The Life and Poetry of Hyman Edelstein

by Esther Safer Fisher

     The names Klein, Layton, Cohen are by-words in the field of Canadian letters, but until a colleague1 mentioned Hyman Edelstein to me, I had never heard of the man or of his work. When I read his poetry I was more than a little surprised to find that his social protest poems published in 1927 and 1931 look forward to Klein's "Radical" poems, and Edelstein's in vocation of Jesus as a "brother" anticipates Irving Layton's "For my Brother Jesus." Thus intrigued, I went on to investigate further Edelstein's life and work.2


     In his lifetime Hyman Edelstein published eleven books of poetry and six other works.3  When he died in 1957 an article in the Ottawa Journal noted:

Hyman Edelstein, to whom death came suddenly this week at the age of 68, wrote no best sellers, made few headlines and laid up few of the world's material treasures. But he was a kindly gentle scholar who penned lovely lyrics and made translations from Yiddish and German and was content with his books and his friends.4

There is more to be said about Edelstein and his place in Canadian literary history.

     Born in Dublin, Ireland on September 9, 1889, the fifth of eight children, Hyman Edelstein was the son of Abraham and Jane Moisel Edelstein. His father earned a living framing pictures; his mother's maiden name appears in several places in James Joyce's Ulysses. And it is claimed that her father, Nisan Moisel of Arbutus Place, is the original of the grocer named Moisel in the "Calypso" episode.5   In a sense, this rasher 'Bloomian' heritage is the background for Edelstein's "Holy Pictures," a poignant evocation of his parents, his childhood and the country of his birth:

In my father's house . . . everywhere . . .
Holy Pictures . . .
In the shopwindow in front stood the Ecce Homo
Alongside it the Madonna . . .
In the workshop right behind it stood my father
Sawing away by the mitre-block or hammering stern by the vise
Hewing a pathway for the Lord, for the Temple of Beauty,
Framing Holy Pictures for few pennies of the pious poor . . .

His "fine workmanship" the best Art in the Beauty of Holiness:
Out of the meanest Irish Landscape he wrought a Holy Picture
That the gilt moulding flared about the sea of unblemished glass like the
sunshine of the golden whins
Around the bog it enclosed: or like a burning Temple-censer
Issuing incense of bog-myrtle . . .
. . . And right behind the workshop, shining,
The kitchen!
— The kitchen shining as with the Shekhinah, shining with my mother,
Golden Sabbath-candlelight of my home . . . my holy mother . . .       (SI 1950, v.)

The Jewish people and the Irish each look back to an ancient culture and each has suffered a sense of exile from a homeland. In "Holy Pictures," Edelstein conveys his love for tradition and his longing for the warmth and security associated with his personal past and with the rituals and artifacts of religious practice. This poem depicts something of the duality of Edelstein's vision, a duality expressed both in his life and his work.

     In 1903 he entered the High School Dublin where he won scholarships in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. In 1908 he was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin as a scholarship student; there he continued to gain scholastic distinction. A close friend of those early years remembers, "he was writing English, in addition to Greek and Latin verse."6  One of Edelstein's early poems was published in the Erasmian, the college magazines.7   His parents had hoped he would become a rabbi, but because of a nervous disorder, Edelstein left before completing his degree requirements.

     Edelstein emigrated to Canada in 1912, settling first in Ottawa where he tutored private students in mathematics and languages for Civil Service examinations; in Ottawa he founded a Jewish Literary and Dramatic Society.8 In October 1913, he moved to Montreal and in 1915, married Elsie Hornstein. During his years in Montreal he edited several English language Jewish newspapers: from 1913 to 1914, the Canadian Jewish Times, from 1914 to 1917, its successor, the Canadian Jewish Chronicle, and from 1917 to 1918, he published and edited his own newspaper, the Jewish Weekly. Not only was Edelstein active in the Jewish community, he was one of the original members of the Canadian Authors' Association, Montreal branch. During these years he wrote a satiric essay about North American Jews entitled Mordecai Krechtz: the Independent Jew. Another early prose work Lena Zauber, is said to be based on a theme from Irish folklore.9  The titles of two early volumes of his poetry convey his allegiance to Canada and to his Jewish heritage: From Judean Vineyards was followed by Canadian Lyrics.

