SHIMEN-SHMUEL FRUG (1860-September 22, 1916)
He was born in the village of Bobrovy-Kut, Kherson district, Ukraine. This village was the first Jewish agricultural colony in Russia and was established in the days of Tsar Nicholas I. (In the 1920s, in Soviet times, the village was incorporated into Kalinindorf and was the center of the first Jewish autonomous region in the Soviet Union.) The subsequent national Jewish poet engulfed himself in this healthy Jewish national sensibility, and this became the seedling and the soil for his future poems. He studied in the religious elementary school in the village. Very little was taught there. His only accomplishment there was that he did learn Tanakh and became attached to the Prophets. Later, as a lad of fourteen or fifteen, he taught himself Hebrew grammar, and he spent days and nights with the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos. The familiar fields and the heroic times of the Bible years later became the foundational motifs of Frug’s poetry. For four years, he attended the village Russian school. At age fifteen he was obliged to think about food for his family, because his father was extremely ill. The lad had a talent for writing, and he was sent off to the big city, Kherson, and he submitted to being a scribe for the local crown rabbi. There with the rabbi, he confronted Jewish poverty, the persecuted and suffering, and this revealed to him the muse of a “persecuted people.” He would later become the community spokesman for them.
Frug’s first poetic attempts were in Russian. In 1880 he debuted in print in the Russian Jewish journal Razsvet (Dawn) in St. Petersburg with a pair of poems. For this first outing, he also won the hearts of the editors. They summoned him to St. Petersburg to stay and contribute to their journal. Because of the edict on residential rights, he was registered as a clerk for a lawyer named Varshavski. Years of poetic glory ensued for Frug, and years as well of persecution and great need. Frug became involved in the Bohemian life of the big city. He had to sell his pen to the popular newspapers, and he squandered his talent writing trash. For a certain period of time, he lived next door to Shimen Dubnov. In Dos bukh fun mayn lebn (The book of my life), the great Jewish historian recounts as follows: “Compliments from the critics had a worse effect than a good one on Frug. He was a poet who was in fashion…. He often wrote as a fine versifier and not as an enthusiastic poet. He spun about in a whirlwind of the great world just fine.… And I witnessed how in the poet’s soul, which was engrossed in the cares of the world of vanities, the fires of the spirit’s effusion flared up, and how the bridge stones of the capital city made him homesick for his fields of home.” Frug survived yet another personal tragedy. His wife was a Christian. According to the laws of the land, she was not permitted to convert to Judaism. He thus was obliged to live neither with Jews nor with Gentiles. Around 1906 he came down with a kidney disease, and he had to leave St. Petersburg and return South. In 1909 he settled in Odessa, and there he acquired the position of inspector for an insurance company and joined a circle of Odessan wise men. He traveled about the Pale of Settlement and read his works aloud before Jewish audiences. There, his only beloved daughter died at age thirteen, and he was unable to bury her in a Jewish cemetery. Her death and his own frightful illness shortened his own bitter life, and he died at age fifty-six.
