Today in Yiddishkayt… July 8
Birthday of Yona Rozenfeld, Yiddish prose writer
Yona Rozenfeld was born on July 8, 1880 in Tshartorisk (today: Старий Чорторийськ, Ukraine). He received a traditional Jewish education until the age of 13, when his parents both died of cholera. Shortly thereafter, under arrangements made by his older brother, he began an apprenticeship with a turner in Odessa. Rozenfeld began writing about his life as an apprentice artisan. He met Y.L Peretz in 1902, and showed him a few of his stories. Peretz then helped Rozenfeld get his first story, “Dos lernyingl” (The Apprentice), published in Der fraynd in 1904.
At the age of 23, Rozenfeld left his job as a woodworker and devoted himself to writing. His stories were concerned primarily with the psychological, depicting abnormal, melancholy characters and situations. Most of his tales also took place at night, and often in cold and dreary weather. His first published collection of stories, the two-volume Shriftn (Writings), included his most famous story, “Konkurentn” (Competitors). He immigrated to New York in 1921, and began writing plays. He also continued to write autobiographical stories, such as “In Fun mayn togbukh” (From My Diary), in which he tells of his return to Kovel’ from Kiev in 1919 during the Russian civil war. He regarded this text and “Er un zey, a togbukh fun a gevezenem shrayber” (He and They, a Diary of a Former Writer) as his best works. His six-volume Gezamlte shriftn (Collected Writings) was published in New York in 1924 and Geklibene verk (Selected Works) in Vilna in 1929. He was also a staff writer for the Der forverts, until the mid-1930s when the newspaper stopped publishing his work due to a conflict with Abraham Cahan, the editor in chief.
Rozenfeld began writing his autobiographical novel Eyner aleyn (All Alone) in 1937. Upon publication in 1940, it received excellent reviews in the Yiddish press. Like Rozenfeld’s fiction, his autobiographical works also explored the potential for deviant behavior when individuals are removed from their normal social environments and placed in extreme situations. Rozenfeld saw himself as a Yiddish Gorky whose short stories and autobiographical fiction chronicled Jewish working-class life in Odessa and the Lower East Side tenements. Except for a few translations of his short stories, most of his work remains a hidden treasure of modern Yiddish literature. Nevertheless, Rozenfeld belongs among the most original Yiddish prose writers of his generation. He died in New York on July 9, 1944.