Sunday 25 August 2019


YANKEV SHTERNBERG (April 1890-April 10, 1973)

            He was a poet, essayist, playwright, and theatrical showman, born in Lipkan (Lipcani), Bessarabia [now, Moldova]. He descended from a wealthy, well-heeled family. He attended a “cheder metukan” (improved religious elementary school) and graduated from a five-level high school in Kam"yanets'-Podil's'kyy. In 1914 he settled in Romania, where he began his ramified, intensive literary, theoretical, and socio-cultural activities, first in Czernowitz and later in Bucharest; he established a Yiddish revue theater there, for which he composed musical comedies and variety theater plays and which gained him a name as a talented director (see below). In 1940 when Bessarabia was annexed to the Soviet Union, he became a Soviet citizen and was placed at the head of the Yiddish state theater of the new Moldovan Soviet Republic. Unable to conform to the Soviet theater system, he thus turned completely to literature, principally poetry. During WWII he fled to Soviet Russia, where for many years he sympathized with the regime. In 1948 the regime exiled him to Siberia for seven years. He was rehabilitated and later lived in Kishinev and soon after he settled in Moscow. In his last years he became more ethnically Jewish. He applied for a visa to make aliya to Israel, and the very day that he received permission in 1973, he suffered a heart attack. He died in Moscow.

            He was a man of many talents—he wrote poetry, literary critical essays, and satirical-musical theater pieces, and he directed performances. Shternberg was encouraged to write by both Bialik and Perets. He debuted in print in 1908 with a story in the Odessa newspaper Undzer leben (Our life). He contributed poetry to Avrom Reyzen’s Fraye erd (Free land) (Warsaw: Progres, 1910) and his weekly Dos naye land (The new land) in 1911, Leben un visenshaft (Life and science), and Odessa’s daily newspaper Gut-morgen (Good morning). After moving to Romania, he wrote for a variety of Yiddish, Romanian Jewish, and general Romanian periodicals: Der hamer (The hammer) in Braila (1916), Czernowitz’s Frayhayt (Freedom), Arbeter tsaytung (Workers’ newspaper), Dos naye lebn (The new life), the anthology Kultur (Culture), New York’s Tsayt (Times), and Warsaw’s Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves), among others. He edited: Der veker (The alarm), organ of the Jewish section of the Romanian Socialist Party (Bucharest, 1920), the collection Shoybn (Panes of glass) (Bucharest, 1924), Unzer vort (Our word) (Bucharest, 1925) and Unzer veg (Our way) (Bucharest, May 1926-June 1929); and he co-edited Di vokh (The week) (Bucharest, 1934-1935). Lipcani counted some 1000 Jewish families, but it gave birth to four pillars of Yiddish literature: Yude Shteynberg, Leyzer Shteynberg, Moyshe Altman, and Yankev Shternberg. Bialik crowned the city with the name: “the Bessarabian Olympus.”

In his Soviet period, he published poems and critical essays in: Heymland (Homeland) (1947-1948), Eynikeyt (Unity), Sovetish heymland (Soviet homeland) on whose editorial board he served as a member for several years; Yidishe shriftn (Yiddish writings) and Folks-shtime (Voice of the people) in Warsaw; and Parizer tsaytshrift (Parisian periodical); among others. His poetry appeared in: Yitskhok Paner and Leyzer Frenkel, Naye yidishe dikhtung (Modern Yiddish poetry) (Iași: Jewish cultural circle in Romania, 1947); Charles Dobzynski, Anthologie de la poésie Yiddish, le miroir d’un people (Anthology of Yiddish poetry, the mirror of a people) (Paris: Gallimard, 1971); Joseph Milbauer, Poètes yiddish d’aujourd’hui (Contemporary Yiddish poets) (Brussels: Les Cahiers du journal des poètes, 1936); and Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry (New York: Schocken Books, 1969).

            Of Shternberg’s essays in literary criticism, one should note his treatments of: H. Leivick and Moyshe-Leyb Halpern in Shoybn (March 1936); a long article on Mendele in Heymland 2 (1947); a lengthy introduction to Mendele’s Oysgeveylte shriftn (Selected works) (Bucharest: State Publishers for Literature and Art, 1957); a conversation about criticism in Sovetish heymland 3 (1961), on Dovid Bergelson 4 (1964), on Avrom Reyzen 9 (1966), and on Itzik Manger 6 (1967). He wrote a great deal more and published poetry, as can be seen in only few book-length works: Shtot in profil, lid un grotesk (City in profile, poetry and grotesque) (Bucharest: Di vokh, 1935), 320 pp.; Lid un balade af di karpatn (Songs and ballads of the Carpathians) (Paris: Oyfsnay, 1968), 94 pp.; In krayz fun yorn (geklibene lider, 1915-1970) (At the crossing of years, collected poems, 1915-1970) (Bucharest: Kriteryon, 1970), 484 pp., which was awarded the Fikhman Prize in Israel; Vegn literatur un teater (On literature and theater), critical essays (Tel Aviv: H. Leivick Publishers, 1987), 282 pp.

