Shmuel Niger (second from right, hand-numbered “3”), his brother, the writer Daniel Tsharni (second from left, “2”), scholar Jakob Lestschinsky (left, “1”), and others, on a trip to the Alps, ca. 1920s. Photograph by M. Aschwarden. (YIVO)

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Niger, Shmuel

(1883–1955), literary critic. Shmuel Niger was born in Dukor, Belorussia, to Zev Volf and Brokhe Tsharni. His father, a fervent Lubavitcher Hasid, died in 1889, leaving Shmuel’s mother a widow with five sons (he being the fourth) and a daughter. Two of Niger’s younger male siblings achieved renown. Borekh “Vladek” Tsharni (1886–1938) became a leading socialist agitator and theoretician in Eastern Europe and the United States. Daniel Tsharni (1888–1959) was a celebrated Yiddish poet.

Sholem Asch (left) with literary critic Shmuel Niger and Niger’s brother, labor leader Borekh Vladek-Tsharni, place unknown, 1930s. (YIVO)

From an early age, Niger excelled in Talmudic studies. At 17, he was preparing for rabbinic ordination when exposure to secular knowledge swayed him from this path. This transition appears to have been swift and painless. Initially drawn to the socialist Zionist Po‘ale Tsiyon movement, Niger became one of the founding fathers and leading propagandists of the leftist, territorialist branch, the Zionist Socialist Party.

Niger’s earliest writings were in Hebrew and Russian. His first published article, an overview of the various factions of socialist Zionism, appeared in a banned Russian journal in 1904. He made his debut as a Yiddish writer in 1906 with essays devoted to the movement and to Jewish cultural and political issues of the day, which appeared in Der nayer veg (The New Path), the official organ of the Socialist Zionist Party. Niger’s underground political activity led to his imprisonment in Kiev, Warsaw, and Odessa, culminating in a “punitive expedition” in 1906, during which he was tortured to the point of contemplating suicide and witnessed the random execution of fellow detainees. Saved from such a fate through the last-minute intervention of relatives and party comrades, Niger returned to Vilna and resumed writing for the Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish press.

The year 1907 marked a decisive turning point in Niger’s career. It heralded the publication of his first significant critical article, devoted to Sholem Asch’s drama Meshiekhs tsaytn (The Age of the Messiah), and his departure from the socialist Zionists later the same year. Niger was never again to pledge allegiance to a political party. With Yiddish assuming increasing importance, he gradually turned away from Hebrew and Russian to become an almost exclusively Yiddish writer.

From Dovid Bergelson in Bobroisk (Bobruisk), Russian Empire (now Babruysk, Bel.), to Shmuel Niger in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg, Rus.), 14 January 1917. He has sent Niger his chapters and wants to know if they arrived. He has been traveling in the southwestern region of the Russian Empire and has some observations: "I think that if another nation besides the Jewish people was so replete with both ugliness and beauty it would interest us and draw us no less." After the war, he thinks, many Jews will convert or be forced to convert [and become communists?]. Older people will be reluctant but when their children start to hate them, they will lose their confidence and forsake religion. He also has high hopes for Yiddish literature. In his travels, he has discovered many new talents, including a young poet in Crimea, and a writer, [Nokhem?] Oyslender, in Kiev. "Something is sprouting, something is coming." Yiddish. RG 360, Shmuel Niger Papers, F91. (YIVO)

In 1908, Niger was the leading spirit behind the Vilna-based nonpartisan literary journal Literarishe monatshriftn (Literary Monthly), whose aim was to free Yiddish literature from the fetters of didacticism and utilitarianism, a legacy of the condescending attitude of the Haskalah toward the language. Yiddish literature, the journal proclaimed, must provide sustenance for the newly emerging Jewish intellectual readership, which was seeking a synthesis of the Jewish cultural bequest and Polish–Russian high modernism as manifest, in particular, by the symbolist school. Gathered within its pages were the works of the bright young hopefuls of Yiddish literature, including Sholem Asch, Dovid Eynhorn, Perets Hirshbeyn, Hersh Dovid Nomberg, and Der Nister. Niger’s own essays on Asch, Nomberg, Y. L. Peretz, and Avrom Reyzen set the tone of the journal and heralded a level of literary and critical sophistication unprecedented in Yiddish literature.

Particularly influential in the canon-formation of this fledgling literature was Niger’s anointing of Peretz as the founding father of Yiddish literary modernism. While only four issues of Literarishe monatshriftn appeared, the journal became a symbol for the Yiddishist cultural renaissance in the wake of the dashed political hopes of the 1905 Revolution. Niger’s dazzlingly swift rise as a literary critic bore the imprimatur of Bal-Makhshoves, the doyen of Yiddish literary critics, who in a 1908 review hailed him as one “born to be a genuine literary critic.”

In 1909, Niger left Vilna, studying briefly in Berlin before leaving for Switzerland, where he planned to write a dissertation on the aesthetics of Schopenhauer. While at the University of Bern, Niger expanded his intellectual horizons by immersing himself in French and German literature, as well as philosophy and critical theory. In those years Bern was a hotbed of Jewish cultural creativity due to the massive influx of East European Jewish intellectuals and writers. Within this colony of exiles, Niger emerged as the de facto leader of the Yiddishist Diaspora-based cultural nationalists. Notwithstanding the demands of his university studies, he continued actively to participate, as both writer and editor, in the Yiddish press of Eastern Europe. In 1913, his dissertation still unfinished, Niger returned to Vilna, where he became editor of the monthly journal Di yudishe velt (The Jewish World). Under his leadership, the journal became the world’s leading Yiddish literary periodical.

In 1913 Niger also edited and contributed to the Vilna annual Der pinkes (The Record Book), a volume that laid the foundations for the scholarly study of the Yiddish language and literature. It was in no small part due to Niger’s efforts that during this period Vilna emerged as a major center for Yiddish literature, rivaling Warsaw in esteem. The dislocation resulting from the war years, including the forced shutdown of the Jewish press, signaled a period of wandering for Niger. He stayed first in Saint Petersburg, and after the 1917 Revolution—toward which he was initially sympathetic—moved to Moscow, returning to Vilna in 1918 to edit Di vokh (The Week) and later Di naye velt (The New World).

In 1919, Soviet-occupied Vilna was invaded by the Polish army. In the ensuing violence, Niger’s building, which he shared with the Yiddish writers A.Vayter and Leyb Yafe, was raided by the Polish militia. Suspected of harboring Bolshevik sympathies, Vayter was executed on the spot and Niger and Yafe were taken prisoner under sentence of death. For the second time in his life, Niger was granted a last-minute reprieve. Jewish community leaders made an appeal to Marshal Józef Piłsudski, and Niger’s brother Vladek lobbied successfully for American diplomatic intervention on Shmuel’s behalf. In 1919, Niger left Vilna for New York City, where he spent the rest of his life. His years in the United States were characterized by the same manic industriousness he had exhibited in Europe. His main literary outlet became Der tog (The Day), in which he published weekly literary criticism until his death. He was simultaneously involved—both as contributor and editor—in numerous other American Yiddish periodicals, most notably Di tsukunft (The Future). He played an active role in American Jewish communal and cultural organizations and was closely associated with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. On 24 December 1955 Niger died of a heart attack after attending a conference sponsored by YIVO. His funeral was attended by well over 1,000 people. News of his death led to the publication in the Jewish press of hundreds of articles about him worldwide.

From Shmuel Niger in Vilna to Dovid Eynhorn in Warsaw, 3 July 1919, a few months after Niger’s imprisonment at the hands of the Polish army. "Not only you, my friend, but I, too, have aged a hundred years. And who has stayed young?" Even his four-year-old Leybele and his year-old Vovele have faced soldiers with guns and can no longer be considered "young." By contrast, all the "Wilsons" have become young because they act as if they see and hear nothing. He sees that Eynhorn, like himself and any person with integrity, has been transformed by the war into a social activist. He believes that Eynhorn's writing, a shift away from poetry to prose, marks a new phase in his career. Niger tells Eynhorn not to take the "attack" of the American literary group Di Yunge to heart, saying that his articles are too good for a paper that would print Di Yunge's attacks. He himself has been forced to start writing for Der moment, which he considers "an alien environment." He sends his regards to Eynhorn's wife, his friend from his time at Bern University. He wonders if Eynhorn would ever consider coming to Vilna, at least for a visit: it's a small, poor, sad city, but an "authentic" and iconoclastic place. Yiddish. RG 277, David Einhorn Papers, F28. (YIVO. Published with permission.)

