Where Is the Jews’ Homeland?

Elsewhere than Zion, said the greatest Hebrew poet of the 19th century—until he changed his mind, paving the way for others.

The Beit HaBeton (Concrete House) in Petah Tikvah, Israel in 1912: the first building made of concrete in the country. Wikimedia/Oded Yarkoni Archives of Petah Tikva.

The Beit HaBeton (Concrete House) in Petah Tikvah, Israel in 1912: the first building made of concrete in the country. Wikimedia/Oded Yarkoni Archives of Petah Tikva.

May 2 2016
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), Jabotinsky: A Life (2014), and, most recently, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton). 

In the late 19th century, as stirrings of pre-Zionist Jewish nationalism were beginning to coalesce in overtly Zionist activism, they attracted a variety of reactions from leading Jewish thinkers, writers, and public figures. No reaction was more complex, more fascinating, or perhaps historically more telling than that of Yehudah Leib Gordon (1830-1892), influential editor and polemicist—and the greatest Hebrew poet of the age. In tracing here the decades-long arc of Gordon’s responses, in verse and prose, to the radically shifting prospects of his fellow Russian Jews, Hillel Halkin illuminates both the political landscape in which Zionism struggled to grow and the role in particular of Hebrew in forging the consciousness of the emergent nation of Israel.

This essay is the fourth in a series of fresh looks by Halkin at seminal Hebrew writers and thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first three, on the proto-Zionist novelists Joseph Perl, Abraham Mapu, and Peretz Smolenskin, are available herehere, and here.

A Hebrew translation of this essay by Tsur Ehrlich, with the poetry in the original, is available at the Israeli website Mida.

On March 10, 1883, according to the Julian calendar in use in Tsarist Russia, the St. Petersburg Hebrew semi-weekly Hamelits published a special Purim literary supplement. In it was a poem, “My Sister Ruhamah,” by the newspaper’s editor Yehudah Leib Gordon, widely regarded as the foremost Hebrew poet of the age.

The title of Gordon’s poem would have been recognized by his readers as an allusion to the book of the prophet Hosea, in which the prophet is commanded to wed a sexually dissolute woman as a symbol of God’s relationship with an idolatrous Israel. Hosea’s new wife, he is told, will bear him a daughter whom he is to name Lo Ruhamah, “The Unpitied One,” because of the retribution God will wreak on Israel, and a son to be called Lo Ami, “Not My People.” Yet all in the book of Hosea will end well: Lo Ruhamah and Lo Ami will persuade their mother to repent and Israel’s marriage to God will be renewed. “Then,” concludes the prophecy, “you will call your brother Ami [“My People”] and your sister Ruhamah [The Pitied One”].”

Gordon’s poem had a biblical subtitle, too: “In honor of the daughter of Jacob, abused by the son of Hamor.” Puzzling at first glance, this dedication to Jacob’s daughter Dinah—who was raped by Shechem ben Hamor, the book of Genesis relates, when she “went out to see the daughters of the land”—would quickly have been understood by Gordon’s readers to be a bow to the Russian censor, a pretext for overlooking the poem’s real subject: the unprecedented wave of pogroms that had swept southern Russia less than two years previously, shocking the country’s Jews and setting off a wave of emigration. The fifty-three-year-old Gordon had been a pillar of Haskalah ideology and a staunch believer in the successful integration of the Jews in Russian society; its slow pace had been blamed by him more on Jewish religious obscurantism and social insularity than on Russian anti-Semitism, which an increasingly liberal Russian ruling class and intelligentsia, he held, had renounced. Now, however, he wrote:

Why weep you, my sister Ruhamah?
Why is your heart sore and your spirit not calm,
And why has the rose of your cheeks grown wan?
Have despoilers sullied your honor?
If hard is the fist of the foe who has harmed you,
Fault not yourself, my sister Ruhamah.

“But the disgrace!” Where is the disgrace?
Your heart never faltered nor failed to keep faith.
Come, look away from your injured place,
For the stain is not yours; it belongs to the stainer.
The pure are not fouled by their profaner.
You are blameless, my sister Ruhamah.

As Abel’s blood marked the brow of Cain,
So yours forever will be a sign,
Seen by all and never dimmer,
On the brows of your base assassins.
Let the world know to its far horizons
Of your torments, my sister Ruhamah.

I am glad of them. My soul has withstood
Every trial and travail that a soul could.
I have worked for this land—my hopes have been here
Despite each vile act and violent drama.
Yet your humiliation is too much to bear.
Let us go, my sister Ruhama!

Come, let us go—not to the warm
And natively loving home of the mother
We no longer have, but to yet another
Lodge for the night. There we will wander
Until our Father has mercy. Yea, yonder
Shall we wait, my sister Ruhamah.

Let us go where liberty’s beacon
Shines its bright light on each single being
Born in God’s image and no creed or color
Has an ill name. There no enemies clamor
And there you shall know neither stigma nor shame.
Let us go, my sister Ruhamah!

Had a subscriber to Hamelits fallen asleep at the end of the 1870s and suddenly awakened, he would not have known what to be surprised by more: the poet who had repeatedly criticized Russian Jews for their lack of openness to Russian society reassuring them that they were blameless for its hostility; his urging them to abandon the country he had adamantly insisted they could live happily in; or his telling them to do so not for Palestine, “the natively loving home of the mother we no longer have,” but for America, the land of “liberty’s beacon.”

Even readers who had followed Gordon’s Hamelits editorials regularly and knew both of his changed attitude toward Russia, where the openly reactionary Alexander III had succeeded the liberal-minded Alexander II after the latter’s assassination in the year of the pogroms, and of his skepticism regarding the prospects for Jewish colonization in Palestine, would have been taken aback by his unqualified endorsement of the United States as the preferred—indeed, the sole desirable—destination for Jewish emigrants. Although “My Sister Ruhamah” referred to America as a “lodge for the night,” a temporary asylum such as other countries had been in the past for a people still awaiting the day of its redemption, that day was clearly considered far off.

Of course, “My Sister Ruhamah” was not, in 1883, proclaiming anything that Russian Jews were not already saying with steamship tickets. Although there are no exact statistics, Jewish emigration from the Tsarist empire to the United States, barely existent before 1870 and averaging well under 10,000 persons annually between 1870 and 1880, more than doubled to nearly 20,000 a year between 1881 and 1884. In the same four-year period, a few thousand Jews altogether left Russia for Ottoman-governed Palestine. Such figures spoke louder than any Hebrew poem could do.


I. America or Palestine?


They did not, however, tell the whole story. Among the many Jews contemplating emigration, if only as a future possibility, interest in Palestine was great. Following the pogroms, numerous Ḥovevei Tsiyon  or “Lovers of Zion” societies, as the early Zionists called themselves, had sprung up throughout Russia for the purpose of encouraging agricultural settlement in the land of Israel. The numbers of actual settlers had been kept low by a combination of economic and political factors. While tilling the soil of an ancestral homeland may have been a romantic ideal, few Jews wanted, let alone had the skills, to be farmers, and opportunities for tradesmen and entrepreneurs in Palestine were scant. Moreover, arable land was not cheap and reports from the new colonies of physical hardship, malaria, crop failure, and even hunger were discouraging.

Worse, in the spring of 1882, alarmed by the prospect of a large influx of Russian Jews to Palestine, the Turkish government had issued an edict barring their entry to it; though never strictly enforced and eventually rescinded, this served as a deterrent to potential Jewish colonists throughout the 1880s. And if five “Lover of Zion” colonies, populated by several hundred families, had nevertheless been established in Palestine by March 1883, so had Jewish farming communities in Louisiana, South Dakota, and Oregon, sponsored by an Odessa-based organization. One could live on the land in America, too.

