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Eliezer Steinbarg

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

Eliezer Steinbarg, the greatest ever Yiddish fabulist, a prominent pedagog and Jewish school education organizer in Bessarabia, Romania and Brazil, was born in Lipcani (now Moldova) on April 3, 1880. He received a traditional Jewish education but independently mastered German and Russian classics. Eliezer Steinbarg wrote poems since 1902. In 1910 he started printing them in a “Eyrope’ishe Literatur” almanac which appeared in Warsaw. His true surname was Steinberg, but he changed it to Steinbarg in order to avoid confusion with his cousin Yehuda Steinberg, also a Yiddish writer. Steinbarg directed private, secular schools, taught both Yiddish and Hebrew. He enthusiastically created plays, primers, and textbooks aiming to teach children both Jewish languages simultaneously. His “Alef-beys” (Yiddish) and “Alfon” (Hebrew) were both published in Chernivtsi in 1921. He became famous as a playwright, producing his own plays in the children's Yiddish theaters in Lipcani and later in Chernivtsi (then Czernowitz, Romania; now in Ukraine) where he lived since 1919 and, among other things, ran a Yiddish children’s theater and edited a Yiddish arts journal “Kultur”. Steinbarg was the most distinguished figure in the Tchernovitser Yidisher Shulfareyn (Chernivtsi Association of Jewish Schools) and in the Jewish Cultural Association of Romania. From 1928 to 1930 he resided in Brazil, where he organized two Jewish schools: Escole Eliezer Steinbarg in Rio de Janeiro and Colegio Eliezer Steinbarg in Sao Paulo. Then he returned to Chernivtsi. The children’s plays were inspired by purim-shpils and folk legends. The author’s rich imagination, combined with his attention to folkloric motifs, yielded a free and poetic style. Idioms, word associations, and metaphors take shape around his figures, whether they are human, animal, inanimate object, plant, or abstraction. Most of his heroes are animals, as is true for the works of Aesop, La Fontaine, and Krylov. However, the attributes that Steinbarg’s animals represent are unconventional: the pig is known not for filth but for stinginess and greed; the bear is not necessarily clumsy but is rather a violent thief. Verses from the Bible and sayings from the Talmud; snippets from Rashi, agadah and midrash; and Jewish laws, rites, and customs surface continuously in quotations, paraphrases, hints, and wordplay. The great Hebrew literary classic Chaim Nacḥman Bialik admired his works, deeming them “masterpieces” as early as 1911. Steinbarg’s fables were printed individually in periodicals, except for one compilation of 12 fables, “Durkh di briln” (“Through the Eyeglasses”), issued in a limited run in 1928. Steinbarg died of appendicitis in Chernivtsi on March 28, 1932. He lies buried in the Jewish cemetery in that city. His first large literary book “Mesholim” (“Fables”) didn't appear until shortly after his death, when it became a best seller. The Eliezer Steinbarg Jewish Cultural Society in Chernivtsi is named after him.

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