MOYSHE-ARN SHATSKES (1825-August 26, 1899)
The author of stories, he was born in Karlin, Poland, into a scholarly family. He received a basic Jewish education and was highly adept in Tanakh and Talmud. He was later influenced by Jewish Enlightenment ideas and became one of their popular promoters. He lived the last twenty years of his life in Kiev, mainly in poverty and want, as in earlier years, and there he died. Shatskes was well known in Enlightenment literature for his volume Hamafteaḥ (The key) (Warsaw, 1865/1866-1869/1870), 2 parts—a critical, rational explanation of homiletical portions of the Talmud, which was enthusiastically received by the great majority of followers of the Enlightenment and sharply attacked by the Orthodox who would buy up copies of the book and burn them publicly at a string of sites. He published other research pieces on Torah and Talmud in: Haboker or (Morning’s light), Haasif (The harvest), Otsar hasifrut (Treasury of literature), Hamelits (The advocate), Hayahadut (Judaism), and Hayom (Today), among other serials. In Yiddish literature, he made a name for himself with his book Yudisher far-peysekh, oder mineg yisroel, a sipur fun dem ort leben fun unzere yuden, un beyoter in der lita vi azoy es pasirt zikh in der tsayt fun purim biz peysekh, interesne stsenes, un vunderlikhe mayses, vos zenin beemes hafle vofele, kritish betrakht ale minhogim, un ale poradkes, beshriben iz dos alles abisel satiresh, oft mit a rekhte milso dibdikhuso (Jewish Passover eve, or the custom of Israel, a story of the place close to us Jews, and mostly in Lithuania as it comes to pass in the time between Purim and Passover, interesting scenes, and wonderful tales, which are truly amazing, critically thought of as customs, and all paradoxes, written with a bit of satire, often with a bit of jest) (Warsaw: Aleksander Ginz, 1881), 180 pp., later edition (1896).
Shatskes’s contemporary, E. Kalmenson, wrote that, “until this book [appeared in print], no author had had such an immense and interested audience. This book, one might say, was read by people from all strata, educated and simple people, men and women, scholars and ignoramuses, Hassidim and Enlightenment followers.”
“This entire book,” noted Sholem-Aleichem, “is literally filled with intelligent jokes, sensible language, bright ideas, words of Musar, useful information, beautiful images, brilliant scenes, sad thoughts—and all of this is systematic, written with a purpose, with a sharp, vivid, spirited satire, in a fluid, pure Yiddish, with such distinctive notions…that our jargon had not until Shatskes possessed.”
In the words of Zalmen Reyzen: “This book has a great ethnographic interest as a faithful reflection of the Jewish way of life in the middle of the last century in Lithuania.”
Shmuel Niger characterized the book as “a story that mocked the old Enlightenment ways of earlier Jewish figures and earlier Jews generally. M. A. Shatskes’s ideal was more than anything else education in the spiritual realm and crafts in the material.”
Of Shatskes’s other works in Yiddish, one should mention the four humorous sketches Bilder fun der lita (Images from Lithuania), in Sholem-Aleichem’s Yudishe folks-biblyotek (Jewish people’s library) (Kiev) 1 (1888). He also contributed a bit to Yudishes folksblat (Jewish people’s newspaper) in St. Petersburg. He held behind in manuscript Hebrew-language essays and a Yiddish work entitled Der khoydesh elel (The month of Elul). Leo Wiener has written that “Shatskes wrote only one book [in Yiddish], which should not properly be called a story. It is a valuable encyclopedia of Jewish customs, primarily those that had a direct or indirect connection to Passover.”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 4; Getzel Kressel, Leksikon hasifrut haivrit (Handbook of Hebrew literature), vol. 2 (Merḥavya, 1967); Meyer Pines, Di geshikhte fun der yudisher literatur bizn yohr 1890 (History of Yiddish literature until 1890) (Warsaw: B. Shimin, 1911), pp. 233-34; Sholem-aleykhem bukh (Volume for Sholem-Aleichem) (New York, 1926), p. 185; Nokhum Oyslender, ed., Idishe literatur, khrestomatye fun literatur un kritik (Yiddish literature, a reader of literature and criticism) (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1928), see index; Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) 14 (1937); Shmuel Niger, Dertseylers un romanistn (Storytellers and novelists), vol. 1 (New York: Tsiko, 1946), pp. 103-4; Yeshurin archive, YIVO (New York); Leo Wiener, The History of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1972), p. 175.