ZUNSER, ELIAKUM (1836–1913), popular Yiddish bard and dramatist, known as Eliakum Badkhn . Born in Vilna, Zunser was conscripted in 1856 but was soon released, when Czar Alexander ii revoked the oppressive military decrees of his predecessor Nicholas i. In 1856 in the barracks, he composed the song "Di Poymanes" ("Child Recruits") lamenting the bitter lot of the child soldiers (see *Cantonists), and after his discharge he wrote " Di Yeshue " ("Salvation") celebrating the child draftees' miraculous salvation. In 1857, working in Kovno as a braider of gold lace on uniforms, he came under the influence of the *Musar movement of R. Israel *Salanter, and his songs ("Der Zeiger" ("The Watch)" and "Di Blum" ("The Flower")) became laden with lyricism and moral sentiment. Singing his songs at festivals and weddings, he soon acquired a reputation as an original bard and decided to make a career as a *badḥan. He rapidly attained fame as Russia's outstanding wedding bard. Beginning with Shirim ḥadashim ("New Songs," 1872), booklet after booklet of his songs was printed and avidly read.
In 1871 Zunser lost seven children during a cholera epidemic and, a year later, his wife. His tragic outlook after these losses was mirrored in poems such as "Der Potshtover Glekel" ('The Little Postal Bell') and "Der Sandek" ("The Man Holding a Child at Circumcision," 1872), and in his only published drama Makhaze Mekhires Yoysef ("The Sale of Joseph," 1874). After his second marriage Zunser lived chiefly in Minsk, serving as the local correspondent for Kol la-Am, a Yiddish periodical edited at Koenigsberg by M.L. *Rodkinson. When the pogroms of the early 1880s led to the founding of the pioneering Zionist group *Bilu, Zunser lent his support to the young idealists who were heading for a new life in Palestine. In 1882 he composed the songs "Shivas Tsien" ("Return to Zion") and "Di Sokhe" ("The Hook Plough") for them, the latter becoming his most popular song both in the Yiddish and Hebrew versions. Its theme was the joy of returning to plow the Jewish earth in the Holy Land. Zunser himself hoped to settle in the Bilu village of Gederah, but in 1889 was compelled to emigrate to New York, where his East Side home and printing shop became a center for Yiddish poets and young Zionists. There he also published poems of the New World (in Dos Yidishe Tageblat) about Columbus, Washington, and sweatshops and wrote his autobiography, Zunsers Biografye Geshribn fun im Aleyn (ed. by A.H. Fromenson, 1905). A definitive scholarly edition of his complete extant works, Verk (including lyrics and melodies) was edited for *yivo by Mordkhe Schaechter (2 vols., 1964; incl. bibl.).
S. Liptzin, Eliakum Zunser, Poet of his People (1950); M. Schaechter, in: Eliakum Zunser, Verk, 2 (1964), 779–88, bibl.; Rejzen, Leksikon, 3 (1929), 259–71; lnyl, 7 (1968), 546–9.