Zysza Landau, a Poet,
Plock, Poland 1889 - America 1937
Zisha Landau was born in Plotzk in the year 1889, the descendant of a prestigious family. His father Mendel was the son of Reb Zev Wolf Strikover and the grandson of Reb Avraham Tcheckenover, the well-known Rabbi and Gaon Avraham Landau.
When his mother died Zisha was eighteen months old. His father remarried Zisha's deceased mother's sister and they had one child: Helenka (Hyala). Sarah, his stepmother was an assimilated woman. Zisha taught himself languages. In addition to Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and Polish, he also studied French and German.
His early training was religious. Worldly subjects were taught by a Gentile teacher.
It is interesting how Landau became a cooking expert. In the home of the Strikover Rebbe there were two kitchens, one for cooking and serving the poor and one for the rich. Zisha noticed that in the kitchen for the poor there were inequalities in distributing the food. With the Rebbetzin's permission, he took over the supervision of that kitchen to assure a fair share for all. He became knowledgeable about cooking and used this knowledge all his life.
He never boasted about his poetic achievements. But he did pride himself on the variety of foods and preserves he could make.
Living in Plotzk, he studied Hebrew with the popular Hebrew teacher, Sh. Penzon, who had a great influence on Zisha. Penzon knew and loved literature and poetry and he instilled in Landau a love and reverence for writing. Without doubt, Penzon exercised an influence on his later spiritual concepts and feeling for poetry. Penzon awakened in him an interest in Heine's creativity and many years later, Landau translated Heine's poetry into Yiddish.
During his younger years in Plotzk, Zisha helped his parents in their manufacturing business. When business was bad, Zisha was sent to Vilna to his rich uncle Javitz who was married to his aunt, another of his deceased mother's sisters. They had a large business and employed Zisha. He worked there for two years until his uncle gave up the business and he left with the Javitz for America.
In Vilna, Zisha was active in the Bund. He was responsible for hiding guns which were to be available when needed for self-defense. Without the knowledge of his uncle and aunt, he hid the guns in the cellar of their business place. Just before they left for America, they became aware of the dangerous material he had kept in the cellar. They saw to it that he removed everything.
While working in New York, his greatest wish was to be accepted as just another worker. Once, while working as a house painter, he was almost arrested. The woman of the house misplaced a diamond ring. Who should be accused? The painter! Fortunately, with the help of the janitor, the ring was found in the sink drain. Zisha was pleased that he had been accused, because it meant he was treated as just another house painter as all other painters.
Throughout his life, Landau was always an esthetic person. But, in his job, he didn't wish to appear different. At lunchtime, when his co-workers ate sardines out of the cans with their fingers, he did the same. Under other circumstances, such behavior would have been revolting to him.
Di Yungewere established around 1907 and included Zisha Landau, Mani Leib, Rueben Iceland and Joseph Rolnick. They established the first school of Yiddish poetry and developed a new way, a new tone. And a new approach to poetic creativity. Zisha Landau was the best known of Di Yunge. This school negated all older writing and brought new ideas. With Landau in the lead, they rebelled against Peretz's literary classic Yiddish literature. Within Di Yunge, an ethical approach had crystallized in the manner in which they approached the life-style around them.
They considered it sinful to flatter critics and editors. Their chief concern was clean, artistic creativity. The pure poem, authentic poetry.
Di Yungewent through various difficult periods. Often, hungry Mani Leib who lived in Brooklyn, and wanted to see Landau in order to read him one of his poems, often walked the distance between Brooklyn and the Bronx where Landau lived. When he arrived at Landau's home, he was tired from the long walk that he often fell asleep and slept for hours.
Landau was impetuous and sharp in his literary judgments. He did not intend to degrade anyone; he meant only to evaluate the pure, authentic poetry. Being direct and outspoken, no matter how painful, was a trait of Landau's as well as of Moishe Warshaw. Especially when it related to writing, they were merciless in their critical evaluations. The closer they were to person, the more open and incisive their criticism.
The closer they were to person, the more open and incisive their criticism.
Landau search for individuality in a writer is seen in the lines of one of his poems:
A poem is such, when you
Landau was overwhelmed when he created a poem. To him, a poem was not a mechanical creation, but something that went through birth pangs and was a deep emotional experience. By nature, Landau was a rebel. He revolted against I. L. Peretz and his writings and yet with great love assembled Peretz's selected works. He had an aversion to religion and yet gloried in religious books and articles. He was conservative in his political views and revolutionary in his poetry. He was a person who disliked flattery and excessive talk and earned a livelihood through publicity releases!
Landau described himself: "rebellion is the logic of my soul, my need, my way of life. As worthy young and courageous adventures, we are permitted to step with nimble feet upon every aspect of culture. We do not need to have interpretations and meanings - either strange or our own - as children need toys." He was full of rebellion and sarcasm, and at the same time was creative in poetry. He gave Yiddish poetry new life, new forms of expression and a way to higher art.
