinking: some Yiddish readers were alienated by their experiments in language and perspective, while other readers were lost to English-language literature. The poets felt their growing isolation and were discomforted” (xiv).
Glatstein’s modernist Yiddish poetry embodies the complicated situation of American Jewry of his time. As an immigrant Jew, he seeks to join the American cultural world of experimental modernism while simultaneously maintaining the connection to his Jewish roots. His struggle to capture the Yiddish-speaking audience demonstrates the American Jewish struggle to balance these two components of identity. Glatstein’s compositions mark a specific moment in American Jewish literary history, and, as Fein writes, “his death marked a passing of Yiddish poetry in America” (xv).
As we turn to the poem “Sheeny Mike,” we must first explore the phenomenon of Jewish gangsters in America. Sheeny Mike was the nickname of a real Jewish gangster, who was jailed for many accounts of robbery. In order to understand why Glatstein engages with this character, readers may investigate the role of the gangster in the Jewish and American literary experiences. Quoting critic Robert Warshow in 1948, Rachel Rubin writes, “The experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans” (Race and the Modern Artist). Rubin expounds upon this, illustrating that the figure of the gangster provides an immediate markers of certain qualities – “Gangsters are inherently ethnic, inherently urban, inherently male, and inherently modern,” she explains. In wider American culture, the gangster character is simultaneously a dangerous outsider and a symbol of patriotic American strength. In Glatstein’s poem, Sheeny Mike embodies these contradictory qualities. He is both “the terror and protector,” a person to be feared and a person to revere (43). By writing about a Jewish gangster, Glatstein is also alluding to and participating in a trend in Jewish literature, specifically Isaac Babel’s collection of Odessa Tales. Babel’s most famous anti-hero gangster Benya Krik is nicknamed “The King,” and Glatstein dubs Sheeny Mike “king and commander—“ a clear reference to Babel’s stories (45). By composing a poem about a Jewish gangster, Glatstein participates in both a modern American literary tradition and a potent element of the Jewish, Eastern European literary canon. Through his poetry, Glatstein embraces the overlap between these two worlds that define him and his community as an immigrant American Jew.
“Sheeny Mike” expresses a reverence and mystique about the capability to embrace the duality of the American Jewish experience. The Jewish gangster is a symbol of Jewish strength, masculinity, and power. He is loyal to his family and his Jewish community, but he makes America his own, has earned a certain authority even in the gentile, secular space of America. He starts off in the confines of the Jewish “tenement roofs,” but “he stretched his little world” beyond his Jewish home and into the truly American world (43, 45). Glatstein’s poem illustrates the gangster’s achievement of the American dream, even using this word exactly: “Here, from the rooftop, he dreamed the dream of his kingdom” (43). Sheeny Mike’s kingship spans the two realms of the old and new worlds. He conquers his territory in America, “this small corner of the world,” but he still remains rooted in the traditional Jewish world (43). In this poem, the Jewish tradition is represented by the older generation—Mike’s parents and “the forefathers, the pious water-carriers and coarse God-fearing butchers” (45). Sheeny Mike is loyal to his parents, who are defined by their stereotypical markers of traditional Jewish appearance, “his mother’s wig, his father’s old beard” (43). The author illustrates the indivisible connection between the strong gangster and his Jewish parents, as he writes, “The mother’s wig pleads to Heaven in the name of his good deeds; / he didn’t let his mother and father / become a burden to society” (43).
Stanza three embodies the sense of awe for the way that Sheeny Mike navigates the overwhelmingly new and confusing Jewish American experience. The first five lines of this stanza illustrate the wonder, the desire, and the need to achieve some balance between American-ness and Jewishness that the gangster is able to find. The poem reads, “How did he dream his realm? / How did he reign? / How rule? / How subdue? / How enthrall?” (45) Glatstein poses the question to himself and his fellow American Jews – how does the American Jew immerse himself in America while still retaining his roots in the Jewish world that produced him?
The poem’s implications for notions of gender are also deeply entwined with Glatstein’s portrayal of the American Jewish experience. Sheeny Mike’s poignant masculinity is illustrated through a direct contrast between himself and his father. Mike is described as “the duke, / the mounted rider, / the blunt youth,” a tough, strong, and youthful man (47). But his father, on the other hand, is “shamed” “in his old age” (43). Sheeny Mike achieved the American dream, “while downstairs his half-blind father / hunched over a grease-stained holy book / and taught children to translate Hebrew: / shulkhan—‘a teybl’ and kise—‘a tsher’” (43). The illustration of Mike’s father as emasculated, old, and physically weak is connected with his struggle to pronounce the English words. In this depiction, Glatstein creates a correlation between unmanliness and the inability to become “American.” Sheeny Mike’s over-pronounced masculinity, then, is a symbol of his overcoming the stereotypically Jewish weakness and embracing American identity.
If Sheeny Mike is an exemplar of the Jewish American dream, Glatstein’s poem expresses a certain anxiety and pessimism about the attainability of this dream. The poem does not chronicle Sheeny Mike’s rise to power, but rather his fall. Readers meet the Jewish gangster at his funeral – “Sheeny Mike sleeps in a bronze casket” (43). The author suggests that Mike was defeated by opposing forces, as he writes, “There dwelled a king / who reigned and reigned, commanded and demanded, / until he fell at the hands of the enemy / Who cut short the dynasty?” (45). These lines illustrate that Sheeny Mike ultimately collapsed under the pressure of “the enemy” – his status as an outsider eventually caught up to him. The notion that Sheeny Mike’s “dynasty” has been cut off implies that even future generations of Jewish Americans will continue to struggle with the competing loyalties of Jewishness and American-ness. While depictions of masculinity set Mike apart from his father, his death signals a return to the older generation’s state of exclusion and failure to acculturate. “The forefathers, the pious water-carriers and coarse God-fearing butchers, / remained in the cemeteries of the old home,” Glatstein writes (45). Like these ancestors, who represent the old world of Jewish tradition in Eastern Europe, Sheeny Mike now also remains in the cemetery. After the fall of king Mike, there is no other youth to take over his throne. Only his stereotypically traditional Jewish parents, “his mother’s wig, his father’s old beard,” are left behind (43). By setting his poem in the graveyard, Glatstein asserts his anxieties about the potential for success in harmonizing Jewish and American identities.
As a modernist Yiddish writer in America, Jacob Glatstein embodies the radical newness of the Jewish American experience as it spanned the worlds of old and new. “Sheeny Mike” illustrates the hope, anxiety, and hybridity that characterized the Jewish American immigrant in the 1920’s. Tackling issues of power, masculinity, tradition, and generational divide, this poem sheds light on the essential struggles of the American Jew that linger to this day.
By Lucille Marshall.
Written for Men and Women in American Jewish Culture with Dean Shuly Schwartz at the Jewish Theological Seminary
Fein, Richard J., ed. With Everything We’ve Got: A Personal Anthology of Yiddish Poetry. New York, NY: Host Publications, 2009. Print.
Glatstein, Jacob. American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology. Ed. Benjamin Harshav and Barbara Harshav. Berkeley: U of California, 1986. Print.
Kerbel, Sorrel. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Rubin, Rachel. “A Jewish New World in Glatshteyn’s ‘Sheeny Mike’” Race and the Modern Artist. Ed. Heather Hathaway, Josef Jařab, and Jeffrey Paul. Melnick. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.