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Forverts in English

Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s zeyde was noted Yiddish writer

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Sure, you might have known that Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s selection for U.S. Secretary of State, has a band — but did you know that his great-grandfather, Meir Blinken, was a Yiddish writer?

The Ukraine-born elder Blinken, whose Yiddish nom de plume was B. Mayer and who was buried as Meyer Blinken, was born in 1879 and received a typical religious Jewish education in a Talmud Torah, as well as a secular education in a Kiev commercial school. He stood out from the pack of turn-of-the-century Yiddish writers for several reasons: He was among the few such writers who never received an obituary from the Forverts — our bad — and, more remarkably, was possibly the only Yiddish writer to ever be listed in the “Lexicon of Modern Yiddish Literature” with the trade of masseur. (He was likely a medical student at the time.)

The elder Blinken arrived in the U.S. in 1904 and died 11 years later at age 36, but not before producing a robust collection of published Yiddish work. His first story was published in 1903, a year prior to his emigration, and his sketches and stories appeared in a wide range of literary, progressive socialist and labor Zionist publications including Idishe Arbeter Velt (The Jewish Workers’ World) in Chicago.

Blinken’s books include “Vayber” (“Women”), described in the lexicon as a prose poem, “Der Sod” (“The Secret”) and “Kortnshpil” (“Card Game”). A 1984 collection of his short stories, translated by Max Rosenfeld with an introduction by renowned Montrealer and Harvard Yiddish academic Ruth Wisse is still available, and — just a hint — might make a fabulous Hanukkah gift.

According to the descriptive notes that accompany that collection, Blinken was born in Pereyaslav – the same shtetl as the celebrated Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem.

According to Wisse, Blinken apprenticed as a cabinetmaker and carpenter, transitioned to work as a masseur and was eventually able to bring his family over from the Pale of Settlement to join him in New York City. By the time of his death, he’d opened an independent office as a masseur on East Broadway, in the heart of what was then the city’s Yiddish arts and letters district.

In his writing, he delved into the insidious effects of poverty, religious strictures and a lack of education. One of the few male Yiddish writers to ever address the subject of women’s sexuality, he wrote of marital infidelity and sexual desire and hinted at the pervasive boredom felt by housewives. His stories were also, notably, empathetic in their depictions of abortion. According to a 1965 article by Forward writer Dovid Shub, Blinken was the first Yiddish writer in America to write about sex, a claim the modern Forward has yet to confirm.

Shub also noted Blinken’s rare confidence, writing he was known for claiming that Sholem Aleichem would eventually be forgotten, but that he, Blinken, would be taught in universities. Perhaps not unrelatedly, Shub wrote that Blinken was an editor’s nightmare.

While the Forverts never gave Meir Blinken an obituary, per Wisse, it honored his short life in America with a funeral on the steps of the Forward building.


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