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Aksenfeld, Yisroel

(1787–1866), Yiddish playwright, novelist, and exponent of the Haskalah. Born in Nemirov (Nemyriv), western Ukraine, to an important Hasidic family, Yisroel Aksenfeld was brought up as a Bratslaver Hasid (he was personally acquainted with Reb Nosn, the Bratslav tsadik’s famous secretary) and was married at an early age into another family of Bratslav followers. The marriage ended quickly in divorce, a circumstance that changed the trajectory of Aksenfeld’s life and beliefs. He became a maskil and an enemy of Hasidism who studied foreign languages, mainly Russian and German.

Working as a contractor who supplied the Russian army during the Napoleonic War of 1812, Aksenfeld amassed some wealth and, in the wake of the advancing army, traveled through western Poland and spent some time in eastern German centers, such as Leipzig. His encounter with the West and its acculturated Jews greatly influenced his view of contemporary Jewish society and strengthened his maskilic beliefs. After his second marriage, he settled in Odessa (1824), where he became an accredited attorney, notary, and translator. His home soon was a center for the city’s budding Jewish intelligentsia.

Aksenfeld started writing in Yiddish (and he was one of the few writers of the nineteenth century who wrote only in that language) in the 1820s or perhaps as late as the latter half of the 1830s. He was an avid reader of German, Russian, and other European literatures (in German or Russian translations), developing a lively interest in the eighteenth-century picaresque novel (Alain-René Lesage’s Gil Blas seemed to have been his favorite) and bourgeois drama with its concomitant dramatic theory (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Hamburgische Dramaturgie).

Aksenfeld produced dozens of manuscripts: plays, novellas, and novels; some of the latter, which he himself called “Jewish Gil Blases,” stretched to 1,500–2,000 pages. He could not, however, print his works inside the tsarist empire, as publication of Yiddish books was virtually forbidden during the reign of Nicholas I (1825–1855). Though he persistently sought special permission to publish works in line with the ideals of the Haskalah, asserting that his writing would have a positive educational influence, the tsarist government was suspicious of maskilim. The government did not want them to foment unrest, nor did it want to antagonize the strong Hasidic contingent (the butt of satires written by maskilim, Aksenfeld included). Thus it would allow only the publication of Hebrew-language Haskalah books, which were inaccessible to the Jewish masses.

Aksenfeld’s supplications were flatly rejected. In 1861, a short time before the restriction forbidding Yiddish publication was removed, he managed to publish one relatively short novel, Dos shterntikhl (The Headband), in Leipzig. In 1862, he published a drama, Der ershter yidisher rekrut (The First Jewish Draftee), also in Germany. In 1864, a committee of Odessa intellectuals was established with the aim of publishing his works. The time, however, was too late for the aged, ailing, and embittered writer, who left Russia and spent the last year of his life in Paris, where one of his sons was a professor of medicine.

After Aksenfeld’s death, the Odessa group made efforts to publish at least some of his works. One play, Man un vayb, shvester un brider (Husband and Wife, Sisters and Brothers) was published in 1867. Two others, Di genarte velt (The Cheated Public) and Kabtsn-oysher shpil (Pauper–Rich Man Play), followed in 1870. The next year, the author’s archive was apparently destroyed in the Odessa pogrom. Thus, of the entire Aksenfeld legacy, only four dramas and a short novel (an additional novella, After Two Hares, appeared in 1872 in Russian translation) survived—a mere fraction of his work. Hence, critics are severely limited in their understanding and appreciation of Aksenfeld’s formidable literary project, particularly of his achievement as a novelist. As for the plays, one may assume that they represent his dramatic art at its best, since they were chosen for publication by a committee of intelligent readers acquainted with his work in its entirety. In any case, judging by what is available today, one can form some idea of the scope and limitations of Aksenfeld’s considerable talent.

Aksenfeld’s writings exhibit at least three characteristics that justify a view of him as chief among forerunners of classic modern Yiddish fiction writers. He possessed, first of all, a great talent for recreating lively, idiomatic Yiddish speech. His greatest asset was an ear for the spoken word—rendered in dialogue as well as in lengthy garrulous monologues of characters whose sociopsychological authenticity could not be questioned. Thus he created an array of characters, from the erudite and honest rabbi of Man un vayb to the coarse and ignorant countrywoman in Dos shterntikhl, or the spirited but naive outcast poet Big Nakhman, the protagonist of Der ershter yidisher rekrut. True, Aksenfeld’s art of recreated speech was based, as was the better part of Yiddish Haskalah literature as a whole, on a negative concept of Yiddish as an inherently flawed and “comic” language. However, rarely did Yiddish literature before Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, Yitskhok Yoyel Linetski, and Sholem Aleichem come so close to realizing the potential of Yiddish speech as a burgeoning element in its own right.

Aksenfeld’s second characteristic was his keen interest in and knowledge about ethnic and folkloristic aspects of East European (mainly Ukrainian) Jewish life. As was the case with Yiddish itself, folklore was subjected to a thoroughly negative, maskilic examination, and rejected as a vestige of a bankrupt medieval civilization. Yet Aksenfeld’s love for its colorful details and interest in its classification (for instance, he created in Der ershter yidisher rekrut a character who was a walking compendium of Yiddish proverbs) enabled him to bring to life the backwater reality of the Ukrainian shtetl of the early nineteenth century. At the same time, he was able to place a folkloristic artifact, such as the old-fashioned Jewish woman’s headband (shterntikhl), to good artistic use in a novel that juxtaposed modernity and proper functioning (symbolized by money) with dysfunctional medievalism (symbolized by awkward and very expensive headgear embroidered with pearls and other jewels, a vestigial status symbol).

The third characteristic was Aksenfeld’s ability to grasp and courageously expose the economic and financial underpinnings of any given social behavior—a feature that endeared him to the Marxist Yiddish scholarly establishment of the USSR many decades later. Aksenfeld made full use of socioeconomic insights in critically presenting traditional East European Jewish society. Despite their obvious antitraditional bias, his works offer a three-dimensional picture of a living civilization. Though committed to his maskilic allegiances, the author could, from time to time, see beyond them, as in Der ershter yidisher rekrut, where an exponent of the Haskalah, the official raisonneur—who offers the maskilic justification of the infamous ukase of 1827 that made Jewish communal leadership responsible for drafting Jewish boys to the Russian army for 25 years of service—was exposed as cunningly and criminally prodding the communal leadership toward the victimization of an innocent youngster.

While Aksenfeld’s flair for recreated speech rendered him a natural playwright, his concept of dramatic structure was primitive and sensationalist. The dramatic literature of the early Haskalah (exemplified by Yitsḥak Euchel, Aharon Wolfssohn-Halle, and Shloyme Ettinger, among others), was influenced by the bourgeois comédie larmoyante (tearful comedy) with its rather mechanical structural concept of conflict and denouement through “recognition.” But while Euchel and Ettinger had used this concept with considerable sophistication, Aksenfeld followed a particularly sensationalist and sentimentalist brand of it—that of the German dramatist August von Kotzebue. Thus he heavy-handedly plotted his dramatic fictions, with the exception of Der ershter yidisher rekrut, undoubtedly his best work, around a set of riddles and unfinished developments, which were then solved in hardly credible scenes of denouement, replete with sudden recognitions (characters were often revealed to be the parents or children or siblings of each other).

Moreover, it is not clear whether Aksenfeld ever succeeded in developing a real epic tone in his novels. Of course, without having access to more of his works, we cannot know this with any certainty, but to judge by Dos shterntikhl, Aksenfeld could hardly disconnect himself as a narrator from the lively speech of his characters. The boundaries separating the novel from the drama were blurred to him (as is indicated by the fact that in the German front page of Der ershter yidisher rekrut he referred to this play as “Ein komisch-tragischer Roman [novel] in jüdisch-deutschem jargon”). This liminal generic wandering between drama and story proved dangerously slippery. Even in a short novel such as Dos shterntikhl, the insistent dramatization of the narration is tiring, making the reader deplore the lack of a genuinely epic voice that could present the hectic social scene from some distance and bring to it the wisdom and wide perspective the characters themselves did not possess. If this was the author’s practice also in his Gil Blas–like picaresques of thousands of pages, it is doubtful that these fictions were readable.

Contemporary Yiddish fiction as a whole was waiting for the emergence of an authentic Yiddish-speaking epic narrator. Vacillating between the two unsatisfactory options of an all but dramatic presentation of reality on the one hand and the gauche and simplistic epic services of a naively Germanized narrator on the other, Aksenfeld’s voice found itself in an artistic quandary. This quandary was resolved by the epic narrator invented in the 1860s by Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh and called “Mendele Moykher-Sforim” (Mendele the Book Peddler). That is why everything that is “pre-Mendelean” in modern Yiddish fiction, including the very lively works of Aksenfeld, must be dealt with in terms of potential and anticipation. Aksenfeld, as we know him, is an important precursor—no less, but also no more, than that.

Suggested Reading

Yisroel Aksenfeld, “The Headband,” in The Shtetl: A Creative Anthology of Jewish Life in Eastern Europe, trans. and ed. Joachim Neugroschel, pp. 49–172 (New York, 1989); Max Erik, “Vegn sotsyaln mehus fun Aksenfelds shafn,” in Di yidishe literatur in nayntsetn yorhundert, ed. Chava Turnianski, comp. Chone Shmeruk, pp. 165–240 (Jerusalem, 1993); Saul Ginzburg, “New Material regarding Israel Aksenfeld,” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 5 (1950): 172–183; Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised: The Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1973), pp. 53–54, 212–213, 260–263, 272–273; Dan Miron, “Shevis-ha-peniniyim: ‘Ekron ha-metsi’ut ba-roman Dos shterntikhl le-Yisra’el Aksenfeld,” in Ben ḥazon le-emet, pp. 179–216 (Jerusalem, 1979).