MENDL ELKIN (April 9, 1874-April 22, 1962)
He was born in the village of Brozhe (Brozhka), near Bobruisk, Byelorussia, into a family of poor Jewish farmers. They were driven from the village in 1891 and settled in Bobruisk. There were ten children in the home, and Mendl was the second oldest. Both parents toiled to support the family: the father ran (and himself drove) a grain mill and the mother was a peddler through the neighboring villages. Although the poverty of his home did not cease, they nonetheless hired a teacher for the children. At age eleven Mendl left for Bobruisk, where he studied with Froym-Itshe, the head of the yeshiva (at the “great table”), and there he “ate days” [boarded with different families on different days of the week]. Later he sought work, left for a distant relative of his father, Zalmen Elkin, who directed a large timber business in Oryol (Orel) Province (central Russia), and Zalmen Elkin gave him a position close by. At the same time, he was studying as an external student, and six or seven years later he graduated from dental school in Kharkov. He practiced as a dentist no more than six years; his ambition was solely the theater, literature, art—mainly, theater. In Bobruisk he performed with an amateur troupe—in both Russian and Yiddish. For a time he appeared on stage with the famous Russian actress [Glikeriya] Fedotova. His home in Bobruisk was a regular address for Yiddish actors and Yiddish writers—they would all come to Elkin’s home as if it was always open and could stay there as long as they wished. Elkin became at this time intimate friends with A. Vayter and Perets Hirshbeyn. He became their patron, and his theater plans became bound up with them. His close friendship with Hirshbeyn continued later in the United States until the end of Hirshbeyn’s life. Beginning in 1900 Elkin had opportunities to publish in the Russian press in Bobruisk and Minsk, as well as in the Russian publications: Novosti (News), Rech’ (Speech), Rodina (Homeland), and Teatr i iskusstvo (Theater and art). While still working as a dentist, he published articles in the Russian-language Zubovrachebnyi Vestnik (Dental bulletin). For about a year he served as editor of the Russian socialist newspaper Severo-zapadnii krai (Northwestern rim)—Governor Erdeli arrested the entire editorial board at the time, but Elkin at the last minute managed to flee. He was at the point in time active in the Bobruisk organization of the Bund and was close friends with the leader of the organization, Noyekhke Yukhvid, the “police chief” in 1905. In 1912 he and A. Kirzhnits published several issues of Bobroysker vokhenblat (Bobruisk weekly newspaper). That same year he founded in Minsk the “Menakhem” publishing house which brought out two works of his good friend Perets Hirshbeyn: Mayn bukh (My book) and Di puste kretshme (The haunted inn). During WWI (1915-1916), he was living in Siberia, near the Sayan Mountains, while his family was living in Petrograd. He was directing a timber franchise and at the same time amassing materials for a monograph on the converts in Minusinsk. (Along various ways and byways, Elkin reached his friend A. Vayter who was languishing in his time of exile in the Turukhansky district of Siberia.) After the 1917 Revolution, Elkin returned to his family in Petrograd, together with Vayter established the Yiddish chamber theater, and attracted the director Aleksandr Granovski who later became the artistic manager of the theater. In the first years of the Soviet regime, Elkin became manager of the art division in the Commissariat of Education in the Byelorussian Soviet Republic and held the post until September 1919. When the Poles captured Bobruisk, he fled to Vilna and organized a theater society there. In 1920 he moved to Warsaw where, together with the Vilna Troupe, staged Sholem Asch’s Amnon un tamar (Amnon and Tamar) and Der zindiker (The sinner). In September 1921 Elkin was selected to be chairman of the Jewish artists’ association. He published at this time literary works in various journals and was co-editor of Yidish teater (Yiddish theater), volumes 4-5 (Warsaw, 1922). In 1923 Perets Hirshbeyn brought him to America. In New York he became one of the founders of the Yiddish theater society in late April 1923. He was a teacher in the drama studio and together with Dr. A. Mukdoni edited its monthly Teolit (Theater and literature). He was later co-organizer—with Perets Hirshbeyn, Dovid Pinski, H. Leivick, and the artist Khayim Shneur—of “Unzer teater” (Our theater). The theater did not