YANKEV FIKHMAN (YAAKOV, JACOB FICHMAN) (November 25, 1881-May 18, 1958)
He was born in Belz (Bălți), Bessarabia. His father Elye, a simple Jew, made a living by producing sheep’s milk cheese. Fikhman’s Jewish education did not go beyond Torah with Rashi’s commentary and a smattering of Talmud. Already from his early youth, he was reading a variety of storybooks and poetry from the generation of the Jewish Enlightenment writers. Life in a small town was too crowded for him, and he left Belz and roamed about in the areas of Kherson and Podolia, searching for a footing in all manner of work and jobs: journeyman baker, helping out as an assistant in a shop, testing out to be a waiter, a coachman, a porter, and for a certain period of time he was an attendant to a traveling organ-grinder. He also found the time to learn Russian and German and acquainted himself with a series of books from world literature. He attempted at one point to compose a poem by himself. At age fourteen he reached Kishinev with the determination to study in a systematic manner. In the Bessarabian capital, he had to take up teaching, although he still threw himself into the study of history and culture. He particularly became very familiar with Russian literature. His first works (including his translation of a poem by Lermontov) were published in Avrom-Mortkhe Pyurko’s children’s magazine Gan shaashuim (Garden of delights). In 1901 he came to Odessa. He had fallen under the influence at this time of Ḥ. N. Bialik. The first lengthy series of his poetry nonetheless appeared in the second center of Hebrew creation—in Warsaw. Dovid Frishman published his poems in Hador (The generation), and Sh. L. Gordon published his children’s verse in Olam katan (Small world). Fikhman moved in 1903 to Warsaw, and there he was heartily welcomed: “Warsaw opened its gates, called out for freedom.” He was impressed there by the “sparkling feuilletons, the rapidity of reception, and the speed of orientation.” Jewish Warsaw was full of literary activity and accomplishment, with book publishers and Hebrew newspapers and journals. He was soon lured to be a regular contributor to Hatsfira (The siren). In 1905 the revolution erupted in Russia, and the Tsarist authorities shut down all at once all social and literary activities. Fikhman was forced to return to Bessarabia. He settled in Kishinev and took up teaching there. Then, the second pogrom (the first had transpired in 1903) broke out in Kishinev, and he moved to the nearby town of Lyeve (Leova). Living there was Yude Shteynberg, already at the time a well-known writer. Fikhman spent three years in Leova. It was from there that he began his first association with Y. Ḥ. Brenner, then living in London, England, and editing the monthly Hameorer (The awakening). Fikhman later prepared for publication works by Yude Shteynberg, Mortkhe-Arn Gintsburg, Hillel Tsaytlin, and Konstantin Abe Shpiro (Warsaw, 1911), Naḥum Sokolov (1935), and Goldenberg (1946), among others. He provided each of these publications with a comprehensive preface. Concerning Fikhman’s criticism, Shmuel Niger wrote: “Through the half-opened door of his own world, he opens wide for us that world. His criticism, his essays, as well as his poems in a brightly illuminated landscape.” In 1910 he attended pedagogical courses in Grodno. He was later in Warsaw, and at the suggestion of Ben-Avigdor, he began to work in publishing books from his [Ben-Avigdor’s] “Groyse biblyotek” (Great Library). In 1912 he made aliya for the first time to the land of Israel at the invitation of the local teachers’ union to undertaking editorial duties of the monthly youth journal Moledet (Homeland), earlier edited by Sh. Ben-Tsiyon. At this time there appeared in print his nature poems, which sang of the beauty of the Israeli landscape. Such poetry with Israeli motifs—especially the cycles “Yehuda” (Judea), “Yerushalaim” (Jerusalem), “Basharon” (On the Sharon plain), and “Rut” (Ruth)—belong to his essential work. The same is true of his poems from earlier periods, when he painted the Bessarabian landscape with such precision, he was equally here a master of quiet and restrained lyricism. In 1914 he traveled to Europe, and the outbreak of WWI found him in Berlin, Germany. He had earlier contemplated publishing a monthly journal there. Because of his suddenly changed circumstances, he had no choice but to slip across the border, and he was able to reach Odessa. Already there at the time were Bialik and Y. Ḥ. Ravnitski. Fikhman became editor of their press, “Moriya” (Moriah). He later moved to Moscow, where he became literary editor of Shtibl’s publishing house. He wrote there a series