Thursday 8 December 2016


YAKNEHOZ (November 5, 1858-March 30, 1927)

            The pen name of Shaye-Nisn Hacohen Goldberg, he was a prose writer born in the village of Stral'bovshchina, along the upper reaches of the Neman River, Minsk district, where his father, the son of a rabbi, was a settler. His family later moved to the nearby town of Mahil'na, where he father worked as an elementary school teacher. There was such poverty in his household that they could not afford to buy paper and ink, and as a child he would write with a piece of coal on wood chips and leaflets; he later made his own ink from soot. Until age ten he studied in religious elementary school, was proficient in Tanakh, wrote poetry and florid prose in Hebrew, and later studied Talmud with his father in the synagogue study hall. At age thirteen they moved to the town of Kapyl', and from there his path in life took him to Nyasvizh (Nesvyžius), Uzda, and Minsk where he studied in yeshivas, resided with local families (“ate days”), and was a proofreader of Torah scrolls. In the butchers’ circle in Minsk, he became acquainted with the writer Shmurl-Leyb Tsitron, and with his recommendation he began (1878) to write feature pieces in Hebrew and in Yiddish for Rodkinson’s Hakol (The voice) and Kol leam (Call to the people). Traveling about as a Torah scroll proofreader through the towns, he eventually arrived in the late 1880s in Kiev; there he became acquainted with Sholem-Aleykhem, and published in his Yudishe folks-biblyotek (Jewish people’s library) 1 (1888) a long feature: “Briv fun lite keyn amerika” (Letter from Lithuania to America). From Sholem-Aleichem he received his first honorarium—150 rubles (5 kopeks per line), which for that time was an immense sum of money. It was written in a humorous tone, and in a vibrant style it depicted the Jewish town with its petty interests, its pains, and its joys. At this same time he wrote other feature pieces for other Hebrew and Yiddish publication, such as Hamelits (The advocate) and Hayom (Today)—among others, a long story entitled “Ben haḥayim vehametim” (Between life and death), which concerned the Mohilev gangs who kidnapped Jewish children into years of military service—and his success was so great that he was paid further honoraria. Some of his Hebrew stories also appeared as separate imprints, such as Ganav bemaḥteret (Underground thief)—about the life of yeshiva lads—Zot torat hakenaot (This is the Torah of fanatics), Taut sheani ḥozer (The mistake I shall repeat)—about village conflicts between Hassidim and anti-Hassidim (Misnogdim)—Peraḥim novelim (Withered flowers), and Asire hamelekh (Prisoners of the king). From the city of Kiev he moved further south and for a time lived in towns in the provinces of Kiev and Poltava. When it was discovered, though, that he was writing for those “heretical” newspapers, he had no choice but to return in 1889 to Lithuania where he worked as a teacher of Hebrew, first in Koidanov (Dzyarzhynsk) and from 1891 in Minsk where he resided until the end of his life. In both cities, he exercised considerable influence on the young Avrom Reyzen and helped him with his literary tasks. The October Revolution (1917) completely overturned his life: No one had need of his religious teaching nor his Hebrew pen. He published a number of Yiddish items in the Minsk newspaper Oktyabr (October) and in Moscow’s Der emes (The truth), as well as in Frayhayt (Freedom) in New York. He was, though, spiritually very far from these serials and published in them solely out of need. The Byelorussian Soviet government supported him with a personal pension, and in Minsk an edition of his collected writings was assembled for publication. In his last memoiristic notes, which he began publishing in Oktyabr, he returned to the distant past of his youth. When the aged writer sought to assess how much he had written and published over the course of his life, it came to roughly 500 stories and sketches, of which some 250 were in Yiddish, published in such journals as: Yudishes folks-blat (Jewish people’s newspaper), Bleter fun a togbukh (Pages from a diary), Der yud (The Jew), Der fraynd (The friend), Leon Rabinovitsh’s Tog (Day), Di tsayt (The times), Der veg (The way), Der telegraf (The telegraph), Haynt (Today), Unzer lebn (Our life), Di naye velt (The new world), and Moment (Moment), among others. He published some of his last stories, primarily from the life of Hebrew teachers after the October Revolution, in Vilner tog (Vilna day) in 1924.

His books include: Dertseylungen (Stories) (Minsk: Byelorussian Council of People’s Commissars, 1940), 28 pp.; Dertseylungen 2: briv fun lite keyn amerike (Stories 2: Letter from Lithuania to America) (Minsk: Byelorussian Council of People’s Commissars, 1941), 165 pp. “A man who had intimate knowledge of the life and ways of the Jewish shopkeeper, the servant, the man of the masses,” wrote Zalmen Reyzen, “was Yaknehoz when he was extremely popular with the broad circles of Hebrew and Yiddish readers, in particular thanks to his primitive and simple manner of telling a story, although he lacked the art of concentration and frugality.” He died in Minsk.

Source: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1; Evreiskaia entsiklopedya (Jewish encyclopedia), vol. 4; Avrom Reyzen, in Tsukunft (New York) (1919), pp. 581-83; A. Reyzen, in Yidishe literatur (Yiddish literature), a reader (Kiev, 1928); A. Reyzen, Epizodn fun mayn lebn (Episodes from my life), part 1 (Vilna, 1929); A. Reyzen, in Forverts (New York) (April 25, 1931); Sore Reyzen, in Forverts, jubilee publication (April 25, 1921); A-R, in Hadoar (New York) (April 8, 1927); Shmuel Niger and A. Fridkin, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (April 29, 1927); A. Gurshteyn, in Di royte velt (Kharkov) (May-June 1927), p. 161; Gurshteyn, in Yidishe literatur; A. R. Malachi, in Tsukunft (June 1927); Malachi, in Yivo-bleter (New York) 28 (1946); Y. Likhtnboym, Hasipur haivri, antologya (The Hebrew story, an anthology) (Tel Aviv, 1955), pp. 516-17; Sh. Slutski, Avrom Reyzen-biblyografye (Avrom Reyzen bibliography) (New York, 1956), no. 4653.

[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 303; 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. 176-77.]

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