Frug was a bilingual poet, Russian and Yiddish. He switched to Yiddish when he was already a well-known Russian poet. Russian was only his language in which to create. In essence he was thoroughly Jewish. He was the first and the last great national Jewish poet in Russian. Not by accident did Ḥaim Nachman Bialik say of him: “As far as I was concerned, Frug did not write in Russian. Reading his Russian poems, I feel in every single word the language of our fathers.” He was a contemporary of the Russian bourgeois poets Nikolai Nekrasov and Semyon Nadson, and his poetic voice reverberates with theirs and with other contemporary Russian poets. Frug, though, was Jewish to the core, in both languages in which he wrote. His poetry had an expressive ethnic face. His poetic performance coincided with the era of pogroms in the year 1881. He became the poet of elegy of a persecuted people. “Frug was atavistic,” noted Dubnov, “as the continuation of our best creators of penitential prayers and lamentations, whose elegiac beauty very few modern historians have appreciated (Zunz, Sachs, Geiger). In him lived the soul of a salḥan [composer of penitential prayers] of the famed Sefardic school of Moshe Ibn Ezra. He was, though, able to exalt the poetic pathos of R. Yehuda Halevi.” At that time, poetry was a social mission, and a poet was the messenger, the voice of the people. Frug was a born lyricist, though he often suppressed in himself his inner lyricism. He wrote very few purely lyrical, subjective poems. He was the flagbearer of a great ethnic idea in poetry: eternal Israel, in both Russian and Yiddish. His poetry in the two languages, however, is not at the same artistic level. He was weaker in Yiddish than in Russian, especially in his first period. The character of his poetry formed the cardinal different language climates of Yiddish and Russian, and the mentality of the divergent reader-public: in Russian, the intellectuals; in Yiddish, the folk masses. Uppermost for him was the idea: the elucidation, the Jewish Enlightenment. And, a cross-section was made of Frug’s poetry, so that one could see quite clearly how authentic lyricism and tendentiousness, poetic immediacy and didacticism match up, and frequently stand side by side, bringing out the contrast between them.
Frug introduced into Russian poetry biblical motifs: poetic translations of the Prophets, tales from the Tanakh, and historical figures. Later, the ethnic quality in his poetry (and in his prose, as well) grew out not so much from the days of the ancients as it did from the Jewish way of life: from the workaday lives of the recent past. Therefore, his poetry in Russian is solemn and passionate, while in Yiddish it is ironic, with a smile, and even more often with a groan. He was the lugubrious cantor of our poetry.
Frug published his first items in Yiddish—poems and feature pieces—in 1888 in Yidisher folksblat (Jewish people’s newspaper), eight years after his debut in Russian. Dr. L. Kantor was drawn to him—the same Kantor who had eight years earlier brought him to St. Petersburg from Kherson. The subsequent years found Frug writing in both languages. In Yiddish he published in Spektor’s Hoyz-fraynd (House friend), in Perets’s Yudishe biblyotek (Jewish library), in Fraynd (Friend), and elsewhere. He belonged to the last generation of Jewish writers who were followers of the Enlightenment. He was at the same time laying the groundwork for modern Yiddish poetry. He came from Russian to Yiddish on the same pathway as Yude-Leyb Gordon came from Hebrew to Yiddish. Y. L. Gordon’s Siḥat ḥulin, lider in der folksshprakh (Ordinary conversation, poems in the vernacular) of 1886 was for Frug the poetry school of Yiddish, or “zhargon” as people called it at that time. For the biblical themes and the bourgeois motifs, Frug initially had no language. He thus arrived with the Enlightenment moral, with the feature piece, and with witticisms and satire—making a little amusement, with a bit of a teaching tone, a little mockery, and some groaning to boot. He, the recognized Russian poet, descended from his St. Petersburg “troika” [three-horse-drawn chariot] and installed himself in the workaday “troika” which lacked so much as tails and manes. It was, as he put it in his poem: “The Jewish troika: prayer, repentance, and charity.” This was Frug’s beginning. Later, though, he arrived at genuine poetic mastery in Yiddish. As Dubnov noted: “Frug, who at that time had already been elevated to the Russian Parnassus by the great Russian critics, descended for a while to ‘zhargon.’ Although he began recklessly, in a scattered fashion, he later became all the more serious and profound. A warm tide of the folk soul moved him, animated his language, and sent his lyrical thought soaring. He was still blessed with twenty years of life to ascend in Yiddish to the heights of his Russian lyricism.”
