SHLOYME ETINGER (SOLOMON ETTINGER) (1802-December 31, 1856)
He was born in Warsaw, Poland, into a scholarly, merchant family. His grandfather, Itshe Ettinger, was said to have been a rabbi in Khelm (Chełm). His father, Yaske Ettinger, received ordination into the rabbinate. People wanted him to take up a rabbinical post in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, but he did not wish to leave Poland. He died young and Ettinger was raised by his father’s young brother, Mendl Ettinger, a rabbi in Lentshne (Łęczna) who acquired a reputation for his knowledge of German. Thus, from his childhood on, Torah and worldly knowledge were securely united in Shloyme Ettinger, and he did not have to experience the rupture between traditional Judaism and secular education, as this was often the rule for other writers and leaders in the era of the Jewish Enlightenment. When Ettinger was fifteen years old, his uncle arranged a marriage for him with the youngest daughter of the wealthy Yude-Leyb Volf in Zamość. He lived with his in-laws, spending all day in the synagogue study hall, and he was a frequent visitor to the home of Yoysef Tsederboym, the meeting point for followers of the Jewish Enlightenment in the city, such as Shimen Blokh and Yankev Aykhenboym, among others. Ettinger was a big success in this circle for his cheerfulness and vitality, for his ditties and aphorisms. After the death of his father-in-law, Ettinger’s wife opened a shop of glassware, but it was a difficult time and he was compelled to ponder a serious response to their fate. He left for Odessa which at the time was flourishing as a business center and where his brother-in-law Volf was living, but Ettinger was not a good fit for business and, after spending several months there with relatives, they decided that he would go to Lemberg, study there, and they would support him. In 1825 he ceased wearing his traditional Jewish garb and entered the Lemberg medical institute, having earlier prepared himself in German and Latin. University life was appealing to him, and he acquired a reputation among his fellow students and Lemberg followers of the Jewish Enlightenment as the “cheerful Solomon.” In particular he befriended his university pal Arnold Zhelinski, later a medical doctor in Vienna (thanks to him the only image we have of Ettinger was preserved). In early 1930 Ettinger completed his studies and returned to Zamość where he acquired the title “doctor,” though he was not supposed to practice without having passed the state examinations given at Warsaw University. Meanwhile, the November Uprising erupted in Poland, and as Zamość was a fortress and one could anticipate a siege of the city, Ettinger settled with his family in the glassworks of his brother-in-law, Yankev Gold, near Yanove (Jonava). During the cholera epidemic, which the Russian military brought to Poland (summer 1831), Ettinger was lured by the Polish lords into medical relief work, which he performed with greatest diligence. Thanks to this, he never faced any disturbances, after the uprising, on the part of the authorities to engage in his medical practice and was even appointed to a position at the Zamość Municipal Hospital (in the division of venereal diseases). He also worked in the Jewish hospital for the poor, while at the same time preparing for the state examinations. Around 1834 he traveled to Warsaw to sit for the examinations, but fell dangerously ill, went to the examination poorly prepared, and received only the title “doctor of the second level”—without the right to treat internal diseases. Later, in the 1840s, a man now burdened with seven children, the semi-legal doctor Ettinger was compelled to think again about the state examinations. In 1847 he went to take to examinations at Kharkov University, but due to a missing formality with his Lemberg papers, he had to return home with nothing to show for it. He tried to continue practicing medicine, but soon thereafter he purchased a piece of land in Zhdanov, some four kilometers from Zamość, and settled down there with his family. His lived the rest of his life there—aside from a short time when he was, as a doctor, summoned once again by the authorities in the face of a cholera epidemic in July 1855—and so he took up agriculture, much improved his material condition, and often entertained guests in his home, but the friction that he sensed with his wife impeded his calm. In one of his letters from that time, he complained: “I make no great demands of life; I wish only for a bit of family happiness, and fortune has not brought this to me. I’m a husband, a father, a homeowner, a farmer, but destiny has brought me sorrow from all of these.”
