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Kotik, Yekhezkl

(1847–1921), Yiddish memoir writer and public activist. Yekhezkl Kotik was born in Kamenets Litovsk (Grodno [Hrodna] province; now in Belarus), to a well-to-do family of communal officials and leaseholders who had been town leaders for several generations. His father was a Hasid who had rebelled against his family’s Misnaged lifestyle. Kotik received a traditional education but in time also rebelled against his father’s legacy and rejected Hasidism. This intergenerational tension shaped and influenced the course of his life.

After marrying in 1865, Kotik attempted to support his family, moving often and working as a shopkeeper, a melamed, and a tavern leaseholder—all the while longing to broaden his education. During the 1870s, he lived for five years in a remote village as a rural estate leaseholder; this was the most difficult period of his life. In 1877, he moved to Kiev, where he also failed to sustain his family. He continued to wander through towns inside and outside the Jewish Pale, working at various jobs. After he personally witnessed the Kiev pogrom of April 1881, he left for Warsaw and remained there until his death.

In Warsaw, Kotik ran a small dairy restaurant in the heart of teeming Nalewki Street. His café became a meeting place and vibrant center for young intellectuals, Yiddish writers, and workers’ activists, as well as for “immigrant” Jews who had arrived from Lithuania. Kotik helped to establish welfare and charity societies in Warsaw, writing and publishing detailed Yiddish and Hebrew bylaws for them. Especially known is his first society, Aḥi‘ezer, formed in 1888 to provide aid for the sick and needy.

The year 1912 was a turning point in Kotik’s life. Encouraged by his oldest son, Avraham Hirsh (1867–1933), who was a socialist activist and gifted Yiddish translator, Kotik began to write his memoirs, titled Mayne zikhroynes (My Memories), which he published in two volumes in 1913–1914. The first volume, in particular, was popular and was warmly received by Yiddish literary critics, who considered this autobiography a response to their wish that members of previous generations had recorded memories. Even those who denigrated Kotik’s character (such as Shmuel Yankev Yatskan, editor of the daily Haynt, who considered him an ignoramus) admitted that the memoir was “a gem of our literature.” Sholem Aleichem, too, valued the work. “This is not just a book,” he wrote to Kotik; “this is a treasure, a garden. A paradise full of blossoming flowers and singing birds . . . without pretence or false modesty—I am compared to you, nothing but a poor child, a pauper.” He encouraged Kotik to keep writing the second volume. Although Kotik attempted to write a third part, he did not publish it. Sixty-five pages of the unfinished work were set by a printer in 1919; however, the template and manuscript are lost.

Kotik’s memoir is considered one of the first of its sort in modern Yiddish literature. It provides a colorful depiction of family members and other Jews he encountered, and also portrays the atmosphere of the shtetl before its demise, without an apologetic, critical, or nostalgic tone. Kotik emphasized topics rarely touched upon in memoir literature, such as the world of Jewish leaseholders and their relationships with the Polish nobility, offering revealing views of the traditional Jewish education system, communal and daily family life, and ongoing confrontations among Hasidim, Misnagdim, and maskilim. His memoir is a vast trove of cultural and historical knowledge of nineteenth-century Jewish life in Eastern Europe and became a model for many other autobiographies and family sagas. A critical and annotated translation has been published recently in Hebrew, English, and Russian.

Suggested Reading

David Assaf, ed., Mah she-ra’iti: Zikhronotav shel Yeḥezkel Kotik, vol. 1 (Tel Aviv 1998); David Assaf, ed., Journey to a Nineteenth-CenturyShtetl: The Memoirs of Yekhezkel Kotik (Detroit, 2002); David Assaf, Na‘ va-nad: Zikhronotav shel Yeḥezkel Kotik, vol. 2 (Tel Aviv 2005); Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Literary and the Historical: Reflections on a Jewish Memoir,” Jewish Quarterly Review 95.1 (2005): 81–89.