The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
(A Companion to MENDELE)


Contents of Vol. 09.07  [Sequential No. 159]
9 June 2005

1) This issue. (ed.)
2) The Goldfaden Micrograph (1897) (David Mazower)
3) A Note on Ignaz Bernstein (Lucas Bruyn)
4) Coming book reviews (ed.)
5) Books received (ed.)


Date: 9 June 2005
From: Leonard Prager, ed. 

Subject: This issue.

This issue of TMR continues to probe the graphic arts in their relation to Yiddish culture, in this instance via a unique art object, a micrograph, as it connects to the founder of the Yiddish theater, Avrom Goldfadn [Abraham Goldfaden]. This is followed by a short essay on the author of Juedische Sprichwoerter und Redensarten, Ignaz Bernstein, which reminds Yiddish students of a scholar who deserves to be remembered.


Date: 9 June 2005
From: David Mazower (

Subject: The Goldfaden Micrograph (1897): Portraiture and the Formation of Yiddish Literary Celebrity


The Goldfaden Micrograph (1897):  Portraiture and the Formation of Yiddish Literary Celebrity

In a recent TMR article, I looked at Henryk Berlewi’s satirical cartoon of the Vilna Troupe production of Ansky’s Dybbuk.   In this issue I want to examine another important but unknown graphic image from the world of Yiddish culture - a micrographic portrait of Avrom Goldfadn (1840 - 1908) - placing it within the context of the emergence of the Yiddish writer as celebrity and cultural icon.

The ideological battle for the hearts and minds of the Jewish masses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was fought on many fronts.  The principal battleground was the war of words; Zionists, Bundists, orthodox believers, Communists and secular Yiddishists all sought to win recruits through debate, propaganda pamphlets, the popular press and at underground meetings.  But pictures and graphics also played an important role.  Commercial postcards, satirical cartoons in the press, lapel badges and street posters all helped to promote key figures and develop the idea of celebrity in an age - almost impossible to imagine today - when few people knew what their heroes actually looked like. (1)

The Zionist movement was quick to realise the propaganda value of promoting images of Theodore Herzl and Max Nordau in the 1890s and 1900s.  By contrast, there were few key images of Yiddish writers in the same period - a time when the founding fathers of Yiddish literature were in their prime.  Only with the Yiddish language conference at Czernowitz in 1908 did something resembling a classic image emerge - the widely disseminated postcard featuring the writers Perets, Nomberg, Zhitlovski, Ash and Reyzn.  Here, belatedly, the Yiddish literary world had found a match for the numerous conference photos already produced by the Zionists.

By the 1910s and 20s, Jewish publishers and printers in Poland realised that there was a ready market for images of the more popular Yiddish writers. The series of individual postcard portraits of Yiddish (and Hebrew) writers issued by Warsaw publishers such as Reznik, Sinai, Tsentral and Hatkehiya; the folio-sized portrait photographs of Perets, Sholem-Aleykhem and Mendele found in Yiddish schools across Poland; the cameo-sized  portrait reliefs embossed on the front covers of collected works published by Boris Kletskin’s Vilna publishing house in the 1920s - all catered to a new clientele of readers and admirers eager for images of their literary heroes.

The second generation of modern Yiddish writers (Opatoshu, Manger, Ash and the rest) were more fortunate. Not only were they featured regularly in the sepia photo supplements of the New York Forverts - the closest equivalent that Yiddish-speaking Ashkenaz had to the gentile establishment’s society pages - but they were also frequently painted, sketched and sculpted by many leading Jewish artists. Notable examples include Chana Orloff’s superb bust of Avrom Reyzn, Arthur Kolnik’s woodcut portraits of Sutskever and Manger, Jacob Epstein’s bust of Sholem Ash and Aaron Godelman’s series of sculptures of Yiddish writers.

The use of these elite art forms (and other forms of portraiture such as the silhouette and minted medal) carried an unspoken but important message: they contradicted the status of Yiddish literature as a stepchild of the European literary family, insisting instead that it deserved a place alongside other high-status mainstream cultures whose leading personalities were routinely pictured by celebrated artists. 