He began writing during his student years in Lemberg. At that time he also had the ambition to become a painter, something that had aroused his interest and capacity when quite young (only one painting of his has been preserved, which he [painted from memory of his friend Yankev Aykhenboym]. In Lemberg he became acquainted with Mendl Lefin’s Yiddish translation of Tanakh, as well as two Yiddish-language books: Di genarte velt (The cheated world), a reworking of Molière’s Tartuffe; and Alteli, a reworking of Robinson Crusoe. His first literary efforts were parables and epigrams. He probably also wrote his comedy Serkele at this time. He was already carrying around the idea of publishing this work in 1836-1837, while at the same time he had numerous plans for literary works in Yiddish, such as a mythology and a world- and nature-history. On May 24, 1843, his good friend, the famous Antoni Eisenbaum, submitted a request to the curator of a Warsaw learned society, that Ettinger’s Serkele and Mesholim (Parables) be permitted to be published, pointing out that “these works are accessible to all classes of Jews; they bring out in living colors faults and risible qualities, as they picture pointedly and comically the complete Jewish condition, and they thus may have a salutary effect on their minds.” In this endeavor, Ettinger also hoped for the patronage of his friend Yanev Tugenhald (1794-1872), the Yiddish censor in Warsaw at that time, but the censor so distorted his writings with cuts that he could under no circumstances allow them to be publish in that form. With such new worries hanging over him, nothing ultimately came about of his plans. Unable to publish he work in book form, Ettinger recited and read them before people at every opportunity, and he made dozens of copies by hand himself. While still alive, he became widely known, both in his city and throughout Poland, but not seeing a line of his work published, on the one hand, and his unhappy family life, on the other, caused him a great deal of aggravation. Ettinger died suddenly on his small estate. The entire city accompanied him to his final rest. An epitaph in Hebrew is engraved on his tombstone in Zamość, which he prepared himself. Several years after his death, for the first time his writings began to see the light of day in book form. In 1861 in the Prussian town of Johannesberg, a man by the name of Gonsharovski published Ettinger’s play entitled Komedya in 5 akten fon serkele oder di falshe yortsayt geshen in lemberg (Comedy in five acts of Serkele or the false anniversary of the death that took place in Lemberg). Serkele was republished from the error-ridden Johannesberg edition (Warsaw, 1875; there is a Lemberg edition as well). Better luck was experienced by Ettinger’s work in verse, published by his son Wilhelm under the title Mesholim, lidlekh, kleyne mayselekh un kesuveslekh, eygene un nokhgemakhte (Parables, ditties, short stories, and aphorisms, originals and imitations) (St. Petersburg, 1889), 254 pp., second edition (1890). Some of these parables were published earlier in: Kol mevaser (Herald), from 1863; Varshever yudishe tsaytung (Warsaw Jewish newspaper); and Yudisher folksblat (Jewish people’s newspaper). A new edition solely of Mesholim appeared in 1920 (Warsaw: Nayer farlag), 145 pp. Only in 1925 were Ettinger’s works properly revised into a thorough critical edition: Ale ksovim fun dr shloyme etinger (Collected writings of Dr. Shloyme Ettinger), published according to manuscripts with biographical and bibliographical introduction and with annotations by Dr. Max Weinreich, in 2 parts (Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1925), 64 pp. + 516 pp. This edition included items by Ettinger that had never been published, among them: two unpublished theatrical works, “Der feter fun amerike” (The uncle from America) and “Di freylekhe yungelayt” (Carefree youth); and a number of his letters; among other items—Weinreich made use of the poet’s bequest. Ettinger’s other writings in book form include: Serkele, oder di yortsayt nokh a bruder, gor a nay teater-shtik in finf oyftsien (Serkele, or the anniversary of the death of a brother, an entirely new theatrical piece in five acts) (Vilna: Naye yidishe folksshul, 1929), 24 pp.; Geklibene verk (Selected works), with a literary-historical introduction by Maks Erik, with the text prepared, commentaries, and bibliography by M. Dubilet (Kiev: Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, 1935), 387 pp.; Mesholim (Kiev: Ukrainian State Publ., 1938), 99 pp.; Oysgeklibene shriftn, komedye, mesholim, kesuveslekh (Selected writings, comedy, parables, aphorisms), introduced and edited by Shmuel Rozhanski (Buenos Aires: Yoysef Lifshits Fund, World Jewish Culture Congress, 1958), 259 pp. In 1863 Ettinger’s Serkele was staged for the first time by students at the Zhitomir rabbinical seminary at a Purim celebration (among the student was the twenty-two-year-old Avrom Goldfaden who played the main role). The first production of Serkele in a theater was staged by Y. Y. Lerner in Odessa on August 11, 1888. In 1923 Serkele was staged in Warsaw’s Central Theater under the direction of Zigmunt Turkov. This production became a great boon for the Yiddish theater and aroused enthusiastic reviews throughout the Yiddish press. Serkele was also staged in the Yiddish theater in Communist Poland.
