Rokhl Faygnberg (Imri)
In his portrait of her in Mayn leksikon, volume 1, author and critic Melech Ravitch (Meylekh Ravitsh, 1893–1976) says of Yiddish-Hebrew writer Rokhl Faygnberg that her biography was “the biography of an era.” Although she witnessed many of the defining events of modern Jewish history—wars, pogroms, and the birth of the State of Israel—in her life, which took her from her White Russian shtetl to several cosmopolitan European centers and ultimately to Israel, she herself is hardly typical. As Ravitch himself states, she was one of few women to establish herself as a professional Jewish writer and journalist, first in Yiddish and then in Hebrew, and in so doing was often outspoken, polemical and controversial. Highly versatile, she chronicled the 1919 pogroms in Ukraine and their aftermath, investigated in both fiction and journalism the changing relationships between men and women wrought by the breakup of traditional Jewish life, and sought to create a viable Jewish literature for the immigrant generation in Israel.
Born in Lyuban, Minsk region, in White Russia in 1885, Rokhl Faygnberg lost her father Ber, the son of the Rabbi of Lyuban, at age four, and both of her younger brothers before she reached adulthood. Her father, a scholar and disappointed maskil turned kabbalist, made a meagre living as a Talmud teacher. His early death left her education in the hands of her paternal grandfather and her mother, Soreh Epstein, niece of the Hebrew-Yiddish writer Zalmen Epstein (1860–1936). To support her family, her mother opened a store in Lyuban with the proceeds from the sale of her husband’s library. Until the age of twelve, Rokhl studied Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and arithmetic with a private teacher and Bible with a neighbor, Reb Yedidia the melammed. At age thirteen, under the influence of the romances of Nokhem-Meyer Shaykevitsh (Shomer), Faygnberg penned her first novel, Yosef un Roze. Due to the furor it caused in her house, she was compelled to burn it. In 1900, when her mother died, Faygnberg, only fifteen, was left in charge of the store, a job for which she had little talent. After liquidating it, her grandmother brought her to Odessa, a period reflected in the delightful loosely autobiographical story “Mayne ershte leyenerins” (My First Readers), published in Di goldene keyt, vol. 37 (1960). Here she lived with her mother’s siblings and worked in a salon for ladies’ clothes for four years. During this time, she wrote her first story, “Di Kinder-yorn” (Childhood), which, with the help of Shaul Ginsberg, the editor of Der Fraynd (St. Petersburg), she published in Dos lebn (1905), a monthly magazine dealing with literary, cultural and social issues, and later, in Warsaw, as a book (1909). With Ginsberg’s assistance, she moved to St. Petersburg, where she earned a teacher’s certificate. Here, and shortly thereafter in Lausanne, Switzerland from 1911–1912, she started a program in literary history but was unable to complete it due to financial constraints. For a time she also worked as a teacher in Volin (in the Ukraine).
Following her literary debut, Faygnberg published stories and sketches in various magazines and periodicals such as Der Fraynd, Haynt (Warsaw), Eyropeyishe literatur (Warsaw) and Bobroysker vokhnblat (Bobroysk, Belarus). Her dramatic étude “Kursistkes” appeared in a supplement of Der Fraynd, and a story, “Tsvey veltn” (Two Worlds), appeared in Undzer lebn (Warsaw, 1910). Her novel Tekhter (Daughters) was serialized in Moment (Warsaw, 1913), as was the first part of her novel Af fremde vegn (On Foreign Paths). In 1914 she married G. Shapiro (1860–c.1919), a pharmaceutical chemist and friend of her mother, twenty-five years her senior; they had one son. Faygnberg wrote nothing during the five years of their marriage, returning to writing only in 1919.
In 1919 pogroms in the Ukraine destroyed her home, and she and her son hid all summer long among gentiles. Soon afterwards, she moved to Odessa and returned to literary work as a translator for a projected Universal Bibliotek. In 1921 she left Ukraine for Kishinev and then Bucharest. She published a great deal on the pogroms in Der Yid (Kishenev), Forverts and Tog (New York), Haynt and Moment (Warsaw), and in the Romanian paper Mantureo. Her book Bay di bregn fun Dniester (On the Banks of the Dniester, 1925) recounts her experiences living among the homeless victims of the Russian revolution and the pogroms on the Bessarabian-Ukrainian border.In 1925–1926 Faygnberg immigrated to Israel, lived temporarily in Warsaw and then moved to Paris, where she helped write the defense for Shalom Schwarzbard (1886–1938), the assassin of Simon Petlyura (1879–1926), leader of the Ukrainian nationalist forces who massacred thousands of Jews during the pogroms in Ukraine (1919–1920). Her book A pinkes fun a toyter shtot (Record Book of a Dead City), published in Warsaw in 1926, was a historical chronicle of the town of Dubove (in the Ukraine) during this devastation. It was translated into French by the French Jewish author Moïse Twersky and was an important document in Schwarzbard’s defense. During this time she also translated three volumes of the work of the Russian-Jewish writer Semion Yushkevitsh (1868–1927). In 1933 Faygnberg returned permanently to Israel where she published largely in Hebrew under the name “Rakhel Imri.” Until 1936 she worked as a correspondent for the Yiddish newspaper Moment, for which she wrote a series of articles, “Di boyer fun alt-nay land” (The Builders of the Old-New Land). She also worked for Hebrew publications such as Haaretz, Davar, Ha-Olam ha-Zeh and Kuntres. Initially her articles were translated from the Yiddish, but in time she began writing in or translating her work into Hebrew. Thereafter she published in Yiddish only occasionally, in the Israeli Yiddish publications Di goldene keyt and Letste nayes.
