LEYZER SHTEYNBARG (May 18, 1880-March 28, 1932)
He was a fabulist and poet, born in Lipkan (Lipcani), Bessarabia. He was descended from a Hassidic merchant family. His original surname was Shteynberg, a cousin of Yude Shteynberg. He attended religious elementary school. His rebbe, the local religious judge and mystic, had an outsize influence on him. Autodidactically, he acquired a solid education in Russian and German. Early on, he turned to teaching in a series of towns in Bessarabia and Volhynia. In 1919 he was invited to Czernowitz to assume the leadership of Jewish cultural activities, and he quickly became one of the most influential Jewish cultural leaders in Greater Romania. He traveled around giving lectures throughout the land, edited the anthology of the Romanian cultural federation, Kultur (Culture) in Czernowitz—these were collections for the pamphlet series, A enfer, di gegner fun yidish (A response, the opponents of Yiddish), four pamphlets by Ester, Chaim Zhitlovsky, and Nokhum Shtif—and he contributed to the socialist periodicals in Czernowtz, Dos naye lebn (The new life) and Di frayhayt (Freedom). He also co-edited—with Yankev Botoshanski and Yankev Shternberg—Der veker (The alarm) in Bucharest (1920, three issues appeared). After the split in the federation, he led the Czernowitz group “Yidisher shul-fareyn” (Jewish school association), and he established a theater studio and a children’s theater. Political events in the country, sharpening ideological controversies on the Jewish street, and anxiety about making a living caused him to accept an offer to become director of a Jewish school in Rio de Janeiro, whence he traveled in March 1928. Unable to endure the local spiritual Jewish climate (the leftists accused him of “nationalism” and “reactionism”), he returned after two years to Czernowitz. In 1930 a material and social crisis emerged in Romania—on both the general and the Jewish street. Shteynbarg’s material condition grew quite bad, and in a letter to Shloyme Bikl he wrote: “I do not, as you know, want to die. So, I have decided to flee, to take to my heels and escape wherever my eyes will take me.” His friends would not permit him to do this and confined him to work on publishing a volume of fables. On his own he collected ninety-nine fables, but he did not live to see the book published. The leaders of the Jewish community provided an honorary grave, but at the suggestion of the Yiddish writers, they buried him “among the graves of children who had their desire for stories stifled before its time by his death.” He died in Czernowitz.
He began writing poetry and fables in 1902, but he debuted in print only in 1910 with a fable, “Di tsvey royzen” (The two roses), in Avrom Reyzen’s Eyropeyishe literatur (European literature) 39. In addition to above-cited Czernowitz serials, he also contributed work to: Odessa’s Gut-morgen (Good morning), Sholem-aleykhem (How do you do), Unzer leben (Our life), the anthology Grins (Vegetables), and Brazilyaner idishe prese (Brazilian Jewish press), among others. His work appeared as well in: Yitskhok Paner and Leyzer Frenkel, Naye yidishe dikhtung (Modern Yiddish poetry) (Iași: Jewish cultural circle in Romania, 1947); Oyfshtayg (Ascent) (Bucharest, 1964); Charles Dobzynski, Anthologie de la poésie Yiddish, le miroir d’un people (Anthology of Yiddish poetry, the mirror of a people) (Paris: Gallimard, 1971); Hermann Hakel, Jiddische Geschichten aus aller Welt (Tübingen-Basel, 1967), and Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry (New York, 1969). He also authored a series of children’s poems and children’s tales, a number of which are included in readers and their own schoolbooks.
