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Rozenfeld, Yona

(1880–1944), Yiddish prose writer. Born in Tshartorisk (mod. Staryi Chartoriisk), Ukraine, Yona Rozenfeld received a traditional Jewish education that was interrupted when his parents both died of cholera in 1893. Shortly thereafter, under arrangements made by his older brother, 13-year-old Yona began an apprenticeship with a turner in Odessa—an experience vividly depicted in his autobiographical novel Eyner aleyn (All Alone; 1940). Rozenfeld showed his early writings to Y. L. Peretz when the latter visited Odessa in 1902. As a result, Rozenfeld’s first (autobiographical) story, “Dos lernyingl” (The Apprentice), was published in Der fraynd in 1904.

At the age of 23, Rozenfeld left his job as a turner and devoted himself to writing. He published his first collection of stories, the two-volume Shriftn (Writings; 1909–1912), which included his most famous story, “Konkurentn” (Competitors). He immigrated to New York in 1921, and began writing plays. His six-volume Gezamlte shriftn (Collected Writings; 1924) was published in New York and Geklibene verk (Selected Works; 1929) in Vilna. In the mid-1930s, he had a major conflict with Abraham Cahan, editor in chief of Der forverts, after which the newspaper ceased publishing Rozenfeld’s work.

Rozenfeld began writing his autobiographical novel Eyner aleyn in 1937. Upon publication, it received excellent reviews in the Yiddish press. His longest earlier works were fictive and autobiographical diaries. In Fun mayn togbukh (From My Diary; 1924), Rozenfeld depicted his return to Kovel’ from Kiev in 1919 during the Russian civil war. He regarded this text and Er un zey, a togbukh fun a gevezenem shrayber (He and They, a Diary of a Former Writer; 1927) as his best works. Together with the autobiographical texts entitled Ikh (I [the first-person pronoun]) in the fifth volume of Rozenfeld’s Gezamlte shriftn, these pieces indicate the importance of autobiographical writings in the author’s work.

During a conversation with Yoḥanan Twersky in 1937, Rozenfeld formulated his literary credo: “Without having a big selection of ‘types,’ I must be content with the situations in which I place my characters. And as a result, each ‘type’ ceases to be a ‘type.’ For in reality, the typical kind does not exist!” Rozenfeld’s autobiographical method seeks to explore the potential for deviant behaviour when individuals are removed from their normal social environments and placed in extreme situations. Rozenfeld saw himself as a Yiddish Gorky whose short stories and autobiographical fiction chronicled Jewish working-class life in Odessa and the Lower East Side tenements. Except for a few translations of his short stories, most of his work remains a hidden treasure of modern Yiddish literature. Nevertheless, Rozenfeld belongs among the most original Yiddish prose writers of his generation.

Suggested Reading

Jan Schwarz, “The Trials of a Yiddish Writer,” in Imagining Lives: Autobiographical Fiction of Yiddish Writers, pp. 79–97 (Madison, Wisc., 2005).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1139, Abraham Cahan, Papers, 1906-1952; RG 360, Shmuel Niger, Papers, 1907-1950s; RG 647, Yona Rosenfeld, Papers, .