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Shekhtman, Eli

(1908–1996), Yiddish writer. Born in Voskovichi in Ukrainian Polesye, Eli Shekhtman began writing in Yiddish at the age of 12, before entering a yeshiva in Zhitomir in 1921. His first publication—two poems—appeared in 1928 in the Kharkov literary monthly Di royte velt. Shekhtman studied at the literary department of the Yiddish Teachers Institute in Odessa from 1929 to 1933. He spent the following three years in Kharkov, later moving to Kiev.

Shekhtman’s collection of stories, Afn sheydveg (At the Crossroads; 1930), and especially his two-part novel, Farakerte mezhes (Plowed-up Boundaries; 1932–1936, reprinted in 1941), established him as a prose writer, known for his portrayals of rural and shtetl Soviet Jewish settings. A master stylist, he continued the tradition of such writers as Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister, and Shmuel-Nisn Godiner. The majority of his literary heroes come from Polesye, the wooded and marshy region between Ukraine and Belarus. A collection of his stories, Polesyer velder (Polesye Woods), was published in 1940.

After serving as a Red Army officer from 1942 to 1947, Shekhtman returned to Kiev. His literary activities were interrupted in 1948 when Soviet authorities began liquidating all the remaining Yiddish institutions and arrested many Yiddish literati. Shekhtman, too, was imprisoned, but Stalin’s death in March 1953 saved his life. The epic novel Erev (Eve), the first Soviet Yiddish novel written and published after Stalin’s death, became the central work of his literary career. A number of critics praised it as one of the best, or even the best, achievement of post-Holocaust Yiddish prose. The first four parts of the novel were serialized in the Moscow journal Sovetish heymland and published in book form in 1965 by the Moscow publishing house Sovetskii Pisatel’. Its English translation, by Joseph Singer, appeared in New York in 1967.

The heroes of Shekhtman’s novels, often members of several families, find themselves in the turmoil of social transformation and its associated ideological and cultural changes surrounding the Russian Revolution. Shekhtman completed Erev in Israel, where he lived from 1972. The novel’s full Yiddish text was published in Israel in 1974, followed by a Hebrew translation a year later. Although Shekhtman received several Israeli literary prizes, he was disappointed with the state of Yiddish in Israel and generally stayed detached from the circle of local Yiddish writers. Characteristically, in 1991 he was not included in the two-volume anthology published by the Israeli Union of Yiddish Writers and Journalists, which sought to represent the entire Yiddish literary world of Israel.

Shekhtman’s autobiographical novel Ringen af der neshome (Rings in the Soul; 1981; Hebrew translation in 1992) showed many dark sides of Soviet Jewish life, but the writer shunned the ideologically charged activities of other recent emigrants from the Soviet Union. Baym shkie-aker (Dawn Harvesting; 1994), Shekhtman’s last novel, portrays the tragic story of a Polesyen Jewish family destined to experience the atrocities of Stalinism and the Holocaust.

Suggested Reading

Itshe Goldberg, “Eli Shekhtman, 1908–1996,” Yidishe kultur 52.5 (1990): 38–44, 52.6 (1990): 19–25.