Axenfeld, Israel

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AXENFELD, ISRAEL (1787–1866), pioneering Yiddish novelist and dramatist. He was born in Nemirov and was originally a follower of the ḥasidic rabbi *Naḥman of Bratslav, in Podolia, Ukraine, but after traveling through Germany as a supplier of the Russian Army in 1812–13 and coming into contact with the early maskilim of Brody, Galicia, Axenfeld became staunchly anti-ḥasidic. In 1824 he settled in Odessa as merchant and attorney. Two years before his death he moved to Paris, to join his sons, Auguste Alexander (1825–76), professor of internal pathology at the Sorbonne, and Henri, a painter who frequently exhibited in Paris and London.

Axenfeld completed 30 novels and plays in which he portrayed Jewish life according to a realist esthetic (analyzed by Dan Miron). In the cause of Enlightenment, he satirized ḥasidic beliefs, ridiculed ḥasidic rabbis, and sought to improve his readers' manners, etiquette, and morals. He contrasted Jewish life in Poland and the Ukraine with "civilized" life in Western Europe, often exaggerating the backwardness of the shtetl. Though his characters are alive and convincing, his plots are often melodramatic. The only two printing presses then allowed in Russia refused to publish his works because of their anti-ḥasidic bias; they were therefore circulated in manuscript form. Only his novel Dos Shterntikhl ("The Head-Band," 1861) and the drama Der Ershter Yidisher Rekrut ("The First Jewish Recruit," 1861) appeared during his lifetime. The latter deals with the confusion caused by the Czar's edict to draft Jews for the army. A modernized version by Aaron Kushnirov was staged in the 1930s in Russia, Poland, and the U.S.A. His plays Man un Vayb ("Husband and Wife") and Di Genarte Velt ("The Foolish World"), and his story Noch Tsvey Hozn ("Two More Hares," retranslated by L. Reznik from the Russian) appeared posthumously. The rest of his valuable writings have disappeared. Whatever was extant was reprinted in two volumes (1, Kiev, 1931; 2, Moscow, 1938).


lnyl, 1 (1956), 159–63; Z. Rejzen, Fun Mendelssohn biz Mendele (1923), 355–418; M. Wiener, in: I. Axenfelds Verk, 1 (1931), v–xvi, 3–142; S. Niger, Dertseylers un Romanistn, 1 (1946), 52–60; I. Zinberg, Geshikhte fun der Literatur bay Yidn, 8:2 (1937), 172–202. add. bibliography: M. Wiener, in: Tsu der Geshikhte fun der Yidisher Literatur in 19stn Yorhundert (1945), 65–204; D. Miron, A Traveler Disguised (1973, 19962).

[Elias Schulman]