12 Things You Need to Know About…David Pinsky

Prolific Yiddish playwright, author and editor

1. David Pinsky was born in 1872 in Mogilev – now in Belarus – and spent his early years in Vitebsk, where he attended cheder. When he was thirteen, his family moved to Moscow, where his father supplied clothing and decoration to the military. There, he began secular studies.

200px-David_Pinsky2. In 1891, he went to Vienna to study medicine, but his father was expelled from Moscow the following year (as were all Jews). The family were ruined; Pinsky joined them in Warsaw and became employed as a teacher. As a boy, he had conceived the notion of becoming an actor, and at the age of twelve had written a play for two friends, which was staged in his grandmother’s apartment. Now, in Warsaw, he became the friend of Y.L. Peretz [see my post of 9/24/14] and embarked on a literary career.

3. His first short story, “The Great Philanthropist,” was published in 1894. With Peretz, he established a publishing house with the aim of using literature to bring about a new social order for workers. He was the main contributor to two periodicals published by him together with Peretz and Mordecai Spector, publicizing socialist ideas. He joined the Bund, demonstrating his keen interest in the welfare of working people; and he became known among the elite Jewish writers in Warsaw.

4. By 1896 he was studying at the University of Berlin and writing for a Yiddish-American newspaper, Dos Abend Blatt (The Evening Paper), the official newspaper of the Socialist Workers’ Party.

5. In 1899, at the invitation of the editor of the paper, he moved to New York City, where he would live for the next fifty years. He was a contributor to, and editor of, fiction for Dos Abend Blatt, and he wrote for other socialist papers, as well.

6. He is remembered today primarily for his plays. In 1904, The Family Tsvi opened in New York – a play depicting the conflicting forces of modernism and tradition affecting Jews and decrying the passive acceptance of violence against Jews. It is said that he ducked his qualifying exam at Columbia, where he was studying for a doctorate in German language and literature, to attend the opening – thereby forfeiting the degree.

131394-003-F7ABC8DC7. In all, he was to write more than sixty plays, in addition to novels, stories, poetry and journalism. The plays were staged in the Americas and in Europe, in Yiddish or in German, Russian, Hebrew or English translations. They were performed by leading actors of the day, including Stella Adler, Menashe Skolnik, Ida Kaminska and Annie Tomashefsky.

8. His work dealt with issues of the common working man, with Jewish legends, Biblical characters, messianic figures and Israeli pioneers. He was the first president of the Yiddish PEN Club.

9. In 1916 he became a member of the central committee of Poale Zion, the labor Zionist movement. For a time he edited its journal and its two daily newspapers. He founded the Farband, a Labor Zionist organization, and served as its president from 1919-22 and 1933-48.

Pinski-Tailor10. In addition, he was president of the Jewish National Workers Alliance in 1920-22, and he served on the board of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) through most of the 1940s. From 1930-53 he was president of the Jewish Culture Society.

11. In 1938, one of his plays, concerning the adulterous love between two people, was adapted into a movie: “The Singing Blacksmith,” starring Moishe Oysher and featuring the first film performance by Hershel Bernardi.

12. In 1949 he emigrated to Israel. He continued writing, though Yiddish was by then in great decline. His home on Mount Carmel became a gathering place for young writers. He died there, in Haifa, in 1959.

In Haifa, You’ll find Pinsky Street just west of the Haifa Auditorium.

10 Things You Should Know About…Y.L. Peretz

Yiddish author and playwright

1. Isaac Leib Peretz, AKA Yitzhak Leibush Peretz and I.L. Peretz, was born in Zamosc, Poland, in 1851 and raised in orthodox Jewish surroundings. But it was a time of change, and when he was fifteen years of age, he opted to support the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment.

2. He learned Polish, Russian, German and French; passed an exam to become a lawyer; then took up a trade as a whiskey distiller, at which he failed. About the same time, he began to write poetry, songs and tales in Hebrew, practicing law to make a living – until the Russian government revoked his license.

3. In 1888 his first Yiddish work appeared, a ballad that was anthologized by Sholom Aleichem, about a young man who tries – unsuccessfully – to ward off the temptations of Lilith.

127711kPeretz-003-727C6FCA4. He turned out stories, folk tales and plays. In his works he rejected cultural universalism, contending that each of the world’s nations has its own unique character.

5. As opposed to Sholom Aleichem and Mendele Mokher Seforim, our two other great classical Yiddish writers, Peretz especially appealed to intellectuals in the cities. His social criticism favored the labor movement. His essays condemned anti-Semitic acts. He argued for enlightenment ideas, calling for self-determination and resistance against humiliation.

6. Still, though his outlook was secular, he respected sincere faith; the short stories highlight the superiority of honest piety over empty religiosity. Doubt mingles with faith, symbolism with realism, and tradition with modernism in tales that explore themes of forgiveness, of self-sacrifice, modesty and purity.