Yet even as emigration to Palestine languished, the debate over Zionism raged in the Jewish press of Eastern Europe. Temporary setbacks, Zionism’s advocates argued, were to be expected; what mattered was fighting the intellectual war on Zionism’s behalf, so that when conditions for it ripened, Jews would be prepared to take advantage of them. “The idea [of Zionism] . . . has gotten off to a bad start for acknowledged reasons,” wrote the Hebrew publicist Yehudah Leib Levin in the strongly pro-Zionist Hebrew weekly Hamagid two weeks after Hamelits’s Purim supplement. “Since it is an incontrovertibly just one, however, we mustn’t be daunted by short-term obstacles . . . [or by] those of us who, in the face of  the confusion and reversals inflicted on [Zionism] by non-intrinsic causes, have basely rushed to decry its essential beauty.” Levin was not thinking only of Gordon when he wrote these words. There were other intellectuals within the Jewish nationalist camp they would have been directed at, such as the future historian Simon Dubnov, who had published articles attacking Zionism as unrealistic. Still, any Zionist had to regard “My Sister Ruhamah” as a stab in the back.

“The word is now out,” one writer lamented in 1883, “that Jews have their hearts set only on America and no longer want to hear about Palestine.”

Zionism had lost the short-lived momentum given it by the pogroms. The novelist Peretz Smolenskin, writing in the July 1883 issue of the Viennese Hebrew monthly Hashaḥar, which he edited, observed that the chance to capitalize quickly on Russian Jewry’s initial enthusiasm for settlement in Palestine “is now gone forever.” Funds raised to support emigration by organizations like the French-based Alliance Israélite Universelle and the American-run Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society were being used to direct the emigrants westward rather than eastward “The word is now out,” Smolenskin lamented, “that Jews have their hearts set only on America and no longer want to hear about Palestine.” And in the same issue of Hashaḥar, in which he had published many of Gordon’s poems, he printed a riposte to “My Sister Ruhamah” in the form of a parody.

The author of that spoof, Yisachar Ber Hurvitz, a businessman and part-time poet, was both a Lover of Zion and an Orthodox Jew. Substituting “Ne’eshamah,” “the Guilty One,” for Ruhamah, he attacked Gordon not only for turning his back on Palestine but for his lifelong support of Haskalah ideals. Russia’s Jews, Hurvitz proclaimed, were in part to blame for the pogroms. Under the Haskalah’s influence, they had taken to aping the ways of their Russian neighbors with doubly deleterious results. On the one hand, they had antagonized Russians by pretending to be no different from them when every Russian knew this wasn’t so. On the other hand, by losing confidence in their own traditions, they had also lost their natural resilience in the face of disaster. Playing on Gordon’s dedication to “My Sister Ruhamah,” the first of Hurvitz’s seventeen stanzas went:

Why complain you, my sister Ne’eshamah?
Why is your heart pained and your mood grown glum?
Were you abused, far from home, while you slummed?
Has Jacob’s sole daughter been robbed of her honor
By a brute’s cruel hand laid upon her?
The fault is yours, too, my sister Ne’eshamah!

Line 3 of this stanza was a special taunt, because Hurvitz’s word for “home,” ohel, literally “tent,” was the same word used by Gordon twenty years previously in his verse declaration that became a Haskalah rallying cry: “Be a Jew at home [b’ohalekha] and a citizen abroad.” The Jews, Hurvitz was slyly saying, had followed Gordon’s advice—and here was their reward. The poem’s fifth stanza drove this point home:

You went to stroll among the country’s belles
And hoped to be one of its demoiselles;
You called their holy days your own and quite forgot
Your father, your religion, and your God.
Their acceptance, so you thought, would be your armor.
How wrong you were, my sister Ne’eshamah!

The final stanza of “My Sister Ne’eshamah” was aimed at the opinion that Zionism was unfeasible because a Jewish return to a land also holy to Christianity and Islam would arouse insurmountable international opposition. On the contrary, Hurvitz’s poem proclaimed: the world’s powers would be only too glad to solve their Jewish problem by sponsoring such an exodus. The Jews themselves had only to want it:

Look back, come home to your inheritance
Bequeathed to your progenitors by Providence!
The monarchs of the nations will support you
And wholeheartedly transport you
From your exile to the land of God’s old promise.
Then will your name be—my sister Ruhamah’s!

Gordon did not reply to “My Sister Ne’eshamah,” though it was he who, in a gentlemanly gesture, had sent it to Smolenskin after turning it down for Hamelits. When Hurvitz wrote him in May 1883 to ask whether Smolenskin intended to print the poem, Gordon replied, in a dig at Smolenskin’s taste in poetry: “Of course he will, because it’s better than most of the poems that appear in Hashaḥar. . . . Let’s wait for the coming issues.” And in a swipe at Hurvitz’s  (and Smolenskin’s) trust in a Zionist vision that, Gordon thought,  was unlikely to come to pass before the End of Days, he added in a paraphrase of Maimonides’ formulation of the messianic credo: “After all, you’re a good Jew and you’re used to waiting every day even though he [the messiah] lingers.”


II. The Banner of Language


The Hebrew press in 1883 exercised an influence far beyond the paid circulation of its four leading representatives: Hamelits, with some 2,000 subscribers; the weekly Warsaw Hats’firah with 2,500;  Hamagid, published in Germany, with 1,800; and Hashaḥar, which averaged close to a thousand. Actual readership was many times greater, for subscriptions were often shared by several persons, who lent their copies to still others when they were done with them, and numerous towns in Eastern and Central Europe had Jewish public libraries in which Hebrew periodicals were available and in demand. An educated guess might be that these had, in the early 1880s, well over 100,000 readers in Russia alone—far more than did the two Russian-language Jewish publications of the time, the weekly Razsviet and monthly Voskhod, or the one Yiddish weekly, the Yiddishes Folksblat.

For Jews who could not read Russian, Polish, or other languages of the Tsarist empire, the Hebrew press was their main window on the world. Besides serving as a platform for the Jewish debates of the day and publishing feuilletons, poetry, fiction in installments, and articles on various subjects, it also brought them the news. The March 10 Hamelits included, in addition to a long editorial by Gordon, an article on turtles as house pets and sources of food; a letter from Constantinople defending colonists in Palestine from accusations of anti-religious behavior; an item on anti-Semitic agitation in Poland and a Catholic priest who was bravely combating it; Jewish human-interest stories from all over Russia (near Vitebsk, a beheaded Jew was found on a road beside a wagon and its murdered coachman; in Plotsk, a Jew presumed dead had regained consciousness while members of the burial society argued with his family about their pay; in Verzhbolove, a returned Jewish emigrant who had abandoned a wife in Glasgow was exposed by her unexpected arrival in pursuit of him as he was bigamously about to marry again, etc.); a report on a new rabbinical school in Budapest; and political dispatches from Austria, Rumania, Paris, Ireland, and Turkey.

Gordon’s Purim editorial in the same issue played on the name Haman and the Hebrew verb hamah, “to be noisy,” in order to observe—somewhat at variance with his own “My Sister Ruhamah”—that the Jews were a loud and know-it-all people who made enemies with their brashness. They talked too much and did too little. For example: an entire year had gone by since the Odessan doctor, Leon Pinsker, had published his excellent treatise Autoemancipation  in which he counseled Jews to look for a country of their own. Now that, Gordon wrote, “the Holy Land, it seems, is barred to us forever,” had anyone acted on Pinsker’s advice? The only thing Russian Jewry had done was to argue about it.

Hebrew gave Jews a protected private space of their own. There they could argue, shout, call each other names, and wash their dirty laundry without fear of being overheard.

Gordon published occasionally in the Russian Jewish press, too. Yet only in Hebrew, he prided himself, did he allow himself to be critical of Russia’s Jews, whom he consistently defended when writing in Russian. And indeed, in an age of great inner division and uncertainty, Hebrew provided Jews with a protected private space of their own. Their secrets were safe in it. In Hebrew, they could argue, shout, call each other names and wash their dirty laundry without fear of being overheard. Not even Yiddish, which not a few Russians living in proximity to Jews had some knowledge of, was as hermetic. When Yiddish-speaking Jews in the shtetl had something to say to each other in public that they wanted to be sure no Gentile understood, they mixed as much Hebrew into it as possible.

