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Itche Goldberg on Khayim Zhitlovsky

Yankl Stillman
December 1, 2006

Photo of Itche GoldbergEarlier this year, a book entitled Eseyen Tsvey (Essays 2) was published in Yiddish. Its author, Itche Goldberg, is 102 years old! Itche (as he is lovingly called by almost all who know him) is probably the oldest living writer publishing in any language. A previous volume entitled simply Eseyen was published in 1981.
Both books consist of Itche's writings about various Yiddish literary figures — in Eseyen Tsvey, some two dozen — and about Yiddish writing in the United States, the former Soviet Union, Israel, South Africa and elsewhere.
Almost all the essays were previously published in Yidishe Kultur, a sophisticated bimonthly literary magazine (formerly a monthly), nearly seventy years old, which Itche has edited since 1964. Many of the essays are lectures that he has presented in various cities around the world; others are his acceptance speeches for significant literary prizes.
Itche was born in the shtetl of Apt (Opatow in Polish), not far from Warsaw, in 1904, during a period of great turmoil in the Russian Empire, where many Jews lived. The turmoil had repercussions in the Jewish community, which at that time inhabited the old t'khum hamoyshev (Pale of Settlement) created by Catherine the Great in 1792. This very large 'ghetto,' almost the size of France, included almost all of what is today Poland, the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Belarus. Nationalism and socialism, both primarily secular ideologies, had begun to take root within the Jewish community, which numbered some five million and was broadly religious. This was the world into which Itche entered, at the start of a life that has spanned the entire 20th century.

It was a century in which Yiddish and Yiddish literature reached their apogee (certainly during the first four to five decades). In 2005, Itche assessed the creativity in Yiddish literature in the 20th century as follows:

Never, never in history, did we produce so many poets and so much poetry in such a short period of time, barely one century. It is rare to find so much creativity in the entire history of our involvement with other languages [I believe he is referring to Hebrew, Aramaic and possibly Arabic and Spanish — Y.S.]. Look at the Tanakh (the Bible) — you have any number of splendors put together by various writers over the course of centuries. But here, they weren't given any time. Time was so short for all of us. And we’re speaking only of poetry. But the prose that was produced! . . . It was a time of exceptional, history-making creativity. And if we don't understand this, we will perhaps not understand how to inherit or what to inherit.

This assessment is taken from an 83-minute video titled Itche Goldberg: A Century of Jewish Letters, produced this year by the League for Yiddish. I will have more to say about the video later.
The 20th century was one in which Jewish secularism also reached its apogee, and Dr. Khayim Zhitlovsky played a leading role in that movement. Zhitlovsky's contribution "as the father of modern Jewish secularism is only now becoming clearer," writes Itche in an essay about Zhitlovsky from 1965 in Eseyen Tsvey. Zhitlovsky was born on April 19th, 1865 in Ushatsh, near Vitebsk in Byelorussia. Throughout his life, he was engaged in politically radical movements, even revolutionary ones, and in Jewish and Yiddish organizations. In 1892, he received a PhD from the University of Bern, Switzerland, with a thesis on Abraham Ibn Daud and the beginning of the Aristotelian period in Jewish religious philosophy. In 1925, his 60th birthday was celebrated by some 20,000 persons. Zhitlovsky died on May 6, 1943 in Calgary, Canada while on a lecture tour.
"As the medieval walls around Jewish life collapsed," Itche continues, "the role of religion as the sole expression of national connection dwindled." New connections were needed to bind the individual Jew to the people, or else large segments of the people would be driven into the abyss of assimilation.
Zhitlovsky's main thesis reduced the Jewish religion, as he put it, to "a branch of the Jewish tree but not its trunk." This thesis, writes Itche,

was a significant act of historical liberation. The branch-stem concept became the groundwork for the ventures of Jewish secularism. Secularism rests on two notions: on the one hand accepting religion as an important form of expression for a certain sector of the people, and, on the other, proclaiming secularism as a branch of the same stem with equal rights and values — immersed in tradition and a natural outgrowth of the people’s past.

Itche continues:

For the first time, the concept of pluralism became acceptable within the Jewish community — not according to economic class, but according to beliefs and ideas of nationhood. Although secularism continued to rely on the lower layers of society — the workers, middle-class folks, and large parts of the modern intelligentsia — for the first time the basic idea was confirmed that every segment of the people, so long as it remains tied to the stem, has a right to shape its own national connections and its national destiny according to its perception of its history.

