Rosh Hashanah greeting postcard with portrait of Shimen Shmuel Frug. Hebrew Publishing Company, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1905. (YIVO)

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Frug, Shimen Shmuel

(1860–1916), Russian and Yiddish poet and essayist. Once considered a shining star of Russian Jewish literature, Shimen Frug is remembered now mostly as a Zionist sympathizer and an inspiration for the Hebrew-language writers Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Leib Jaffe (Leyb Yaffe), and Yosef Klausner. By contrast, Simon Dubnow viewed Frug as a singer of negativism and despair. Frug, in fact, was a loner who, in an age of ideologies, had no ideology, belonged to no group, and was deeply contradictory. While often seen as a sympathizer of Zionism, Frug held an equally powerful passion for Diaspora Jewry. Lauded as a great friend of Yiddish, in truth Frug was ambivalent at best, launching a cruel attack against the language in 1899. Finally, although he served Jewish causes with his pen, he ultimately sullied his own reputation by selling out his muse and writing for Saint Petersburg’s gutter papers, including some that were mildly antisemitic. In short, the image of the monochromatic lover of Zion, master of Yiddish, and even melancholic singer of the Jewish people needs revision.

“Di blutige teg” (Bloody Days). Special issue of the Yiddish journal Dos leben (Life), dedicated to victims of the 1905 pogroms (St. Petersburg). (Left) “Di matseve” (The Tombstone), a poem by Shimen Frug. (YIVO)

Growing up in a Jewish agricultural settlement in Kherson Province, Frug was sensitive to nature. A native speaker of Russian, he attended both a traditional heder and a Russian school. At age 15, he was sent to Kherson where he worked as a secretary to a crown rabbi. At age 19 he began publishing Russian lyric poetry, ultimately becoming a regular contributor to Voskhod, the only Jewish journal published in Russian between 1884 and 1900. Although he wanted to live in Saint Petersburg, Frug never managed to acquire a permanent permit. He was given permission to stay in the city thanks to Mark Varshavski, an important lawyer and Frug’s patron, who registered the poet with the authorities as his “house servant.”

In the late 1880s Frug began to write Yiddish poems, such as “Zamd un shtern” (Sand and Stars) and “Lid fun der arbet” (A Song about Work), which were later set to music. Although considered an original Yiddish poet, he did not share the pretensions of his critics. Frug believed that Yiddish was useful as a means of communication, but that as Jews modernized, they would stop speaking it. His 1899 essay “Lider fun dem idisher zhargon” (Songs from the Yiddish Dialect), published in Di Folksbibliotek, mocked the view that a great literature could be written in Yiddish. Although Frug was aware that the majority of Russia’s Jews still spoke Yiddish and wanted to satisfy his readers, he considered his Russian works of far greater aesthetic and political significance.

Many consider Frug’s Sionidy (Zioniad) his Zionist cri de coeur. However, this novel in verse has 24 parts, of which only perhaps a quarter could be said to celebrate Zionism. Other parts deal with Jewish holidays, describe a family at home, present conversations between a son and his father, and provide remembrances of deceased relatives. Several sections are grotesque, with the appearance of ghosts mocking the living (“Zapadnaia Stena”; The Western Wall) or a fantastic bird disfiguring a woman’s face (“Budushchee”; The Future). The message of the poem is ambiguous because there is no single hero or heroes that figure throughout. There is neither a clear chronology nor a hint of the “real time” in which the scenes are unfolding. Far from conveying a clear pro-Zionist message, the poem emphasizes the redemptive value of Jewish suffering, which justifies equally the rights of Jews to settle in Palestine and to stay in the Diaspora, where parents and grandparents are buried and where they have developed their own culture, religious rites, and way of life.

Looking at his oeuvre objectively, perhaps his best works are the weekly essays on diverse subjects that he wrote for Voskhod and a myriad of other newspapers. Usually connecting his subject with a Jewish holiday or historical event, Frug used a chatty tone, discussing the Jewish present, past, and future. He had an acute ability to touch the tender chords of nostalgia that tugged at Jews a single generation detached from traditional life.

Critics called Frug the “Jewish Nadson” (Semen Nadson was a decadent Russian poet who was actually of Jewish background). There is some resemblance, since Frug used his poems to express the powerful emotions of grief, despair, and anger, as well as joy and ecstasy, but the epithet “decadent” seems too narrow. His employment of motifs, stories, and characters from the Bible, Talmud, and Jewish history ground him in a genuine national tradition. His essays and stories positively juxtapose Jews of his own time with historical figures and deliberately confirm the authenticity of Jewish life in Russia. Enriching Russian Jewish literature with a stylistically nuanced Russian, Frug, along with authors like S. An-ski and David Aizman, serves as a precursor to major Russian Jewish writers of the next generation.

Although he gained critical acclaim, Frug was unable to earn his keep through literary endeavors. Constantly in need, he turned to wealthy Jews for handouts. Despite his financial strain, he married a sickly non-Jewish woman. In need of money, he turned to the lowbrow Russian papers, such as Petersburgskii listok (Petersburg Gazette). Although Frug complained that the Jewish public gave him only intermittent support, 100,000 people came to his funeral in Odessa and several editions of his collective works were published during his lifetime.

Frug’s works can serve as a powerful refractive mirror of Russian Jewish life in the last decades of tsarist rule. But they also reflect the ambivalence of a man who was sympathetic to Zionism but cherished the Diaspora, hated the tsarist regime but loved Russian culture and the Russian language. His greatest accomplishment was to transmit the fullness of Jewish experience in the rhythms of Russian verse; in Frug Russian became a Jewish medium.

Suggested Reading

S. An-ski, “Sholem-Aleichem, Perets i Frug,” Evreiskaia zhizn’ (Petrograd) 3 (1917): 14–16; Simon Dubnow, “Vospominaniia o S. G. Fruge i ego pis’ma,” Evreiskaia starina 4 (1916): 441–459; Saul Moiseevich Ginsburg, “Pamiati S. G. Fruga,” Novyi put’ (Petrograd) 44 (1916): 36; Ephim H. Jeshurin, Shimen Frug-bibliografye (Buenos Aires, 1960); N. A. Portnova, “Evreiskii poet Rossii,” in Iudeiskaia smokovnitsa: vospominaniia, ocherki, felietony, by Semen Grigorevich Frug, pp. 5–32 (Jerusalem, 1995); Melech Ravitch, S. S. Frug: A skitse fun zayn lebn und shafn (Vienna, [1920]).