Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
(A Companion to MENDELE)
Contents of Vol. 11.009 [Sequential No. 186]
1) This issue of TMR (ed).
2) Corrigenda re Forverts article of previous issue of TMR (ed.)
3) To My Wise and Understanding Son: Avrom-Nokhem Shtensl’s Letters from
4) A Note on Stencl in
5) Three poems by Avrom-Nokhem Shtentsl [Abraham Nahum Stencl]
Click here to enter: http://yiddish.haifa.ac.il/tmr/tmr11/tmr11009.htm
Subject: This issue of TMR.
In this issue of TMR*** I hasten to correct an error in Rachel Rojanski's essay on the Forverts in the previous issue of TMR for which I alone am responsible. This mistake does not appear in the Hebrew HaAretz edition of the article.*** Two very carefully researched essays by Avraham Greenbaum deepen our knowledge of the life of the insufficiently known Yiddish poet Avrom-Nokhem Shentsl. This entire issue of TMR is centered on this quite extraordinary figure.***Three of Shtentl's poems are given in Yiddish original. These three poems illustrate three of the many voices employed by the poet. Here we have the pathetic-sentimental, the philosophic-whimsical and the biblical-comical.
I thank Arieh Lebowitz for pointing out
that the Russian edition of the Forverts,
initiated in 1995 ceased to appear in 2004. It is somewhat confusing that there
is both a hard-copy issue of the Yiddish Forverts
(which is "cybernetic" in the sense that though edited in
Subject: To My Wise and Understanding Son: Avrom-Nokhem Shtensl’s Letters from
Wise and Understanding Son: Avrom-Nokhem Shtensl’s Letters from
The Abraham Nahum Stencl Archive
has preserved numbers of postcards and
letters, largely in Hebrew, written by the poet's father to him in the period
from 1922 to the older StencI's death in 1934. The Hebrew, in the rabbinic style of the day,
is grammatically not always correct and the syntax is influenced by Yiddish(1). Usually a brief Yiddish greeting from the
mother, Freidl Genedl, is
added; on occasion there are additions by one of Stencl's
two sisters, or other relatives who felt like writing. There are many more postcards than letters,
probably a sign of frugality on the father's part; Chayim
Dov, or Berish as he called
himself in Yiddish, was a master at crowding materiaI
on to a card, and the Hebrew language readily lends itself to such
concentration. These missives, besides
shedding light on Stencl's relationship with his
parents and on his life in
Only a fraction of the correspondence is properly dated by the Hebrew (never the general) calendar. Most of the cards and letters bear only the day of the week and the name of the weekly Torah portion (sidra) with the year considered unnecessary. In some cases I was able to reconstruct the year from the events alluded to or from postal cancellations.
The son's side of the correspondence has, to the best of our
knowledge, not been preserved and may have been destroyed in the
Holocaust. We can also surmise that not
all of his parents' postcards and letters to him were kept by Stencl, since the father's self-imposed obligation to write
every week, even though not rigorously observed, would make for many more
items than the one hundred and twenty or so which have reached us: It is also
evident that there is a gap in the preserved correspondence around the year
1930. We do know, from constant complaints
by father and mother that Stencl himself wrote
irregularly, and when he did write would sometimes make do with brief greetings
or picture postcards. Some of what he
wrote -- and he evidently wrote mainly in Yiddish, sometimes in German, but not
in Hebrew – can be
reconstructed from the father's quotations and references. Before discussing
the correspondence, a brief history of the family is in order. Chayim Dov Stencl was born around 1855
him to stop working. He had two sons, Shlomo
(b. 1884 and named after Chayim Dov's
father) and Abraham Nahum; and two daughters, Esther and Tsime. Shlomo was an ilui ('Talmudic prodigy') and became the rabbi of his
birthplace, Czeladz, and later of nearby
To this information we should add the picture drawn of the family by Stencl himself in an autobiographical fragment preserved in typescript form in the Stencl Archive at SOAS. The father is said to have had rabbinical qualifications, but the rabbi of Bendin, Stencl's great-grandfather, stated in his will that none of his descendants should occupy a rabbinical post for two generations. Stencl describes his brother Shlomo as a wild youth who fortunately turned to Talmudic studies, and even became too pious for their father's taste. Shlomo at one point wanted to become a cobbler, but a rabbinical court decision obtained by his father-in-law prevented his entering this despised occupation. Of course it is hard to say whether all this is true .Chayim Dov constantly held up the deceased rabbi, strict even in observing minor customs, as a role model for the wayward brother. The father was deeply concerned about the material and spiritual welfare