ZALKIND-ZALMEN SHNEUR (February 11, 1887 – February 20, 1959)
A Hebrew and Yiddish poet and prose writer, he was born in Shklov (Škłoŭ, Szkłów), Mogilev district. He came from the well-known Hassidic Schneerson family. He received a strict religious education, later studying at the Jewish crown school. At age eight or nine, he began writing Hebrew and Yiddish poetry. At thirteen he set out for Odessa with no means of support, and there Ḥaim Naḥman Bialik warmly received him. There he also became acquainted with Mendele, Lilienblum, and Rabnitski. He studied as an external student, went hungry, and was compelled to travel to Warsaw because he was at odds with his family. He worked there for the Tushiya publishing house, served for a short time as personal secretary for Y. L. Perets, while Dovid Frishman became a close friend. In 1903 he returned to Shklov, and over the years 1904-1906 he lived in Vilna (about which he later wrote in one of most beautiful poems, Vilna). From 1906 he lived in Switzerland, later in Paris, where he studied philosophy, literature, and natural science in university. He spent the years of WWI in Berlin, as a Russian citizen in civil captivity. There he studied medicine. In 1919 he traveled to the United States, soon returned to Berlin, gave up further study, and in 1924 moved to Paris where he remained until 1941; that year he made his way to America under great duress. Several times (1925 and 1936), he tried to settle in the land of Israel, but he did not receive the proper assistance to arrange it, and this experience left in him with a profound bitterness against the leaders of the Jewish settlement and Zionism. In late 1949 he came to Tel Aviv and later did settle in Ramat-Gan. He lived in the state of Israel for six years, for reasons of health traveled to Europe and America, and there met his death in New York. In late November 1960 his body was transported to the old cemetery in Tel Aviv.
Shneur’s principal literary-artistic creative work was in Hebrew poetry, but his main works in prose were in Yiddish. He also wrote poetry in Yiddish, many of them in a folkish tone, some of them actually sung by people, such as: “Margeritkeler” (Daisy basement), “Karshn” (Cherries), and “Friling” (Spring), among others. He debuted in print in 1901 with poems in Mortkhe Spektor’s Yudishe folkstsaytung (Jewish people’s newspaper). In his Vilna years, he frequently wrote for Yiddish serial publications: Der nayer veg (The new way), Dos yudishe folk (The Jewish people) (1906-1907, in which he published his poems: “Fayer” [Fire], “Mayse breyshes” [The story of Creation], “Di frayhayt” [Freedom]; the stories “Nekome” [Revenge], “Af beyde zayten fun dnyester” [On both side of the Dniester], and others), Teater-velt (Theater world) (Warsaw, 1908-1909), Dos naye land (The new land) (New York, 1911), Di yudishe velt (The Jewish world), and Di tribune (The tribune) (Copenhagen, 1916). He was also a regular contributor to Moment (Moment) in Warsaw and Tsukunft (Future) in New York, among others. He served as editor of Shvalben (Swallows) (Warsaw, 1908/1909, in which he also published a poem) and for a short time co-edited Parizer morgenblat (Parisian morning newspaper) (1932). Shneur’s most creative prose era in Yiddish began in 1927, when he became a regular contributor to Forverts (Forward) in New York, and in it he published a series of stories, images, scenes, and bulky novels which from that year were published every week also in Moment, Tsayt (Times) in London, Keneder odler (Canadian eagle) in Montreal, and Idishe tsaytung (Jewish newspaper) in Buenos Aires, among others. In Tog-morgn-zhurnal (Day-morning journal), he published in 1965 his novel Evelin (Evelyn). His work also appeared in: the anthology Dos fraye feld, literarishes zamelbukh (The free domain, a literary collection) (Brooklyn, 1908); Yankev Fikhman, ed., Di yudishe muze (The Yiddish muse) (Warsaw: Velt biblyotek, 1911); Dovid Kasel, ed., Far ovenden un fervaylungen, mustern fun yudisher literatur, fun shatskes biz kobrin (For evenings and entertainment, items from Yiddish literature, from Shatskes to Kobrin) (Warsaw: A. Gitlin, 1918); Morris