YANKEV (YAAKOV) ZERUBAVEL (January 14, 1886-June 2, 1967)
The adopted name of Yankev Vitkin (Yaakov Witkin), he was born in Poltava, Ukraine, to a father who was a ritual slaughterer, a scribe, and a gravestone inscriber. After his father’s death, he was raised by his mother who supported the family by baking bread. He studied in religious elementary schools and with his father. At twelve years of age, when his father was no longer living, he was turned over to the city’s Talmud-Torah where the subjects were taught in Russian (among the teachers there were Mortkhe Kritshevski and Aleksandr Ziskind Rabinovitsh). At age fourteen he entered the carpenter’s workshop by the Talmud-Torah, under the direction of S. Benski. After graduating with a certificate from an assistant master craftsman at age eighteen, he worked in private workshops as a carpenter and a turner, as well as a sign painter and gravestone inscriber. At the same he devoted himself to self-education and demonstrated an interest in political issues and Marxism. In late 1904 he joined the movement of the Labor Zionists, took part in the local Jewish self-defense, and accordingly had to run away from the city. He took part in the county meeting of Labor Zionists in Poltava in 1905 and in other political conferences at that time. He worked with Ber Borochov, with whom he published an illegal periodical in Russian, and he ran the party secretariat. In 1906 he moved to Vilna and there founded the publishing house of “Der hamer” (The hammer), while also contributing to the Labor Zionist organs: Der proletarisher gedank (The proletarian idea) and Forverts (Forward) in Vilna (1906-1907). In 1907 he attended a party congress in Cracow and was arrested thereafter several times, the last time (1908-1909) spending one and one-half years in a cell in the Lukishker Prison in Vilna. From prison he published “Brif fun yener velt” (Letter from the other world) for Fraynd (Friend) in St. Petersburg and brought out a monthly periodical in Yiddish entitled Der tfise-gedank (The idea of prison). After regaining his freedom, he published Yugend-shtime (Voice of youth) in Vilna (1908) and the literary anthology Peysekh-blat (Passover sheet), and he wrote a series of literary articles in Roman-tsaytung (Fictions newspaper) in Warsaw (1907-1908). In late 1908 he moved to Galicia, edited the party organ Der yudisher arbayter (The Jewish laborer)—initially it had appeared in German in Vienna, and later in 1904 it was published in Yiddish in Cracow and subsequently in Lemberg. Together with Borochov who was then living in Vienna, he edited Dos fraye vort (The free word), organ of the Russian Labor Zionists (published in Galicia and illegally transported to Russia). In 1909 in Stanislavov he brought out the literary collection Yugend (Youth).
In that year of 1909, Zerubavel left for Israel, where he served as secretary of the editorial board of the Labor Zionist weekly Haaḥdut (Unity) in Jerusalem; in it he wrote on political and literary matters, and (using the pseudonym “Sagi nehor” [Blind]) he ran a series entitled “Rifrufrim” (Superficialities). In 1912 he visited the United States, England, and France with reports on the Land of Israel. At the start of WWI he took part in the rescue committee, “Vaad lahatsala velaezrat hayishuv” (Committee for the rescue and assistance to the settlement [in Israel]). When Haaḥdut was closed by the Turkish authorities, he brought out the collection Ben hamitsrayim (In dire straits), for which he was sentenced by the Turkish war court to one year in the fortress. He hid from the police at this time, and at the end of 1915 escaped, via Crete and Greece, to the United States where he became co-editor of Idisher kemfer (Jewish fighter); he also took part in preparing and editing (with Ben-Tsvi and A. Ḥashin) the anthology Yizkor (Remembrance), “to the memory of watchmen in the land of Israel” (New York, 1916), 128 pp. He also edited the weekly newspaper Der idisher kongres (The Jewish congress) in New York (1915-1916), and wrote articles for: Dos idishe folk (The Jewish people) and Di varhayt (The truth) in New York; and Di tsayt (The times) in London; among others. On his way to Russia after the March Revolution in 1917, he found himself stuck in Stockholm and Copenhagen, from where he corresponded for Hayom (Today) in Moscow and Petrograder togblat (Petrograd daily newspaper). He arrived in Russia in late 1917, lived for a time in Ukraine, engaged there in broad-based party and general community activities, served as a member of the national council in the Ministry of Jewish Affairs, and was a member of the provisional national assembly. He was also in the executive bureau of the “Kultur-lige” (Culture League). He then departed for Minsk, where in 1918 he was selected onto the Jewish community administration and contributed to the Labor Zionist organ in Odessa, Dos naye lebn (The new life). He went on to visit Grodno and Bialystok where he remained until the Poles occupied the city in 1918. From there he traveled on to Warsaw, and over the course of eighteen years he stood at the head of the left Labor Zionists, chaired its central committee, and edited its organ Arbater-tsaytung (Workers’ newspaper), which appeared in Warsaw (1929-1937). He was also vice-chairman of Tsisho (Central Jewish School Organization) in Poland and a member of the Warsaw Jewish community administration. In those years he contributed to: Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves) in Warsaw; and Di tsayt, Der tog (The day), and Di proletarishe shtime (The proletarian voice) in New York; among others. He visited America on a mission for the party and took part in the meetings of the League for Workers in the Land of Israel in Berlin and Karlsbad. He visited Israel several times and settled in Tel Aviv in 1935, where he founded the Yiddish-language periodical Nayvelt (New world). In 1937 he was coopted onto the Vaad Hapoel (Zionist General Council) of Histadrut. In the late summer of 1938 he visited Poland. In 1939 he was selected by the Zionist Congress onto the larger and smaller action committee and later onto the Asefat Hanivḥarim (Assembly of Representatives) in Israel. He was also the manager of the archive of the Labor Zionists and editor of a Hebrew-language bulletin from the archive. In 1945 he visited survivors in the camps in Germany and Italy; for a short time he was also in Poland. In 1946 he became a member of the Zionist Executive and ran the department for Oriental Jews. He visited the Jewish communities in Oriental countries.
