Harkavy, Alexander

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HARKAVY, ALEXANDER (1863–1939), Yiddish lexicographer. A relative of the Orientalist and historian Albert *Harkavy and grandson of the rabbi of Novogrodek (Yid. Navaredok), Harkavy was born in that Belorussian town. He had a traditional Jewish education, showed an early interest in languages, and acquired some knowledge of Hebrew, Russian, Syriac, German, and Yiddish in his teens. In 1878 Harkavy went to Vilna, where he was befriended by the Yiddish author Isaac Meir *Dik and wrote his first work, in Yiddish. He earned a living as a bookkeeper for *Romm, the Hebrew-Yiddish publishing house. After the pogroms of 1881 Harkavy moved to Warsaw and joined the *Am Olam movement, before immigrating to the United States, intending to settle in a Jewish collective agricultural colony. When the project did not materialize, he worked as a stevedore, farm laborer, and dishwasher, studying English intensively and then tutoring English and Hebrew privately.

Harkavy's love of Yiddish soon crystallized into a vocation, but for about ten years his search for a steady income sent him wandering. He was in Paris in 1885, returned to New York in 1886, taught Hebrew at a talmud torah in Montreal in 1887, where he published the first Yiddish newspaper (Di Tsayt), went to Baltimore in 1889 and there founded the short-lived periodical Der Yidisher Progres, before returning once more to New York in 1890. A year later his first popular textbook, Der Englisher Lerer ("The English Teacher"), was published, of which almost 100,000 copies were sold. Through this and other books in the "English self-taught" genre, such as his guide to writing letters, Der Englisher Brivnshteler ("The English Letter-Writer," 1892), Yiddish translations of classics, classroom lectures and popular expositions of American history and culture, New York Yiddish literary anthologies (Der Nayer Gayst, "The New Spirit," 1897–98; Der Tsvantsikster Yorhundert, "The Twentieth Century," 1900), and above all his Yiddish dictionaries, he became the teacher par excellence of two generations of immigrants. He translated Don Quijote into Yiddish (1910) and revised the King James English Bible and translated it into Yiddish for a dual-language edition (1926). His popular expositions included Columbus, Entdeker fun Amerike ("Columbus, Discoverer of America," 1892). He taught U.S. history and politics for the New York Board of Education and Yiddish literature and grammar at the Jewish Teachers' Seminary in New York, while also lecturing for the Workmen's Circle. He wrote a column called "Kol-Boy" ("Everything in It") for the Abend-Post and occasional articles for many Yiddish, Hebrew, and English papers and journals. In 1935 he published Perakim me-Ḥayyai ("Autobiographic Chapters"). His most lasting achievements were, however, in lexicography. His English-Yiddish and Yiddish-English dictionaries, encompassing about 40,000 Yiddish words, went through two dozen editions and reprints. His crowning work was the Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary (1925; suppl. 1928; fifth reprint 1988), which played a significant role in educating East European Jewish immigrants in English and is still an outstanding example of a multilingual dictionary used by Yiddish speakers and lexicographers.


B.G. Richards, in: ajyb, 42 (1941), 153–64; Y. Mark, in: jba, 26 (1968/69); I. Shatzky, Harkavis bio-bibliografye (1933); lnyl, 3 (1960). add. bibliography: A. Harkavy, Yidish-Eynglish-Hebreisher Verterbukh, ed. with introd. by D. Katz (1988).

[Mordkhe Schaechter /

Jean Baumgarten (2nd ed.)]