Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Yiddish Poets & Writers: J.I. Segal

Yiddish Poetry

This is the start of another short series, Yiddish Poets & Writers, which will bring to the attention of modern readers the important Jewish poets and writers of the early 20th century. I will start with the important Montreal Yiddish poets and writers and then plan to write about the New York Yiddish poets and writers—Montreal and New York City being important centres of Yiddishkayt. I might also include Yiddish poets and writers in Israel, who played a prominent role in the nation’s culture and literature. I begin here with J.I. Segal.

J.I. Segal and Elke Rosen, his wife, “with their daughter, circa 1930s,” the Jewish Public Library of Montreal says in the photo caption. Given that Sylvia was born in 1926 and Annette in 1929, this is either a photo of their daughter Annette (without her older sibling) or this is a photo of Sylvia taken in the late 1920s. The latter is more likely.

He is today considered the most eminent Yiddish poet in Canada, but outside of Yiddish-speaking circles, he is not as well known as he ought to be. J.I. Segal [Jacob Isaac Segal;1896–1954] was born Yaakov Yitzchak Skolar in Solobkovtsy, of Czarist Russia (and now Ukraine) in 1896, moving to Korets, Ukraine, at the age of three with his mother when his father died; the town was majority Jewish at the time. In Yiddish writing circles, he became known as Yud Yud Segal.

Segal came to Montreal in 1911 at the age of 15, aided by two older siblings, Nechmiah and Esther, who later published poetry, as well. Upon arriving in Montreal, he found work as a tailor in the garment industry, as many other Jewish immigrants did, and then later as a teacher at the Montreal Folks Shule, one of the first Yiddish-language day schools in Canada. He began publishing Yiddish poetry, first in Keneder Adler (“Canadian Eagle”) in 1915; and his first published volume of verse was Fun Mayn Velt (“From My World”), which appeared in 1918.

The Museum of Jewish Montreal says on its site:
Segal published ten volumes of poetry in his lifetime, including the first book of Yiddish poetry ever published in Montreal, Fun mayn velt (From My World; 1918), Mayn shtub un mayn velt (My Home and My World; 1923), and Dos hoyz fun di poshete (The House of the Simple People; 1940). Segal’s poetry was marked by his lyricism and detailed description, and by the contrast between his depictions of life in the shtetl and that of Jewish Montreal. He always considered himself a Yiddish writer living in Canada, rather than a Canadian writer of Yiddish verse, and in his writings he showed nostalgia for the towns of his childhood.
He lived at 4540 Clark Avenue (near Mont-Royal), not far from where I grew up as a child on Park Avenue. The Encyclopaedia Judaica says that Segal actually published 12 volumes of poems, including, it says, “Sefer Idish (‘The Book of Yiddish,’ 1950), the last collection published in his lifetime, and Letste Lider (‘Last Poems,’ 1955), published posthumously.” Segal was among the first poets in Canada to write about city life in such detail, the encyclopaedia writes:
He wrote poems of carefully observed cityscape and season and inward-looking poems, examining his moral worth and his purpose as a poet. He also wrote many times about Yiddish, the instrument and common bond of the culture he attempted to preserve.
Segal was fortunate to have left Ukraine when he did, because when the Germans invaded Solobkovtsy on July 9, 1941, they began to systematically murder most of the Jews from this town and from the surrounding areas. Korets suffered similarly between May 1942 and September 1942, when German soldiers methodically murdered a majority of the town’s 6,000 Jews. The shtel life that Segal often wrote about no longer existed, except in his poetry.

For more, I would suggest that you view the interview with his two daughters conducted by the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project (in Toronto; May 8, 2016). In addition, the English translation of a biography of J.I. Segal will be released on October 3rd 2017. It is titled Jacob Isaac Segal: A Montreal Yiddish Poet and His Milieu (2017), by Pierre Anctil; trans. Vivian Felsen.

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