By contrast, the micrographic portrait signifies something rather different. Hebrew micrography - the art of creating pictures composed out of minute Hebrew letters - developed as a distinctive form of religious art, invented by Jewish scribes in the early Middle Ages. For centuries micrography was used almost exclusively in the religious sphere, for Bible illustrations, amulets and ketuba decoration.  From the late nineteenth century, portraits of famous rabbis, Biblical sites and scenes from the scriptures were reproduced as lithographic prints and sold as commercial artefacts. (2)

Portrait of Avrom Goldfadn
(click to enlarge; when done – click the back arrow)

Around the 1890s the Hebrew micrograph was adopted by the Zionist movement.  Theodore Herzl, Max Nordau, Rabbi Moses Gaster and the writer Bialik were all portrayed in micrographic form, as an essentially devotional art gradually moved into the secular sphere. There was even a micrographic portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm 2nd, composed from his biography in Hebrew translation, and issued in honour of his visit to Jerusalem. (3) Often commissioned to mark a special commemoration or anniversary, the micrographic portrait thus came to represent the highest form of tribute, an expression of the utmost respect and religious or quasi-religious devotion. (4)

All the more surprising, then, that (to the best of my knowledge) there is not a single micrographic portrait of Sholem-Aleykhem and Mendele and only a later and small-scale picture of Perets.(5). There is, however, a superb 68 x 49 cm. micrographic portrait of the Yiddish poet, playwright and operetta composer Avrom Goldfadn.  Printed in London in 1897, it is made up of many hundreds of words from his Biblical operetta Shulamis, one of his most popular works.  The hand-written artwork has long since disappeared, and only a single lithograph appears to have survived down the years from the original printed edition. (6).  The Goldfadn micrograph shows the writer staring resolutely ahead.  With his glasses, neatly trimmed goatee beard and well-tailored suit, he looks every inch the diplomat or financier rather than the hard-up impresario that he had become.  Every detail of his impassive features, and smoothly pressed collar, bow tie and suit are all exquisitely rendered in minute letters. Underneath the portrait, a lyre, trumpets and laurel wreath pay homage to the writer’s art. The caption reads:

A. Goldfaden / poet und dikhter / in zayn geshtalt iz geshriben dos berihmte verk “shulamis” 37.404 verter / aroysgegeben fun l.rotblat un goldshmit. london

(A. Goldfaden / poet and writer / in his portrait is written the famous work “Shulamis” 37.404 words / published by L Rotblat and Goldshmit. London)

By 1897 Goldfadn was at the height of his celebrity. His plays were being performed in Yiddish theatres across Europe and in the United States, but the writer himself had fallen on hard times. As he approached his sixtieth birthday his punishing touring schedule was sapping his health and lowering his morale and spirits. And yet Goldfadn always kept up appearances. Something of a dandy, he had a penchant for gold-rimmed spectacles, embroidered velvet slippers, and expensive suits.  He was also one of the earliest Yiddish writers to cultivate his public image and grasp the importance of self-promotion.  His aristocratic portrait appeared on hundreds of sheet music covers issued by Jewish publishers in the 1890s and 1900s and he became embroiled in furious disputes with actors and publishers over royalties resulting from performances and sales of his works.

By the time of his death in New York in 1908, his portrait had become so well known that it was even hawked by street vendors as a souvenir lapel badge to the many thousands of mourners who came onto the streets for his funeral. (7) 

The exact circumstances of the micrograph’s creation are unclear.  In 1897 Goldfadn went to Vienna for medical treatment and it is possible that the micrographic portrait was issued to raise money to help pay his bills or support him during a period of convalescence. Rotblat appears to have been the scribe who actually executed the portrait, and Goldshmit may have been the Yiddish actor Yoysef Goldshmidt, a veteran of Goldfadn’s first company in Romania, later active in London as an actor, promoter and pub owner. (8)

Goldfadn micrograph
(click to enlarge; when done – click on the back arrow)

What is not in doubt is that Goldfadn had many admirers in London.  He first visited the city in 1889, spending several months there and taking over the management of the Hebrew Dramatic Club in London’s East End. In the 1890s he made his home in Paris, but returned to London in 1899, when he was the subject of several long profiles in the Anglo-Jewish press. One mentioned that “from end to end of Jewry his ballads are heard in workshop and home, and his portrait is to be met with in every Jewish bookseller’s shop” (9). The same article contains the only known reference to our portrait, noting that “the microscopic calligraphist and the New Year’s card printer have done their best to add to his fame.” Goldfadn was back in London within the year, taking part in the Zionist Congress in August 1900.  Some weeks later a celebratory concert was held at Shoreditch Town Hall in honour of his sixtieth birthday, and in 1902 he made his final visit to England, touring the provinces and giving recitals of his poems. 

Observers of the early Yiddish stage frequently commented on the fervour with which the audience joined in the spectacle. For the impoverished playgoer, the early Yiddish drama halls and clubs inspired the same devotion as synagogues and the playwrights were viewed with the same admiration and awe as the most famous rabbis.  We should not be surprised, therefore, that a form of portraiture associated with distinguished rabbis and political leaders has been chosen to venerate a figure like Avrom Goldfadn.  The Goldfadn micrograph of 1897 both reinforces and pays tribute to the early Yiddish writer’s celebrity status, and also stands as a testament to his immense popularity. 



