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When New York’s Jewish Bohemia Was in Flower, and the Philosopher-poet Who Was Its Arbiter

This article on Jewish Bohemia and its uncrowned king, Naphthali Herz Imber, is reprinted here by courtesy of Covici Friede, of New York, publishers of Albert Parry’s “Garrets and Pretenders,” the history of Bohemianism in America from which it is abstracted. To those who may wish to answer Mr. Parry’s contention that Jewish Bohemia went into a decline on the death of Mr. Imber, the Jewish Daily Bulletin hereby throws open its columns—with due consideration to the space required by other matter.

Hutchins Hapgood, the talented but now forgotten brother of Norman Hapgood, #nce remarked that Jews were not and could not be among the Bohem #ns of America. They seemed to #im intellectual debauchees rather #an Bohemians. They were too #assionate and belligerent about the #entle problems of politics, literature, and life. “They lack the repose and #alance which is an essential of the #ue Bohemian.”

But some twenty years before ##ese remarks were made there ap#eared the first genuine Jewish Bo#emia of New York. The great in##ux of the Russian and Austrian #ews of the eighties brought it in its #ake. Not saloons or restaurants, #ut replicas of European cafes served #s the stamping grounds for the #reshly arrived Jewish poets, journalists, actors, musicians, Socialists, and their hangers-on. East Broad-way, Canal Street, Grand Street, #ivington Street had their kibbits#rnais with or without their Rumanian Gypsy music. Israel Zangwill #as enamored by this tableau: “Here #as the Latin Quarter of the city of ##e Goths!”


Zangwill’s picture of this {SPAN}ghetto#aiety{/SPAN} apparently dates from the late {SPAN}##eties{/SPAN} when New York’s Jewish {SPAN}##hemia{/SPAN} had left its early days {SPAN}be##d{/SPAN} and was now approaching the {SPAN}##om{/SPAN} and fame of its maturity. It {SPAN}###{/SPAN} the time when the early tyro {SPAN}#hemians{/SPAN} came back to the East {SPAN}###{/SPAN} cafés as prosperous Philistines. {SPAN}###us{/SPAN}, among other types, Zangwill {SPAN}##sents{/SPAN} to us Coloney Klopsky, a {SPAN}###or{/SPAN} from the West where he {SPAN}##w{/SPAN} had extensive ranches and rich {SPAN}

But we also see here true New York types, such as the pimply #oung poet Mieses; a Zionist editor Grunbitz who was a badchan (marriage jester) back in Poland; a #oung violinist, Witberg, with what ##e would call in these days an in#eriority complex; a most prolific #hetto playwright Radsikoff, with a characteristic cigar; a pair of politicians: Socialist Ostrovsky, and the more practical and prosperous Benjamin Tuch—perhaps a Tammany man.

There is also the heathen journalist in search of copy—for apparently rumors of the Jewish cafés and their mildly glamorous doings had already reached the editors of Park Row; for all we know, it might have been James Ford, the professional invader of New York’s Bohemias, immigrant and native. But above all and in the center of everything there was the great poet Melchitsedek Pinchas, whom Zangwill described with his tongue in his cheek.


This central personage of New York Jewish Montmartria was a character of fact and not fiction. Zangwill drew the portrait of Melchitsedek Pinchas from the face and figure of his former friend and co-worker, the celebrated Hebrew poet of adventurous life, Naphtali Herz Imber. It was Imber who from the early ‘nineties to his death in 1909 played the rôle of the King of Jewish Bohemia in America. Rebekah Kohut called him “a spiritual descendant of Maitre Francois Villon, a born Bohemian.” She, no doubt, took her cue from Zangwill who, in an obituary of Imber, wrote: “His were the virtues as well as the faults of a typical Bohemian, and in him Jewry had found its Villon.”

Imber was a Galician Jew who began his wandering life by going to the gay capital of his country. From Vienna he proceeded to Constantinople, Egypt, and Palestine, dividing his time between drinks and exquisite poetry, meeting kindred roving or mystic souls, and going with them into all sorts of arguments and schemes. Among others, he met that curious English adventurer and mystic, Laurence Oliphant, and followed him in his plan of establishing a Jewish settlement in Palestine. In 1888, when that failed and Oliphant died, Imber made his carefree way to London, where he became acquainted with Zangwill and worked for that writer’s Jewish Standard.


The constant fogs and chills of the isles were good excuse for what Zangwill humorously called “spirituous nightcaps” of Imber. But it was rather hard to extract British coins for these and other similar purposes; Imber began to give ear to glowing reports of America’s easy dollars and copious drinks. To America he repaired in 1893, and, with his fame (poetic and otherwise) preceding him, he was a sensation of the American ghetto from the moment he passed through Castle Garden.

