YANKEV-YITSKHOK SIGAL (Y. Y. SEGAL) (August 3, 1896-March 7, 1954)
He was born in Solobkovits (Solobkovtsy), near Proskurov, in Podolia. He was descended from a scholarly lineage: on his father’s side, from Tofasot Yom-Tov [Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, 1578-1654]; and on his mother’s side, from R. Yankev Anapolyer who studied with the Bal-Shem-Tov before his revelation. His father, Arn-Ber Sigal, a scribe and a cantor, died when his son was only three years of age, and he was raised under the supervision of his mother who was extremely poor. He later moved with his mother to Korets, Volhynia, and there he studied in religious elementary schools and in a Talmud-Torah, where he also learned a bit of Russian. At age thirteen he experienced an event that had a particularly severe impact on him. On a market day, someone accused him of stealing a bit of money from the pocket of a gentile; he was arrested and beaten by the police with a thick rope on his bare flesh. He was held there until late at night, until his mother, with tears and mediation, had him released—black and blue and half-dead. In 1911 he made his way to Montreal, Canada, where for the first few years he worked in the tailoring profession stitching pants’ pockets. He was later a teacher in the Jewish public schools. In the summer of 1923, he moved to New York, returning to Montreal in 1928. Already in childhood he began writing in Russian and Hebrew. He left behind in Korets two thick notebooks of poetry in Hebrew. He debuted in print with a poem in Keneder odler (Canadian eagle) around 1916, and from that time he published poems, essays, and literary critical articles in various Yiddish periodicals and anthologies in Canada, as well as in such New York publications as: Inzikh (Introspective), Di feder (The pen), Di tsukunft (The future), Shriftn (Writings), and Idisher kemfer (Jewish fighter), among others. His poems drew the notice of readers to him, and his name soon became known in literature. In late 1918 Segal brought out in Montreal his first collections of poems: Fun mayn velt, lider (From my world, poems) which made quite an impact. In January 1921 he began publishing a monthly for poetry, miniatures, and essays: Nyuansn (Nuances), which assumed a high literary level (only three issues appeared). Together with E. Almi and A. Sh. Shkolnikov, in 1922 he published a quarterly anthology of modern literature, entitled Epokhe (Epoch)—only one issue appeared (January-April). He published (1922-1923) the journal Royerd (Virgin soil)—three issues appeared, and then later numbers 4 and 5 (June and July) were published in magnificent editions by the Toronto Culture League. He was later to become a regular contributor to Keneder odler in Montreal, for which he wrote on current issues and mostly about literature. More recently he was a literary editor for the newspaper. For many years he was president of the Canadian Yiddish Writers’ Association. He received the Lamed Prize of 1945 for his book Lider un loybn (Poems and praises), which gained him renown as one of the finest poets in Yiddish literature. In book form he published: Fun mayn velt, lider (Montreal, 1918), 67 pp.; Bazunder, lider (Distinct, poems) (Montreal: Royerd, 1921), 199 pp.; Mayn shtub un mayn velt (My home and my world) (New York-Vilna: Vilna Publ., 1923), 62 pp.; Lider fun y. y. sigal (Poems by Y. Y. Segal) (New York, 1926), 198 pp.; Lirik (Lyric) (Montreal, 1930), 326 pp.; Mayn nign (My tune) (Montreal, 1934), 360 pp.; Di drite sude (The third repast) (Montreal, 1937), 357 pp.; Dos hoyz fun di poshete, lider (The house of simple folk, poetry) (Montreal, 1940), 381 pp.; Lider un loybn (Montreal, 1944), 507 pp.; Seyfer yidish, lider un poemen (The book of Yiddish, poetry) (Montreal: Y. Y. Segal Committee with the assistance of the Canadian Jewish Congress, 1950), 584 pp.; Letste lider (Latest poems), with a portrait of the poet, and a preface from the editorial board: Sh. Vaysman and M. Khosid, cover designed by Yekhiel Shaynblum (Montreal: Y. Y. Segal Foundation with the assistance of the Canadian Jewish Congress, 1955), 332 pp.; Lider far yidishe kinder, zibn bintlekh (Poems for Jewish children, seven batches), illustrated by Khane Sigal-Zakuta, Y. Y. Segal’s daughter (New York: Education Committee, Workmen’s Circle, 1961), 111 pp. His two books, Letste lider and Lider far yidishe kinder, were published posthumously in Montreal. Segal also excelled as an essayist and published a series of impressions of poets and poetry, such as: “Vegn moyshe broderzon” (On Moyshe Broderzon) and “Durkh di ershte fir” (Through the first four [Mani Leyb, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Zishe Landau, and H. Leivick] in Epokhe; “Frayer ferz un frayer oysdruk” (Free verse and free expression), concerning the Introspectivists, “Vegn borekh glazman” (On Borekh Glazman), “Vegn moyshe varshe” (On Moyshe Warsaw), and “Dermonendik zikh on zakhn” (Reminiscing without anything) in Royerd; and “Briv fun nyu york” (Letter from New York) in Kanade (Canada) 2-3; among others. The Y. Y. Segal Foundation which published Letste lider planned to publish a second volume of “Latest poems,” a volume of his essays and articles, a Y. Y. Segal anthology, as well as a volume of children’s poetry and a collection of his poems in Hebrew and English. In 1962 a Y. Y. Segal Corner was opened in the Montreal Jewish Public Library. His unexpected death brought sadness to the entire Yiddish world. Eulogies and appreciations of his talent appeared in all Yiddish newspapers and journals. The poets Rokhl H. Korn, A. Sh. Shkolnikov, and M. Erdberg-Shatan composed special poems on his death. Jewish Canada, in which he lived and composed for over forty years and had a hand in its spiritual achievements, was especially stunned by his sudden death. He never raised his voice high, not in society nor in private conversation, nor even when giving a speech at a literary gathering. Although he was passionate both in his own as well as general literary activities, his natural quietness always put him to the side. He endured for a long time, until everyone realized that Y. Y. Segal was a poet of great stature.
As Yankev Glatshteyn noted:
Segal devoted himself daily to the Yiddish word, which was his credo and shma [recitation of God’s unity]. In its unevaporated piety his poetry does not lose its measure of beauty, by which all great poets measure the speech upon which they depend. Segal had no fear of the quotidian quality of poetry and of course of the gray weekly quality. He had the words to elevate every inscribed line of his remarkable notations which tremble so rapidly as if he had smacked the very first word of the first line. All, even the simplest word, was transformed in its elevation…. The excess is not froth but valued, blessed abundance…. For so long we have not possessed such a blessed writer who gives so generously, because he possesses so much; for so long we have not had such a valued, therapeutic Yiddish pen that knows so well the sacred value of our brokenness…. Y. Y. Segal’s book Seyfer yidish is a great precaution against the downfall of our tongue, for the poet captures in this book all the delicate qualities and wonders of our language with the full Hebraized constructions, with memorized women’s prayers and stylized Yiddish of Bible translations which took shape through the difficult burden and after the more difficult reliance…. Many poets, hundreds of poets, have since primeval times sung of sad beauty, but it seems to me that only a few are as beautifully mournful to hear as Y. Y. Segal.
N. B. Minkov wrote:
Y. Y. Segal led his long dreamt-of world to the very lowest thresholds. He wanted to disclose to us the lowest as the highest; the lowliest as the most unfailing; the smallest, quietist, the most dejected as desirable, the most accepted in higher spheres in the world, in the world of truth…. Segal tied up and bound his sides with the essence of the sacred Bal-Shem-Tov’s Hassidism. He found there strength, assurance, a fixed, true refuge…. Segal was a Yiddish poet through and through, with the emphasis on Yiddish, and necessarily through the eternal, Jewish sources, he was able to approach the depth of poetic and religious frame of mind…. Segal’s approach and his poetic word will never be forgotten in Yiddish literature.
In the words of Meylekh Ravitsh:
In Segal’s poetry kaleidoscope, there are twenty-two gems of the Jewish alphabet, and each [of these] jewels—another color and another light. Each of the gems is full of the interior light of his love of the Jewish letter. And, if he moved the kaleidoscope of his poetry laboratory, it would soon begin to shine with the inner light of his diverse poetry. And furthermore…the basic mood, the same—the basic mood that brings forth the twenty-two letters, and Jewish letters were, according to our tradition, there already: at the time of the creation of the world: the beys; and with the giving of the Ten Commandment: the alef.
As the poet H. Leivick noted:
The smaller the objects, the greater Y. Y. Segal makes their worth and their dignity; their very substance will be revealed for him. Exteriors fall away, masks disappear,…their essence suddenly sparkles. What is concealed, the least thing becomes great, the humble exalted…. A basement beneath Segal’s mood—filled with Sabbath goodies from paradise; a crushed doorstep gets wings; a disgraced door illuminated as a spacious gateway, a darkened glass made magically sunny…. He virtually abolishes the boundary between Yiddish and Hebrew-Aramaic, between poetry and the prison of the prayer book…. Segal seldom combined love of Israel and love of life with love of Yiddish, because Israel, life, and Yiddish were all wronged, offended, and disgraced—so, Segal elevated them to the highest point, to the purest rung.”