As the vernacular of the shtetl, Yiddish in the 1880s was still taking its first steps toward becoming a vehicle for serious literary and intellectual life; for Gordon, as for other Maskilim, it remained a symbol of Jewish backwardness, the language of a mental ghetto whose walls had yet to be torn down. Moreover, it was a language that half the world’s Jews did not speak. Throughout Jewish history, Hebrew had been the written means of communication (and sometimes the oral lingua franca) among Jews everywhere. In the late 19th century, when French (which few Eastern European Jews knew anyway) had lost the international status that English had yet to gain, Hebrew alone held the Jewish world together.

It was also, linguistically, all that linked Jews to their own past. Yiddish was a language going back less than a thousand years with almost no written monuments to speak of; Hebrew had an immense literature representing millennia of Jewish history, creativity, and thought. Being able to pun on Haman and hamah, to make a recognizable allusion to Hosea, or to tease an opponent with the help of Maimonides may have been minor literary advantages, but they called for a thorough familiarity with the terrain of a linguistic territory that only an intensive Jewish schooling could provide. For a people without a homeland that was in the process of losing—or so the Haskalah thought—the religious faith that had sustained it over the ages, Hebrew was indeed the only territory it could continue to possess. Fortunately it was a vast one—as vast in its way as any country in Europe and as capable of arousing patriotic emotion.

It has been said that if Hebrew was the patria, the linguistic fatherland, of Eastern European Jewry, the language of a religious education and practice that were male domains, Yiddish was the motherland, the language of home and hearth. Yet the novelist Avraham Mapu had his “Lady of Hebrew,” and Hebrew, too, could be imagined by its devotees as a loving and beloved maternal presence—not a cozily domestic one but a regal queen who continued to command her subjects’ allegiance after they had cast off the kingly authority of religion. Such a personification of it can be found in Gordon’s early work, especially in an elegiac masque published by him in 1853 on the first anniversary of the death of his friend Michah Yosef  Lebensohn. A rising star in the world of Hebrew poetry, Lebensohn had succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, and Gordon envisioned him ascending heavenward to a Madonna-like figure addressed as “Goddess” by the archangel Michael. Wiping away her tears of mourning for him, she says to the now-risen poet:

Do you not know me, my dear boy?
Do you not know me?
I am your mother, the Hebrew tongue.
All your life, you delighted in my lap.
I was your aspiration and your passion,
And invisible to you, I nursed you
With the milk of consolation.
The mother of your brothers I am, too,
And of all the exiles of Jerusalem and Zion.
Whene’er the foe’s hard hand caused you to groan,
Or life’s burdens were too much for you,
You turned to me and I gave you strength.

Though not inspired poetry, such lines testify to the powerful attachment to Hebrew felt by readers and writers of Gordon’s generation, who transferred to it, the language of the study and prayer of their childhood and youth, the emotions these once had evoked. “Mother of all that is holy!” Hebrew was called by the dying Lebensohn at the same time that he was writing in a letter to his and Mapu’s good friend, the Haskalah intellectual Shneur Sachs: “I’m under no illusion that I would go to the stake for my people or God. . . . I have no religion! My brothers [are] all mankind!”  And Gordon’s bereaved goddess exclaims to the prophets and poets of Jewish tradition: “O great fathers of the Hebrews who were a mouth to me in ancient times, arise and weep together with me!” Ordinarily, one thinks of a language serving its users. Here, it is the other way around: Hebrew speaks through her speakers. They are her liegemen, the bearers of her banner.

Ordinarily, one thinks of a language serving its users. With Hebrew, it is the other way around: Hebrew speaks through her speakers. They are her liegemen, the bearers of her banner.

East European Zionism evolved from a pre-Zionist Jewish nationalism, not yet oriented toward Palestine, such as was articulated by Smolenskin. But this nationalism, in turn, grew out of a pre-nationalist literary loyalism to Hebrew of the kind found in Mapu and the early Gordon. As was true of other national movements in 19th-century Europe—the Gaelic revival in Ireland, the Czech renaissance in Bohemia and Moravia—the first flag raised was that of language. Ultimately, it led Gordon to Jewish nationalism, too. Why did he not continue from there to Zionism?


III. Mother Russia Opens Her Arms


Gordon was born in 1830, in Vilna, a city renowned for its rabbinical learning that had been a stronghold of misnagdic resistance to Hasidism. Yet it was also, starting with the 1840s, a center of Haskalah activity with a progressive, state-run rabbinical seminary and several modern Jewish schools. Living there in Gordon’s youth were figures like Shneur Sachs; the prominent Hebrew poet Adam Hacohen Lebensohn (Michah Yosef’s father); the Hebrew memoirist Mordekhai Ginzburg; and the author and translator Kalman Shulman, best known for his pioneer renditions into Hebrew of European novels. Gordon met and befriended such older men as he grew up, but the greatest influence on him as a budding poet was the young Lebensohn, cloaked by his early death in the tragic aura of a Hebrew Novalis or Keats.

Lebensohn had great but unfulfilled talent. Nineteenth-century Hebrew poetry’s first (and only true) European-style Romantic, he was hobbled, as were his Hebrew-writing contemporaries, by the classical diction of a language that he had greater mastery of than freedom from. Had Hebrew had a spoken existence, it would have helped him to find his own voice; as it was, he did so only fitfully in his shorter poems and longer historical ballads. The latter, mostly on biblical themes, were a favorite form of his, and Gordon’s own first major poetic effort, an epic in twelve cantos called “The Love of David and Michal,” was an attempt both to emulate and outdo them.

Hebrew writers were hobbled by the classical diction of a language without a spoken existence: a langguage they had greater mastery of than freedom from.

Completed in 1857, “The Love of David and Michal” tells the story of the flowering and decline of the relationship, described in the Bible by a few scattered verses, of the Israelite shepherd boy who became a poet-king and his first wife, Saul’s daughter Michal. What this story meant personally to Gordon is a matter of conjecture. Ending in his poem with the deaths of a lonely, life-weary David and a noble Michal who still loves him though forgotten by him, it perhaps needs to be connected to an early lyric of Gordon’s written to a young woman named Chana, in which she is promised that the aging that will one day degrade her physical beauty will not mar the beauty of her soul. If she was Gordon’s first love, she may also have been his last. The future poet-king of 19th-century Hebrew was married in 1853 to a wife described by his biographer Michael Stanislawski as a “kind, if simple” person who “barely knew Russian, understood no Hebrew, and remained cut off from and slightly befuddled by the literary, intellectual, and political interests of her husband.” They had two daughters and a son.

“The Love of David and Michal” outdid Lebensohn only in length. Suffering from the same stilted phrasing that held Lebensohn back, it moves a step sideways for every step forward, pausing to moralize about its plot each time it advances it. The hero, summoned for the first time to Saul’s court, is introduced by these lines:

And so David the shepherd, Bethlehem’s son,
A redheaded lad with a staff in his hand
And a pack on his back, proceeded anon
To the king’s palace, for so had God planned.

God’s wisdom! It towers on high!
It is deep as the seas that girdle earth’s sphere.
Yet many an eye is unable to spy
What many an ear is unable to hear.

But though turtle-paced and with none of Lebensohn’s romantic urgency, Gordon’s poem has something that Lebensohn lacked—namely, wit and a capacity for trenchant and cleverly phrased social judgments. When “The Love of David and Michal” proved a commercial failure, Gordon turned to a new project that would exploit these gifts better: a series of versified animal fables, similar to the popular Russian poems of Ivan Krylov, which he hoped might be used as a textbook for teaching Hebrew.

Borrowing freely from Krylov, La Fontaine, and Aesop, the book was published as Mishley Yehudah, “The Fables of Judah,” in 1859. Although the only school to adopt it was a Karaite institution in Crimea, and Gordon complained that he spent more money mailing copies to friends than he received in royalties, the form suited him well. Played off satirically against its animal characters, its classical language is amusing. A typical tale about a donkey and a horse goes:

Beware, my friends! Assist your fellow man
Before he’s made to bear more than he can
And you end up by carrying his load.