of the one son he had left. How modern, or hayntveltik )'of this world') he was, is hard to say. He obviously knew some Polish and a little German(4). Sometimes he wants to show himself to his writer son as modern, as when he says that he will go hear the visiting Hebrew poet Chayim Nachman Bialik, or when he quotes literature of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment). But these are very occasional touches. His quotations, and they are numerous to the point of becoming tiresome, are normally from the Bible(5), the Talmudic Sages, moralistic literature, and Hasidic homilies. In these areas his erudition was considerable, and he expects similar traditional knowledge from the addressee, since many of his quotes are abbreviated to save time and space. Many of his postcards to his son consist of a stylized long greeting, a shorter stylized close, and in between what can only be described as a sermon to one in danger of losing "this world and the world to come." The older Stencl also feared his only surviving son might not recite the "Kaddish" prayer after his death, even making provision in his will for this possibility, one which subsequently proved groundless(6(. The sermons become particularly insistent before Passover, when the father assumes that Abraham Nahum, like many non-observant Jews, somehow wished to keep some of the holiday observances. He urges upon him the seriousness of violating the ban on eating leavened food (bread, etc.) and implores that during the Passover week he eat in the company of the pious, who can be found in Germany as elsewhere. In comparison with the emphasis on Passover, the expected admonitions to repent, sent before Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), are mild. At one time the father writes: "I do not know your level (madrega) in matters of religion and faith, because you have never written to me about such matters."
The father's worries about his son's religious behaviour merge into concerns about his life style in
moved about a great deal in
Though uncovering signs of despondency in Stencl's letters and, perhaps even in his literary work, Chayim Dov urged his son never to despair, never to lose faith in God, who does everything for the best. Such faith will bring joy no matter what happens. Twice he quotes the Chasidic saying "az men vil vi es iz, iz es vi men vil"(9). Chayim Dov was of course aware that all his preaching might become counter-productive, and sometimes apologized for striking too harsh a note. Here, too, he had a rabbinic saying at hand: "Just as one is commanded to say what will find acceptance, he is commanded not to say what will not find acceptance"(10). The father claimed to know that the son was interested in Chasidic stories and interpretations, and sends along new ones, as well as quotations, from Rabbi Nachman of Braslav, whom even the "philosophers" appreciate.
The father's attitude to Stencl's writing is striking in its ambiguity. On the one hand Chayim Dov begs -- there in no other word -- for anything written by or about the increasingly famous author. On the other hand, his reactions generally range from expressions of inability to understand the poetry to distaste for niblpe (Y. < H. nibul pe 'obscenity')(11). This leads to preaching on the theme "Sages, be careful with your words"(12); if with speech, all the more so with the ineradicable printed word. In these instances Chayim Dov, instead of berating his son for useless dikhteray ('poetizing'), elevated him to the category of the Jewish sages who are the spiritual leaders of the generations. However, the father liked and understood the cycle Fisherdorf(13). For poems he did not understand he demanded "interpretations," which the poet doubtless had little interest or time to provide.
It often seems that the father and mother forgot that their only son was no longer a child. In his frequent admonitions not to waste time or money, the father made an exception for winter clothes, since even Heaven is not all-powerful in protection from cold(l4). Stencl had a history of illnesses connected with his nose, and in one case even lost the sense of smell. The father immediately ran to a rebe who strongly advised to stop eating forbidden foods!
It is no wonder that the paternal letters, with their incessant demands for more frequent and more detailed communications and their constant admonitions, drove the son to distraction(15). Stencl obviously did not see himself bound by his father's demand to write once a week, even though the latter resorted to emotional blackmail: the absence of letters was making his mother and sisters ill, bringing about a situation of pikuakh nefesh ('danger to life'). The father took the weekly postcard or letter so seriously that he wrote on chol ha-mo'ed ('the intermediate days of the holiday)(16), a practice discouraged by Jewish custom. Even in his will he directed Abraham Nahum to write to his mother and sisters once a month after his death.
