CHAPTER VII. THE CONFLICT WITH RABBINISM
JUDAH LEON GORDON
Judah Leon Gordon (1830-1892) was born at Wilna, of well-to-do parents, who were pious and comparatively enlightened. As was customary in his day, he received a Rabbinical education, but at the same time he was not permitted to neglect the study of the Bible and the classical Hebrew. He was a brilliant student, and all circumstances pointed to his future eminence as a Talmudist. The academic address which he delivered on the occasion of his Bar-Mizwah, on his thirteenth birthday, proclaimed him an 'Illui, and he was betrothed to the daughter of a rich burgher.
His father's financial ruin caused the rupture of his engagement, and, a marriage being out of the question, he was left free to continue his studies as he would. He returned to Wilna, the first centre of the Haskalah in Russia. The secular literature couched in Hebrew had penetrated to the very synagogue, if not openly, at least by the back door. In secret Gordon devoured all the modern writings that fell in his hands. It was the time of the elder Lebensohn, when he stood at the summit of his fame and influence. Very soon Gordon perceived that the study of Hebrew is not sufficient for the equipment of a man of learning and cultivation. Under the guidance of an intelligent kinsman, he studied German, Russian, French, and Latin, one of the first Hebrew writers to become thoroughly acquainted with Russian literature. He devoted much time to the study of Hebrew philology and grammar, and he was justly reputed a distinguished connoisseur of the language. Both his linguistic researches and his new linguistic formations in Hebrew are extremely valuable.
The muse visited him early, and by his first attempts at poetry he earned the good-will and favor of Lebensohn the father and the friendship of Lebensohn the son. In his youthful fervor, he offers enthusiastic admiration to the older man, and proclaims himself his disciple. But it was the younger poet, Micah Joseph, who exerted the greater influence upon him. A little drama dedicated to the memory of the poet snatched away in the prime of his years shows the depth and tenderness of Gordon's affection for him.
All this time Gordon did not cease to be a student. In 1852 he passed his final examinations, graduating him from the Rabbinical Seminary at Wilna, and he was appointed teacher at a Jewish government school at Poneviej, a small town in the Government of Kowno. Successively he was transferred from town to town in the same district. Twenty years of wrangling with fanatics and teaching of children in the most backward province of Lithuania did not arrest his literary activity. In 1872 he was called to the post of secretary to the Jewish community of St. Petersburg and secretary to the recently formed Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia. Thenceforward his material needs were provided for, and he held an assured, independent position. Denounced in 1879 as a political conspirator, he was thrown into prison, with the result that he suffered considerable financial loss and irreparable physical injury. His innocence was established, and, having been set free, he became one of the editors of the journal Ha-Meliz, the Hebrew periodical with the largest circulation at the time. But the disease he had contracted ate away his strength, and he died a victim of the Russian espionage system.
As was said, the young poet followed in the tracks of the two Lebensohns. In 1857 he published his first ambitious poem, Ahabat David u-Michal, the product of a naïve dreamer, who swears a solemn oath to “remain the slave of the Hebrew language forever, and consecrate all his life to it”. [Footnote: The collected poems of Gordon appeared, in four volumes, in 1884, at St. Petersburg, and in six volumes, in 1900, at Wilna.] “David and Michal” rehearses poetically the tale of the shepherd's love for the daughter of the king. The poet carries us back to Biblical times. He tells us how the daughter of Saul is enamored of the young shepherd summoned to the royal court to dispel the king's melancholy. Jealousy springs up in the heart of Saul, and he takes umbrage at the popularity of David. Before granting him the hand of his daughter, he imposes superhuman tests upon the young suitor, which would seem to doom him to certain death. But David emerges from every trial with glory, and returns triumphant. The king is mastered by consuming jealousy, and in his anger pursues David relentlessly. David is obliged to flee, and Michal is given to his rival. The friendship of David and Jonathan is depicted in touching words. Finally David prevails, and he is anointed king over Israel. He takes Michal back unto himself, love being stronger than the sense of injury. The shame of the past is forgotten. But the poor victim is never to know the joy of bearing a child—Michal remains barren until the last, and leads a solitary existence. Old and forgotten, she passes out of life on the very day of David's death.
In this simple, pure drama, the influence of Schiller and of Micah Joseph Lebensohn is clearly seen. But real feeling for nature and real understanding of the emotion of love are lacking in Gordon. His descriptions of nature are a pale retracing of the pictures of the romanticists. Poet of the ghetto as he was, he knew neither nature at first hand, nor love, nor art. [Footnote: The first collection of his lyrics and his epic poems appeared at Wilna, in 1866, under the title Shire Yehudah.] His poems of love are destitute of the personal note. On the other hand, in point of classic style and the modern polish of his verses, he outdistances all who preceded him. Lebensohn the younger removed from the arena, Gordon attained the first place among Hebrew poets.
