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Shmeruk, Khone

(1921–1997), historian of Yiddish literature and Ashkenazic Jewry. Khone Shmeruk was born and raised in Warsaw, where he studied in a modern heder and in the Krinski secondary school before beginning studies at the University of Warsaw and the YIVO Institute. In the latter part of his career, he was instrumental in renewing Jewish studies in Poland.

From 1939 to 1946, Shmeruk was a refugee in the USSR. He went from there to a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, and in 1949 immigrated to Israel. He studied in the Yiddish department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem under Dov Sadan and in the department of Jewish history with Ben-Zion Dinur, Yitsḥak Baer, and Israel Halpern, who directed Shmeruk’s dissertation on Jewish settlement in Belorussia from 1918 to 1932, for which he earned a doctorate in 1961.

Shmeruk rejected a narrow Yiddishist view and studied Yiddish documents and literature from the broad perspective of the history of the Jewish people and its culture, noting the connections of Yiddish to Hebrew language and literature of diverse periods, and to the other cultures, languages, and literatures with which it came into contact. He contributed to the removal of Yiddish studies from its isolation and expanded its boundaries from traditional linguistic and literary fields toward new areas and sub-areas, including popular culture in all its manifestations, the history of printing, the book and book illustrations, children’s literature, and shund (dismissive term for popular genres) literature. He also explored connections between such topics as literary work and journalism, the plastic arts, theater, and academic research.

In contrast to most of the scholars who preceded him, Shmeruk dealt not only with modern Yiddish literature but also with old Yiddish forms (beginning with the earliest records, from 1272 and 1382), and challenged received opinion. Shedding new light on the main genres of modern and early Yiddish literature (including biblical epics, the purim-shpil, narrative prose, “historical” songs, and poetical contests), he analyzed the works of prominent writers such as Elye Bokher (Levita; ca. 1468–1549) and Rivke bas Me’ir of Tikotin (d. 1605) in his books Sifrut yidish: Perakim le-toldoteha (Yiddish Literature: Aspects of its History; 1978 [a Yiddish version, Prokim fun der yidisher literatur-geshikhte appeared in 1988]; and Sifrut yidish be-Polin: Meḥkarim ve-‘iyunim historiyim [Yiddish Literature in Poland: Historical Studies and Perspectives; 1981]). He investigated the development of old Yiddish literature in Germany, Bohemia–Moravia, northern Italy, Poland–Lithuania, and Holland, demonstrating the continuity between it and Haskalah literature (as illustrated by Moyshe Markuse, Menaḥem Mendel Lefin, and Yosef Perl), Hasidic literature (in Shivḥe ha-Besht and the tales of Rabbi Naḥman of Bratslav), and modern Yiddish literature in general.

Shmeruk’s considerable contribution to the field of modern Yiddish extends from his studies of its earliest harbingers at the beginning of the nineteenth century, through his wide-ranging observations on the works of Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Y. L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem, to his many examinations of Yiddish literature in its twentieth-century centers and primarily in the USSR, and on the works of a series of prominent writers of that period (including Itsik Manger, Uri Tsevi Grinberg, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Avrom Sutzkever). He produced editions of older works (for example, biblical plays in Yiddish written between 1607 and 1750, and unpublished writings of Yosef Perl that he discovered), and annotated bibliographies of Yiddish books printed in Poland until the massacres of 1648–1649 and in Italy until 1610.

Shmeruk examined religious life in premodern Jewish culture and rejected efforts of radical historians to find secular trends and modern political phenomena in it. He contributed greatly to revising the image of Hasidism as a movement with the social and economic message that his predecessors had given to it, and also challenged the prevailing view on the decisive centrality of the Haskalah movement in Eastern Europe in the processes of modernization. Shmeruk’s research shed new light upon many factors and historical processes, including on linguistic and literary systems, the reciprocal relations between Jews and their surroundings (especially between Jews and Poles), the evolution of literary and historical traditions, processes of acculturation, and the passage to modernity.

For many years Shmeruk was head of the Department of Yiddish at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and in that framework he founded a belles lettres series in 1969 (titled Sifrut Yidish [Yiddish Literature]) and a series of monographs in 1986 (Yidish—Mekorot u-meḥkarim [Yiddish—Texts and Studies]). He laid the foundations for the Yiddish Press catalog (Index of Yiddish Periodicals; IYP), and for other collections and recordings, including a bibliography of Yiddish books printed between 1534 and 1750. He also initiated and established the Center for Research and Documentation of East European Jewry (1956) and the Center for Research on the History and Culture of Polish Jews at the Hebrew University (1983), directing the latter for nine years and forming a model for a similar center, established at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków in 1986. In addition, Shmeruk served as a visiting professor at the University of Warsaw and taught at the University of Łódź. He was a fellow of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and received the Israel Prize in 1996.

Suggested Reading

Yekhezkl Lifshits, “Shmeruk, Khone,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 8, cols. 731–732 (New York, 1981); Chava Turniansky, “Bibliography of Chone Shmeruk’s Writings,” in Ke-Minhag Ashkenaz u-Polin, Sefer yovel le-Ḥone Shmeruk, ed. Israel Bartal, Ezra Mendelsohn, and Chava Turniansky, pp. 413–428 (Jerusalem, 1993); Le-zikhro shel Ḥone Shmeruk: Devarim she-ne’emru bi-melot sheloshim le-moto (Jerusalem, 1998), booklet containing remarks presented on the thirtieth day after Shmeruk’s death and including a bibliography of his writings from 1993 to 1997.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 552, Uriel Weinreich, Papers, 1949-1967; RG 610, Leib Olitzky, Papers, 1940s-1960s; RG 676, Ezekiel Lifschutz, Papers, 1960s-1970s.



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green