Faygnberg’s transition from Yiddish to Hebrew was consistent with her linguistic ideology. Taught, probably by circumstance, to be ever practical, Faygnberg believed that Yiddish could flourish only in the Soviet Union and urged all who shared that belief to go there. Those who would not or could not, she argued, should come to Israel where the language of the Jewish masses would and must be Hebrew. In an article entitled “Idish un idishe shrayber” (Yiddish and Jewish Writers), published in Der idisher kemfer on March 13, 1936, she wrote that the question of Hebrew and Yiddish was tied to territorial interests: “I am a Zionist. I have linked my writing and my private life with Erets-Yisroyel. I raised my only son as one hundred percent Hebrew-speaking and I translate everything I write into Hebrew.” The Holocaust further affirmed her conviction that Yiddish was no longer viable as a living language and she focused her linguistic vision for Israel more than ever on Hebrew. Seeing the ability to read Hebrew literature as crucial to the process of immigrant acculturation, she established the publishing house Le’at (Slowly) which produced Hebrew books with nikkud (vocalization) for immigrants, but published only several volumes at her own expense. Far from indifferent to the plight of Yiddish, she wanted to see Yiddish language and literature integrated into Hebrew language and literature. To this end she founded the Me’assef publishing house whose goal it was to publish Hebrew translations with vocalization of the best Yiddish works. She published only three volumes of translations, two, of Israel Joshua Singer (1893–1944) and David Bergelson (1884–1952), with introductions by her in separate pamphlets, and a third of Moshe Kulbak (1896–1940). Other plans included establishing a Hebrew monthly magazine for Yiddish literature, a folk theater in Hebrew solely for plays from the Yiddish repertoire, Hebrew lectures about Yiddish literature and a bilingual, Hebrew-Yiddish newspaper for immigrants.
The first of her works which Faygnberg translated into Hebrew was “Sone ha-Nashim” (The Misogynist), a village idyll published in Ha-Olam (1929). This was followed by Le-Shnatayyim: Roman Beli Ahavah (For Two Years: a Love Story without Love, Berlin, 1929), Be-Darkhei Nekhar (On Foreign Paths, 1938) and several works dealing with the Ukrainian pogroms and the tragic history of Russian Jewry. In Hebrew she wrote the novels Ha-Shelav ha-Aharon (The Last Phase, 1953) and Be-Shem Darei Matah (For the Common People, 1970). Faygnberg also published a number of stories, some with vowels, in the series Sippurim la-Kol (Stories for Everyone), which was part of her plan for teaching the immigrant generation Hebrew. As a journalist, she wrote articles about contemporary issues and youth, the Jewish woman and the building of Israel. She also edited the short-lived Ha-Am Be-Veyto Tashah-Tashat (The Nation in its Home, 1948–1949). Finally, she wrote on Yiddish literature in Hebrew, publishing lengthy articles on Sholem Asch, Mendele Mokher Seforim (Shalom Jacob Abramowitsch) and other Yiddish literary figures and issues, in booklet form. In 1965 Pioneer Women awarded her the Hayim Greenberg Prize for 1964–1965. Rokhl Faygnberg died in Tel Aviv in 1972.
