SHIYE-MORTKHE LIFSHITS (1829-Agust 2, 1878)
He was born into a pious family. He attended religious primary school and later studied mathematics, physics, and chemistry. In the 1850s he began playing a role in Jewish Enlightenment circles in Berdichev where he was living (and perhaps he had been born there). With a European education, knowledgeable of Russian, German, and French, he was the only follower of the Jewish Enlightenment at that time with an affinity for the Yiddish language and for the issues of Jewish Enlightenment generally. He had a highly original and gifted personality, penetrated through with new social ideas of the era, and he fought both the impractical Enlightenment notions of the Hebraists and the Russifying tendencies of the Yiddish intellectuals, and he was conscious and consistent in speaking on behalf the Yiddish language. In Berdichev he was a close friend of Mendele Moykher-Sforim, and of course it was thanks to his influence that the future grandfather of Yiddish literature (whom he incidentally helped in his work Toldot hateva [Natural history, 1862] switched from Hebrew to Yiddish). Possibly there may also have been something of a connection between the efforts both by Mendele and by Lifshits to found a Yiddish newspaper. In the late 1850s, when there was no longer in Russia even a Hebrew-language newspaper, Lifshits was looking to receive permission from the Russian government to bring out a Yiddish newspaper. To that end he wrote a piece entitled “Di fir klasn” (The four classes), in which he touched upon the question of “On Jews and their Yiddish language” and operated with arguments for Yiddish which a half century later became the premises for the modern Yiddish cultural movement. He sent it out to a string of well-known followers of the Enlightenment (Maskilim), such as Dr. R. Kulisher and Y. Aykhenboym, among others, looking for support from them for his plan, but none of them took him seriously; even Alexander Tsederboym, who would two years later establish Kol mevaser (Herald), ridiculed Lifshits’s proposal. By contrast, in their Russifying tendencies the Maskilim even sought to hinder him in the realization of his idea, and when gaining permission through the mediation of the celebrated Russian Dr. Pirogov, the warm friend of the Jewish Enlightenment, Pirogov was, under Maskilic influence, found not to be at all useful in supporting “this ludicrous dialect.” Certainly, though, it thanks to Lifshits’s initiative that a short time later, at the end of 1862, Tsederboym began publishing Kol mevaser, which opened a new epoch in the history of the Yiddish press and literature. In the ninth issue of the newspaper, Lifshits published a poem, “Yudl un yehudis (dos meynt men di yidn mit zeyer yidish loshn)” (Yudl and Yehudis, which means the Jews and their Yiddish language), in which he developed his ideas about Yiddish in verse in the form of a dialogue between Yudl (the Jewish people) and Yehudis (the Yiddish language). Yehudis scolds her husband:
You only look at others and only worship foreigners;
You’re always jealous of others and no foreigners benefit you.”
She demonstrates to him that other languages were once uglier than they are now,
But they had good fortunes,
As people pampered them day and night;
And thus they now play great roles,
People dance with them, play and laugh with them.
Just clean me up, pamper and caress me,
Perhaps you’ll at first perspire a bit,
But then you’ll fully enjoy yourself.
To Yudl’s complaint about loyalty to his “ex-wife”—to Hebrew/Aramaic—Yehudis replies:
Believe you me, I know her as you do,
And love her completely;
I wish for her what I wish for myself—
Detest her, not at all,
On the contrary, you should stay with her;
But do not forget for one instant
That there is a difference between a wife and an ex-wife;
So you’ll pay her a visit
And need me all the time.
It’s true that she is very beautiful,
But you can’t do without me;
She is truly a divine wonder,
Though you already have children with me;
Taking her back is a waste of time.
It doesn’t bother me—
You can send your best to others;
You can even speak and thrash things out with them,
But just as they may be all nice and fine,
Nevertheless do not rush off wholesale into their arms.
They’ll make you crazy,
And never be your good friend.
If you want to be equal to non-Jews,
Don’t be too far away from me,
Dress me us, clean me up,
And I, too, will be stunning.
You’ll see that in no time at all,
A great person will emerge from me.
I will sing all sorts of songs for you,
Like the very finest nightingale.
I’ll be able to read and write in every area of wisdom, all kinds of crafts, whatever you might wish;
Just let me study, and I will absorb things with ease, just try and you’ll beam with joy;
Mark my word, you will not be sorry,
This I swear to you in heaven’s name.
