Some years back, Gefen Publishing House in Jerusalem published a unique early 20th-century Yiddish novel in English. Entitled, Of Fremde Vegn, Strange Ways in English, the book originally appeared in print in Warsaw, Poland, close to 90 years ago. At the time, the publication of this remarkable work of fiction was in itself a unique event – it was the first full-length Yiddish novel by a Jewish woman to be published by an independent publishing house, not as installments in a magazine as had been the accepted norm.
Who was Rokhl Faygenberg?
She was born in 1885 near Minsk, Byelorussia, into a family of Talmudic scholars. Her mother was a most remarkable woman who, despite the burden of widowhood and financial straits, took pains to provide the young girl with an education in Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish literature from an early age. She proved an outstanding student until her mother’s untimely death when Rokhl was only 15 years old. The young orphan was compelled to leave Minsk for Odessa where she worked in a women’s dress shop. It was there that her talent for writing started to manifest itself.
By the time she was 20, Rokhl Faygenberg’s first short story, “Kinderische Yorn” (Childhood Years) appeared in the local monthly, Dos Noye Leben (New Life).
Over the next two decades, Faygenberg’s life was characterized by an amazing literary output. Her watershed novel, Of Fremde Vegn, was followed by a series of acclaimed novels, A Mother, On the Shores of the Dniester, Notes from a Dead City, A Two-Year Marriage, The World Wants Us To Be Jews, and a four-act-play, Derelicts, produced in Vilna in 1927. On the Shores of the Dniester and Notes from a Dead City tell the tragic tale, her personal witness testimony, of the 1919 bloody pogroms in the Ukraine.
During the following decades, Faygenberg plunged into the life of study and work as a Yiddish teacher, journalist and translator, moving from Russia to Switzerland, to the Ukraine, to White Russia, to Rumania and to Poland.
In Lausanne, Switzerland, she published numerous short stories in literary journals such as Heint (Home) and European Literature. It was during these years that her first novel, Daughters, (Techter) and the first part of Strange Ways (Fremde Vegn) were published in installments in a Swiss literary magazine called Moment.
She reached Palestine in 1924 when the magazine’s editorial management appointed her as their foreign correspondent in the Holy Land.
In 1933, after some more travels in Europe, the restless Jewish writer and journalist made aliyah, finally finding a permanent home in Jerusalem. Resolved to remedy what she believed was an acute lack in the literary culture of the Yishuv, Miss Faygenberg set up a Hebrew Publishing House in Jerusalem with its focus primarily on translating Yiddish literary classics. Called Maasaf (The Collector), this establishment translated the novels and novellas At the Depot, Departing, Divine Justice, Storm Days and At the Dnieper by David Bergelson; The Brothers Ashkenazi and Yoshe Kalb, a drama, by I. J. Singer (brother of Isaac Bashevis Singer) and Robber Bojtre, a drama, by Moshe Kulbak.
The remarkable role – that of publisher – added to her multiple talents was only a precursor of a new phase in Rokhl Faygenberg’s calling. In 1960, at the age of 75, this amazing woman launched an additional career as a Hebrew writer under the name Rachel Imri.
Yiddish novelist, teacher, journalist, short story writer, translator, Hebrew writer and publisher, died in Israel in 1972 at the age of 87, leaving behind a rich legacy of milestones in Jewish literary accomplishment.