Zerubavel also edited Yidisher arbeter-pinkes, tsu der geshikhte fun der poyle-tsien bavegung (Jewish labor records, on the history of the Labor Zionist movement) (Warsaw: Naye kultur, 1927), 648 pp., second edition (1928). He co-edited (with Z. Abramovits and Y. Peterzeyl) the series Yalkute poale tsiyon (Labor Zionist collection), published by the Ringelblum Institute in Tel Aviv in 1947, and (with Z. Rimun) the anthology Unzer veg in boy un kamf (Our pathway in construction and struggle) (Tel Aviv, 1959). In book form he published: Palestine arbeter fond (The Palestine labor fund) (Warsaw, 1917), 20 pp., with Shlimovitsh; Ber borokhov, zayn lebn un shafn (Ber Borochov, his life and work), vol. 1 (Warsaw, 1926), 176 pp.; 25 yor poyale tsien velt-farband (Twenty-five years of the Labor Zionist world union) (Chicago, 1933), 31 pp.; Poyle-tsienizm kontra palestine-tsentrizm (Labor Zionism vs. Palestine-centrism) (Warsaw, 1934), 50 pp.; In onhoyb, artiklen-zikhroynes (In the beginning, articles and memoirs) (Tel Aviv, 1938), 238 pp.; Barg khurbn, kapitlen poyln (Mountain of destruction, chapters on Poland) Buenos Aires, 1946), 200 pp.; Bletlekh fun a lebn (Pages from a life) (Tel Aviv: Perets Library, 1956), vol. 1, 414 pp., vol. 2, 458 pp.; Ale ḥaim (Burdens of a life) (Tel Aviv, 1960), a translation of his Bletlekh fun a lebn; In teg fun milkhome un revolutsye (In the days of war and revolution) (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1966), 357 pp.; Geshtaltn (Images) (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1967), 461 pp. In Di goldene keyt (The golden chain) (Tel Aviv) 24 (1956), a facsimile of Zerubavel’s letter from Lukashker Prison to Yitsḥak Ben-Tsvi and his wife, Raḥel Yaniat, from forty-eight years earlier was published. In connection with Zerubavel’s seventieth birthday in early 1956, articles and memoirs concerning him were published in a variety of newspapers and magazines. Sefer zerubavel (Zerubavel volume) was published to commemorate his seventy-fifth birthday (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1961), 464 pp. He was last serving as director of the archive of the labor movement in Tel Aviv. He died in Tel Aviv.
His wife, FRIDE ZERUBAVEL, née Leselboym, was born in Warsaw, survived WWII as a refugee and described her wanderings in the book: Na venad, fartseykhenungen fun a pleyte (Wanderer, notes of a refugee) (Buenos Aires, 1947), 175 pp.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1; D. Tidhar, in Entsiklopedyah leḥalutse hayishuv uvonav (Encyclopedia of the pioneers and builders of the yishuv), vol. 5 (Tel Aviv, 1952), see index; A. Abtshuk, Etyudn un materialn tsu der geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur bavegung in FSRR (Studies and material for the history of the Yiddish literature movement in the Soviet Union) (Kharkov, 1934), pp. 27-29; M. Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon (My lexicon), vol. 2 (Montreal, 1947), p. 166, and vol. 3 (Montreal, 1958), p. 476; Dr. Y. Tenenboym, Galitsye mayn alte heym (Galicia, my old home) (Buenos Aires, 1952), see index; D. Tsharni (Daniel Charney), A litvak in poyln (A Lithuanian in Poland) (New York, 1955), see index; L. Shpizman, in Geshikhte fun der tsienistisher arbeter-bavegung fun tsofn-amerike (History of the Zionist labor movement in North America) (New York, 1955), see index; Sh. Belkin, Di poyle tsien bavegung in kanade (The Labor Zionist movement in Canada) (Montreal, 1956), see index; M. Erem, in Tsukunft (Future) (December 1956); Y. Ayzenberg, in Haboker (Tel Aviv) (December 27, 1957); Sh. D. Zinger, in Undzer veg (New York) (May 1959).
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 269.]