Thirty-three years passed between his first and second volumes of poetry, and he lived for thirty-three years—with brief interruptions—in Soviet Russia between 1940 and his death, but not a single one of his books was published there. Why remains a mystery. To a questionnaire from Warsaw’s Folks-shtime, he replied (while in Russia): “Four books are sitting on my writing table. We are moving now to empty out our drawers…. I’m working also now on my Antologye fun der rusisher lirik (Anthology of the Russian lyric). I have in hand sixty translations.” Their fate remains unknown. A majority of his collection Lider tsu mayn yidish folk in der valakhay (Poems for my Jewish people in the Vlachs) was lost during the war. In 1967 he published a volume of poetry translated into Hebrew [by Alexander Penn]: Mivhar shirim (Selected poems) (Tel Aviv: Irgun yotsei Lipkani), 232 pp.

            Shternberg’s work in the theater was no less productive than his poetic writings, and perhaps that was one of the reasons for the meager number of volumes of poetry by him. He established in Bucharest a studio theater with a special type of play—local musical comedies interwoven with contemporary social satire. He wrote nine variety theater pieces—known as revistes in Romanian Yiddish—and staged them (1917-1918) in Bucharest: Tsimes (Stew), Bukaresht-yerusholaim (Bucharest-Jerusalem), In mitndrinen (All of a sudden), Grine bleter (Green leaves), Afn boydem a yarid (A fair in the attic), Iks, miks, driks (~Tic, tac, toe), Kukuriku (Cock-a-doodle-doo), Sholem-aleykhem (How do you do), and Hershele ostropoler (Hershele of Ostropol). Six were cowritten with Yankev Botoshanski and three with Moyshe Altman. Over the years 1924-1926, he led the Vilna Troupe while it was in Bucharest. His directorial art found expression in Osip Dymov’s play Yashe muzikant (Yashke the musician), Perets’s Bay nakht afn altn mark (At night in the old marketplace), Sholem-Aleichem’s Oytser (Treasure), Nikolai Gogol’s Khasene (The wedding [original: Zhenit'ba]). He later went on tour with a small company to the larger cities of Eastern Europe. He was the most popular figure in Yiddish theater, poetry, and culture generally in Romania in the 1920s and 1930s.

            “As a lyrical poet,” wrote Zalmen Reyzen, “Shternberg went through several stages. He began with sentimental lyricism and romanticism, painted landscapes of Bessarabian towns and steppes, composed ballads and elegies, and later created a series of symbolic works…[and then] went over to social and urban motifs [until]…his great poem of the expressionist-grotesque, Kolibri (Hummingbird).”

            “Shternberg’s verse,” noted Froym Oyerbakh, “is robust, masterfully constructed, and his language is rich in charming nuances and in the images rooted in the earth.”

            “Yankev Shternberg,” commented Dov Sadan, was “thoroughly accomplished in many realms—lyrical poetry, drama, directing, [and] criticism.”

            “Given his character,” claimed Avrom Kahan, “Shternberg’s work is…realistic, [but] his aspiration is a maximum depiction of authentic life without the necessary synthetic artistic selection that occasion brings the writer to naturalistic photography.”

            “The bitterest of punishments that Shternberg underwrote,” noted Shloyme Bikl, “for stepping aside from his own fin-de-siècle disposition was the artistic harm that his work suffered. Most important here is the damage done to the language of Shternberg’s poetry. The linguistic vessels of a poet with such an individualistic mood as Shternberg could not respond to those motifs of etiquette and social pamphleteering that the poet invested in them.”

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 4; Yankev Botoshanski, Portretn fun yidishe shrayber (Portraits of Yiddish writers) (Warsaw, 1933); Shloyme Bikl, Inzikh un arumzikh, notitsn fun a polemist in kritishe bamerkungen (In and around oneself, notes of a polemicist and critical observations) (Bucharest, 1936), pp. 104-52; Bikl, in Opatoshu-leyvik-zamlbikher 8 (New York, 1952); Yidishe shriftn (Warsaw) 12 (1960); Yitskhok Paner, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 6 (1950), 53 (1965); Avrom Kahan, in Sovetish heymland (Moscow) 4 (1966); Y. Kara, in Di goldene keyt (1970); Yoysef Okrutni, in Tsukunft (New York) (December 1970); Ber Grin, in Morgn frayhayt (New York) (February 16, 1971); Yankev Shternberg, in Yidishe kultur (New York) 5 (1973); Moyshe Laks, Memuaristishe feder-shpritsn (Pen spurts of memoirs) (Bucharest: Kriteryon, 1973); Froym Oyerbakh, Af der vogshol, esey (In the balance, essay), vol. 1 (Tel Aviv, 1975); Mortkhe Altshuler, Yahadut berit-hamoatsot baaspaklarya shel itonut yidish bepolin, bibliyografya 1945-1970 (The Jews of the Soviet Union from the perspective of the Yiddish press in Poland, bibliography) (Jerusalem, 1975), pp. 172-73; Israil Bercovici, Hundert yor yidish teater in rumenye, 1876-1976 (A century of Yiddish theater in Romania, 1876-1976) (Bucharest: Kriteryon, 1976).
Berl Cohen

[Additional information from: 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. 385-86.]

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