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June 15: The Great Yiddish Critic

June 14, 2016

5475c2eb22ee9_shmuel_nigerShmuel Niger (Charney), a leading Yiddish literary critic who helped to launch the careers of Sholem Asch, Peretz Hirshbein, and Der Nister, among other Yiddish writers, was born into a khasidic family in the region of Minsk on this date in 1883. Coming into contact with leftwing Zionist ideas while preparing for rabbinical ordination at age 17, he helped to found the Zionist-Socialist Workers Party and was repeatedly arrested and tortured by the tsarist police for his activism. His 1906 essay, “What Is the Jewish Worker,” established his reputation as a political writer; his 1907 essay on Sholem Asch raised Niger’s profile as a literary critic. After founding or editing some key literary journals during the blossoming of Yiddish literature in the early 20th century, he moved to the U.S. in 1919 and wrote for the Forverts (where his brother Baruch Charney Vladeck was the business manager) and the Tog, his primary outlet until his death in 1955. He also co-edited the literary monthly Di Tsukunft from 1941 to 1947. Niger left behind a treasure trove of more than 4,000 articles and a reputation for rigor without ideological bias — a rarity in the combative world of Yiddish politics and literature.

“Particularly influential in the canon-formation of this fledgling [Yiddish] literature was Niger’s anointing of [Y.L.] Peretz as the founding father of Yiddish literary modernism. . . . Perhaps his most significant and enduring scholarly essay is . . . “Yiddish Literature and the Female Reader,” (1913). In this pioneering essay, Niger adopted a feminist approach to examine the role of women in Jewish literature and religious practice, arguing that alongside the exclusively masculine world of Talmudic study there emerged and flourished a distinctively feminine Jewish spirituality nourished more by the Bible and agadah than halakhah.” --Marcus Moseley at the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe