My home is now New York, the free city of nations,
The city where church bells ring away unheard,
And where no blood flows in the name of a god.
And still, like the roots of an old tree in the soil,
The unhappiness of my childhood lies deep in me.
Today, as it was then, the street I live on is cloud-gray
And the same poor people surround me…
From In a Foreign World, by Moyshe-Leyb Halpern
I have escaped. I escaped those of my past: the gentiles with their hurtful words. I have escaped the children that mocked me on the playground. Now I am an adult. I have moved myself to New York, USA. I live in the land of the free, the brave. People can practice their religion, and that is that. No one’s religion will be coerced onto me. But although I have escaped them physically, they still haunt my mind. The past of my childhood makes me see this new world, the new city, supposedly bright and shining, as gray – gray like Europe, gray like the shtetl. And the grayness makes me realize, I am still poor, my surroundings are still poor. Whether I live in Europe, New York, or the next “new world” to arise, this world is in a state of poverty.
In Halpern’s, “In a Foreign World,” the speaker expresses the hardships of his childhood that continue to haunt him. Although he has escaped Europe and the religious discrimination he faced there by moving to New York, he experiences the contrast between how the city is described and how it is actually perceived. To immigrants New York was illustrated as a land of opportunity, a shiny, bustling and big place of promise. However, once many Eastern European Jews finally arrived in New York, they realized the tenements of the Lower East Side reflected a poor living quality. The speaker expresses that although Jews escaped religious persecution, they could not escape the poverty that enveloped the world at this time. The way the speaker describes New York as a “free city of nations” but then his street as “cloud-gray” with poor people surrounding him clearly mirrors the dichotomy of the metropolis. The descriptive words he uses when making this distinction sets the mood and tone of the poem. The speaker is confused with how he is supposed to feel and how he actually feels. The images throughout the rest of the poem enforce this tension as well.
The experience of translating from poetry to prose made me understand this contrast. Because the city was perceived as shimmering with promise, I felt that the speaker naturally felt this way. But the comparison of images that immediately followed each other made me realize that the speaker did not think New York was a land of opportunity or as bad as his life in Europe. Rather, I realized that the emphasis is one of this tension. I think that this realization is significant in understanding the poet’s true sentiments towards a “new” life in America.
Halpern, Moshe Leib. “In a Foreign World.” In New York: A Selection. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1982. 88. Print.