Zalman Shneour (right) and playwright Perets Hirshbeyn (left), Vilna, 1905. (YIVO)

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Shneour, Zalman

(1886–1959), Hebrew and Yiddish poet and novelist. A scion of the Shneerson dynasty that has led the Lubavitch Hasidic movement since its inception, Zalman (Zalkind) Shneour was born to a middle-class, somewhat traditional family in the Belorussian town of Shklov, a center of Jewish learning, of Lubavitch Hasidism, and of the Haskalah. His childhood (which he colorfully evoked in his novella cycle Shklover yidn [Jews of Shklov; 1929]) was not a happy one. A recipient of a traditional heder education with the addition of some tutoring in modern secular studies (including Russian and modern Hebrew), Shneour became, from a very early age, an avid reader of Hebrew literature. This was definitely not encouraged by his parents, who wished to see him turn his attention to a practical career in commerce.

When Shneour was 12, his father took him to Warsaw for Naḥum Sokolow, editor of the daily newspaper Ha-Tsefirah, to decide whether it was realistic to allow Shneour to indulge in writing. The meeting with Sokolow went badly, and the father and son returned home, each more determined than ever to oppose the will of the other. More than a year later, young Shneour abandoned his home and went to Odessa, then the capital of Zionist and Hebrew literary activity. He was received with warmth and compassion by Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, who became the benevolent father figure in Shneour’s life.

In 1902, Shneour left for Warsaw and found work in the editorial office of the Hebrew children’s weekly ‘Olam katan, in which his first poems for children were printed. In that same year, he published his first “adult” Hebrew and Yiddish poems in different Warsaw publications. In 1904, he moved to Vilna, where he worked for the Hebrew periodical Ha-Zeman (in which he published poems and prose, including his first extended novella, Mavet [Death], written in the form of the diary of a suicide). Falling in love with the old town (which he was later to commemorate in a famous ode) and its young women, he spent the happiest two years of his youth there, at the end of which time he was already a well-known member of the Hebrew poetic “Pleiade” (the group of young poets influenced by Bialik). In 1906, his first collection of Hebrew poems, ‘Im sheki‘at ha-ḥamah (At Sunset), was published by Tushiyah, then a bustling publishing house that monopolized contemporary “young” Hebrew writing. The book, generally well received, elicited the highest public praise from Bialik, ensuring Shneour’s poetic status as the most prominent and promising poet among his contemporaries.

From La-Sevivon (To the Dreydl), by Zalman Shneour (Frankfurt, Moscow, Odessa: Omanut, 1922). Illustration by Ḥavurat Tsayarim be-Odes (Group of Artists in Odessa). This Hebrew children's book was prepared in Odessa in 1918-1921, but issued in Frankfurt a year later, after the repression of Hebrew culture in the Soviet Union made its publication there impossible. It is believed to have been illustrated by one or more members of a group of four students from the Odessa Art Academy, who may have needed to remain anonymous for fear of persecution. (Gross Family Collection)

Emboldened, Shneour decided to leave Eastern Europe to acquire a modern literary and scientific education in Western universities. He intermittently studied literature, philosophy, and natural sciences in Switzerland (Bern and Geneva) and in Paris. At the same time, he constantly enlarged the conceptual and generic format of his poetry. If before 1906 he had written mainly relatively short lyrical poems of mood and landscape, now he invested himself in comprehensive cycles of poems and particularly in extensive rhapsodic sequences in which mood and landscape form a backdrop for philosophical rumination (evincing the poet’s penchant for somewhat popularized Nietzschean and vitalist concepts) as well as for lengthy rhetorical arguments.

Shneour’s poem “‘Im tselile ha-mandolina” (To the Sound of the Mandolin; 1912), offering a Nietzschean view of the nihilist cultural present (“God’s demise”) as well as of the tragic Jewish exilic state, was enthusiastically received as a masterpiece. Similarly celebrated was the vast symbolist sequence Be-Harim (In the Mountains; 1908–1913), a philosophical quest poem of a poet wanderer who seeks the meaning of life and art in the Swiss Alps. Shneour worked for five years on this lyrical epic, the completion of which made possible the publication of a major collection of poems, originally under the title Shirim u-fo’emot (Lyrical and Narrative Poems; 1914), but subsequently better known by the title Gesharim (Bridges). The publication in 1913 of the poem “Yeme ha-benayim mitkarvim” (The Dark Ages Draw Nigh), a rhetorical tour de force in which the poet prophesied, against the background of the Beilis blood libel trial, the approaching rebrutalization of European civilization and reemergence of a visceral, “medieval” antisemitism, enhanced Shneour’s poetic stature by adding to his other qualities that of a prophet, a trait that the Bialikian poet–prophet model demanded from a Hebrew poet of genius.

