Dolhinov | Horodok | Krasne | Krivichi | Kurenets | Radoshkovichi | Rakov | Vashki | Vileyka | Vishnevo | Volozhin
Return to Vilna Home Page
Return to Vilna Stories Menu
Vilna Stories
Abraham Joshua Heschel
Heschel in Vilna.(Jewish writer )

From: Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought |
Date: 6/22/1998 | Author: Dresner, Samuel H.
Print Digg
The Jewish poet Abraham Joshua Heschel travelled to Vilna when he was
18 years old to study at the Real Gymnasium in preparation for his
university education. As a poet and as a student in this pluralistic
Yiddish-speaking environment, he was able to fuse his Hasidic
upbringing with secular Jewish activism. In this city, Heschel
embraced traditional religious scholarship, poverty, compassion and
the radical beliefs of his professors and peers. Despite his
transformation, he rarely discussed his experiences in Vilna.

The zeal of the pious Jews was transferred to their emancipated sons
and grandsons. The fervor and yearning of the Hasidim, the ascetic
obstinacy of the Kabbalists, the inexorable logic of the Talmudists,
were reincarnated in the supporters of modern jewish movements.(1)

By the time Heschel reached Vilna at age eighteen, he looked like a
European student. He was clean shaven, without earlocks. His facial
hair was sparse, so he did not have to eliminate a beard. In Vilna, he
continued writing poetry while preparing himself for the university.
All the while, people could sense the Hasidic dignity of his childhood
and youth in his decorous, somewhat reserved demeanor. Heschel's
educational transition did not break with the past. His ability to
communicate with others, not his own identity, was the trouble.

The mails sustained Heschel's contact with his family, and
periodically he returned to Warsaw and Vienna. While visiting his
sister Sarah in Vienna, Heschel shared a room with her son, Israel
Heschel (1911-1994), who told his young uncle about some difficulties
with his Talmud studies.(2) Israel was worried, because, as the
Kopitzhinitzer rebbe's eldest son, he was expected to lead the clan
after his father's death. Israel was overly sensitive, withdrawn, and
not quickly at ease with people - nor was he an exceptional student.
Israel thought that the right study partner (haver) would solve his

Heschel recognized his nephew's distress to be a crisis of
self-confidence. "Don't worry," he told Israel. "Even if you don't
have a haver, you can still learn Talmud. For a haver can give as much
trouble as help. Your true haver is God, the Ribono shel 'olam (Master
of the Universe), and He is constantly at your side. If you really
trust Him and study Talmud night and day with all your energy, you
will receive siyata di-shmaya (heavenly assistance), and learning will
follow. Above all, don't waste time. Stop going to meetings, to
weddings, and other such events which Hasidim enjoy. Just devote
yourself to study."

Self-discipline was the answer, and Heschel did what he could to
reinforce Israel's efforts. After returning to Vilna, Heschel mailed
Israel a postcard every week. In each one he asked how much Talmud he
had learned that week and whether he had studied the Torah portion of
the week with Rashi, the classic medieval commentator. Each note
closed with the admonition: "Don't waste time." This support,
according to Israel, deeply influenced his life and enabled him to
persevere with his education.

Heschel rented a cheap room on Poplawes Street at the home of a
simple, very devout old Jewish man. (Students of the Real-Gymnasium
either lived at home or boarded in town.) Far from the city center,
this area was sparsely populated by poverty-stricken Jews.(3)
Heschel's room contained only a drab iron bed. Acquaintances could not
understand why he did not locate a better space or even a small
apartment, for modest lodgings could easily be found in Vilna for
about 20-25 zlotys. Living in the midst of Jewish indigence - and
almost destitute himself-Heschel identified with the suffering and
hopes of the dispossessed.

In Vilna, Heschel, who had known poverty in Warsaw, lived among
secular Jews who supported revolution. His street led into town toward
the west; toward the east, beyond the Poplawes district, was the
Belmont Forest, a favorite recreation and walking spot. Parallel to
Poplawes Street was Subocz, where poor Jews also lived. That road led
directly to the Real-Gymnasium. Heschel repeatedly walked through this
large expanse of subsidized housing, the center of Bund activity. In
that area, socialists, some communists, and other leftist groups had
celebrations and meetings.