The emotional interdependence of father and son was complicated by a material element in the relationship. It seems that Stencl was not above asking for money or hinting broadly that he needed it. The father often sent small sums, apologizing that his circumstances did not allow him to send more. Sometimes the letters announcing the money sent (always by intermediaries, never by post) contained advice to set up a business partnership or learn a trade, even though the father knew that the son was determined to continue on his increasingly successful, if unremunerative, writer's career. An amusing facet of the father's concern for Stencl's material welfare is seen in his repeated advice to his son to seek compensation for the ripsn rekl ('rep coat') he forgot in the home of a relative in Czeladz when he left Poland in a hurry.
Two themes frequently emerge in the correspondence: attempts
to arrange a meeting, and Stencl's problems with his
As for attempts to meet, they were of course complicated by Stencl's problematic status in both
Another common theme in the correspondence is the
possibility of emigration. The father's
1925 letters constantly complained about the heavy tax burden, and mentioned
that some local residents hade emigrated to "our
Stencl's relationship with his mother emerges less clearly from the correspondence. Her brief codicils on the postcards are insipid, usually something like "we are well, thank God, hope you are also, write more often." Her longer letters deal with family news and emphasize how important the son's letters are to her and how much she misses him. She writes, as uneducated people do, with complete disregard for Yiddish spelling rules, and in a Yiddish strongly influenced by German (the German border was very close(.
Freydl Genedl's relationships with other members of her family were not smooth. At one point the father asked Stencl to intervene in a dispute between her and one of her daughters. In the thirties she seems to have suffered from a recurring illness (a nervous disorder?) which made her relationship with her husband a difficult one. As usual, the father poured out his heart to his son, whose letters were "the only pleasure he has left in life." Stencl, who was sometimes asked to write his mother humorous notes, was now told to write his mother a reprimand but not to try to separate his parents.
Finally, we should take note of the son's attitude to his
parents from sources other than the letters from
Stencl's poetry shows both nostalgia and the abyss. Thus, in one of his early poems, he asks his mother to send him, without his father's knowledge, her tear-stained copy of Psalms. His father is asked to send his edition of the cabalistic Zohar where, "in vays hirsh-parment gebundn vel ikh zayn hadres-ponem zen" ('in the white binding of deer parchment I shall see his distinguished face'(23). In another cycle of poems, however, he strikes a different note. In what he calls "a letter to father not sent," we find "Ikh veys, az on dayn Got lebn kenstu nit! Ikh ober muz dir fartroyen mayn sod: ikh hob im tseshmetert in plaster fun shtot" ('I know that you cannot live without your God, but I must confide to you my secret: I have smashed Him to pieces on the city cement')(24). But decades later, in describing his childhood in Czeladz for a memorial volume, he wrote of his father: "suddenly I realized that his strength would support me all my years"(25).
1. example of al shabat (cf Y. oys shabes instead of le-shabat).
2. Some of the information here is taken from the 1973 edition of his son's book (see following note(. It seems, however, that calling Chayim Dov himself a "dayan" is based on the descendants' misinterpretation of his ambiguous signature We guess his age from a picture postcard dated 1919 which was sent to ANS.
3. Shloyme Shtentsil, Koheles-Shloyme (Piotrkow, 1932 reprinted Israel, 1973), with a biographical preface by the author's father, Chayim Dov On Shloyme Shtentsil and his legendary piety see also the memorial volume Sefer Sosnovits Zaglembier umgegent, ed M Sh Geshuri, vol 1, Tel-Aviv, 1973, pp 471-472 [Hebrew title: Sefer sosnovits veha-seviva be-Zaglembia.
4. His knowledge of German is evident from his ability to read German critiques of his son's work, and from his own occasional attempts to write in German.
5. Especially Proverbs and Psalms; he recommends that his son read Proverbs daily.
6. See the biographical material in Dovid
Katz's and Heather Valencia's essays in earlier volumes of TMR
. Chayim Dov Stencl died
7. Khayim Dov tolerates "Jargon" (ie Yiddish), but prefers Hebrew and in one instance writes that Hebrew is more fit for poetry. In the letters he resorts to Yiddish mainly for quotations and as an expression of intimacy.
8. 'Gentile', but in this context 'an unobservant Jew'.
9. "If one accepts things as they are, they will be as one wishes them to be." The father attributes the quotation to the author of Tiferes-Shlomo Solomon Rabinowicz HaCohen of Radomsk. There is an analogous saying in the classical literature: "make your will like His."
