Born into the family of a poor teacher in Babruysk (in Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire), Tunkel was a sickly child whose drawing ability prompted charitable members of the community to send him to art school in Vilno. He finished his studies in 1899 and, too short sighted to be a painter, turned to writing. His poetry was first published in Der yud (Warsaw) in 1901 and from then on his poems, satires, drama and children’s stories appeared in Yiddish publications throughout Europe and North America.
Between 1906 and 1910 he travelled to the United States where he started the humorous journal Der kibitser (continued for two decades under the title Der Groyser Kundes). Moving to Warsaw in 1911 he wrote for Der moment, editing its humour pages, Der krumer spiegel, or The Crooked Mirror. He spent World War I in Ukraine, mainly in Kiev and Odessa. In the early twenties, he adapted several works of German poet Wilhelm Busch.
When the Warsaw cabaret Azazel opened in 1925, Der Tunkeler’s writings were part of the repertoire; his works were staged in Łódź and the Warsaw cabaret theater Sambatyon (which opened in 1927) as well.
In 1931 he visited what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. The outbreak of World War II found him in Belgium from which he escaped into France only to be arrested by the Vichy authorities. Escaping in 1941 he managed to find his way to the US once more, where he wrote for the major New York Yiddish daily The Jewish Daily Forward despite failing health. He died there in 1949.
Throughout his life, numerous collections of his work were published in Warsaw, Kiev and New York. He is remembered as one of the Yiddish language’s outstanding humorists to this day.