Fabulous Fabulist

Eliezer Shteynbarg

Eliezer Shteynbarg was born on April 3, 1880 in Lipkon, Bessarabia (today: Lipcani, Moldova). He received a traditional Jewish education but mastered German and Russian on his own.

In 1919 he moved to Czernowitz where he ran a Yiddish children’s theater as well as a private, secular school, with Hebrew as the language of instruction. He lived briefly in Brazil from 1928 to 1930 before returning to Czernowitz.

Shteynbarg wrote children’s stories and plays in Yiddish for the students in the school he directed, as well as fables for adults. The children’s plays were inspired by purimshpils and folk legends.

Shteynbarg also developed original teaching methods in which old kheyder traditions were blended with modern instructional principles. These techniques are reflected, for example, in his two textbooks, אַלף-בית (Yiddish) and אלפון (Hebrew), which he published in 1921.

Shteynbarg’s much-beloved fables were originally printed individually in periodicals, except for one compilation of 12 fables, דורך די ברילן (Through the Eyeglasses), issued in a limited run in 1928. His fables quickly became popular by word of mouth, both through his own public readings and through the recitations of others. Chaim Nachman Bialik—whom Shteynbarg admired and translated into Yiddish—deemed them masterpieces.

In Shteynbarg’s fables, the heroes are often animals with unconventional attributes or inanimate objects. He also used Yiddish letters and vowels as fable heroes, following the tradition of the personification of letters in rabbinic literature and in folk stories told in kheyder. Shteynbarg employed the culture of Judaism as a backdrop for much of his writing. Jewish laws, rites, and customs surface continuously in his writing, as well as many allusions to modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature. For example, Shteynbarg’s fable, “Hermon” utilizes the four names for Mount Hermon in the Torah, but the subject of the parable is actually the inequality between aristocrats and common people in the tax structure.

While traditional fables may reflect common sense, Shteynbarg’s moral lessons are generally complex with multiple possible meanings. Shmuel Niger wrote that Shteynbarg’s parable is “a fable for intellectually aware adults, not for children; for the intelligentsia, not for the simple folk”.

Shteynbarg died in Czernowitz in 1932.