the poets

The Sweatshop Poets

The first group of Yiddish writers in America that one can regard as a "school" are the "sweatshop poets" whose most creative time were the 1890s and the 1900s. They are in fact the first school of Yiddish poetry anywhere in the world. These writers included Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923), Morris Winchevsky (1856-1932), David Edelshtat (1866-1892), and Joseph Bovshover (1873-1915). These four are linked in their poetry by a compassion for the working masses in the sweatshops of New York, and a desire for a revolutionary change in their conditions. These poets were themselves workers, slaving in horrible working conditions for twelve or more hours a day. Only Winchevsky, who arrived to New York from London in 1894, was a Yiddish journalist and intellectual who sought to "enlighten" the Jewish workers. The other three poets wrote from experience in the world of the sweatshop; and in fact, Edelshtat died at the age of 25, of tuberculosis, contracted in the difficult labor conditions.

Of the four, Morris Rosenfeld is considered the finest poet. Not quite the strident revolutionary like Winchevsky, Boshover, and Edelshtat, he focussed more on the pain and everyday suffering of the Jewish worker, as well as on Jewish nationalism and the Diaspora. He also became the most famous of the group after Harvard professor, Leo Weiner, translated his poems into English in 1898, entitled, Songs from the Ghetto. After the publication of this translation, there were many more translations into German and Polish and other languages. In Germany, in 1902, his work was illustrated by the noted art nouveau artist, Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874-1925) in and, since then, Lilien's illustrations and Rosenfeld's poems have been linked.


Greenberg, Elizer and Irving Howe. A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry; Holt, Rhinehart, Winston, NY 1969.
Howe, Irving. World of our Fathers ; Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, NY 1976.
Harshav, Barbara and Benjamin. American Yiddish Poetry; University of California Press, Berkeley, CA 1986.