Zhitlovsky declared nearly a century ago that "the most important cultural condition for the development of our new culture . . . must be unquestioned equal rights for all tendencies." Keeping in mind that when he made this declaration, the generally accepted belief was that the Jewish religion was the sole national glue, it becomes clear what a revolutionary and emancipating concept this was.
In the development of Jewish secularism, Itche notes, the culture and traditions that had shaped the history of the people had to be part of the picture. Progressive, worldly Jews sought to weave international threads into the fabric of Jewish life, but they also had to protect national values. They had to view themselves as guardians of Jewish continuity and of special attributes developed over generations. The scope of modern Jewish progressive thinking had to consider not only the humanistic strivings of other peoples but also the humanistic strivings of previous Jewish generations.
Going through the process of what Itche calls "transition and continuity" was not always smooth for many European peoples, but for Jews, he observes, this process was very difficult because most previous generations had accepted religion as the sole national unifier. The new approach, "pecking its way into a new life," had to grapple with many relics of the past, with "backward fanaticism and clericalism — a historically justified and most necessary struggle" that was started earlier by the haskole (enlightenment movement).
Yet among proponents of the new approach, Itche writes, a tendency developed to consider our entire past to be reactionary, and thus they were blinded to the "explosive, dramatic striving for justice and humanism and progress that was alive in the Jewish people right from its earliest history." This flawed attitude kept them from understanding that selecting relevant values from the past and adapting them to contemporary national needs is a necessary condition for national life today. Itche concludes that, in an immature way, the baby was thrown out with the dirty bathwater.
In 1908, assessing the value of his activities in the 1890s, Zhitlovsky said:

Even then I was convinced, and I remain convinced to this very day, that not everything is rotten in the old treasures of our people . . . A critical examination of our cultural heritage will disclose immense treasures . . . They are valuable because of the deep generally humanistic elements they contain and not simply because they were developed by our forefathers.

In this respect, Dr. Zhitlovsky fulfilled a historical mission, without which secular Jewish thinking could not advance: not only did he reveal the great humanism of the past, but he demanded that it include cultural adaptations appropriate for the present and for the future. (Y. L. Peretz had articulated a similar need some time earlier.)
"The Jewish Bund," wrote Zhitlovsky,

was often accused of considering that Jewish history started with them. I'm not sure how valid this claim is for the Bund and all its affiliates, but certainly for me, the 'Bundist of 1884,' as I have the right to call myself, it was right on target. 'Let the dead bury their dead' was the attitude toward the Jewish past. We, the young and free, would build our own Jewish culture, a purely humanistic and European one . . . The new builders and creators of this culture . . . would feel free to reveal the living Jewish spirit without the slightest reference to its long-deceased freedom that was buried for eternity.

Itche explains that the revelation of the close connection between Jewish tradition and progressive worldliness, and the persistent peeling back of the past to reveal progressive national values, both had an explosive impact on the development of Jewish secularism. For the first time, a process of reexamining and reappraising the old values had begun. "New bricks" were discovered during this process, Itche writes, without which the cultural edifice of contemporary Jewish life could not be erected.
Some among us here in America, he continues, decried Zhitlovsky's thoughts regarding the "poetic rebirth of the Jewish religion" as religious romanticism. We failed to comprehend the basic attitude underlying the concept of "national rebirth," i.e., removal of the skin-deep religious layer from holidays like peysakh (Passover) or khanike (Hanuka) and retention of their enduring national, popular core of freedom.
"Stressing the connections between progressive worldliness and tradition had great psychological significance for the new intelligentsia, for our writers, artists and teachers," Itche continues.

We saw ourselves not only as the heirs of Morris Winchevsky and Mendele Moykher Sforim, of Aaron Lieberman and the maskilim (adherents of the haskole), but also as heirs of the prophets and the Maccabees. We had responsibilities not only for today and tomorrow but also for the yesterdays of the people. The past placed obligations on us.

Here Itche is describing the policies followed by the modern secular Yiddish shule. Laying the foundation for these principles was the exclusive work of Dr. Khayim Zhitlovsky, writes Itche. Developing the conclusions into an exact system of a "national conception," articulating them as a "modern educated person" in the language of the modern intelligentsia, and supporting them with historical evidence — all this came from "the pen, the mind and the heart of Dr. Khayim Zhitlovsky."
The modern shule had two chief goals, Itche concludes: on the one hand, to revolutionize Yiddish education and to separate religion from education for the first time in Jewish history; and on the other hand to insure that progressive secularism is carried forward from generation to generation.
In 1910 Zhitlovsky was one of the founders of the first national-radical shuln in New York, and in 1915, at the fifteenth convention of The Workmen's Circle, he led a struggle to have The Workmen’s Circle establish "Yiddish Free Schools." He believed that the new modern worldly education system "derives from that aspect of our public thinking that could be called 'socialist exile-nationalism' (sotsialistisher goles natsionalism)" Zhitlovsky always kept the future in mind, Itche observes, and in order to shape it with certainty, he placed the shule at the very center, as the most important expression of our modern national development.
In assessing his own contribution to Jewish life, Zhitlovsky wrote that he hoped he had had an impact on decreasing both ignorance and poverty. "My dreams," he wrote, "are described in my works, and you, my people, take from them what you need and store the rest away in your treasure chests. I am yours and my dreams are yours . . ."
Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times, 2006