And, in the words of Y. Botoshanski:
No other Yiddish poet celebrated Yiddish as did Y. Y. Segal, and I don’t know if there is…a poet who so sanctified his language as Y. Y. Segal did Yiddish. However, the Yiddish motif for Segal was not the root, but the branch and the fruit. The root of all of his poetry was the unassuming Jew, the little man, the weak, the wronged one…, one of his very best volumes of poetry entitled Dos hoyz fun di poshete (The house of simple folk). And, to be sure, all of his poems could and may be that warm. As he stressed in numerous poems, he did not wish to sing of affluence and greatness…. Among Yiddish poets, he was one of most affirming of the diaspora. In that aspect of things, he was strong, closely bordering on Avrom Reyzen, just as he was in regard to poems about the downtrodden close to Avrom Reyzen.
Ida Maze put it this way:
Insofar as we knew Y. Y. Segal, with his thousands of poems, his forms, his playfulness, his ideas, we have the short collection Lider far yidishe kinder (Poems for Jewish children), as a new surprise of ideas, stories, and images, which flow from the poet’s pen ceaselessly, and inexhaustibly like the pure water that swells up from a brilliant well. This book is full of domestic love of his little Shifres and Hannahs, his girls and boys; they were the orphans of the world, whom he introduces into the home of his poetry and plays with them and disguises them as little beggars, as Elijah the prophet, and he is good at playing this enlightened game with them.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2, with a bibliography; Khayim Krul, Arum zikh (Around itself) (Vilna, 1930), pp. 25-27; B. Rivkin, in Shikago (Chicago) (August 1931); Rivkin, in Di tsukunft (New York) (November 1931); Rivkin, Yidishe dikhter in amerike (Yiddish poets in America) (Buenos Aires, 1959), pp. 204-26; N. Gotlib, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (Warsaw) 14 (1932); Gotlib, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (March 7, 1960); B. Y. Byalostotski, Lider un eseyen (Poems and essays) (New York, 1932), pp. 79-130, 157; Byalostotski, in Fraye arbeter-shtime (New York) (November 8, 1946); Byalostotski, Kholem un vor, eseyen (Dream and reality, essays) (New York, 1956), p. 89; Y. A. Vaysman, in Inzikh (New York) 4 (1934); Kh. M. Kayzerman, Yidishe dikhter in kanade (Yiddish poets in Canada) (Montreal, 1934); Yankev Ziper, in Lid (Los Angeles) 3 (1934); Sh. D. Zinger, in Di tsukunft (May 1935; September 1935); Zinger, in Fraye arbeter-shtime (June 4, 1954); Zinger, Dikhter un prozaiker, eseyen vegn shrayber un bikher (Poets and prose writers, essays on writers and books) (New York, 1959), pp. 84-96; Dr. A. Mukdoni, in Di tsukunft (January 1937); M. Basin, Amerikaner yidishe poezye (American Yiddish poetry) (New York, 1940), pp. 507-26; Sh. Tenenboym, in Shikager kuryer (Chicago) (January 14, 1940); Tenenboym, in Di shtime (Mexico City) (April 3, 1954); Y. Rabinovitsh, in Keneder odler (October 2, 1940; January 27, 1942; May 25, 1945; March 31, 1950; March 17, 1954); B. G. Zak, in Keneder odler (November 3, 1940; January 28, 1951; March 14, 1954; April 1, 1954; November 22, 1957); G. Pomerantz, in Keneder odler (February 9, 1941); Pomerants, in Der idisher zhurnal (Toronto) (July 18, 1960; December 11, 1961); Y. Glants, in Der veg (Mexico City) (March 15, 1941); Glants, Aḥisefer (New York) (1959/1960); H. Leivick, in Di tsukunft (October 1945); Leivick, Eseyen un redes (Essays and speeches) (New York, 1963), pp. 281-86; Yankev Glatshteyn, in Keneder odler (November 12, 1945); Glatshteyn, In tokh