Brooklyn Jewish Celebrities - Elias Leiberman
The Principal Poet
Elias Leiberman was the first principal of the famed Brooklyn, New York, high school named after President Thomas Jefferson. He held that position at Thomas Jefferson High School from 1924 until 1940.
“Thomas Jefferson, the born aristocrat who believed in democracy, has been our model for gracious of manner, as well as for freedom of intellect.” — Dr. Elias Lieberman, August 1944.
Elias Lieberman - The Principal Poet
Elias Lieberman was born on October 30, 1883, in St. Petersburg, Russia. At age seven, he immigrated to the United States with his Russian Jewish family. In 1903, he graduated cum laude from the City College of New York, where he joined the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity. In 1903, Lieberman began working as an English teacher at public schools. In 1911, he earned a PhD from New York University. At NYU, he served as editor of Puck, The American Hebrew, and The Scholastic.
In 1915, Juliet Stuart Poyntz became education director of the Worker’s University of Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) under committee chair Lieberman. In 1918, he became head of the English department at Bushwick High School in Brooklyn through 1924. In 1924, Lieberman became principal of Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn. Students included movie star and comedian Danny Kaye and wife Sylvia Fine, scientist Martin Pope, Jack Rollins (producer), and typewriter expert Martin Tytell. Thomas Jefferson was one of seven public high schools in New York to receive a M. P. Moller pipe organ in 1926 under Lieberman. (In the 1990s, this organ was removed and discarded.) In 1940, Lieberman joined the New York City Board of Education, as an associate superintendent of schools in charge of the junior high school division. He retired in 1954.
Lieberman married Rose Kiesler; they had two children who became a surgeon and a professor.
In 1918, Arthur Guiterman and Joyce Kilmer nominated Lieberman to the Poetry Society of America. He later served there as director and vice president. In 1969, he became a fellow of the society. He served as president of the Associate Alumni of City College. Lieberman died at the age of eighty-five on July 13, 1969, at his home in the Richmond Hill district in Queens, New York.
It was in 1918 that his first volume of verse, “Paved Streets,” was published. His latest volume, “The Hand Organ Man,” was released last spring. This year another volume “Poems for Enjoyment,” which is a guide to the appreciation of poetry, will be published. Besides these Dr. Lieberman is the author of “The American Short Story,” an expository work, and the editor of “The Ancient Mariner and Poems of the Sea,” and two volumes of poetry for junior high school.
He was also one of the editors of Puck, and he is now contributing editor to Current Literature and literary editor of the American Hebrew.
Successfully he is combining the careers of author and educator, and he declares that he is merely following his theory that the pedagogue should also be a creator.
Awards and Accolades
1940: National Poetry Center gold medallion for Man in the Shadows
1953: Townsend Harris Medal for distinguished service as educator and author
1966: James Joyce Award of the Poetry Society of America for “Ballade of Heraclitean Flux”
Lieberman wrote poetry all his life. “I am an American” appeared in the July 1916 issue of Everybody’s Magazine. He last published in the Alaska Review.
1903: “Lavender,” alma mater song of CCNY
1916: “I Am an American” (poem)
1918: Paved Streets
1930: Hand Organ Man
1940: Man in the Shadows
1954: To My Brothers Everywhere
The man-hives in her billion-wired cities.
Every drop of blood in me holds a heritage of patriotism.
I am proud of my past. I am an American.
I am an American.
My father was an atom of dust,
My mother a straw in the wind,
To his serene majesty.
One of my ancestors died in the mines of Siberia;
Another was crippled for life by twenty blows of the knout;
Another was killed defending his home during the massacres.
The history of my ancestors is a trail of blood
To the palace gate of the Great White Czar.
But then the dream came
The dream of America.
In the light of the Liberty torch
The atom of dust became a man
And the straw in the wind became a woman
For the first time.
“See,” said my father, pointing to the flag that fluttered near,
“That flag of stars and stripes is yours;
It is the emblem of the promised land,
It means, my son, the hope of humanity.
Live for it—die for it!”
Under the open sky of my new country I swore to do so;
And every drop of blood in me will keep that vow.
I am proud of my future.
I am an American.