During the decade before World War I, Shneour was also prolific as the author of Hebrew and Yiddish psychological and naturalistic prose fiction. He also wrote and published Yiddish poems (among them the well-known “Margaritkelekh” [Little Daisies], which gained wide popularity as a folk song). When World War I broke out, Shneour was in Berlin, studying medicine. Carrying a Russian passport, he was now subject to many restrictions. He was forced to discontinue his studies and suffered hardships until he managed (in 1919) to leave Germany (via Copenhagen) and reach the United States. His ties with American and European Yiddish newspapers restored, Shneour went back to Germany, but after giving up on medicine, he joined the Russian Jewish businessman and cultural entrepreneur Shelomoh Zaltsman in establishing a Hebrew publishing house. The enterprise then published his collected Hebrew writings from the years 1900 to 1923 in three deluxe volumes: Gesharim (1922; a new edition of the 1914 poetry collection), Ba-Metsar (In Extremis; 1923; prose fiction), and Ḥezyonot (Visions; 1924)—the latter an extensive collection of poetry from the years 1913–1923, including well-known poems such as “Yeme ha-benayim mitkarvim,” “Vilna,” “Spartacus,” and the rhetorical pièce de résistance “Mi-Shire ha-goral” (Poems of Destiny), perhaps Shneour’s most incisive exploration of the fate of the artist as a Nietzschean superman.

This new collection of poems was hailed by the established critics as representing a fully mature poet. However, Shneour’s role as a major Hebrew literary figure was, at this point, all but played out. He felt the antagonism of a young literary generation even before he attempted in 1925 to find a place for himself and his family in Palestine. Yet there, he was bitterly disappointed with his reception and with the offers the local literary establishment and Zionist officialdom could make in order to facilitate his settling down in Tel Aviv. He returned to Paris, to where he had moved from Berlin a year earlier, and made France his home for 17 years.

The change in his literary career manifested itself in a dual shift of emphasis: from Hebrew to Yiddish and from poetry to prose fiction. Outwardly, this did not involve a drastic reconstruction of the author’s literary personality, since Shneour had from the onset of his career written much fiction in both languages. Also, he would continue writing Hebrew poetry (indeed, a third major collection appeared in Tel Aviv in 1933, titled Pirke ya‘ar [Forest Chapters]; it included the author’s best lyrical poems) as well as rewriting in Hebrew some of his major Yiddish novels. However, the implications of the dual shift were far-reaching.

From Zalman Shneour in Warsaw to Abraham Cahan in New York, 28 November 1928. Shneour and his wife and child are visiting her father, and therefore he apologizes for delays this may cause in his delivery of installments of stories that Cahan is publishing serially in the American Yiddish newspaper Forverts: "The Polish post is not as punctual as the French post." He complains that Cahan's refusal to allow the Canadian Yiddish newspaper Der keneder odler to reprint his work has deprived him of income, and he wants Cahan to get the Forverts to make it up to him with a bigger monthly fee for the "4 novels that I have printed week in and week out." He notes that booksellers from all over Europe and America have written to him asking him to publish the novels in book form. Based on this, he is sure that a print run of 5,000–6,000 would sell out, at least 2,000 in Warsaw alone. He knows that the Forverts doesn't publish books but he wonders if they might make an exception this time. He awaits the next volume of Cahan's published memoirs and compares the latter favorably to a memoir by Shmerl Levin that he has recently read. He also alludes to the fact that Cahan is a "martyr" who has put aside his fiction writing for the good of "his party." Yiddish. Hebrew letterhead: Z. Shneour. RG 1139, Abraham Cahan Papers, F135. (YIVO)

In Paris in the summer of 1927, Shneour met with Abe Cahan, the dictatorial editor of the Forverts, the most widely circulated Yiddish newspaper in America. Cahan insisted on publishing (in weekly installments) artistic fiction of quality and was able to pay handsome salaries to writers whose narrative art appealed to him and at the same time was accessible to a wide readership. Shneour presented him with a series of brilliantly written tales and vignettes focusing on the life of a middle-class Jewish family in Shklov of the 1890s—a slightly camouflaged sequence of autobiographical pieces. Cahan’s reaction was enthusiastic. Not only were the stories poignant, funny, and well crafted, but they also responded to a growing cultural need, on the part of the already acculturated and relatively secure Jewish immigrants in the West, to look “homeward” to their native East European towns and hamlets, now changed and unreachable because of wars and revolutions, with bittersweet nostalgia. The success of the Shklov sequence, as it was published in weekly installments for almost a year in the Forverts (as well as in Moment, the popular Warsaw newspaper), was spectacular. Readers of the newspapers read the installments to their families as part of Sabbath relaxation.

The author, who also published the stories in two volumes, Shklover yidn (1929) and Feter Zhome (Uncle Zhome; 1930; both texts went into many editions), became the most popular Yiddish fiction writer (alongside Sholem Asch) of the time, and could afford a high standard of living in his elegant villa near Paris. More important, he discovered that the impressions of life in the hometown he had left with no regret as a teenager came back now, engulfing his memory and releasing in him an unprecedented creative energy. He turned from the constrained world of middle-class Shklov to the simpler and more emotionally dynamic of one of the town’s ameratsim (ignoramuses), artisans, and workers, people of great appetites and much physical prowess and courage, and produced a vast epic with the figure of the brave teamster Noyekh Pandre at its center (Noyekh Pandre was eventually published in five volumes; 1938–1939).

