Leon Feraru: The Invention of Romanian Cultural Diplomacy in the U.S.
Updated: Jun 2
Leon Feraru, who gives the name to our popular series of conversations, may be considered the founder of Romanian professional cultural diplomacy in the United States.
Born Otto Enselberg/Inselberg in Brăila (a multicultural port on the Danube, at the time with a significant Jewish population) in 1887, Feraru was a poet, activist and professor of Romanian and French Studies at Columbia University and later at Long Island University, as well as a tireless promoter of Romanian culture in the United States.
Feraru was engaged in fighting injustice and the rising Anti-Semitism since his schoolboy days in Brăila and later adopted the identity of a poet of the wretched, together with other significant Symbolist authors. His fascination with the Symbolist poetic discourse (either delicate or revolted and nostalgic) never waned, not even after he had emigrated to the United States. Nor did his relentless dedication to publish in the Romanian press, both in obscure outlets run by his childhood friends and mainstream newspapers and magazines, yet always speaking in the name of the “many and forgotten.”
Feraru first emigrated to Canada and then settled in New York City, where he held various menial jobs to support his family. In 1917, his name appeared for the first time in a course bulletin at Columbia University, where he taught a class in Romance Philology. To that he added classes in Romanian language and literature. But apart from his tremendous contribution to the dissemination and preservation of Romanian language and culture among Americans as well as second-generation heritage speakers, he remained the consummate cultural promoter who never abandoned his role. For him, promoting Romanian culture was a lifetime commitment: it had little to do with grandiose ceremonies, such as the visit of Queen Marie at Columbia University, in which he nevertheless played an essential part. In this self-appointed role, he acted as the mainstay of personal and institutional Romanian-American educational and cultural relations even after he left Columbia and was appointed a Romance languages (French) professor at Long Island University-Brooklyn, from where he retired.
In the immediate aftermath of the unification of all Romanian provinces in 1918, Romania became a modern state that had to make a breakthrough in the United States. In 1920, under the high patronage of Queen Marie of Romania, The Society of Friends of Rumania was founded in New York. Managed by U.S. and Romanian diplomats, and by academics like N. Murray Butler, then President of Columbia University, the society had Feraru among his executive officers. For him, this was not just an honorary title. Those effervescent years allowed him to create authentic, personal cultural relations, and to make Romanian culture more visible than ever. For example, he struck a sensitive chord with the Americans when he translated the most famous poem written by Edwin Markham, a socially engaged bard and activist, preoccupied with the fate of the disinherited, and a cultural celebrity at the time. In return, Feraru had Markham dedicate an article to the peasants of Romania, as a thank you gesture. When painter Costin Petrescu visited New York on an official mission on behalf of the Romanian government, he made sure to introduce him to Markham and to secure an article in the Columbia Varsity magazine. He went at great lengths to have the American poet sit for a portrait, also as part of his self-appointed duties as Romania’s most active cultural promoter.
Feraru was very active among Romanians living in the United States. In 1919, he founded the bilingual cultural magazine Steaua noastră și România Nouă (Our Star and New Romania) together with Dion Moldovan, a member of the Romanian community from Ohio. He knew that many second-generation Romanians had assimilated and had little interest in preserving their language. He did not blame them for that but tried to keep their interest in Romania and the Romanian culture alive.
In 1925, Feraru pushed for the founding of an Institute of Romanian Culture at Columbia University. The Institute’s mission was at once cultural and educational, conducted in the name of a balanced diplomatic relation between Romania and the United States and in search of mutual benefits. Letters from the university archive show that Feraru devoted equal energy to prepare in the smallest details the visit of some Romanian academics and to develop long-terms plans for future expansion of the transatlantic relations.
Probably as an acknowledgement of his generous efforts to promote Romanian – U.S. cultural relations, Feraru was appointed Honorary Consul General of Romania. In an interview to Jewish Daily Bulletin (February 25, 1926), he mentions that he had accepted “the appointment… with the view of serving my native country and its people and promoting their interests. As a Jew, I am deeply interested in the fate of my brethren and shall do all I can to serve them and their interests to the best of my ability.” And he did serve both Romania and the Romanian-Jewish community to the end of his life, which came in 1960, with the same gusto and loyalty.
Guest contributor: Professor Mona Momescu