Segal, Jacob Isaac

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SEGAL, JACOB ISAAC (Yankev Yitshok ; 1896–1954), Yiddish poet. Segal was born in Solobkovtsy, Ukraine, the second youngest of seven children. For most of his childhood Segal lived in Korets, Ukraine, one of the original centers of Ḥasidism and a place idealized in many of his poems. He received a basic religious education in ḥeder and talmud torah. In 1911, when he was 15, he immigrated to Canada and settled in Montreal, near his sister Esther Segal, later a Yiddish poet in her own right. For a number of years he worked as a tailor in the garment industry and then taught at the Montreal Folks Shule, one of the first Yiddish-language day schools in Canada. Encouraged by Moshe Shmuelson, editor of the Yiddish daily the Keneder Odler ("Canadian Eagle"), he began to publish Yiddish poetry in 1915. His first volume of verse, Fun Mayn Velt ("From My World"), appeared in 1918. He was immediately recognized by Yiddish literary critics as a gifted poet, notable for strong feeling and natural, idiomatic diction.

Segal assumed a leadership role in the development of Yiddish culture in Canada. He helped to establish a number of journals: Nyuansn ("Nuances," 1921), Epokhe ("Epoch," 1922), and Royerd ("Untilled Soil," 1922–23) and as editor held them to a high literary standard. In 1923, after a short sojourn in Toronto, he and his wife and daughter moved to New York. There he enjoyed the companionship of the new generation of Yiddish poets: *Mani-Leib, Zisha *Landau, M.L. *Halpern, and Jacob *Glatstein. Segal returned to Montreal in 1928 after the death of his young daughter, Tsharnele, whom he often addresses in later poems.

Thereafter Segal continued to teach in Yiddish schools and to write and edit for the Keneder Odler. As an essayist, he wrote regularly on literary topics and on educational and cultural issues. From 1941 until his death he was coeditor of the literary pages along with Melech *Ravitch. In addition, he contributed to nearly all the Yiddish literary journals of his day and served as president of the Canadian Yiddish Writers Union. Segal was a prolific poet and the author of 12 volumes of poetry, among them, Sefer Idish ("The Book of Yiddish," 1950), the last collection published in his lifetime, and Letste Lider ("Last Poems," 1955), published posthumously.

Many of Segal's poems move from the pain and emptiness of the present to an idealized past, embodied in the ḥasidic masters and in shtetl figures. Segal also wrote on entirely different themes, with a different tone and emotional impact. He wrote poems of carefully observed cityscape and season and inward-looking poems, examining his moral worth and his purpose as a poet. He also wrote many times about Yiddish, the instrument and common bond of the culture he attempted to preserve.

Segal's diction is most often simple, but the flow of thought in his poems is complex. He continually plays with meaning, as in the use of religious terms in contexts that have to do with the Yiddish language or his role as a poet. His verse is musically sophisticated. He moves easily from the speaking to the singing voice and uses countable meter as a framework for more open poetic rhythms.

Some of Segal's work has been translated, in: I. Howe and E. Greenberg, Treasury of Yiddish Poetry (1969); I. Howe, R. Wisse, and K. Shmeruk, The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse (1987); A. Boyarsky and L. Sarna, Canadian Yiddish Writings (1976); and P. Anctil's translation of J. Segal, Poèmes Yiddish (Montréal, 1992).

After his death, the annual J.I. Segal Award for Yiddish Literature was established in his honor in Montreal.


lnyl, 4 (1965), 397–403; J. Glatstein, In Tokh Genumen (1956), 183–97; A. Fuerstenberg, in: Yiddish, 4, no.3 (1981), 63–76; S. Friedman, in: An Everyday Miracle (1990), 115–28; H.M. Caiserman-Vital, Yidishe Dikhter in Kanade (1934), 9–10, 27–49.

[Seymour Levitan (2nd ed.)]