Tuesday 30 July 2019


AVROM-MIKHL SHARKANSKI (September 8, 1869-June 27, 1907)[1]
            He was a poet and playwright, born in Lubave (Liubavas), Suwałki district.  After his father’s death, the family moved to Kalvarye (Kalvarija), near Suwałki.  He attended religious elementary schools and privately studied Russian and German.  He would also have studied at a Kovno yeshiva.  In 1890 he married a former streetwalker who deserted him after arriving in Chicago in 1891.  He moved to New York and there became involved in a Yiddish literary circle.  He lived a Bohemian life, becoming entangled with a second tragic love which reduced him to insanity, and in 1907 he was confined to a house for the mentally ill.  He died in New York.
            He began writing poetry at age sixteen.  He debuted in print with a poem in Idisher kuryer (Jewish courier) in Chicago (February 6, 1891), and soon he began publishing poetry, humorous sketches, and articles in various American Yiddish serials: Arbayter-tsaytung (Workers’ newspaper); Philadelphia’s Di yudishe prese (The Jewish press) (1892-1894), Der folks vekhter (The people’s watchman) (1893), Der folks zhurnal (The people’s journal) (1894), Der literarisher shtrahl (The literary beam [of light]) (1899-1905); New York’s Der amerikaner folks calendar (The American people’s calendar) (1900), Dos tsvantsigste yorhundert (The twentieth century) (1900), Di idishe bihne (The Yiddish stage), and Minikes yohr-bukh (Minike’s yearbook), among others.  One of his poems was published by Der esreg (The citron) in Warsaw.  Together with Philip Krantz, in 1893 he brought out Der shtodt antseyger, monatlikher zhurnal fir literatur, kunst, visenshaft un komerts (The city advertiser, a monthly journal for literature, art, science, and commerce) (New York)—two issues appeared; with Morris Rozenfeld, in 1894 a satirical weekly entitled Der ashmeday (Asmodeus), and in 1900 Der pinkes (The record); and on his own in 1897 the monthly Di naye velt (The new world).  His poetry appeared in: Morris Basin, 500 yor yidishe poezye (500 years of Yiddish poetry) (New York, 1922); Yoyel Entin, Yidishe poetn, hantbukh fun yidisher dikhtung (Yiddish poets, a handbook of Yiddish poetry), part 2 (New York: Jewish National Labor Alliance and Labor Zionist Party, 1927); Nakhmen Mayzil, Amerike in yidishn vort (America in the Yiddish word) (New York, 1955); and Joseph and Eleanor Mlotek, Perl fun yidisher poezye (Pearls of Yiddish poetry) (New York, 1974).
            Sharkanski also wrote plays for the Yiddish stage.  He debuted as a playwright in 1894 with Unsane toykef (A High Holiday hymn), which was a big hit.  Other produced but not published plays would include: R’ yitskhok elkhonen (R. Isaac Elchanen) (1896); Der mishpat (The judgment) (1901), and Yizker (Commemoration of the dead), Iev (Job), Moyred bemalkhes (Rebel in the kingdom), and Khavtseles hasharon, oder di roze fun Sharon (The rose of Sharon)—all 1904.  The last five of these all failed, and this estranged him from the theater.  His published plays included: R’ zelmele, oder toyre iz di beste skhoyre, komedye in fir akten (R. Zelmele or Torah is the best merchandise, a comedy in four acts) (New York, 1900), 34 pp.; Kol nidre, oder di geheyme iden fun madrid (Kol Nidre, or the secret Jews of Madrid), “historical operetta in four acts” (Warsaw: Jewish Theatrical Library, no. 3, 1907), 40 pp.—which had extraordinary success and was later produced on numerous Yiddish stages throughout the Jewish world; Khofni un pinkes, oder degel makhne yude (Ḥofni and Pinḥas, or the banner of the camp of Judah). “a melodrama in four acts” (Warsaw: Jewish Theatrical Library, no. 12, 1907), 48 pp., later edition (Warsaw, 1938).  Sharkanski later published such books as: Idishe nigunim, 1890-1895 (Jewish melodies, 1890-1895) (New York: A. H. Rozenberg, 1895), 62 pp.; A shpittsel fon a purim-shpiler, und nokh andere ertsehlungen, vitsen, anekdoten…und poezye fun berihmte shrayber (A practical joke of a Purim play actor, and other stories, jokes, anecdotes,…and poetry by well-known writers) (New York: Y. Katsenelebogen, 1899), 32 pp.; Goles-lieder, a zamlung fun lieder, bilder un baladen fun yohr 1889 biz 1905 (Poems of the diaspora, a collection of poetry, images, and ballads from the year 1889 until 1905) (New York, 1911), 96 pp.; Di naye amerikanishe hagode (The new American Haggadah) (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., n.d.), 32 pp., reprint (1927); Di froyen hendler, oder a bestye in menshen-geshtalt, a roman, a vahre bild fun leben in eyrope un amerika (The merchant in women, or a beast in human form, a novel, a true picture of life in Europe and America) (New York, n.d.); R’ amnen, bal unsane toykef (R. Amnon, master of Utekane tokef), three songs from the play Unsane toykef (New York, n.d.), 3 pp.
            B. Gorin writes of Sharkanski’s two best plays (Unsane toykef and Kol nidre) that: “they excel in that they are Yiddish, not just in name but also in content, and that they had a beginning, a middle, and end, although the characters show little life.”  Concerning Sharkanski’s poetry, Zalmen Reyzen notes: “He was especially good at poetry, in which one could see his truly lyrical talent.  He wrote in a consistent rhythm and light style, some of them possessing an authentic poetic tone and often permeated by pleasant, heartfelt humor, although in form one often feels the influence of Morris Rozenfeld.”  In her book, Kafka and the Yiddish Theater: Its Impact on His Work (Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin press, 1971), Evelyn Torton Beck comments that Sharkanski as well as Moyshe Rikhter had a major influence on Kafka in bringing him closer to Yiddish writings.

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 4; Zalmen Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 4 (New York, 1963); B. Gorin, Di geshikhte fun idishn teater, tsvey toyzent yor teater bay idn (The history of Jewish theater: 2000 years of theater among the Jews), vol. 2 (New York, 1923), pp. 130, 275; Elye (Elias) Shulman, Geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in amerike, 1870-1900 (History of Yiddish literature in America, 1870-1900) (New York, 1943), pp. 157-66; Yoysef Khaykin, Yidishe bleter in amerike, a tsushteyer tsu der 75-yoriker geshikhte fun der yidisher prese in di fareynikte shtatn un kanade (Yiddish letters in America, a contribution to the seventy-five year history of the Yiddish press in the United States and Canada) (New York, 1946), pp. 88, 208; Roza Shomen-Btashelis, Vi ikh hob zey gekent, portretn fun bavuste idishe perzenlekhkeytn (How I knew them, portraits of well-known Jewish personalities) (Los Angeles, 1955); Yeshurin archive, YIVO (New York); American Jewish Yearbook (1908).
Yekhezkl Lifshits

[1] Zalmen Reyzen offers several versions of the year of Sharkanski’s birth; the year he provides for Sharkanski’s death is also incorrect.

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