of historical poems on biblical themes and longer prose works on the same topics. Fikhman’s first essay collection of criticism, Bavuot (Reflections), was published by Moriya. Included in it were his essays concerning Job, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), Esther, Abraham Mapu, Yehuda Leyb Gordon, and Konstantin Abe Shpiro. When the war ended, Fikhman returned in 1919 to Israel to take over once again the editorship of Moledet (1920-1927, with a break at one point). He also edited the new, serious, community-literary journal Meuberet (Pregnant) for Zionist youth, and he prepared a string of textbooks for Israeli schools. In 1922 he came to Warsaw, and there he continued his activities with Shtibl publishers which, because of the Bolshevik upheaval in Russia, had moved to the Polish capital city. He was also co-editing the quarterly volume Hatekufa (The epoch). He prepared for publication a Hebrew reader, Lashon vesefer (Language and book) in seven parts, for the study of the Hebrew language and literature in elementary and middle school. The reader was a magnificently edited school anthology, which served as a literary source for the emerging interwar Jewish generation. He also edited the literary supplement of Haatid (The future), organ of the pioneer movement in Poland. In 1924 he was living in Kishinev where he was a member of the editorial board of the Yiddish newspaper Unzer tsayt (Our time). He returned to Israel in 1925. Under his editorship, he again brought out a number of literary publications—journals, anthologies, and the like. He published his own books—poetry and criticism; his Sefer haarets (Book of the land), concerning Israel and its place in the history of the Jewish people with emphasis on the importance of agriculture, with time became one of the foundational texts for preparatory aliya training in agriculture around the world. Until the final days of his life, Fikhman contributed to the literary supplement of the daily newspaper for workers Davar (Word) in Tel Aviv, and was in charge of the column “Shira veproza” (Poetry and prose). Among his Hebrew-language works: Givolim (Stalks) (Warsaw, 1913), 143 pp.; Bavuot (Odessa, 1918/1919), 143 pp.; Arava, shire yeladim (Wilderness, children’s poems) (Frankfurt, 1922), 83 pp.; Ḥayim naḥman byalik, halakha veagada (Ḥaim Naḥman Bialik, Jewish law and homiletics) (Tel Aviv: Devir, 1932/1933), 22 pp.; Ḥayim naḥman byalik, ḥayav umaasaṿ (Ḥaim Naḥman Bialik, his life and work) (Tel Aviv, 1933), 46 pp.; Yeme shemesh, poimot (Days of sun, poems) (Tel Aviv, 1934), 222 pp.; Al hayam, sipurim (By the sea, stories) (Tel Aviv, 1934), 127 pp.; Tselalim al sadot, shirim (Shadows on fields, poems) (Tel Aviv, 1935), 262 pp.; Yaktan betel aviv, sipur (Yaktan in Tel Aviv, a story) (Tel Aviv, 1935), 112 pp.; Anshe beshura, sheva masot (Ordinary people, seven essays) (Tel Aviv, Mosad Bialik, 1938), 319 pp.; Ayelet haemek, sipurim (Doe of the valley, stories) (Tel Aviv, 1941/1942; 1966 rpt.), 178 pp.; Aviv beshomron (Spring in Shomron) (Tel Aviv, 1943), 66 pp.; Yosi bagalil, sipurim (Yosi of the Galilee, stories) (Tel Aviv, 1943/1944), 207 pp.; Peat sade (Edge of a field) (Tel Aviv, 1944), 239 pp.; Shirat byalik (The poetry of Bialik) (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1944), 464 pp.; Demuyot kedumim (Figures from antiquity) (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1948), 359 pp.; Amat habinyan (The builder’s cubit) (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1951), 518 pp.; Bevdet hayotser (In the workshop) (Tel Aviv, 1951); Bene hador (A generation: storytellers, poets, people) (Tel Aviv: Am oved, 1952), 360 pp.; Afule hahaskala, avraham mapu, yehuda leyb gordon, perets smolenskin (Champions of the [Jewish] Enlightenment: Avraham Mapu, Yehuda Leyb Gordon, Perets Smolenskin) (Tel Aviv: Tverski, 1952), 282 pp.; Ruḥot menagnot (Winds playing) (Jerusalem, 1952), 402 pp.; Arugot (Garden beds) (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1954), 399 pp. He translated into Hebrew works by Goethe, Heine, Bunin, Herzl, Anatole France, F. Yakubson, Hesse, and others. He was a bilingual but mainly a Hebrew writer. In Yiddish he wrote rarely and little. Almost all of his Yiddish works were collected in Regnboygn, zikhroynes, eseyen un lider (Rainbow, memoirs, essays, and poems) (Buenos Aires, 1953), 348 pp., edited by Yankev Botoshanski and Y. L. Gruzman, a volume which his fellow Bessarabians presented to him on his seventieth birthday. The book includes a small number of poems, essays, travel narratives, and several short pieces in other genres. In 1908 he published poetry, articles, and essays in Dos yidishe