Heschel's reading opportunities were now practically limitless. In
town, next to the Great Synagogue, Jewish students frequented the
Strashun Library, under the benevolent care of the modest but learned
librarian, Heykhel Lunsky. There Heschel could find all the Jewish
classic texts, rare editions, and manuscripts - as well as current
Yiddish literature, Hebrew and Yiddish translations of European
masterpieces, and Jewish newspapers and periodicals from Europe and
around the world.(4) The public library of Vilna was also well stocked
with German books.

Religious observance was, of course, no problem. For group services,
near the Strashun Library, there were about thirty small places of
worship in and around the synagogue courtyard, each belonging to a
different trade, including a Hasidic shtiebl.

The Vilna Real-Gymnasium, where Heschel was acquiring western European
knowledge and becoming acquainted with avant-garde politics and
literature, was a vibrant community whose humanistic values were
compatible with his sacred commitments.(5) The school itself was
located in a large, attractive building in the Jewish district of
Vilna, at 6 Rudnitski Street, at the end of a row of houses and a
trading market. Student activities were divided between the academic
curriculum and extracurricular clubs. The coeducational school
provided a completely nonreligious Jewish environment, rich in social
and intellectual opportunities.

It was probably Fishl Schneersohn, himself active in pedagogical
reform, who judged that a secular Yiddish-language Gymnasium would
best prepare Heschel for the University of Berlin. Schools within the
progressive Central Yiddish School Organization system-inspired by the
principles of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Maria Montessori, among
others - were the most compatible with Heschel's skills and values.
Tsentrale Yiddishe Shul Organizatsiya (CYSHO) had been established in
1921 in Warsaw as an umbrella for several Yiddish-language groups, and
its ideals were reform-minded and democratic. Instead of learning from
professorial-style lectures, students and teachers worked together,
developing cooperative relationships both inside and outside the
classroom. A Yiddish-speaking school was Heschel's best choice for
deeper reasons as well. He knew Yiddish and biblical and rabbinic
Hebrew thoroughly and was proficient in modern Hebrew literature. Yet
Yiddish remained the idiom of home, friendships, and his inner life.
Yiddish was his language of cultural emancipation and his bridge to

In the Vilna Real-Gymnasium

Yiddish was the exclusive medium of communication, even on restroom
door signs. All classes of its eight grades geared to university
preparation, which covered the complete Polish curriculum, were given
in Yiddish: there were courses on mathematics, biology, chemistry,
physics, geography, Polish and Jewish history, world history, Yiddish,
German, Polish, Hebrew, Bible, and other subjects. The quality of the
teaching in both secular and Judaic subjects was high; classes at all
levels were taught by specialists.

In Vilna, Heschel probably specialized in language and literature
rather than in the sciences. Classes on political economy, Jewish
history, philosophy, or pedagogical theory would also be useful to
him. Before leaving Warsaw he had been tutored in Polish and in
German; in Vilna he probably concentrated on Yiddish and German
literature, as he needed to perfect his knowledge of German culture -
while Yiddish was his true love. His transition from Hasidic Warsaw to
modern Europe was complete.

Yet, despite its standard of excellence (and because of it), the
Real-Gymnasium suffered under the Polish government's anti-Semitism.
Although the Treaty of Versailles protected national minority rights
and Poland supported Jewish educational systems among others,
graduates were not allowed to enter Polish universities. Even those
who passed the Abitur examination were excluded because the courses
were given in Yiddish, not Polish.(6)

As in Israel today, students attended classes from Sunday to Friday.
In the morning, they could borrow books for the day from the school
library, as most students could not afford to buy their own. The
library was modest, but it contained volumes in Yiddish and Hebrew
literature, science, and philosophy, as well as a good representation
of German and Polish classics. During the lunch break students could
buy a large glass of tea in the cafeteria for five groshn, and a roll
for one more groshn. Classes were dismissed at three o'clock in the

In this urban setting, its narrow streets traversed by arches
preserved in old photographs, the students relaxed in the large,
grassy yard between classes and afterward. But at the school itself,
they had a complete life. At four o'clock, hundreds of students
eagerly returned, filling the rooms where they discussed literature,
and learned skills in craft workshops, among many other offerings.
These extracurricular or club activities truly bound the community

Students recall Heschel as shy and quiet, a loner who had few friends.
There were reasons for him to remain somewhat apart. He grew up with
limited school experience, having studied alone or under Hasidic
tutors; infrequent and formalized social contact with girls or women
in Hasidic Warsaw would not have prepared him for coeducation. Lacking
basic cultural background, he had to exert tremendous efforts to
master subjects that other students had been preparing for years. In
addition, he spent time with writers and artists, most of them not
associated with his classes.

