YOYSEF-YUDE LERNER (YOSEF-YEHUDA) (January 13, 1847-January 23, 1907)
He was born in Berdichev, Ukraine. Until age thirteen he studied Jewish subjects, and then in 1861 he moved to Zhitomir where he attended high school. In 1862 he debuted in print (using the pen name Yoysef-Yoyel Herdner) in Kol mevaser (The herald) 10-11 (1862) with a biography of the wonderful, popular Jewish musician Mikhl-Yoysef Guzikov, and in the Russian-language Kievskii telegraf (Kiev telegraph). In 1866 he settled in Odessa, where over the course of a year he was a free auditor in the law faculty of the New Russian University. For about ten years he was a regular contributor to Odeskii vestnik (Odessa herald), and he also placed work in the Russian-language Kievlianin (Kievan) and Novorossiiskii telegraf (Novorossiisk telegraph), as well as in the Russian supplement to Hakarmel (The Carmel). He wrote for the Russian press on Jewish matters and on Hebrew and Yiddish literature. He was one of the first of the new Russian-Jewish intellectuals to appreciate the importance and the value of Yiddish, and he was the first to popularize Yiddish literature for readers in Russian. His Russian pamphlet on Yisroel Aksenfeld (Odessa, 1869) was at the time perhaps the most serious critical work on a Yiddish writer. He was devoted to Yiddish, and because he was a prominent Russian journalist, he was not at all ashamed to write in Yiddish, when others considered it disgraceful. At the same time, he contributed to Hebrew literature and the press and was among those who participated in the fight against the old Jewish Enlightenment. When A. B. Gotlober published his pamphlet Igeret tsaar baale ḥayim (Letter on the prevention of cruelty to living things) (Zhitomir, 1868), 34 pp., against the bold exaggerator of the old values, A. Kovner, Lerner retorted with a pamphlet entitled Doresh el hametim (Preacher to the dead) (Odessa, 1868), 16 pp., in which he took up the injustice to Kovner and the young Enlightenment adherents and attacked Gotlober and the old Enlightenment followers in general for the shabbiness of their life, their hollow florid language, and their inefficiency. “The spirit of life,” wrote Lerner in his pamphlet, “which the young demand of our writers is altogether different from that awful spirit which so frightens the great men. This very spirit demands of us that we should write what we feel, and what emerges from our hand should be built on basic evidence, that at least we should not doubt its genuineness ourselves.” Even more than in Hebrew did he excel as a literary critic in Yiddish, in which he was one of the first pioneers. With his critical reviews of the works of Aksenfeld, Mendele, Sholem-Aleykhem, and others, which he published in Yudisher folkblat (Jewish people’s newspaper), as well as with his treatments of Yiddish poetry, folklore, and music, he turned out to be one of the most consistent and objective critics. “On the surface it may seem,” wrote N. B. Minkov, “that in his criticism Lerner, just like Pisarev, is simply rationalistic…. But, irrespective of his ‘Pisarev-like quality,’ there originated with him ideas—or, better, feelings—over issues in art. And, he was different from the realist critics of that era…. In his realistic criticism, there were two apparent items: (a) his demand for usefulness; and (b) objective aesthetic…. His entire criticism lay in believing that the goal of art is to bring benefit to the people…. He believed that writing was a community task,…and thus the writer had to be extraordinarily responsible for his words, and he must be unusually accurate in describing reality.” In Hebrew he published: a historical monograph entitled Hakuzarim (The Khazars) (Odessa, 1867), 28 pp.; a story of Jewish life in Russia entitled Yamim mikedem (Days of old) (Odessa, 1869), 36 pp.; a translation of the speech that Archbishop Dmitri delivered during the Odessa pogrom, entitled Kol more (Voice of a teacher) (Odessa, 1871); and in Yiddish, a brochure entitled Oys rebe (No more Hassidic rebbes) (Odessa, 1868), against Eliezer Zweifel’s work, Shalom al yisrael (Peace upon Israel); and A beshraybung fun dem ershtn mosad fun’m groysen hoyz rotshild, r’ meyer anshl mit ale zayne finf zin (A description of the first foundation of the great house of Rothschild, R. Mayer Anschel and all of his five sons) (Odessa, 1869). Around 1873 Lerner fled to Vienna due to a crime. With A. B. Gotlober, he planned to published a Hebrew-language journal there, entitled Hazman (The time), but P. Smolenskin discouraged Gotlober from the partnership. Only the trial issue of the journal appeared. This was to be Lerner’s last foothold in Hebrew literature. When the war between Russia and Turkey broke out, he (together with other Russian journalists) traveled with the Russian military, and over the course of 1878 he brought out in Bucharest a daily newspaper in Russian, Zapiski grazhdanina (Notes of a citizen). In Bucharest he became acquainted with the Yiddish theater which Avrom Goldfaden founded in Romania. When he returned to Odessa, he decided to establish a theater which was to satisfy Jewish intellectuals as well. To that end, in 1880 he took over the Mariinsky Theater, but he soon realized that to give the audience better Yiddish plays necessitated gifted playwrights who at the time did not exist among the Jewish people, and Lerner took from other literature well-known dramatic works with a Jewish theme and translated and adapted them himself into an excellent Yiddish. Among such works were: Karl Gutzkow’s tragedy, Uriel akosta, a tragedye in finf akten (Uriel Acosta, a tragedy in five acts [original: Uriel Acosta, der Sadduzäer von Amsterdam (Uriel Acosta, the Sadducee from Amsterdam)]); and Eugène Scribe’s La Juive. Uriel akosta was initially published in Warsaw in 1885 (45 pp.), and from that point this tragedy was staged in every Yiddish theater. Lerner’s translation of La Juive was published in Warsaw in 1889 under the title Zhidovka (Jewess). Lerner also adapted for the theater the following plays: Salomon Hermann Mosenthal, Deborah, a drama in four acts and nine scenes; Muter-libe, oder tsvey khasenes in eyn tog (Mother love or two weddings in one day), a melodrama in five acts (from French); Der feter moyshe Mendelsohn, a dramatishes bild in eyn akt, nokh dem daytshen far der yudisher bihne (Uncle Moses Mendelssohn, a drama in one act, following the German, for the Yiddish stage) (Warsaw, 1899), 26 pp.; Menakhem ben yisroel, a drame in finf akten un nayn kartines (Menakhem, son of Israel, a drama in five acts and nine scenes), from the Russian (1882). He also wrote and published his own original plays, such as: Yehudis, a historishe drama in fier akten un finf bilder (Judith, a historical drama in four acts and five scenes) (Warsaw, 1888), 40 pp.; and Khanike, a historishe drame in fier akten un ziben bilder (Hanukkah, a historical drama in four acts and seven scenes) (Warsaw, 1889), 54 pp.; among others. Lerner was the first to stage Dr. Shloyme Etinger’s Serkele. He also attracted to the theater Shomer (N. M. Shaykevitsh), who was then living in Odessa, and produced several of his plays. When Goldfaden returned from his travels across Russia, Lerner and Shomer went on with him to stage more productions together. Discord soon erupted among the partners, however, and Lerner was completely ousted from the theater. He returned once again to his literary activities. He visited Germany and France, 1883-1884, as correspondent for the Moscow newspaper Russkie vedomosti (Russian gazette), and he also published articles in other newspapers. Returning to Odessa, he turned to translating Heinrich Graetz’s Geschichte der Juden (History of the Jews), from which in 1887 emerged only one volume: “A Jewish history from after Ezra.” Of his other works in Yiddish from this period, he especially excelled with his essay, “Di yudishe muze” (The Yiddish muse), which appeared in M. Spektor’s Hoyzfraynd (House friend) 2 (pp. 182-98). In this work, he showcased as well examples from Yiddish folk poetry, and he came out sharply against the Hebreists’ florid language, against the “adherent of Hebrew-Aramaic [who] does not wish to suffer proper people writing in Zhargon; and also against the ‘nationalists’ as well as the assimilationists and the ‘aristocrats’ who believe that they are doing the world the best favor when they ‘lower themselves’ to write in Yiddish and shed false tears over the poverty of ‘Zhargon.’” Later, Lerner—this fascinating personality, talented author in three languages, pioneer of Yiddish art theater, of Yiddish folklore, of Yiddish literary criticism, and a fine Yiddish stylist—converted to Christianity. One hypothesis for this is that he had earlier become an ardent enemy of the Jews, a missionary, and an intercessor for the Russian police. “How these facts,” noted Zalmen Reyzen, “can possibly be linked to Lerner’s subsequent activities in the realms of Yiddish literature and theater is difficult for us to determine.” Lerner’s importance for Yiddish literature lies, primarily, as a pioneer critic. “Criticism,” wrote N. B. Minkov, “was Lerner’s credo. It was extremely important for him that people speak Yiddish, ‘purely, clearly, seriously, and from the heart.’… Lerner demanded perfection. Not for the purpose of aestheticizing, not for a purer art, which he found repugnant, he demanded it for a complete harmony of form and ideas.” His son Nikolai Lerner, a Christian, was a well-known Russian literary historian and Pushkin researcher.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2; Rabi Katsin (Y. Kh. Ravnitski), in Sholem-Aleykhem’s Yudishe folks-biblyotek (Jewish people’s library), vol. 1 (Kiev, 1889), pp. 338-42; B. Gorin, Geshikhte fun yidishn teater (History of Yiddish theater), vol. 1 (New York, 1918), pp. 227-36, 269; Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 2 (New York, 1934); D. Kesler, in Der tog (New York) (January 21, 1917; February 4, 1917); Jacob P. Adler, in Di varhayt (New York) (July 27, 1918); Noyekh Prilucki, Yidish teater (Yiddish theater) (Bialystok, 1921), pp. 45-46; Sh. L. Tsitron, in Moment (Warsaw) (November 18, 1927; November 25, 1927); Y. Riminik, Teater-bukh (Theater book) (Kiev, 1927), p. 79; Riminik, in Biblyografisher zamlbukh (Moscow-Kharkov-Minsk) 1 (1930), pp. 518-19; Riminik, in Tsaytshrift (Minsk) 5 (1931); R. Granovski, in Pinkes fun amopteyl fun yivo (Records of the American division of YIVO) (New York, 1927-1928), pp. 214, 216; Sh. Borovoy, Filologishe shriftn (Vilna) 3 (1929), pp. 472-84; Yankev Gordin’s letter to his friend Rozenblum, in Moment (June 28, 1929); A. R. Malachi, in Hadoar (New York) (January 4, 1935; January 11, 1935); Y. Korn, Keshenev: 200 yor yidish lebn in der hoyptshtot fun besarabye (Kishinev: 200 years of Jewish life in the capital city of Bessarabia) (Buenos Aires, 1950), see index; Roza Shomer-Batshelis, Unzer foter shomer (Our father Shomer) (New York, 1950); N. B. Minkov, Zeks yidishe kritiker (Six Yiddish critics) (Buenos Aires: Yidbukh, 1954); Kh. Sh. Kazdan, Fun kheyder un shkoles biz tsisho (From religious and secular primary schools to Tsisho) (Mexico City, 1956), see index; Shmuel Niger, Bleter geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur (Pages of history from Yiddish literature) (New York, 1959), pp. 395-97.