LEO VINER (WIENER) (July 27, 1862-1939)
He was born in Bialystok, Russian Poland, to a father who worked as a bookkeeper. He studied at a secular high school in Minsk and in Warsaw. In 1880 he entered Warsaw University. He studied, 1881-1882, at the Berlin Polytechnic. Later that same year, he and his parents immigrated to the United States. He spent 1883-1884 as a teacher of Greek, Latin, and mathematics in Odessa, Missouri. He worked as a teacher (1884-1892) of the same subjects at the University of Kansas City. In 1895 he became an instructor of Slavic languages and literature at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and later a full professor there until 1930. He began his scholarly research by collecting and publishing materials concerning Jewish folklore. In New York and Boston, he assembled with the help of friends—among them, Judah A. Joffe—Yiddish folklore and stories. The collection was mostly published in The American Journal of Philology XIV (1893), pp. 41-67, 452-56, in Baltimore, and in the German journals Mitteilungen zur Jüdischen Volkskunde (Notices of Jewish folklore) and Am Urquell (At the source), among others. Over the years 1893-1904, he published a series of writings on the Yiddish element in the Polish, German, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian languages. He also tried to compile a dictionary of Old Yiddish. In 1899 he published a longer work on the folk poetry of Russian Jewry: “The Popular Poetry of the Russian Jews,” Americana Germanica 2 (1898), pp. 1-26, 33-58. This appeared as well as a separate offprint (58 pp.). This piece consisted of two parts: in the first Viner characterized Yiddish folklore on the basis of his own anthology, and in the second he analyzed the poetry of Jewish wedding entertainers. His chef d’oeuvre was The History of Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1899), 402 pp. and 15 pp., which was comprised of: the history of the Yiddish language, Yiddish folklore, folksongs, and wedding entertainers’ poetry; Yiddish poets before 1880; Yiddish poetry in America; the most important prose writers in Europe since 1817; and the like. At the end of the book, Viner offered a short reader of the works of the Yiddish writers he covered—in Romanized transcription with parallel translation into English. Viner’s literary history has lost none of its scholarly value to this day. Aside from this well-considered research, he published a great deal of philological work on Yiddish in specialized journals in various countries. He compiled in English an anthology of Russian literature, translated from the Russian classics, wrote about the Ladino language of the Jews, and collected (1895) the folksongs of the Sefardic Jews from the Balkans. Viner also knew all the Spanish dialects, as one can see from his articles on Romance philology. Viner also performed the service with Morris Rozenfeld of making the world of European literature known by translating Rozenfeld’s poetry Songs of the Ghetto into English (published together with the Yiddish text in Romanized transcription: Boston, 1898, 115 pp.; second enlarged edition, 1900, 155 pp.). He died in Belmont, Massachusetts.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with a bibliography); A. Gurshteyn, in Tsaytshrift (Minsk) 2-3 (1928); Dr. Y. Shatski, in Yivo-bleter (New York) 15.3 (1940), pp. 247-56, and 28.1 (1946), p. 60; Yankev Glatshteyn, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (November 2, 1956); Shmuel Niger, Bleter geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur (Pages of history from Yiddish literature) (New York, 1959), pp. 283-93; The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 10, p. 514; Norbert Wiener, Ex-prodigy: My Childhood and Youth (New York, 1953); S. Noble, in Jewish Book Annual (New York, 5709 [= 1948-1949]).