Cudgeled by its master cruelly,
A donkey staggered down a road
Beneath some heavy bags of grain
When a noble steed came prancing by,
Burdened only by its bit and rein.

Asked by the donkey to relieve him of some of the weight, the steed haughtily replies, “Are horses to be asses? Are grandees like the masses?” and disdains to help. Whereupon,

The party hadn’t reached the nearest town
When the donkey stumbled, fell, lay down,
Gave up the ghost, and died.
And so its load was transferred to the steed,
Which now also had to bear an ass’s hide.

The social message was clear: if wealthier Jews didn’t help the Jewish poor and workingmen, they would be saddled with a social collapse that would cost them even more. The virtues upheld by Gordon’s fables—thrift, hard work, honesty, responsibility, a willingness to help others—were those of the fable genre in general. They were also the values of the bourgeois family life that Gordon, his hopes of earning a living from his writing dashed, now sought to lead as a schoolmaster in the Lithuanian provinces. The schools he administered and in part founded—one, unusually for the times, for girls—were in the spirit of the Haskalah. Their hours were shorter than those of the traditional ḥeder, their language of instruction was Russian and Hebrew rather than Yiddish, and alongside a core Jewish curriculum they taught European languages, literature, mathematics, and history. A radical departure from accepted Jewish pedagogy, they embroiled Gordon in a series of running controversies with local rabbis and religious conservatives that gradually made him one of the most anti-traditional of Haskalah intellectuals. He was one of the few Maskilim to regard German Reform Judaism as a model for Eastern Europe, whose rabbinical establishment he considered benighted and corrupt.

With the ascent to the throne of Alexander II in 1855, Russia had entered a period of economic and social reform. The Haskalah’s faith in integration had, it seemed, been vindicated.

Yet the times were a cause for optimism. Not only was the Haskalah steadily gaining ground in Jewish society, but Russia itself, with the ascent to the throne of Alexander II in 1855, had entered a period of economic and social reform, most dramatically manifested in the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, that heralded a new age. In the running battle between the country’s Westernizing liberals and its advocates of Russian autarky and Tsarist autocracy, a final victory for the former seemed in sight. One of Alexander’s first acts was the abolition of Jewish juvenile conscription, which was followed in 1856 by an imperial order calling for the revision of all anti-Jewish legislation in favor of a policy of “fusing” Russia’s Jews with the population among whom they lived. In the next several years, the Tsarist regime relaxed residential restrictions limiting Jews to the Pale of Settlement, reined in government backing for missionary activity, and took steps to strengthen the government-supported Jewish educational system of which Gordon’s schools were a part.

The Haskalah’s faith in integration had, so it seemed, been vindicated. In 1863, Gordon published a poem whose opening stanzas trumpeted the new day:

Wake my people! Sleep no more!
Night is over. The sun shines.
Open wide your eyes, explore
New surroundings and new times!

Has time stood still with drooping wings
Since, shorn of freedom, your exiles
Began their worldwide wanderings
And their two-thousand years of trials?

Attitudes toward Jews had changed. Russian writers and intellectuals like Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Chernyshevsky were speaking out against anti-Semitism. Now was the turn of Russian Jewry to reciprocate:

This country of your domicile and birth
Belongs to Europe, whose expanse,
Though a small part of the globe’s girth,
In spirit is the most advanced.

Its paradise can now be yours.
Its sons and daughters call you “brother.”
Why go on being sojourners
And insist that you are other?

Their yoke upon your neck has eased
Its heavy burden. They extend—
Their ancient hatred of you ceased—
Their hand in greeting like a friend.

Raise your head high! Stand tall!
Look around with approbation.
Educate yourself! Learn all!
Speak the language of the nation!

Your students to the university!
Your workmen to their crafts and trades!
The bravest of your sons to the army!
Your farmers to their plows and spades!

Make a contribution of your own!
Be a brother to your countrymen;
A servant of the king and crown;
A Jew at home—abroad a citizen.

Wake, my people! Sleep no more!
Night is over. The sun shines.
Open your eyes wide, explore
New surroundings and new times!

Heyey adam b’tsetkha viyhudi b’ohalekha: “Be a man abroad and a Jew at home” is how the celebrated line has generally—and, technically speaking, correctly—been translated. Gordon, though, did not intend to suggest an opposition between Jewishness and humanness. What he had in mind was the difference between, on the one hand, the Russian Jew who felt the same sense of belonging and civic responsibility to his country as did the non-Jew and, on the other hand, the Russian Jew who did not. It is ironic that a well-turned phrase from a mediocre, propagandistic poem should have become his single most famous line.

Yet Gordon was a propagandist for the Haskalah even when better than mediocre. Dominating the Russian literary culture of his day were critics like Chernyshevsky and Nikolai Dobrolyobov who held that art had value only if socially useful. This was a view that on the whole he shared, and so did his maskilic readers. His cleverness, verbal agility, and skill at handling rhyme and meter were inseparable in their minds from his criticisms of the rabbis, of the moneyed Jews who colluded with them, and of the ordinary shtetl dwellers who went on leading semi-medieval lives as if it were their prescribed lot. Now was the time to cast those lives aside.


IV. The Jewish National Poet Takes the Stage


Gordon went on writing fables, of which he eventually put out a second book, throughout the 1860s. This was a period in which it became clear that the incorporation of Russian Jewry into Russian life would be at best slower and more difficult than was envisioned in Alexander’s first years. Many individual Jews, particularly in urban centers, had responded enthusiastically to the call to Russianize. But in the small towns and villages of the Pale of Settlement, Jews went on clinging to their isolation, speaking and often understanding only Yiddish, practicing all the stringencies of their religion, looking and dressing differently from their non-Jewish neighbors, and having little or nothing to do with them.

A government “Committee for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Jews,” created in 1870 to determine why the latter were continuing to form “a secluded religious and civil caste . . . a state within a state,” reported back a year later that the “communal cohesion” of Jewish society ruled out further progress. The government, losing confidence in its earlier measures, backtracked. Some of Alexander’s reforms were modified; others were never implemented. The walls of the Pale rose higher again.

By the 1870s, the Russian government, losing confidence in its earlier integrationist measures, backtracked, and the walls of the Pale of Settlement rose higher again.

Gordon reacted by accusing Russia’s Jews of failing to rise to the challenge of Russification. He also reverted to the form of the verse narrative while trimming it and focusing it more sharply. On two such poems, “In the Lion’s Teeth” and “The Tip of a Yod,” much of his reputation ultimately came to rest. The first, written in the early 1860s, had a historical setting: the aftermath of the great Jewish revolt against Rome and its disastrous defeat, attributed by the poem to a religious culture whose mixture of blind faith and talmudic scholasticism precluded rational action and thought. Who but the Jews, the poem asked, would have taken up arms against the world’s greatest military power on the sole basis of messianic prophecies and a belief in the superiority of their endlessly cogitated divine laws?

Your ruin, Israel, was never being taught
How wars were waged and battles fought.
What good was all your strength and desperation
Without a strategy or organization?
What did you learn from your instructors in
The study house in every century?
To store the chaff, to bottle wind,
To plow the rock, to sieve the sea.

The protagonists of “In the Lions’ Teeth” are the rebel leader Shimon bar Giora and his wife Martha, who are taken captive, separated, and brought to Rome, she to be sold into slavery and he to do battle as a gladiator. Waiting his turn in the arena of the Colosseum, Bar-Giora catches sight of Martha sitting with the Roman matron she now serves, and they exchange a last, loving glance. A lion is released and bounds toward him. He,

                  springing forward with the cry,
“Where is the God of Samson?” strove to pry
The beast apart and tear it limb from limb.

Alas, the poet exclaims:

Doomed gallant! You could look long and hard
And not find a single sign of Him.
The God of Gods, your God and Samson’s God,
Has lost interest in His people and its heroes
And joined forces with the Tituses and Neros.
You’ll have the luck with Him your people had!