Heschel's immediate goals were pragmatic: gain knowledge and earn
academic certification. At the Real-Gymnasium, Heschel probably
limited himself to study and to many serious conversations.(8) He
remained on the periphery of a group of classmates consisting of Nahum
(Nakhte) Faynshtayn, Benjamin Wojczyk, and Abram (Abrashke) Lewin,
whose parents lived in Vilna and were Bundists. These three young men
(all born in 1909) spent considerable time at Lewin's home. Wojczyk
remembers Heschel as a somewhat withdrawn person with perhaps only one
true confidant.

Heschel spoke most often with Nakhte Faynshtayn, a dynamic leftist who
later emigrated to Paris and edited a Yiddish-language Communist
newspaper, the Naye Presse (New press).(9) But their relative
closeness was probably a personal, not a political alliance, as most
students (and teachers) were radicals. Everyone was outraged at the
poverty and injustice in Poland and Russia. Heschel shared with
Faynshtayn his aspirations as a poet.

At the school, Heschel participated in the uplifting atmosphere of
Jewish secularism. Academic excellence and enthusiasm for Jewishness
comprised the essence of the Real-Gymnasium. This academy was much
more than a school; in fact, it was a community - almost a family
network - which is probably why Fishl Schneersohn directed Heschel
there in the first place. Teachers and students shared an intimate.
imponderable love of being Jewish, an idealistic sense of self and
peoplehood encompassed in the term Yiddishkayt. Students revered their
teachers as nurturing parents who instilled pride and inward
strength.(10) They were the vanguard of a humanistic but Jewish

An essential part of student life, the clubs, run by a democratically
elected student administration, were the training ground. Its faculty
supervisor, the acclaimed author Josef Giligitsh, considered the
Real-Gymnasium to be "a true children's republic, in which each person
knew his or her rights, but also felt their obligations."(11)

At the reading club, which subscribed to Yiddish periodicals from
North and South America and Europe, students discussed selections from
European or Jewish literature. There was a Radio Club, a novelty in
the 1920s. Workshops taught skills like dressmaking, sewing, and
embroidery. There was a book bindery, which was urgently needed.
Students could buy used books cheaply and, under the supervision of
Mr. Zametchek, a well-known Vilna artbook professional, prepare them
for their own use. The same energy was found in the carpentry shop
where students, directed by Mr. Shneyderman, made small pieces of
furniture and other items. The famous drama club, supervised by the
poet, playwright, and novelist Moyshe Kulbak, brought the
Real-Gymnasium to wide public attention.

The school community made up a microcosm of postrevolutionary Eastern
Europe. One example was Ivan, the non-Jewish janitor who combined
Russian and Polish Vilna.(12) Ivan had arrived when the building was
still a private school for wealthy girls, named after the Russian
Empress Maria Fyodorovna. He was a short, broad-shouldered Russian,
usually wore swashbuckling boots, and never learned to speak Yiddish
properly, though he understood everything. He and his wife cleaned the
large classrooms, laboratories, offices, corridors, gymnastics and
game rooms, and workshops. In winter; they fired up the porcelain coal
ovens that heated the school.

Another strong nonfaculty presence was Mr. Shenkman, who supervised
the physical plant. He was also responsible for collecting late
tuition payments.(13) One former student remembered his compassion:
"He had so much love for 'his children' that when he had to enter a
classroom and send a child home whose parents had failed to the pay
the tuition for too long, he literally stood with tears in his eyes."
During the long examinations required for graduation, "the same
warm-hearted Shenkman" served tea with buttered bread and sometimes
placed "a special little note inside it with several historical dates
or a mathematical equation."

In 1924, shortly before Heschel's arrival, Yosef Yashunsky became the
director, replacing the German-born Dr. Berliner, a strict
overseer.(14) Yashunsky, who was more flexible and had a warmer
personality, was a mathematician from St. Petersburg with a broad
humanistic education. In order to foster personal responsibility, his
classroom method was Socratic, and his advanced classes on cosmography
and mathematics demonstrated how theory related directly to everyday

Yashunsky soon earned the name of "Tatte" (in Yiddish, father) because
of his kindness and the trust he inspired in students and teachers.
Once Yashunsky made a special effort to rescue a friend and classmate
of Heschel's, Benjamin Wojczyk, who came from a needy Vilna family.
When the director learned that Wojczyk had been compelled to leave the
school for three weeks for failing to pay tuition, he called him back
and personally tutored him to help recover the instruction he had

Heschel may have appreciated the Real-Gymnasium's excellent science
programs, and for university admissions he needed the courses on
German language, history, philosophy, Latin, and mathematics. But he
was especially devoted to Yiddish literature. Although most graduates
became mathematicians, engineers, or technicians of one sort or
another, they all loved the Yiddish classics. During 1925-27, the
years of Heschel's matriculation, the two most outstanding literature
teachers were Max Erik and Moyshe Kulbak.

The erudite Max Erik (pseudonym of Zalman Merkin) taught Yiddish and
Polish literature. He came to Vilna in 1922, after graduating from
Polish officers' school. He had already earned a scholarly reputation
and was preparing a historical survey of Yiddish literature from its
inception through the eighteenth century. His teaching style was
formal, and he lectured from a thick notebook filled with small print.
"He was an organized scholar who weighed every word and measured his
time. Planning and system were part and parcel of his
personality."(17) Max Erik successfully conveyed the attitudes and
methods of serious academic research.

But the teacher who dominated all memories and who impressed Heschel
most profoundly was Moyshe Kulbak, poet, playwright, novelist, and
political idealist. He was a modern writer, left-wing and artistically
avant-garde, a child of the Jewish countryside, born in the town of
Smorgon, near Vilna.(18) He knew this earthy life intimately, for his
father was a forest ranger and wood merchant and his mother came from
a Jewish agricultural colony. Kulbak's early education was both
secular and traditional, in a Folk-school and heder. He studied Talmud
with a private teacher, going on to yeshiva in Swencian and Volozhyn.
Kulbak learned Hebrew, Russian, and of course Yiddish, and first began
to write in Hebrew. He then became a convinced Yiddishist.

When Kulbak's first collection of Yiddish poetry, Shirim (Songs or
poems), appeared in Vilna in 1920, the critic Shmuel Niger announced
"a new dawn" in Yiddish literature.(19) Between 1920 and 1923, Kulbak
joined a dynamic group of Yiddish writers in Berlin, at that time a
haven for Jewish thinkers from towns in the Pale of Settlement seeking
to enter the modern world.(20) Also in Berlin, Kulbak worked as a
prompter in the militant theater of Erwin Piscator.

Moyshe Kulbak then returned to Vilna and became the city's most
charismatic teacher. In addition to his classes at the Real-Gymnasium,
he gave courses at the two other Yiddish-language schools, the Sophia
Markovna Gurevitsh Gymnasium and the Yiddish Teachers Institute
(Lehrer Seminar). At the Real-Gymnasium he taught Yiddish literature
to the two highest classes. While teaching he also published prose
narratives in 1924 and 1925.

Kulbak's unique method inspired commitment-a personal involvement with
the text which Heschel in later years expected of his own students and
readers. Kulbak, a marvelous teacher, was able to provoke spontaneous
reflection. Other instructors usually read and analyzed a text in
class, assigning passages for students to memorize and recite the next
day, without discussion; then the sequence would be repeated. Kulbak
defined a theme or idea from the work under consideration and assigned
a student to explore that theme the next day. Kulbak then listened
carefully to the student's report and expanded upon his or her
observations. The students and teacher discussed the issues over the
next few days. Kulbak's classes were masterpieces of collaborative

