Krokodil (Crocodile), by Kornei Chukovskii (Riga: Undzer tsukunft, n.d.). Translated by Sh. L. Shmuelson. Illustrated by Remi. Yiddish translation of a popular Russian poem for children. (YIVO)

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Children’s Literature

Yiddish Literature

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The period in which modern children’s literature in Yiddish flourished began in the early twentieth century. This era also saw the growth of educational institutions in which Yiddish was the language of instruction. In the Soviet Union as well as in Poland, Yiddish educational textbooks, readers (anthologies), as well as series of booklets for children were published, containing original Yiddish literary writings and translations into that language. A substantial part of children’s literature in Yiddish was first disseminated by means of children’s periodicals, which were edited by educators and writers. In these books and journals, one finds literary selections for different age groups in a variety of genres: nursery rhymes for toddlers; stories about animals, friends, and events for elementary school children; and folklore and travelogues for adolescents.

Advertisement for Yiddish translations of German stories by Wilhelm Busch, translated by Yoysef Tunkel (Der Tunkeler), and published by the Levin-Epstein brothers with “Judaized” versions of the original illustrations. The advertisement also promotes Der Purim-ber (The Purim Bear), an original play for children by Tunkel (top left). From Notl un Motl, zeks shtifer mayselekh (Notl and Motl, Six Impish Tales), 1920. (YIVO)

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, children heard legends and stories from the Midrash and the Talmud, as well as a few early stories in Yiddish published specifically for young students. An example of a translation (or adaptation) from another language is titled “Shpanishe haydn oder tsigayners” (Spanish Pagans or Gypsies; first half of the eighteenth century). Toward the end of the nineteenth century, two works for children were published: in 1867 a drama for reading by Yoyel Berish titled “Reb Khaiml der kotsin” (Reb Khaiml the Magnate), and in 1889 a collection of stories by Mordkhe Spektor called “Yontefdike dertseylungen” (Holiday Tales). Sholem Aleichem’s story “Dos meserl” (The Penknife) is often considered the first modern story for children in Yiddish, despite the fact that its first version was not a children’s story. Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik encouraged Sholem Aleichem to write for children when he requested permission to translate and adapt some of his stories for Hebrew children’s literature.

The first journal for children, titled Farn kleynem oylem (For the Young Audience), was edited by Yoysef Heftman as a supplement to the newspaper Di yidishe vokh (The Jewish Week; 1912–1913). The first regular magazine for children was Grininke beymelekh (Little Green Trees). It was first issued in Vilna in 1914, and continued with interruptions until the outbreak of World War II (1914–1915; 1919–1922; 1926–1939).

Prior to World War I, Yiddish publishing was centered in Warsaw and Vilna. During the Soviet regime, the field expanded and introduced important presses in Moscow, Kiev, and Minsk. There was publishing activity in Petrograd, Kharkov, and Odessa as well. However, the majority of educational textbooks, children’s books, and other publications for schools in the Soviet Union came out of Kiev.

In 1905 in Warsaw, Magnus (Ya‘akov) Krinsky, who was both a teacher and a school principal, published a series of books titled Bikher far Ale (Books for All); among these were Sholem Aleichem’s stories. The Kletskin publishing house, originally in Vilna and then in Warsaw, published children’s reading materials and textbooks. By 1912, there were publishing houses in Yiddish for children in several cities. In Warsaw, Mayselekh published translations as well as original Yiddish books; in Kishinev, teachers established Far Undzere Kinder (For Our Children) and published the writings of Y. L. Peretz and others; and in Kiev, Kunstfarlag published books for children.

In 1913, the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (known by its Russian acronym OPE) in Saint Petersburg met to discuss the aims of Yiddish children’s literature. Following this conference, the society published a booklet that included advice and instructions for publishers on the content and form of children’s books.

In Kiev in 1917, the Kultur-lige was founded, which among its other activities produced and distributed Yiddish books. A publishing house of the same name was founded in Warsaw in 1921; it issued readers, textbooks, and books of general interest for children and adolescents. During the same period in Warsaw, Binyamin Shimin published the series Yugnt-Bibliotek (Young People’s Library).

Elefandl (The Elephant's Child), by Rudyard Kipling (Berlin: Thresholds, 1922). Illustrated by El Lissitzky. Yiddish translation of an English-language classic. (© 2006 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/YIVO)

Children’s books in Yiddish were often illustrated by acclaimed artists. For example, Marc Chagall illustrated A mayse mit a hon; Dos tsigele (The Story of a Rooster; The Goat), by Der Nister, printed in Petrograd in 1917 and published by Kletskin. Yisakhar Rybak illustrated two books by Leyb KvitkoFoyglen (Birds) and In vald (In the Forest), in Berlin in 1922. [For artist El Lissitzky’s cover of a Yiddish translation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child, see image at right.] Stories by Wilhelm Busch were adapted and translated from German into Yiddish by Yoysef Tunkel (Der Tunkeler), and then published in booklet form with Busch’s original illustrations (however, changes were inserted into the texts, and the illustrations were “Judaized”). The booklets were published in Warsaw by the Levin-Epstein brothers. Among their titles were Notl un Motl, zeks shtifer mayselekh (Notl and Motl, Six Impish Tales; 1920) and Der robnnest (The Raven’s Nest; 1921).

Following World War I, the number of secular schools using Yiddish for the language of instruction increased. These new schools needed reading material for their students. Reader-anthologies (krestomatyes), textbooks, and other reading material (mainly series of booklets, called bibliotekn) were printed for these schools.

Kinderfraynd (Children-Friend) 4.2 (25 October 1938). Yiddish biweekly journal for children published in Warsaw from 1936 to 1939. (YIVO)

The educational network of Yiddish schools in Poland, known as TSYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization), established a publishing house called Shul un Lebn (School and Life). It printed books for teachers and children, and in 1925 united with Kultur-lige. One such series—Shul Bibliotek (School Library)—included scores of books by Jewish and non-Jewish writers that were edited and adapted for schools. In 1935, a foundation was established in the name of Y. Khmurner (Yoysef Leshtshinski, the chair of TSYSHO), which published books for school students until the outbreak of the World War II. 

Children’s magazines that were edited by educators themselves greatly contributed to the development of children’s literature in Yiddish. Under the sponsorship of TSYSHO, the magazines Der khaver (The Friend; 1920–1922, 1929–1939) and Grininke beymelekh were published in Vilna, and were for the most part edited by Shloyme Bastomski (1891–1941). Kinderfraynd (Children-Friend; 1936–1939), edited by Moyshe Taykhman, was published in Warsaw.

In contrast to children’s literature in Hebrew in Eastern Europe, which was for the most part oriented to Zionism, children’s literature in Yiddish generally promoted socialism rather than Zionism, as did the schools. The Orthodox Agudas Yisroel movement, which operated educational networks for boys (Ḥorev) and girls (Beys Yankev), published Yiddish-language booklets and newspapers for children. In Łódź, Beys Yankev created the series Unzer Bibliotek: Far Kinder un Yugnt (Our Library: For Children and Youth) and included the text Ven di shterndlekh shaynen: Mayselekh un lider (When the Stars Shine: Short Stories and Poems; 1931) by Eliezer Shindler (1892–1957). Beys Yankev also published magazines for different age groups, among them Kinder-gortn (Kindergarten) for children, which was first issued in 1924 as a supplement to the journal Beys Yankev, and in 1929 was turned into an independent journal. This journal contained a supplement for toddlers—Frishinke beymelekh (Fresh Little Trees), which also was turned into an independent journal in 1931. 

Among the most prominent creators of children’s literature in Yiddish was the editor and educator Shloyme Bastomski, who not only composed stories but also adapted folkloric material from his private collections. With his wife Malke Khaymson, he founded a Yiddish publishing house for schools in Vilna: Naye Yidishe Folks-shul (New Yiddish Folk School), which created textbooks, anthologies, and other reading material in Yiddish for the schools. Their reader Lebedike klangen (Lively Sounds; 1925) in six levels (from first to sixth grade), was adopted by Jewish schools in many countries. In Warsaw, the teacher, author, and editor Moyshe Taykhman headed a group of teachers who in 1935 established a publishing house called Kinderfraynd. Taykhman later edited the journal with the same name.

Notl un Motl, zeks shtifer mayselekh (Notl and Motl, Six Impish Tales), by Wilhelm Busch. Translated by Yiddish humorist Yoysef Tunkel (Der Tunkeler). (Warsaw: Levin-Epstein Brothers, 1920). (YIVO)

Children’s literature in Yiddish included original writings, adaptations, and translations. The writings of Mendele Moykher-Sforim and Sholem Aleichem were adapted and published in booklets for children. For example, Der Nister arranged a collection of stories by Sholem Aleichem (Kinder-dertseylungen [Children’s Stories]; 1935). An abridged version of Mendele’s Sefer ha-behemot (The Book of Beasts) appeared under the title Dos kelbl (The Calf), and was illustrated by Yosef Tshaykov (Iosif Chaikov; 1919). Finally, Mendele’s Masoes Binyomin hashlishi (The Travels of Benjamin the Third) was abridged and published for adolescents (1921).

Y. L. Peretz composed many stories and poems for children, and also adapted legends. Among these was Der dintoyre mitn vint—Far undzere kinder (The Rabbinical Lawsuit against the Wind—For Our Children) with illustrations by Menakhem Birnboym (1917); Far kleyne kinder: Gezang un shpil (For Small Children: Songs and Games; 1925); and Kinderlider (Children’s Poems), illustrated by Aleksander Korotkin (1937).

Leyb Kvitko (1890–1952), a writer and poet from Ukraine, was among the noteworthy children’s authors in the Soviet Union. Kvitko’s Yiddish writings were translated into other languages, and his poems were set to music. Itsik Kipnis (1896–1974), also from Ukraine, was another leading Yiddish writer for children, and published his own works as well as adaptations and translations of others.

Kadia Molodowsky (1894–1975) was a prolific Yiddish-language author of children’s literature in Poland. She worked as a kindergarten and elementary school teacher in Odessa and Warsaw, and in 1935 immigrated to America. Among her publications for children were Mayselekh (Short Stories; 1931); Shikhelekh (Little Shoes; 1931); and Dzhike gas (Dzika Street; 1933).

Children’s literature in Yiddish was enriched by adaptations and translations of writings from other languages. Noteworthy are adaptations of legends and folktales by Eliezer Shindler, published in a series of 15 booklets by Bastomski in Vilna. Poems by Vasilii Zhukovskii and Samuil Marshak were translated from Russian into Yiddish, and published primarily in children’s journals. The booklet Fayvl der groyser un Fayvl der kleyner (Fayvl the Great and Fayvl the Little), adapted by Mordekhai Ben Ami, was the first translation of Hans Christian Anderson into Yiddish. It appeared in 1904 as a supplement to the Saint Petersburg newspaper Der fraynd just before Purim (a second edition appeared in Vilna in 1913, in the series Far Undzere Kinder).

Grininke beymelekh (Little Green Trees), no. 7 (May 1914). The first Yiddish journal for children to appear regularly, it was published in Vilna from 1914 to 1939. Its title was drawn from the Yiddish poem Unter beymer (Under Trees) by Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, an excerpt of which appears at top left: “Under the little green trees / Play Moyshele, / Shloymele . . . Oy, how precious to me, Jewish children / Are your pure little eyes!” (YIVO)

Another female writer who enriched children’s literature in Yiddish, primarily by adapting and translating classical children’s books, was Helena Khatskeles (1882–1973). As a teacher, author, and translator in Kovno, she also edited the children’s journal Kinderblat (Children’s Page; 1931–1939). Khatskeles translated the travelogues of Sven Hedin from Sweden, and classical children’s books, including Di zilberne glitshers (The Silver Skates) by the American writer Mary Mapes-Dodge, and a book series by Lucy Perkins about twins in different countries.

Children also read the writings of authors and poets who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the American continent, among them Mani Leyb (1883–1953), Avrom Reyzen (1876–1953), and Ida Maaze (1893–1962).

During World War II, both Hebrew and Yiddish literature and periodicals continued to be created, and were published underground. A prominent example in the field of Yiddish children’s literature was the teacher and bilingual (Yiddish and Hebrew) author and poet from Łódź, Yitsḥak Katzenelson (1885–1944), who was in the Warsaw ghetto. Katzenelson continued to write in Hebrew and Yiddish there, and even translated his own Hebrew writings into Yiddish for the children in the ghetto. In the Soviet Union, following the annexation of eastern Poland in 1939, publications in Yiddish continued to appear. However, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Yiddish publication ceased almost completely.

Among the journals for children, Grininke baymelekh and Kinder fraynd stand out in terms of literary quality. Among the outstanding poets whose works appeared in these journals were Shmuel Tsesler (1904–1987), Shneyer Vaserman (1899–1982), Rivke Galin (1890–1935), and Ida Maaze. Noteworthy authors of stories include Litman (Simkhe Freylikh, his pseudonym apparently derived from Literatur Man; 1898–1946) and Leon Elbe (1870–1928).

Suggested Reading

Adina Bar-El, “‘Grininke Beymelekh’: Ha-Hatḥalah: Le-Toldotav shel ‘iton yeladim yidi be-Polin,” Kesher 27 (May 2000): 99–106; Adina Bar-El, “Shloyme Bastomski u-kesharav ‘im sofrim u-meshorerim,” Ḥulyot 7 (Autumn 2002): 299–307; Adina Bar-El, “Ha-Ḥinukh ha-ḥiloni be-yidish be-teḥilat ha-me’ah ha-‘esrim u-mekomo be-hitpatḥut sifrut ha-yeladim,” Dor le-dor 23 (2003): 7–16; Adina Bar-El, Ben ha-‘etsim ha-yerakrakim: ‘Itonai yeladim be-‘ivrit ube-yidish be-Polin 1918–1939 (2006); Hayyim Solomon Kazdan, Di geshikhte fun yidishn shulvezn in umophengikn Poyln (Mexico City, 1947), pp. 411–567; Nachman Mayzel, Geven amol a lebn: Dos yidishe kultur-lebn in Poyln tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes (Buenos Aires, 1951); Shmuel Niger, “Vegn yidisher kinder-literatur,” Shul-almanakh (1935): 188–195; Chone Shmeruk, ed., Pirsumim yehudiyim bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot, 1917–1960 (Jerusalem, 1961); Chone Shmeruk, “Sholem-Aleykhem un di onheybn fun der yidisher literatur far kinder,” Di goldene keyt 112 (1984): 39–53; Chone Shmeruk, “‘Iyunim be-darkhe ha-kelitah shel sifrut-yeladim l’o-yehudit be-yidish,” in ‘Iyunim be-sifrut: Devarim she-ne’emru be-‘erev li-khevod Dov Sadan bi-mel’ot lo shemonim ve-ḥamesh shanah (Jerusalem, 1988), pp. 59–87; Chone Shmeruk, “Madrikh le-sifrut ha-yeladim be-yidish,” Kiryat sefer 64.1 (1993): 327–329.



Translated from Hebrew by Carrie Friedman-Cohen