Bar-Giora, standing no more chance against the lion than did the revolt he led against the might of Rome, is quickly clawed to death. Although the God he calls upon either does not exist or is indifferent to their fate, the Jews keep putting their trust in Him instead of relying on their own resources. In going back to the time of the earliest rabbis to make such a statement, Gordon was attacking not this or that perceived excess or distortion of rabbinic Judaism, as the Haskalah did constantly, but rabbinic Judaism itself. If “In the Lion’s Teeth” did not arouse a public furor among his maskilic readers (the anti-maskilic traditionalists had anathematized him long before), this was only because he took pains to veil its content with a plot set in antiquity.

He almost never again put his anti-religious views quite so radically. Yet the smooth weave of pathos and caustic commentary that he achieved in “In the Lion’s Teeth” without slowing down his plot was now to become his trademark. Nowhere was it better displayed than in “The Tip of a Yod,” published in Smolenskin’s Hashaḥar in 1875. By then, Gordon had moved to St. Petersburg, where he had accepted a dual post as secretary of the city’s well-to-do Jewish community and also of its Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among the Jews of Russia, an organization dedicated to Jewish acculturation in Russian life.

The printed letter yod, the smallest in the Hebrew alphabet, has a tiny upward extension without which it can be considered incorrectly written, and kotso shel yod, “the tip of a yod,” is a Hebrew expression for a seemingly trivial detail that is allowed to become an issue. In Gordon’s poem, however, the yod is a real one—the optional second letter of the Hebrew name Hillel, which can be spelled either with a yod, used as an auxiliary vowel sign, or without one.

The Hillel in question is the husband of the beautiful and sterling-souled Bat-Shua; wed to her in a loveless arranged match while both were in their teens, he has gone abroad in search of a living and disappeared without a trace, leaving her unable to remarry according to Jewish law unless he is found and persuaded to divorce her. (Such agunot or “chained women” were not rare in a society in which one way of getting out of imposed marriages without alimony was simply to flee.) Bat-Shua is forced to open a small provisions store in which she labors drearily day and night to support herself and her children. Gordon, always sympathetic to the plight of women, begins his poem with a proto-feminist invocation:

 O Jewish woman! The story of your life, who knows?
        You come in darkness and in darkness you depart.
 Your joy and sadness, your wishes and your woes,
        are born and die with you in your own heart.
 The goodness of this land, its plenitude,
        are for the daughters of another people.
 A Jewish woman's life is servitude;
        the little shop she tends is her grim keep
 While she proceeds to bear, to nurse, to wean, again to breed,
       to cook, to bake, and quickly go to seed.

Bat-Shua’s fortunes improve when a decent, sensitive man, a railroad contractor named Fabi who has come to work in her town, falls in love with her and she with him. Things look even brighter when the missing Hillel is located in Liverpool and sends Bat-Shua the hoped-for writ of divorce shortly before perishing at sea in a wrecked ocean liner. At last, she and Fabi can happily marry. Yet Hillel’s name, it turns out, has been written in the document without a yod, and when a rabbinical court of three judges, presided over by the town’s rabbi, Vofsi, convenes to consider the matter,

 The judge who read the writ aloud, a kabbalist,
        found esoteric reasons to approve of it;
 The second judge, a learned talmudist,
        proved by logic that the writ was fit.
 But Vofsi, citing the Shulḥan Arukh,
        insisted that Hillel must have a vowel,
 And on the say-so of that august book,
        he faced the other judges with a scowl.
 Like a tree that can't be moved by any force,
        he cried sternly, "There is no divorce!"

Vofsi is appealed to; he refuses to budge; the Shulḥan Arukh, the definitive code of Jewish law, demands that a writ of divorce be written correctly; and there being no living witnesses to Hillel’s death, Bat-Shua cannot be recognized as a widow and must go on being an agunah for the rest of her life. The heartbroken Fabi finishes his work in town and departs; Bat-Shua, crushed, resumes her former life, from which there is now no hope of release. The letter of the law has triumphed over common sense and human happiness.

There were readers of “The Tip of a Yod” who, while conceding its poetic merits, complained that its portrayal of the Orthodox world of Eastern Europe was an unfair caricature. As strict as some rabbis might be, they argued, few were as heartless as Vofsi, and had the situation been a real one, Bat-Shua and Fabi could easily have found another, more lenient authority to approve the divorce. Gordon conceded the point but quite rightly pointed out that satire works by exaggeration and that “The Tip of a Yod” was a satire and a limited one at that: a call for religious reform, not revolution.

It was the reformer’s rather than the revolutionary’s mantle that Gordon, now widely revered by an audience trying to navigate the same road between tradition and Orthodoxy, sought to wear.

On the whole, it was the reformer’s rather than the revolutionary’s mantle that he sought to wear. Judaism, for Gordon, however its theological assumptions may have been questioned by him, was inseparable from Jewish identity and needed to be ameliorated, not discarded. This was what enabled him to be extremely popular with a maskilic audience that, while exasperated with Orthodoxy’s hidebound nature, did not wish to burn its bridges to tradition. It appreciated Gordon’s caution no less than his combativeness; together, they placed him in the middle of the same road that his readers, too, were trying to negotiate.

He was now widely known as Yalag, the initials of Y.L. Gordon: an accolade in a world of Hebrew letters that reserved such acronyms for its revered figures. By the end of the 1870s he was also being referred to by critics as “the Jewish national poet,” the living embodiment of the Haskalah’s finest ideals.


V. “A Past That Will Be Followed by Nothing”


In late October 1881, a half-year after that year’s pogroms, the cream of St. Petersburg’s Jewish society, relates Michael Stanislawski, gathered at a festive banquet in Gordon’s honor. It was the 25th anniversary of the publication of “The Love of David and Michal,” and besides being toasted, lauded, and presented with a gold pen, Gordon was publicly informed of the community’s decision to raise subscriptions for a four-volume collection of his verse. He was gratified. “You have honored me,” he wrote to his readers in Hamelits, of which he had become editor the previous year, “as no Hebrew author has been honored before.” Yet two years later, he wrote wryly of the event:

When all of my friends and well-wishers saw
That my soul was depleted and I had no more
In my pantry or purse, they consulted and then
In their kindness they gave me—a golden pen.

The empty pantry and purse were metaphorical: he was at the time receiving a handsome salary from Hamelits‘s wealthy publisher Alexander Zederbaum and was at the height of his literary power and prestige. But he was also tired; still traumatized by several nightmarish months in 1879 in which he and his wife had been arrested and exiled from St. Petersburg by the Tsarist police in what proved to be a case of mistaken identity; deeply shaken by the pogroms; and pessimistic about the future of Hebrew. The same wry poem speaks not of one pen but two: the one given him at the banquet and the one he wrote with. The former would be bequeathed to his heirs when he died, the latter to . . . but what use, the poem ends with a sigh, would anyone have for a Hebrew-writing pen?

His concern for Hebrew was not new. As far back as 1871, he had published a poem, “For Whom Do I Toil?,” whose title came to be another of his signature phrases:

Even as my muse sings shyly
Lines of poetry penned by me
In a language almost now forgotten,
I ask: for whom do I toil?
What was the purpose of it all?
Has my whole life been misbegotten?

Did I labor for our parents,
With their God and His commandments
And their hatred of all science and all art?
“Poetry is heresy!
Literature is deviltry!”
They pilloried those like me from the start.

Was it for my fellow intellectual?
He thinks Hebrew ineffectual,
An old maid spinning last year’s yarn.
“Really, now, it’s so passé!
No one uses it today.
Europe’s languages are ours from now on!”

Might you, my Jewish sisters,
Hearken to my muse’s whispers
With a taste and grace that are God-given?
Alas, you lack all Hebrew schooling,
For (such is our rabbis’ ruling)
“The girl who studies Torah studies sin.”

And our children, that progressive generation?
Taught naught but alienation,
They pierce my wounded heart most to the core.
Yes, they progress from year to year.
Who knows how far? Who knows to where?
Perhaps to where there’s no returning any more.

For whom then do I toil?
For the few who don’t recoil
From the song of Zion’s goodly bounty?
Scant pickings! If I count
To how many they amount,
Can I find one in every town, two in each county?