Basin, ed., 500 yor yidishe poezye (500 years of Yiddish poetry) (New York, 1922); Arye Shamri, ed., Vortslen, antologye fun yidish-shafn in yisroel, poezye un proze (Roots, anthology of Yiddish creative writing in Israel, poetry and prose) (Tel Aviv: Yisroel-bukh, 1966); Shmuel Rozhanski, Di froy in der yidisher poezye (Women in Yiddish poetry) (Buenos Aires, 1966); Perl fun yidisher poezye (Pearls of Yiddish poetry) (Tel Aviv); Joseph Leftwich, ed., The Golden Peacock: An Anthology of Yiddish Poetry (New York, 1961); Leftwich, ed., An Anthology of Modern Yiddish literature (The Hague: Mouton, 1974); Charles Dobzynski, ed., Anthologie de la poésie Yiddish, le miroir d’un people (Anthology of Yiddish poetry, the mirror of a people) (Paris: Gallimard, 1971); and in many Yiddish readers, such as Dos yudishe velt (The Jewish world) (Vilna, 1913). He also wrote memoirs and articles on Jewish writers—on Mendele, Sholem-Aleichem, Bialik, and others. Together with Y. Y. Shvarts, he translated Bialik’s “Vinterlider” (Winter songs) in Dos yudish folk (The Jewish people) 2 (1907). In 1913 he published in Hashiloaḥ (The shiloah) his poem “Yeme habenayim mitkarvim” (The dark ages draw nigh), in which there was a presentiment and prediction of the subsequent dreadful events in Germany, following Hitler’s rise to power, and in 1924 he wrote further “Dvar-ma tame mitraḥesh beashkenaz” (Something unclean is taking place in Ashkenaz).
His writings include: Nekome (Revenge), a story (Vilna: Di velt, 1906), 16 pp.; A toydt, shriften fun a zelbstmerder a tiref (A dead man, writings of a suicide, a crazy man) (Warsaw: Hashaḥar, 1909), 165 pp., later version under the title Ahin, roman (Here, a novel) (Berlin: Yalkut, 1923), 188 pp., Hebrew translation as Lesham in the collection Bametsar (In the straits) (Berlin, 1922/1923); Gezamelte shriften (Collected writings), 3 vols. (Warsaw: Velt-biblyotek, 1909-1911); A matone, poema (A gift, a poem) (Warsaw: Hashaḥar, 1909), 18 pp.; Proza un lieder (Prose and poetry) (Odessa: Binshtok, 1912), 41 pp., second printing (New York, 1918); Gezamelte shriften (New York: Literarisher farlag, 1918), 247 pp.; Fun dem “zeydns” kval (From “grandfather’s” source), about Mendele (Berlin: Klal Farlag, 1922), 64 pp.; Sholem-aleykhems ondeynken (Memories of Sholem-Aleichem) (Berlin: Klal Farlag, 1922), 60 pp.; Shklover idn (Jews of Shklov), novellas (Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1929), 339 pp.; Feter zhome (Uncle Zhome) (Vilna: B. Kletskin, 1930), 317 pp.; Der shklover ger (The Shklov convert [to Judaism]) (Paris: Pariz, 1934), 60 pp.; Ame-ratsim (Ignoramuses), 5 vols.—1. Noyekh pandre (Noah Pandre); 2. Baym dnyeper (By the Dnieper [River]); 3. Tsurik tsu ostrog (Back to Ostrog); 4. Vant (Wall); 5. Pandres antloyfn (Pandre’s escape)—(Vilna: Tomor, 1939), first part appeared (Warsaw (Yoyvl-komitet, 1938); Fertsig yor, lider un poemen, 1903-1944 (Forty years, poetry, 1903-1944) (New York: Jewish National Labor Alliance, 1945), 317 pp.; Keyser un rebe, historisher roman (Kaiser and rabbi, a historical novel), 5 vols. (New York: Tsiko, 1944-1952), several chapters of which under the same title were published in Bamberg (1947), 45 pp.; Di meshumedeste, roman (The baptized Jewess, a novel) (New York: Yoyvl-farlag, 1948), 392 pp.; A tog oylem-haze, roman (A day in this world, a novel) (New York: Yoyvl-farlag, 1948), 532 pp.; Shklover kinder, dertseylungen (Children in Shklov, stories) (New York: Tsiko, 1951), 307 pp.; Der mamzer in zavulek (The bastard in Zavulek) (New York: Der kval, 1957), 327 pp.; Noyekh pandre (Tel Aviv: Nay-velt, 1956-1970), 5 vols. He translated himself the majority of his Yiddish novels into Hebrew: Anshe shklov, Pandre hagibor, and Hagaon veharav. Among his Hebrew-language works: Am shekiat haḥama, shirim, 1900-1906 (At sunset, poetry, 1900-1906) (Warsaw: Tushiya, 1906), 127 pp.; Gesharim (Bridge) (Berlin: Hasefer, 1922), 350 pp.; Ḥezyonot (Vision) (Berlin: Hasefer, 1923), 316 pp.; Vilna (Vilna) (1923); Bametsar (Berlin: Hasefer, 1923), 302 pp.; Pirke yaar (Forest chapters) (New York, 1945), 244 pp.; Kitve z. shneur (Writings of Z. Shneur) (Tel Aviv: Devir, 1959/1960), 438 pp.
