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Joseph Opatoshu

(1886 - 1954)

OPATOSHU, JOSEPH (originally Opatovsky; 1886–1954), Yiddish novelist and short-story writer. Born near Mlave (Poland), Opatoshu immigrated to the U.S. in 1907, where he studied engineering at Cooper Union at night, while supporting himself by working in a shoe factory, selling newspapers, and teaching in Hebrew schools. In 1914 he graduated as a civil engineer, but soon found literature a more congenial profession. From 1910 he contributed stories to periodicals and anthologies, and in 1914 edited an anthology of his own, Di Naye Heym ("The New Home"), which included his story of American Jewish life, "Fun Nyu Yorker Geto." When the New York daily Der Tog was founded (1914), he joined its staff and for 40 years contributed stories, sketches, and serials, most of which were later reprinted in book form.

Opatoshu's early work was naturalistic, depicting scenes from contemporary life. Thus his A Roman fun a Ferd Ganev ("A Novel about a Horse Thief," 1912), his first novel to attract wide attention, was based on his boyhood acquaintance with an unusual Jewish thief who made a living by smuggling horses across the border from Poland to Germany and who was killed while defending fellow Jews against their hostile neighbors. Opatoshu expressed his reaction to romanticism by creating thieves, smugglers, and drunkards who were a distinct contrast to the figures in the writings of Sholem *Aleichem or Y.L. Peretz. Opatoshu was one of the first Yiddish writers to depict American Jewish experience in his works. After reading some of his American stories, Sholem Aleichem encouraged Opatoshu to continue writing about the subject. Opatoshu heeded this suggestion and gave literary expression to the conflicts created by the Americanization of the Jewish immigrant in such works as Hibru ("Hebrew," 1919), a naturalistic novel that deals with the problems of Jewish education in New York; Di Tentserin ("The Dancer," 1929) portrays declining Ḥasidism in New York; Arum Grand Strit ("Around Grand Street," 1929) focuses on the immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side; and Rase ("Race," 1923), a short-story collection that portrayed the conflict between varying ethnic and religious groups.

Fascinated by the Jewish past, he sought to revivify segments of it in historical novels, based on extensive research and guided by an insight, gained through Simon Dubnov's work in Jewish history, that the narrative of Jewish oppression and life in the ghetto that dominated Jewish history as written by Jews could mislead through its onesidedness. Opatoshu sought descriptions of a vital, interactive, and hopeful daily life among Jews. In his novel In Poylishe Velder (1921; In Polish Woods, 1938, the first volume of a trilogy), Opatoshu described the decay of the ḥasidic court of Kotzk during the post-Napoleonic generation and presented a rich panorama of Polish-Jewish interrelations up to the Revolt of 1863. Often reprinted, and translated into eight languages, it established Opatoshu's fame internationally, though its sequel, 1863, made less of an impact; the last volume of the trilogy, Aleyn ("Alone") was the first to be published (1919). In his Falstaffian narrative, A Tog in Regensburg ("A Day in Regensburg," 1968), and Elye Bokher (dealing with the author of the Yiddish romance, the Bove Buch), both published in 1933, Opatoshu portrays the vanished world of 16th-century Jewish patricians and Yiddish minstrels in a stylized language that utilizes older stages of Yiddish. In his final historical epic, Der Letster Oyfshtand (2 vols. 1948–52; The Last Revolt, 1952), Opatoshu attempted an imaginative reconstruction of daily life in 2nd-century Judea, when the last desperate revolt of the Jews against Roman rule flared up and was crushed.

His son DAVID (1919–1996) worked extensively in the Yiddish theater and starred in the classic Yiddish film Di Klyatshe/The Light Ahead (1939; adapted from S.Y. Abramovitsh's Fiske der Krumer). Over the course of four decades he appeared in numerous Broadway productions and Hollywood films, and hundreds of television productions, winning an Emmy in 1990. He published short stories and television scripts, and directed and produced for theater, film, and television.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Opatoshu Bibliografye, 1 (1937), 2 (1947); LYNL, 1 (1956), 145–9; B. Rivkin, Yoysef Opatoshus Gang (1948); I. Freilich, Opatoshus Shafungsveg (1951); J. Glatstein, In Tokh Genumen (1956), 145–56; S. Bickel, Shrayber fun Mayn Dor (1958), 304–16; C. Madison, Yiddish Literature (1968), 326–47; N. Mayzel, Yoysef Opatoshu (1937); S. Liptzin, Maturing of Yiddish Literature (1970), 10–18.

[Sol Liptzin / Shifra Kuperman (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.