Chapters: Lexicon Devils

The Trouble with Yiddish Biographical Dictionaries

Written by:
Eddy Portnoy
Fall 2016 / 5777
Part of issue number:

I will swear on a stack of Yehoash Bibles that anyone who has worked in Yiddish studies has used one of the lexicons of Yiddish literature, the typically multivolume sets that contain short biographical entries. The first of these, Zalmen Reyzen’s Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur un prese, appeared in Vilna in 1914 and included 400 of the major Yiddish writers of the day. This represented a dramatic increase over the state of the field twenty years earlier, when the number of professional Yiddish writers could have been counted on your fingers and toes.

The rise in Yiddish literary activity from the 1880s through the publication of the 1914 Leksikon was remarkable. But not everyone was thrilled with this first lexicon: some complained that Reyzen and his coeditor, the literary critic Shmuel Niger, had overlooked a number of younger writers. This political cartoon portrays the rejected writers protesting their exclusion. While it’s unlikely that a protest march of Yiddish writers—much less a riot—actually took place, there is little doubt that many writers were upset about having been left out of Yiddish literary history.

Reyzen doubtless felt the sting of these angry writers’ complaints and made amends with the publication of a second lexicon in 1928. This compilation comprised four thick volumes and featured nearly 2,000 writers—a much more inclusive set that reflected the explosive growth of modern Yiddish literature.

leksikon protest 1-2-14 moment copy.jpg
Cartoon originally published in "Moment" (Warsaw), January 2, 1914. Courtesy of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Text on flags: Down with Reyzen and Niger!! Equality for all in the Lexicon! Down with Central [Publishing]!

Caption: As we've been told, a group of young writers whose biographies and pictures were not included in the literary Lexicon attacked the offices of the Central Publishing Company and destroyed it. The publishers barely made it out alive.