Shneur’s numerous works possess enormous dramatic material. Very early, he had penned crude dramatic efforts, and in the early 1920s or even earlier there was staged—according to B. Gorin—a play of his in three acts entitled Gegeniber (Opposite). However, a powerful desire to see his work on the Yiddish or Hebrew stage arose within him in the mid-1930s. He especially favored his Hebrew translation of Y. Y. Zinger’s Yoshe kalb (Yoshe Kalb) that Maurice Schwartz booked with him. Schwartz thought earnestly about dramatizing Keyser un rebe and also negotiated with Shneur over producing his original dramas and his dramatization of Dos gezang fun dnyeper (Song of the Dnieper) which was built on Noyekh pandre and staged, under the direction of Dovid Likht, in the Yiddish Art Theater. Shneur’s play Di varshever gvirim (The wealthy men of Warsaw) was also said to have been produced at the Yiddish Art Theater. His biblical play Yankev un rokhl (Jacob and Rachel) was performed in Ha-Ohel Theatre. In the 1950s Shneur prepared a dramatization and translation into Hebrew of Der mamzer in zavulek, Di meshumedeste, and A tog oylem-haze. He had three completed dramas: Der kop (The head), Der vald (The woods), and Der novi (The prophet), a biblical drama. It was already, though, too late for Shneur to carry out all of these plans.
“In his Yiddish works of the first period,” wrote Zalmen Reyzen, “just as in his Hebrew work, Shneur was the poet of the healthy and strong youth which resonates with his despair and loneliness…. He did not take ordinary and natural topics in his first stories, but exceptional themes and with them made ordinary people tragic or tragicomic figures. The young Shneur was the psychologist of souls, over which only one feeling predominates, one passion…. He later found another poetic expression in his idylls of the shtetl.”
“Shneur’s creative work,” noted Yankev Botoshanski, “breathed with power and with breadth. Breadth for him was much more than depth…. His Yiddish songs offered a certain charm, and they were sung and declaimed, but they were rarely united with Yiddish poetry. They were echoed [mainly] in life…. Shneur received his redress as a Yiddish writer with his ‘tales of Shklov’ (Škłoŭ) which possess originality and freshness. To a certain extent, Z. Shneur changed his tone—there is more description than clamor in these stories, and if it’s clamor, it comes from within, from the heroes themselves…. He also took people [from the shtetl] to which Sholem-Aleichem scarcely touched and to topics as well which were new…. He became the continuation of Sholem-Aleichem. His heroic boors, his Noyekh Pandres, had in themselves something of the bullies of the past.”
“How is Zalmen Shneur’s stetl,” asked Meylekh Ravitsh, “different from the other shtetls?... It is different in its sanguinity of the people there, with their natural human egoism which is neither warranted nor glorified…. Shneur’s shtetl…meditates very little. It survives on God and people, as God wished for it.”
His “personal strength,” wrote Shloyme Bikl, “consisted, it seems to me, in his creation of great figures and never forgetting their realistic vigilance…. Over the broad domain of Shklov Jews, from the Noyekh Pandre saga and the abundant gallery of figures in Keyser un rebe, Zalmen Shneur remained always and thoroughly the long-view, realistic storyteller, who understood how to separate from himself and from us the people created in his imagination, so as to win a place for dramatic maneuvering and so as to bring them closer to us.”