Of all the American cities, New York held this restless poet with the tightest bonds, but he also visited and lived in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Woodbine (among the Jewish farmers), and even in far-off San Francisco and Los Angeles. In Chicago, Imber slipped into what to a true rambler was the degradation of matrimony.


Zangwill called Imber’s wife “an American Christian crank,” but there was no doubt that she and Imber enjoyed themselves hugely, traveling together in the obscure American provinces of the mauve decade with their stock of lectures on occultism. All the while Imber grandly represented himself to the gaping audiences as Mahatma, a Hindu philosopher. When the wife and the circuit-riding palled on him, he slipped out of all this as easily as he had slipped into it. Once more he became a single poet of the ghetto.

He resumed writing and publishing his verse, dedicating it to an extensive range of emperors, including the Emperor of Japan. An unknown writer exclaimed about him in the Hebrew Standard of October, 1909: “There were no publishers so he published his books himself; there were no book-sellers, so he sold his books himself; there were no critics to review and praise his work, so he praised it himself.” Shades of Walt Whitman and Ada Clare!


Though the Jews of America viewed with a certain condescending amusement his imbibing habits and his general lack of dignity and propriety, they paid a real tribute to his scholarship and, above all, to his fine poetry. They remembered what Zangwill said of his unfailing taste in belles lettres—Zangwill who otherwise made broad fun of him!—and they soon found out his true talents for themselves. They were the first to make Imber’s “Hatikvah” world-famous as the Zionist anthem; they relished the queer, mystical journal, Uriel, which he edited in Boston for a time; and, of course, they were flattered by the fact that the United States government published Imber’s pamphlets on Talmud education. They forgave this erratic man of genius for his occasional pose, and they rather enjoyed his eccentricities.

One of the finest connoisseurs of Imber’s talents and eccentricities was Judge Mayer Sulzberger, around whom the poet shrewdly undertook to play the rôle of court jester. But the jester was too impertinent with His Honor, and the jester was dismissed—with an allowance of one dollar per-day.


To restrain Imber’s liberality with his subsidy was the task of Freidus, the chief of the Jewish Division of the New York Public Library. Apparently, Freidus did not find his task too difficult, though he, like Imber, did not attach any importance to money. Imber wanted money for drink among jolly companions, which was his inspiration. Freidus, in many ways, was also a Bohemian. He liked to find himself among good talkers and listeners, and among the latter he preferred young and lovely women. He liked to hobnob with celebrities and he frequented all sorts of gatherings from balls to funerals.

I am told by a man who knew him well that he failed to appear at the funeral of his own mother, attending instead the funeral of a celebrated Jewish savant. He, too, traveled amid clouds and worked in flashes. But he did not drink in any way matching Imber’s drinking. Freidus found his intoxication mostly in books, and he did not need any money for books—at his library desk he felt like an autocrat who had all the power he ever wanted. Therefore, the Bookworm Bohemian could not sympathize with the Boozer-Bohemian, and gave him no more than his one dollar a day, all of Imber’s pleas falling upon Freidus’ implacable smile. Characteristically enough, even this dollar was placed into a book for which Imber would ask on that morning, as if even for that mite the wild Bohemian had to pay with a few quiet moments of diligent reading.


As the years rolled by, Imber became more and more of a drunken child. New Hebrew poets appeared on the horizon, with fresher methods and deeper philosophies. But Imber stubbornly remained behind. Now there was much more of the enfant terrible to him than of the poet. He lived on the prestige of his earlier creations, and though “Hatikvah” was the most accidental of them, quite foreign to the general run of his philosophy and talent, he was inordinately proud of it and he made his magnificent, homage-inviting appearance at every Zionist gathering. He collected drinks in payment for this Zionist hymn.

Even his will turned out to be a humorous sketch. In it he wrote, among other things: “To the rabbis I leave what I don’t know; it will help them to a longer life. To my enemies, I leave my rheumatism. To the Jewish editors I leave my broken pen, so that they can write slowly and avoid mistakes.” The Jews of the East Side felt the passing of a colorful figure. When the funeral procession reached the Educational Alliance, there were ten thousand Jews behind his coffin, with some two hundred policemen keeping order.

This article on Jewish Bohemia and its uncrowned king, Naphthali Herz Imber, is reprinted here by courtesy of Covici Friede, of New York, publishers of Albert Parry’s “Garrets and Pretenders,” the history of Bohemianism in America from which it is abstracted. To those who may wish to answer Mr. Parry’s contention that Jewish Bohemia went into a decline on the death of Mr. Imber, the Jewish Daily Bulletin hereby throws open its columns—with due consideration to the space required by other matter.