The bulk of Niger’s literary criticism, consisting of articles and essays that had initially appeared in periodicals and dailies, was never collected and published in book form. In the most complete bibliography, compiled in 1955 by Yefim Yeshurun, there are 4,083 items by Niger and 1,607 items about him. Despite this fact, Niger has suffered all but total neglect from the critics. The disparity between the stature Niger had achieved during his lifetime and his subsequent fall from grace cannot easily be explained. This decline is attributable, in part, to the fact that his books largely consist of previously published articles that were subsequently reworked or regrouped to create the impression of a synthetic whole. The seams, however, are all too visible. Repetition abounds and frequent patches of purple prose, while unexceptional in the Yiddish press of the day, have not aged well.

Niger’s writings reveal how he was caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, he was dependent upon the Yiddish press both materially (he was constantly plagued by financial duress) and spiritually. On the other hand, he strove constantly for a systematic synthesis and summation that only a work of larger import could achieve. During the heady period signaling the Yiddish cultural renaissance in Europe, Niger appeared master of the medium; it was in his articles for the press that he first hit upon the often brilliant insights that he would elaborate upon during the remainder of his writing career. However, in the United States, Niger became more a slave of the press than its master. Serving as a kind of reviewing machine for Yiddish literature, he appeared chained to the journalist’s desk at considerable cost to his creativity. The sheer intensity of his journalistic activity did, however, ensure that Niger’s purview of Yiddish literature in its entirety was wider than that of any critic before or since.

The leitmotif of Niger’s critical writings revolves around a quest for synthesis in the wake of fragmentation and dispersion. He seeks to reconcile, inter alia, several factors: past and present, tradition and modernity, the individual and the collective, Yiddish and Hebrew, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, Yiddish literature within and outside the Soviet bloc, the Diaspora, and the State of Israel. By tracing the origins of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature not to the secularizing Haskalah but to Hasidism—especially as embodied in the stories of Naḥman of Bratslav—Niger roots modern, secular Jewish creativity in the religious heritage of Jewish Eastern Europe. Nostalgic for the integrated Jewish religious world of his childhood, Niger viewed his own activity as a critic as a type of religious worship. His most beloved writers—foremost among them Y. L. Peretz—are those in whose works “Jew and man, people and peoples, generation and generations, the moment and eternity, are organically united and commingled.” Niger’s desire to reconcile opposites, however, frequently led him to hold two or more contradictory opinions simultaneously. The critic Dov Sadan argued that beneath Niger’s desire to build bridges, one can discern a distinct set of literary and ideological preferences: secularism versus tradition; Yiddish versus Hebrew; Diaspora versus Israel. For all his championing of the individual, however, the collective takes precedence in Niger’s criticism; hence his disapproval of the radical individualism of high-modernist Yiddish literary coteries in the United States, most notably that associated with the journal In zikh.

Niger’s ability to entertain contrary positions—and to reverse his own opinions—is a virtue as well as a flaw. So averse was he to dogmas or “isms” that on more than one occasion he was sharply critical of the secular Yiddishist ideology he himself spearheaded. He made a passionate plea for the liberation of the Yiddish literary critic from the communal and ideological demands of colleagues and the reading public. In the ferociously polemical and ideological Yiddish literary ambience of his day, such neutrality demanded a cool-headed approach. Even though Soviet critics made him their bête noire, Niger appreciated Dovid Bergelson’s artistry while rejecting his ideological stance. He expressed admiration for Maks Erik’s analysis of the Haskalah and responded with great restraint when Meir Wiener accused him of fascist tendencies.

Niger was deliberately eclectic in his approach to literary works, defining his own method as “free or immanent criticism.” The latter, he wrote, “has no preformed and globally applicable axioms. It does not prescribe any aesthetic recipes. It seeks the measure of a work of art in the work of art itself” (Niger, Geklibene shriftn, vol. 2 [1928], p. 364). In giving himself over to the “work of art itself,” Niger as critic exposed the work and its author to his own subjective purview in an act of creative reexperiencing. Thus, he frequently adopted the style of a writer whose work he was explicating.