“Ettinger had the talent,” wrote Shmuel Niger, “of a painter and a poet. And he possessed an extraordinary talent in writing Yiddish. He thus found it necessary to write in a plain Yiddish and not in Hebrew or German. He had no need of justifications. He felt no guilt, as a bird feels no sense of guilt for singing, the flower when it blooms. And, it is truly something to admire that in the full bloom of the Jewish Enlightenment, when Yiddish or ‘zhargon’ as it was then dubbed was, in the best of cases, a means to enhancing the level of maturity of the Jewish masses, as A. M. Dik expressed it, a lame one, a broken cane, to break down the walls of the ghetto—it is a remarkable thing to find such a man at that time—and this was Shloyme Ettinger, who wrote Yiddish not like his friend from that era in Ukraine, Yisroel Aksenfeld, ‘from simple Jewish women who know no other languages,’ but for everyone, and for those enlightened and educated people, as he was himself…. If Shloyme Ettinger had left us nothing else but the drama—or, better put, the melodrama—Serkele and fragments of two other plays, one unfinished and one only just begun, he would occupy a place solely in the history of Yiddish drama and the Yiddish language. However, he has succeeded in transcribing a valuable chapter in the entire history of Yiddish literature, although especially the art of verse, and in this chapter he utterly excelled. No one has as yet written such poems, parables, and epigrams as his in Yiddish. Ettinger had a cultivated sense for sound, rhythm, and form…. He is there in in his poetry—not only his generation, the generation of the Enlightenment. He is there and, like every creative person, he carries with him other, earlier generations as well, not solely his own generation. It happens that people actually forget that he was a follower of the Enlightenment…. If in the longer parables which are mostly short stories, we see Ettinger’s shrewdness, his wisdom of life, and life’s learning, his artistry with words becomes clear to us in the short parables and in the even shorter epigrams, his mastery of the word.”
“What is there to writing,” observed Meylekh Ravitsh, “whose author, Shloyme Ettinger, who throughout his entire mature life wrote, recited, read aloud before people, copied in dozens of manuscript copies, prepared them for publication—and yet never saw a single line [of his work] published; these were tidy, lovely, naïve, melodic, vivid, well-rhymed, well-formed—with all manner of stanzas—poems, several dozen in number. This includes fables in a flexible language, the topics on the whole taken from the ancient treasury of Aesop, and always with a lovely, golden middle-of-the-road moral, over one hundred in number. There are several poems with greater volume. The motifs in general are taken from the classical German ballad literature. Among these poems is one, thirty-three pages in length, with the title “Dos lekht” (The candle). This is a paraphrasing of Friedrich Schiller’s world-renowned poem “[Das Lied von] die Glocke” (The song of the bell). And just as this is a poem of a man’s life, the refrain of which is the bell which rings all the time—birth, holidays, weddings, celebrations, sad events, funeral,…so too in the Yiddish version of Shloyme Ettinger, “The Candle” is the eternal companion of Jewish life…which is a brilliant notion. At birth a candle, at circumcision a candle, holidays a candle, Sabbath a candle, Havdalah a candle, a wedding candle, and after death a yahrzeit candle. All of this together in a poem that begs us to teach it in Jewish schools and read it at every opportunity…. Why Shloyme Ettinger, a man with considerable European knowledge, an official European education, and in general a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment from head to toe, evinced some ninety years before the Czernowitz Language Conference such a great feeling for the Yiddish language and philological intuition, which led him to create dozens of new, technical literary terms in Yiddish never before seen in the language, remains a secret. Unless it’s the genius of our mother tongue, unless it was his love of ordinary people. Unless—God only knows—what! That’s how it is. His poems written 130 years ago, read so freshly, as if they were written yesterday. One must admit that—judging from the great minds of his era in the world, Shloyme Ettinger was not a particularly talented poet. However, we measure him with a special gauge, a time-gauge, an environmental gauge, a gauge of familiarity—and according to such a gauge he becomes ever more beloved to us. Beloved like family. We do not place him on the world market of literature. We are friends with him, love him in our home. And he brings us great ethnic and artistic joy.”