Students retained vivid memories of Kulbak's emotional and spiritual
intimacy with Yiddish authors: "He might ask a student to retell a
folktale in her or his own words. Then he would walk slowly and
quietly around the room - you could almost hear a fly buzz - and he
listened with such intensity, as if he were hearing the voice of the
master himself in the student's retelling who in her youthful
enthusiasm identified completely with the original. I remember another
episode when Kulbak, worried about a student's ignorance, said to us
with a strange look in his eyes that no one could consider himself a
Jewish intellectual (the ideal to which everyone should be striving)
if he did not know 'by heart' the names of all eighteen volumes of
Peretz's works in Kletskin's edition!"(22)

Kulbak's students were unanimous in their reverence for the master.
One enthralled but rational student-Dina Abramowicz-testifies to his
charisma: "To say that we loved Kulbak is too pale. We were bound to
him like limbs of the same body. Every flutter of his aroused a
response within us. When he but moved his brow, we would already open
our eyes wide. When a light smile quietly touched his lips, warmth
would pour into our hearts. Like a fish in water, Kulbak moved in the
stream of world literature; he wanted, as also we did, to bathe in its

Kulbak's sensitivity to words seems to anticipate Heschel's own theory
of "prayer as expression and empathy."(23) For Kulbak, "literature was
a marriage between the writer's texts and the reader's feelings.
Kulbak did not conceive of the text as printed pages, but as read,
recited, or 'sung out' interpretations. The voice, the intonation, a
wrinkle of the forehead, when bringing forth the written word, had as
much meaning for him as the text itself."(24) Heschel, writing years
later of the cantor's vocation, insisted that "a word has a soul, and
we must learn how to attain insight into its life. Words are
commitments, not only the subject matter for esthetic reflection."(25)

Students were also touched by Kulbak's poverty. He was forced to
supplement the small salary from his three teaching jobs by working as
a tailor.(26) A "conspiracy" of students collected money for him from
their jobs in the bindery or carpentry shops or tutoring younger
pupils. They bought snacks and a bottle, inviting Kulbak to Ivan's
private quarters. "With this spare little glass of liquor. Kulbak used
to speak about Yiddish and European literature and, sometimes, he read
his latest songs and poems. to which even Ivan listened with perked
ears, so musically beautiful were the recitations."(27)

Heschel shared his classmates' admiration for the master, and probably
participated in similar gatherings: "And, as the liquor reached the
bottom of the bottle, we hoped that this Jewish Pushkin, this poet of
rich and deep vision, would not toss back the few zlotys which the
group used to place into his pocket by force, or furtively.
Afterwards, they would accompany him home with tears in their eyes."

Moyshe Kulbak's triumphal production of the third act of Shakespeare's
Julius Caesar (in the Yiddish translation by Y. Y. Schwartz) provides
an emblem of modern Jewish culture in Vilna. In 1926, Kulbak mobilized
the school for the performance.(28) Almost every member of the two
highest classes participated as actors, chores, extras in the crowd
scenes, or technical help. Although Heschel apparently did not
participate, two of his classmates took leading roles: Benjamin
Wojczyk played Brutus, and Mordecai Eydelzon played Marc Antony.(29)

It was a genuine avant-garde production, inspired by Kulbak's
experience in Berlin at the theater of Piscator. Audience and actors
worked together - all in Yiddish. "Costumed boys were placed in
various corners of the hall, making the audience forget the theatrical
representation. From the lower flight of stairs, fittingly dressed
heralds shouted, 'Vigeht Caesar!'(There goes Caesar!) And on their
long trumpets. they played a greeting for the ruler of Rome. Both
young and old became drawn in and were excited by the

After the production was presented three times in Vilna, it went to
Warsaw, where CYSHO was campaigning to open a similar Yiddish
gymnasium. Josef Giligitsh, who was in charge of supervising the
students, describes the boisterous night-long train ride from Vilna:
"There was singing and joke telling; Shimshon Kahan, [later a] poet of
the 'Young Vilna' group, then a student in the class [of 1926],
recited poems in imitation of Kulbak, and his impersonation was so
clever that people were twisted with laughter. Kulbak himself laughed
more than anyone."

