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Shmuel Niger

(1883 – 1955)

Shmuel Niger (pseudonym of Shmuel Tsharny) was a Yiddish literary critic. Niger was born in 1883 in Dukor, a village near Minsk. His father was a fervent follower of Chabad Ḥasidim who died when Shmuel was six years old. Among his siblings were BORUCH TSHARNY VLADECK (1886–1935), managing editor at the Yiddish Forverts and founding president of the Jewish Labor Committee in New York, and DANIEL TSHARNY (1888–1958), one of the foremost Yiddish poets, journalists, and memoirists of his time.

When Niger attended yeshivah in Minsk, he came in contact with the Zionist ideas of Aḥad Ha-Am and the socialist doctrines of Russian revolutionists, soon joining the newly founded Vorozhdenye Party, and helping to found the Zionist-Socialist Workers Party and participating in its often illegal propaganda activities. Though repeatedly arrested and tortured in Russian prisons, he continued to write revolutionary proclamations and articles, in particular for Der Nayer Veg. His 1906 essay, “Vos iz der Yidisher arbeter” (“What Is the Jewish Worker”), was his first work with wide distribution. His initial literary efforts were in Russian and Hebrew, but after the onset of the 1905 Revolution he wrote mainly in Yiddish. A major essay on Sholem Asch, “Vegn der Tragedye fun Goles” (“On the Tragedy of Exile,” 1907), was his initial attempt to place himself at the forefront of the new Yiddish literary culture as well as to introduce the still relatively unknown Asch to a much broader audience.

The following year, together with the Bundist dramatist A. Vayter and the Zionist essayist S. Gorelik, he founded the short-lived journal Literarishe Monatshriftn in Vilna, which is widely credited with having launched the Yiddish literary renaissance. Niger’s reputation soon equaled, and later eclipsed that of Baal-Makhshoves, the founder of Yiddish literary criticism.

In 1909, Niger left for Berlin and soon after for the University of Berne, Switzerland, in order to extend his knowledge of philosophy, world literature, and European literary criticism. In 1912, he returned to Vilna to edit a new monthly, Di Yidishe Velt, which rapidly became the authoritative organ of Yiddish belles lettres. That same year he published a collection of his early essays, Vegn Yidishe Shrayber: Kritishe Artiklen (“On Yiddish Writers: Critical Articles”). Assisted by Ber Borochov, he edited Der Pinkes (1913), the first Yiddish scholarly volume devoted to the study of Yiddish literature, language, folklore, criticism, and bibliography. He also edited Zalmen Rejzen’s Leksikon fun der Yidisher Literatur un Prese (“Lexicon of Yiddish Literature and Press,” 1914).

The best of his essays from this period were later collected in a volume entitled Shmuesn vegn Bikher (“Conversations on Books,” 1922). After the 1917 Revolution he edited the Moscow weekly Kulturun Bildung (1918), and the Vilna monthly Di Naye Velt (1919). In April 1919, Polish legionnaires stormed Vilna, broke into an apartment Niger was sharing with A. Vayter and Leib Jaffe, shot Vayter, and arrested the others.

After his release from prison, Niger left for the U.S. In 1920, he joined the staff of the New York daily Der Tog and for 35 years wrote weekly reviews of books and articles on literary trends, becoming the most revered and feared Yiddish critic of his generation. His praise or censure often made or destroyed reputations. His participation in the literary monthly Di Tsukunft, which he co-edited from 1941 to 1947, helped to maintain its high quality and enduring influence.

Niger was a pillar of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research from its very beginning, contributing studies to its important publications. He was also active in CYCO (Central Yiddish Culture Organization), editing its complete edition of the works of I.L. Peretz, on whom he wrote a definitive study (1952). Niger was the chief adviser of the Louis La-Med Foundation for the Advancement of Hebrew and Yiddish Literature and, under its auspices, published his study Di Tsveyshprakhikayt fun Undzer Literatur (“The Bilingualism of our Literature,” 1941). In this study, he emphasized that bilingualism had been a Jewish tradition since biblical days and that in the modern era both Hebrew and Yiddish were necessary pillars sustaining Jewish culture. In 1948, Niger helped to found the Congress for Jewish Culture.

In 1954, he undertook to co-edit its Leksikon fun der Nayer Yidisher Literatur (“Lexicon of the New Yiddish Literature”). He died while the first volume was in press. A number of his works were published posthumously: Yidishe Shrayber in Soviet-Rusland (“Yiddish Writers in Soviet Russia,” 1958); Bleter Geshikhte fun der Yidisher Literatur (“Page from the History of Yiddish Literature,” 1959); Kritik un Kritiker (“Criticism and Critics,” 1959); Sholem Asch (1960).


Rejzen, Leksikon, 2 (1927), 539–51; LNYL, 6 (1965), 190–210; Sh. Bickel and L. Lehrer, Shmuel Niger-Bukh (1958); Sh. Bickel, Shrayber fun Mayn Dor (1958), 256–93; S.D. Singer, Dikhter un Prozaiker (1959), 263–78; J. Glatstein, Mit Mayne Fartogbikher (1963), 466–85; H. Leyvik, Eseyn un Redes (1963), 174–87; S. Liptzin, Maturing of Yiddish Literature (1970), 77–81. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: LNYL, 6, 190–210; S. Niger, Fun Mayn Togbukh (1973).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.