“All the anxiety of a certain kind of person,” stated Yitskhok Varshavski (Bashevis), “all of his illusions and disappointments, shout out from Shneur’s poetry and novels…. There raged within him a vitality which not even the semblance of death could undercut…. Shneur’s tragedy was the tragedy of a person whose soul is torn on one side, the body, and in another…this transpires for Shneur in a grand scope with wild fortitude. Shneur was all at once: Jew and gentile, corpulent and refined, man of form and of formlessness, of order and of chaos. He was a hero, but his evil inclination was also a hero.”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 4; Getzel Kressel, Leksikon hasifrut haivrit (Handbook of Hebrew literature), vol. 2 (Merḥavya, 1967); Meylekh Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon (My lexicon), vol. 3 (Montreal, 1958); B. Gorin, Geshikhte fun yidishn teater (History of Yiddish theater), vol. 2 (New York, 1923), p. 277; See also Yosef Klausner, Yotsrim ubonim (Creators and builders), vol. 2 (Jerusalem, 1928/1929), pp. 147-49; Klausner, Yotsrim ubonim, vol. 3 (1929), pp. 176-77; Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (New York) 3 (1930); Sh. L. Shnayderman, in Brikn (New York) (1934); Talush, Yidishe shrayber (Yiddish writers) (New York, 1953), pp. 93-120; Ber Shnaper, in Tsukunft 8 (1938); Shemarye Gorelik, Eseyen (Essays) (Los Angeles: Farlag Mayrev, 1947), p. 315; Abba Gordin, Denker un dikhter (Thinker and writer) (New York: IKUF, 1949), pp. 112-34; Dov Sadan, Avne boḥan (Touchstones) (Tel Aviv, 1951), pp. 91-95; Sadan, Ben din leḥeshbon (Between law and accounting) (Tel Aviv, 1963); Shmuel Laḥover, in Yad lekore (A hand to the reader) (Tel Aviv) (1951/1952), pp. 110-26, (1952/1953), pp. 196-208 (bibliography); D. A. Fridman, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 11 (1952); Hillel Rogof, Der “gayst” fun forverts (The spirit of the Forverts) (New York, 1954), pp. 243-48; Shmuel Leshtsinski, Literarishe eseyen (Literary essays), vol. 2 (New York, 1955), pp. 62-77; Dovid Eynhorn, in Forverts (New York) (June 3, 1956); Ravitsh, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (July 15, 1957); Shloyme Bikl, Shrayber fun mayn dor (Writers of my generation), vol. 1 (New York, 1958), pp. 382-86; Yankev Botoshanski, in Di prese (Buenos Aires) (February 22, 1959); Yankev Glants, in Der veg (Mexico City) (March 7, 1959); G. Preyl, in Tsukunft 7 (1959); Avrom Regelson, in Di goldene keyt 37 (1960); Y. Varshavski (Yitskhok Bashevis), in Forverts (March 13, 1960); Yisroel Emyot, In mitele yorn, eseyen, dertseylungen, lider (In middle age, essays, stories, poems) (Rochester: Jewish Community Council, 1963), pp. 138-42; Yekhiel Hofer, Mit yenem un mit zikh, literarishe eseyen (With another and with oneself, literary essays), vol. 2 (Tel Aviv: Peretz Publ., 1964), pp. 448-53; Moshe Basok, Nofe sifrut (Literary landscapes) (Tel Aviv, 1965), pp. 31-42; Avrom Lis, In skhus fun vort (By virtue of the word) (Tel Aviv, 1969), pp. 182-86; Avrom-Dovid Shub, Fun di amolike yorn, bletlekh zikhroynes (From years past, pages of memoirs) (New York: Tsiko, 1970), 909-12; Moyshe Gross-Tsimerman, Dos vort vos mir shraybn, eseyen un profiln (The word that we write, essays and profiles) (Tel Aviv: Yisroel-bukh, 1971); Moyshe Laks (Lax), Memuaristishe feder-shpritsn (Pen spurts of memoirs) (Bucharest: Kriteryon, 1973); Y. Shneur, in idishe tsaytung (Buenos Aires) (May 17, 1974).