There fell to Frug an opportunity to execute a creation in Yiddish poetry, away from poring over and beginning to knead and form the poem anew in a poetry unknown to modernism. In his poem “Mayn epitafye” (My epitaph), he recounts how he “with all my strength, with my last tooth, bit and tore up zhargon, shackled the beloved language of our mothers, peppered with caesura, salted with rhymes, to make it a little tenderer and rouse up that likable odor of Vilna’s marketplace and Dinaburg’s butcher shops.” Not even once did Frug speak in an unrestrained manner, but this is more resentment than antipathy. He concluded his introductory word to the edition of Yiddish poems (Odessa, 1904) with the words: “The poor, solitary Yiddish poem needs to live and prosper and grow and ring out!”
Frug brought over from Russian a variety of poetic genres, the architectonics of the poem, the tonal verse-system—the entire poetic arsenal, the most complex and refined artistic means without which the modern poet cannot make do. Frug’s achievement for modern Yiddish poetry was colossal. “The best Yiddish authors of verse of his era,” wrote N. B. Minkov, “were primitive craftsmen…without any poetic cultivation or tendentious prose writers in rhymes.” Frug’s influence on Yiddish poetry was, it would seem, much greater than his technical innovations. He expanded the horizons of our poetry, and he introduced historical-romantic and historical-heroic genres of and themes for poetry. He initiated modern ethnic and social motifs, and in this his service to Yiddish poetry was probably greater than his pioneering, technical precision. He was the first to introduce into poetry the fresh air of fields and forests. “In nature,” noted Bal-Makhshoves, “he sensed the great soul of the world, life, which flows in thousands of currents, with one source, from which a healthy people draw life and love of life, the strength to live. And, thus, Frug was the new man in our literature, and hence the tone of his poetic fiddle was so wonderfully new, so wonderfully fresh.” The poetic thread extends from him to Ḥ. N. Bialik and Sh. Tshernikhovski—in Hebrew poetry—and to Yehoash, Mani Leib, and right down to our own day—in Yiddish poetry.
Frug’s selected Russian poems had a motto on the title page: “God destined for me doubly in life—striving for freedom and suffering from slavery.” Striving for freedom and suffering from slavery were for Frug of a national character with a specific social hue. Freedom meant for him national liberation, the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel; slavery meant the diaspora, the sufferings of the “persecuted people.” At the time of the Russian Revolution in 1905, he wrote that the Jews should not allow themselves to be seduced by “bells of freedoms,” because these same bells that ring out liberation also call for striking the Jews. Freedom was Zion. The Jewish people could be redeemed from slavery only on their own land. His book of poetry in Russian was titled Sionidy (Poems of Zion), and he also brought out a book in Yiddish called Tsien-lider (Poems of Zion). In Dubnov’s words: “According to his moods, Frug was a Zionist much earlier that the movement in its name developed. His well-known ‘March of Zion’ sounded from far off at the cradle of Ḥibat-Tsiyon (Love of Zion). A child from a Jewish village, from the first step of his poetic activity, he dreamt of physically healthy Jews fixed to the soil; and brought up with the Tanakh and permeated by its beauty, he dreamt ceaselessly of the holy cradle of eternal glory.”
Frug’s poetry contains no great number of poems on social topics. And although in some of them, one senses a didactic tone, their fundamental tone is so genuinely of the people, so honest and naïve, that the more honest the poetic wine, all the stronger the taste. His ballad “Dem shamuses tokhter” (The synagogue beadle’s daughter) is a poetic pearl. “Der kos” (The goblet), “Lid fun der arbet” (A song about work), and “Di fon” (The banner) can be included in anthologies and readers even today.
Frug’s poetry—the Russian and even more the Yiddish—were sung among the people, especially “Zamd un shtern” (Sand and stars) and “Lid fun der arbet,” among others. A number of his feature pieces retain a permanent value. He also demonstrates here a pioneering quality and a high level of attainment. In addition, he brilliantly translated into Russian Bialik and Ravnitski’s Yiddish tales (from the Talmud and Midrashim) in four parts (1900). Frug was among the first to translate Perets into Russian. He also did editorial work. Together with the agronomist M. Veler, he edited the Land-arbeter (Worker on the land), a calendar for colonists and gardeners: first yearbook (Vilna, 1901), 247 pp. He was also the editor of the Russian editions of: Sholem Ash, Razskazy (Stories), 3 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1908-1909); and Y. L. Perets, Razskazy un skazki (Stories and tales) (St. Petersburg, 1909). Frug’s work was represented in numerous anthologies and readers (in Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, and other languages). His own work was published in translation in Hebrew, Polish, English, and other languages as well.
Schematically, Frug’s very first collaboration in Yiddish appeared as follows in: Baylage tsum yudishn folks-blat (Supplement to Jewish People’s Newspaper) 3 (1988) (at the time, Dr. Y. L. Kantor had already assumed the editorship of Yudishe folks-blat [Jewish people’s newspaper] from A. Tsederboym) in which Frug’s first Yiddish story, “A khosn” (A bridegroom), was published, and the editorial board remarked: “We are delighted to see that the widely recognized Russian poet Frug is devoting his pen to our vernacular as well.” That same year, Frug published in the same organ a large number of poems and feature pieces. He often filled out entire issues of the Baylage (Supplement). In issue 42, Frug published what appears to be his first original Yiddish poem in blank verse, “Al tiftekh pe lesotn” (Don’t open your mouth to the devil): “An allegory with such fine rhythm which was Frug’s most important accomplishment for Yiddish poetry,” note Zalmen Reyzen. His first nature poems (the first of this sort in Yiddish poetry) were published in the Baylage (issue 16). In 1888 he also contributed to: M. Spektor’s Hoyz-fraynd; Sholem-Aleichem’s Yudishe folks-biblyotek (Jewish people’s library); the collection Dos heylike land (The holy land) and other Yiddish publications; in the anthology Yudishe biblyotek 2, he published his “Der bekher” (The wineglass), which Perets translated from Frug’s original Russian. For a period of time, Frug fell silent. In 1896 his first Yiddish book was published: Lider un gedanken (Poems and ideas). He began to compose in Yiddish again when the journal Der yud (The Jew), later Der fraynd (The friend), commenced publication. Frug contributed intensively to this journal. When he moved to Odessa, his name no longer appeared on his Yiddish publications. About 1914 he began to publish in Moment (Moment) his “Zikhroynes” (Memoirs). Only a small portion of them saw the light of day in print, because of the eruption of WWI. His many pseudonyms would include: Ben-Tsvi, Bobrovokutski, S. F., G. S., Slutsheyni Felyotonist, and Yeronim Dobri. Shortly before he departed this world, he set to write a pair of poems in Hebrew—his first and last such poems—entitled “Al eresh dvai” (On one’s deathbed). This was his life’s dream: settling an ethnic debt, departing this world a complete Jew.
His books in Yiddish would include: Ale verk (Collected works), 2 vols. (St. Petersburg: Der fraynd, 1904), vol. 1, 156 pp., vol. 2, 149 pp.; Ale shriftn (Collected writings), 3 vols. (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co.), vol. 1 “Poezye” (Poetry) (1910), 336 pp., vol. 2 “Poezye” (1927), 312 pp.; vol. 3 “Proze un poezye” (Prose and poetry) (1927), 316 pp.—not a complete edition of his work but more complete than Ale verk; Oysgeveylte shriftn, far idishe shulen un heymen, mit der byografye fun frugn un a verterbikhl fun di shverere verter (Selected writings for Jewish schools and homes, with a biography of Frug and a little dictionary of the harder words) (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 192?), 136 pp.; Oysgeveylte shriftn (Buenos Aires, 1960), 212 pp., with an introduction by Sh. Rozhanski. Separately—shorter and pamphlet-length works: Lider un gedanken (Odessa, 1896), 160 pp.; Der nayer rabiner (The new rabbi) (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1909), 18 pp.; Dos shteysel (The mortar) (Kishinev-Vilna, 1913), 32 pp.; Hot rakhmones (Have mercy), music by H. Levkovitsh (New York, 1915), 5 pp. (folio); Zamd un shtern, music by A. Bernshteyn (New York, 1916), 5 pp. (folio); and Lid fun der arbet, music by Yankev Vaynshtok (New York, 1917), 5 pp. (folio); among others.
