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Ettinger, Shloyme

(1803–1856), Yiddish poet and dramatist. Shloyme Ettinger was born in Warsaw into a distinguished rabbinical family. His father died young, and Ettinger was raised by his uncle Mendel Ettinger, a rabbi who knew German and who was uncommonly flexible about enabling his nephew to explore features of the Enlightenment.

After an arranged marriage at 15 with the daughter of the magnate Yehude Leyb Volf, Ettinger moved in with his in-laws in Zamość; there he regularly visited the house of Rabbi Yosef Zederbaum (father of Aleksander Zederbaum), which was the local meeting place for followers of the Haskalah. After his father-in-law’s death, economic reverses led Ettinger to seek a career. He worked at a business in Odessa, where his brother-in-law lived, but when his commercial attempts failed, he moved in 1825 to Lemberg to study medicine and was supported by his relatives.

In 1830, Ettinger returned as a physician to Zamość in Russian Poland, but was unable to practice because he needed to pass a Russian government examination at Warsaw University. During the cholera epidemic of the summer of 1831 he was nevertheless enlisted by local authorities to provide medical support. When he did so with dedication, he was later allowed to establish a medical practice and to submit his candidacy for a position in the municipal hospital. However, Ettinger twice failed his qualifying examinations (for reasons of ill health and bureaucratic error, respectively). After his second attempt, he bought land in Zhdanov (mod. Mariupol’), about four kilometers from Zamość, and settled with his family. He remained there for the rest of his life, except when called upon once more to assist in the cholera epidemic of July 1855.

Generally considered a happy individual, even called the “merry Solomon” by members of the Lemberg Haskalah circle, Ettinger seems to have considered much of his life a disappointment, complaining, in a letter late in life: “I don’t make any great demands from life; I only wish a bit of familial happiness, and this simple thing has not been granted to me by fortune. I am a husband, a father, a house-holder, a farmer [land-worker], but to me is destined only the sorrow of all of these” (Ettinger, 1925, letter 12 [vol. 2, p. 577]).

Perhaps some of Ettinger’s disappointment was related to the seeming failure of his literary career. Though he proved to be one of the most influential nineteenth-century Yiddish writers, he never saw any of his Yiddish work published because he resisted the cuts of the Russian censors. He had begun to write while still a student in Lemberg, and early on had most probably composed his most famous work, Serkele—a play about a hypochondriacal woman who tried to dominate her household and her society by using money stolen from the estate of her brother, whom she assumes is dead. The play features stock characters and a conventional set of comic misunderstandings to articulate a fairly standard pro-Enlightenment message. Serkele, published posthumously in 1861, was first performed in 1863 at a Purim celebration at the Zhitomir rabbinical seminary. The lead role was played by the 22-year-old student Avrom Goldfadn, who later was a founder of the modern Yiddish theater.

Serkele’s historical position as a work bridging the comedies of the Berlin Jewish Enlightenment and the later Yiddish theater is undisputed, but it is also a successful play in its own right, partially for stylistic reasons. Indeed, most critics—including Shmuel Niger, Meyer Viner, and Avrom Reyzen—praise Ettinger’s style, particularly for his poetry, parables, and epigrams, many written in the style of eighteenth-century German literature. “Dos likht” (The Light), perhaps his most famous poem, follows Schiller’s “Die Glocke” (The Bell) in using the title object to explore numerous moments in an average person’s life—in Ettinger’s case, an East European Jewish life.

Ettinger is also praised for his seemingly unapologetic decision to adopt Yiddish exclusively as his medium of expression, at a time when most Enlightenment authors claimed they were using the language only as an instrumental goal. In addition, Ettinger is known for his philological creativity: he is responsible for numerous neologisms, particularly technical theatrical terms.

In May 1843, Serkele and Mesholim (Parables) were submitted to the Warsaw authorities with a request for publication. The accompanying letter stated that “these works are accessible to all classes of Jews . . . they picture pointedly and comically the entire Jewish way of life and therefore they can have a redeeming effect on the brain.” The censor’s cuts, however, were so drastic that Ettinger decided not to publish his work. His literary survival crucially relied on his own self-promotion: famously, he made dozens of manuscript copies and gave numerous readings, enabling his texts and his reputation to spread until his work was published without cuts posthumously.

Suggested Reading

“Etinger, Shloyme,” Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 6, cols. 574–583 (New York, 1956–1981); Solomon Ettinger (Shloyme Etinger), Ale ksovim, ed. Max Weinreich (Vilna, 1925); Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised (New York, 1973).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945.