Anthology of Yiddish Poetry
of Poland between the two
World Wars (1918 - 1939)

אַנטאָלאָגיע פון דער ײִדישער פּאָעזיע
אין פּוילן צווישן ביידע וועלט מלחמות
(1918 - 1939)

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  Home > Zalman Shneour > About Zalman Shneour > Shneour's Life and Work  

  Shneour's Life and Work      


Zalman Zalkind, who took the surname Shneour, (1886 - 1959) was born into a well-off family in Shklov, Belorussia. The family was traditional but not Orthodox, (despite descent from the founder of Lubavitch Chassidism, Shneour-Zalman of Liady, whose influential book Tanya was first published in Shklov). Shneour's nostalgic novel of 1929, Shklover Yidn, draws upon the pains and thrills of his own childhood, evoking a world the Soviets had destroyed. 

Shneour began writing poems in Hebrew and Yiddish when he was eight or nine years old. By the age of 12 he had decided to be a writer. His father took him to Warsaw to meet Nahum Sokolow, editor of the Hebrew daily ha-Tsefira. But Shneour's father wanted him to give up writing, and at 13 Shneour left home for Odessa. There Bialik recognized him as a prodigy, and nurtured him in modern Hebrew writing.

By 1902 he was living in Warsaw, working in the office of a Hebrew language children's weekly. Here his first poems appeared. The same year his first adult poetry was published - in Hebrew and in Yiddish, in different Warsaw publications.

Shneour moved to Vilna in 1904 and became known there as a young Hebrew poet, while working and writing for the periodical ha-Zeman. At twenty his first book appeared in Vilna: Hebrew poems under the title At Sunset.

In 1907 Shneour embarked upon university studies, in Berne, Geneva and Paris, studying literature, philosophy and natural sciences. Dan Miron wrote ( that now Shneour "invested himself... particularly in extensive rhapsodic sequences in which mood and landscape form a backdrop for philosophical rumination... and lengthy rhetorical arguments." His Hebrew poem of 1912 To the sound of the mandolin  became celebrated. It depicts "a Nietzchean view of the nihilist cultural present - "God's demise"  - and of the tragic Jewish exilic state.." Zalman Shneour

Shneour was a medical student in Berlin when war broke out in 1914. As a Russian citizen he had to discontinue his studies and thereafter he remained a man of letters. In 1919 he first visited the USA and then returned to Berlin and established a Hebrew publishing house there. In 1924 he moved to Paris before making aliya to Palestine in 1925. His reception in Tel Aviv disappointed him. The new generation had no interest in his work. He returned to Paris and lived there for 17 years. Yet he did not abandon Hebrew, and according to Dan Miron his best lyrical poems were published in the 1933 volume Pirke ya'ar, Forest Chapters.

After the deaths of Bialik and Tchernikhovsky, some considered Shneour the leading Hebrew poet. His poems, often of epic length, Miron described as follows:

"..intellectualism and raw instinct went hand in hand in their opposition to sentimentalism and bourgeois decorum (which) often led Shneour to a combination of sensuous indulgence and intellectual pessimism that was informed by the tenets of European decadence."

It was in Paris that Shneour came to write his great Yiddish fictions, to some degree coming to rival Sholem Asch as the most popular Yiddish writer between the Wars. Shneour's novels treat traditional East European Jewish life with affectionate nostalgia - together with the psychological insight of Schnitzler and Freud as well. Add in sexual attraction, and you have a book to serialize. They first appeared as instalments in New York's Forverts and and in Moment in Warsaw. The books appeared later: Shklover Yidn in 1929 and Feter Zhome in 1930, Noyekh Pandre in 5 epic volumes in 1938 - 9 and then a 5-volume historical novel, Kayser un Rebe, which remarkably linked Napoleon with Shneour's ancestor, the Lubavitsch Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, as well as with the leading Jewish families of Shklov! Der Mamzer in 1957 was another Shklov-centred novel.

Botashanski and Miron regard Shneour's Yiddish novels as extending the reach of Sholem Aleichem. Miron deems Shklover Yidn a masterpiece.

Meanwhile Shneour continued to write poems, in Yiddish and Hebrew. In the 1930's he wrote plays, not all of which have been staged.

Shneour and his family managed to escape from occupied France through Spain and reached New York in 1941. He visited Israel in 1949 and settled there in 1953. Israeli writers nicknamed him Giraffe, for his self-regard as a giant among pygmies. He died in New York but is buried next to Bialik in Tel Aviv, where a street bears his name. His works have been translated into nine languages.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In 2011 some of us in Melbourne were fortunate to be guided through chapters of Shklover Yidn and of Noyekh Pandre by our teacher Danielle Charak. In loving, sensuous prose Shneour evokes a lost world. His contribution - similar to that of Sholem Ash - of extending the reach of Yiddish expressiveness cannot be appreciated in translation.

We were puzzled that Shneour is not more celebrated. He is not included, for instance, in the canonical English language work "Dictionary of Literary Biography: Writers in Yiddish (2007) ed. Joseph Sherman.

Excellent translations of chapters from his novels can be found in: Restless Spirit: Selected Writings of Zalman Shneour. English versions by Moshe Spiegel 1963 Thomas Yoseloff NY . A selection of his Hebrew poetry is there as well.(see book cover below) Joseph Leftwich's translations of parts of Pandre were published in 1936 and 1938, and his excellent translation of the whole work ( 376pp.) appeared in 1945, entitled Song of the Dnieper. (see book cover below) The sole other translations to appear have been from his Hebrew works:  Downfall, in 1944, the story of occupied Warsaw in 1915; and Eve, a biblical play, in 1954.

And nothing since!  What brought his eclipse?

Essentially the neglect of Shneour today can be attributed to the disappearance of the Yiddish reading public. In English his books are undifferentiated in matter and manner from other European novels of his day and earlier - except for the East European settings, described with loving nostalgia, but with verisimilitude. It is the value of these depictions to us today which may see him again honoured for the fine writer he was. Hopefully he will be translated again. Shneour's  novels cry out for translation into English.

And we need a scholarly study which embraces his Yiddish and his Hebrew works, both poetry and prose.

Andrew Firestone
Melbourne, 2012.

Note: Biographical information has been drawn from the Leksikon and the article by Dan Miron in the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe quoted above, as well as from - where his Hebrew books are listed.
An interesting discussion of Shneour and his Hebrew poetry is at

We acknowledge Bibliotheca Augustana
for the picture of the young Shneour with Perets Hirshbeyn.



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