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December 20: Mendele Mokher Sforim

Lawrence Bush
December 20, 2009
mendelesforimMendele Mokher Sforim (“Mendele the Book Peddler,” pen-name of Shalom Jacob Abramowitsch), the pioneering writer of modern Yiddish literature, was born on this day in 1836 in Minsk. What Chaucer did for English and Dante did for Italian, Mendele did for Yiddish: rehabilitating and modernizing it, and lending it new coherence and dignity. His works include The Little Man, Fishke the Lame and The Travels of Benjamin III. “I observed the life of my people and wished to provide them with stories in the Holy Tongue [Hebrew] based on Jewish sources. Most of them, however, did not understand this language, because they spoke only Yiddish. . . . The question — for whom am I working? — brought me no peace and caused me great perplexity. . . . I fell in love with Yiddish and bound myself to that language forever. I found for her the perfumes and fragrances that she needed, and she became a charming lady who bore me many sons.” —Mendele Moykher Sforim, “Notes for My Biography,” translated by Yankl Stillman

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.