Di kinder-yorn (Childhood). Warsaw: 1909; A mame (A mother), Warsaw: 1911; Tekhter (Daughters). Serialized in Moment (Warsaw), 1913; “Hefker-mentshn” (Derelicts). Zukunft, nos. 6–9 (New York, 1924); Af fremde vegn (On Foreign Paths). Warsaw: 1925; Bay di bregn fun Dniester (On the Banks of the Dniester). Warsaw: 1925; A pinkes fun a toyter shtot: Khurbn Dubove (Record Book of a Dead City: The Destruction of Dubove). Warsaw: 1926. (French translation. Paris: 1926); “A serie artiklen vegn der yidisher froy in lebn un in der yidisher literatur” (A Series of Articles about the Jewish Woman in Life and in Yiddish Literature). Moment (Warsaw), end of 1927. Some of these articles were published in Hebrew in the journal Ha-Olam; “Der yidisher shrayber tsu zayn leyener” (The Yiddish Writer to His Reader). Literarishe bleter, no. 357 (Warsaw, March 6, 1931): 179–180; Heyrat af tsvey yor (Marriage for Two Years). Warsaw: 1932; “Idish un idishe shrayber” (Yiddish and Yiddish Writers). Der idisher kemfer, New York, March 13, 1936: 13–14; Di velt vil mir zoln zayn Yidn (The World Wants Us To Be Jews). Warsaw: 1936; “Ershter froyen-farerer in der idisher literatur” (First Admirer of Women in Yiddish Literature). Tog (New York), April 15, 1945.
Le-Shnatayyim: Roman Beli Ahavah (For Two Years: A Love Story without Love). Berlin: 1929 (Originally written as Heyrat af tsvey yor (Marriage for Two Years), published in Warsaw, 1932); Be-Darkhei Nekhar (On Foreign Paths). Tel Aviv: 1938 (Originally published as Af fremde vegn. Warsaw: 1925). Portrays the tragedy of love during the transition from the old patriarchal world with its strict moral code and pure family life to godless, modern life.
“Sone ha-Nashim: Idiliah Kafrit” (The Misogynist: A Rustic Idyll). Ha-Olam (1929); Be-Mevukhat ha-Yamim: Kovez Ma’amarim Shelo Nitan Lahem Makom be-Itonut ha-Yehudit Lo ba-Arez ve-Lo ba-Golah (In the Confusion of the Days: A Series of Articles that Found No Place in the Jewish Press of Israel or the Diaspora). Tel Aviv: 1938; Neshei ha-Hayal Shel ha-Dor ha-Yashan: Shetei Ma’asiyot: “Ulai Rozeh Atah be-Tapu’ah,” “‘Kol Nidrei’ be-Mashkantah” (The Wives of the Soldiers of the Old Generation: Two Stories: Perhaps You Want an Apple, A Mortgaged ‘Kol Nidrei’). Sippurim la-Kol 1 (1938); “Ha-Genevah: Min he-Avar ha-Karov” (The Theft: From the Recent Past). Sippurim la-Kol 2 (1938 or 1939); “Adam Ragil” (A Regular Person). Sippurim la-Kol 3 (1938 or 1939); “Ha-Shomer: Mi-Yemei ha-Za’am be-Medinat Ukrainah” (The Guard: From the Days of Rage in Ukraine). Sippurim la-Kol 4 (1938 or 1939); Bonei ha-Moledet: Kavim u-Derakhim le-Havra’at ha-Ziyyonut ve-ha-Yishuv (Builders of the Homeland: Methods for the Recovery of Zionism and the Yishuv). Jerusalem: 1941; Parashat Shalom Ash le-Or ha-Mizi’ut (The Case of Sholem Asch in Light of Reality). Jerusalem: 1944; “Frumele: Mipi Bahur Ba’al be-Amav” (Frumele: According to a Young Husband among his Kin). Sippurim la-Kol 9 (1945); Ba’ayat ha-Ishah be-Sifrut ha-Amim (The Problem of the Woman in the Literature of the Nations). Israel: 1945/1946; “Y.Y. Zinger ve-Yezirato” (Y.Y. [I.J.] Singer and His Work). Introduction to Mi-Shenei Evrei ha-Vislah: Sippurim (On the other side of the Vistula: Stories), written in Yiddish by Israel Joshua Singer. Vol. 1 of Sifrut ha-Golah. Jerusalem: 1945; “Dovid Bergelson” (David Bergelson). Introduction to Dimdumim (Twilight), by David Bergelson. Vol. 2 of Sifrut ha-Golah. Jerusalem: 1946; Mi-Bein Gidrei ha-Tayil: Zror Mikhtavim Al Pig’ei ha-Zeman (Between Barbed Wire Fences: A Bundle of Letters about the Attacks of the Time). Israel: 1947/1948; Susato Shel Mendele ve-Shot ha-Yidisha’im (Mendele’s Nag and the Scourge of the Yiddishists). Tel Aviv: 1950; Ha-Ba’ayah ha-Le’umit be-Vrit ha-Mo’azot (The National Problem in the Soviet Union). Israel: 1952/1953; Ha-Shelav ha-Aharon (The Last Phase). Tel Aviv: 1953. About life in Poland; “Ayyarati She’einenah Od” (My Town that is No More), “Ha-Lyubanim le-Veit Imi” (The Lyubanites of My Mother’s Home). In Pinkas Slutsk u-Venotehah (The Slutsk Record Book and its Suburbs). New York and Tel Aviv: 1961; Yiddish ve-Sofrehah (Yiddish and Its Writers). Tel Aviv: 1967; Be-Shem Darei Matah (For the Common People). Ramat Gan: 1970. Faygnberg also published the Hebrew work Megillot Yehudei Rusia, Tarsa-Tashkad (The Scrolls of the Jews of Russia, 1905–1964). 