I am not, God forbid, thinking of myself,
But a great deal more for you.
For as all the fools do,
They blow their noses and smear their faces.
You know full well of whom not to speak,
And I know that I cannot bear it much longer.
Sharp and clear, indeed revolutionary for that time, Lifshits placed the language question in his series of articles, “Di fir klasen” in Kol mevaser 21-23 (1862) and “Di daytsh-yudishe brik” (The German-Yiddish bridge) in Kol mevaser 31 (1867). By regarding Yiddish as our mother tongue and language in which we were raised, he was contradicting the complaints against Yiddish raised by the Russifiers, Polonizers, Germanizers, and Hebraists, especially their claim that Yiddish was a depraved language, and holding fast that “a million corrupted words were for people not so destructive as the least corrupted notion, and furthermore a million grammatical words not so useful as the least clear, Germanic notion.” He comes to the conclusion that the only means “to humanize the Jewish people” is Yiddish. Yet, Lifshits was not satisfied with the campaign for recognition of Yiddish, although he also understood the importance of further developing the Yiddish language, so that it would be able to serve as a mediator (a bridge) between European and Jewish culture, and he himself turned to actually building these “bridges” (though in his great modesty, he deemed it necessary to explain himself: “This which greater thinkers would likely do better, although they have been ashamed to assume [the task], something of which I am not guilty.”). In 1867 he prepared a Yiddish-German and a German-Yiddish dictionary, but the time was still not right—the place of the German language, which for the Jewish follower of the Enlightenment in Russia was the source of his enlightenment and education, was turning more and more to the Russian language, and Lifshits had no possibility, it would appear, of getting the dictionaries published. With his great diligence and devotion to Yiddish, though, he went further with his lexicographic work, and in 1869 he published his Rusish-yudisher verter-bikh (Russian-Yiddish dictionary) (Zhitomir: Y. M. Baksht), 360 pp. In his highly interesting preface, he recounts the great difficulties which he had suffered with this work, unable to find anyone to turn to with his concerns: “I would require no greater ague than that I ought, God forbid, dare ask such things of an educated Jewish person. They treat this as urgent, that I ought to have grabbed a notebook in hand [while writing, he would take excursions every day to the market and to the butcher shop], and during that time I would jot down Yiddish words that I happened to hear or would occur to me.” The second part came out in 1876, entitled Yudesh-risisher verter bikh (Yiddish-Russian dictionary) (Zhitomir: Y. M. Baksht), 223 pp., also with a preface, in which he once again came out, only this time with greater acuity and esprit, against the enemies of Yiddish, against the Jewish authors who “are scrambling to get into high society and write nicely in modern European languages which seem to be drops in the ocean.” And he turned to the Hebrew writers and wrote in their language: “In synagogue you may speak with God and with the angels in the tongue of holiness, but in everyday life with everyday people you have no right to speak or to write Hebrew, when you only mean to be serious and want to treat them as Orientals” (according to A. Kahan, he published both dictionaries at cost). Until this day Lifshits’s dictionaries have lost none of their importance for Yiddish lexicography, nor for the delight they bring the researcher of Yiddish. They draw on virtually every treasury of words of Volhynian Yiddish, bring to people enormously interesting and significant, some forgotten, words. Lifshits’s Yiddish-Russian portion was, generally speaking, the only dictionary of its sort; as for the Russian-Yiddish part, it was highly important in that, with the main words, one would find their grammatical gender according to Volhynian Yiddish usage. Lifshits’s spirited attitude toward the Yiddish language and his philological sense for its actuality were also to be seen in the seriousness with which he approached the question of establishing a system for Yiddish spelling adapted to the sounds of Yiddish, on the basis of the Volhynian dialect. Already through his aforementioned articles, he attempted to organize Yiddish writers for a revision of Yiddish orthography (in his preface to the Russian-Yiddish dictionary, he recounts that in 1861 he read aloud: “We ought to establish a group of Yiddish writers, principally and distinctively to compile dictionaries of Yiddish with other languages”; but no one responded to his call, and he himself produced the orthographic rules for his