Hirschbein, Peretz

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HIRSCHBEIN, PERETZ (1880–1948), Yiddish dramatist, novelist, journalist, travel writer, and theater director. Born in Kleszczele, Poland, Hirschbein left home at the age of 14 to study in various yeshivot, moving first to Grodno and then to Vilna. Beginning in 1901, he published Hebrew poetry and Yiddish short stories. Soon he shifted to drama, starting with Miryam (1905), the story of a prostitute, which he wrote in Hebrew and later translated into Yiddish. In 1904, he moved to Warsaw, where he associated with Ḥ.N. *Bialik, I.L. *Peretz, and S. *Asch, all of whom were impressed with his first efforts as a dramatist and encouraged him to continue. Miryam and other early plays, published in the fortnightly Ha-Zeman, 1904–06, dealt with proletarian themes. Such works included other naturalist dramas like Nevelah ("Carcass"), which would later enjoy great success in its Yiddish version, Di Neveyle. Before long, Hirschbein, strongly influenced by Maeterlinck, shifted from naturalism to symbolism, in such works as Oyf Yener Zayt Taykh ("Across the River," 1905), Olamot Bodedim ("Lonely Worlds," 1906), and Di Erd ("The Earth," 1907), in which he expressed his distaste for city life and his yearning for nature, a major motif in his later works. Other important plays from this period include In der Finster ("In the Dark," 1907) and Der Tkies-Kaf ("The Pact," 1909).

After moving to Odessa in 1908, Hirschbein took a far more active role in the production of his own plays. With the support and encouragement of Bialik and students from an Odessa acting studio, Hirschbein organized a dramatic group in Odessa to produce Yiddish plays of quality. For two years this group, under Hirschbein's direction, toured a number of Russian cities and towns with productions of plays by Sholem *Asch, David *Pinski, Jacob *Gordin, and *Sholem Aleichem, as well as Hirschbein's own plays and Yiddish translations of dramas by Semyon Yushkevitsh and Hermann Heijermans. When the Hirschbein Troupe, as it came to be known, disbanded, Hirschbein began a series of journeys that eventually took him to the U.S. Between 1912 and 1917 he wrote a series of folk dramas, which were staged with great success by the New York Yiddish Art Theatre after 1918. His Di Puste Kretshme ("The Idle Inn," 1914) was produced in New York under the title The Haunted Inn (publ., 1921). During this period he also wrote his famed pastoral romance Grine Felder ("Green Fields," 1923).

In 1920 Hirschbein married the poet Esther *Shumiatcher, and they traveled around the world for two years. His travelogues, among the best in Yiddish literature, were serialized in the Yiddish daily, Der Tog, and appeared in book form entitled Arum der Velt ("Around the World," 1927). Wherever Hirschbein traveled he sought out Jewish inhabitants whom he found even in the most remote corners of the world. His impressions of a trip to Palestine appeared in Ereẓ Israel ("The Land of Israel," 1929), where he displays much sympathy for the pioneers who, amid great difficulties, were trying to develop new modes of living in the kibbutzim. Other travels took him to India, Japan, and China.

In 1930 Hirschbein settled in New York, and from 1940 until his death he lived in Los Angeles. During this period he wrote a historical tragedy about the life of King Saul, Der Ershter Melekh fun Yisroel ("The First King of Israel," 1934), the novels Royte Felder ("Red Fields," 1935) and Bovl ("Babylonia," 1942), as well as the collection Monologn ("Monologues," 1939). A five-volume edition of 26 plays was issued in 1916. The first five volumes of a projected edition of his collected works appeared in 1951. Hirschbein translated a group of Tolstoy's stories into Yiddish, and some of his own writings have been translated into Hebrew, English, Russian, and German. Seven of his plays, originally written in Yiddish or translated into Hebrew by the author, were published in the volumes Deramot ("Dramas," 1922) and Mahazot ("Plays," 1923).

During the early period of his literary activity, when he was under the influence of Peretz and Bialik, Hirschbein tried to achieve a synthesis of naturalism and symbolism, but in the course of time he became a neo-realist. However, even his most realistic stories are imbued with lyricism. His plays display mastery of natural dialogue, and despite the occasional stereotype of character, his figures are robust and alive. Hirschbein is an important personality among the Yiddish writers of the postclassical period who combined new European literary forms with Jewish tradition.


Rejzen, Leksikon, 1 (1926), 839–47; Z. Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater, 1 (1931), 613–28; S. Niger and M. Elkin (eds), Perets Hirshbeyn: Tsu Zayn Zekhtsikstn Geboyrntog (1941); B. Rivkin, Undzere Prozaiker (1951), 157–93; lnyl, 3 (1960), 147–58; S. Liptzin, Flowering of Yiddish Literature (1963), 156–62. add. bibliography: I. Goldberg, in: The Drama of Transition (1922), 329–434; A. Mukdoiny, in: J. Shatzky (ed.), Arkhiv far der Geshikhte fun Yidishn Teater un Drame (1930), 341–421; J. Mestel, Literatur un Teater (1962), 87–101; N. Oyslender, in: Yidisher Teater: 18871917 (1940), 237–58; Sh. Rozhansky (ed.), Peretz Hirshbeyn: Teater, Velt-Rayzes, Zikhroynes (1967).

[Sol Liptzin /

Joel Berkowitz (2nd ed.)]