     The years in Montreal were difficult ones. Edelstein barely eked out a meagre living, writing articles for various periodicals. His wife worked, and she continued throughout the years to be the main provider for the family. One of his sons remembers how, as a child, he tried to peddle his father's books of poetry at $2.00 a copy to prominent members of the Montreal Jewish community.

     In 1932 the Edelsteins, with their two young sons, left Montreal and resettled in Ottawa. There, Hyman Edelstein resumed tutoring and again devoted himself to writing, hoping someday to achieve recognition. As in Montreal, he contributed articles and poetry to various newspapers and periodicals and he also compiled a Spelling primer. From 1926-1927 he edited and published the Jewish Herald (Montreal); in 1928 he became editor of the People's Journal, an English-Yiddish weekly, and in 1931, was appointed editor of the Jewish Standard (Toronto).10  Frequently at his own expense he continued to publish his poetry;11 Latter Rose, Pine and Palm, Selected Poems appeared between 1924 and 1931. Financially the Depression was more difficult than the years in Montreal had been. Edelstein tried unsuccessfully to obtain a university lectureship; he was becoming increasingly disgruntled with life as a writer, feeling that the modern world cared for material things only and that there was no place in it for a man trying to promote culture.

     Nevertheless, Edelstein persisted. He took an active part in community affairs in Ottawa: during the latter part of the 'twenties and the early 'thirties he was involved with the People's Forum, a citizen's awareness group. Later, he participated, in a minor way, in the early national C.C.F., speaking on its behalf and helping to find suitable locations for meetings of the new "movement." Frank R. Scott, J. S. Woodsworth, A. A. Heaps, Eugene Forsey, Stanley Knowles numbered among his friends. Conscious and proud of his Judaism, Edelstein used each opportunity to preach a doctrine of brotherhood. In 1933, speaking at a political meeting presided over by E. J. Garland, M.P. and C.C.F. organizer, Edelstein saw in the principles of the Old Testament, the ideals of the Co-operative Commonwealth.12  And with Reverand Rinaldo William Armstrong, in 1938, he waged a crusade against Naziism. Together they edited and published a four-page "flyer" entitled Truth. The first issue, New Year 1938, is headlined "Launching The World-Wide Spiritual Counter-Offensive to Naziism.13  The next, and apparently final issue, mostly in French and entitled Verité, appeared in June, 1938.

     The outbreak of war in 1939 brought Edelstein (as it did the residents of St. Henri in Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute) a steady income for the first time in years. Then, as during the first World War, he worked for the Canadian government, translating Greek and German, and breaking foreign codes. After the War, Edelstein turned again to literature. Under the pseudonym Don Synge, he wrote The Higher Loyalty, a novel dealing with inter-faith and inter-racial tension. In the early 'fifties he and his wife and younger son moved to Toronto for a year, but finding no satisfactory type of employment Edelstein returned to Ottawa.

     Although frequently frustrated, Edelstein remained undaunted in his efforts to further literary and dramatic art in Canada. Throughout his life he retained close contact with writers in and from the United Kingdom. He is said to have been instrumental in bringing the British novelist Louis Golding to Ottawa for a speaking engagement in 1934; and in 1950 he convinced Padraic Colum, whom he had met in Dublin in 1907, to visit Ottawa to lecture on the Abbey theatre. Always eager and grateful for recognition, Edelstein wrote to Lorne Pierce about Colum's "talk," "Padraic Colum having finished his lecture and reading from his own works read from . . . Spirit of Israel . . . . Hundreds of Ottawa people rose and applauded . . . it was totally unexpected — no 'connivance' whatever."14  For both men, each from a widely different background, the evening was a great success.

     Like much of his earlier work, Spirit of Israel conveys Edelstein's sympathy for the oppressed. He was untiring in his literary efforts to advance the cause of social justice. In 1957 he wrote "He Shall Roll Their Stones Away," an "Epic Poem on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police." The poem honours the R.C.M.P. for vindicating Egerton Herbert Norman, Canadian Ambassador to Egypt, who committed suicide in 1957 "as a result of repeated persecution by the Security Sub-Committee of the United States Senate."15  That same year Edelstein translated an essay from Yiddish about persecution of the Jews; written originally in German by Leon Glazer, it is entitled From Moscow to Jerusalem. At the time of his death Edelstein was compiling an anthology of writings about Jews by non-Jews in hope that he could thus foster better inter-faith understanding.