After a sleepless night, they made the required pilgrimage to the
Gensher cemetery in Warsaw. In a formal ceremony, they placed flowers
on the tombs of the three founding fathers of Yiddish literature, I.
L. Peretz, Saul Anski, the author of The Dybbuk, and Jacob Dinezon,
author of children's books and novels.(31)

Later, the audience at the Kaminski Theatre was overwhelmed by this
Yiddish Shakespeare presented by young people. Warsaw's Yiddish
newspapers raved about the occasion. This Shakespeare performance in
Yiddish took place just a few blocks from the Heschel apartment on
Muranowska Street. An English masterpiece had been translated into the
daily idiom of Eastern European Jews. who previously had been isolated
from the world. Their mother tongue communicated the universal
struggle for freedom-and the heights and depths of heroism and

The writer of these lines, who live for a while in Vilna and was a
co-founder of "Young Vilna, "was privileged to absorb the spirit of
the city, where even the poorest were bearers of refinement and
spiritual exaltation.(32)

Heschel advanced his literary career during his two years in Vilna. In
addition to his academic work at the Real-Gymnasium, Heschel joined a
group of innovative Yiddish-speaking writers and artists, probably
encouraged by acquaintances in Warsaw. These men with left-wing
ideals-who later became known collectively as Young Vilna (in Yiddish,
Yung Vilne)-provided a context for his personal writing. Heschel
continued to develop the poetry he began in Warsaw, expanding his
subject matter and furthering his ambitions for publishing.

Avrum Yehoshua, as he was known, was a strong presence among these
intellectuals, a figure who was both appealing and out of place. It
was difficult for politically militant Jews-most of them socialists
and communists-to fathom Heschel's essential identity. Shlomo Beilis,
a poet and journalist who was born in Vilna (and after the war
remained in communist Warsaw), astutely discerned Heschel's Hasidic
spirit, describing him as "a good-looking young man, with the deep
eyes of a scholar. A person of an entirely different type than we.
Pious. Very solid, and not loose in any way."(33) Heschel stood out
among these skeptics as a ben-toyre (literally, son of the Torah), a
thinker steeped in religious learning.

Beilis and his comrades, like most progressive Jews of the time, were
familiar with the religious culture they had rejected. They easily
recognized piety, and Beilis recalled that "Heschel always wore a
black hat. He looked like a rabbi, a genuine rabbi. Medium height,
broad shoulders, thick-set, with very deep-set, beautiful eyes. And he
looked like a scholar." Heschel had gained weight. More important, the
artists vaguely perceived his inner solitude, suggested by his
enigmatic quietness. Some understood his reserve as pensiveness, yet
to others he appeared aloof.

An unusual formality marked their different mental worlds. Beilis
continued, "Our relations with him were correct, but distant, as
though there were a barrier between us." They never addressed Heschel
directly with the familiar du (thou), but with the formal ihr-just as
Heschel's father, the Pelzovizna rebbe, was spoken to in the third
person. Their cultural disparity made it hard to communicate
spontaneously: "With him we couldn't make jokes, and he wasn't, as
they say, anshei shloymaynu, not one of our crowd. He was from another
world. We respected him."

Heschel's lifelong cultural alienation had begun. In Warsaw, he had
been a budding modern among Hasidic Jews. In Vilna, he and his fellow
writers could not relax together. What was the source of their
discomfort, perhaps mutual? Was Heschel tense? Haughty? Reserved?
Modest? Or simply shy? Did Heschel represent a form of spirituality
they had repudiated? Their uneasiness in his presence may also have
reflected Heschel's internal straggle with his identity, despite their
shared commitment to literature, art, and (as Heschel's poems soon
demonstrated) social justice.

Such dissonance did not prevent Beilis and Heschel from enjoying walks
together and having long conversations. Beilis collected him at his
dismal room on Poplawes Street and they strolled to the Belmont
Forest. Or they might reach the other side of town, the wealthier
western district near the Zakreta Forest, on the banks of the Vileyke
river. There they observed "the tsop, as it was called. where the
Vileyke would fall noisily into the water from above, because there
was a mill." Their exchanges, however, were not personal: We used to
walk together and talk, but we never asked each other about our
yikhus, our ancestors and so forth."

