BERL SHAFIR (1876-September 24, 1922)
The author of stories, dramas, and poetry, he was a journalist, born in Alt-Konstantin, Volhynia. He received a weak Jewish education. He was blind in one eye. He came to Odessa in his youth, worked as a cigarette maker, and lived alone in poverty. In 1915 when the Yiddish press was entirely shut down in the Russian empire, he took up brokerage work. He died in the era of the Russian civil war during a great famine in Odessa. He debuted in print in 1906 with a story, entitled “Der ershter aroysfor” (The very beginning), in St. Petersburg’s Dos leben (The life). He published poetry and stories, mainly drawn from the life of workers, in: Fraynd (Friend), Der shtrahl (The beam [of light]), and Unzer leben (Our life). And, he wrote deal for the Yiddish press elsewhere: Gut morgen (Good morning), Sholem-aleykhem (How do you do?), A id (A Jew), and Tsaytigs (Mature). He also contributed work to: Zumer (Summer) (Warsaw, 1910/1911); Fayerlekh (Solemn) (Warsaw, 1912/1913); Yudishe velt (Jewish world) (Vilna, 1914); and Untervegs (Pathways) (Odessa, 1917). His work also appeared in such collections as: Morris Basin, 500 yor yidishe poezye (500 years of Yiddish poetry) (New York, 1922); Yoyel Entin, Yidishe poetn, hantbukh fun yidisher dikhtung (Yiddish poets, a handbook of Yiddish poetry) (New York: Jewish National Labor Alliance and Labor Zionist Party, 1927); and Blumen (Flowers) (Vilna, 1921). In 1914 he traveled to Vilna and Warsaw and delivered a volume of stories to B. Kletskin publishers, but war broke out that year, and the book was not published. He became well known for a long story concerning a happy pauper, Avreml der shuster, ertsehlung (Little Avrom the shoemaker, a story) (Odessa: Binshtok, 1911), 38 pp., second edition (Odessa: Literatur, 1917/1918), which appeared earlier in Hebrew translation as Avrahaml hasandal (Odessa, 1909/1910), later edition (Tel Aviv, 1924/1925). It was dramatized by the author and performed by the Hirshbeyn troupe, with Shafir serving as prompter, in 1909 (before even appearing in print). A second story, entitled Keler-shtiber (Basement homes), was also published (Odessa: Binshtok, 1919), 16 pp. Several books by him were published after his death: Rentgen-shtralen (X-rays), a drama (Odessa: Jewish section of the Odessa division of the Ukrainian State Publ., 1922); Leyzer un zayn hunt (Leyzer and his dog) (Kiev: Gezkult, 1928), 38 pp.; Geklibene verk, lider, dertseylungen, dramatishe pruvn (Selected works, poetry, stories, dramatic efforts) (Moscow: Emes, 1934), 430 pp. He also wrote children’s poems and children’s tales, such as A kleyn mentshele (A little person) (Odessa: Blimelekh, 1916), among others. A selection of his stories appeared in Hebrew translation (in part, by Ḥ. N. Bialik) under the title Sipurim vetsiyurim (Stories and drawings) (Berlin, 1925), 317 pp. Many of Shafir’s stories were published in Hebrew translations in: Hashiloaḥ (The shiloah), Haolam (The world), and elsewhere. A number of his poems in a folkish register became popular, such as: “Mayn khaver hershl” (My friend Hershl), “Afn boydem shloft der dakh” (The roof sleeps on the attic)—for which Perets Hirshbeyn composed music—and “Ikh bin gekumen keyn rakhmastrivke” (I came to Rotmistrivka). In 1948 the composer Dmitri Shostakovich included “Afn boydem shloft der dakh” in a vocal series he composed (From Jewish Folk Poetry). He also penned the plays: Di operatsye (The operation) and Der shuster geyt hakofes (The shoemaker takes part in the Torah procession in Simchat Torah)—both are included in his Geklibene verk.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 4; Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 6 (Mexico City, 1969); B. Epelboym, obituary in Bikher-velt (Warsaw) (1922), pp. 459, 559; Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) 70 (1925); Farmest (Kiev) 1 (1933).
[Additional information from: Chaim Beider, Leksikon fun yidishe shrayber in ratn-farband (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union), ed. Boris Sandler and Gennady Estraikh (New York: Congress for Jewish Culture, Inc., 2011), pp. 375-76.]