5 vols. Jerusalem: 1965. This five volume work includes: Megillat ha-Pelitim (The Scroll of the Refugees), first published separately as Na va-Nad: Mi-Sevel Pelitei Yisrael be-Dorenu (Wandering: About the Suffering of the Jewish Refugees in Our Generation). Tel Aviv: 1942, which was Faygnberg’s own translation of her Yiddish work Bay di bregn fun Dniester (On the Banks of the Dniester). Warsaw: 1925. This volume was a kind of memoir of Faygnberg’s experiences with and observations of the suffering of the Jewish refugees living on the border of Bessarabia and Ukraine during the pogroms in the Ukraine; Megillat Yehudei Berit ha-Mo’azot (The Scroll of the Jews of the Soviet Union), originally published in Hebrew, 1935; Dappim be-Megillat Krivoye Ozere (Pages from the Scroll of Lake Krivoye), originally published in Hebrew, 1943; Megillat Dubovah: Toldot Ir she-Avrah u-Vetelah Min ha-Olam (The Scroll of Dubove: The History of a City that has Passed from this World). Tel Aviv: 1940. This work was originally published in Yiddish as A pinkes fun a toyter shtot: Khurbn Dubove (Record Book of a Dead City: The Destruction of Dubove). Warsaw: 1926. (It was also translated into French in Paris, 1926.) The text was then translated into Hebrew three times in three different years: Once, by Faygnberg herself, as above; and twice by Alter Druyanow (1870–1938), as follows: “Tahat ha-Patish” (Under the Hammer, translation of an additional, unpublished version of A pinkes fun a toyter shtot entitled Untern hamer), translated and edited by Alter Druyanow. Reshummot 3 (1923); and Be-Yemei Za’am (Days of Rage), translated by Alter Druyanow. Tel Aviv: 1942. It was also translated into Russian by Shaul Ginsberg; Megillat Kehillat ha-Darom (The Scroll of the Community of the Southern Regions), originally written in Yiddish in 1919, translated into Hebrew by Alter Druyanow.
“Mayne ershte leyenerins” (My First Female Readers). Di goldene keyt 37 (1960). This work has been rendered into English as: My First Readers, translated by Sheva Zucker, in Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories, edited by Sandra Bark. New York: 2003.
Hurvits, Kh. D. In Yidishe literatur, Part 1. Kiev: 1928; Reyzin, Zalmen. Lexicon of Yiddish Literature (Yiddish), vol. 3, s.v. “Faygnberg, Rokhl.” Vilna: 1929; Niger, Shmuel. Tog (New York), April 30, 1932; Ravitch, Melech. My Lexicon (Yiddish). Vol. 1, 194–196. Montreal: 1945. Vol. 3, 339–340. Montreal: 1958; Oyerbakh, Rokhl. Pionern-froy (Women’s Labor Zionist Organization of America, New York), September–October, 1954; Hararit, Y. A Woman and Nation in Israel (actual Hebrew title: Isha ve-Em be-Yisrael), 462–63. Israel: 1958; Almi, A. Fraye arbeter shtime (New York), Oct. 15, 1960; Khanon, D. Letste nayes (Tel Aviv), Sept. 17, 1965; Kressel, Getzel Lexicon of Modern Hebrew Literature (Hebrew), vol. 1, s.v. “Imri, Rakhel.” Tel Aviv: 1965; Volf-Yasni, A. Letste nayes (Tel Aviv), Nov. 12, 1965; Bikl, Sh. Tog-morgn zhurnal (New York), April 3, 1966; Emiot, Yisroel, Zukunft (New York), Feb. 1966; Yeshurin, Yefim. A Hundred Years of Modern Yiddish Literature (Yiddish). New York: 1966; Hadda, Janet. “The Women: Sheyndl.” Chap. 3 in Passionate Women, Passive Men: Suicide in Yiddish Literature, 55–84. Albany: 1988; Niger, Shmuel. Lexicon of New Yiddish Literature (Yiddish), s.v. “Faygnberg (Imri), Rokhl.” New York: 1968.
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Zucker, Sheva. "Rokhl Faygnberg (Imri)." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 19, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/faygnberg-imri-rokhl>.