dictionaries, with specially conceived markings to fix the specific sounds, which to the present day have not been taken into consideration for Yiddish spelling. He also published in Kol mevaser a string of popular scientific articles—“Dos falgezets” (Case law) and “Vi der roykh kumt ahin” (How smoke comes here) in 1864; and “Khamre un pare” (Cloud and vapor) and “Vos iz geld” (What is gold) in 1869—written in the form of dialogue, in a juicy popular Yiddish. Lifshits also wrote about physics in Yiddish, would also make chemical experiments, and on one occasion went blind for a year because of such an experiment. He was as well one of the first Jewish socialists, a Narodnik (populist) in the best sense of the word, and there gathered around him socialist circles in Berdichev. He was also in correspondence with Arn Liberman and scolded him for writing in Hebrew—in “Der shprakh fun zayne greste soynes” (The language of his greatest enemies”—and for his hatred of Yiddish. Through his initiative there was founded a women’s association “Obshchestvo zashchity zhenshchiny” (Society for the protection of women) whose goal was: bring together street girls and elevate their spiritual and moral station, which under the conditions at that time was a rare act of progressive community action. A revolutionary nature, faithful to his convictions, he dreamt with the reality of his social ideas of farming for himself and his family. He did not permit his wife to realize this dream. She sold her shop with gold items, which they owned, and bought a mill. The mill business, though, went bankrupt, and at that point his wife agreed to everything. Lifshits then opened a workshop for shirts. The girls whom he hired were paid as equal partners. He himself engaged in the work and attracted his children to the trade. In contrast to his enlightened friends, he and his children spoke Yiddish. He was also a vegetarian. He expressed his animosity toward the Russian government in his satire Di hintishe komedye (The canine comedy), written in the mid-1870s in the form of a story, which made an impression in Berdichev, and it was sent to St. Petersburg to be published, but the manuscript was lost during a house search of a student Finkelshteyn, a socialist. Lifshits went on to write a pamphlet, Der tate un der zun (The father and the son), a dialogue about a variety of social issues. In 1874 a second, enlarged edition of his Russian-Yiddish dictionary was published in Zhitomir; a third in 1881 in Kiev and a fourth in 1886 in Zhitomir. Intellectuals in his city conducted themselves with great respect and love for Lifshits. Several years prior to his death, he became paralyzed, but even while ailing he continued his writing. He died in Berdichev. His grave may be found among the graves of prominent followers of the Enlightenment from the city.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2 (with a bibliography); Bal-Makhshoves, “Dos dorem-yidntum un di yidishe literatur in 19tn yorhundert” (The southern Jews and nineteenth-century Yiddish literature), Tsukunft (New York) (January 1922); Bal-Makhshoves, Geklibene verk (Selected works) (New York, 1953), p. 96; Tsaytshrift (Minsk) 1 (1926); Nokhum Shtif, in Di yidishe shprakh (Kiev) (July-October, 1928), dedicated to the memory of Y. M. Lifshits; Shtif, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (August 17, 1928; August 24, 1928); Shtif, in Der hamer (New York) (September 1928); M. Berkovitsh, “Arn liberman un zayn ‘haemes’” (Arn Liberman and his Haemet [The truth]), in Haynt yubiley-bukh (Jubilee volume for Haynt) (Warsaw, 1928); M. Her, “Liberman, akselrod, un l. martov vegn der yidn-frage” (Liberman, Akselrod, and L. Martov on the Jewish question), Visnshaftlekhe yorbikher (Moscow) 1 (1929); Sh. L. Tsitron, “Vi azoy ikh hob ongehoybn shraybn” (How I started writing), Tsukunft (April 1932); E. Spivak, “Tsu der problem fun leksisher fareynheytlekhung un regulirung inem literarishn yidish” (On the problem of lexical standardization and regularizing in literary Yiddish), Afn shprakhfront (Kiev) 1 (1937); A. Tsherikover, “Di onheybn fun der umlegaler literatur in yidish” (The beginnings of illegal literature in Yiddish), Historishe shriftn fun yivo (Vilna-Paris) 3 (1939), p. 577; Kh. Sh. Kazdan, Fun kheyder un shkoles biz tsisho (From religious and secular primary schools to Tsisho) (Mexico City, 1956), see index; Shmuel Niger, Habikoret uveayoteha (Criticism and its problems) (Jerusalem, 1957), p. 352; E. R. Malachi, Yidisher bukh-almanakh (Yiddish book almanac) (New York, 1962); A. A. Roback, The Story of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1940), p. 90; For more up-to-date information, see B. Cohen, in Yidishe shprakh (New York) 28.1 (1968).
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 338.]