folk (The Jewish people) in Vilna, and he compiled the first anthology of Yiddish poetry, Di yudishe muze (The Yiddish muse) (Warsaw: Velt biblyotek, 1911), 240 pp. In 1913 there was published Fikhman’s reader for Yiddish language and literature, Far shul un folk, khrestomatye, bashtimt far geveynlekhe un ovnt-shuln (For school and the people, a reader, designated for regular and evening schools) (Warsaw: A Gitlin), 203 pp. He published poems in: Yud (Jew) and Yidishe velt (Jewish world), and his extraordinary children’s poetry in Yiddish appeared in book form in Vos der kval zingt (What the source sings) (Kiev, 1918). A special edition of his children’s booklet was called Shabes in vald (Sabbath in the woods) (Kiev, 1918; Warsaw: Kultur lige, 1924), 15 pp. In Morris Basin’s Antologye, 500 yor yidishe poezye (Anthology, 500 years of Yiddish poetry) (New York, 1917), three of his poems appear, and in the short biography of him, it notes of him: “the Hebrew-Yiddish poet and critic.” According to Zalmen Reyzen’s Leksikon (Biographical dictionary), Fikhman prepared for publication in Yiddish a partial edition of his writings, and his book on the poetry of the Bible had already gone to press. At different times, his essays and criticism were published in Yiddish in: Bikher-velt (Book world), Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves) in Warsaw, and in other anthologies and collections, mainly in Warsaw, Odessa, and Bessarabia. In 1930 a pamphlet of his was published in Yiddish: Erets yisroel un dos yudishe kind, a vort tsu unzer ertsihungs-frage (The land of Israel and the Jewish child, a word on our educational problem) (Warsaw: Youth division, Jewish National Fund), 16 pp. Living in Israel, Fikhman remained a devoted friend of the Yiddish language, its literature, and its writers. Together with Bialik he came out sharply opposed to “Gedud megine hasafa” (Legion of defenders of the [Hebrew] language), the militant opponents of Yiddish. He enthusiastically responded to the initiative on the part of the “Histadrut haovdim” (Federation of labor) to publish a quarterly periodical in Yiddish entitled Di goldene keyt (The golden chain), and his essay in its first number (Winter 1949) spoke of his own ties to the Yiddish language: “Even today, when Hebrew as a vernacular possesses thousands of living sources, when we have the honor of being able to hear Hebrew from the sweet mouths of young Jewish children, we still very much need the influx and influence of Yiddish—from its generations of cultivated melodiousness and graphicness which carries with it such an abundance of Hebrew creativeness and our great poetry.” To stimulate Yiddish and Hebrew literary work throughout all Jewish communities around the world, the Association of Bessarabian Jews established in 1964 a literary prize in Fikhman’s name; it is awarded each year to writers who compose in Yiddish and Hebrew. “He was a poet in the tradition of the French lyrical poets,” noted Froym Oyerbakh, “whom he loved dearly. However, to the French poetic tradition, he added the Jewish piety and light touch of the Bessarabian steppe. The combination gave form to his poetry, with the addition of a mood that shuddered to its depths with graceful ease. His poetry does not incite, does not demand, does not argue, but in pastel colors it paints and with thin features it shivers in the reader’s sensibility.” “Yankev Fikhman,” wrote Meylekh Ravitsh, “he was a poet and literary critic, mainly of Hebrew [literature], but his literary essays were not criticism in the ordinary sense of the word. He was a builder of bridges between hearts, the great heart of the poet and the heart of the reader. Although quantitatively Yankev Fikhman belonged mainly to Hebrew literature—qualitatively, he belonged to both of our languages: one literature. His poetry and essays in Yiddish were of the finest quality, an integral part of Yiddish literature.” “We are with Yankev Fikhman before a world,” noted Yoysef Likhtenboym, “whose mystical beauty he captured as something absolute; as a spiritual harmony was manifest in one and only one image. In other words, his was a poetry which obeyed a single will—the will of the artist. A refined atmosphere predominates here, a harmony of thought and feeling. The language of this atmosphere hovers continually between vision and concrete image, employing examples from the Roman world, in which painting, relief, and music combine as one.” “If Fikhman…enriched Hebrew literature with a full storehouse,” wrote Moyshe Shtarkman, “he gave to Yiddish literature only a measure of his creative copiousness. This Yiddish measure, however small in quantity, was artistically