From there Shneour turned to Shklov, Saint Petersburg, and Paris of the beginning of the nineteenth century in an extensive, intricately plotted historical novel (Keyser un rebe [Emperor and Rabbi], with a book-form edition in five volumes; 1944–1952), in which he attempted to bring together the history of the nascent Lubavitch Hasidic movement and its founder, Reb Shneur Zalman of Liady, the career of Napoleon from soldier of the French Revolution to France’s emperor, and the secret incestuous history of a respected family of Jewish Shklov’s upper crust. More Shklov-centered novels, such as Der mamzer (The Bastard; 1957) followed. In essence, Shneour dedicated the three last decades of his life to a growing cycle of Shklov epics that absorbed the best part of his literary energy, although he also kept writing poetry in both Yiddish and Hebrew.

World War II trapped Shneour and his family in occupied France. After more than a year in hiding, they managed to slip out of the country, arriving in New York in 1941. Thanks to his ties with the Forverts, the writer managed to settle down in relative comfort, continuing the interrupted publication of his Yiddish fiction. He stayed in the United States until the early 1950s when he decided to relocate to Israel, which he had visited in 1949. He lived there intermittently throughout the last decade of his life.

Greatly inspired by Israel’s triumphs, Shneour nevertheless experienced much disillusionment and disappointment, facing an Israeli culture with readers and a literary establishment that had little use for him. He prepared a 10-volume edition of his Hebrew works, issued between 1957 and 1960. He died in New York in 1959. A year later, his remains were buried in Tel Aviv not far from those of Bialik and Sha’ul Tchernichowsky. A street was named after Shneour in the city by which, for much of his life, he had felt rejected.

Historically, Shneour’s contribution to the growth of post-Bialikian Hebrew poetry during the first two decades of the twentieth century consists of his contributions to the following three developments. The first was the refashioning of the genre of the poema, a very central genre in Hebrew poetry that Shneour wrenched out of its linear narrative matrix and, in the spirit of the then-current symbolism, reconstructed as a vast lyrical flow of fantasy, description, philosophical cogitation, and rhetorical harangue—all held together by theme, rhythm, and musical pattern rather than by a story line. The second development was prosodic and stylistic. The third was thematic and ideational.

Shneour extracted from the “spirit” of the so-called Hebrew national renaissance the instinctual and libidinous principles that were inherent in it and took them as far as the culture of his time would allow. His was a rebellious poetry in which intellectualism and raw instinct went hand in hand in their opposition to sentimentalism and bourgeois decorum. This often led Shneour to a combination of sensuous indulgence and intellectual pessimism that was informed by the tenets of European decadence. On another level, if we seek in the author’s legacy those parts that are still fully alive as literary texts, we have to turn from most of his Hebrew poetry to his Yiddish prose fiction (large parts of which Shneour brilliantly rewrote in Hebrew). Here he was not an innovator, but rather a talented continuer who further developed the narrative art of the klasiker, particularly that of Abramovitsh and Sholem Aleichem. While he learned from the former the art of detailed and meticulous realistic description of society and behavior, he absorbed from the latter the spirit of humorous conversation or causerie of a commentator who observed life from a comic vantage point.

However, Shneour’s prose is not merely derivative. Shklover yidn is a complex masterpiece disguised as a sequence of innocent comic shtetl idylls. Outwardly static and replete with descriptive ethnographic detail, it seethes within with the bitter alienation of a boyhood in a restrictive society, with rebellious critique of the Jewish traditional family, with vicissitudes of a difficult puberty, and with a welter of negative emotions and childish libido gone wild. It contains all of the author’s sensuality and search for intellectual freedom, but presents them not as the musings of a Jewish Zarathustra, but rather as the very poignant and, indeed, tragic yearnings of a lively boy who was never given the paternal love he needed for developing a more harmonious personality.

A good part of Shneour’s Hebrew works were collected in the 10-volume edition prepared before his death and published between 1957 and 1960. The Yiddish works have not been collected. Many of them were never published in book form and are to be found only in their original publications in the newspapers of the 1930s and the 1940s. Of either the Hebrew or the Yiddish works, only a few appeared in English translation, notably in Restless Spirit, edited and mostly translated by Moshe Spiegel (1963). It contains a selection of chapters from Shklover yidn and other Yiddish works, as well a dozen Hebrew poems.

Suggested Reading

Hillel Barzel, Shirat ha-teḥiyah: Amane ha-z´aner (Tel Aviv, 1997), pp. 137–215; David Aryeh Friedman, ‘Iyune shirah (Tel Aviv, 1964), pp. 214–261; Yeshurun Keshet, Havdalot (Tel Aviv, 1962), pp. 36–85; Joseph Klausner, Z. Shne’ur: Ha-Meshorer veha-mesaper (Tel Aviv, 1947); Dan Miron, Bodedim be-mo’adam (Tel Aviv, 1987); Dan Miron, Ha-Tsad he-afel bi-tseḥoko shel Shalom ‘Alekhem (Tel Aviv, 2004), pp. 117–195; Avraham Sha’anan, Ha-Sifrut ha-‘Ivrit ha-ḥadashah li-zerameha, vol. 4, pp. 16–52 (Tel Aviv, 1962).