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Joseph Leftwich Dead at 90

March 7, 1983
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Joseph Leftwich, the dominant literary figure in Anglo-Jewry, died at his London home last week at the age of 90. Poet, translator, biographer and journalist, he opened the treasure store of Yiddish literature to the English-speaking world.

Leftwich was a personal associate of many of the leading Jewish personalities of the 20th century, including Israel Zangwill, of whom he wrote a biography; Nahum Sokolow; Zeev Jabotinsky; Sholem Asch; and Stefan Zweig. A man of two cultures, he also corresponded with leading English literary figures, including George Bernard Shaw.

Leftwich was born in Holland, the son of a Polish cobbler. His family emigrated to London when he was five. Among his closest boyhood friends was Isaac Rosenberg, one of the outstanding English poets of World War I who was killed on the battlefront. Leftwich’s day school education ended when he was 14, but through friends and private studies he widened his familiarity with English and Yiddish literature.


Before entering journalism, he worked as a furrier, tailor and baker. His first published article, on working class life in Whitechapel, appeared in 1913. Literary journals began publishing his poems, leading to his first regular newspaper post on the Yiddish daily. Die Zeit.

In 1920, Leftwich became the editor of the London bureau of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. London then was the political center of the world Zionist movement and it was through Leftwich’s daily dispatches that the Jewish world followed the movement’s development over the next 16 years. Despite his friendship with leading Zionists, Leftwich did not fall into any conventional political mold.


Through his translations, he became known as "the ambassador of Yiddish literature." He translated into English dozens of the giants of Yiddish literature as well as many whose greatness only emerged subsequently. Much of his work was collected in anthologies — "Yisroel," first published in 1933 and frequently reprinted; "The Golden Peacock," containing translations of Yiddish poetry, published in 1939; and the two-volume, "The Way We Think, " containing essays by 80 Yiddish writers.

For more than 40 years he was the permanent delegate of the Yiddish PEN Club center in New York and on the executive of PEN, the world organization of writers, where he protested forcefully against the bloody purge of Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union. Until his late 80’s, Leftwich was active as the director of the Federation of Jewish Relief Organizations. He was also on the executive of British ORT and British OSE.

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