And yet you are my brothers, wherever
You may be! The tongue of Eber,
Our pitied sister, you refuse to scorn.
Let others wander where they would;
You alone have understood

On the face of it, “For Whom Do I Toil?” was overstated and self-pitying. The condition of Hebrew letters at the time was nowhere as dark as Gordon depicts it. Mapu’s novels were popular; young new writers like Smolenskin and Moses Leib Lilienbum were being avidly read; the Hebrew press was developing.

By 1880, it was clear that Hebrew would not be for the next generations what it was for Gordon’s own. Ironically, this was because of the Russification he had fought so hard for.

Nor did the poem’s complaints have any basis in Gordon’s personal life. Far from “pillorying him” for writing Hebrew poetry, his father, a traditionally pious Jew, had been supportive of his efforts. He did not lack the companionship of Hebrew-reading-and-writing intellectuals—one of whom, Zev Kaplan, his best friend since adolescence, was the father-in-law of Gordon’s daughter Minna. His relations with his children, who had indeed been progressively raised, were warm and close. Although relatively few girls of the age received a Hebrew education, he himself had taught many of those who did and he corresponded in Hebrew with more than one woman. And while he felt marooned in the Lithuanian provinces, from which he had no inkling that he was soon to move to St. Petersburg, he was a widely read and respected literary figure. The poem’s fears of his being “Hebrew’s last poet” were hardly credible.

But he saw the writing on the wall. Hebrew would not be for the next generation, let alone for those that came after it, what it was for his own. And the bitter irony was that this was because of the Russification he had fought so hard for! In the shtetls of the Pale, it was true, it had yet to make serious inroads. But social and cultural trends started in the cities and spread outward—and once Gordon moved to St. Petersburg, he could see even more clearly what the trend was, not least of all in his own family.

In a heartfelt letter written to Kaplan in 1879, he began by recalling their Vilna youth in which they and their friends had actually tried speaking Hebrew to each other. No one had been more able to make the dead language come alive than Kaplan. “I was a sixteen-year-old in my father’s home when I first met you,” Gordon wrote. “You were like a banner on a mountaintop that made me look upward and I thought: ‘If only I could speak Hebrew as he can!'”

Kaplan, who knew Gordon was feeling despondent, had written to assure him that he would always be a “bright star in the future histories” of Hebrew literature, and Gordon replied:

Ah, trusting soul to think that Hebrew has a future and not just a past—a past that will be followed by nothing! What makes you believe the names of its authors will shine like stars instead of smoldering like swamp lights? Can’t you see that only “trouble, darkness, and dim anguish” [the phrase is from Isaiah] cloud the sky above our poor language and its followers, who will vanish from beneath it? Who will write your histories? Your son? My son? Perhaps our grandson Iakob and his progeny? Can’t you see where we are heading and what will happen to us in the end of days? The Sadducees will study Greek wisdom and the Pharisees will expound the laws of the bathroom: these are the two camps into which we Children of Israel will be divided. . . .

Decoding the last sentence calls for knowing that “Greek wisdom” was a rabbinic term for the sciences and arts, and that “Sadducees” was Gordon’s way of alluding to the Jewish Russianizers and “Pharisees” an allusion to the militantly Orthodox and their rabbis, mocked by him for their obsessive regulation of life’s smallest details. In time to come, he was saying to Kaplan, there would be only assimilated Jews with no Jewish knowledge and parochially religious Jews with no interest in anything but their faith, neither of whom would have the slightest use for Hebrew as a literary medium. The Haskalah Jew—modern yet attached to tradition; at home both in the world and in the ways of his people; fluent in the languages of Europe yet committed to his own ancestral tongue—was a transitory phenomenon.

The Haskalah Jew—modern yet attached to tradition, fluent in the languages of Europe yet committed to his own ancestral tongue—had turned out to be a transitory phenomenon.

Just look at his and Kaplan’s own children! Minna and her husband Maxim, a successful St. Petersburg lawyer, might still remember a bit of the Hebrew they had been taught when young and go occasionally to synagogue for appearance’s sake, but they lived entirely in Russian and in its culture. What hope was there that their child, little Iakob, whom Gordon was extremely fond of, would have even that much Jewishness? What hope was there that his children would have any at all?

The Haskalah had failed to understand that its success would necessarily be its downfall. “We thought,” Gordon wrote in Hamelits in March 1882,

that we could heal our fractured people with the balm of the Haskalah and its educational reforms. For a generation—one single generation—our people ate of the tree of knowledge and digested its fruit. . . . Alas, our celebration was short-lived.

The Haskalah, he went on, had been a miscalculated marriage. Although the generation of its fathers had thought it was taking European culture as a second wife alongside its Jewish one, the generation of its sons regarded that culture as their sole mother. Hebrew was about to lose its territory.


VI. The Need for a Nation Reasserts Itself


Hebrew-writing intellectuals like Smolenskin and Lilienblum had been warning all along that the Haskalah was a self-destructing enterprise that could be salvaged only by a nationalism that supplied the sense of Jewish identity undermined by Europeanization, and Gordon had essentially come to agree with them. By the early 1880s, Smolenskin and Lilienblum were ardent Zionists. Why—to return to this essay’s opening question—did Gordon, instead of becoming one, too, write “My Sister Ruhamah”? And why, especially, did he do so when the dream of reviving Hebrew as a spoken language in Palestine, first put forth by Eliezer Ben-Yehudah and now endorsed by other Zionists who had been initially skeptical of it, seemed the only way to save the language from sinking into ultimate disuse?

It was a question he asked of himself, and he had two answers to it. In 1887, he summed these up pithily in a letter to Lilienblum, with whom he had recently been reconciled after years of estrangement. The rift between them had had two causes. One was Lilienblum’s anger at Gordon’s failure to be supportive of Zionism in his poetry and Hamelits editorials. The other was Gordon’s resentment of a long review Lilienblum had written of the four volumes of his poetry when they appeared in 1884, in which Lilienblum argued that a writer who took so dim a view of Judaism could hardly be called a national poet. Now that they had agreed to put all that behind them, Gordon wrote:

I wasn’t angry at you for thinking my poems had their faults and shortcomings, many of which I could have pointed to myself, but for failing to understand me and accusing me of being what I wasn’t, vilifying me in front of the Jewish people as the traitor and hater of Zion that I never was. If I didn’t editorialize and versify about the dream of settling the land of Israel, this wasn’t because I was against it but because I didn’t believe it was possible. Having no faith in it, I wasn’t inspired by it—how then could I have written poetry? And yet I wanted it even more than you did, wanted a complete redemption, not a small-time rescue mission. And because I wanted it all, there was nothing for me to seize hold of.

“If I didn’t editorialize and versify about the dream of settling the land of Israel, this wasn’t because I was against it but because I didn’t believe it was possible.”

What Gordon meant by a “complete redemption” rather than a “small-time rescue mission” had been spelled out by him in March 1882 in one of the Hamelits editorials that Lilienblum took umbrage at. Published on the eve of Passover under the heading “Our Redemption and Our Spiritual Emancipation,” it began with a review of the bitter year that had gone by since the pogroms, and stated:

If we all agree on one thing, it is that we have no choice but to leave the vale of tears that is this country. The only argument is over which direction to choose and whether to end this year’s seder with “Next year in Jerusalem!” or “Next year in America!”

America, Gordon went on, was the easier alternative. “Whoever heads for it arrives in a developed country, one thriving in the bloom of its youth, . . . which isn’t the case with Palestine.” On the other hand, from a Jewish point of view, “there can be no doubt that the ascent [aliyah] to the land of Israel takes precedence over the descent to America—but only on the clearly understood condition that this aliyah be considered not just one more option for displaced and downtrodden Jews in search of a better life, for whom America is really the better choice, but a national duty.” If Jews were emigrating from Russia solely to save their necks and improve their material condition, “why be dreamers and fantasize about memories of an ancient homeland?” The only justification for choosing Palestine was the “unambiguous determination to stake our [national] claim there and live the life of a people . . . like all the families of man.”

