MOYSHE STAVSKI (MOSHE STAVI) (February 27, 1884-June 24, 1964)
Original family name Stavski, he Hebraized it to Stavi in the land of Israel. He was born in Antopol (Antopolye), near Brisk (Brest), Lithuania. His father Yankev-Shmuel was a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment and moved to Antopol after marrying; there he ran a mill and also dealt in grain and was a synagogue beadle and one of the heads of the Jewish community. Stavi grew up in a town in which every Jew had a Jewish prayer belt and a cow, where every weekday for morning prayers and afternoon-evening prayers people hitched up their carts before the houses of worship—these were the Jews of Antopol, before going into the fields and later when coming back, poured into the house of study to seize the opportunity to pray. Until his bar mitzvah, Stavi studied in religious elementary school, but he didn’t like it. He would often get lost in a nearby meadow or in a barn with calves and cows. He later attended public school. At age sixteen he left the town and lived in Warsaw and Kremenchug, where his parents had moved. For a long period of time he remained in Aleksandrowa, at the border between Lithuania and eastern Prussia, and there he took up business and had great success at it, but then suddenly he abandoned all of his businesses, returned to Kremenchug to his parents, and there (in late 1905) lived through the pogrom against the Jews; he was a firm believer in Zionism and contemplated traveling to the land of Israel, but in the meantime he went to Warsaw and became involved in writing. While still in Aleksandrowa, he attempted to write and even published several correspondence pieces and a poem, but his actual debut in print took place at the end of 1906, when he published the sketch “A zumer-fraytog in a kleyn shtedtel” (A summer Friday in a small town) in Der veg (The path), issue no. 265, in Vilna. He spent five years in Warsaw, published stories and sketches in various periodicals and anthologies (translations into Hebrew as well), and edited several collections himself, such as: Lebens-klangen (Sounds of life), Zumer (Summer), Tishre (Tishre [month of the Jewish calendar]), and Frihling-shtromen (Spring tides). In 1907 he wrote his story Lavan haarami (Laban the Aramaean) and read it before a circle of writer-friends, among them Menakhem Boreysho and Hillel Tsaytlin. The impact of this story was huge: “Menakhem locked the door behind me in Zonshteyn’s inn and said to me: Here will be your grave; don’t publish it as is, until you translate the story (into Hebrew). I translated it and submitted it for publication.” The story was published in Dovid Frishman’s Sifrut (Literature)—and it was included later as well in Pinḥas Shifman’s reader Bikurim (First fruits). Bialik was also delighted by the story. This was a new means to write about animals—without parable or allegory. Stavi was “the first to open the barn for the Yiddish reader.” At that time he published two anthologies of his writings in Yiddish—Idilyen un bilder, a zamlung (Idylls and images, a collection) in 1909 and A tikhel, di beheyme, dos shmeykhel (A kerchief, the cow, the smile) in 1910—and in Hebrew—and Mizikhronot hayaldut (From memories of childhood) in 1910. Irrespective of his literary success, he did not wish to remain in Warsaw. “I slipped out of there quietly, fled, bidding no one farewell.” In late 1911 he made aliya to the land of Israel, en route stopping in Odessa and meeting Mendele, Bialik, and Ravnitski. Traveling with him was his first wife, Roze Lebensboym (known under her name as a poet, Anna Margolin), but she did not long remain there (Naaman, their son who was born there, and he stayed with his father after her departure from Israel.) His first years in Israel, Stavi lived in Neve Shalom. From there he wrote for Warsaw and New York newspapers. For a year’s time, he managed the library in a Tel Aviv Hebrew high school. At the beginning of WWI, he worked in farming in an agricultural collective in Beer Tuvia, “a small corner where the entire world for me was the land of Israel and all of Israel was for me Beer Tuvia.” He later worked at Ben Shemen and Petaḥ Tikva, fell ill with malaria, and became a guard in Yosef Lishansky’s guard organization “Hamagen” (The shield). In 1917, as soon as he had recuperated somewhat, he again began working in agriculture. For about eight years he was a day laborer doing difficult field work at five pounds per month: “I was tied to the earth, to the land; a person not tied to the land had nothing to look forward to.” This was a time of taking root in the land. He knew from Hebrew ever since he was a child, and now it became his daily language. While working he learned Arabic, and he made many good friends among the Arab fellahin and Bedouins. This served him well in providing grain for the Jewish cooperatives. From 1922 he was living in Tel Aviv. He built a home on Mendele Street, with lodgers, installed four or five cows, raised them himself, and then milked them and sold the milk. He did not want to live by writing: “Skin a carcass in the market and gain no help for bread from