Who was Yisroel Shtern?1
He has been called one of the most important Yiddish poets between
the two World Wars2 . He was 23 years old when he came
to Warsaw in 1917, and in 1924 won critical acclaim with his poem
in the Hospital. Two years later his long essay Crowns
to Adorn the Head of Yiddish Criticism established him as
a significant essayist as well. Together with such writers as
I. I. Singer and Bashevis Singer he was published in the weekly
Literarishe Bleter between the Wars, his article sometimes the
leader of the magazine. After his death at the hands of Germans
in the Second World War (?starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto, ?gassed
in Treblinka) a selection of his work was published in book form
for the first time, in New York in 1955.
Shtern was born in Ostroleka, near Warsaw, in 1894. He lost his
father very young and his mother as a teenager. His generation
in the Pale of Settlement of the Czarist Empire was emerging from
shtetl life and having to work out an accommodation with secular
Europe. Shtern retains a Yeshivah vocabulary and world of reference,
while showing a familiarity (probably mostly through Polish and
Yiddish translations) with modernist European and American writing.
Shtern stands almost alone as one who held in high regard both
the secularizing I L Peretz and the traditionalist Hillel Tseitlin
; who frequented both Tlomackie 13 - the secular Yiddish writers'
club, where his actor brother was a familiar - and the shtibl
of the Bratslaver Chassidim. He adhered to no Party and his work
appeared in Bundist and Zionist publications as well as in the
Folkist daily Moment.
Other writers thought him strange but valued his work. The great
Yiddish theatre director Michael Weichert provided Shtern with
a translator who knew English and got him to translate “The
Merchant of Venice” for the Warsaw Youth Theatre’s
“impressive production” of 19293. In the
Warsaw Ghetto Shtern was starving and Ringelblum's diary records
that the community moved him into an apartment at the Kehilla's
expense. For that matter Shtern was starving before the War; and
did repeatedly write, with authority, about the spiritual aspects
of the experience.
While Shtern first published in 1919 and we know that he was writing
much in the Ghetto (all of it lost), periods of marked creativity
alternate in his life with lengthy periods of silence. He was
hospitalized, whether for malnutrition or for a nervous breakdown
is unclear. The tone of his work is generally gloomy and sometimes
very fearful. Striking and characteristic is the absence of human
relationship, together with the personalizing of inanimate features
of the city - such as the buildings and the streets where Shtern
spent so much of his days, wandering about in a shabby coat with
papers poking out of his pockets.
Secular Yiddishism has had difficulty locating Shtern, with his
adherence to the Breslav Chassidim. Their perspective, so foreign
to secular socialism, is clear in Shtern's essays and verse: suffering
brings us closer to God; simple and poor people will be holier.4
Yet it was the oral transcribed Yiddish tales of the Bratslaver
that secularists honoured, as among the earliest Yiddish stories.
Shtern is very serious about the purpose of literature in general:
taking Dostoyevsky as a model, to bring the reader to a truer
understanding of the relation between life and God. Not for him
the lighthearted feuilleton! When he is not educating socialist
readers about pacifist poetry and prose or about his beloved Edgar
Allen Poe5, Shtern is typically thundering about
the evils of shund
writing, or bemoaning the low standard of Yiddish literary criticism.
It is more than likely that the continuation of the Yiddish language
will depend on observant Jews6. Yisroel Shtern’s
own life bridged the religious and secular worlds. In works like
his great essay “Crowns,” he sought to introduce Jewish
ideas to those without such knowledge. It may be therefore that
Shtern’s relevance is greater now than ever before.
Andrew Firestone (Melbourne, 2006)
Note: Shtern publications in English.
In recent times Shtern has appeared in English translation in
the Penguin book of Modern Yiddish Verse
(ed. Irving Howe, Ruth Wisse and Khone Shmeruk, N.Y., 1987) -
three poems (pp. 335-343) translated by Robert Friend. Also (English
only, Etta Blum's translations) two poems pp 225-6 in A
Treasury of Yiddish Poetry (ed. Irving Howe and Eliezer
Greenberg, Schocken NY, 1976). An example of his characteristic
essay style can be found in English translation on pp 790 -
3 of Great Yiddish Writers of the Twentieth Century by
Joseph Leftwich (Jason Aronson London 1969, 1987)
1 This article is intended to supplement the introductory essays in the 1955 book. (see M. Flakser, H. Leyvick, in Yiddish section of " "About Shtern" on
2 Bickel, Shlomo, and Itay Zutra. "Shtern, Israel." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Eds. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 18. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 523-524. 22 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Thomson Gale.
3The quote is from Leonard Prager, Shakespeare Quarterly, 19, no 2, Spring 1968, 149 -63.
4see Encyclopedia Judaica; expressed succinctly by Shtern in his essay on the website “Bread
5See his 1930 essays, in Yiddish on the site: they were published in the Yugnt-veker using the pseudonym Avigdor Ts. Dunkin. added 2007: we are grateful for the suggestion that the surname may have been chosen as an anagram of nudnik! (Eliezer Niborsky, pers. comm.)
6See in “Words on Fire – the unfinished story of Yiddish”by Dovid Katz, Basic Books N.Y.,2004. – p.367ff. - The Future of Yiddish.