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Tsunzer, Elyokem

(1836–1913), Yiddish folk poet and songwriter. Known as Lyokemke Badkhn (Elyokem the Wedding Entertainer) and the “people’s bard,” Elyokem Tsunzer was born in Vilna (then Russia)—in 1841 rather than 1836, according to his own account—and died in New York, where he is buried in Washington Cemetery, Brooklyn. Tsunzer received a heder education but was raised when ideas of the Haskalah were reaching Eastern Europe; consequently, his years spanned modernization of Jewish life in Russia, eventual emancipation of Jews, secularization, Jewish participation in modern political movements, and the creation of specifically Jewish movements such as Zionism and Yiddishism.

Tsunzer’s life was a difficult one. He lost his father at an early age and was brought up in greater than average poverty. His circumstances took a turn for the worse when first his brother and then he himself were conscripted. His brother never returned; Tsunzer was freed soon after Alexander II abolished the practice. Tsunzer married and had five children; one was killed in a tragic accident and the others, along with his wife, died in a cholera epidemic.

Tsunzer discovered his creative talents early in life. After attempting to earn a living as a craftsman, he became a professional wedding entertainer; he worked first in Vilna, but as his fame spread, he was invited to perform as far away as Warsaw and Saint Petersburg. His songs, however, were not intended merely to entertain. Beginning with compositions from his brief military service, they criticized social injustice and decried poverty and persecution.

Tsunzer’s knowledge of the Talmud is pervasive in his work. As he became acquainted with the Haskalah, however, he began to criticize Jewish backwardness and insularity in his poems; his popularity ensured that he became a force in the modernization of Jewish life. When early Zionism emerged in the 1880s, Tsunzer saw it as a solution to Jewish struggles. One of his most famous songs, “In der sokhe ligt di mazl-brokhe” (In the Plow is Found Good Fortune), is a call for Jews to become involved in agriculture in general, to make an honest living, and to carry out these actions in Palestine in particular. He had hoped to immigrate there himself, but this proved impossible, and instead he left for New York in 1889, where he supported himself and his second wife by operating a printing shop, a trade he learned only at that late date. Through his songs, he continued to agitate for workers’ rights and other causes.

In addition to their social and historical significance, Tsunzer’s writings have literary and linguistic importance: they stand at the threshold of the shift from premodern literary Yiddish, based on Western European dialects, to modern literary Yiddish, based on East European dialects. While Tsunzer’s native Lithuanian Yiddish dialect is most prominent in his poems, he also exhibits certain features such as rhymes drawn from Ukrainian Yiddish. He was a skilled improviser; one contemporary account has him delivering an hour-long speech, all in rhyme. He is also credited with introducing blank verse to Yiddish poetry. In addition to his poems, he wrote several plays, not all of which have survived.

Suggested Reading

Solomon Liptzin, Eliakum Tsunzer: Poet of His People (New York, 1950); Mordkhe Schaechter, Elyokem Tsunzers verk: Kritishe oysgabe, 2 vols. (New York, 1964), see especially Tsunzer’s “Mayn eygn lebn,” pp. 667–716.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 228, Beinish Silberstein, Papers, 1918-1941; RG 284, Eliakum Zunser, Papers, 1888-1962; RG 36, Abraham Moshe Bernstein, Papers, 1878-1933.