Steinberg, Jacob

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STEINBERG, JACOB (1887–1947), Hebrew poet, short story writer, and essayist; born in Belaya Tserkov in the Ukraine. Little is known of his early life, except what may be gathered from his short stories and novelettes. These, with their portrayal of poverty, family squabbles, the vagaries of self-education, revolt against tradition, and flight to the city suggest the usual background of a Hebrew writer in Eastern Europe prior to World War i. At 14 Steinberg ran away to Odessa where he met Ḥ.N. Bialik, who encouraged him, and Z. Shneour, who became his close friend. In 1903 he moved to Warsaw where he published his first Hebrew poem and contributed to Hebrew and Yiddish periodicals, winning literary acclaim in both languages. At the outbreak of World War i he immigrated to Palestine and, except for the years 1923 to 1925 spent in Berlin, lived out his life there. In Palestine he ceased writing Yiddish and contributed regularly in Hebrew to Ha-Po'el ha-Za'ir, Moledet, and Davar. From 1942 he was one of the editors of Moznayim, the literary periodical of the Hebrew Writers' Association. His Hebrew writings were republished in 1957 as part of the Dvir Classical Library. The collected works appeared in 1964.

Poetry and Poetics

Steinberg's work is highly original, notwithstanding that he was not an innovator. Though he never acknowledged any influence, that of Bialik is clearly discernible in his earlier poems and short stories. But his insight into the work of Baudelaire and Verlaine and the lesson derived from the Russian realists are equally evident in what may be described as his "spiritual realism."

In his quest for flawless form, in his pained introspection, and in his objection to the excesses of didacticism, he is thus reminiscent of Baudelaire. The recurrent mood of ennui with its accompanying motifs of decay, poison, tombs, and riddles also recalls the French poet and the later symbolists. From Baudelaire and his disciples he apparently derived the doctrine of enigmatic affinities, also sharing their predilection for analogy and oxymorons.

Like the symbolists, Steinberg distrusts descriptive verse; the poet, he maintains, should neither initiate nor analyze but uncover the essential correspondences between things. Analogy alone reveals that things are not haphazard, opaque, or fragmentary. It alone can ensure the conception of a unified world which is the sum total of all its analogies brought together by poetic imagination. The poet is thus capable of reconciling opposites without diminishing their polar tension, the latter being the key to and the manifestation of the mystery of life.

Steinberg's style, essentially biblical, deliberately archaic, with a manifest contempt for "the lightsome present," is nevertheless exact and specific. He is perhaps the only modern Hebrew poet who succeeded in forging a biblical style into an adequate tool for the expression of a basically modern sensibility, without recourse to pastiche or a technique of fragmentation. Despite its insistence on the discovery of new relationships, his poetry is not given to modernistic analogies that "make it new" by their sheer incongruity. On the contrary, he often resorts to a conventional imagery which comes alive by dint of a single word or expression. The main strength of his idiom lies in the endowment of abstract spiritual entities with almost sculptural concreteness. His phrases and word formations, ostensibly biblical but intrinsically his own, cannot be paraphrased and would greatly lose in translation. They epitomize fully realized moments drawn from intense personal experience yet emanating, as it were, from the wisdom of the ages. These "moments," enigmatic "documents of life," as he calls them, are not susceptible to logical reduction but they are equally hostile to the spirit of generalizing abstractions and are not satisfied with mere "musical" vagueness – qualities Steinberg disliked in poetry as in life. Hence his predilection for the powerful realism in the narrative books of the Bible.

Steinberg's emphasis on such pregnant moments is reinforced by a theoretical preoccupation with the smallest structural and semantic unit – the verse line and the single word, provided it contains what he calls "an epic of life." He saw the history of Hebrew literature as a gradual estrangement from the life-engendering verse line and as an immersion in rhetorical garrulity, inattentive to life or inimical to it. The very indifference of the Jew to aesthetic perception is symptomatic of the malaise of an uprooted people. Whoever envisages a future for Jewish poetry, he argues, envisages a future for the Jewish nation. The return of Hebrew poetry to the "line" implies the return of the Jew to normal life.

More than any of his contemporaries, Steinberg thus pointed out the major weakness of contemporary Hebrew literature of his day, though his own poetry was not always untainted by the very things he abhorred. His condemnation of a cliché-ridden rhetoric constituted a reaction against a tradition which had exhausted itself, and, in the eyes of its modern opponents, had adulterated the language of poetry. Like the imagists, Steinberg sought to return to the hard core of poetry, which he too calls image. His assertion that at the dawn of a new epoch the image-analogy is first to awaken to a new life, is the essence of the imagist credo. As prototype of his image, Steinberg points to the ambiguous word-entity fashioned by biblical realism. The ancient Hebrews, he argues, were unskilled in the arts of building and sculpture but excelled in sculpting abstract notions into word monuments. In this resides the strength of the Hebrew language itself whose words are "chiseled, solid stones, not formless sand as in Slavic and Germanic tongues." This insistence on hardness and meaningful directness is evinced in Steinberg's late lyrics and in his accomplished love poems in which he evokes the experience with unsparing truthfulness and almost scientific detachment. On the whole his poetry marks one of the most impressive achievements of modern Hebrew literature.


Steinberg wrote some 20 stories whose themes and landscapes are taken mainly from the life of the Jewish communities in the small towns of the Ukraine. These depict a lowly world of frustration, unhappy love affairs, the squalor of an existence under constant persecution – a world stirred by the echoes of far-off change and revolution. Most of them resolve in death, defeat, suicide, the waste of strong passions doomed to slow extinction and transformed into forces of destruction.

Out of this gallery of uprooted, washed-out, withered souls – portrayed with restraint, with close attention to the pregnant minor detail, and without a trace of melodrama – rises a specter of the writer's own early incurable afflictions.

But beyond autobiography, the stories are a psychological study of the rootless Jew in the midst of a hostile world. Here Steinberg allies himself with J.H. Brenner, S.Y. Abramovitsh (Mendele Mokher Seforim), and a long succession of Jewish writers in a blunt scrutiny of what he considers the only race of man forced out of the orbit of nature and living for the sake of death in the absence of any earthly purpose to devote itself to. The condemnation of the galut is absolute, but even when describing the Diaspora Jew as "a freakish specter," Steinberg remains the observer rather than the preacher. The sense of a common lot and the echoes of pogroms turn this predicament, too, into an occasion of self-revelation. This is where the stories and the poems touch.


His essays, ostensibly written about "occasional" subjects, are set in the realities of Ereẓ Israel. Whether he writes about the ḥamsin, the atmosphere of the café, or the plethora of languages in the city of his day, he constantly reverts to the subject that haunts him: the impoverished spiritual life of a small and arid community of immigrants, as opposed to the glory that was Judah. These essays, halfway between the conventional essay form and the prose poem, do not register fleeting moods or impressionistic intimacies, but adhere to the lesson Steinberg learned from the Bible (one of the few masterpieces, he maintains, in which a whole nation revealed its soul) and from the nature of the Hebrew language as he interpreted it.

Despite their affinity to Zionist ideology, his ideas, couched like his poems in biblical language, are concerned with and addressed to the select few. Indeed, the strengthening of the individual is seen by Steinberg as the main task of Hebrew renascence.

The essays won a wider acclaim than the poems. Only after the War of Independence, with the advent of a new generation of Hebrew writers inveighing against the rhetorical excesses of their predecessors, were his works more closely read and revalued.


G. Shaked, in: J. Steinberg, Yalkut Sippurim (1966), 7–27; A. Epstein, in: Sefer ha-Shanah li-Yhudei Amerikah, 4 (1939), 228–35; J.M. Ben-Eliezer, in: Ha-Tekufah, 21 (1924), 501–3; J. Silbershlag, in: Bitzaron, 1 (1940), 333–44; M. Rabinson, in: Haolam, 26 (1937/38), 138f.; 617f.; I. Cohen, Ya'acov Steinberg Vi-Yẓirato (1972). add. bibliography: M. Ungerfeld, "Y. Steinberg," in: Hadoar, 51 (1972), 528–29; A. Komem, Darkhei ha-Sippur shel Ya'akov Steinberg (1976); A. Brakai, Mishka'im Bialikiyyim be-Shirat Meshorerim (1976); G. Shaked, Ha-Sipporet ha-Ivrit, 1 (1977), 250–1; Y. Cohen, "Y. Steinberg," in: Moznayim, 47:5 (1979), 283–88; Z. Sivan, Ha-Yesod ha-Dramati be-Shirat Y. Steinberg (1979); H. Herzig, Ha-Sippur ha-Ivri be-Reshit Shenot ha-Esrim (1992); Z. Luz, Y. Steinberg, Monografyah (2000); A. Komem, Shenei Ekronot Yesod be-Shirat Ya'akov Steinberg (2004).

[Natan Zach]