last long and closed down after the winter season (1924-1925). Among his performances was An-sky’s Tog un nakht (Day and night) in his adaptation—Elkin wrote the second act to the play, dubbed “Samoels memshole” (Sammael’s dominion), a dramatic satire in blank verse, and published it in Shriftn (Writings), vol. 8. Elkin went on to create a children’s theater which also did not last long. His articles concerning theatrical issues and performances were scattered through various and sundry collections, newspapers, and magazines. In Moyshe Shalit’s journal Lebn (Life), he published a monograph on the Minusinsk converts (issues 5-6); in Vilna’s Tog (Day), he published, among other items, a poem in issue 1000 of the newspaper; in Di tsukunft (The future) in New York, he published his poem “Der shaman” (The shaman) in August 1923; in Der amerikaner (The American) in New York, he placed the monographs, “Di vilde shvotim in soito-mongoler gegnt” (The wild tribes of the ?-Mongolian region) and “Sibirer yidn” (Siberian Jews); important work may also be found in Forverts (Forward), Di feder (The pen), Teater un kunst (Theater and art), and Unzer bukh (Our book)—in New York—and in Chicago’s Kultur (Culture), among other serials. He published or helped publish writings by other Yiddish writers. He edited literary and theatrical collections, in which his name is not even mentioned. He was among the founders of the “Central Yiddish Library and Archive” (1936), and he was secretary of its association in 1940. When the YIVO center was moved from Vilna to New York, the “Central Library” joined YIVO, and Elkin was its librarian until the end of his life. Of his writings, translations in book form include: N. Szkliar, Bum un dreydl, a maysele (Boom and dreidel, a story) (Vilna: B. A. Kletskin, 1921), 31 pp.; George Bernard Shaw, Kandida, misterye in dray aktn (Candida, a mystery in three acts) (Vilna: B. A. Kletskin, 1923), 89 pp.; Max Nordau, Doktor kon (Dr. Kuhn) (Vilna: B. A. Kletskin, 1921). Original plays include: Motl tremp, a kinder-shpil in eyn akt (Motl the tramp, a children’s play on one act) (New York: Workmen’s Circle, Education Department, 1928), 28 pp.; Der gliklekhe prints, a kinder-shpil in eyn akt loyt oskar vayld (The happy prince, a children’s play in one act, following Oscar Wilde) (New York: Workmen’s Circle, Education Department, 1929), 31 pp.; Di laydn fun edipus, troyer-shpil in eyn akt, af der teme fun sofokles (The sufferings of Oedipus, a mournful play in one act, on the theme of Sophocles) (New York: Bodn, 1935), 35 pp. His original prose writings include: Koybaler stepes (Koibal steppes) (Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1934), 182 pp.; Far fremde zind, roman (For strange sins, a novel) (Vilna-New York: Menakhem, 1944), 223 pp.; Teater-shpil, far kleyn un groys (Theatrical play, for young and old), music edited by M. Gelbart (New York: Workmen’s Circle, Education Department, 1949), 232 pp., which includes Bum un dreydl, Konrads kholem (Conrad’s dream), Motl tremp, A din-toyre mitn vint (A rabbinical court in the wind), In podryad (In the matzo factory), Di laydn fun edipus, and Dos gute shvelbele (The good swallow); Tsvey shtromen, eyn tsil, af di vegn tsu geule, skitse (Two streams, one goal, on the road to redemption, a sketch) (New York: Jewish National Fund, 1930s), 11 pp. He also translated into Russian Perets Hirshbeyn’s “Baym breg” (At the shore) and other works. On his sixtieth birthday, there was published in New York: Mendl elkin yubiley-bukh (Mendl Elkin jubilee volume) with articles and memoirs by Avrom Reyzen, Shmuel Niger, Dovid Pinski, Dr. Y. Shatski, A. Leyeles, Dr. A. Mukdoni, and Perets Hirshbeyn, and with poems by H. Leivick and A. Oyerbakh, among others. Another commemorative album on his seventieth birthday was published in 1944 in New York (16 pp.). He died and was buried in New York. In his bequest which is preserved in the YIVO archives in New York, there is a long manuscript entitled “Zikhroynes” (Memoirs); in 1962 the publisher “Dos poylishe yidntum” (Polish Jewry) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, announced that this work was being prepared for publication, the 164th volume for the book series brought out by the publisher.
“A talented nature to a high degree,” wrote Dovid Pinski, “an extraordinary speaker and orator, first name in amateur spectacles, a director with great imagination and expertise, a very fine translator, a sculptor, a builder, a painter, a designer—a craftsman! A wonderful personality. Someone born to do things.”
