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Abraham Reisen

(1876 – 1953)

Abraham Reisen (Avrom Reyzn) was a Yiddish poet, short-story writer, playwright, and editor. Born in Koidanovo, Russia (now Dzyarzhynsk, Belarus), Reisen was the son of the Hebrew and Yiddish poet Kalman Reisen (1848–1921) and the brother of the poet, short-story writer, and translator Sarah (Sore) Reisen (1884–1974) and the celebrated philologist Zalman Rejzen (1887–1941).

While he was still a teenager, his talent was recognized by Shalom Aleichem and I.L. Peretz, who arranged for the publication of his earliest poems. After some years in Minsk, Warsaw, Krakow, and Berlin, he settled permanently in New York in 1914. Influenced by Heinrich Heine, whom he translated into Yiddish, he was one of the first Yiddish poets to make use of folksong material. His poetry, though mostly written in conventional quatrains, is suffused by a refined sensibility that adumbrates the writing of Di Yunge. In contrast to the verse of the “sweatshop” generation, such as Morris Vinchevsky or Morris Rosenfeld, his work is characterized by a certain understated Romanticism and melancholy irony. Reisen shared the preoccupation with poverty and social problems manifested by his predecessors, but he entirely eschews their propagandistic rhetoric. Nonetheless, while most of his poetry is softly lyrical, a proportion has sufficiently social-critical implications to have been sung at clandestine workers’ meetings in the forests. Many of his poems were set to music and became a standard part of Yiddish folk culture.

In hundreds of short stories, often written at a pace of one a week for the many newspapers to which he was a regular contributor, he reflected with transparent honesty the lives of simple Jews whether in the shtetl or as immigrants. His style completely lacked didacticism and the mediating narrators of earlier Yiddish fiction. Though set in a Jewish environment, the stories are animated by wider values. His characters are overwhelmingly Jewish, but they are beset by universal human problems. The narration is restrained, with minimal action and is often reminiscent of Anton Chekhov, another writer whom he translated into Yiddish. His stories are masterpieces of concision and evince his particular gift for catching the essential psychological traits of a character or a situation in a few strokes. His characters are ill-adjusted to their environment and suffer all manner of petty tragedies. He is particularly effective in his unsentimental, quietly realistic depiction of the miseries caused by poverty and the daily struggle to survive. Stories such as “Ayzn” (1912; “Iron,” 1974) often constitute brilliant essays in unspoken psychopathology. He wrote with particular effectiveness on a wide variety of themes incorporating characterizations of hungry dreamers, prostitutes, workers, mothers and children, parvenus, and factory girls, all treated with equal lack of censoriousness. Though Reisen adopts a seemingly distanced, objective voice, the reader’s sympathy is nonetheless all the more poignantly evoked. Reisen was immensely popular with the general reader and his public appearances were attended by thousands, yet, perhaps on account of his deceptive simplicity, it was only from the 1930s onwards that he began to receive due recognition by intellectual critics.

His valuable autobiography, Epizodn fun Mayn Lebn (“Episodes from My Life,” 1929–35) covers events in his varied life up to his participation in the epoch-making Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference of 1908. Subsequent episodes were never published in book-form. He was also an indefatigable editor and publisher and brought out many important anthologies and a dozen or so journals of which most were fairly ephemeral. He had a deep interest in European literature, and was eager to disseminate acquaintance with the European writers in Yiddish translation as to promote Yiddish literature as an equal within the broader European context.


Rejzen, Leksikon 4 (1929), 349–64; Sh. Slutsky, Avrom Reyzn-Bibliografye (1956, 1960); J. Glatstein, In Tokh Genumen (1947), 48–63, 514–44; S. Liptzin, Flowering of Yiddish Literature (1963), 118–22; C. Madison, Yiddish Literature (1968), 197–220. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: LNYL 8 (1981), 458–78; Y. Yeshurin, in: A. Reisen, Lider, Dertseylungen un Zikhroynes (1966), 307–16; idem, Gezamlte Shriftn, 14 vols. (1928–33); Sh. Niger, Yidishe Shrayber fun Tsvantsikstn Yorhundert 1 (1946, 1972), 107–41; C. Leviant, in: A. Reisen, The Heart-Stirring Sermon and Other Stories (1992), xi–xxiv; D. Kay, Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century (2003), 451–2.

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