From a Bridge Car
River inscrutable, river mysterious,
Mornings or evenings, in gray skies or blue,
Thousands of toilers in gay mood or serious,
Workward and homeward have gazed upon you.
Swirling or sluggish, but ever inscrutable,
Sparkling or oily, but never the same;
You, like the city, mysterious, mutable,
Tremble with passions which no on can name.
“From a Bridge Car” was published in Elias Lieberman’s first poetry collection, Paved Streets (The Cornhill Company, 1917). His early poems express a deep connection to New York City and, more broadly, a love of America. Lieberman’s best-known poem, “I Am An American,” opens Paved Streets. — From “Poem-A-Day”
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sunday, November 9, 1930
POET RECALLS FIGHT FOR HIS EDUCATION
Dr. Elias Lieberman, Critic and Principal of Thomas Jefferson High, Fled Russia’s Restrictions on Jewish Youth
by Beatrice Oppenheim
Dr. Elias Lieberman, poet and critic and principal of Thomas Jefferson High School, lives now in a snugly comfortable house in a quiet, uncongested part of Richmond Hill. Thirty-eight years ago Dr. Lieberman, then a small boy of eight, saw America for the first time. In his quiet, comfortable Richmond Hill home Dr. Lieberman is still preserving memories of his earlier residences, first in the brilliant and oppressed capital of the Russias and a little later in New York’s noisy, congested lower East Side.
Born in Russia
“My life story begins,” Dr. Lieberman declared in an interview yesterday, “with my birth in the brilliant and fashionable capital of all the Russias. On the surface life was beautiful. My parents were well-to-do. Our house was a meeting place for brilliant and distinguished people. Only through occasional whispered comments did I begin to realize that all was not well. It then became apparent that every official, every man in uniform might become an oppressor.
“My parents decided to seek our fortunes across the Atlantic when they found out that a strict law preventing boys of Jewish faith from receiving a good education was going to be enforced. In the eyes of my parents, to be ignorant was to be worse than dead. Sadly we bade good-bye to our relatives and set out.
“Had we known what was to happen to us in the first few pioneer years in the new land, our gloom might have been even deeper. My father thought we should travel as economically as possible, so as to save our money for a fresh start in unfamiliar surroundings. But the trip was a harrowing experience for all of us. The sight of the Statue of Liberty made us quiver with joy. We thanked God, even as the New England Pilgrims did, that our troubles were over. In reality, they had hardly begun.”
First Plans Miscarried
Seated near the windows of his Richmond Hill home, his latest volume of poetry on the window seat beside him, Dr. Lieberman for a moment seemed to feel all the sorrows of those early years again. With an impersonal sympatnhy toward the little boy who had suffered with the rest of his family. Dr. Lieberman went on to detail the troubles of those early days.
From the beginning plans seemed to miscarry. An uncle who had promised to meet the immigrants at Ellis Island could not be found in the confusion of disembarkation, and the services of a glib stranger, one of a band of schemers whose business it was to prey upon immigrants, were accepted instead.
It was only after the intervention of the uncle who finally discovered the family, that little Elias and his parents were able to free themselves from the clutches of the band. But many valuables, worth hundreds of dollars, had already been stolen and huge sums had been extorted.
“In those days,” Dr. Lieberman went on, “two rubles were worth only $1. During the first few months, while my father was seeking work, our capital dwindled sadly. Money still due us from doctors in Russia was never paid. Thus we were forced to begin at the bottom of the ladder along with other immigrants far better able than we to to withstand deprivation and hardships.
“But never,” Dr. Lieberman adds emphatically, “even in the worst and most discouraging days did we think of returning to Russia. Here at least we breathed freely. My nurses and tutors who had brought me up so tenderly in Russia would have been horrified to see me fighting, as I had to do almost daily, against other boys who questioned my rights. But there was no tyrant to bar us from getting an education.
After finishing his own education, Dr. Lieberman became a teacher on the lower East Side where he had spent most of his childhood. Grateful to the settlement workers who had helped him, he now did his own share as a settlement worker.
A little later he became an English teacher at Bushwick High School and then head of the English department. When the Thomas Jefferson High School was built six years ago, Dr. Lieberman was chosen as its principal.
Courtesy of Steven Lasky, museumoffamilyhistory.com