Gabriel Preil, the Hebrew-American

Gabriel Preil was a quintessential New Yorker, the only unusual thing was that he learned how to be one in Hebrew.

Born in 1911 in the Baltic, he arrived in the US at the age of 11, received his secular education exclusively in English, was well-versed in Anglophone literature. (Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and Robinson Jeffers were among his favorite poets), and lived the rest of his life as a nearly anonymous working-class American in the Bronx. His early poetry was in Yiddish, and one would have expected him, like so many others who became Americans in early childhood, to grow up to be a bilingual English-language poet. But, instead of switching to English, he gradually transitioned to writing in Hebrew, which became his sole literary medium till his death in 1993. Though he translated much American poetry into Hebrew (and in so doing introduced younger Israeli poets to Frost, Jeffers, Sandburg and others), and occasionally translated into English some Yiddish poets, he never wrote a single line of original verse in English, referring to Hebrew as "the language of my heart."

And some of his poetry does address specifically Jewish or, more precisely, Hebraic themes. Poems such as Chapters of time: His and Mine, for example, hanker after the life of his grandfather as a Jew in a Lithuanian town. Others, written after the establishment of the state of Israel, meditate on his not moving there. In one such poem titled A Hebrew Painter, he describes himself as

ציר עברי שעדיון לא ראה במו עיניו
את השמים העבריים בהם נכרים עוד
עקבות אל עליון דורך, על כוככיו.

A Hebrew Painter, whose own eyes have yet to see
The Hebrew sky whereon there linger still
The footsteps of God the Supreme, bestriding His stars.

And there are similar poems, describing and developing his alienation as a "last mohican" of Hebrew in America. However, this is but one of the many ways in which he operates. Aside from being in Hebrew, a large amount of his poetry has little that is especially Jewish about it (and certainly little that is Israeli- except for the incorporation of developing Israeli idioms into his Hebrew.) One might wonder why.

Other major American Hebrew poets (Simon Halkin and T. Carmi come to mind) tended to move to Israel, motivated not just by a desire to be close to the language of their trade, but also, in one way or another, by a desire for, and a sense of, Zionist fellowship and bloodfire. Preil, however, was by nature a loner, and quite non-confrontational. Not one for the chest-beating, banner-waving, anthem-screaming tropes of ethnos, his solitary aspirations had more in common with the myths of 19th century European Romanticism and American individualism. He needed no Jewish state other than the one in his own head. Indeed, I might say Preil was too American for Israel. During his few visits there, the reality of the place must have disagreed with the Hebrew temperament he had cultivated in solitude. I imagine it isn't an easy thing to see people yelling at progeny, haggling with shopkeepers and swearing at in-laws in the language of one's heart, and also of one's prayers- all the more so given how central the poetry-as-prayer metaphor is to some of Preil's lyrics. By contrast, his was a powerful attachment to America, to his American acquaintances, to the solitary beauties of the American landscape and to the freedom offered by fractious American heterogeneity. It was an attachment strong enough to keep him from relocating even when the Hebrew (and Yiddish) literary scene of New York slowly evaporated.

Moreover, as he was already in America before the 2nd World War, Preil's Judaism never made him an enemy or stranger to the state, unlike many of his unfortunate counterparts in much of Europe, such as (to take an extreme example) the Russian Hayyim Lensky who eventually starved to death in a Siberian labor camp for the crime of writing in Hebrew. While such poets naturally wrote from a specifically Jewish experience of persecution, alienation and ostracism, Preil's life as a Jew was integrated into his life as an American in almost every way. Though he received a very Jewish education, he got it in New York2. Though he wrote material specifically targeted at Jews living in Palestine, it was as part of the American war-effort, writing broadcast scripts for the Office of War Information. Though he wrote only in two Jewish languages, he also translated American poets into them.

Whence lines such as the following from a poem titled Another Time

אין מנוס מן הזמן שלי.
הוא ליטא, הוא אמריקה, הוא ארץ–ישראל.
אני העתק מיחד של ארצות אלו
איכשהו, הן קלטו ממזגי אוירי.

There is no escape from my time.
It is Lituania, it is America, it is the Land of Israel.
I am a distinct copy of these countries;
They have somehow absorbed my nature's weathers.

Thus it is no surprise that his poetry, though in Hebrew, is written against a background of mainly American experience, and in the American modernist tradition. His use of Biblical syntax or diction for allusion, or references to Biblical lore, though greater in degree, are not hugely different in kind from methods used by his English-writing fellow Americans (i.e. raiding the King James Bible for allusion.) Likewise, his poems dealing with his Jewishness and linguistic solitude are not those of a hopelessly alienated nebbish like Hayyim Lensky, or heavily flavored with allusive Talmud-sauce like Bialik's lyrics, but are the voice of a Jewish-American poet, on a very solitary mission to craft for himself an identity as such. That he was able to be so rooted in America and in Hebrew at once is a testament to both Jewish culture and American culture at their best. He is probably the only poet ever to write a whole series of poems in Hebrew about the state of Maine.

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