For the secularist Beilis, Heschel's family tree, revered by Hasidim
everywhere, had little authority. But Heschel did not disguise his
sense of closeness to God. One day, after a meeting at the home of the
poet Zalman Halpern on Pohulanke Street, they walked to the Zakreta
Forest located a little over two miles beyond town. As soon as they
entered the woods, Heschel put on his hat. It was a hot day and the
forest was cooler-but Beilis was still surprised. "'Heschel,' I asked
him - we never addressed him informally or by his first name, 'What
does this mean? How do you explain it? the whole time you were
carrying the hat in your hand, but just as we entered the forest, you
put it on. Why?' Avrum Yehoshua replied graciously, 'It would be hard
for you to understand. For me a forest is a holy place (a makom
kodesh). And a Jew, when he walks into a holy place, covers his head."
Heschel then developed his idea poetically, explaining that the
stately trees seemed to be "standing shimen esre" (Yiddish for shemone
esre, the Eighteen Benedictions recited during the Amidah standing
prayer). As Heschel later wrote of Eastern Europe, "even the landscape
became Jewish."(34)

The poems Heschel shared with his artist companions revealed his
complex personality struggling to express itself. Form seemed to
inhibit his self-disclosure. When he read some pieces at meetings, the
group appreciated his poems but found them somewhat outdated. "They
were very fine, intelligently written poems. In the old style, in a
very old style. They didn't possess a drop of irony; they were dead
serious. As a person he was 'dead pious' so to speak, as were his
poems," wrote Beilis.

Yiddish poetry liberated Heschel, but as an artist he was not
revolutionary. His poems, still somewhat immature stylistically, were
too cerebral. Although listeners were attracted by his engagement with
intimate emotions, the poems "seemed to be a bit stiff. But they
possessed density, mass. Every feeling was enveloped in an idea." His
verse was more deliberately constructed than any inspired by the
avant-garde movements they admired-Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism -
which were flourishing then in Paris, Zurich, and Berlin.

Yet, if one considers the poems as biographical documents, Heschel's
experience (the content) surpassed the restrained form of his verse,
for he was consolidating his own voice. Some poems evoked a surprising
sensuality, which intrigued Beilis and the group: "We marveled at how
such a zaddik came to write such erotic poems. It was a wonder, the
erotic-modest, with Jewish discretion - but still erotic, in his
religious poems." Heschel evidently shared pieces similar to the one
Melekh Ravitch chose for his 1926 anthology. Listeners were almost
shocked that this "Torah scholar" - as they perceived him - was
equally comfortable with religious and sexual themes. But for Heschel
there need be no contradiction.

Heschel's Yiddish verse, with its shortcomings, was indeed his
authentic voice. His "love" poems bespeak anxiety, but not avoidance
or neurosis, for they assert his basic trust of the flesh. Beilis
perceptively noted that "daring" was absent from the poems, by which
he meant that Heschel as poet was not "bold," defying censure. For
Heschel, human nature spoke of its many impulses without shame.

Beilis called Heschel's refinement his "Jewish discretion." Heschel's
love poems reminded him of Sholem Aleichem's familiar story
"Stempenyu," in which a man so reveres the modesty of his beloved that
he is afraid to look at her, afraid even to fall in love. This was the
time, late in 1926, when Heschel's first published poem ("The womanly
skin/Silvers so purely . . .") appeared in the fifteenth installment
of Varshaver Shrifin. Heschel's short "erotic" piece was printed in
the second poetry issue-prominently displayed on the last page.(35)

Heschel had entered the Yiddish literary establishment, for this
anthology marks an era. Pieces were selected to promote new writers
and to circulate the works of established ones. Heschel took his place
among Sholem Asch, Yitzhak Bashevis (pen name of I. B. Singer), Max
Weinreich, Peretz Markish, Aaron Zeitlin, Moyshe Kulbak, and Melekh
Ravitch. After the installments were finished, a book of over a
thousand pages, dated 1926-27, was circulated internationally with
Heschel's poem on page 32.

Heschel was a modern Jew seeking an idiom for his piety, which
included a solid but delicate sensuality. In that he followed a
tradition from Biblical times through Yehuda Halevi, who associated
physical impulses with a passionate attraction to God. Heschel was
familiar with the sanctified passion of Hasidism, as he wrote later:
"One can serve God with the body, with his passions, even with 'the
evil impulse' (Sifre Deuteronomy #32). . . . The road to the sacred
leads through the secular."(36) Years later, Heschel used the term
"embarrassment" to convey his humility before God.
for the rest go to;