Landau was deeply interested in art and had a close friendship with Jewish artists and encouraged their creativity. Moses Soyer who painted Landau portrait stated:
The fine essayist Shea Tennenbaum in his essay "Moses Soyer" tells about the relationship of the famous artist with Landau. "Moses Soyer was in his twenties. His son David, a child of about four, was very fond of Landau".
The gallantry and the estheticism of Di Yunge at that time gave them the appearance of kings and princes when they gathered in the evenings at the Cafe Royale.
In those days, Landau was recognized as a poet and as a gentleperson among his friends. When the small Soyer family was poor and unknown, living in an old house six stories up, a young, blond, fat and beautiful man, already suffering from a terminal illness, used to walk up despite his damaged heart. Zisha Landau, whose blue eyes were like the blue sky in the evening, was himself then very poor. Nevertheless, he would come with packages of food, cans of meat, soups, vegetables and fruits. They all ate the meal that he had brought with great appetite. Afterwards, till deep into the night, Landau would sit and read French poetry. Soyer learned true great poetry from him. The Soyers had been brought up on Russian literature. Landau opened up the panorama of beautiful world poetry to them.
Zisha Landau used to take the Soyers to restaurants. Japanese and Chinese places. He ate a great deal. He has a growing hunger for delicacies. Perhaps this was a remnant of the days when he was very hungry. He would always say: "I will die young".
He foresaw his early death. As a sensitive poet, he had concretely touched upon his death...
Zisha Landau was deeply interested in art. He loved artists very much. Moses Soyer once brought Zisha Landau to the studio of a friend, the young artist Louis Ribak. Ribak was in great need and Soyer thought Zisha Landau might purchase something. Landau saw a small oil painting. He was very pleased with it. The shy artist told him the p. Zisha Landau began bargaining with the artist, saying the painting was worth more and he gave him twice as much as the artist had requested. When Landau left, both artists looked at one another; the young artist's eyes beamed, pleased and encouraged by Landau's gentle demeanor and personality.
Once Landau's daughter, Hyala asked: 'Papa, when you die what will you do with all your art works?' 'They will belong to you, to your mother, and your sister,' Zisha Landau said. 'The only thing that I would like from you is the portrait which Soyer made of you.'
Many poets would gather around Zisha Landau: Avraham Tabatchnick, Aba Stolzenberg and also the older Joseph Rolnick whom all considered a good poet. The artists Benjamin Kopman and Yehuda Tofel were his close friends.
An intimate friendship bound Landau with the tragically deceased Moishe Warshaw. Together they hungered and often shared their bread. For sometime, they lived at the home of Dr. Yechiel and Berta Kling who for many decades kept an open house for Yiddish writers. Landau suffered at the early death of Warshaw. They had both been Plotzker, and besides their spiritual ties, their memories of the old home bound them. Both had attended the Cheder together in Plotzk.
He had strong associations with the life style and impressions of his patriarchal post, with the customs and joys of living with his grandfather and grandmother. He underscores the blood ties and the similarities in characters between his great grandfather, the holy Rabbi Avraham Tchekhenover and himself in the poem "Tzum Tchekhenover" and writes poetically about his grandmother, the beaming Strikover Rebbetzin. This family influence, his rabbinical home in Plotzk in his childhood and his realistic worldly education left their mark upon his personality and poetic creativity.
"The bubbe strolls around beaming
Characteristics of Landau the rebel, is the story of his uncle, a Rabbi from Poland, who came on a business trip to America. Landau did not want to go to see him: "Why should he see me, with a shaven beard and a short jacket?" (The same uncle, the rabbi, became enmeshed in business matters, returned to Poland and committed suicide.)
At the time of World War I, Landau adopted a strong pro-English and anti-German position. His political feelings were clear in his anti-German war poems. Landau was the only one of the Yiddish poets who wrote war poems and was the exception among Yiddish poets with his outspoken enmity of the Germans. More than others, Landau saw the German as sowing death wherever he placed his foot. More than others he had felt the bloodthirsty quality of the German seeking power and destruction. In the days of World War I, he foresaw the coming of the Nazis twenty-five years later.
In his "Modern Cradle Song" we read:
Child, as the silent stones
In a second poem "If War is War" (1917) we see Landau the enemy of the German war makers. The sensitive Landau opposed war in general.
"If all is unity, why does the heart become fearful
Landau did not publish any of his books during his lifetime. He was not interested in publishing his poetry in book form. At the same, he was creative in his poetic achievements, in his building and sculpting the Yiddish phrase. He enriched the language of Yiddish poetry considerably. He created a new style and marked out a way for new poets. He also translated many old English ballads.
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