The Communist Party’s Yiddish press was among its most vibrant in the 1920s and 30s. Di Morgn Freiheit, begun in 1922 often competed for circulation with the Daily Worker. In May, 1926 an monthly magazine Der hammer, ‘The Hammer’ edited by Melech Epstein began. Much like the English-language ‘New Masses,’ The Hammer covered literature and arts, including poetry and drawings, as well as ideological articles. The magazine’s pages some of the leading Jewish writers of the era and played a leading role in the active Jewish left wing culture of the era. It folded in October, 1939 with the Stalin-Hitler pact and the beginning of World War Two. Here, A.B. Magil reports on the magazine and the celebration of its first birthday.
‘A Proletarian Magazine’ by A.B. Magil from the Daily Worker Saturday Supplement. Vol. 4 No. 20. February 5, 1927.
A MAGAZINE became a year old. Not remarkable. Many magazines become a year old. Some are even lucky enough to become many year old and nobody takes notice of it. But last Sunday afternoon a crowd composed largely of workers jammed Webster Hall, New York, and cheered and laughed, and applauded because a certain infant magazine, printed on poor paper with small smudgy type, was celebrating its first birthday.
The magazine in question is called “The Hammer.” It is a Jewish Communist monthly, published in the cultural interests of the Jewish working class by a group of Jewish writers and publicists under the chairmanship of Moissaye Olgin. And to observe this festival of its first birthday, “The Hammer” invited a group of distinguished Jewish writers, most of whom have been its contributors, to held a symposium on art and its place in the class struggle.
The crowd too had come to celebrate, filling the pit and balcony, and those unable to find seats sprawling over railings and sills or standing up, as I did, for four exciting, incredible hours. A Yom-Tov, a holiday! “The Hammer” is a year old!
They had come, these worker’s, to hear what their writers, their poets and story-writers and journalists, the makers of their magazine, had to tell them about the problems of their art. The writers are all men who have come close to the Jewish masses in away that the average American intellectual would find incredible. When John Howard Lawson, for example, sincerely and deliberately, sets about the task of bridging the gulf between himself and the common people, he is trying self-consciously to do what these Jewish writers are always doing naturally and instinctively: to write in a proletarian way.
Olgin opened the symposium with a discussion of the history of “The Hammer” and its aims in helping to formulate a Jewish culture rooted inexorably in the implications of the class struggle, lie then introduced J. Opatochu (Joseph Optaovsky), one of the greatest of living Jewish novelists and short story writers.
Opatochu has treated in his work the life of peasants and the reactions of elemental people in cities. His stories are full of the nostalgia of vast distances, the plodding of brute forces, written in a language that is fresh and fluid and full of sap. Even physically he has the awkward, massive solidity of a tree stump.
Opatochu began by praising the work of the magazine in “endeavoring to give literature a new orientation,” and concluded with a plea for widening of its interests, the inclusion of spontaneous creative forces that lie outside the immediate field of the class struggle. This plea, uttered rather unobtrusively, proved to be the proverbial match that set off the powder. The symposium immediately developed into a controversy between two opposing points of view. On one side were ranged the poets, playwrights and story writers, and on the other were the writers on political and economic subjects, the point of dispute being: what should be the proper relationship between the artist and the class struggle.
Melech Epstein, editor of “The Freiheit,” opened the attack by accusing the writers of having gone but part of the way in their acceptance of Communism and the identification of their ideals with the ideals of the struggling proletariat.
“We Communists,” he said, “ask that the new Jewish culture be Jewish in form and proletarian in content. But so many of you writers would have it the other way around. You want to cling to the moth-eaten culture of the Jewish bourgeoisie and merely content yourselves with an externally proletarian manner and a perfunctory sympathy with the Communist cause.
“The Hammer,” if it is to mean anything to the Jewish masses, ought to be not merely u collection of poems and stories, but a mighty weapon for the Jewish proletariat in the bitter struggle with those forces that threaten anti oppress it.”
From the applause that burst forth when Epstein had finished, it was plain that the audience was decidedly partisan. Olgin arose to introduce the next speaker, and the noise subsided into expectant silence. The battle was on. Epstein had made his challenge and his indictment. The Jewish writers would have to answer for their misdeeds. Who would he chosen to lead the defense?
The name of H. Leivik was called. It is a name that during the last few years has become known throughout the Jewish-speaking world. His play of the life of garment workers, ‘‘Shop,” has been running for many weeks at the Irving Place Theater. And his poetic drama, “The Golem,” is now being produced by the Habima players. Besides being the most important of the younger Jewish playwrights, Leivik is also one of the finest of the poets. And his background, moreover, is unequivocally revolutionary. He “was not a “convert” to the workers’ cause. This small, lithe man, with the tall, precipitous forehead under a crop of yellow hair, had spent some of the best years of his life in Siberian dungeons for his Bundist activities in Czarist Russia. And he has written of those black days bitterly and tenderly in numerous poems.
Leivik’s glittering blue eyes are ablaze as he walks to the center of the stage. He speaks hastily, passionately, stumbling over his words, trying to clarify his ideas. Literature is an end in itself, he says, not a mere tool. The word to the artist is sacred. Leivik resents the “demands” that? The Communist theorists make of the artist. It is wrong and pernicious to ask the artist to abdicate his individuality and merge it in the interests of the masses. He denies that the truly progressive Jewish artist is seeking to shirk the responsibilities of the class war. “The life of the artist is eternal struggle,” says Leivik. “He doesn’t run away; he seeks struggle, it is necessary to his existence.”
L. Talmy, of “The Freiheit” staff, suave and eminently rational, made the rebuttal. Talmy posed a few questions. “Why is it that here in America, where we have so many important Jewish writers, there exists no truly unified and homogeneous Jewish literature and culture? And why is it that in the Soviet Union, where Jewish writers are comparatively few and immature, we already see the beginnings of a Jewish literature and culture that is truly organic?
“You artists and writers constitute in yourselves so many beautiful and distinguished personalities. How much more beautiful and distinguished would your personalities become, how much more freely, more deeply would they develop if they were intimately associated with the mighty movement of the workers towards the creation tis a new order and a new life.”
The final shots in the battle were fired by the poets, M.L. Halpern and Aaron Layeles-Glanz. Halpern, who after a hiatus of two years has recently reassociated himself with “The Freiheit,” declared that the writer was typical of the environment and the people from whom he sprung, that the workers themselves were not yet psychologically proletarian and therefore the writer could not lie expected to be psychologically proletarian.
Layrles-Glanz, who was one of the founders and leaders of the In-Sich (Introspective) movement in Jewish poetry, discussed standards of intelligibility in art in relation to recently published statements accredited to him. The rest of the program consisted of the reading of original poems by Halpern, Leonid Feinberg and S. Kurz, a talk by Shachna Epstein of “The Freiheit,” and performances by several members of the Habima players.
As I think of those four impetuous hours in Webster Hall, one or two incidents stand out luminously in my mind. There was the joyous tumult that broke forth recklessly when Olgin introduced Abraham Raisin, beloved Jewish tale-writer and folk-poet, who has become a regular contributor to “The Freiheit.” Though he is only in his early fifties, Raisin has been writing for 35 years, and he is at. present the most widely known and read Jewish literary figure. Many of his poems have been set to music and sung by the Jewish masses for years. Raisin is most assuredly an immortal. Not so much because of his artistic achievement; that I consider greatly overrated. He is not to be compared with the great Yehoash who died recently, and there are several among his younger contemporaries who have written poetry that is more subtle, more searching and dynamic. But none of these possesses the intimacy and the simplicity of Raisin. None has come so close to the heart of the Jewish masses, the everyday folk who take their poetry with their bread and butter.
An unforgettable afternoon. “The Hammer” is a year old. I am looking forward to next year and the years after and to many birthdays. I am looking forward to a “Hammer” that will continue to beat upon the strongholds of capitalist society and powerfully to forge and shape the culture.
The Daily Worker Saturday Supplement, later changed to a Sunday Supplement, of the Daily Worker was a place for longer articles with debate, international focus, literature, and documents presented. The Daily Worker began in 1924 and was published in New York City by the Communist Party US and its predecessor organizations. Among the most long-lasting and important left publications in US history, it had a circulation of 35,000 at its peak. The Daily Worker came from The Ohio Socialist, published by the Left Wing-dominated Socialist Party of Ohio in Cleveland from 1917 to November 1919, when it became became The Toiler, paper of the Communist Labor Party. In December 1921 the above-ground Workers Party of America merged the Toiler with the paper Workers Council to found The Worker, which became The Daily Worker beginning January 13, 1924.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/dailyworker/1927/1927-nat/v04-n020-sup-new-mag-feb-05-1927-DW-Q.pdf