     Edelstein was a complex man. He is remembered both as a witty, charming conversationalist and a remote, frequently withdrawn person. As he grew older he became increasingly cynical. From 1954-1956 he suffered a deep mental depression, but recovered in 1957 and enthusiastically returned to literature. As an associate of Charles Clay of Tower Books, he directed the Ottawa branch of that publishing company.16   The venture was short-lived. Edelstein died on December 1, 1957 at Abbey Dawn, near Kingston, where he was helping edit a pocket edition of Wallace Havelock Robb's novel Thunderbird.17  Edelstein may have over-estimated his own creative talent, but he was correct in his assumption that there was little opportunity, in the first half of this century in Canada, for a poverty-strick en, idealistic man-of-letters.


     Of Canadian poetry before 1930, Munro Beattie has written, "The versifiers . . . having nothing to say, kept up a constant jejune chatter about infinity, licit love, devotion to the Empire, death, Beauty, God and Nature."18   Several of Edelstein's early poems could be cited as good exam ples of these conventional themes. In Canadian Lyrics there are at least six "devotion to Empire," as well as several "infinity, licit love" and "God" poems. But there are few, if any, nature poems in which, as Beattie remarks, the poet insists "upon being seen and overheard in poetic postures," peering into flowers and listening to the voices in the breeze."19  More frequently, Edelstein used nature as a metaphor for human nature. "The Leaves of Spring," written in 1916, is a eulogy to the dead of the first World War:

The other day, 'mid thundering and lightning It hailed.
A sudden and precipitate crash
Of hailstones large, like bullets pitilessly
Shot down the trees of Spring and lovely flowers,
And on the lawn lay strewn long, murdered lines
Of leaves, the young and tender leaves--I thought
How swift, with leaden drop, they fell! Even so
On other fields . . . the young and tender leaves . . . (SP, 17)

The comparison between human and plant life is too explicit, and the phrasing awkward ("murdered lines of leaves"); yet, in its emphasis on human suffering without differentiating between ally and enemy, and in the tone of sorrow and the sense of futility and waste, the poem moves away from traditional platitudes about war towards the more modern attitudes of Owen's and Rosenberg's poetry.

     Like Klein and Layton after him, Edelstein was primarily a poet of spiritual, social and moral issues. More original than his "nature" poems for his time are those treating persecution of the Jews in pre-revolutionary Russia. Like Klein in "The Still Small Voice," Edelstein uses Passover, the Jewish festival which celebrates freedom from bondage, as a symbol for the aspirations of his people. Both "Passover: a Sonnet" (J V) and "Let my People Go" (C L, 46) refer to Russian oppression. "After the 'Pogrom" (C L, 54 55) relates a particularly horrible story of a girl fondling the dissevered head of her brother who was brutally murdered by the Russians. In "We're Very Near to God," a child begs his mother to explain why "Christian priests so bless us, / And with their soft caresses / Say we are very dear to God . . . . " Events in the poem provide the answer — "The Russian savage burst the door / Thus by the bloody rod, my child . . . We're very near to God" (J V). "The Russian Jews (1915)" condemns the Jews of North Amer ica for their materialism and their obliviousness to the plight of their brethren living "Where the pall of the Russian night darkens" (L R. 39). What now appears as an ironic comment on the theme of liberation from religious persecution is "The Russian Revolution (1917)" in which the poet invokes the shades of "olden liberators" to bear witness to the scene of triumph:

. . . dance and shout this miracle to see,
The Shrunken serf throned above Imperators,
And the Jew clasped in the arms of Liberty! (Poems, 39)

In Edelstein's poetry dealing with oppression, the atrocities to the victims are conveyed with pictorial directness; rather than being transmuted into poetry, events are condensed into versified frequently florid prose. Nevertheless since history is repeating itself and Jews and other dissenters are being imprisoned and persecuted in the U.S.S.R., these poems do have a certain relevance for us today. And thematically they look forward to both the suffering and the condemnation of intolerance conveyed in sections of Klein's "Design for Mediaeval Tapestry" and in his "Hitleriad" as well as to such poems as Layton's "Rhine Boat Trip" and "At the Belsen Memorial." Like these later Canadian Jewish poets, Edelstein wrote out of an established tradition of the Old Testament and of Jewish history. In the same way, contemporary events as well as those from the past provided him with symbols and themes for poetry.