In Hebrew: Yaakov Kaplan, trans., Shire frug (The poems of Frug), with a preface by Ruvn Brainin (Warsaw: Tushiya, 1898), 382 pp., another edition of this work appeared in 1913/1914 without the translator’s name. A subsequent translation by A. Levinson, Sh. sh. frug (Sh. Sh. Frug), appeared in 1940/1941; and Y. Spivak, trans., Sipurim (Stories) (Tel Aviv: Amiḥai, 1955), 141 pp.
In Russian (original works): Stikhotvorenia (Poems) (St. Petersburg, 1885, 1890, 1897); Dumy i pecni (Thoughts and songs) (St. Petersburg, 1887, 1890, 1897); Vstrechi i vpechatlenia (Encounters and impressions) (1898); Eskizy i skazki iz evreiskogo byta (Sketches and tales from the Jewish way of life) (St. Petersburg, 1898); Sionidy (St. Petersburg, 1901); Poemy i stikhi (Poetry) (Shanghai, 1943), 100 pp. Frug’s collected Russian poetry was published in 1905—six volumes and an improved edition appeared in 1912.
In English translation, we have: The Undying Fire (New York, 1938), 16 pp.
“What Frug did in Russian,” wrote M. Y. Berditshevski, “I do not know. But I do happen to know about his Yiddish poems. It seems to me that they would make a genuinely great impression, if there were only a quarter of them. One reads a poem by Frug and another, and one hears in them the voice of living Jews. But, if one reads more and more, it seems as though they are liturgical hymns from a holiday prayer book. These are not poems, and neither are these songs of a people; for they are prayers, true prayers from a prayer book, and as a simple Jew says his prayers and doesn’t understand them, it would be the same as praying with the words of Frug. I believe this to be true. And if Frug achieved only this much, then let his memory be for a blessing!”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 3, with a bibliography; Bal-Makhshoves, Geklibene shriftn (Collected writings), vol. 1 (Vilna, 1911), pp. 123-30; Bal-Makhshoves, in Tsukunft (New York) (March 1922); Moyshe Olgin, in Tsukunft (February 1915); Olgin, in Yidishe literatur (Kiev, 1928); Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (May 1922); Niger, Bleter geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur (Pages of history from Yiddish literature) (New York, 1959); Z. F. Finkelshtein, Stürmer des Ghetto (Striker of the ghetto) (Vienna, 1924); Uri Finkel, in Tsaytshrift (Minsk) 1 (1926); Sh. Hurvits, in Der yidisher velt almanakh (The Jewish world almanac) (New York, 1927); Y. Entin, Yidishe poetn, hantbukh fun yidisher dikhtung (Yiddish poets, a handbook of Yiddish poetry) (New York: Jewish National Labor Alliance and Labor Zionist Party, 1927), part 1; M. Gros, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (July 22, 1927); Khayim-Dov Hurvits, in Yidishe literatur (Kiev, 1928), part 1; Kalmen Marmor, in Yidishe literatur (Kiev, 1928); A. Koralnik, Dos bukh fun vortslen (The book of roots) (Warsaw, 1928); Shimen Dubnov, in Literarishe bleter (December 28, 1928); Dubnov, in Tog (New York) (October 16, 1932; November 26, 1932; December 25, 1932); Dubnov, in Fun “zhargon” tsu yidish un andere artiklen, literarishe zikhroynes (From “zhargon” to Yiddish and other articles, literary memoirs) (Vilna, 1929), pp. 143-77; Dubnov, Dos bukh fun mayn lebn, zikhroynes un