REB MORKHELE (MORTKHELE) 1862-January 13, 1917)
The pseudonym of Khayim (Leyzer-Moyshe) Tshemerinski (Hayyim Chemerinsky), he was born in Motele (Motal’, Motol’), Pinsk district, Polesia (Byelorussia). He was the youngest child and the only son. His father, Shmuel-Yitskhok Tshemerinski, was a timber merchant and did business with landowners. His home was outfitted broadly, with bookcases in the parlor filled with both religious and modern secular volumes. His father died when he was thirteen. The children were raised religiously, but they also indulged in the modern era: the daughters were among the first in Motele to study modern Hebrew. Khayim attended religious elementary school, later studying Talmud and commentators on his own. At the same time, he devoured non-religious works: Russian grammars, the writings of Pushkin and Lermontov, and mathematics (of which he was extraordinarily knowledgeable). After marrying he joined his father-in-law in Krivoy Rog, Kherson district, southern Russian, and entered his father-in-law’s business—an iron business—but his temperament and intellect would not allow him satisfaction in the role of a businessman. When he was later sent to Orlov district concerning ore excavation, he came back in tatters with a French book in his hand; he had discovered no ore, but he had mastered French in the meantime. With his six-year-old son, he studied Spencer’s Principles of Sociology. “Why shouldn’t he understand Spencer?” he would retort. “We were preparing him over the years to ‘read.’” In 1900, at age thirty-eight, he set out for Odessa to prepare for a baccalaureate. In Odessa he became a regular visitor in the homes of Yiddish writers, drew close to Zionism, and later switched to territorialism. In 1901 he wrote for Hashiloaḥ (The shiloah) a Hebrew-language article, “Erets yisrael o erets leyisrael” (The land of Israel or the land to Israel), a sharply worded, anti-Palestine intervention, and the editor (Aḥad-Haam) did not publish the article. He then composed another caustic article in Hebrew, entitled “Shuk bashamaim” (A fair in heaven), a satire against all the current Jewish Enlightenment and bourgeois inclinations, and this article, too, was not published. At that time, Reb Morkhele was living through a personal tragedy: his wife left him and took both children, a son and a daughter, and settled with them in Dresden, Germany. He then threw himself entirely into his community work. He became a fierce agitator for territorialism, traveling around through various cities of southern Russia and everywhere with great success. After the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, he became active in Jewish self-defense in Odessa, Akkerman, and Kherson. For a short time in the years 1904-1905, he worked as a teacher of Jewish subject matter in a private school for boys in Kherson. He had a huge influence on Jewish community life in the city. He launched his literary debuted in print in 1903 in Fraynd (Friend) in St. Petersburg with his fable “Di mageyfe-aspe” (The death assemblage), an early adaptation of Krylov’s “Mor zverei” (Death of a beast). He went on to published fables and satirical-humorous poems in Fraynd, in the comedic newspaper Der bezim (The broom), and in Sokolov’s Telegraf (Telegraph). In 1906 he edited in Kiev the daily newpaper Dos yudishe folk (The Jewish people), which had no longevity to speak of. Reb Morkhele also contributed work to the Vilna publications of the Zionist socialists and the Sejmists’ Folksshtime (Voice of the people). He later became a regular writer for Fraynd, in which he placed journalistic and also popular scientific articles, ran a section “Alerley” (Various and sundry), and published translations of Victor Hugo’s Der mentsh vos lakht (The man who laughs [original: L’Homme qui rit]), Bernhard Kellermann’s Der tunel (The tunnel [original: Der Tunnel]), and Stefan Zweig’s Der brenendiker sod (The burning secret [original: Brennendes Geheimnis]) in 1914, among others. He was planning to publish a children’s magazine and in general establish a children’s literature in Yiddish. In 1912 he published in the jubilee supplement of Fraynd his children’s story, “Shloyme hameylekh un der ashmeday” (King Solomon and the Ashmodai), which was published as a separate work in Vilna in 1918 (19 pp.).