His works include: Alef-beys (Alphabet), illustrations by Artur Kolnik, Rubin Zelikovitsh, and S. Lerner (Czernowitz: Kultur, 1921), 148 pp.; Mayselelkh fun breyshes, ṿi azoy di feygelekh hobn gelernṭ khumesh (Tales from Genesis, how the birds learned the Bible) (Czernowitz: Kultur, 1923), 15 pp., later edition (Jassy, 1948); Durkh di briln (Through eyeglasses), twelve tales (Czernowitz: Yidishe shul-fareyn, 1928), deluxe edition in 120 copies; Mesholim (Fables), vol. 1 (Czernowitz, 1932), 319 pp., second edition (Bucharest, 1935), third edition (Buenos Aires, 1949); Mesholim, vol. 2, with a prefaces by Daniel Leybl and Shloyme Bikl (Tel Aviv: Irgun Yotsey Lipkani, 1956), 210 pp.; Mayselekh (Tales) (Czernowitz, 1936), 304 pp.; Di mame mit di finf zin (The mother with five sons) (Montreal: Yidishe shul, 1946), 2 pp.; Di ku un di kukavke (The cow and the cuckoo) (Montreal: Yidishe shul, 1946), 7 pp.; Mesholim (Bucharest: State Publ., 1955), 258 pp., reprinting of the first edition with forty fables omitted; Mayselekh (Bucharest, 1958), 284 pp.; Mesholim (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1969), 349 pp., with a preface by Dov Sadan and a bibliography by Leyzer Frenkel; Tsen mesholim, asara meshalim (Ten fables), Hebrew translation by Hananiah Reichman (Montevideo: Zeriah, 1970), 48 pp.; Mesholim (Bucharest: Kriteryon, 1973), 286 pp.; Leyzer shteynbargs gezungene lider (Leyzer Shteynbarg’s songs to sing) (Reḥovot: Hersh Segel, 1977), 29 pp., thirteen songs with musical notation. Shteynbarg’s dramatized biblical and folk legends: Avrom ovinu (Abraham our father), a dramatization of legend in four acts; Yoysef moykir shabes (Joseph honors the Sabbath), a dramatized legend in four acts, with musical composition by Leventman, one of the first attempts at Yiddish opera; Der barditshever rebe (The Berdichev rebbe), in four acts; Der vayser hon (kukuriku) (The white rooster, cock-a-doodle-doo); Mekhires yoysef (The sale of Joseph); and Khelm (Chełm); among others. He also dramatized Perets’s Baynakht afn altn mark (At night in the old marketplace) and Di goldene keyt (The golden chain). Many of Shteynbarg’s children’s plays were staged (1920-1928) with great success in Czernowitz. And not only his children’s plays, but his writings for children generally “are among the finest achievements,” noted Zalmen Reyzen, “in the field of children’s literature in Yiddish with heartfelt simplicity and agreeable humor.” As Yisroel Rubin stated: “With his intuition and insight into the soul of a child, especially a Jewish [child], no one could compare.” The well-known reciter of poem Herts Grosbard recorded on a phonograph album Shteynbarg’s fables: “Hemder” (shirts), “Der khalef un di zeg” (The slaughtering knife and the saw), “Di kats un der vursht” (The cat and the sausage), “Dos blimele” (The little flower), “Der odler un di moylvurem” (The eagle and the mouth worm), and “Reb mayzl-mizl” (Mr. Mayzl-Mizl); and the actress Dina Halpern intoned his “Di nodl un di shpiz” (The needle and the spear). A great number of Shteynbarg’s writings either remain unpublished or widely scattered through Yiddish periodicals. In more recent days several items from his literary bequest were published in: Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv): the children’s play Di gliklekhe (The happy ones) 5 (1950); some of his fables 12 (1952).
Shteynbarg had a fine command of Hebrew and he even published a little Hebrew textbook: Alfon (Primer) (Czernowitz, 1921), 127 pp. His Ḥaruzim vemaasiyot (Verses and stories) (Tel Aviv, 1942/1943), 50 pp., is made up of some Hebrew originals and some translated by N. Alterman. In Hebrew translation: Ketsad lamdu hatsiporim ḥumash (How do birds study the Bible), trans. Menahem Sheḥori (Tel Aviv: Am oved, 1945/1946); and the large collection Mishle eliezer shteynbarg (Proverbs of Leyzer Shteynbarg), trans. Hananiah Reichman (Tel Aviv, 1954), 283 pp. Ḥaim Naḥman Bialik thought extremely highly of Shteynbarg’s fables and wanted to publish them with his Odessa publisher, but WWI destroyed that plan. Shteynbarg was an admirer of Bialik’s, took part in a epistolary correspondence with him, and translated some of his poems into Yiddish: “Tsafririm” (Zephyrs), “Kokhavim metsitsim vekhavim” (Stars twinkle and go out), “Al levavkhem sheshomem” (On your heart, which is barren), “Ayekha” (Where are you), “Yam hademama polet sodot” (The sea of silence utters secrets), “Gamode layil” (Gnomes of the night), and “Mishire haḥoref” (Winter songs) all appeared in Di goldene keyt 76; “Lemi even tova” (Who has a good stone) appeared in Yidisher almanakh far groys-rumenye (Jewish almanac for Greater Romania) (Czernowitz, 1923). Shteynbarg’s fables in Hebrew were also translated by Dov Sadan.
“Leyzer Shteynbarg,” wrote Yankev Botoshanski, “has been a problem in our literature until this day. On one side he has loyal followers who consider him one of the geniuses of Yiddish literature, and then there are some who denounce him completely, although renunciation is the greatest of absurdities. He produced fables which are of equal artistic value to the best fables of Lafontaine or Krylov.”
Ḥaim Naḥman Bialik had the highest words of praise for Shteynbarg: “A genuine congratulations for the volume of brilliant fables by my late friend Leyzer Shteynbarg. I have plunged with great thirst into them and am unable to pry myself loose. Their value is inestimable. Every fable has its own charm and its own enchantment. This is a work by a great artist which will adorn our literature for generations to come.” (From a letter to the book committee that brought out the 1932 edition of Mesholim).
“Of course,” noted Daniel Leybl, “there were fables composed in Yiddish before Shteynbarg. You’ll find them with practically every Yiddish poet, but the fable is an independent, highly artistic creation, and this we did not have until Leyzer Shteynbarg…. His fable was the quintessence of an extraordinarily rich and profoundly human life and world view, and at that he is so Jewish in language, in performance, in every wrinkle, that it is difficult to imagine that this would be either translated or reworked from a non-Jewish language.”
“Shteynbarg’s fable reads for the most part,” wrote Shloyme Bikl, “on behalf of a world view, on behalf of his own poetically experienced image of the world…. The innovative Shteynbarg fable is actually a tame epic of legend; a metrically restrained tale with its contents condensed.”
“The pages of Shteynbarg’s book [Mesholim],” commented Y. Y. Sigal, “are replete with the atmosphere of the Jewish world. This is a very strong fabric…the canvas on which he conveyed his fables—Leyzer’s fables. These are ‘creature and things’ that have already passed through Shteynbarg’s ‘school.’ They won’t say a word that would prevent them from passing muster. They know their pedigree and their roots. They even have their distinctive language dialogue. And although they frequently sharpen one of their expressions, hone an idea, and let it outgrow the realistic, natural physical pinnacle and grow within its mystical metaphysics, they are retained as a whole in the etiquette of their respectable intelligibility. They—and with them the master—have a dreadful fear of banality and try with all their strength…to pull a pebble out of the mosaic-stencil, as long as the idea and the eye are freed from restrictions.”