genumen (In essence) (New York, 1947), pp. 170-76; Glatshteyn, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (March 19, 1954); Glatshteyn, in Di naye tsayt (Buenos Aires) 298 (1954); Glatshteyn, In tokh genumen (New York, 1956), pp. 183-212; Glatshteyn, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (December 31, 1961); Glatshteyn, Mit mayne fartog-bikher (With my daybreak books) (Tel Aviv, 1963), pp. 517-23; Shmuel Niger, in Keneder odler (November 12, 1945); A. Shteyn, in Hadoar (New York) (December 14, 1945); Meylekh Ravitsh, in Keneder odler (September 9, 1946; March 17, 1947; March 6, 1950; November 30, 1953; January 1, 1962; March 18, 1964); Ravitsh, in Tsukunft (January 1952; April 1954); M. Vityes, in Fraye arbeter-shtime (November 8, 1946); Ber Grin, Der ukrayiner yid (The Ukrainian Jew) (New York, 1948); Daniel Leybl, in Nay-velt (Tel Aviv) (April 9, 1948); Y. H. Fishman, in Keneder odler (August 14, 1950); M. Ginzburg, in Keneder odler (March 9, 1954); Y. Galay, in Keneder odler (March 12, 1954); Dr. A. Shtilman and Paul Trefman, in Keneder odler (March 14, 1954); Moyshe Shtarkman, in Fraye arbeter-shtime (March 12, 1954); Shtarkman (using the name M. Ḥizkuni), in Hadoar (March 19, 1954); Y. Botoshanski, in Di prese (Buenos Aires) (March 19, 1954); Rokhl H. Korn, in Keneder odler (March 15, 1954); Sh. Garfinkel, in Keneder odler (March 22, 1954); N. B. Minkov, in Kultur un dertsiung (New York) (March 1954); M. Erdberg-Shatan, in Keneder odler (April 6, 1954); H. Shishler, in Dorem-afrike (Johannesburg) (April 1954); M. Yofe, in Letste nayes (Tel Aviv) (May 14, 1954); Yofe, in the anthology Erets-yisroel in der yidisher literatur (The land of Israel in Jewish literature) (Tel Aviv, 1961); Y. Varshavski, in Forverts (New York) (June 26, 1955); anthology Amerike in yidishn vort (America in the Yiddish word) (New York, 1955); Shmerke katsherginski-ondenk-bukh (Memory volume for Shmerke Katsherginski) (Buenos Aires, 1955), pp. 112-18; Miriam Vaynberg-Krant, in Montrealer shriftn (Montreal) (December 1955); Vaynberg-Krant, in Keneder odler (March 18, 1963); Vaynberg-Krant, in Di prese (June 12, 1964); Sh. Slutski, Avrom reyzen biblyografye (Avrom Reyzen’s bibliography) (New York, 1956), nos. 5148-5230; Sh. Meltser, in Al naharot (Jerusalem) (1955/1956); Dov Sadan, Avne safa (Curbstones) (Tel Aviv: Am oved, 1956), pp. 184-86; H. Royznblat, in Idisher kemfer (Rosh Hashanah issue, 1956); Y. Emyot, in Yidishe shriftn (Warsaw) (March 1958); Emyot, in Sviv (New York) (Iyar [= April-May] 1964); Z. Vaynper, Shrayber un kinstler (Writers and artists) (New York, 1958), pp. 203-13; Y. Ḥ. Biltski, Masot bishvil sifrut yidish (Essays on Yiddish literature) (Tel Aviv, 1960); Ida Maze, in Keneder odler (November 6, 1961); Y. Gar and F. Fridman, Biblyografye fun yidishe bikher vegn khurbn un gvure (Bibliography of Yiddish books concerning the Holocaust and heroism) (New York, 1962); Mendl Man, in Sefer zvihil (Volume for Zvihil) (Tel Aviv, 1962); Moshe Basok, Mivḥar shirat yidish (Selections of Yiddish poetry) (Tel Aviv, 1963); N. Sumer, Af zaytike vegn, eseyen (Along side roads, essays) (New York: Oyfsnay, 1963), pp. 90-92; Y. Bronshteyn, in Foroys (Mexico City) (January 1963); Y. Okrutni, in Idishe tsaytung (Buenos Aires) (March 26, 1964); Y. Shpigl, in Folksblat (Tel Aviv) (June 11, 1964); Dr. Yankev Shatski, In Jewish Bookland (New York) (April 1951).
 In Yiddish, alef-beys means alphabet and it is also the first two letters of the alphabet, much like ABC as a stand-in for the entire alphabet. In Hebrew, alef-bet (etymon of English ‘alphabet’). (JAF)