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“Mendele the Book Peddler”

December 20, 2017

The birth in 1836 of Mendele Moykher-Sforim (“Mendele the Book Peddler,” pen-name of Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh), the pioneering writer of modern Yiddish literature, is traditionally marked on this date. (“[W]e Jews did not bother about [dates of birth], especially in the small towns,” Mendele wrote in a memoir, “[b]ut . . . my family decided on December 20.”) He was born in Kopyl, near Minsk in Czarist Russia (currently Kapyl in Belarus). What Chaucer did for English and Dante for Italian, Mendele did for Yiddish: rehabilitating and modernizing it, and lending it new coherence and dignity. Mendele’s works include The Little Man, Fishke the Lame, as well as The Travels of Benjamin III, which was compared to Don Quixote and thus earned him the nickname, “the Jewish Cervantes.” Mendele Moykher-Sforim died in Odessa in 1917.

“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. . . . 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