10. Talmud, Yebamot 65b
11. He may have in mind the
lines in which whores fight for the poet's seed (A-N Shtentsl, Ikh shray tsu dir,
12. Mishna, Abot, 1:11
13. N. Stencl, Fisherdorf:,
14. "All is in the hands of Heaven except for cold and heat" Talmud, Ketubot 30a
15. See Heather Valencia's article in this volume.
16. The intermediate days of the Passover (Pesakh) and Tabernacles Sukkot) holidays.
17. The father reports such a search in the letters.
18. See Der
19. In reporting illegal and
semi-legal maters, the father always changed to Yiddish, as if that language
gave better concealment from prying eyes It seems the point of departure for
the smuggling attempt would have been the border city of
20. In one instance he sees in the emigration movement the "Beginning of the Redemption," but in general he has his doubts about emigration there.
21. He often scolded the son
for misspelling Hebrew words
The preserved correspondence with Clara Van Leer (see "A
Note on Stencl in
22. A-N Shtentsl, "Mayn heym in Zaglembie," Pinkas Zaglembie ed Y Rapaport (Tel-Aviv 1972), pp 230-241.
23. A-N Shtentsl,
24. A-N Shtentsl, Fundervaytns (
25. A-N Shtentsl, "Mayn heym" (see n 22), p 241.
[To accompany photocopy of letter which seems to have got lost.--ed .]
Literarishe bleter (
Mishna, Abot, 1:11.
Rabinowicz HaCohen of Radomsk, Shlomo. Tiferes-Shlomo
Ikh shray tsu dir (
Shtentsl, A.-N. "Mayn heym in Zaglembie," Pinkas Zaglembie ed. Y. Rapaport (Tel-Aviv 1972), pp. 230-241.
Shtentsl, Shlomo. Koheles-Shlomo (Piotrkow, 1932; reprinted Israel, 1973), with a biographical preface by the author's father.
Talmud, Ketubot 30a; Yebamot 65b.
Among other admonitions in this long letter the older Stencl asks his son to take a pious wife, to wash his hands first thing in the morning, and especially not to shave with a razor. On the last point Chayim Dov quotes his deceased son Shlomo, who appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to warn Abraham Nachum that whoever shaves with a razor violates five commandments of the Tora.
From: Avraham Greenbaum
Subject: A Note on Stencl in
Note on Stencl in
by Avraham Greenbaum
A.N. Stencl spent the first years after his flight from
Stencl's routine as a
farmer in training, and his broader interests for which he had little time, are
reflected in the correspondence preserved from that period. He corresponded then with Clara Van Leer,
a girl from a prominent Dutch Jewish family, whom he had met in
The relationship between the two does not emerge as clearly as we would like from the letters, and in any case we do not have the letters which she wrote to him. There are no terms of endearment or other indication pointing to romance rather than friendship. We assume that she was his muse, in the sense of inspiring him to persevere in spite of hardship and drudgery. She served also as an outlet for his need to express himself in writing and in Yiddish at that. In these letters he tried to teach her Yiddish, often placing German equivalents after words of Hebrew-Aramaic origin.(4) Her letters to him were probably in German.
begin in 1919, the year Stencl reached
Stencl is ambivalent about
In spite of
the restraint in the correspondence there seems to be an increasing closeness
in the relationship. She is quoted as
asking him whether a writer is capable of really loving anyone. His farewell letter before her departure,
dated Eve of Sukkot 5681 (
Two themes emerge from the correspondence: Stencl's hard life and his growing literary interests. He complained about milking cows six hours a day for low wages, which allowed him to see himself as a member of the exploited proletariat at a time when he inclined toward socialism. Conflicting with his work schedule, and relieving the boredom, are his literary dreams and what ever writing he manages to get done. Neither having time for nor access to libraries, he asks Clara in one postcard to get a poem by Richard Dehmel, in whose work he found himself "at home" after reading a critique of it. But if his autobiographical essays are to be trusted, all his poems but one -- which he knew by heart -- from 1917 to 1922, i.e. including those written in Holland, were lost.(6)
In August of
1921 Stencl bade farewell to
tells a complicated story of an offer to be rabbi of a Galician synagogue in
2. I date her departure
from one of Stencl's letters. Clara Van Leer Blum's daughter, Ruth Blum Eshel, kindly informed me that her parents lived in
3. PPMS 44, Box 16. Stencl
4. i.e. Nesie (Reise)
5. Loshn un lebn 28:1 (January 1967), 18.
6. Ibid., 25:8/9 (August/September 1964), 43.
7. Ibid., 28:1 (January 1967), 18f.
Subject: Three poems by Avrom-Nokhem Shtensl [Abraham Nahum Stencl)
For romanized version of and commentary on "Eretsisroel-khale-tishtukhl" see TMR vol.2.015.
די מערב-וואנט אראפגעקוקט
איבער ביישטידל אונדזערן, איבער שמאלן,
דערפאר שבת אויפן חלה-טישטוכל,
איז גאנץ ארץ-ישראל געווען געמאלן.
רחל'ס-קבר, די מערת-המכפלה,
די מלאכים, ווען מאמע שרה'ן זיי בענטשן;
די אדלערס און לייבן פון ביידע זייטן,
ממש אויסגעזען ווי לעבעדיקע מענטשן.
וואך איז אונדזער נאקעטער טיש
א האלב-באדעקטער בלויז מיט טישטוך געווען,
זשגאמזשענדיק דעם ביסן ברויט - - פון טיש אראפ
דעם "על נהרות" מיט ליפן גאר געלעזן.
חרובדיק די מערב-וואנט אראפגעקוקט
איבער ביישטידל אונדזערן איבער שמאלן,
אבער ווי רחבותדיק ס'גאנצע בית-מקדש
פון חלה-טישטוכל ארץ-ישראלן.
שבת-פארנאכט שאטנס טונקעלע
האבן דאס שטיבל אונדזערס געטון איינהילן,
ס'האט דעם "גאט פון אברהם" מיין פרומע מאמע
גענומען זאגן מיט א ניגון א שטילן - -
א פערד א ווייסן, אן ארעמען,
איז טאקע משיח אנגעקומען צו רייטן,
אבער פון ביידע זייטן פון טישטוכל אראפ,
אדלערס און לייבן געטאן טון אים באגלייטן.
דריי ליכטיקע שטערן
איבער ירושלים זיינען געשטאנען!
פונעם חלה-טישטוכל פון געמאלטן
אויף הימל ארויף זיינען זיי אויפגעגאנגען.
פונקט ווי פרייטאג-צו-נאכט די צוויי מלאכים,
טאטן אין שטוב אריין האבן געטון באגליייטן,
ווען מאמע צווישן די געצונדענע ליכט,
ס'טישטוכל אויף די חלות געטון פארשפרייטן.
ס'האט טרויריק די מערב-וואנט אראפגעקוקט,
איבער ביישטידל אונדזערן, איבער שמאלן,
דערפאר שבת אויפן חלה-טישטוכל,
איז גאנץ ארץ-ישראל געווען אויסגעמאלן.
For romanization, translation of and commentary on "Tsvey lukhes", see TMR vol. 01.013.
די צוויי לוחות
די צוויי לוחות האָט גאָט
בשום-אופֿן האָט עס אַ מענטש געקענט זײַן,
וואַרום ווי אזוי וואָלט דער "לא תרצח"
צווישן די עשרת הדברות ארײַן.
און פאַר וואָס אויף צוויי לוחות זיי אויסגעקריצט,
עס מוז דאָך דערפאַר א טעם געווען זײַן!
אַז אַלע צען געבאָט אויף איינעם אַרויף,
האָט גאָט נישט געפֿונען אַזאַ גרויסן שטיין?
אויב די לוחות וועלן ווערן צעבראָכן,
יעדע העלפֿט א מצבה וועט בלײַבן שטיין,
איינע פֿאַר די מענטשהייט אויסגעקוילעטע,
די צווייטע, כביכול שוין, פאַר גאָט אליין.
פֿערציק יאָר שלום געווען אין ישראל!
קיין קריג געפֿירט, בית-מקדש אויפֿגעשטעלט
אין די צייַטן פֿון שלמה המלך.
זײַן חכמה געווען די טויזנט ווײַבער;
פֿון יעדן קעניג א טאָכטער גענומען,
און גיי פֿיר מלחמה מיט אַן איידעם.
בלויז מיט טויזנט ווײַבער אויסצוקומען,
נישט נאָר אַ שיר-השירים אָנשרײַבן --
אַ משלי און קוהלת מ'מוז אויך קענען.
End of The Mendele Review Vol. 11.009
Editor, Leonard Prager
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