An obscure volume I acquired recently titled in Yiddish, “Der Yüdisher Erev Pesach,” was published several times in the late 19th century in Eastern Europe and later in New York. This volume is an interesting case of the ghost-writing phenomenon, in an era where popular writers were the center of attention in the Jewish world, and popular figures such as Sholom Aleichem drew up to 200,000 at their funerals. This volume was a great success, and thousands of copies were printed and sold, though for years the true authorship was shrouded in mystery.
The volume is a satirical depiction of Jewish life in the weeks leading up to Pesach and the frantic preparations for the holiday, set in a Lithuanian Jewish home. Published originally in 1881, it was published anonymously, with the author hinting his name with the acronym Hameramez, a citizen of the South (of Russia). The book was written by Moshe Aharon Shatzkes (1825-1899), a famed author, remembered most for his Sefer Hamafteach, being of the first to have applied modern methods of investigation to the allegorical sayings of the Talmud and Midrash.
Shatzkes would read the book to friends and it was very well received and became known in the circle of Jewish writers in Kiev. At some point Shatzkes was approached by Moshe Zelikovitch of Odessa with an offer to “buy” the ownership of the book, granting Zelikovich full permission to print it and use it as his, while stating himself as the author. Apparently, Zelikovitch had aspirations of being a great writer, but lacking the skills, he purchased and published several books with this method. A transaction was made, and Zelikovitch returned to his hometown in Odessa (In the South), with his new purchase, authorship and all.
After passing it around in manuscript and having it professionally edited, he published it in Warsaw, alluding to himself being the author. It wasn’t until years later when friends of Shatzkes revealed that they were aware of the true author, that his story began to unravel. In Hatzefirah, 1888, several articles of opposing opinions appeared, some defending Zelikovitch as the true other and others stating it as Shatzkes.