1.     For a wide-ranging discussion of these issues, see Michael Berkowitz, The Jewish Self-Image, London, Reaktion Books, 2000.(There is a reproduction of the Nordau micrographic postcard portrait on page 73.)

2.     Leila Avrin pioneered research into this neglected subject. See the book co-written by her and Colette Sirat: La lettre hebraique et sa signification / Micrography as Art, Paris and Jerusalem, 1981 (a volume long out of print and richly deserving of a second edition).  

3.     Avrin and Sirat’s book contains reproductions and provenance details of the micrographic portraits of Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spector, Theodore Herzl, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna Zvi Peretz Chajas, and Kaiser Wilhelm II.  For a reproduction of the Gaster micrograph, see Leila Avrin’s 1981 exhibition catalogue Hebrew Micrography, One Thousand Years of Art in Script, published by the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. 

4.     There are a small number of micrographic or quasi-micrographic portraits in other languages.  A folio-sized memorial portrait of Martin Luther, done in the year of his death, 1546, and composed of minute Gothic-style German letters, was sold at Sotheby’s approximately twenty years ago.   Around 1905, a St Petersburg postcard publisher issued a portrait of Karl Marx, in which the partial text of the Communist Manifesto in Russian translation was superimposed on a conventional artist’s portrait of the bearded figure. (My thanks to Chimen Abramsky for information about these two images).

5.     The micrographic portraits of Perets (drawn by Yoysef Troyber, and consisting of the words to the author’s poem ‘Monish’) and Avrom Reyzn (drawn by N Kopelovitsh in Vilna in 1938, using the words from several of Reyzn’s poems) are reproduced in Melech Grafstein’s survey, Sholem Aleichem Panorama, London, Ontario, 1948, pp. 200 - 201. On page 192 of the same book, there is a reproduction of a micrographic portrait of Bialik, published in Tel Aviv.  I am aware of two further micrograph portraits of Yiddish writers: Yoysef Opatoshu (also drawn by Yoysef Troyber, and reproduced in Ber Kutsher’s book Geven amol varshe / zikhroynes, Paris, 1955, p237); and Nokhem-Meyer Shaykevitsh (Shomer), unseen but described in his daughter’s memoir as “a picture of my father….made up of minute script in which the story of his life was told” (see Miriam Shomer Zunser: Yesterday / A Memoir of a Russian Jewish Family, Harper and Row, New York, 1978, p182); have any copies of this micrograph survived? 

6.     The Goldfadn micrograph is now in a private collection; I am grateful to the owner for allowing me to reproduce it for this article.

7.     An example was exhibited a few years ago in the New York Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.

8.     For more on the actor, see Leonard Prager, Yiddish Culture in Britain, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1990, p. 287.

9.     See "The Ghetto Kipling - Father of the Yiddish Stage, Abraham Goldfaden," The Jewish World, London, 13 October 1899, p.36



Date: 9 June 2005
From: Lucas Bruyn

Subject: A Note on Ignaz Bernstein

Ignaz Bernstein (1836-1909)

Ignaz Bernstein is known as the author of Juedische Sprichwoerter und Redensarten, a collection of 3987 Yiddish "shprikhverter un redensartn" (proverbs and expressions). A short biography by Herman Rosenthal written at the time Bernstein was still alive can be found in the on-line Jewish Encyclopedia. The first version of the "Shprikhverter" was published in 1888-1889 in Der Hoyz Fraynd. On the latter, Leonard Prager writes: "Two anonymous collections of Yiddish proverbs appeared here. They were acknowledged as Ignats Bernshteyn's and in an expanded and revised form later published as a book (1908). The separate offprint of the 2056 proverbs in the Hoyz Fraynd  version is thus the first edition." (Yiddish Literary and Linguistic Periodicals, 1982, p. 79) Bernstein confirms this in his 1907 "Vorwort"  (Introduction) to the 1908 work: 

"In den Jahren 1888 und 1889 erschienen in dem von M. Spektor herausgegebenen Jahrbuch Der Hausfreund zwei anonyme Sammlungen juedisher Sprichwoerter, die aus meinem handschriftlichen Material stammten und die gleichzeitig als Separatausgabe in einen kleinen Anzahl von Exemplaren in zwei Heften abgedruckt wurden. Jeder dieser Sammlungen war fuer zich nach dem Anfangsbuchstaben des ersten Wortes alphabetisch geordnet und beide enthielten zusammen 2056 Sprichwoerter mit fortlaufender Numerierung."