From Arn Zeitlin in Warsaw, to Yoysef Opatoshu in New York, 8 April 1930. Zeitlin has been elected the chair of the local PEN Club and looks forward to seeing Opatoshu at the upcoming PEN Congress. He agrees with Opatoshu that Shmuel Niger is "our only literary critic." A recent issue of Literarishe bleter focusing on Opatoshu's work "made a strong impression." As per Opatoshu's request, Zeitlin has asked his father Hillel about the eighteenth-century Eybeschütz–Emden controversy, and the senior Zeitlin notes that some of Emden's pamphlets accused Eybeschütz of being an apostate who wore a "copper cross" on his chest; nonetheless, he regards this a slander on the part of Emden. Arn asks Opatoshu for news of the American Yiddish journal Di vokh and sends regards to writers H. Leivick and Aaron Glanz-Leyeles. Yiddish. RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu Papers, F206. (YIVO)

Niger’s internalization of the voice of the writer he critiqued is nowhere more apparent than in the numerous essays he devoted to the work of Sholem Asch, a writer who appears to have intoxicated this critic, who was generally sober to a fault. While Niger admired—even adulated—Peretz, Asch was the writer of whom he was most enamored. This is, on the face of things, strange, for no two personalities presented a greater contrast than Niger—the ascetic, taciturn, circumspect, and somber Litvak—and Asch—the volatile, egotistical, capricious, and flamboyant Polish Jew. In this context it must be remembered that it was Asch who prompted Niger to make his literary debut, following which Niger loyally championed the writer for almost half a century. Asch’s works as presented by Niger actually serve as a fictional embodiment of some of the most crucial principles underlying the critic’s own worldview.

The panoramic temporal and geographical vistas that unfold in Asch’s work are thoroughly in accord with Niger’s maximalist Yiddish and Diaspora-centric Jewishness. Niger points to the paradox that it was Asch who first achieved literary renown with his idyllic depiction of the shtetl (A shtetl; 1904), who liberated Yiddish literature thematially from the confines of that environment, thus elevating this minority literature to form a significant branch of world literature. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, Niger insisted that “the reconciliation between Jew and man, people and mankind, can and must remain.” No wonder that Asch’s humanist universalism evoked a responsive chord in this critic.

Niger is seen at his best in the first and last of the books on literary criticism published in his lifetime: Vegn yidishe shrayber (On Yiddish Writers; 1912) and his biography of Peretz (1952). Perhaps his most significant and enduring scholarly essay is “Di yidishe literatur un di lezerin” (Yiddish Literature and the Female Reader; 1913). In this pioneering essay, Niger adopted a feminist approach to examine the role of women in Jewish literature and religious practice, arguing that alongside the exclusively masculine world of Talmudic study there emerged and flourished a distinctively feminine Jewish spirituality nourished more by the Bible and agadah than halakhah. This spirituality found its expression in Old Yiddish literature, notably Tsene-rene, the “women’s Bible.” Women’s spirituality, in Niger’s view, provided a salutary corrective to halakhicly dominated male Talmudism. The Yiddish prayers recited by women (tkhines) manifest an intimate, personal relationship to God that is basically absent in the male-oriented canon. Nor is the formative role of women in determining the character of Yiddish literature confined to the early period. Niger argues that it is only in the last decades of the nineteenth century that Yiddish literature consciously addressed both sexes. In this context, he argues that the reader of a literary work is as vital a creative factor as the author.

Niger’s massive archive is housed at the YIVO Institute in New York. It includes not only manuscripts of his books and articles but also his journal as well as approximately 30,000 epistolary documents.

Suggested Reading

Yudl Mark, “Di perzenlekhkayt Shmuel Niger,” Di tsukunft 61.4 (April 1956): 155–156; Nokhem Minkoff, Zeks yidishe kritiker (Buenos Aires, 1954), pp. 293–344; Yankev Pat, Shmuesnmit yidishe shrayber (New York, 1954), pp. 212–228; Leyb Vaserman, “Niger, Shmuel,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 6, cols. 190–210 (New York, 1965).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 360, Shmuel Niger, Papers, 1907-1950s.