Up to this point, Gordon’s editorial was all any Zionist could desire. Now, however, it took a sharp turn. Since he was writing in Hebrew, Gordon told his readers, “with no strangers around to eavesdrop,” he could be honest with them. “We [East-European Jews] live in a swamp of superstition and mindlessness. . . . Tolerance for other faiths and those who practice them is low among us; religious fanaticism and obstinacy prevail.” The “physical fortress” in which Diaspora Jewry had lived and still lived in Eastern Europe was accompanied by a “mental fortress” that was even more difficult to break out of.

His greatest fear, Gordon continued, was that if the Jews of Eastern Europe were to move en masse to a Turkish-ruled Palestine where they would not be subject to the forces of improvement that they would be exposed to in the West, they would simply replicate their degraded condition. “Before the Jews are redeemed from their geographical exile, they must be emancipated from the spiritual exile in which they are now bound hand and foot,” he wrote. Settling the land of Israel, though a “sacred goal,” was “premature.” At the present juncture, “we would do better to send our emigrants to America or some other enlightened country.” Only when, after “two or three generations,” they would have become “a civilized, cultured, hard-working, professionally skilled population,” should Jews be encouraged to emigrate in large numbers to Palestine. “Let our sojourn in America or elsewhere,” the editorial concluded, “be what the desert was for the Israelites who left Egypt to receive the commandments of life, cast off the chains of slavery, and learn to be free men before entering the land of Israel.”

Lilienblum hastened to reply in Hamelits’s next issue. Gordon, he said, was confusing two different things. The need for change in Jewish life was one, the need to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine was another—and the second could not wait for the first. Nor would any amount of generations in America produce the liberal, progressive Jewish consensus that Gordon believed it would. The notion of “complete redemption” was a chimera.

Rather than first emancipating themselves spiritually and then creating a Jewish society in Palestine, as Gordon thought, Jews needed to create such a society in order to emancipate themselves.

“We have never been a unified people,” wrote Lilienblum, “and we never will be; nor will you find such unity anywhere on earth.” No European people was without its own conservative and clerical parties alongside its liberal and progressive ones. The difference was that the contending forces in an independent nation were both required and enabled by politics to find ways of living together and working out their conflicts, whereas the Jews were not. Gordon was putting the cart before the horse: rather than first emancipating themselves spiritually and then creating a Jewish society in Palestine, Jews needed to create such a society in order to emancipate themselves. True emancipation was unachievable in the Diaspora. “A [national] political life,” Lilienblum declared, “is the answer to everything!”

For a while, in early 1888, Gordon thought he had been borne out by events. A dispute had broken out in Palestine between the colonists and the country’s rabbis over the question of the sh’mitah, the biblical injunction to let the land lie fallow every seven years. By rabbinical reckoning, the Jewish year 5649, due to begin in the autumn of 1888, was such a septennial, the first since the new colonies were founded—yet a cessation of agricultural activity in them would be financially ruinous. Halakhically, there were ways of circumventing the law, such as the nominal selling or leasing of the land for a single year to non-Jews, as was traditionally done with unleavened food on Passover. But the rabbis, like Vofsi in “The Tip of the Yod,” were refusing to allow this and threatening to impose a ban on the colonies’ produce. Gordon was incensed. “Didn’t I tell you,” he wrote Lilienblum, “that without spiritual emancipation—emancipation from these [rabbinical] despots—there can be no redemption in the land of Israel?”


VII. Gordon’s Problem with Judaism


In the end, Palestine’s rabbis reversed themselves and a crisis was averted. But Lilienblum was on to something. Gordon had more of a problem with Judaism than he cared to admit. The national poet, the reformer who repeatedly protested that he wished only to see Judaism rationalized and modernized, was at heart not at all sure that this could be done. His deepest doubts about the Jews’ ability to create a viable society in Palestine, assuming that their physical return there was possible, went beyond his animadversions against the rabbis—beyond even his one-time criticism, in “In the Lion’s Teeth,” of the very institution of rabbinic Judaism. In the course of his career, he had written one other poem that went even farther—a poem of which Lilienblum, without bothering to explain himself, had said in his review of Gordon’s collected verse: “better it had never been published.”

The reformer who repeatedly protested that he wished only to see Judaism rationalized and modernized was at heart not at all sure that this could be done.

Called “Zedekiah in Prison,” the poem was composed in 1879, during Gordon’s own period of imprisonment and banishment from St. Petersburg. Zedekiah, according to the biblical book of Kings, was the last Judean king before the Babylonian conquest of 586 BCE. A Babylonian puppet installed by the conqueror Nebuchadnezzar after two of his brothers were deposed, he eventually, in defiance of the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah, led a swiftly crushed rebellion that resulted in the destruction of the First Temple. Apprehended in its wake, he was made to see his sons slaughtered before his eyes, after which he was blinded and sent to live out his life in captivity in Babylonia. Supplementing the account in Kings are several verses in Chronicles that tell us: “Zedekiah was one and twenty years old when he began to reign and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. And he . . . would not yield to Jeremiah the prophet speaking from the mouth of the Lord.”

Chronicles is referring to Zedekiah’s refusal to call off the rebellion. Gordon’s poem, however, introduces another, secondary issue. As the Babylonian army, the book of Jeremiah tells us, was nearing Jerusalem to put down the uprising, the prophet, zealous for God’s law, stood in the gates of Jerusalem and proclaimed in His name: “Take heed and bear no burden on the Sabbath day, nor bring it in the gates of Jerusalem. . . . And if you will not hearken to me to hallow the Sabbath day and not to bear a burden . . . then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and it shall not be quenched.”

The biblical account does not connect this incident specifically to Zedekiah or his advisers. But in Gordon’s poem, which is framed as a mental soliloquy in which the blind king recalls the rebellion’s final days, Zedekiah reflects:

“Because you would not yield to Jeremiah!”
What did that priest of Anatot [Jeremiah] desire?
“Carry no burden on the Sabbath day!”
Was that a time for anyone to bray
About the Sabbath, with the enemy all around,
Our outlying towns razed to the ground,
The foes’ ramparts reaching to our capital,
The kingdom tottering—and all
He could speak of at the city gate,
Where the people came to congregate,
Was burdens on the Sabbath? There were folk
Who even said, making of it a joke,
“And what about the burden of God’s word?”
And yet I weighed it carefully. I conferred
With Zephaniah and Seraiah;
Neither fathomed Jeremiah.
How could a city that would “stand forever”
(For so he said) be saved by never
Carrying one day a week?

Militarily, a day a week in which one cannot prepare for an impending attack is a serious handicap, and Jeremiah was sabotaging the war effort. But Jeremiah did not care about the war effort. He cared only about the spiritual transformation that he prophesied would be undergone by “the house of Israel and the house of Judah,” in which, God has told him, “I will put My law in their inward parts . . . and they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them.” In his prison cell, Zedekiah thinks bitterly:

Not only that, he now began to speak
Of a new covenant: all Judah,
Young and old, would study Torah—
From prince to peasant, all would be
Scribes and devotees of prophecy.
The plowman would put aside his plow;
The soldier would no longer practice how
To wield his spear and javelin;
The potter’s wheel would cease to spin;
The smith would leave his forge, the shopkeeper his wares,
To wear haircloth and be soothsayers;
The carpenter’s drills would be beaten into quills,
His chisels into priestly codicils.

If Jeremiah had his way, religious duty would be all that mattered. Even before wars were lost, civil society would cease to function. Moreover, Zedekiah tells himself, this sublime indifference to a society’s needs is not just Jeremiah’s; it is endemic to the prophetic calling. The conflict between the ruler who must govern a kingdom of men and the prophet concerned only with the Kingdom of God is a never-ending one. It already existed at the time of Israel’s first king, Saul, and its first prophet, Samuel, who initially crowned Saul and then disavowed him for ignoring a divine command that it made no sense to obey:

Since our nation first began to be,
The Law’s upholders and the monarchy
Have been at war. Always the visionaries
Have sought to make the kings their tributaries,
As did, going back five hundred years,
The earliest of all our seers,
The son of Elkanah [Samuel]….