Reb Morkhele was seriously devoted to Yiddish philology and assembled materials for a Yiddish grammar, but—as he was leading a wandering life and neglecting his literary and scholarly activities in general—he accomplished much less in this field that he was capable of. In the anthology brought out by the periodical Fraynd on the seventy-fifth birthday of Mendele Moykher-Sforim (in 1910), he published his essay “Yudishe gramatik bay mendele” (Mendele’s Yiddish grammar), and in this newspaper (in 1913) he published a review of Mortkhe Vaynger’s Yidisher sintaksis (Yiddish syntax) (Warsaw, 1913). His most important work in this area, “Di yudishe fonetik” (Yiddish phonetics), with comments by Ber Borokhov, appeared in Der pinkes (The records), “annual of the history of Yiddish literature and language,” edited by Shmuel Niger (Vilna, 1923), pp. 47-71. He had intended to translate the Tanakh into Yiddish, but was unable to find a publisher to subsidize such an undertaking. Sitting in prison for a press trial (as Fraynd editor and thus the responsible party), he translated into Yiddish the High Holidays prayer book—published only partially (under the pseudonym “Ashkenazi”) by the publishing house Yehudiya in Vilna-Warsaw (1913); the remaining, unpublished portions were lost. He also translated for the publishing house “Bikher far ale” (Books for all) the first volume of Ḥ. N. Bialik’s and Y. Ḥ. Rabnitski’s Yidishe agodes (Jewish legends [original: Sefer haagoda]), but the two authors would not allow it to be published—later, it appeared in a reworking by the authors from Moriya publishers. After WWI erupted, and the published Tsentral (Central) discontinued publication of Fraynd (called Dos leben [The life] at this point), Reb Morkhele left Warsaw, lived for a time in St. Petersburg, and he there submitted to the Russian Minister of Finance Nikolai Kutler a project to renovate finances in Russia. He was living in great poverty, until he turned up in Ekaterinoslav and there he happened to meet the Hebrew writer Alter Droyanov, who held a position with a local man of wealth, a coal industrialist named Braslavski. The industrialist also took Reb Morkhele in and gave him a job. And at this job, he evinced phenomenal abilities. Mostly, he went on visits to the coal mines, and when he would arrive in a city the local radical youth were always surrounding him. In the fall of 1916, due to business exigencies he traveled to Kavkaz, but several days later returned deathly ill, spent four months in a hospital in frightening pain (from stomach cancer). His closest friend, A. Sapozhnikov, stayed at his side the entire time he was on his sick bed. Reb Morkhele left to him the rights to his writings—both published and unpublished. On his deathbed Reb Morkhele composed his sole volume of memoirs in Hebrew, Ayarati motele (My hometown Motele)—shortly before he had arranged with Droyanov that each of them should describe their own hometown. The entire time his sickness lasted, Reb Morkhele lay on his back, unable to turn over and therefore had to write with a pencil. In Hebrew he also demonstrated his linguistic brilliance. Sapozhnikov urged him on in his last months, and Reb Morkhele also composed ten Yiddish fables (several of them had already been published and he revived them). Sapozhnikov swore to him that he would publish the fables. But only in 1919, at the time of the second anniversary of Reb Morkhele’s death, was Sapozhnikov able to fulfill his promise. At the time he was a contributor to the publishing house “Visenshaft” (Science) in Ekaterinoslav, and the possibility of publication arose in a desirable manner. This booklet appeared in a pamphlet format, 62 pp. in length, entitled Masholim (Fables). It includes: “Muser a kats” (A cat names Muser [?]), “Der shnorer un elye hanovi” (The beggar and Elijah the prophet), “Notke kapotke,” “Hintishe akhdes” (Canine solidarity), “Di mageyfe-aspe,” “Yosl, zup rosl!” (Yosl, sip the broth!), “Yikhes” (Pedigree), “Klezmer” (Musician), “Meshiekhs