Ezra Glin­ter is the edi­tor of the new sto­ry anthol­o­gy Have I Got a Sto­ry for You: More Than a Cen­tu­ry of Fic­tion from The For­ward, out tomor­row from W. W. Nor­ton & Com­pa­ny. With the release of the book, Ezra is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

How do you go about putting togeth­er an anthol­o­gy of fic­tion from the pages of a news­pa­per that’s been in con­tin­u­ous pub­li­ca­tion for almost 120 years? The For­ward, as with oth­er news­pa­pers, once pub­lished lit­er­a­ture every day: short sto­ries, seri­al­ized nov­els, poet­ry, and much else. With so much mate­r­i­al to choose from, where do you start?

That was the prob­lem I faced when I began research­ing Have I Got a Sto­ry for You: More Than a Cen­tu­ry of Fic­tion from The For­ward. For­tu­nate­ly, some­one had already cre­at­ed the tool that I need­ed: a lek­sikon.

A lek­sikon, in Yid­dish, is a bio­graph­i­cal dic­tio­nary, often about writ­ers or oth­er lit­er­ary sub­jects. Yid­dish isn’t the only lan­guage to boast such pub­li­ca­tions — Japan­ese has the Bio­graph­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Japan­ese Lit­er­a­ture, for exam­ple, while in Eng­lish there’s the Dic­tio­nary of Lit­er­ary Biog­ra­phy, which is some 375 vol­umes long. Yid­dish Lek­siko­nen aren’t quite so volu­mi­nous, but they have a ven­er­a­ble history.

The first major lek­sikon in Yid­dish was the Lek­sikon fun der yidish­er lit­er­atur un prese (Bio­graph­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Yid­dish Lit­er­a­ture and Press), a project spear­head­ed by the writer and edi­tor Zal­men Reyzen. (Reyzen’s even more pro­lif­ic broth­er, Avrom Reyzen, is one of the writ­ers includ­ed in Have I Got a Sto­ry for You.) As Avra­ham Nover­shtern writes in the YIVO Ency­clo­pe­dia, Reyzen’s lek­sikon was a ground­break­ing endeav­or to present and sys­tem­atize pre­vi­ous­ly uncol­lect­ed mate­ri­als on Yid­dish writ­ers.” First pub­lished in 1914, the Reyzen’s lek­sikon was even­tu­al­ly expand­ed into the Lek­sikon fun der yid­dish­er lit­er­a­ture, prese un filol­o­gye (Bio­graph­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Yid­dish Lit­er­a­ture, Press and Philol­o­gy), which was pub­lished in four vol­umes between 1926 and 1929.

Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture didn’t stop then, how­ev­er, and nei­ther did its leksi­nonen. Between 1956 and 1981 the Con­gress for Jew­ish Cul­ture pub­lished the Lek­sikon fun der nay­er yid­dish­er lit­er­atur (Bio­graph­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Mod­ern Yid­dish Lit­er­a­ture), a project that stretched to eight vol­umes and at least 7,000 entries. Melech Rav­itch, a Yid­dish writer and poet from Poland who even­tu­al­ly set­tled in Mon­tre­al, wrote his own lek­sikon, in which he offered appre­ci­a­tions of many writ­ers he had known personally.

Lek­siko­nen weren’t just about lit­er­a­ture. One of the most impor­tant is the Lek­sikon fun der yid­dish­er teater (Bio­graph­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Yid­dish The­ater), edit­ed by Zal­men Zyl­ber­cweig between 1931 and 1969. That project stretched to six vol­umes (with a still-unpub­lished sev­enth) and some 2,800 entries, mak­ing it an indis­pen­si­ble resource for any­one study­ing the Yid­dish theater.

Near­ly all of these lek­siko­nen were use­ful to me. But my first guide to research­ing Have I Got a Sto­ry for You was the Forverts lek­sikon — a lek­sikon devot­ed specif­i­cal­ly to For­ward writers.

Pub­lished in 1987, the Forverts lek­sikon was edit­ed by Dr. Elias Shul­man, a Yid­dish crit­ic and essay­ist, and Shi­mon Weber, the edi­tor of the Forverts until his retire­ment, and then death, that year. Giv­en its lim­it­ed scope, the Forverts lek­sikon is a much small­er pub­li­ca­tion than some of its pre­de­ces­sors, reach­ing only 100 pages. But for me it was an indis­pen­si­ble resource. Before begin­ning any oth­er work on the anthol­o­gy the first thing I did was read the Forverts lek­sikon in its entirety.

From the lek­sikon I learned about many obscure writ­ers who might not have come to my atten­tion oth­er­wise. It taught me about Rokhl Brokhes, whose sto­ry Golde’s Lament” is the very first one in the col­lec­tion. Oth­er writ­ers I first learned about from the lek­sikon include Roshelle Weprin­sky, Yente Ser­datsky, Lyala Kauf­man and Miri­am Raskin. While I was already aware of the big-name Forverts con­trib­u­tors, the lek­sikon made me con­scious of their less cel­e­brat­ed but no less wor­thy colleagues.

The lek­sikon also gave me impor­tant tips about these writ­ers’ careers — which works of theirs were con­sid­ered the best, and when they were pub­lished. When it came towards the end of my work on the project, the lek­sikon pro­vid­ed valu­able bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion that helped me write the mini-biogra­phies and notes.

While the Forverts lek­sikon is one of the more recent Yid­dish bio­graph­i­cal dic­tio­nar­ies, it is not the only new addi­tion to the field. In 2011 the Con­gress for Jew­ish Cul­ture pub­lished an addi­tion­al vol­ume to its pre­vi­ous lek­sikon of mod­ern Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture. Edit­ed by for­mer Forverts edi­tor Boris San­dler along with Chaim Bei­der and Gen­nady Estraikh, it focus­es on Yid­dish writ­ers from the For­mer Sovi­et Union. 

There have also been efforts to trans­late the many lek­siko­nen. The lek­sikon of Yid­dish the­ater is being made avail­able in Eng­lish at the Muse­um of Fam­i­ly His­to­ry web­site, while the lek­sikon of mod­ern Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture is being trans­lat­ed and post­ed online at ylek​sikon​.blogspot​.ca by Josh Fogel, a pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese and Japan­ese his­to­ry at York Uni­ver­si­ty. (You can read an inter­view with Fogel about his efforts at In Geveb.)

Today the idea of com­pil­ing a bio­graph­i­cal dic­tio­nary seems old-fash­ioned: All you have to do to research a writer’s life and work is Google them, or read their Wikipedia page. But as my research for Have I Got a Sto­ry for You taught me, lek­siko­nen are still invalu­able for researchers, espe­cial­ly when it comes to more obscure writ­ers and sub­jects. With­out them, I wouldn’t have known where to start.

Ezra Glin­ter is The For­wards crit­ic-at-large. His writ­ing has appeared in The New Repub­lic, Paris Review Dai­ly, Book­fo­rum, and The Wal­rus. His biog­ra­phy of the Lubav­itch­er Rebbe is forth­com­ing from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Relat­ed Content:

Ezra Glin­ter is the senior staff writer and edi­tor at the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter. He is the edi­tor of Have I Got a Sto­ry for You, a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. He lives in Brook­lyn, NY.