rich in quality. His Yiddish poetry and essays have artistic attributes of Fikhman’s Hebrew…. He edited the first anthology of Yiddish poetry, Di yudishe muze, and the textbook, Far shul un folk, which appeared shortly before WWI. When Yiddish children’s literature was still in diapers, Fikhman brought it artistic gifts of poetry and prose…. His works for children in Yiddish in book form include: Shabes in vald and Vos der kval zingt (Kiev, 1918). Fikhman also enriched Hebrew with the beauty of Yiddish works through translations which he published in volumes he edited or to which he contributed…. Fikhman’s introduction to the anthology Di yudishe muze was one of his very first efforts to give an aesthetic appreciation to the Yiddish lyric and to its development.” He died in Tel Aviv.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 3; Shmuel Niger, in Der fraynd (New York) (November-December 1920); M. Ribalov, in Tsukunft (New York) (February 1923; March 1924); N. Mayzil, Noente un vayte (Near and far), vol. 2 (Vilna, 1926), pp. 164-65; Mayzil, Tsvishn khurbn un oyfboy, bagegenishn, ayndrukn un batrakhtungen, fun a rayze iber eyrope un erets-yisroel (Between destruction and reconstruction, encounters, impressions, and considerations from a trip through Europe and the land of Israel) (New York, 1947), pp. 214 ff; Mayzil, Tsurikblikn un perspektivn (Retrospectives and perspectives) (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1962); Dr. Sh. Bernshteyn, in Tsukunft (January 1927); Y. D. Berkovitsh, in Forverts (New York) (January 25, 1931)—this is also included in his book, Undzere rishoynem, zikhroynes-dertseylungen vegn sholem-aleykhem un zayn dor (Our founding fathers, memoirs and stories of Sholem-Aleichem and his generation) (Tel Aviv: Hamenorah, 1966) and in its Hebrew translation Harishonim kivene adam (The founders as human beings); Y. M. Biderman, in Trybun akademicki (Warsaw) (1932); Mortkhe Yofe, in Tsukunft (August 1942); Y. Y. Sigal, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (May 31, 1942); F. Kon, in Ikuf (Buenos Aires) (March-April 1943); Gitl Mayzil, in Yidishe kultur (New York) (October 1945); A. Epshteyn, in Tsukunft (January 1947); B. Mark, in Yidishe shriftn (Lodz) (March 1949); Y. Korn, Keshenyev, 200 yor yidish lebn in der hoyptshtot fun besarabye (Kishinev, 200 years of life in the capital of Bessarabia) (Buenos Aires, 1950), pp. 272ff; Moyshe Shtarkman, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (May 9, 1952); Y. L. Gruzman, in Keneder odler (July 22, 1952); the foreword to Fikhman, Regnboygn (Rainbow) (Buenos Aires, 1953); Yankev Botoshanski, in Der shpigl (Buenos Aires) (April 1953); Botoshanski, in Di prese (Buenos Aires) (May 21, 1958); Dr. A. Mukdoni, in Tsukunft (November 1953); Yankev Glatshteyn, in Idisher kemfer (January 15, 1954); Glatshteyn, In tokh genumen (In essence) (New York, 1956), p-. 267-73; B. Grobard, in Tsukunft (May-June 1954); Grobard, in Keneder odler (June 27, 1954); M. Ungerfeld, in Keneder odler (August 1, 1956); Y. Abishub, in Letste nayes (Tel Aviv) (May 24, 1957); M. Osherovitsh, in Forverts (New York) (May 24, 1958); Froym Oyerbakh, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (May 24, 1958; February 7, 1960); Oyerbakh, in Svive (New York) (Tevet [= December-January] 1965-1966); Dr. Y. Ustri-Dan, in Di shtime (Mexico City) (May 31, 1958); Meylekh Ravitsh, in Keneder odler (June 9, 1958); Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon (My lexicon), vol. 3 (Montreal, 1958), p. 341; Y. Ivri, in Keneder odler (August 4, 1958); Avraham Shaanan, Milon hasifrut haḥadasha haivrit vehakelalit (Dictionary of modern Hebrew and general literature) (Tel Aviv, 1959), pp. 605-6; H. Kruk, Togbukh fun vilner geto (Diary from the Vilna ghetto) (New York, 1961), pp. 301ff; Chone Shmeruk, comp., Pirsumim yehudiim babrit-hamoatsot, 1917-1961 (Jewish publications in the Soviet Union, 1917-1961) (Jerusalem, 1962); L. Shpizman, Geshtaltn (Images) (Buenos Aires, 1962), pp. 143-47; Yehoshua A. Gilboa, Hebreishe bikher-shank (Hebrew book closet) (Tel Aviv, 1965); Yefim Yeshurin, 100 yor moderne yidishe literatur, biblyografisher tsushteyer (100 years of modern Yiddish literature, bibliographical contribution) (New York, 1966), pp. 112, 192, 247, 541; Getzel Kressel, Leksikon hasifrut haivrit (Handbook of Hebrew literature), vol. 2 (Merḥavya, 1967), bibliography of his Hebrew works; Nurit Govrin, ed., Yaakov fikhman, mivḥar maamre bikoret al yetsirato (Yaakov Fikhman, a selection of critical essays on his writings) (Tel Aviv, 1971), 230 pp., including a bibliography.
Y. M. Biderman
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 441.]