literature.” Over the years 1930-1932, he went on a lengthy trip through Europe, spent time in Poland, France, and other places, and published three volumes of selected works in Yiddish with B. Kletskin Publishers and two volumes in Polish translation with Rubin Publishers in Lemberg. In Israel he had spent some eight years not writing and then he began to write in Hebrew. He nonetheless remained a lover of Yiddish. His field of vision had now expanded. Stavi began with the “mute friends”—the field, the cat, the hen; in Israel he moved on to describe working people as well, the quiet “idylls” of Antopol life gave way to the ruggedness of the Negev. Arabs were also protagonists in his stories. Stavi especially excelled in this with his Oriental tales. He introduced into Hebrew literature from Arabic folklore “Itsḥa” (Isaac)—a kind of Oriental “Hershele Ostropolyer”: “The stories of the Arab came like a refreshment, together with black coffee, sitting on a blanket spread out with a cushion by the side. Other stories I heard in the quiet lackadaisical nights, extending over a caravan under the sound of a wooden bell and the distant cry of a jackal.” He wrote down 1000 Arab tales for the volume Baderekh leerets haosher (On the road to the land of happiness), written under the pseudonym Abu-Naaman (Tel Aviv, 1954), 316 pp. In 1965 he received the Yitsḥak Lamdan Prize from the city of Ramat-Gan. For many years he also published drawings of nature and animals, as well as essays, in: Davar (Word), Gilyonot (Tablets), Hasade (The field), and Bitsaron (Fortress) in New York, among other serials. He published observations of linguistic phenomena. His stories were translated into Russian, Polish, German, French, and other languages. He also published his writings in separate volumes: Idilyen un bilder, a zamlung (Warsaw, 1909), 80 pp.; A tikhel, di beheyme, dos shmeykhel (Warsaw, 1909), 32 pp.; Mizikhronot hayaldut (Warsaw, 1910), 40 pp.; Lavan haarami (in Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Devir, 1925), 24 pp.; Yalde adama, sipurim (Children of the earth, stories) (Tel Aviv, 1927), 32 pp.; Shefa; Banegev (Abundance; In the Negev) (Tel Aviv: Omanut, 1929), 48 pp.; Haboker or (The morning light) (Tel Aviv, 1930); Shtume fraynt (Silent friend), vol. 1 of selected writings (Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1931), 249 pp.; Ven tog fargeyt (When day comes to an end), vol. 2 of selected writings (Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1931), 244 pp.; Araber dertseyln (Arabs recount), vol. 3 of selected stories (Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1933), 213 pp.; Ben hashemen mibagdad (Oil from Baghdad) (Tel Aviv, 1934); Hakefar haarvi (The Arab village) (Tel Aviv, 1946), 404 pp.; Yedidim ilmim, sipurim (Mute friends, stories) (Tel Aviv, 1949/1950), 203 pp.; Baarov yom, sipurim (By the end of the day) (Tel Aviv, 1952), 205 pp.; Baderekh leerets haosher (En route to the land of treasure) (Tel Aviv, 1954); Pirke teva velashon (Pieces on nature and language) (Tel Aviv, 1958), 170 pp.; Hazorim bedima (Sowing with tears) (Tel Aviv, 1959), 193 pp.; Geluyot usetumot belashon (Visible and hidden things in language) (Tel Aviv, 1960), 189 pp. In Polish: Dlaczego…i inne opowiadania (Why…and other stories) (Lwów, 1932); and Opowieści arabskie (Arab tales) (Lwów, 1932). He also wrote under such pen names as Abu-Naaman, M. St., and M. Samekh. He died in Tel Aviv.
As Yankev Fikhman has noted:
We treasure Stavski’s writings not solely for their observational faculty, their ability to know the traits of the cow and the chicken, and their ability to describe with humor possessing poetry and love, but also the integration of the Jewish condition into the web of their lives. His little Jewish world rids itself of depressiveness and seizes hold of hope, joy, and warmth. Home is no longer lonely and poor, when one senses in the barn the breath of a cow, when one hears in a corner of the kitchen the squeals of the chicken…. In this, a mirror of love of children and adults for animals, Stavski saw the entire life of the Jewish shtetl. Stavski’s deep connection to the world of domesticated animals reveals for us the Jewish street in a new light of childhood, as it approaches blessed nature. The cow—not only does she provide an abundance of milk and butter for the poor members of the household; and the hen—not only does she lay eggs in a corner of yard, she brings to poverty consolation, sweetness, that caring that influences their fundamental being within the scope of house and barn…. With his stories, Stavski gave the lie to the received idea that the ghetto Jew did not know the meaning of an attachment to nature, that it was alien to him to possess a longing for things which had no value for one’s daily needs. In his descriptions which are so faithful to reality, he demonstrated insofar as he could a genuine shyness and restraint, necessarily concealed in the hearts of small-town Jews, for a wall was erected between them and the green earth. The love for animals was a compensation for them and a reward for what was taken from them in the narrow alleys.