rayoynes (The book of my life, memoirs and thoughts) (New York-Buenos Aires: Kultur-kongres, 1962), pp. 179-81, 188, 278-79; M. Shalit, Lukhes in undzer literatur (Calendars in our literature) (Vilna: Alt-nay, 1929); H. D. Nomberg, Mentshn un verk (People and their writings) (Warsaw, 1930); Y. D. Berkovitsh, in Forverts (New York) (March 1, 1931); Avrom Reyzen, in Bodn (New York) (autumn, 1935); Yankev Glatshteyn, In tokh genumen (In essence) (New York, 1947); Glatshteyn, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (January 22, 1960; October 16, 1966); Glatshteyn, in Idisher kemfer (New York) (October 30, 1966); Y. Shatski, in Di prese (Buenos Aires) (September 23, 1953); Y. Rodak, Kunst un kinstler (Art and artists) (New York, 1955); L. Kobrin, Mayne fuftsik yor in amerike (My fifty years in America) (Buenos Aires, 1955); Yosef Heftman, Am veadam (Nation and man) (Tel Aviv, 1956); B. Y. Byalostitski, Kholem in vor, eseyen (Dream in reality, essays) (New York, 1956); A. Dimov, in Tsukunft (April 1957); A. Levinson, Ketavim (Writings) (Tel Aviv, 1958/1959); L. Faynberg, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (November 8, 1959); Faynberg, in Yidisher bukh almanakh (New York) (November 15, 1959); Faynberg, in Fraye arbeter-shtime (New York) (November 15, 1966; December 1, 1966); Meylekh Ravitsh, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (December 7, 1959); M. Yofe, in Keneder odler (January 1, 1960); Yofe, in Unzer vort (Paris) (January 23, 1960); Shimen frug biblyografye (Bibliography of Shimen Frug) (New York, 1960), 15 pp.; N. Mayzil, in Tsum hundertstn geburtstog fun shimen frug (On the 100th birthday of Shimen Frug), a collection of criticism concerning the poet (New York, 1960); Mayzil, Tsurikblikn un perspektivn (Retrospectives and perspectives) (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1962), see index; Chone Shmeruk, comp., Pirsumim yehudiim babrit-hamoatsot, 1917-1961 (Jewish publications in the Soviet Union, 1917-1961) (Jerusalem, 1961), see index; Y. Rapaport, Zoymen in vint (Seeds in the wind) (Buenos Aires, 1961); Rapaport, in Di yidishe post (Melbourne) (January 13, 1967); Froym Oyerbakh, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (September 22, 1961); Y. Klausner, Behitorer am (Amid the awakening of the people) (Jerusalem, 1962), see index; B. Ts. Kats, Zikhronot (Memoirs) (Tel Aviv, 1963); Moshe Basok, Mivḥar shirat yidish (Selected Yiddish poetry) (Tel Aviv, 1963); L. Yofe, Ketavim (Writings) (Jerusalem, 1964); Kh. Nadel, in Sovetish heymland (Moscow) (March 1965); Shmuel Shapiro, Asher leoram halakhti (Whose light I have followed) (Tel Aviv, 1965/1966), pp. 231-33; M. Hampel, in Idishe tsaytung (Tel Aviv) (September 14, 1966); Hempel, in Hapoal hatsayir (Tel Aviv) (Elul 26 [= September 11], 1966); Ben-Tsien Bruker, in Keneder odler (November 27, 1966); Yoysef Mendelson, in Di naye tsayt (Buenos Aires) (December 2, 1966; December 23, 1966); Sh. D. Zinger, in Yidisher bukh almanakh 24 (1966/1967), pp. 91-96; M. Ungerfeld, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 57 (1966), pp. 229-33; G. Kressel, Leksikon hasifrut haivrit badorot haaḥaronim (Handbook of modern Hebrew literature), vol. 1 (Tel Aviv, 1966/1967), pp. 651-52.