     His "Winter Evening on Zion," revised from its first printing in From Judean Vineyards, where it was entitled "Jerusalem at Even," mourns the Ottoman captivity of the Holy City.

Wound in her Shroud is the once-Golden City,
       The sun in haste
Retreats thro' the hills that glisten down in pity on Zion's waste.

Solemn and spectral quiet now is reigning,
       How dead, O Death!
Disturbed but by the evening breeze complaining
       Its scentless breath.

Bowed in long grief like exiles bleak and hoary,
       The phantom trees,
Blessing the God who took from them their glory,
       Mourn in the breeze.

The ancient grass, still Earth's all-hallowed meadow
       The snow-dew raves
In groves where immemorial cedars shadow
       The Fathers' graves. (C P,95)

Archaisms such as "rave" and the frequently inverted syntax 'date' the poem, but the imagery of death is well controlled. The sense of desolation is sustained throughout, and the final line brings us full circle to the "Shroud" entwining the city in the first line. Implicit in the poem is the vision of life and beauty associated with the past in the "once-Golden City."

      What can be seen as a companion piece to "Winter Evening in Zion" is "Zion is Free," commemorating the capture of Jerusalem by the British during the first World War. Commenting on it in "Canadian Poets of the Great War" in 1919, W.D. Lighthall remarked:

Hyman Edelstein . . . introduces one of the strangest notes of the incredible contest, when he voices the gratitude of Canadian Israel regarding the Restoration of Palestine — the rewedding of the Holy Land to the Chosen People — in which indeed a number of our young Canadian soldiers took part.20

The poem is a rhapsodic evocation of Nature's revenge to the liberation of the city by the British. The rhetoric seems forced and the emotion insincere. Here are a few lines:

And Jordan sings with a new-found rhyme
And the valleys ring with a mingled chime
As the trees whirl in a rustling dance, (Poems, 34)

These lines are a good example of what Beattie terms the poet discerning "mystic voices in the wind."21  Nevertheless, the use of nature here lends a sense that the realization of the dream is not that of one man or one generation only, but of countless ages since Biblical times. Together "Winter Evening in Zion" and "Zion is Free" convey Edelstein's main thematic interests — the sometimes alternating but more frequently mingled hope and despair of mankind. Jerusalem is used in these poems both as an actual city and to imply nationhood and by extension a particular religious and ethical code, one which emphasizes man's social responsibility. This vision permeates traditional Jewish thought, not about earthly life only but, in the mystic belief, the messianic age to come. In this sense, the city can be seen as a scale model of the whole cosmos, a community united to fulfil man's needs and for the common good.

     Edelstein's use of the city as setting expresses his personal as well as his cultural heritage. His birthplace was Dublin, immortalized by Joyce, and Jerusalem has been the symbolic centre of the Jewish world for centuries. At the time of the Second Temple, as Jacques Ellul has remarked, Jews were "the most urbanized of all peoples."22  Since then, Jews have largely settled in urban centres; the "shtetl" of Eastern Europe was not, as is frequently thought, a village, but a town often with cobbled streets and almost always with a market place.23

     Two of Edelstein's early poems depict children playing in the streets of the city. "Approach of Summer" is a poor attempt to evoke a sense of nostalgia for lost youth:

And lo! the sun is warming up the city,
And the white, shining streets are specked with groups
Of playing children, . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This is the rain that weeps Spring into Summer,
Leaving such perfume and such light around,
As tears — those sudden, fast, remembering tears — (C L, 24-25)

The diction is trite and the tone excessively sentimental. The only distinguishing feature is the use of the city as setting. "Winter Morning," a much better poem, captures some homely details of Canadian city life. The lines:

And baker's horse with hoary bit
       and frosted belly his errand goes,

And on the snow-piled doorsteps sit
       Bottles of lumped milk fresh froze . . . (C L, 12)

convey a graphic "picture" of an aspect of our landscape in the days before automation and twenty-four hour milk stores. Throughout the remainder of the poem the emphasis is on the people in the scene, on the children's activity and