Gdalyohu by Yehudah Steinberg, n.d. Yehudah Steinberg. First page of Gdalyohu, n.d. Stories. Corrected page proofs. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F87.9. (YIVO)

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Steinberg, Yehudah

(1863–1908), Hebrew and Yiddish writer. Yehudah Steinberg was born in Lipkany, Bessarabia, to a fervently religious Hasidic family. When he began to show signs of rebelliousness, he feuded bitterly with his father; still, when Yehudah reached age 17, his father insisted he marry a young woman so that he would “return to the fold.” After his marriage, he went to live at his father-in-law’s home in a village adjacent to the Romanian town of Shtepaneshty, a center of Hasidism. He became close to the local rebbe—a descendant of Yisra’el of Ruzhin—and absorbed the Hasidic experience in its populist rural form. Steinberg simultaneously became friendly with a local maskil who supplied him with literature that opened him up to new worlds but did not wean him away from Hasidism.

About three years later, Steinberg returned to Lipkany, where he found work as a teacher. In 1889, the escalating tensions between him and his father caused Steinberg to move to a nearby town, but he was not able to escape the persecution of religious zealots who opposed his pedagogic innovations. As an offshoot of his diligent work as a teacher, he produced his first writings, and his first book, Niv sefatayim (Fruit of the Lips; 1893), was a combination of reader and textbook on Hebrew style. Subsequently, Steinberg wrote parables, first in Yiddish and then in Hebrew, and published his earliest anthology, Ba-‘Ir uva-ya‘ar (In the Town and in the Forest; 1896). This book left a deep impression on its readers and served as the key to the Warsaw and Odessa literary communities. He became one of the most established, prolific, and sought-after contributors to virtually all Yiddish and Hebrew literary journals, and he published hundreds of stories, fables about fauna and flora, creative legends, Hasidic tales, children’s stories, as well as readers and textbooks.

Undated fables by Yehudah Steinberg, including, "The Rat and the Mongoose," "The Repentant Wolf," "The Nightingale," and "The Shofar." Manuscript, Hebrew. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

Steinberg continued teaching in Bessarabia (from 1897 he lived in the shtetl of Liovah), and only in 1905, upon his appointment as Odessa’s correspondent for the New York Yiddish newspaper Di varhayt (The Truth), did he leave this occupation. Steinberg was warmly received by other writers in Odessa, but very soon after his arrival he was diagnosed with neck cancer, the cause of his excruciating death in March 1908. Steinberg’s Hebrew writings were compiled into four volumes by Ya‘akov Fichmann between 1910 and 1913. Additional anthologies of his Yiddish stories were published posthumously.

In his stories, Steinberg proved to be a skilled craftsman of the realistic novella; his work is notable for its sophisticated composition and for its rich and multilayered descriptive language. In, for example, the story “Ba-Yamim ha-hem” (In Those Days; 1905), he deftly records the saga of a Jewish boy who is kidnapped to serve in the Russian army. Steinberg’s versions of Hasidic tales, devoid of all irony, were a significant contribution to the neo-Hasidic school of Hebrew literature. His chief importance, however, is rooted in his wide-ranging and pioneering contributions to Hebrew children’s literature: in his fables that are noted for augmenting his fictional tales with sharp homiletic insights; in his stories that are taken from the life experiences of Jewish children; and in his retelling of legends that combine Jewish historical motifs with the wonders of a fertile imagination. While he was still alive, Hebrew literary critics crowned Steinberg the “Hebrew Hans Christian Andersen.” After Steinberg died, Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, in his anonymous forward to the reader Pesi‘ot ketanot (Small Steps; 1914) praised him as a wonderful artist of children’s literature.

Suggested Reading

Jacob Fichman, “Yehudah Shtaynberg,” in Ruḥot menagnot: Sofre Polin, pp. 313–352 (Jerusalem, 1952); Berl Koyn, Azriel Naks, and Elye Shulman, eds., “Shteynberg, Yehude,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 8, cols. 624–626 (New York, 1981); Leib Kuperstein, “Yehudah Shtaynberg” in Pirke Besarabyah, vol. 1, pp. 121–136 (Tel Aviv, 1952); Uri’el Ofek, “Anderson ha-‘ivri: Yehudah Shtaynberg,” in Sifrut ha-yeladim ha-‘ivrit, 1900–1948, vol. 1, pp. 26–30 (Tel Aviv, 1988); Gershon Shaked, “Yehudah Shtaynberg,” in Ha-Siporet ha-‘ivrit, 1880–1890, vol. 1, Ba-Golah, pp. 250–261 (Tel Aviv, 1977), also in English in Modern Hebrew Fiction, trans. Yael Lotan, ed. Emily Miller Budick (Bloomington, Ind., 2000); Shne’ur Zalman, “Yehudah Shtaynberg,” in Ḥ. N. Byalik u-vene doro, pp. 290–303 (Tel Aviv, 1958).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 449, Menahem Baerush (Berish) Eppelbaum, Papers, ca. 1913-1930s.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler