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Morgenshtern, Yankev

(1820–1890), Yiddish author. Born in Piotrków, Poland, Yankev Morgenshtern subsequently moved to Łódź. He acquired the nickname Yankl Lerer (Yankl the Teacher) from his job teaching poor women the rudiments of elementary Hebrew and Yiddish writing. To make ends meet, he worked as a wedding jester and tried his hand at matchmaking. He later used the pseudonym Y. Katchko for his writings.

Morgenshtern’s fortunes changed at the beginning of the 1870s, when he began to publish a series of extremely popular chapbooks, both originals and translations; these were most frequently published by the Warsaw booksellers Y. G. Munk and L. Morgenshtern, circulated widely due to their low price (ranging from 3 to 5 kopeks each). Morgenshtern’s most popular chapbook was probably Mayse meg[iml] akhim, eyne zeyr sheyne, vunderlikhe geshikhte fun drey brider groyse layt, hanikre mayse plies (The Tale of Three Brothers: A Remarkable and Wondrous Story of Three Brothers, Great Men, Which Is Called “A Tale of Wonders”). The book was first published in Warsaw in 1870 and reprinted many times, initially by Munk in 1872. It draws heavily on international folk motifs and works such as The Tale of One Thousand and One Nights, as well as traditional Yiddish folk and ethical literature.

As was true of much traditional literature, the plot line of the Mayse megiml achim harnesses readers’ love of fantastic spectacle to ethical instruction. In the story, each brother determines to scrupulously observe a commandment about which Jews are conventionally lax: the ritual washing of hands before mealtimes, the eating of a festive “third meal” before the end of the Sabbath, and the partaking in a celebratory meal following the Sabbath’s end. Despite a series of journeys, trials, and wondrous adventures, the three continue to uphold their respective commandments and are rewarded by marrying princesses and becoming rulers of their own kingdoms.

Morgenshtern wrote other folktales as well, notable among them Shabes koydesh in Ganeydn (A Holy Sabbath in the Garden of Eden; first published in Vilna in 1897), in which he describes the splendid palace of Asmodeus, the king of the demons, here located in the backwoods of Poland, as well as the bedchambers of Asmodeus’s consort Lilith. Reprinted numerous times, the work was a major contribution to the contemporary presentation of Jewish demons.

Morgenshtern’s literary efforts were not limited to his attempts to reinvigorate Jewish folk literature. Aside from some translations from German and poems adapted from his career as a wedding jester, he was known for his anti-Hasidic folk satire  Reb Simkhe Plakhte, oder Der velt shvindler (Simkhe Coarse-Cloth, or the Man Who Fooled the World), probably first written at the end of the 1870s; the first edition was likely published by L. Nisenkorn around 1880. A tale of a simple man taken for a holy figure far above his station, the work was frequently reprinted; its popularity allowed Morgenshtern to publish a sequel, Der glikhlekher nar oder der khaver fun Simkhe Plakhte (The Happy Fool or Simkhe Plakhte’s Friend), in 1882.

Simkhe Plakhte was also adapted into a play by Yankev Preger, first published in 1932 in Warsaw and performed by the Yung-teater three years later; in 1936, Maurice Schwartz performed the lead role in a version at his Yiddish Art Theater in New York. After the Holocaust, the historian and critic Yekhiel Yeshaye Trunk published a substantially longer novel under the same name, explicitly including Morgenshtern as a character, not only his creation. Trunk praised the original author for his creativity, descriptive powers, and folksy style.

Suggested Reading

Zalman Reisen (Rejzen), “Morgenshtern Yankev,” in Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese, un filologye, vol. 2, cols. 328–330 (Vilna, 1926); Isaiah (Yekhiel Yeshaye) Trunk, “Lodz: A portret fun a shtot,” Poylisher yid 10 (1942): 32–41; Seth L. Wolitz, “Simkhe Plakhte: From ‘Folklore’ to Literary Artefact,” Polin 16 (2003): 119–135.