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Linetski, Yitskhok Yoyel

(1839–1915), Yiddish author. Born in Vinnitsa, Podolia (mod. Vinnytsya, Ukr.) to a father who was a rabbi and a devout Hasid, Yitskhok Linetski was a child prodigy. As he entered adolescence, he grew interested in the Haskalah, spending time in enlightened circles and reading secular books. Attempting to prevent what he saw as moral corruption, Linetski’s father married him at age 14 to a girl of 12; when Linetski convinced his wife to explore the Enlightenment, his father forced him to divorce her and, at 16, to marry a deaf, mentally handicapped girl, reinforcing Linetski’s hostility to traditionalist and particularly to Hasidic ways of life.

After almost three years of further conflict, in 1858 Linetski moved to Odessa, where he supported himself by teaching Hebrew. He studied German and prepared to matriculate at the rabbinical seminary in Breslau. His father, however, arranged for him to be stopped by a local rabbi at the Austrian border and returned to Vinnitsa.

Linetski soon divorced his second wife and left for Zhitomir, where he briefly attended the noted rabbinical seminary and befriended Avrom Goldfadn, later the founder of Yiddish theater. Linetski then moved to Kiev, where he tutored students and began to write in Yiddish and Hebrew. In 1865, his first Hebrew article was published in Ha-Melits, and he contributed to this publication for the next two years. He married again (for love) the same year, and over the next few years supported his family through writing, teaching, editing, peddling, petty trading, and entertaining in cabarets in towns and villages throughout southern Russia.

Linetski’s first publication in Yiddish appeared in Kol mevaser in February 1867. In June of that year, he began serializing the work that secured his fame and lasting literary reputation. Dos poylishe yingl (The Polish Boy), a fictitious autobiography that aimed to disseminate Enlightenment ideology, tells the story of a child raised in a Hasidic milieu. If contemporary sources are to be believed, the book was an enormous popular success at all levels of society, even among Hasidim.

Dos poylishe yingl was so successful that Aleksander Zederbaum, Kol mevaser’s publisher, produced a separate edition in 1869, even before the serialization was complete. The book ultimately appeared in at least 30 editions. Though critical opinion is divided about its lasting value—some praised its mimetic qualities; Shmuel Niger focused on the sharpness and coarseness of its language while minimizing its literary significance; and Sholem Aleichem referred to its author as one of “the three giants” of Yiddish letters and “our foremost Yiddish satirist”—the work was unquestionably one of the most significant polemics in Yiddish literary history.

Linetski’s polemical activities were not limited to Dos poylishe yingl. Over the next two decades he produced other works, many self-published because he had a falling out with Zederbaum (then the sole publisher of Yiddish periodicals) over alleged changes made to Linetski’s work. Some of these self-published works, such as his parodic 1872 calendar Der velt-luekh fun yohr eyn kesef (The Calendar of the Year of No Money), attacked traditional life. He also published collections of feuilletons on numerous themes, as well as the poems known as Der beyzer marshelik (The Sharp-Tongued Wedding Jester; 1869), which further concretized his persona as the vituperative opponent of traditional life and of aspects of the Haskalah as well.

Despite Linetski’s attempts to capitalize on the success of Dos poylishe yingl with works such as Der litvisher bokher (The Lithuanian Student; published serially 1875–1876), his later works never matched his breakthrough success. A joint effort with Goldfadn at producing a weekly publication, Yisrolik, in Lemberg failed, closing after half a year in 1876 because Russian authorities did not allow it into Russia. His second foray into magazine publishing, the 1886 Yiddish magazine Natsyonal in Botoşani, Romania, was forcibly closed by the Romanian authorities after producing 21 issues.

In 1882, after a brief period as a traveling salesman, Linetski moved to Odessa and began to publish a series of proto-Zionist pamphlets, making him one of the earliest major Yiddish writers to support Ḥibat Tsiyon. This said, for many years he was a vitriolic opponent of Hebrew literature, accusing its writers of deadening readers’ interest with their high-flown biblicist rhetoric. His opposition to Hebrew and the elite literary culture it represented extended to biting attacks on the Yiddish writer Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, better known as Mendele Moykher-Sforim, whose work, studded as it was with Hebrew words and phrases, Linetski felt would be enjoyed by only a tiny fraction of the reading public.

This position may be part of the reason Linetski turned so avidly to translation. Beginning in the 1880s, he produced Yiddish translations of Heinrich Graetz’s Geschichte der Juden (History of the Jews; 1883–1886), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Natan he-ḥakham (Nathan the Wise; 1884), and Yehudah Leib Gordon’s “Kotso shel yod” (The Tip of the Yud; 1904), while continuing to write numerous feuilletons and leaflets, many connected with holidays or special occasions. He also published a sequel to Dos poylishe yingl in Sholem Aleichem’s series Di yidishe folks-bibliotek (The Jewish People’s Library) in 1888 and 1889. Though friends celebrated Linetski’s literary jubilee in 1890, Linetski had largely been forgotten by the mass audience of Dos poylishe yingl, and his brief autobiography, Funem yarid (From the Fair; 1909), is somewhat bitter. His death, on 23 September 1915, during World War I, went largely unremarked.

Suggested Reading

Milton Hindus, “Yitshok Yoel Linetski,” Yiddish 1.3 (1973–1974): 60–73, in English; Isaac Joel Linetzky, The Polish Lad, trans. Moshe Spiegel (Philadelphia, 1975); Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised (1973; rpt., Syracuse, 1996); Borekh Tshubinski, “Linyetski, Yitskhok-Yoyl,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 5, cols. 163–168 (New York, 1963).