[Two anonymous collections of Yiddish proverbs from my materials in manuscript came out in 1888-1889 in the yearbook published by M. Spektor "The House Friend". They were simultaneously published in a separate limited two-volume edition.  In these two volumes the proverbs were placed in alphabetical order, according to their first words; in total 2056 progressively numbered proverbs.]

Even earlier some of Bernstein's materials had been incorporated in Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander's monumental Deutsches Sprichwoerter-Lexikon ; ein Hausschatz fuer das deutsche Volk (1867-1880). The 1908 editon is the "tsveyte, shtark fermehrte un ferbeserte oyflage" and contains the "shprikhverter" in Hebrew script as well as a transcription. Some of the entries are accompanied by a short explanation in Yiddish and German. There is an index and an 84-page glossary of words and expressions appearing in the proverbs that derive from foreign languages (Hebrew/Aramaic, Slavic and Romance) or that are less common. This glossary, with the Yiddish in transcription (Hebrew added if appropriate) and translation in German, contains about 1600 words, including several not found in Harkavi or Weinreich. It also gives etymologies of words, not found in other dictionaries.

At the time Bernstein wrote his work neither the YIVO standardized spelling of Yiddish nor the YIVO romanization had yet been developed. Bernstein had to devise a spelling and a transcription himself. As models for his orthography he took contemporary literature and magazines. Thus he decided against using doubled consonants. He based his transcription on the "Podolisch-wolhynische Mundart". The resulting orthography looks much like the one used by Harkavi (e.g. "nehmen" instead of "nemen"); his transcription looks strange to the modern reader used to the YIVO/Weinrech method. Although the Shprikhverter have been around for about a century, it does not seem to be very popular with Yiddishists – but I may be wrong here. An undated wholly Yiddish edition of the 1908 work – without the Erotica -- duplicating right-side pages only that was published by the Brider Kaminski Farlag in New York points to some demand for the book. This edition has exactly the number of pages for main section (294) and Index (296-329) as has the deluxe 1908 edition, but omits the Latin-letter "Glossar." A note on the reverse side of the title page of this economical edition reads: "dos bukh iz gedrukt loyt dem foto-ofset protses, derfar dershaynt es mit der alter ortografye" (The book is printed by the offset process, therefore it has the old orthography."  This spelling awareness suggests the 1950s – Stutshkov's Oytser  was published in 1950. In the Mendele list, Bernstein's Erotica was mentioned several times, but the main work of proverbs was never quoted as a source. Availability cannot be the entire problem, since the book can be bought at antiquarian bookstores – though at very high prices today.

Here is some further bibliographic information about Bernstein's work: The second edition of the "Yudishe shprikhverter" came out in 1908, in Frankfurt a. M. In 1912 the book was printed in Warsaw. In these later editions there is an additional section containing 227 "oysgelasene un grobe shprikverter", in German: Erotica und Rustica. This section was first published as a bibliophile edition under the name: Proverbia Judaeorum erotica et turpia. Juedische Sprichwoerter erotischen und rustikalen Inhalts. [Gesammelt v. Benjamin Wolf Segel.] Als Manuskript gedruckt. (Juedisch Liebhaberbibliothek. Bd. 2); Wien und Berlin, R. Loewit, 1918. 70 p.  With the note: "Die vorliegende Sammlung juedischer Sprichwoerter erotischen und ordinaeren inhalts erscheint im anschluss an das Grosse 'Juedische Sprichwoerterbuch', von Ignaz Bernstein und B. W. Segel welches 1908 in Frankfurt a.M. erschienen ist." Vorbemerkung: "Dieses Buch wurde als zweiter Band der Juedischen Liebhaberbibliothek ... in einer Auflage von dreihundert Exemplaren hergestellt."

[This collection of Yiddish proverbs with an erotic or colored content is published following the Big Book of Yiddish Proverbs of Ignats Bernstein that came out in 1908 in Frankfurt am Mainz. Note: This book was published as the second volume of the Library for Jewish Biblophiles, 300 numbered copies in total.]

About a hundred years after the first appearance of the Shprikhverter a new edition came out in the United States of America: Yidishe shprikhverter [gezamlt un aroysgegebn fun] Ignats Bernshteyn ; tsugegreyt tsum druk, Y. Birnboym. Nyu-York (25 E. 78th St., New York 10021): Alveltlekher Yidisher kultur-kongres, 1983.