“What is a lamed-vovnik?” asked Meylekh Ravitsh. “A lamed-vovnik [one of the thirty-six hidden sages of Jewish folklore] is an imagination that allows itself to conform to every reality. To every reality that exists and we do not know precisely in whose merit…. So we think of someone worthy and call him a lamed-vovnik…. Similarly, Yiddish literature, and modern culture in Yiddish generally, is an existential entity, a reality without an absolutely justified imperative. It also exists by virtue of the lamed-vov sages. I know a few of them. I know one with complete certainty. His name is Mendl Elkin, I know him from Poland and from America.”
“Mendl Elkin,” noted Arn Glants, “—may his memory be revered and blessed!—was a piece of all of our lives. A piece of the Jewish community’s political, artistic, literary, cultural, and scientific life on two continents and over the course of three-quarters of a century. He died at the threshold of his ninetieth birthday, and he began his community work very early, like many of his great, many-sided, creative generation. Men will write entire books about every phase of his rich life. There is no single important name, I believe, among Yiddish movements, in Yiddish literature, in the Yiddish theater, in Yiddish music, in Yiddish cultural affairs whom he did not personally know and with whom he did not have an active relationship.”
“You’ll encounter him,” wrote Yankev Glatshteyn, “rushing by on the streets of New York. Those of us who are younger wouldn’t recognize after he’s flown by. He recounts, as he’s rushing, a batch of troubles that he’s having with his work, with such optimism that perhaps you’ll want to help or console him, and at the same time you’ll sense that he has recounted this for no particular reason, out of arrogance, to know how much pleasure one can derive from Jewish troubles, when one always accomplishes something…. Mendl is an aesthete, not an amateur but actually a man of great distinction. He loves to write, and he is a great connoisseur. He evaluates art, music, [and] theater…. Of all his talents, his talent at being a good friend is huge. He is an anthology of friendship. He is, however, a just anthologist…. For his friends with whom he has lived for a large part of life, he is prepared to sacrifice.”
Elkin (second from left) with members of the Warsaw literary crowd (1922)
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2; Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 2 (New York, 1934), with a bibliography; Sh. Gorelik, “A. vayters briv” (A. Vayter’s letters), Di tsayt (New York) (December 25, 1921; January 1, 1922); M. Vaykhert, Teater un drame (Theater and drama), vol. 1 (Warsaw, 1922), pp. 87-94; Vaykhert, in Morgn-zhurnal (New York) (May 14, 1933); Vaykhert, Zikhroynes, band 2: varshe, 1918-1939 (Memoirs, vol. 2: Warsaw, 1918-1939) (Tel Aviv: Menora, 1961), see index; H. Petrikovski (Novak), in Tog (New York) (February 7, 1931); B. Ts. Goldberg, in Tog (March 14, 1935); Goldberg, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (March 17, 1959; April 14, 1962); Dr. A. Mukdoni, in Morgn-zhurnal (April 3, 1935); Mukdoni, In varshe un in lodzh (In Warsaw and in Lodz), vol. 1 (Buenos Aires, 1955), see index; N. Y. Gotlib, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (May 8, 1944); Yankev Glatshteyn, in Tog (April 25, 1954); Sh. Slutski, Avrom reyzen-biblyografye (Avrom Reyzen’s bibliography) (New York, 1956), no. 5041; Sh. Izban, in Der amerikaner (New York) (August 23, 1957); Dovid Pinski, in Dos idishe velt (Winnipeg) (November 13, 1959); F. Zolf, in Keneder odler (February 4, 1960); Y. Botoshanski, in Di prese (Buenos Aires) (April 26, 1962); M. Shveyd, in Forverts (New York) (April 27, 1962); Gershon Svet, in Hadoar (New York) (Iyar 11 [= May 15], 1962); Meylekh Ravitsh, in Keneder odler (May 3, 1962); Y. A Tshernyak, in Di prese (May 3, 1962); Tshernyak, in Dos yidishe vort (Buenos Aires) (May 4, 1962); R. Yuklson, in Frayhayt (New York) (May 11, 1962); A. Golomb, in Der veg (Mexico City) (May 19, 1962); Yedies fun yivo (New York) 83 (July 1962); H. Fenster, in Unzer shtime (Paris) (June 7-9, 1962); L. Sh. (Levin-Shatskes), in Der veker (New York) (August 1, 1962); Arbeter-ring boyer un tuer (Builders and leaders of the Workmen’s Circle), ed. Y. Yeshurin and Y. Sh. Herts (New York, 1962); Dr. Shloyme Bikl, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (December 21, 1962); Moyshe Shtarkman, in Jewish Book Annual (New York) (5706 [= 1945/1946]).