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May 6: Chaim Zhitlowsky

Lawrence Bush
May 6, 2010

zhitlovsky-203x300 (1)Celebrated Yiddishist philosopher and political radical Chaim Zhitlowsky died on this date in 1943 while on a speaking tour in Canada. Zhitlowsky was a founder and theoretician of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in Russia, but was attracted back into Jewish life and Jewish communal activism by the pogroms of the early 1880s, which some of his comrades viewed not as anti-Jewish riots but a revolutionary uprisings. Zhitlowsky was one of the key convenors of the 1908 Czernowitz Yiddish Conference, which declared Yiddish a national language of the Jewish people and inspired a great deal of literary creativity and scholarship. In Canada and the U.S., he was a key figure in the development of secular/cultural Jewish identity and in the Yiddish folkshul movement, and was a very popular lecturer and writer — one the most esteemed intellectuals in the leftwing Yiddish world. Zhitlowsky also helped to inaugurate the Yiddish Kultural Farband (YKUF), which published many important Yiddish books and translations. His output included the first Yiddish book on world philosophy, a Yiddish translation of Nietsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, and an essay on Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. He viewed the Yiddish language as a kind of portable homeland for the Jews, believed strongly in Jewish cultural cultivation in the lands in which Jews lived, and served, with his expansive and modern mind, as both a gadfly and a bridge among many factions of the highly factionalized Jewish world.
“I strove to bring into Jewish culture the spirit of research, of examination, of discontent, of contradiction.” — Chaim Zhitlowsky

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.