tsaytn” (Messianic times), and “Fremde kinder” (Alien children). There was also in this booklet an accompanying word by Sapozhnikov and reminiscences by Yehude Novalovski. In 1920 the same press brought out Reb Morkhele’s Kohen venavi (Priest and prophet), 52 pp. This work was written around 1910 and was to be a biblical opera. At the time, fragments of it were published in Fraynd and in Avrom Reyzen’s Dos naye land (The new land). Ayarati motele—initially published in Reshumot (Records) 2 (pp. 3-124) and in M. Lipson’s Yiddish translation which appeared in Yidishes tageblat (Jewish daily newspaper) in New York (1923)—appeared in a separate edition from Devir publishers in Tel Aviv (1950/1951), 208 pp., with a preface by A. Droyanov and with two pictures, one of the author in 1905 and the other of his mother, Khane Tshemerinski. The majority of what he carelessly penned, though, remained scattered through various and sundry newspapers and periodicals. In his forgetfulness, with him went an inexhaustible treasury of Yiddish. “Reb Morkhele was a man of utter brilliance,” wrote H. D. Nomberg, “a man who lacked rhythm and measurement…. This was the secret of his non-productivity. I know no other person like him, who knows Yiddish, all the possible nuances, all of the most deeply concealed treasures of our language.” “Khayim Tshemerinsky—the genius of the Yiddish language…,” noted Bak-Makhshoves, for “in Tshemerinski we have the first Yiddish fable-poet whom one may boldly compare to the greatest fabulists in the world. All the virtues by means of which these great fabulists excel—such as La Fontaine and Krylov—Tshemerinski possessed to the full extent. First, the folkishness of his language; second, the immense ability to characterize the manners and habits of animals and bird, so that through this image of the animal would shine an ethnic type; third, the fine humor of the people, sprinkled over every line and not infrequently as happily fitting the structure of a sentence as it rhymed; fourth, the higher, more profound, more elevated look at the world which separated him from an ordinary boorish man of the people and made him in a certain sense a guide, a thinker, a philosopher of the people.” “As a philologist,” wrote Zalmen Reyzen, “Reb Morkhele evinced not only a fine sense of the rules of our language, but also a capacity to systematize these very rules, to order and formulate them…. Furthermore, Yiddish grammar animated Reb Morkhele with a rare linguistic strength of a popularizer.”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2; Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 2 (New York, 1934); B. Borokhov, in Pinkes (Vilna, 1912/1913); obituary in American Jewish Yearbook 5678; Shmuel Niger, “Kinder-literatur” (Children’s literature), Der fraynd (New York) (June-July 1921); Niger, “Proze far kinder” (Prose for children), Der fraynd (August 1921; September 1921); A. Gurshteyn, “Sakhaklen fun der mendele-forshung” (Summing up of Mendele research), Tsaytshrift (Minsk) 2-3 (1928); Bal-Makhshoves, Geklibene shriftn (Selected writings), vol. 4 (Warsaw, 1929), pp. 131-35; H. D. Nomberg, Mentshn un verk (People and works) (Warsaw, 1930), pp. 75-77; N. Mayzil, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) 6 (1932); A. Y. Grodzenski, in Tsukunft (New York) (January 1932), pp. 55-56; Grodzenski, in Toyznt yor pinsk (1000 years of Pinsk) (New York, 1941), pp. 321-22; Dr. A. Mukdoni, in Sh. Rozenfeld’s Geklibene shriftn (Selected writings) (New York, 1947), pp. 33-37; Elkhonen Tsaytlin, In a literarisher shtub (In a literary home) (Buenos Aires, 1946), pp. 184-85; A. Droyanov, preface to Ayarati motele (My hometown Motele) (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv, 1950/1951), pp. 5-7; Vladimir Grosman, Amol un haynt (Then and now) (Paris, 1955), p. 23; Kh. Sh. Kazdan, Fun kheyder un shkoles biz tsisho (From religious and secular primary schools to Tsisho) (Mexico City, 1956), see index.
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