Letter from Yisroel Rabon to Sholem Asch, 1938. From Yisroel Rabon in Warsaw to Sholem Asch in New York, 23 July 1938, belatedly thanking him for his donation of 100 dollars, which is helping to enable the continued existence of Os, "the only literary-art journal around which young Jewish writers in Poland are congregating." Yiddish. Polish and Yiddish letterhead: Os, Literary Monthly, Warsaw, Przejazd 1, m. 27; Łódź, Śródmiejska 30, m. 42. RG 602, Shalom Asch Papers, F85. (YIVO)

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Rabon, Yisroel

(1900–1941), Yiddish author. Yisroel Rabon (orig. Rubin) was born in Gowarchów but grew up in Balut, a working-class suburb of Łódź. He had little formal education but read voraciously, acquiring a broad literary knowledge at an early age and publishing his first poems in his teens. He spent most of the interwar years in Łódź as a professional writer. After the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, he escaped to Vilna, and was shot in 1941 in Ponar.

Rabon’s major literary works are two novels, Di gas (The Street; 1928) and Balut: Roman fun a forshtot (Balut: Novel of an Urban Neighborhood; 1934), and three books of poetry: Untern ployt fun der velt (Under the Fence of the World; 1928), Groer friling (Gray Spring; 1933), and Lider (Poems; 1937). In addition, he published poetry (including translations), short stories, and essays on literary and cultural topics in literary journals, and was himself the editor of three such journals (S’Feld [1919–1923], Shveln [1923–1924] and Os [1936–1939]).

Di gas, Rabon’s best-known and most experimental work, portrays a few months in the life of a soldier (the novel’s first-person narrator) in the early 1920s who has just been demobilized from the Polish army and finds himself homeless on the streets of Łódź. Episodic in structure, the novel juxtaposes the narrator’s experiences with those of several other Jews whom he meets on his way. All exist on the margins of society and share a sense of loneliness and alienation, exacerbated by the dislocation and chaos of World War I and its aftermath.

Balut, Rabon’s second and unfinished novel (only the first part was published), is more conventional in form and more focused on portraying the society in which the main character lives. It is a bildungsroman whose protagonist, Yosl, is a young boy growing up among the Jewish working poor in Balut. In its most striking scene, Yosl observes young working men and women spending their free Saturday afternoon in a field on the edge of the city in an open display of sexuality that quickly turns violent. The question posed by the novel—whether Yosl will be able to avoid the degenerate life typical of Balut youth—is left unanswered in the portion Rabon completed.

Contemporary reviewers of both Di gas and Balut regarded Rabon as an interesting and powerful writer but expressed discomfort with his work because of its explicit scenes of sex and violence, and because it did not fit neatly into any of the established categories of Yiddish literature. Whereas Yiddish prose had, for the most part, taken the shtetl community as its main subject, Rabon chose urban settings and portrayed individuals or groups on the margins of Jewish society. This unconventional view of Jewish life reflects an important difference between Rabon, who had an urban upbringing, and most other contemporary Yiddish writers, who grew up in shtetls and came to the cities as young adults.

The fact that the social focus in Balut is broader than in Di gas is indicative of a trend in Rabon’s writing, present also in his poetry and essays. His earlier poetry concentrates on the anguished self; later poetry also encompasses social themes and is often grotesque and satirical. His early essays focus on the creative powers of the writer or on individual authors; later essays are concerned also with cultural standards within Jewish society.

Besides his serious literary work, Rabon regularly wrote potboiler novels that were serialized in newspapers. Known as shund (trash), sensational writing such as this was in general decried by the literary establishment, and serious writers who also produced such novels in order to make a living hid behind a pseudonym. Rabon, however, aroused no little controversy by publishing shund under his own name (his literary pseudonym Rabon), thereby giving it a measure of legitimacy. His essays, however, demonstrate an ambivalent attitude toward shund: on the one hand, he justified the presence of such popular works within the overall literary system as a sign that Yiddish literature was a full-blown literature comparable with its European counterparts; on the other, he too complained that shund brought down general literary standards.

In wartime Vilna, Rabon continued to write, but the only substantial work to survive is a piece of literary reportage, “Fartseykhenungen fun yor 1939” (Sketches of the Year 1939, in Untervegns, Almanakh far der yidisher literatur, ed. Noyekh Prilutski, Y. Y. Trunk, and Yisroel Rabon [1940]; republished in Di goldene keyt 108 [1982]). This final work emphasizes one of Rabon’s greatest talents as a writer, present throughout his career: a powerful mastery of description.

Suggested Reading

Brukhe Lang (Beatrice Lang Caplan), “Yisroel Rabon: Shtrikhn tsu a literarisher biografye” (M.A. thesis, Columbia University, 1996), includes an annotated bibliography of Rabon’s works and of secondary sources, and an appendix of Rabon’s short stories, poetry, and essays collected from periodicals; Chone Shmeruk, “Yisroel Rabon and His Book Di gas (“The Street”),” in Di gas by Yisroel Rabon (Jerusalem, 1986), pp. v–l, the article also exists in Hebrew in the same volume; Itzhak Yanasowicz (Yitskhok Yanasovitsh), Lodzsher yorn: Mentshn, svives, gesheerishn (Tel Aviv, 1987).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 602, Shalom Asch, Papers, .