Pinski, David

views updated


PINSKI, DAVID (1872–1959). Yiddish author. Born in Mogilev, Russia, Pinski moved to Moscow with his family at 14. He received not only a traditional but also an excellent secular education. He early became interested in literature and in socialism. After living briefly in Vitebsk, he pursued university studies in Vienna and later Berlin, also living in Warsaw, where writer I.L. *Peretz became his mentor. Pinski published his first stories in Mordecai *Spector's Der Hoyzfraynd and Peretz's Yontif Bletlekh in 1894. Pinski's early writing introduced the Jewish proletariat as a subject in Yiddish literature. He wrote his first full-length play, Ayzik Sheftl (1907), which Martin Buber later translated into German, shortly before moving to New York to edit the Socialist Labor Party's Yiddish newspaper Abend Blat with labor leader Joseph*Schlossberg. He also pursued a Ph.D. in German at Columbia University.

Pinski married Hudl (Adele) Koyfman in 1897, with whom he had three children, including a son who died at age seven. Hudl helped support the family as a masseuse while Pinski pursued his careers as a Yiddish author, editor, and activist. As activist, Pinski initially sympathized with the Jewish Labor *Bund. In 1912, he joined the Labor Zionist movement, helping to found that movement's North American branch, the Farband, in 1913 and served as its president (1918–21 and 1933–49). He played a role in organizing the Czernowitz Language Conference of 1908 and long proclaimed the slogan "Yiddish but also Hebrew for the Diaspora; Hebrew but also Yiddish in Ereẓ Israel." Pinski served as an editor of Der Arbeter (1904–1911), Yidishe Vokhnshrift (1912), and later the Farband newspaper Der Yidisher Arbeter Shtime, Po'alei Zion's Der Yidisher Kemfer, Di Tsayt; and the literary journal Di Tsukunft. One of his most famous protégés was the humorist Jacob Adler. Pinski also edited the 13-volume collected works of Peretz. He cofounded cysho (the Central Yiddish Cultural Organization) in 1941 and the All-World Jewish Culture Congress in 1948. In 1948, he served as president of International pen's Yiddish section.

Pinski wrote over 25 full-length plays, three novels, scores of short stories and one-act plays, two volumes of travel essays, a screenplay, and one of the first histories of the Yiddish theater. Until the 1940s, he was perhaps the world's most frequently and widely translated Yiddish author. Key plays include Di Familye Tsvi ("The Tsvi Family" or "The Last Jew," 1904), written following the Kishinev pogrom, published and smuggled into Russia by the Bund; Yankl der Shmid ("Yankl the Blacksmith," 1907), his most frequently performed work, which he adapted into a film for director Edgar G. Ulmer in 1938; and Der Oytser ("The Treasure," 1908; Eng. 1915), perhaps his greatest work, a dark comedy about greed in a Jewish town that critic George Pearce Baker compared in achievement to Ben Jonson's Volpone. Yankl der Shmid, depicting a married blacksmith's relationship with his neighbor's wife, is considered the Yiddish theater's first exploration of illicit sexual passion. Pinski's plays were produced by some of the world's leading theatrical companies. Der Oytser was first produced by Max Reinhardt at Berlin's Deutsches Theater in 1911. The Theater Guild produced it in English translation by Ludwig Lewisohn in 1920, as well as Dos Letste Sakhakl ("The Last Reckoning," 1926). Konstantin Stanislavski selected Pinski's one-act Der Eybiker Yid ("The Eternal Jew") for the Habimah Theatre's inaugural performance in 1918. Other companies to produce Pinski's plays included the Provincetown Players, the Yiddish Art Theater, the Folksbine, and the Vilna Troupe.

Pinski revisited three major themes throughout his dramatic career, often in combination: Jewish history (including dramas about such figures as Noah, King David, Mary Magdalene, and the Baal Shem Tov), the lives of humble or working-class folk (e.g., Der Oytser), and the psychology of sexual desire (e.g. Yankl der Shmid; Profesor Brenner, 1918). Pinski's early drama employed naturalism: the play Ayzik Sheftl, about a frustrated inventor trapped in a factory job drew stylistic comparison with Die Weber by Gerhart Hauptmann, whom Pinski knew in Berlin. Later Pinski employed techniques of symbolism as well. Though he never abandoned an ethical viewpoint in his work, his characterization and action relied on psychological exploration rather than mere moral or political preaching. His first two novels, Arnold Levenberg (serialized in Der Tog in 1926; book 1938; Eng. 1928) and Dos Hoyz fun Noyakh Edon (1938; The Generations of Noah Edon, 1931), were well received in English translation and deal with assimilation in American Jewish life prior to the Depression. The second novel depicts the erosion of Jewish knowledge and practice in three generations of immigrant Noyakh Edon's family, the tragic emptiness in his children's lives, though they become well-educated and affluent Americans, and his grandson's belated suspicion that Judaism could have filled a void in his own life.

In 1949, Pinski settled in Haifa, Israel, where a street is named for him. His 80th birthday was a major state event. He continued to write until paralyzed by a stroke in 1956 and died a few months after his wife in 1959. While some critics find the quality of much of Pinski's prolific body of work to be uneven, he remains a major figure in the history of Yiddish literature, and Chaim Zhitlovski, among others, has classified Pinski as the fourth classic writer of Yiddish literature after Sh.Y. *Abramovitsh, *Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. *Peretz.


Rejzen, Leksikon 2 (1927), 885–98; S. Niger, Dertseyler un Romanistn (1946), 282–319; Z. Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater, 3 (1959), 1762–806; M. Singer (ed.), David Pinski Zikhrono li-Verakhah (1960); S. Liptzin, Flowering of Yiddish Literature (1963), 118–30; C. Madison, Yiddish Literature (1968), 182–96, list of English translations, 525. add. bibliography. M. Shtarkman and L. Rubenshtayn (eds.), Dovid Pinski: Tsum Tsentn Yortsayt (1969); Sh. Rozhanski, in: Di Goldene Keyt, 135 (1993), 5–13; N. Sandrow (ed. and tr.), God, Man and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation (1999), 20–4, 184–9.

[Moshe Starkman /

Ben Furnish (2nd ed.)]