YISROEL (ISRAEL) AKSENFELD (1787-1866)
Born in Nemirov, Podolia district, Ukraine, into a family of the elite. As a child and youth, he spent time in Hassidic surroundings, and he became an ardent Bratslav hassid, an intimate of the rebbe, R. Nachman (of Bratslav), and a friend of R. Noson of Nemirov. As was the practice in those times, a marriage was arranged for Akselfeld when he was still quite young. His and his bride were not a good match, and later when he became a maskil, he was divorced from her. He learned Russian, Polish, and German, and took up a career in business. Thanks to his talents and his fine character, he made good business connections and gained access to administrative contracts at the time of the Russo-French War . He traveled with the army through Poland and eastern Germany, and spent a considerable period of time in Bratslav (Lower Silesia). His travels over various regions and countries and his coming into contact with all sorts of people broadened his horizons, enriched his life experiences, and deepened his knowledge of people. He put all of this to good use decades later when writing novels and dramas of Jewish life. Biographical details for the time period from after the war until the 1820s are not available. We know only that in this period he married a second time to “Rekhele, the well-educated and pious daughter of Rabbi Abele Hurvits from Brod.” We may thus presume that he lived for a certain period of time in Brod, and that he would have become acquainted there with representatives of the Jewish enlightenment in Galicia. We may also imagine that no later than 1824 he would have settled in Odessa, where he remained for the next forty years of his life. In Odessa, as earlier, he took up business and received the title of “Odessa merchant of the third guild.” Later, though, he devoted himself to the examination to become a notary, private attorney (1835), and sworn court’s interpreter (straptshe, 1836). He made a living honorably, and his “fine home” became a meeting house for the sages, especially for the maskilim, among whom he was highly esteemed. In an earlier era, he devoted his time to writing the dozens of novels, stories, and stage plays of which, regrettably, only a small number have come down to us.
In the 1830s, Aksenfeld began writing, and in the space of some thirty years, he had written over 300 printer’s sheets. In 1862 he alone compiled a roster of all his writings that he “put into ordinary Yiddish (they have not yet been published).” The list included twenty-six works, among them several novels quite long with numerous parts, such as: Mikhl der ozerkes, a yudishe zhil blaz (Mikhl the servant, a Jewish Gil Blas), six parts, 1504 pp.; Leyb fridland, oykh a yudisher zhil blaz (Leyb Fridland, also a Jewish Gil Blas), 2112 pp.; and Di shpiges (The Shpiges), four parts, 1162 pp., among others. The designation “a Jewish Gil Blas” (a reference to the first realistic novel, by the French writer Alain-René Le Sage, who was very popular in the eighteenth century) demonstrated that Aksenfeld had set for himself a certain goal to be a writer with a realist bent. Given the the social depths of his descriptions, Aksenfeld in truth stood closer to the realism of his great contemporary, Honoré de Balzac, than to the pattern of a Gil Blas from a century earlier. Gifted with a nature of enormous observational energy, with a sense of humor, with a feel for language, and with a fighting temperament, he became the first social novelist and the principal bearer of realism in Yiddish literature for the pre-Mendele period, and in Mendele’s work itself one can see traces of his impact. His influence on the wider course of the art of Yiddish narrative would without a doubt have become even stronger, if all of his writings had lived to see print.
Unfortunately, only a few of his works have seen the bright light of day, and only initially after several decades. The reason was that in the 1830s when Aksenfeld wrote his first works, the government of Tsar Nicholas I closed nearly all Yiddish publishing houses in Russia (statute of October 27, 1836), and the two publishers (Romm in Vilna and Shapiro in Zhitomir) that were left refused to publish his writings because of their harsh anti-Hassidic proclivity. This was the issue earlier with his first novel, Seyfer khsidim (The book of the Hassidim), a satirical, maskilic, anti-Hassidic work of almost 1000 pages. This novel does not appear in Aksenfeld’s “listing of all writings,” but in the request that he sent in October 1841 to the education minister at that time, Sergey Uvarov, he characterized his novel as a type of Don Quixote in which “satire, didacticism, and storytelling all come together with respect to those called ‘good Jews’ [Hassidim].” The Vilna censor at the time, Jacob Tugendhold, wrote in his recommendation letter to the minister that Aksenfeld had in this work “elevated satire to an exquisite thoroughness.” The publishers in Vilna, however, argued in their letter to the minister that Aksenfeld came out publicly in his book “with obscene, lewd, clownish words aimed at the customs of the Hassidim,” and thus they did not want to publish the book. In 1842 Aksenfeld requested permission of the minister to lithograph the work. This he was permitted, but he did not make use of it; whether because of technical difficulties or because of a dearth of monetary means is unknown. He repeated his applications to the highest governmental authorities several times over the course of fifty years, but all to no avail. In 1860 and 1861, he even requested of the governor of Odessa permission to open his own publishing house in Odessa, but this was also turned down. Thus, his works remained in manuscript and were, as was the practice among Jews at the time, distributed in handwritten copies made by other maskilim. Only two of his shorter works, the novel Dos shterntikhl (The headband) and the drama Der ershter yidisher rekrut (The first Jewish recruit), succeeded in seeing printed in Leipzig in 1861. He was then already nearly seventy-five years of age. In 1862 the ban (or “monopoly”) on Yiddish-language publishing in Russia was repealed, but Aksenfeld was already, apparently, weary and possibly without money to undertake on his own publication of his writings. In the same year of 1862, he wrote a letter to Avrom Ber Gotlober with a request to find a publisher for his work (the letter, together with the “list of all writings,” was later discovered by Yisroel Tsinberg in Gotlober’s archive). In 1864 a group of Odessa Jewish community leaders and authors, among them such important figures as Yoysef Rabinovitsh and Dr. Leo Pinsker, turned to the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment in St. Petersburg and asked if it would publish Aksenfeld’s works, but—“because of the regulations”—its answer was: “the Society has the right to publish writings only in Hebrew or Russian, but not in zhargon [i.e., Yiddish].” In that year of 1864, Aksenfeld and his wife departed from Odessa and moved to Paris, where one of their three successful sons (of his second wife), Avgust or Aleksander, was a well-known doctor, professor in the Sorbonne, and author of many medical works (he also translated into French several of his father’s works). Another son, Henrik, was a painter. In the summer of 1866, Aksenfeld passed away in Paris.
In 1869 someone with the name Sde announced in the pages of Kol mevaser (The herald) that Moyshe Zhvif, Aba Feldman, and Gedalye Eynemer were engaged in publishing Aksenfeld’s works. This very group in 1867 had actually published his two-act play, Man un vayb, shvester un brider (Man and wife, sisters and brothers)—and in 1870 his theatrical pieces, Di genarte velt (The cheated public) and Kabtsn-oysher shpil (Pauper-rich man play). In 1872 Aleksander Tsederboym’s periodical, Vestnik russkikh yevreyev (Messenger of Russian Jews), published in St. Petersburg an Aksenfeld story in Russian translation under the title “Za dvumya zaitsami” ([Going] after two rabbits). This is all that was published of Aksenfeld’s writings. Barditshever yarid (Bardichev fair) and Matses bakin (Baking matzoh)—the latter, just as was the case with Seyfer khsidim, not listed in Aksenfeld’s “Listing”—set in type in Odessa just when the pogrom of 1871 broke out; the manuscripts of both works, typeset together, were lost. Only his Fraymar (235 pp.) in manuscript reached Sholem-Aleykhem (see Sholem-Aleykhem’s letter to Gotlober in 1888). In the 1920s and 1930s, when research into the Yiddish language and literature expanded and deepened, Aksenfeld’s role in the development of modern Yiddish literature, especially his impact on Mendele Moykher-Seforim, was powerfully emphasized, and interest in his writings grew. New works of scholarship concerning Aksenfeld’s writings were published in Soviet Russia and Poland. Der ershte yidishe rekrut, in the adaptation of Arn (Aaron) Kushnirov, was staged in the early 1930s in Yiddish theaters in Soviet Russia, Poland, and the United States. The Institute of Yiddish Culture in the All-Ukrainian Scientific Academy published in 1931 the first volume of an incomplete edition of Aksenfeld’s under the editorship of Meir Viner (this edition was planned to be in four volumes). In that single volume are studies by Viner and A. Yuditski, reprintings of Der ershte yidisher rekrut and Di genarte velt, and letters from Aksenfeld to Yitskhok Ber Levenzon, A. B. Gotlober, and others. In 1938 the publisher “Emes” in Moscow, also under the editorship of M. Viner, published another volume of Aksenfeld’s writings, which included discourses by M. Viner and A. Margolis, a reprinting of Aksenfeld’s novel Dos shterntikhl and his story Nokh tsvey hozn (After two rabbits) which Lipe Reznik translated back into Yiddish from the Russian translation and had published in Farmest (Challenge) in Kiev (August 1937). In 1971 his two shorter works, Dos shterntikhl and Der ershter yidisher rekrut, were published in Buenos Aires by the Y. Lifshits Fund (283 pp.). The principal sources for Aksenfeld’s biography may be found in the following: A. Tsederboym, obituary in Kol mevaser 26 (1866) and the addition to it in Kol mevaser (1869); A. B. Gotlober, Zikhroynes vegn yidishe shrayber (Memoirs of Yiddish writers), published in Sholem-Aleykhem’s “Yidishe folks-biblyotek” (Jewish people’s library), vol. 1 (Kiev, 1888); Gotlober’s archival materials concerning Aksenfeld, explained and published by Yisroel Tsinberg in Perezhitoe, sbornik posviashchennyi onshchestvennoi i kulturnoi istorii evreev v Rossii (The past, a journal dedicated to the social and cultural history of the Jews in Russia) 4 (1913); state archival documents, published and investigated in Soviet Russia.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with a bibliography through 1926); Nokhum Shtif, Di alte yudishe literatur (Old Yiddish literature) (Kiev, 1929), pp. 72-99; Shoel Ginzburg, in Filologishe shriftn fun yivo (Philological writings from YIVO), vol. 2 (Vilna, 1928), pp. 42-54; Shoel Ginzburg, in Yivo-bleter 2 (1931), reprinted in Historishe verk (Historical works), vol. 1 (New York, 1937); Shoel Borovoy, in Biblyologisher zamlbukh (Bibliological anthology) (Kiev, 1930), pp. 93-103; Zalmen Reyzen, in Algemayne entsiklopedye (General encyclopedia) (Paris, 1937), pp. 237-40 (with a bibliography); Meir Viner, Tsu der geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in 19tn yorhundert (Toward a history of Yiddish literature in the 19th century) (Kiev, 1940); Shoel Borovoy et al., Mendele un zayn tsayt, materyaln tsu der geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in XIX yorhundert (Mendele and his times, materials toward a history of Yiddish literature in the 19th century) (Moscow, 1940), pp. 172-96; Dr. Yankev Shatski (Jacob Shatsky), in Yivo-bleter 23 (New York) (1944), pp. 134-37; Shmuel Niger, Dertseylers un romanistn (Storytellers and novelists), vol. 1 (New York, 1946), pp. 52-60; Shmuel Lastik (Salomon Łastik), Di yidishe literatur biz di klasiker (Yiddish literature until the classic writers) (Warsaw, 1950), pp. 160-75; Bal-Makhshoves, Geklibene verk (Collected writings) (New York, 1953), pp. 92-94.