Zalmen Reyzen had the following to say: “Ettinger’s artistic talent is most stunningly revealed in his works in verse. Displayed in them for us is not only the most significant Yiddish writer before Mendele Moykher-Sforim, but also the first artist in the Yiddish language in the modern sense of the word. Especially extraordinary were Ettinger’s parables, which are still considered until today among the best specimens of Yiddish fable poetry…. Wise to the ways of the world, rich in experience, a fine observer who delineates in his own allegiance both to the good and to the bad in people and phenomena, we see also in Ettinger the author of aphorisms and epigrams—pleasantries which excel by virtue of their playful humor and genuine Jewish wit, remaining equally European in their short, poignant form…. Objective describer of Jewish life, artist, not a publicist of the Enlightenment ideals, this was Ettinger in his drama Serkele. We sense the Enlightenment tendencies here only in the exaggerated idealization of the representative of the new generation in the person of the ‘enlightened’ student Redlikh. In general, though, we have in Serkele a lively, realistic comedy, written in a fluent and, for its era, an extraordinarily popular language, and also in its construction at a level of dramatic art of the early nineteenth century…. This consciousness in Ettinger’s connection to the Yiddish language is truly remarkable. Fluent in German, he nonetheless avoided every trace of Germanisms in his Yiddish writings. If he felt the absence of words in Yiddish for a known concept, he tried to create them in the spirit of the language, and his constructions were often very successful—for example, oyftsi (instead of oyftsug or akt) for an act in the theater; araynkim (instead of oyftrit) for a scene in a play; zukhtsetl (instead of inhalt-fartseykhenish or register) for index; and the like. Ettinger’s great mastery as a Yiddish stylist is also apparent in the surviving fragments of his translations of prayers, etc., which can serve until today as magnificent examples for this sort of work and attest to Ettinger’s fine sensibility for a style and tone and language.”
“In Yiddish literature of the nineteenth century,” wrote Meyer Viner, “Ettinger was the first artistic stylist prior to Mendele…. One must first of all take into consideration the impact of Volfzon’s Laykhtzin un fremelay (Frivolity and piety). More important was the immediate impact of Di genarte velt, in which Ettinger found the literary prototype for his figure of ‘Serkele’…whose relevant borrowings from foreign language literatures one must first attribute to the fact that Ettinger was familiar with Molière’s comedy Tartuffe which was extremely popular at the time in Enlightened circles…. Ettinger drew the most important influence in Yiddish from the anonymous Di genarte velt.”
“Serkele gave no indication,” noted B. Gorin, “that it was written almost two generations before Goldfaden laid the cornerstone for Yiddish theater. To this day on the Yiddish stage a hundred similar plays are performed. They are cast in the mold of Serkele—no more, though, for Serkele possesses a language fresher, more vivid, more Yiddish. Serkele is written in a modern, pure Yiddish. Serkele was a pattern for subsequent Yiddish playwrights, and, to be completely honest, they imitated it poorly.”
“When all is said and done,” Dr. Max Weinreich claimed, “Ettinger’s influence is slight, limited to narrow circles. Had he had the temperament of a subversive, he might have become the grandfather of our literature. He possesses the literary eligibility thereto. If he is behind Mendele in terms of talent, he was certainly above him in respect to a sense of form, although he wrote thirty years earlier. However, given who he was and one cannot change one’s character, he remained the great-grandfather of Yiddish literature, the little known, half-forgotten great-grandfather, whom one must by means of research introduce for contemporary readers.”
“Ettinger’s dialogue,” wrote Nokhum Oyslender, “is psychologically consistent and never veers from the framework of typicality. Ettinger was the first to break the unity of ‘psychology’ and typicality in Yiddish literature.”
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