So every prophet in his hour
Has fought to get the king under his power.
What Samuel did to Saul is what
I met with from the man of Anatot,
And what awaits each ruler of our nation
Until the final generation.
I see how on that distant day
The son of Hilkiah [Jeremiah] will have his way.
His dispensation will prevail;
All governance will founder and then fail;
Our people, erudite in chapter and in verse,
Will go from woe to woe and bad to worse.
Ah, yes, I see . . . alas!

“That distant day” was, for Gordon, the late 19th century. Israel’s prophets, in his poem, are not, as the Haskalah (and Christianity) liked to think, the rabbis’ opposites, lofty spiritual figures far removed from ritualistic pettiness. They are—and in this, Gordon and rabbinic Judaism concurred—the rabbis’ forerunners. Prophecy and the rabbinate are sister institutions, and Judaism has been from the start a dysfunctional religion infected by a life-denying idealism, an uncompromising insistence on moral and/or ritual standards of perfection that defeat all attempts to come to terms with the real world.

Written long after “In the Lion’s Teeth,” “Zedekiah in Prison” is its historical prelude. The Jewish people could not rule itself in the time of the Bible. It could not rule itself in the time of the Roman empire. It would not be able, Gordon feared, to rule itself in our own times. What good were politics when a people was stricken with a faith that held itself to be above them? “Woe is us,” he wrote in another Hamelits editorial, if in a Jewish community in Palestine, “every fanatic and wild-eyed zealot will be able to wreak havoc by blowing the ram’s horns of excommunication and furiously turning on whosever ideas and behavior do not accord with his own.” A part of Gordon was more apprehensive that Zionism would succeed than that it would not, for a return to Palestine would simply set another national debacle in motion. One can see why Lilienblum, who began his review by praising Gordon’s poetry for its “style, wit, and formal structure,” all qualities “Zedekiah in Prison” excels in, thought it should have remained in a drawer.


VIII. Waiting for a Redeemer


Gordon died of cancer in 1892. His last years were plagued by illness and discouragement. In 1888, after the last of many interminable quarrels with Zederbaum over his editorial independence, he left Hamelits. Offers to back him as the head of a new Hebrew paper were turned down. “Is it not enough for you,” he asked the maker of one such proposal, “that I have warred for and over my people for 40 years and come away from the battlefield bloodied and wounded, that you now ask me to don armor once more and rejoin the fray?”

To earn a living in an age in which there were no pensions, he took a job as editor of the Jewish section of a Russian encyclopedia. Although he cooperated in a new edition of his poetry and prose compiled by the young Odessan scholar Yehoshua Ravnitzky, he had given up writing both. “You ask if I still dally with the muses,” he wrote in 1891 to Yehoshua Syrkin, a Hebrew author and Lovers of Zion activist. “It’s been three years since I laid down my Hebrew pen without picking it up again. . . . What visions remain for us bards when everything good we thought about our people now seems a distant memory?”

One of his last poems, “Chana (Thirty Years Later),” was about the same woman to whom he had promised when they were young that she would never be ravaged by time; now, shocked by her decrepitude in a chance encounter, he marvels at feeling like a “block of ice,” their remembered kisses “frozen on my lips.” Another late poem, “The Root of My Soul,” plays in a melancholy vein with the idea of reincarnation:

 Lord, this soul I have been given—
        whence was it riven?
 If new and introduced
        in me unused,
 How came it to be so rife
        with wounds in its brief life?
 From the day that it was led
        into this world, it bled.
 With each sensation, every thought,
        new hurt was wrought.
 Not one ideal for which I strived
        has survived:
 Hopes blasted, love betrayed,
        faith destroyed;
 All honesty, all human decency—
        spume upon the sea.
 And when I look at my own people,
        my spirits sink still deeper.
 You have for seventy generations
        indulged its aberrations
 Until all is rack and ruin
        without and within.
 No one knows what must be done;
        solutions there are none.
 There is only aggravation
        at belonging to this nation.

 In this world's wilderness, my heart
        is a wasteland set apart.
 Can it be a single lifetime's fate
        such anguish to accumulate,
 Or can my soul have lived before
         in a time of yore
 And entered, battered, into me
        with all its misery?
 Did Your breath in me inspire
        the soul of Jeremiah,
 The sufferer from Anatot
        who too wallowed in his blood?
 Or of Job, that honest innocent
        and unhappiest of men,
 Or of some other ruer of his birth
        upon this earth?
 Better it were I did not exist
        than for such woe to persist.
 Lord, in the days that still remain,
        heal me of my pain—
 Or else exchange the soul that You
        have given me for one brand-new!

Although perhaps no more than a poetic conceit, the identification with Jeremiah, the ideological villain of “Zedekiah in Prison,” is interesting. Was this Gordon’s way of saying that, when all was said and done, he took Jeremiah’s side of the quarrel, too? That the prophet, like the poet, suffers because he knows he is making impossible demands that are impossible not to make?

“You, apparently, consider a handful of colonists living like Bedouin in the hills of Palestine to be the complete redemption of our entire nation,” Gordon wrote. “I believe in a greater one, the time of whose arrival is unknown.”

He had, in 1886, while still at the helm of Hamelits, run an editorial in praise of the Jewish farming colonies in Palestine and their resolve; there were now eight of them, nearly all supported financially by the Parisian baron Edmond de Rothschild. (All but one of the American colonies had already fallen apart.) Yet a half-year before his death, writing to Ravnitzky, who had criticized as anti-Zionist a poem of his that contained the biblical phrase mezareh yisra’el yekabtsenu, “He that scattered Israel will gather it in,” he returned to the theme of “Our Redemption and Our Spiritual Emancipation” by punning on the verb l’kabets, “to gather in,” and the noun kabtsan, “beggar”:

You, apparently, consider a handful of colonists living like Bedouin in the hills of Palestine to be the complete redemption of our entire nation, whereas I see in them an ingathering of beggary and believe in a greater one, the time of whose arrival is unknown.

Indeed, East-European Zionism in the late 1880s had little more to show for its efforts in Palestine than Gordon’s acid summation of them. It had enthusiasm, but no organization; a dim goal, but no strategy for reaching it; a following, but no effective leadership. Things had not progressed greatly beyond the situation described by Gordon in an 1883 poem that he had dedicated to Pinsker and the newly published Autoemancipation:

Who are we? What are we?
All ask the same question:
A people or a religious confession?
Speaking confidentially
(For I wouldn’t want to be overheard),
We’re neither of them. We’re merely a herd.

Above all, Zionism lacked the political life that Lilienblum had said was “the answer to everything.” It was every small group of Lovers of Zion for itself. In an editorial about the Lovers of Zion movement in Hamelits’s year-end issue of 1885, Gordon began by recapitulating how, after the 1881 pogroms,

our people commenced taking to its heels in every direction to the globe’s far ends, to America, and to Australia, and to South Africa . . . at which point the Lovers of Zion societies convinced a few of the Jews on the run to choose the soil of Judea.

For Zionism, this had led nowhere. And yet, Gordon wrote, taking as a metaphor the biblical story of Saul, who went in search of his father’s donkeys and ended up by meeting Samuel and being crowned king,

suppose that what happened to Saul happens to us and God sends us a prophet who crowns us with a redeeming project. . . . The difference between our past of false messiahs and our own times, and between the means employed by them and those employable today, is enormous. The false messiahs deceived our people with mystical promises and kabbalistic calculations that were never more than castles in the air, whereas any contemporary would-be benefactor must rely on natural processes that evolve as circumstances and possibilities permit, according to the principle of “God helps those who help themselves.”

He could have been thinking of Theodor Herzl, who strode unexpectedly onto the stage of Jewish history four years after Gordon’s death.

More about: Arts & Culture, East European Jewry, Hebrew, Hebrew literature, Israel & Zionism, Poland, Proto-Zionist Writers, Russia, Yehuda Leib Gordon