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Steinberg, Ya‘akov

(1887–1947), Yiddish and Hebrew poet, short-story writer, essayist, critic, and translator. Ya‘akov Steinberg left his parents’ home in Belaya Tserkov’, Ukraine, for Odessa at the age of 14. He soon moved to Warsaw, the center of Hebrew belle lettres at the time, where he lived in poverty. His first poem, “Alon ha-dema‘ot” (The Wailing Oak; 1901), marked the beginning of a prolific literary career that was noted by Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik (in an article titled “Shiratenu ha-tse‘irah” [Our Young Poetry]) when Steinberg was just 20 years old. From 1903 to 1909, Steinberg widened his scope and wrote prose, publishing three stories in Ha-Tsofeh, followed by scores of poems and stories in a variety of Hebrew periodicals. In 1910, Steinberg published two small lyrical books of poetry and satire: Sefer ha-satirot (The Book of Satires; 1910) and Sefer ha-bedidut (The Book of Loneliness; 1910).

Three phases characterized Steinberg’s career from 1909. The first stage was his extensive Yiddish period, which began that year with a play titled Di muter (The Mother). He then published Gezamlte shriftn (Collected Works; actually consisting of just six short stories), and then, between 1912 and 1914, produced more than 20 short stories, mainly in Der fraynd. Some of his most important pieces were written in those years, including “Di printsesn” (The Princess), “Di blinde” (The Blind Girl), “A yidishe tokhter” (A Jewish Daughter), and “Der rebbes tochter” (The Rabbi’s Daughter). In the meantime Steinberg also spent some time studying in Bern.

The second stage of Steinberg’s career is marked by his move to Palestine in 1914, where he stopped writing in Yiddish. While his decision to switch to Hebrew was ideological, the reason for his move might have been personal. His first marriage ended, and the fact that three of his Hebrew stories deal with relations between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman has prompted speculation that his wife was not Jewish. Ultimately, Steinberg married the Zionist leader Ḥayim Arlozorov’s sister Lisa, and had a son and a daughter. His poetic Hebrew style at this point was unique: he was the only poet in Palestine writing in the Ashkenazic form of Hebrew until his death in 1947.

Steinberg’s third phase was marked by a new genre he established in Palestine called reshimot (sketches), a form characterized by his sensitive essays on a wide range of topics, including poetics, contemporary Hebrew and Yiddish authors, and cultural and national events. For more than 30 years he wrote for the Ha-Po‘el ha-tsa‘ir weekly, producing landmark essays about Hebrew writers such as Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Ya‘akov Fichman, and Devorah Baron, and Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz, Sholem Asch, Hersh Dovid Nomberg, Yehoyesh, and Avrom Reyzen. His essays “‘Ivrit” (Hebrew) and “Ha-Shurah” (The Line), both first published in 1925, have been singled out for praise.

In Palestine, Steinberg translated many of his earlier Yiddish stories, amplifying and elaborating them even in their minute details. He also published more than a dozen new stories, texts that are considered the best of his works. In “Death of an Old Woman” (where there is a rare postscript, “Jerusalem, 1917”), for example, he creates a fugue-like structure, using metaphoric imagery to portray the last moments of consciousness before sleep and death. In “‘Al ḥof ha-Desna” (On the Shore of the Dessna) he dramatizes the delicate relations between two women, Sonka and her young inexperienced niece of the similar name Sonitchka; here he creates an outstanding gallery of women of different ages and lifestyles.

Steinberg’s attempts at monumental poetry were less successful. However, when he reached an “equilibrium of opposites”—the major explicit principle of his poetics—he wrote some of the greatest lyrical poems in the Hebrew language, including “Ha-‘Olam ha-zeh . . .” (This World . . .), “Hah yamai” (Oh, My Days), “Lel ahavah” (A Night of Love), and “Shir ‘aravi” (An Arabian Tune); the cycle “Ḥaruzim ba-nekhar” (Rhymes in Exile); and the sonnets “Bi-delol feta‘ ma‘yan ha-lehatim” (When Suddenly the Spring of Sweet Magic Dwindles) and “Ke-zug torfim” (Like a Pair of Beasts of Prey). His “Shirim le-ish almoni” (Poems to an Anonymous Person), contemplations on death and eternity, are far-reaching in their audacity.

Suggested Reading

Aharon Komem, “Darkhe ha-sipur shel Ya‘akov Shtaynberg” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1976); Aharon Komem, “The Use of Setting in Jacob Steinberg’s Short Stories,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 27 (1978): 174–191; Aharon Komem, “Sipure Ya‘akov Shtaynberg ve-maḥazotav be-‘ivrit vebi-yidish: Bibliografia,” Kiryat sefer 63.3 (1991): 953–964; Jacob Steinberg, Kol kitve Ya‘akov Shtaynberg (Tel Aviv, 1957); Jacob Steinberg, Mivḥar lirikah u-reshimot, ed. Nathan Zach (Tel Aviv 1963); Jacob Steinberg, Yalkut sipurim, ed. Gershon Shaked (Tel Aviv, 1966); Jacob Steinberg, Shirim, sipurim u-maḥazot asher lo nikhlelu be-khol ketavav, ed. Yisra’el Cohen (Tel Aviv, 1976); Jacob Steinberg, Gezamlte derzeylungen, ed. Aharon Komem (Jerusalem, 1986).