About the Author
Jacob Morgenstern (1820-1890) the author of ‘Simkhe Plakhte or the World Swindler’ was born Yakub Kaczka in Piotrkow, Poland, a small city near Lodz. He wrote a large number of tales published in the form of chapbooks that were very popular among yeshiva students. His fable-like narratives were huge sellers throughout the Russian Empire into the 1920’s. Unfortunately his publishers didn’t always credit his authorship, probably to avoid paying him, leaving him a poor man. Itzik Manger, in his series imagining Yiddish authors’ lives, depicts Morgenstern’s impoverishment as he portrays him making house calls through the frigid streets of Lodz in desperate need of livelihood. Aside from being a writer Morgenstern pursued various other means of making a living: He was a melamed, a Jewish grade school teacher, a shadkhen, matchmaker, a badkhen,* wedding jester, and he also tutored housemaids in reading and writing, explaining the additional pen name of Yankl Lerer [Yankl Teacher]. In Manger’s story, Yankev Morgenshtern, the destitute writer encounters a beggarly water-carrier in a rich man’s kitchen. Morgenstern, there to earn a few kopeks to write a letter for the maid, is transfixed by the water-carrier’s features. As the lowly pauper beseeches the kitchen maid for his pay, our writer falls into a reverie in which the water carrier’s face appears as the countenance of a distinguished Hasidic rebbe, with followers cramming to see him. It is this daydream that inspires Morgenstern to head for home with a lighter step, eager to fashion his next story.
And ‘Simkhe Plakhte or the World Swindler,’ the story of a water carrier who feigns his way into becoming a most revered holy man, posthumously becomes Morgenstern’s most popularized work, adapted into a popular play by Yankev Preger and performed throughout the1930’s. In the 1950’s Y. Y. Trunk expanded the Plakhte story into a much longer novel of the same name. Although the plotline of the story was thought to originate in folklore, Seth Wolitz, in the literary journal, Polin, after scholarly investigation, concluded the satirical farce was originally penned by Morgenstern.
Morgenstern’s most popular yarn during his time was, ‘The Story of Three Brothers,’ known as one of the most sought after Jewish stories of its time, first published in Lodz in 1870 and then in Warsaw in 3 parts the same year. By 1872 it had already been reissued by a number of publishers across the empire and from then on enjoyed wide circulation. The story was later translated into Hebrew and also into a more contemporary Yiddish. The National Library of Israel holds a trove of Morgenstern chapbooks among them many different publications of, ‘Three Brothers,’ two of them published in Brooklyn, NY as late as the 1980’s.
It is no wonder ‘The Tale of Three Brothers’ appealed to Hasidic communities of the 20th century. It is a fantastical very engaging morality tale, pointing to the benefits of keeping not only God’s commandments but also minor mitsves delineated in the Torah, the message being, no matter how hard life may get, upholding the laws of the Torah must come first. Ironically the Hasidic satire, Simkhe Plakhte, pokes fun at 19th century Hasidic life and in the end advocates for a responsible work ethic as the path to a fulfilled existence.
In addition to ‘Simkhe Plakhte’ and ‘Three Brothers,’ Morgenstern produced an array of fantastical and mystical stories, originals and translations, published in the form of small chapbooks that were very popular and hugely circulated, especially since they were very inexpensive, from 3-5 kopeks a book. As Zalman Reisen describes in his, ‘Lexicon of Yiddish Writers,’ Morgenstern constructed his tales employing popular international motifs and episodes, reminiscent of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ but thoroughly couched in folksy Yiddish lore that reflected Jewish national customs.
I was fortunate to discover a privately bound anthology of Morgenstern’s chapbooks at YIVO that had belonged to Kalman Murmer, the Yiddish writer and cultural activist. The fragile crumbling volume contains around 16 chapbooks: Shabes Koydesh in Ganeydn:Mikdesh Meylekh, Mayse Mishney Shutfim, Mitzve Melave Malke, Reb Yosef Dila Reyna, Shney Katsovim, Der Farbitener Prints un di Farlorene Printsesin, Zibn Betlers, Mayse fun dem Oysher mit dem Oreman, Di Vunderlikhe Geshikhte fun di Zibetsik Senhedren, Shreklekhe Geshikhte fun di Aseres-Hashvotim, Der Kayzer in Vald un A Gazlen a Baltshuva, Di Raykhe Printsesin oder Itsikl Yungatsh, Mekoydesh Meylekh, Meabed Beys Meylekh, Di Sheyne Helena and finally, Bintshe di Tsadeykeste oder di Ayngefalene Bod, a very unusual work for its time. In the form of a theatrical farce, the story’s protagonist, Bintshe, albeit highly comical, is a strong, outspoken female leader of her community who endures the hierarchical power structure of her male oppressors. My translation of this story can be read online here.
Although Morgenstern’s byline does not appear on the cover page of every one of these stories, it is obvious, if not only from the titles, but from the voice and style of the prose, that it his work.
It is our hope that more of Morgenstern’s work will in time appear on this website.
*Mysteriously the Moregnstern volume, ‘Badkhoneshe Lider,’ ‘Wedding Jester Poems,’ has of yet not been located. Perhaps you, dear reader, will be the one to find it?
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Zalman Reisen (Rejzen), ‘Morgenshtern Yankev,’ in Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese, un filologye, vol. 2, cols. 328–330 (Vilna, 1926);
Seth L. Wolitz, ‘Simkhe Plakhte: From ‘Folklore’ to Literary Artefact,’ Polin 16 (2003): 119–135.