7. His most-known works are “Oyb Nisht Nokh Hekher” (“If Not Higher”) and “Bontshe Shvayg” (“Bontshe the Silent”). They are such beautiful stories that I’d like to transcribe them here. If you don’t know them, look them up. Right now.

8. In the last ten years of his life, as unofficial leader of the Yiddishist movement, he worked hard to foster a national cultural life for Jewry in the Diaspora. He was editor of Di Yidishe Bibliotek (The Jewish Library), which presented a broad cross-section of articles on secular subjects, especially science. He was known for his generosity in assisting other Yiddish writers. In 1908 he served as deputy chairman at a conference on Yiddish in Czernowitz, Austria-Hungary.

9. He died in Warsaw in 1915 and was buried in the Okopowa Street Jewish cemetery. A crowd of 100,000 attended the interment.

IL Peretz 1 10. In addition to Tel Aviv and Haifa, streets are named for him in Hod Hasharon, Bat Yam, Kiryat Yam, Holon, Givat Shmuel and Warsaw. Peretz Square in lower Manhattan is named for him, too. His work lives on: the 1907 play A Night in the Old Marketplace was adapted in 2007 by Frank London, the great klezmerist, and Glen Berger, for a multi-media theatrical presentation. A CD is available.

Shanah tovah u’metukah!

In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Peretz Street off Allenby west of the Central Bus Station. In Haifa, look just south of the Haifa Museum.

Special thanks to Tel Avivi (Ido Biran) for the photo of the street and the sign. For more, visit https://www.facebook.com/telavivi1909.

IL Peretz 2


10 Things You Need to Know About… L. L. Zamenhof

Creator of Esperanto

esperanto4“I was taught that all men were brothers, and meanwhile, in the street, in the square, everything at every step made me feel that men did not exist, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews, and so on.”


1. Eliezer Zamenhof (also called Leyzer Levi Zamenhov and Ludwig Lazar Zamenhof) was born in December 1859 in Bialystok. His father was a teacher of German. He grew up speaking Russian, Polish and Yiddish and later learned French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and English.

2. As a young man, he conceived the notion that ethnic and national hatreds had a linguistic basis, and that understanding among peoples could be achieved if they had a common, neutral communication tool. He began developing that tool while he was still in high school.

3. He studied medicine in Moscow and Warsaw and in 1886 established a practice as an ophthalmologist. But he had not forgotten his goal of promulgating an international language and spent the better part of two years trying to raise funds to publish a forty-page booklet describing his “lingvo internacia.”

4. Finally, with the help of his father-in-law, his International Language was published in Russian under the pseudonym “Dr. Esperanto,” which, in his constructed language, meant Doctor Hopeful.

5. The first magazine in what came to be called Esperanto came out in Germany in 1889. A formal organization was formed in the 1890s, and the first international congress was held in Boulogne in 1905. It was not a ringing success, as the French Esperantists were put off by Zamenhof’s religious enthusiasm (see below). In 1908, the Universal Esperanto Association was founded in Rotterdam.

6. Zamenhof continued to write dictionaries, texts and translations in Esperanto, including the Old Testament. Some of his works can be found today at Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org).

7. His linguistic efforts extended to Yiddish. In 1879 he wrote the first grammar of the Yiddish language, later translating it into Russia and Esperanto.

Unknown-18. After the Russian pogroms of 1882, Zamenhof joined the early Zionist movement, but left it only five years later. In 1901, in an essay on what he called Hillelism, he argued against nationalism of any sort. He wanted Judaism reconstructed on an ethical basis, advocating for people of all religions to reject national, racial and religious chauvinism. Jews, he argued, should give up Hebrew, which was “cadaverous,” and Yiddish, which was “a jargon;” instead, they should adopt Esperanto and practice a theosophical faith based on cultural Judaism. In 1906, the name Hillelism was changed to Homaranismo (Humanitarianism), which he described as a “philosophically pure” monotheism, a universal ethical order.

9. He died in Warsaw in April 1917 and is buried there in the Jewish Cemetery at Okopowa Street. Hundreds of streets, parks and bridges worldwide have been named in his memory – in Lithuania, England, France, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Brazil. There is a Zamenhof Island in the Danube River and a minor planet, Zamenhof 1462, among the stars. A genus of lichen has been named for him. And he is honored as a deity by the followers of Oomoto, a Shinto sect.

10. Esperanto is still in use today by an estimated minimum of 100,000 people, and perhaps as many as two million. It has its own flag, and its online learning platform receives upwards of 200,00 hits a month. If you noodle around online, you will find jokes in Esperanto, tongue-twisters in Esperanto….

UnknownIn Tel Aviv, you’ll find Zamenhof Street running east off Kikkar Zina and crossing King George Street.