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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 Springtime 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 this site).
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 and Poetry”.
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.


Yiddish Poetry