Shmuel Lehman (fourth from right) reenacting an interview with an elderly woman, with his folklore students crowding around them, Warsaw, 1931. (YIVO)

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Lehman, Shmuel

(1886–1941), folklorist. Shmuel Lehman collected material from marginal social groups such as the Jewish underworld and prostitutes. Although not formally trained in academics or in theories of folklore, he dedicated his life to culling folk songs, proverbs, purim-shpils, and folktales from a wide spectrum of Yiddish-speaking society in Poland. He used whatever work he did, including bill collecting and selling lottery tickets, as an excuse to meet ordinary people and record their folklore. By the time of his death in the Warsaw ghetto, he had published more data than any other Yiddish folklorist.

Born in Warsaw to a Hasidic family, Lehman joined the socialist Bund as a teenager and was among the founders of the Groser Club and Library in Warsaw. His younger brother Volf became a proofreader for the Bundist press. Lehman sought out work that would take him to the countryside, and he traveled from town to town collecting material. Although he worked alone almost his entire life, he was associated with a Warsaw folklore group, formed around 1912, that included Noah Pryłucki (Noyekh Prilutski), Pinkhes Graubard, and the poet and critic A. Almi. Graubard published Lehman’s collections over the next 25 years. The historian Yekhiel Yeshaye Trunk noted, ironically, that Lehman only received organizational support for his folklore work in the Warsaw ghetto.

Lehman first published his materials in Noyekh Prilutskis zamlbikher far yidishn folklor, filologye un kultur-geshikhte (Noah Pryłucki’s Anthology of Yiddish Folklore, Philology, and Cultural History; 1912) a coauthored collection of Yiddish nicknames for towns, cities, and areas—a genre that had never before been identified in Yiddish folklore literature. His first key work was Arbet un frayhayt (Labor and Liberation; 1921), which included songs about labor, strikes, and revolution. Lehman’s assumption that these materials constituted folklore was controversial in its day, for it contradicted notions that folklore should be old and reflect national character. The work sparked a profound discussion in the Yiddish press about the nature of the field.

Lehman was less interested in what defined folklore than in the pleasure of collecting what he considered fast-disappearing treasures of the people. He never wrote a theoretical article; for him, any artistic expression in Yiddish could be folklore, to the extent that in Arbet un frayhayt he included a formulaic dialogue between a blackmailer and his victim during a payoff.

Lehman’s collections of relatively recent historical materials (songs of the 1905 Revolution, World War I) also contradicted the accepted idea that folklore had to be from the past. In 1923, his contributions to the volume Bay undz Yidn (Among Us Jews; 1923) included collections of Yiddish folklore on thieves, children’s folklore, and two purim-shpils. In 1928, he published his important volume of thieves’ songs, Ganovim-lider mit melodyes (Thieves’ Songs with Melodies). Lehman was a pioneer in nearly all other subjects of Yiddish folklore that he collected before the Holocaust, among them songs of prostitutes, cante fables (tales with embedded verse or song), and tales of Elijah the Prophet. We know from witnesses that much of his invaluable collection of Yiddish folklore was lost in the Warsaw ghetto, where he died in October 1941.

Suggested Reading

Itzik Nakhmen Gottesman, “Shmuel Lehman,” in Defining the Yiddish Nation: The Jewish Folklorists of Poland, pp. 11–28 (Detroit, 2003); Melekh Ravitch, “Shmuel Lehman,” in Mayn leksikon, vol. 2, pp. 36–38 (Montreal, 1947); Yankev Shatzky, “Shmuel Lehman: 1886–1941,” in YIVO-bleter 18 (1941): 80–83.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1,1, YIVO (Vilna): Administration, Records, 1925-1941.