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Vilenkin, Leyzer

(1894–1985), Yiddish linguist. Born in Horodok, Belorussia, into a poor family, Leyzer Vilenkin worked in Kharkov from 1912. In 1917 he moved to Petrograd, where he studied pedagogy, literature, and linguistics at several institutions, including Leningrad (previously Petrograd) University from 1921 to 1925. Simultaneously between 1923 and 1927, he taught at an orphanage and a secondary school. Vilenkin was a research student at the Leningrad Institute for Literature and Languages of the East and West from 1926 to 1929. Subsequently, from 1929 to 1931 he worked at the Yiddish Institute of the Belorussian Academy of Sciences.

Following Mordkhe Veynger’s suicide in 1929, Vilenkin became the leading Minsk-based Yiddish linguist, continuing Veynger’s two main projects: a Yiddish academic dictionary and an atlas of Yiddish dialects. While the dictionary never materialized, the Yidisher shprakhatlas fun Sovetn-farband (Yiddish Language Atlas of the Soviet Union), edited by Vilenkin, appeared in 1931, his description of the project having been published in 1929. The atlas was based on questionnaires completed by residents of the former Pale of Jewish Settlement. A pioneer work of its kind, it remains one of the most important sources of information on the distribution and peculiarities of the Yiddish dialects spoken in Ukraine and Belorussia.

In 1934, Vilenkin published the results of two case studies on lexical peculiarities of the Soviet Yiddish urban vernacular. Three years earlier, he had recorded the spoken words and phrases of 65 workers in Minsk, mostly during two court trials at which proceedings were conducted in Yiddish. He also analyzed the styles and vocabularies of worker correspondents who had written 50 articles for Yiddish newspapers at several Moscow factories. Both studies revealed signs of Russification. On the subject of language planning, Vilenkin supported Nokhem Shtif’s proposal to “activize” Yiddish by using active constructions and avoiding the passive voice. Vilenkin also tried to follow Shtif’s recommendations to minimize the number of constructions with the preposition fun (of; from; by).

Vilenkin lived in Moscow from 1932, working at various academic institutions. He was arrested in 1948 and served six years in a labor camp, returning to live outside Leningrad. He participated in a linguistic conference organized by Sovetish heymland (Soviet Homeland) in 1966. Vilenkin attempted to emigrate in the 1960s but was stopped at the airport while attempting to smuggle out his memoir about life in the labor camp. He finally immigrated to Israel in 1970. Between 1973 and 1976, he published six small volumes of his prose and poetry, called Gerangl (Struggle), manifesting his Israeli and general Jewish patriotism.

Suggested Reading

Gennady Estraikh, Soviet Yiddish: Language Planning and Linguistic Development (Oxford, 1999); Viktor Maksimovich Zhirmunskii, “O nekotorykh voprosakh evreiskoi dialektologii,” Iazyk i myshlenie 9 (1940): 135–145.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 552, Uriel Weinreich, Papers, 1949-1967.