In “David and Barzillai", the poet contrasts the tranquillity of the shepherd's life with that of the king. Gordon was happily inspired by the desire for outdoor life that had sprung up in the ghetto since Mapu's warm praise of rural scenes and pleasures, and also under the influence of the Jewish agricultural colonies founded in Russia. He shows us the aged king, crushed under a load of hardships, betrayed by his own son, standing face to face with the old shepherd, who refuses royal gifts.
“And David reigned as Israel's head,
And Barzillai his flocks to pasture led.”
The charm of this little poem lies in the description of the land of Gilead. It seems that in reviving the past, the Hebrew poets were often vouchsafed remarkable insight into nature and local coloring, which ordinarily was not a characteristic of theirs. The same warmth and historical verisimilitude is found again in Asenath Bat- Potipherah.
From the same period dates the first volume of fables by Gordon, published at Vienna, in 1860, under the title Mishle Yehudah, forming the second part of his collected poems, and being itself divided into four books. It consists of translations, or, better, imitations of Aesop, La Fontaine, and Kryloff, together with fables drawn from the Midrash. The style is concise and telling, and the satire is keen.
The production of these fables marks a turning-point in the work of Gordon. Snatched out of the indulgent and conciliatory surroundings in which he had developed, he found himself face to face with the sad reality of Jewish life in the provinces. The invincible fanaticism of the Rabbis, the anachronistic education given the children, who were kept in a state of ignorance, weighed heavily upon the heart of the patriot and man of intellect. It was the time in which liberal ideas and European civilization had penetrated into Russia under the protection of Czar Alexander II, and Gordon yearned to see his Russian co-religionists occupy a position similar to that enjoyed by their brethren in the West.
Those envied Jews of the West had had a proper understanding of the exigencies of their time. They had liberated themselves from the yoke of Rabbinism, and had assimilated with their fellow-citizens of other faiths. The Russian government encouraged the spread of education among the Jews, and granted privileges to such as profited by the opportunities offered. The reformers were strengthened also by the support of the newly-founded Hebrew journals. Gordon threw himself deliberately into the fracas. Poetry and prose, Hebrew and Russian, all served him to champion the cause of the Haskalah. With him the Haskalah was no longer limited to the cultivation of the Hebrew language and to the writing of philosophical treatises. It had become an undisguised conflict with obscurantism, ignorance, a time-worn routine, and all that barred the way to culture. Since the government permitted the Jews to enter the social life of the country, and seeing that they might in the future aspire to a better lot, the Haskalah should and would work to prepare them for it and make them worthy of it.
In 1863, after the liberation of the serfs in Russia, Gordon uttered a thrilling cry, Hakizah 'Ammi!
“Awake, O my people! How long wilt thou slumber? Lo, the night
has vanished, the sun shines bright. Open thy eyes, look hither
and thither. I pray thee, see in what place thou art, in what
time thou livest!...
“The land wherein we were born, wherein we live, is it not part
of Europe, the most civilized of all continents?...
“This land, Eden itself, behold, it is open unto thee, its sons
welcome thee as brother.... Thou hast but to apply thy heart to
wisdom and knowledge, become a public-spirited people, and speak
In another poem, the writer acclaims the dawn of a new time for the Jews. Their zeal to enter the liberal professions augurs well for a speedy and complete emancipation.
We have seen how stubborn a resistance was opposed by the orthodox to this new phase of the Haskalah. Terror seized upon them when they saw the young desert the religious schools and give themselves up to profane studies. As for the new Rabbinical seminaries, they regarded them as outright nurseries of atheism.
However, the government standing on the side of the reformers, the orthodox could not fight in the open. They entrenched themselves behind a passive resistance. In this struggle, as was observed above, Gordon occupied the foremost place. Thenceforth a single idea animated him, opposition to the enemies of light. His bitter, trenchant sarcasm, his caustic, vengeful pen, were put at the service of this cause. Even his historical poems quiver with his resentment. He loses no opportunity to scourge the Rabbis and their conservative adherents.
Ben Shinne Arayot (“Between the Teeth of the Lions") is an historical poem on a subject connected with the Judeo-Roman wars. The hero, Simon the Zealot, is taken captive by Titus. At the moment of succumbing in the arena, his eyes meet those of his beloved Martha, sold by the enemy as a slave, and the two expire at the same time.
The poem is a masterpiece by reason of the truly poetic inspiration that informs it, and the deep national feeling expressed in it. But Gordon did not stop at that. He makes use of the opportunity to attack Rabbinism in its vital beginnings, wherein he discerns the cause of his nation's peril.
“Woe is thee, O Israel! Thy teachers have not taught thee how to
conduct war with skill and strategem.
“Rebellion and bravery, of what avail are they without discipline
“True, for many long centuries, they led thee, and constructed
houses of learning for thee—but what did they teach thee?
“What accomplished they? They but sowed the wind, and ploughed
the rock, drew water in a sieve, and threshed empty straw!
“They taught thee to run counter to life, to isolate thyself
between walls of precepts and prescriptions, to be dead on earth
and alive in heaven, to walk about in a dream and speak in thy
“Thus thy spirit grew faint, thy strength dried up, and the dust
of thy scribes has sepulchred thee, a living mummy....
“Woe is thee, O Jerusalem that art lost!”
Yet, though he accuses Rabbinism of all possible ills that have befallen the Jewish people, it does not follow that he justifies the Roman invasion. All his wrath is aroused against Rome, the perennial enemy of Judaism. In the name of humanity and justice, he pours out his scorn over her. The first he presents is Titus, “the delight of mankind", preparing brilliant but sanguinary spectacles for his people, and revelling in the sight of innocent blood shed in the gladiators' arena. Then he arraigns Rome herself, “the great people who is mistress of three-quarters of the earth, the terror of the world, whose triumph can know no limit now that she has carried off the victory over a people destined to perish, whose territory can be covered in a five hours' march”. And finally his Jewish heart is revolted by “the noble matrons followed by their servants, whose tender soul is about to take delight in the bloody sights of the arena”.
Bi-Mezulot Yam (“In the Depths of the Sea") revives a terrible episode of the exodus of the Jews from Spain (1492). The refugees embarked on pirate vessels, where they were exploited pitilessly. The cupidity of the corsairs is insatiable. After despoiling the Jews of all they own, they sell them as slaves or cast them into the water. This is the lot that threatens to overtake a group of exiles on a certain ship. But the captain falls in love with the daughter of a Rabbi, a maiden of rare beauty. To rescue her companions, she pretends to yield to the solicitations of the captain, who promises to land the passengers safe and sound on the coast. He keeps his word, but the girl and her mother must stay with him. At a distance from the coast, the two women, with prayers to God upon their lips, throw themselves into the sea, to save the girl from having to surrender herself to the desires of the corsair. It is one of the most beautiful of Gordon's poems. Indignation and grief inspire such words as these:
“The daughter of Jacob is banished from every foot of Spanish
soil. Portugal also has thrust her out. Europe turns her back
upon the unfortunates. She grants them only the grave, martyrdom,
hell. Their bones are strewn upon the rocks of Africa. Their
blood floods the shores of Asia.... And the Judge of the world
appeareth not! And the tears of the oppressed are not avenged!”
What revolts the poet above all is the thought that the downtrodden victims will never have their revenge—all the crimes against them will go unpunished:
“Never, O Israel, wilt thou be avenged! Power is with thy
oppressors. What they desire they accomplish, what they do,
prospereth.... Spain—did her vessels not set forth and discover
the New World, the day thou wast driven out a fugitive and
outlaw? And Portugal, did she not find the way to the Indies? And
in that far-off country, too, she ruined the land that welcomed
thy refugees. Yea, Spain and Portugal stand unassailed!”
But if vengeance is withheld from the Jews, implacable hatred takes possession of all hearts, and never will it be appeased.
“Enjoin it upon your children until the end of days. Adjure your
descendants, the great and the little, never to return to the
land of Spain, reddened with your blood, never again to set foot
upon the Pyrenean peninsula!”
The despair, the grief of the poet are concentrated in the last stanzas, telling how the maiden and her mother throw themselves into the water:
“Only the Eye of the World, silently looking through the clouds,
the eye that witnesseth the end of all things, views the ruin of
these thousands of beings, and it sheds not a single tear.”
His last historical poem, “King Zedekiah in Prison", dates from the period when the poet's skepticism was a confirmed temper of mind. According to Gordon, the ruin of the Jewish State was brought about by the weight given to moral as compared with political considerations. He no longer contents himself with attacking Rabbinism, he goes back to the very principles of the Judaism of the prophets. These are the ideas which he puts into the mouth of the King of Judah, the captive of Nebuchadnezzar. He makes him the advocate of the claims of political power as against the moralist pretensions of the prophets.
The king passes all his misfortunes in review, and he asks himself to what cause they are attributable.
“Because I did not submit to the will of Jeremiah? But what was
it that the priest of Anathoth required of me to do?”
No, the king cannot concede that “the City would still be standing if her inhabitants had not borne burdens on the Sabbath day”.
The prophet proclaims the rule of the letter and of the Law, supreme over work and war, but can a people of dreamers and visionaries exist a single day?
The king does not stop at such rebellious thoughts. He remembers all too well the story of Saul and Samuel—how the king was castigated for having resisted the whims of the prophets.
“Thus the seers and prophets have always sought to crush the kings in Israel", he maintains.
“Alas! I see that the words of the son of Hilkiah will be
fulfilled without fail. The Law will stand, the kingdom will be
ruined. The book, the word—they will succeed to the royal
sceptre. I foresee a whole people of scholars and teachers,
degenerate folk and feeble.”
This amazing view, so disconcerting to the prophet-people, Gordon held to the very end. And seeing that the Law had killed the nation, and a cruel fatality dogged the footsteps of the people of the Book, would it not be best to free the individuals from the chains of the faith and liberate the masses from the minute religious ceremonial that has obstructed their path to life? This was the task Gordon set himself for the rest of his days.
In a poem inscribed to Smolenskin, the editor of Ha-Shahar (“Daybreak"), on the occasion of the periodical's resuming publication after an interval, the poet poured forth his afflicted soul, and pointed out the aim he had decided to pursue:
“Once upon a time I sang of love, too, and pleasure, and
friendship; I announced the advent of days of joy, liberty, and
hope. The strings of my lyre thrilled with emotion....
“But yonder comes Ha-Shahar again, and I shall attune my
harp to hail the break of day.
“Alas, I am no more the same, I know not how to sing, I waken
naught but grief. Disquieting dreams trouble my nights. They show
me my people face to face.... They show me my people in all its
abasement, with all its unprobed wounds. They reveal to me the
iniquity that is the source of all its ills.
“I see its leaders go astray, and its teachers deceiving it. My
heart bleeds with grief. The strings of my lyre groan, my song is
“Since that day I sing no more of joy and solace; I hope no more
for the light, I wait no more for liberty. I sing only of bitter
days, I foretell everlasting slavery, degradation, and no end.
And from the strings of my lyre tears gush forth for the ruin of
“Since that day my muse is black as a raven, her mouth is filled
with abuse, from her tongue drops complaint. She groans like the
Bat-Kol upon Mount Horeb's ruins. She cries out against the
wicked shepherds, against the sottish people.
“She recounts unto God, unto all the human kind, the degrading
miseries of a hand-to-mouth existence, of the soul that pierces
to the depths of evil.”
But the patriotism of the poet carries the day over his discouragement:
“From pity for my people, from compassion, I will tell unto its
shepherds their crimes, unto its teachers the error of their
Will he succeed in his purpose? Is not all hope lost? No matter, he at least will do his duty until the end:
“From every part of the Law, from every retreat of the people, I
shall gather together all vain teachings, all the poisonous
vipers, wherever they may be, and in the sight of all suspend
them like a banner. Let the wounded look upon them, perhaps they
will be cured—perhaps there is still healing for their ills,
perhaps there is still life in them!”
The poet kept his word. In a series of satires, fables, and epistles, he reveals the moral plagues that eat into the fabric of Jewish society in the Slav countries. He gives a realistic description, at once accurate and subjective, of an extraordinary milieu, lacking plausibility though it existed and defied all opposition. Gordon descended to the innermost depths of the people's soul, he knew its profoundest secrets. He caught the spirit of the peculiar manners of the ghetto and reproduced them with unfailing fidelity. Also he knew all the dishonor of some of the persons who ruled its society, and he sounded their mean, crafty brains. His heart was filled with indignation at the painful spectacle he himself bodied forth, and he suffered the misfortunes of his people.
His poetic manner changed with the new direction taken by his mind. He was no more an artist for art's sake. Classical purity ceased to interest him. What he pursued above all things was an object which can be reached only by struggle and propaganda. His style became more realistic. He saturated it with Talmudic terms and phrases, thus adapting it more closely to the spirit of the scenes and things and acts he was occupied with, and making it the proper medium for the description of a world that was Rabbinical in all essential points. But Gordon never went to excess in the use of Talmudisms; he always maintained a just sense of proportion. It requires discriminating taste to appreciate his style, now delicate and now sarcastic, by turns appealing and vehement. Here Gordon displayed the whole range of his talent, all his creative powers. The language he uses is the genuine modern Hebrew, a polished and expressive medium, yielding in naught to the classical Hebrew.
The social condition of the Jewish woman, the saddest conceivable in the ghetto, inspired the first of Gordon's satires. The poem is entitled “The Dot on the I", or, more literally, “The Hanger of the Yod” (Kozo shel Yod).
“O thou, Jewish Woman, who knows thy life! Unnoticed thou
enterest the world, unnoticed thou departest from it.
“Thy heart-aches and thy joys, thy sorrows and thy desires spring
up within thee and die within thee.
“All the good things of this life, its pleasures, its enjoyments,
they were created for the daughters of the other nations. The
Jewish woman's life is naught but servitude, toil without end.
Thou conceivest, thou bearest, thou givest suck, thou weanest thy
babes, thou bakest, thou cookest, and thou witherest before thy
“Vain for thee to be dowered with an impressionable heart, to be
beautiful, gentle, intelligent!”
“The Law in thy mouth is turned to foolishness, beauty in thee is
a taint, every gift a fault, all knowledge a defect.... Thou art
but a hen good to raise a brood of chicks!”
It is vain for a Jewish woman to cherish aspirations after life, after knowledge—nothing of all this is accessible to her.
“The planting of the Lord wastes away in a desert land without
having seen the light of the sun....”
“Before thou becomest conscious of thy soul, before thou knowest
aught, thou art given in marriage, thou art a mother.”
“Before thou hast learnt to be a daughter to thy parents, thou
art a wife, and mother to children of thine own.”
“Thou art betrothed—knowest thou him for whom thou art destined?
Dost thou love him? Yea, hast thou seen him?—Love! Thou unhappy
being! Knowest thou not that to the heart of a Jewish woman love
“Forty days before thy birth, thy mate and life companion was
assigned to thee.” 
“Cover thy head, cut off thy braids of hair. Of what avail to
look at him who stands beside thee? Is he hunchbacked or one-
eyed? Is he young or old? What matters it? Not thou hast chosen,
but thy parents, they rule over thee, like merchandise thou
passest from hand to hand.”
[Footnote 1: According to popular belief, it is decided forty days before its birth to whom a child will be married.]
Slave to her parents, slave to her husband, she is not permitted to taste even the joys of motherhood in peace. Unforeseen misfortunes assail her and lay her low. Her husband, without an education, without a profession, often without a heart, finds himself suddenly at odds with life, after having eaten at the table and lodged in the house of his wife's parents for a number of years following his marriage, as is customary among the Jews of the Slavic countries. If no chance of success presents itself soon, he grows weary, abandons his wife and children, and goes off no one knows whither, without a sign of his whereabouts, and she remains behind, an 'Agunah, a forsaken wife, widowed without being a widow, most unfortunate of unfortunate creatures.
“This is the history of all Jewish women, and it is the history
of Bath-shua the beautiful.”
Bath-shua is a noble creature, endowed by nature with all fine qualities—she is beautiful, intelligent, pure, good, attractive, and an excellent housekeeper. She is admired by everybody. Even the miserableParush, the recluse student, conceals himself behind the railing that divides the women's gallery from the rest of the synagogue, to steal a look at her. Alas, this flower of womankind is betrothed by her father to a certain Hillel, a sour specimen, ugly, stupid, repulsive. But he knows the Talmud by heart, folio by folio, and to say that is to say everything. The marriage comes off in due time, the young couple eat at the table of Bath-shua's parents for three years, and two children spring from the union.
The wife's father loses his fortune, and Hillel must earn his own livelihood. Incapable as he is, he finds nothing to do, and he goes to foreign parts to seek his fortunes. Never is he heard of again. Bath-shua remains behind alone with her two children. By painful toil, she earns her bread with unfailing courage. All the love of her rich nature she pours out upon her children, whom by a supreme effort she dresses and adorns like the children of the wealthy.
Meantime a young man by the name of Fabi makes his appearance in the little town. He is the type of the modern Jew, educated and intelligent, and he is handsome and generous besides. He begins by taking an interest in the young woman, and ends by falling in love with her. Bath-shua does not dare believe in her happiness. But an insurmountable obstacle lies in the path of their union. Bath-shua is not divorced from her husband, and none can tell whether he is dead or alive. Energetically Fabi undertakes to find the hiding-place of the faithless man. He traces him, and bribes him to give his wife a divorce. The official document, properly drawn up and attested by a Rabbinical authority, is sent to her. Hillel embarks for America, and his vessel suffers shipwreck.
Finally, it would seem, Bath-shua will enjoy the happiness she has amply merited. Alas, no! In the person of Rabbi Wofsi, fortune plays her another trick. This Rabbi is a rigid legalist, the slightest of slips suffices to render the divorce invalid. According to certain commentators the name Hillel is spelled incorrectly in the document. After the He a Yod is missing! Thus is the happiness glimpsed by Bath-shua shattered forever!
Her fate is not unique—the Bath-shuas are counted by the legion in the ghetto. And there are other fates no less poignant caused by reasons no less futile.
In another poem, Ashakka de-Rispak (“The Shaft of the Wagon", meaning “For a Trifle"), the poet tells how the peace of a household was undermined on account of a barley grain discovered by accident in the soup at the Passover meal, which must be free from every trace of fermented food. Brooding over the incident and filled with remorse for having served the doubtful soup to her family, the poor woman runs to the Rabbi, who decides that she has, indeed, caused her family to eat prohibited food, and the dishes in which it was prepared and served must be broken, they cannot be used, they may not even be sold. But the husband, a simple carter, does not accept the decision tranquilly. He vents his anger upon the woman. The peace of the house is troubled, and finally the man repudiates his wife.
The poet fulminates against the Rabbis and their narrow, senseless interpretations of texts.
“Slaves we were in the land of Egypt.... And what are we now? Do
we not sink lower from year to year? Are we not bound with ropes
of absurdities, with cords of quibbles, with all sorts of
prejudices?... The stranger no longer oppresses us, our despots
are the progeny of our own bodies. Our hands are no longer
manacled, but our soul is in chains.”
In the last of his great satires, “The Two Joseph-ben-Simons", Gordon gives a sombre and at the same time lofty picture of the manners of the ghetto, an exact description of the wicked, arbitrary domination exercised by the Kahal, and an idealization of the Maskil, powerless to prevail single-handed in the combat with combined reactionary forces. A young Talmudist, devotee of the sciences and of modern literature, is persecuted by the fanatics. Unable to resist the seductions of his alien studies, he is forced to expatriate himself. He goes to Italy, to the University of Padua, whither the renown of Samuel David Luzzatto has attracted many a young Russian Jew eager for knowledge. There he pursues both Rabbinical and medical courses.
His efforts are crowned with success, and he dreams of returning to his country and consecrating his powers to the amelioration of the material and moral condition of his brethren. In his mind's eye he sees himself at the head of his community, healing souls and bodies, redressing wrongs, introducing reforms, breathing a new spirit into the dry bones and limbs of Judaism. Hardly has he set foot upon the soil of his native town when he is arrested and thrown into prison. The Kahal had made out a passport in his name for the cobbler's son, a degraded character, a highway robber and sneak thief, and charged with murder. Now the true Joseph ben Simon is to expiate the crime of the other. It is vain for him to protest his innocence. The president of the Kahal, before whom he is arraigned, declares there is no other Joseph ben Simon, and he is the guilty one.
The little town is described minutely. We are on the public square, the market place, the dumping ground of all the offal and dirt, whence an offensive odor rises in the nostrils of the passer-by. Facing this square is the synagogue, a mean, dilapidated building. “Mud and filth detract from holiness", but the Lord takes no offense, “He thrones too high to be incommoded by it”. The greatest impurity, however, a moral infection, oozes from the little chamber adjoining the synagogue—the meeting-room of the Kahal. That is the breeding place of crime and injustice. Oppression and venality assert themselves there with barefaced impudence. The Kahal keeps the lists relating to military service; it makes out the passports, and the whole town is at its mercy. It offers the hypocrite of the ghetto the opportunity of exercising his fatal power. There the widow is despoiled, and the orphans are abused. Together with the unfortunates who have dared aspire to the light, the fatherless are delivered to the recruiting agent as substitutes for the sons of the wealthy. It is the domain over which reigns the venerated Rabbi, powerful and fear-inspiring, Shamgar ben Anath, a stupid and uncouth upstart.
The life of sacrifices and privations led by the Jewish students who go abroad in search of an education, inspires Gordon with one of the most beautiful passages in his poem. In the true sense of the word, these young men are loyal to Jewish traditions. They are the genuine successors of those who formerly braved hunger and cold upon the benches of the Yeshibot.
“How strong it is, the desire for knowledge in the hearts of the
youth of Israel, the crushed people! It is like the fire, never
extinguished, burning upon the altar!...
“Stop upon the highways leading to Mir, Eisheshok, and Wolosin.
 See yon haggard youths walking on foot! Whither lead their
steps? What do they seek?—Naked they will sleep upon the floor,
and lead a life of privation.
“It is said: 'The Torah is given to him alone who dies for her!'“
[Footnote 1: Lithuanian towns well-known for their Talmudic academies.]
And here is the modern counterpart:
“Go to no matter what university in Europe: the lot of the young
Jewish strangers is no better.... The Russians are proud
of the fame of a Lomonossoff, the son of a poor moujik who became
a luminary in the world of science. How numerous are the
Lomonossoffs of the Jew alley!...”
And then the poet, in an access of patriotism, cries out:
“And what, in fine, art thou, O Israel, but a poor Bahur
among the peoples, eating one day with one of them, another day
with the other!...
“Thou hast kindled a perpetual lamp for the whole world. Around
thee alone the world is dark, O People, slave of slaves,
desperate and despised!”
With this poem we bring to a close the analysis of Gordon's satires. It shows at their best the dreams, the aspirations, the struggles of the Maskilim, in their opposition to the aims of the reactionaries and the moral and material confusion in which Slavic Judaism wallowed.
The same order of ideas is presented in the greater part of the original pieces in his “Little Fables for Big Children”. They are written in a vivid, pithy style. The delicate, bantering criticism and the deep philosophy with which they are impregnated put these fables among the finest productions of Hebrew literature.
To the same period as the fables belong the several volumes of tales published by Gordon, Shene Yomim we-Laïlah Ehad (“Two Days and One Night"), 'Olam ke-Minhago (“The World as It is"), and later the first part of Kol Kitbe Yehudah (“Collected Writings of Gordon"). They also relate to the life and manners of the Jews of Lithuania, and the struggle of the modern element with the old. Gordon as story teller is inferior to Gordon as poet. Nevertheless his prose displays all the delicacy of his mind and the precision of his observations. At all events, these tales of his are not a negligible quantity in Hebrew literature.
The reaction which set in about 1870, after a period of social reforms and unrealized hopes, affected the poet deeply. The government put obstacles in the forward march of the Jews, the masses remained steeped in fanaticism, and the men of light and leading themselves fell short of doing their whole duty. Disillusioned, he cherished no hope of anything. He could not share the optimism of Smolenskin and his school. For an instant he stops to look back over the road travelled. He sees nothing, and in anguish he asks himself:
“For whom have I toiled all the years of my prime?
“My parents, they cling to the faith and to their people, they
think of nothing but business and religious observances all day
long; they despise knowledge, and are hostile to good sense....
“Our intellectuals scorn the national language, and all their
love is lavished upon the language of the land.
“Our daughters, charming as they are, are kept in absolute
ignorance of Hebrew....
“And the young generation go on and on, God knows how far and
whither ... perhaps to the point whence they will never return.”
He therefore addresses himself to a handful of the elect, amateurs, the only ones who do not despise the Hebrew poet, but understand him and approve his ways:
“To you I bring my genius as a sacrifice, before you I shed my
tears as a libation.... Who knows but I am the last to sing of
Zion, and you the last to read the Zion songs?”
This pessimistic strain recurs in all the later writings of Gordon. Even after the events of 1882, when revived hatred and persecution had thrown the camp of the emancipators into disorder, and the most ardent of the anti-Rabbinic champions, like Lilienblum and Braudes, had been driven to the point of raising the flag of Zionism, Gordon alone of all was not carried along with the current. His skepticism kept him from embracing the illusions of his friends converted to Zionism.
All his contempt for the tyrants, and his compassion for his people unjustly oppressed, he puts into his poem Ahoti Ruhamah, which is inscribed “to the Honor of the Daughter of Jacob violated by the Son of Hamor.”
“Why weepest thou, my afflicted sister?
“Wherefore this desolation of spirit, this anguish of heart?
“If thieves surprised thee and ravished thy honor, if the hand of
the malefactor has prevailed against thee, is it thy fault, my
“Whither shall I bear my shame?
“Where is thy shame, seeing thy heart is pure and chaste? Arise,
display thy wound, that all the world may see the blood of Abel
upon the forehead of Cain. Let the world know, my afflicted
sister, how thou art tortured!
“Not upon thee falls the shame, but upon thy oppressors.
“Thy purity has not been sullied by their polluting touch....
Thou art white as snow, my afflicted sister.”
Almost the poet seems to regret his efforts of other days to bring the Jews close to the Christians.
“What of humiliation hath befallen thee is a solace unto me. Long
I bore distress and injustice, violence and spoliation; yet I
remained loyal to my country; for better days I hoped, and
submitted to all. But to bear thy shame, my afflicted sister, I
have no spirit more.”
But what was to become of it all? Whither were the Jews to turn? The Palestine of the Turk has not too many attractions for the poet. He still believes in the existence of a country somewhere “in which the light shines for all human beings alike, in which man is not humiliated on account of his race or his faith.” Thither he invites his brethren to go and seek an asylum, “until what day our Father in heaven will take pity on us and return us to our ancient mother.”
It was the agitated time in which Pinsker sent forth his manifesto, “Auto-Emancipation", and Gordon dedicated his poem, “The Flock of the Lord", to him.
“What are we, you ask, and what our life? Are we a people like
those around us, or only members of a religious community? I will
tell you: We are neither a people, nor a brotherhood, we are but
a flock—the holy flock of the Lord God, and the whole earth is
an altar for us. Thereon we are laid either as burnt offerings
sacrificed by the other peoples, or as victims bound by the
precepts of our own Rabbis. A flock wandering in the waste
desert, sheep set upon on all sides by the wolves.... We cry out—
in vain! We utter laments—none hears! The desert shuts us in on
all sides. The earth is of copper, the heavens are of brass.
“Not an ordinary flock are we, but a flock of iron. We survive
the slaughter. But will our strength endure forever?
“A flock dispersed, undisciplined, without a bond—we are the
flock of the Lord God!”
Not that the idea of a national rebirth displeased the poet. Far from it. Zionism cannot but exercise a charm upon the Jewish heart. But he believed the time had not yet arrived for a national regeneration. According to his opinion, there was a work of religious liberation to be accomplished before the reconstruction of the Jewish State could be thought of. He defended this idea in a series of articles published inHa-Meliz, of which he was the editor at that time.
The last years of his life were tragic, pathetic. With a torn heart he sat by and looked upon the desperate situation into which the government had put millions of his brethren. To this he alludes in his fable “Adoni-bezek", which we reproduce in its entirety, to give a notion of Gordon as a fabulist:
“In a sumptuous palace, in the middle of a vast hall, perfumed,
and draped with Egyptian fabrics, stands a table, and upon it are
the most delicious viands. Adoni-bezek is dining. His attendants
are standing each in his place—his cupbearer, the master baker,
and the chief cook. The eunuchs, his slaves, come and go;
bringing every variety of dainty dishes, and the flesh of all
sorts of beasts and birds, roasted and stewed.
“On the floor, insolent dogs lie sprawling, their jaws agape,
panting to snap up the bones and scraps their master throws to
“Prostrate under the table are seventy captive kings, with their
thumbs and big toes cut off. To appease their appetite they must
scramble for the scraps that drop under the table of their
“Adoni-bezek has finished his repast, and he amuses himself with
throwing bones to the creatures under the table. Suddenly there
is a hubbub, the dogs bark, and yap at their human neighbors, who
have appropriated morsels meant for them.
“The wounded kings complain to the master: O king, see our
suffering and deliver us from thy dogs. And Adoni-bezek's answer
is: But it is you who are to be blamed, and they are in the
right. Why do you do them wrong?
“With bitterness the kings make reply:
“O king, is it our fault if we have been brought so low that we
must vie with your dogs and pick up the crumbs that drop from
your table? Thou didst come up against us and crush us with thy
powerful hand, thou didst mutilate us and chain us in these
cages. No longer are we able to work or seek our sustenance. Why
should these dogs have the right to bite and bark? O that the
just—if still there are such men in our time—might rise up! O
that one whose heart has been touched by God might judge between
ourselves and those who bite us, which of us is the hangman and
which the victim?”
Toward the end of his days the poet was permitted to enjoy a great gratification. The Jewish notabilities of the capital arranged a celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his activity as a writer. At the reunion of Gordon's friends on this occasion it was decided to publish an édition de luxe of his poetical works. A final optimistic note was forced from his heart, deeply moved by this unexpected tribute. He recalled the vow once made by him, always to remain loyal to Hebrew, and he recounted the vexations and disappointments to which the poet is exposed who chooses to write in a dead language doomed to oblivion. Then he addressed a salutation to the young “of whom we had despaired, and who are coming back, and to the dawn of the rebirth of the Hebrew language and the Jewish people.”
However, Gordon never entered into the national revival with full faith in its promises. Until the end he remained the poet of misery and despair.
The death of Smolenskin elicited a last disconsolate word from him. It may be considered the ghetto poet's testament. He compared the great writer to the Jewish people, and asked himself:
“What is our people, and what its literature?
A giant felled to the ground unable to rise.
The whole earth is its sepulchre.
And its books?—the epitaph engraved upon its tomb-stone....”
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