Master of Savage Yiddish Prose
Levi-Yehoyshue Shapiro, known by first initial as Lamed Shapiro, was born on March 10, 1878, in Rzhishchev, a shtetl on the Dnieper River about 40 miles south of Kiev.
In 1896, he traveled to Warsaw, struggled to make a living for two years, then returned to his hometown, where he fell in love and made his first attempt at suicide.
For the next few years, he continued working as a teacher both in Rzhishchev and in Kiev, amidst a charged and tense atmosphere in which the terrorized Jewish population was evacuated for fear of pogroms. His depressive personality combined with a general sense of terror would go on to characterize the bulk of his creative output.
10 March 1878 – 25 August 1948
Shapiro's hometown lies about 40 miles south of Kiev (today Ржищів, Ukraine).
While in Warsaw Shapiro published "Oyfn Yam" (1910) about a man's sea journey from Europe to Ellis Island.
Shapiro lived in Hollywood beginning in 1939 in the apartment building shown here until his alcoholism and illness left him in need of support.
Shapiro died while staying at the Echo Park house of his friend, the photographer William Kessner.
Mount Zion Cemetery
Shapiro was buried near his wife in East Los Angeles in the Mount Zion Cemetery, which Yiddishkayt discovered in ruined condition in 2013.
Shapiro returned to Warsaw in 1903 and, with the help of I.L. Peretz, published his first literary works: “די פליגל (The Wings),” and “איציקל ממזר (Little Isaac the Bastard).” They were published in a journal edited by Avrom Reyzen.
Shapiro left for America in 1905, stopping for a year in London, where he befriended the Hebrew writer Yosef Haim Brenner. When he arrived in New York in 1906, he began working for the Jewish Daily Forward.
Over the course of the next few years he published a series of gruesome tales about the pogroms, including The Kiss, Pour Out Thy Wrath, The Cross, and In The Dead Town. Leah Garrett, in her introduction to the English translation of Shapiro’s selected stories, explains that Shapiro’s work “describes the chaos of modern Jewish life… expressing the basest elements of human behavior – rape, sadism, murder – through the medium of high art.” He thus sharply distinguished himself from his mentors who typically wrote in the classic Yiddish style of satirical commentary.
After failing in a restaurant business venture in Chicago in 1909, Shapiro returned to Warsaw for a year where he worked as a journalist and translated into Yiddish novels by Victor Hugo, Sir Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling, and Charles Dickens.
He returned to New York in 1911 and tried to open another restaurant, which ultimately proved unsuccessful. By 1919, Shapiro had written what are considered his two greatest pogrom stories: ווייַסע חלה (White Challah) and די יודישע מלוכה (The Jewish Empire).
Here’s a recording of “Pour Out Thy Wrath,” one of Shapiro’s most troubling pogrom stories, told from the perspective of a young boy who witnesses how a pogrom in Eastern Europe continues to destroy his parents even after they have immigrated to New York (text of the story in Yiddish and English is available HERE.)
In 1920, under the pseudonym Y. Zolot, Shapiro became literary editor of the communist journal פונקען (Sparks). He moved to Boyle Heights, Los Angeles with his family in 1921, where he had lived briefly in the teens, and put aside his writing for a few years while he attempted to invent a method of producing color film. After his wife died in 1928, Shapiro returned to New York. There he continued to publish in literary periodicals, was an active member of the Communist Party, and worked at the WPA Federal Writers’ Project.
He returned to L.A. in 1939 and lived in East Hollywood until his death at his friend’s Echo Park home in 1948.