E. Ben-Ezra had the following say:
Not only did he see the shtetl with loving eyes, not only did he see the people—the Jews as well as the gentiles—but also the mute creatures, the fields, the cows, the chickens, the dogs. He described them realistically, not like Mendele for whom the field “spoke” and “thought” like a Jew…. Oftentimes, it would appear as though there was no difference for him between man and animal (“Sheḥora”), between a young colt, which has lost its mother at a terribly young age, and a Jewish child who been orphaned (“Der yosem” [The orphan])…. Stavi fell in love with the land of Israel…. He performed all sorts of work, as a simple hard-working farmer, a guard, and lastly a proprietor for himself. He labored with an Arab fellah, learned his ways of life, and Stavi showed us the Arab village, his tents in the world of Oriental fantasy (“Hakefar haaravi” [The Arab village])…. He was enthused but he restrained his enthusiasm, he controlled it. And very rarely he would lose his temper, and the reader just like him—would warm up to the point of becoming furious with the same fire as Stavi. One of the most beautiful pearls in Stavi’s crown is his A tikhel (A kerchief). This is a paean to a Jewish kerchief which was used for various Jewish ends. Stavi sees in this kerchief no ordinary, everyday garment, for good deeds are done with this kerchief, such as: collecting alms, concluding an agreement, performing a kosher dance, and one sings to the kerchief—and we along with him.”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2, with a bibliography; Bal-Makhshoves, in Di tsukunft (New York) (1913), pp. 499ff; Shmuel Niger, in Undzer shul (New York) (October 1931), pp. 7-11; M. Natish, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (December 4, 1931); Dr. Y. Rubin, in Literarishe Bleter (November 10, 1933); Sefer haishim (Biographical dictionary) (Tel Aviv, 1937), p. 318; Dr. A. A. Roback, The Story of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1940), pp. 243, 244; Y. Rapoport, Mesefarim ivrim (Of Hebrew writings) (Tel Aviv, 1956), p. 307; Elkhonen Tsaytlin, In a literarisher shtub (In a literary home) (Buenos Aires, 1946), pp. 120, 121, 126; Aharon Ben-Or, Toldot hasifrut haivrit haḥadasha (History of modern Hebrew literature), vol. 3 (Tel Aviv, 1950); D. Tidhar, in Entsiklopedyah leḥalutse hayishuv uvonav (Encyclopedia of the pioneers and builders of the yishuv), vol. 4 (Tel Aviv, 1950), pp. 1713-14; Ḥaim Toren and Marcus Rabinson, Sifrutenu hayafa (Our beautiful literature), vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1953), pp. 190-98; Meylekh Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon (My lexicon), vols. 1 and 3 (Montreal, 1945 and 1958); Ravitsh, in Letste nayes (Tel Aviv) (September 23, 1964); Ravitsh, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (Octoer 14, 1955); Y. Likhtnboym, Hasipur haivri (The Hebrew story) (Tel Aviv, 1955); Likhtnboym, Tekuma (Rebirth) (Tel Aviv, 1958), p. 60; Likhtnboym, in Brisk delita (Brest, Lithuania) (Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 1954/1955), see index; Rokhl Oyerbakh, in Davar (Tel Aviv) (Siven 1 [= May 31], 1957); Y. Fikhman, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 28 (1957); Fikhman, in Unzer vort (Paris) 230  (1957); B. Y. Mikhali, in Di goldene keyt 28 (1957); Avraham Shaanan, Milon hasifrut haḥadasha haivrit vehakelalit (Dictionary of modern Hebrew and general literature) (Tel Aviv, 1959), pp. 569-70; Y. Mentser, in Leshonenu (Jerusalem) (Nisan [= April-May] 1959), pp. 197-99; Yankev Pat, in Di tsukunft (January 1959); Pat, Shmuesn mit shrayber in yisroel (Conversations with writers in Israel) (New York, 1960); A. Lis, Heym un doyer, vegn shrayber un verk (Home and duration, on writers and work) (Tel Aviv: Y. L. Perets Library, 1960), pp. 206-14; D. Ben-Naḥum, in Al hamishmar (Tel Aviv) (July 7, 1961; March 27, 1964); Yom-Tov Levinski, in Haarets (Tel Aviv) (November 10, 1961); M. Vaykhert, Varshe (Warsaw) (Tel Aviv, 1961), see index; Y. Yakobovits, in Hadoar (New York) (Kislev 9 [= November 28], 1960); Yoḥanan Tverski, in Hapoal hatsair (Tel Aviv) (July 7, 1964); Dr. N. B. Sarver, in Idishe tsaytung (Tel Aviv) (July 10, 1964); Arye Strizhinski, in Hapoal hatsair (July 21, 1964); E. Ben-Ezra, in Hadoar (Av 15 [= July 24], 1964); Ben-Ezra, in Forverts (New York) (July 26, 1964); Al. Safra, in Yediot aḥaranot (Tel Aviv) (Av 22 [= July 31], 1964); Sh. Zayen, in Di shtime (Mexico City) (August 8, 1964); Ḥ. Lif, in Bitsaron (New York) (Tishre-Ḥeshvan [= September-November] 1964); contents to Di goldene keyt 50 (1964).