“He introduced into the fable a new tone,” wrote Shmuel Niger, “partially a new content as well. He modernized the fable, and that meant more than pouring new wine into an old vessel; it meant remaking the vessel itself…. He created a new sort of fable—a fable that is saturated not with traditional truths but with a spirit of rebellion; a fable that revolts against its own classic disposition, the disposition of a set and well-established order in life[;]…a hatred of deadened servility and dulled patience—this is the moral of many [Shteynbarg] fables. Leyzer Shteynbarg greatly developed [the fable], raising it to new heights. He took a vessel that was created to play primitive folk melodies on it and so refined it that it became an instrument which emitted the finest tones. The fable thus became both richer and poorer. It became richer in its diversity and refinement of motifs, poorer in dramatic and storytelling qualities,…[but] to be able to assess all the fine points [of his fables], one must be both an expert in the old Jewish texts and knowledgeable of Jewish folk life and folk creations.”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 4; Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 6 (Mexico City, 1969); Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) 16, 21 (1932), 8, 9 (1933); Yankev Botoshanski, Portretn fun yidishe shrayber (Portraits of Yiddish writers) (Warsaw, 1933), pp. 121-30; Shloyme Bikl, Inzikh un arumzikh, notitsn fun a polemist in kritishe bamerkungen (In and around oneself, notes of a polemicist and critical observations) (Bucharest, 1936); Bikl, Detaln un sakhaklen, kritishe un polemishe bamerkungen (Details and sum totals, critical and polemical observations) (New York, 1943); Bikl, Shrayber fun mayn dor (Writers of my generation) (New York and Tel Aviv: Matones, 1958-1970), 3 vols.; Khayim Giniger, in Shoybn (Bucharest) 2 (1936); Shiye Rapoport, Tsvishn yo! un neyn! kritik un esey (Between yes! and no!, critic and essay) (Warsaw: Kh. Bzhoza, 1937), pp. 83-96; Moyshe-Mikhl Kitay, Unzere shrayber un kinstler (Our writers and artists) (Warsaw: Jewish Universal Library, 1938), pp. 112-16; Yankev Fikhman, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 2 (1949); Yitskhok Paner, in Di goldene keyt 12 (1952); Paner, in Letste nayes (Tel Aviv) (April 2, 1969); Yitskhok Vaynshenker, Poshet mitokh libshaft (Simply out of love) (Montevideo: Zrie, 1955), pp. 33-54; Y. Y. Sigal, in Heymish (Tel Aviv) (February 1957); Daniel Leybl, in Unzer veg (New York) (May 1957); Yankev Shternberg, in Sovetish heymland (Moscow) 2 (1962); Shternberg, in Morgn frayhayt (New York) (July 5, 1970); Shloyme Belis, Portretn un problemen (Portraits and problems) (Warsaw: Yidish bukh, 1964), pp. 36-41; Moyshe Gros-Tsimerman, Intimer videranand, eseyen (Intimate contrast, essays) (Tel Aviv: Peretz Publ., 1964), pp. 270-73; Leyzer Bikl, in Tsukunft (New York) (March 1967; Vera Haken, in Afn shvel (Mexico City and New York) (March-April 1967; November-December 1967; January-February 1968; July-August 1968); Moyshe Laks, Literarishe figurn (Literary figures) (Bucharest: Farlag far literatur, 1969), pp. 77-80; Ber Grin, Fun dor tsu dor (From generation to generation) (New York, 1971), pp. 227-31; Dov Sadan, Avne miftan, masot al sofre yidish (Milestones, essays on Yiddish writers), vol. 3 (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1972), pp. 9-33; Sadan, Heymishe ksovim, shrayber, bikher, problemen (Familiar writings, writers, books, issues) (Tel Aviv: Hamenorah, 1972), pp. 41-74; Leyzer Frenkel, “Tsu di mekoyrim fun mikro un khazal in leyzer shteynbargs mesholim” (On the sources from biblical text and our sages in Leyzer Shteynbarg’s fables), Pinkes far der forshung fun der yidisher literatur un prese (Record of research on Yiddish literature and the press) 2 (1972), pp. 214-24; M. Surkis, in Morgn frayhayt (June 11, 1972); Shmuel Niger, Yidishe shrayber fun tsvantsikstn yorhundert (Yiddish writers of the twentieth century), vol. 2 (New York, 1973), pp. 211-28; Natan Mark, Sifrut yidish beromanya (Yiddish literature in Romania) (Haifa: Omanut, 1973), see index; Shmuel Shapiro, Asher leoram halakhti (In whose light I went) (Tel Aviv, 1966), pp. 268-72; Sovetish heymland 5 (1978); Yeshurin archive, YIVO (New York). Leyzer Frenkel was working on a doctoral dissertation at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem with the title [in English translation]: “The Sources and Originality of Leyzer Shtaynbarg’s Fable.”