Shoybn (Windowpanes), no. 2 (April 1936), Bucharest, special issue dedicated to the works of Eliezer Shteynbarg (pictured on the cover). (YIVO)

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Shteynbarg, Eliezer

(1880–1932), Yiddish writer and educator. Born in Lipkany, Bessarabia, Eliezer Shteynbarg (originally Shteynberg) received a traditional Jewish education but independently mastered German and Russian classics. Like his cousin Yehudah Steinberg (Shteynberg; a pioneer of modern Hebrew education), Eliezer directed a private, secular school, with Hebrew as the language of instruction. From 1919 on, he lived in Czernowitz (Chernivtsi) where he ran, among other things, a Yiddish children’s theater.

As the most distinguished figure in the Tshernovitser Yidisher Shulfareyn (Czernowitz Association of Jewish Schools) and in the Jewish Cultural Association of Romania (founded in 1921), Shteynbarg played a leading role in the cultural life of Romanian Jews. He lived in Brazil from 1928 to 1930, and then returned to Czernowitz.

A fable by Eliezer Shteynbarg, “Der forzikhtiker hon” (The Cautious Hen), n.d. Yiddish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F87.7.4. (YIVO)

At a very young age, Shteynbarg had written children’s stories and plays in Yiddish for the students in the school he directed, as well as fables for adults. The children’s plays were inspired by purim-shpils and folk legends. In these stories, the author’s rich imagination, combined with his attention to folkloric motifs, yielded a free and poetic style. Shteynbarg also developed original teaching methods in which old heder traditions were blended with modern instructional principles. These techniques are reflected, for example, in his two textbooks, Alef-beys (Yiddish) and Alfon (Hebrew), both published in Czernowitz in 1921.

Shteynbarg’s fables were printed individually in periodicals, except for one compilation of 12 fables, Durkh di briln (Through the Eyeglasses), issued in a limited run in 1928. They quickly became popular by word of mouth, both through his own public readings and through the recitations of others, such as the dramatic reader Herts Grosbard. Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik—whom Shteynbarg admired and translated into Yiddish—deemed them masterpieces as early as 1911.

In Shteynbarg’s fables, the heroes are often animals, as is true for the works of Aesop, La Fontaine, and Krylov. However, the attributes that Shteynbarg’s animals represent are unconventional: the pig is known not for filth but for stinginess and greed (he is the hero of the fable series “Balebatim” [Bosses]); the bear is not necessarily clumsy but is rather a violent thief. Human figures are rare: most of the heroes are inanimate objects. Instead of presenting the gods and mythical figures typical of classical fables, Shteynbarg depicts angels. Especially original is his use of Yiddish letters and vowels as fable heroes—a reflection of the personifications of letters in rabbinic literature (agadah), the Zohar, and folk stories told in heders.

In Shteynbarg’s writings, the culture of Judaism is the main idiom through which ideas are expressed. Verses from the Bible and sayings from the Talmud; snippets from Rashi, agadah and midrash; and Jewish laws, rites, and customs surface continuously in quotations, paraphrases, hints, and wordplay. Traditional elements can even serve as the structural foundation of a fable. He also weaves in allusions to modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Even so, the Jewish component is merely a tool, as the issues at the core of the fables remain universally human. For example, utilizing the four names for Mount Hermon in the Torah and the four synonyms that the Prophet Joel uses for the term locust, Shteynbarg develops a fable, “Hermon,” in which the legendary wild ox of the midrash plays a role, but the subject of the parable is actually the inequality between aristocrats and common people in the tax structure.

Whereas traditional fables reflect common sense, conformist or critical, Shteynbarg’s moral lessons usually range far from prepackaged truths. His messages are generally complex with multiple possible meanings, in tune with the contradictions and confusions of human nature and society. This is what makes them distinctly modern. For example, in a confrontation between a dagger and a needle (“Di shpiz un di nodl” [The Sword and the Needle]), the needle has the last word, but it is not in order to exalt the peaceable worker over the bloodthirsty warrior, but rather to draw the pessimistic conclusion that pricking people is ridiculous because one cannot sew anything from them. In this way, the reader realizes that, as Shmuel Niger wrote, Shteynbarg’s parable is “a fable for intellectually aware adults, not for children; for the intelligentsia, not for the simple folk” (Niger, Yidishe shrayber fun tsvantsikstn yorhundert [New York, 1973], p. 222).

Shteynbarg’s language is skillfully adapted to the fictional characters’ natures. Idioms, word associations, and metaphors—always apt and playfully polished—take shape around his figures, whether they are human, animal, inanimate object, plant, or abstraction. The richness of Shteynbarg’s rhymes, his delicate humor, and the lyricism of his poetic language are all worthy of note.

Suggested Reading

Shlomo Bickel (Shloyme Bikl), “Eliezer Shteynbargs mesholim,” in Rumenye, pp. 223–234 (Buenos Aires, 1961); Eliezer Frenkel, “Tsu di mekoyrim fun mikro un khazal in Eliezer Shteynbargs mesholim,” in Pinkes far der forshung fun der yidisher literatur un prese, vol. 2, pp. 214–224 (New York, 1972); Dov Sadan, “Dos retenish un zayn basheyd,” in Heymishe ksovim, vol. 1, pp. 41–74 (Tel Aviv, 1972); Eliezer Steinbarg, Mesholim, vol. 1 (Czernowitz, Rom., 1932), with 14 woodcuts by Artur Kolnik; vol. 2 (Tel Aviv, 1956); Eliezer Steinbarg, Mayselekh: Mit 109 tseykhenungen fun Artur Kolnik (Czernowitz, Rom., 1936); Eliezer Steinbarg, The Jewish Book of Fables, ed. and trans. Curt Leviant (Syracuse, 2003), see introduction.



Translated from Yiddish by Yankl Salant