It had been preceded by an American reprint of the Erotica et turpia in the seventies (exact date and publisher unknown) and by a different edition of the Erotica and Rustica with English translations: Yiddish sayings mama never taught you. [compiled by Ignaz Bernstein ; translated] by Weltman & Zuckerman.[Van Nuys, Calif.] : Perivale Press, [1975]. xi, 99 p. (English and Yiddish with transcription in Roman characters.) A  photographic reproduction was published in Israel: Haifa Renaissance 1971. Some earlier reprints of the shprikhverter, including the Erotica und Rustica, came out in Germany: Juedische Sprichwoerter und Redensarten, (im Anhang Erotica und Rustica) von Ignaz Bernstein, Hans Peter Althaus. Publisher: G. Olms, 1969. Bernstein Ignaz. Juedische Sprichwoerter und Redensarten. Wiesbaden: Fourier, 1988. reprint of 1907 edition. 329 pages and Erotica und Rustica 84 pages.

Bernstein was neither the first nor the last paremiologist with an interest in Yiddish sayings (paremiology, the study of proverbs). CATNYP lists 47 studies of Yiddish proverbs and there are no doubt many more. Some of the early ones we may mention are: Tendlau, Abraham Moses, 1802-1878. Sprichwoerter und Redensarten deutsch-juedischer Vorzeit; als Beitrag zur Volks-, Sprach- und Sprichwoerter-Kunde, aufgezeichnet aus dem Munde des Volkes und nach Wort und Sinn erlaeutert von Abraham Tendlau. Frankfurt a. M., H. Keller, 1860.

Wahl, Moritz Callmann, 1829-1887 Das Sprichwort der hebraeisch-aramischen Literatur, mit besonderer Beruecksichtigung des Sprichwortes der neueren Umgangssprachen. Ein Beitrag zur vergleichenden Parmiologie ... Buch 1. Zur Entwicklungstheorie des sprichwoertlichen Materials. Rostock. Leipzig, O. Leiner, 1871.

Bernstein wrote only one other book, a catalogue of his collection of about 8400 books on proverbs, folk-lore ethnography etc.: Bernstein, Ignatz. Catalogue des livres paremiologiques, composant la bibliothque de Ignace Bernstein. Varsovie, de L'imprimerie W. Drugulin Leipsick, 1900. Added t.p. in Polish: Katalog dziel trsci przyslowiowej.   A reprint of this work was issued by Olms (Hildesheim) in 2003, (2 v., 560; 650 pp.).

A modern study, relying on Bernstein is Magdalena Sitarz,  Yiddish and Polish proverbs : contrastive analysis against cultural background,  Krakow: Nakladem Polskiej Akademii Umiejetnosci, 2000.

Available reprints:

BERNSTEIN, IGNAZ. Catalogue des livres parémiologiques composant la bibliothèque de Ignace Bernstein / Catalogue of Ignace Bernstein's Collection of Proverb Literature / Katalog von Ignaz Bernsteins Bibliothek der Sprichwörterliteratur / Katalog dziel tresci przyslowiowej skladajacych bibljoteke Ignacego Bernsteina [ISBN: 3-487-11437-2] 268,00 Eur

BERNSTEIN, IGNAZ. Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten [ISBN: 3-487-02298-2] 99,80 Eur .

Georg Olms Verlag AG Weidmannsche Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH Hagentorwall 7, D-31134 Hildesheim Tel: ++49 (0) 5121 / 150 10 Fax: ++49 (0) 5121 / 150 150.  E-Mail:


Date: 9 June 2005
From: ed.

Subject: Coming book reviews

The next issue will be devoted solely to Menke, edited by Dovid Katz and Harry Smith. Dovid Katz's Lithuanian Jewish Culture (Vilna:  Baltos  Lankos, 2004, 398 pp), will yet be reviewed in TMR, as will be Nancy Sinkoff's Out of the Shtetl (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2004). Also scheduled for review is John Myhill's  Language in Jewish Society: Towards a New Understanding.  Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2004.



Date: 9 June 2005
From: ed.

Subject: Books received


Der Nister [HaNistar], Maasiyot beKharuzim, tirgem meYidish veHosif mavo Shalom Luria.

Jerusalem: Carmel, 2005. [Mayselekh in ferzn]. ISBN 965-407-513-X.

[Sifriat Khulyot 2]. The editor of Khulyot, Shalom Luria, gives us lively Hebrew renderings of eleven of the careful artist Der Nister's tales in verse written for children but adored by adults.

The translator's introduction is an expanded version of an essay that first appeared in Khulyot 2

(1994), 151-168. The front cover by David Luria shows us a shretele (little elf) in a tall hat.


End of The Mendele Review Vol.09.07

Editor, Leonard Prager

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