YISROEL LEVI (1842-July 29, 1905)
He was born in Zhager (Žagarė), Lithuania. He studied in religious primary school and in a Russian high school, and he later graduated from the law faculty of St. Petersburg University. Until 1874 he lived in Vilkomir (Ukmergė) and Kovno, Lithuania. He served as secretary of the Kovno committee that handled transporting craftsmen deep into Russia. Opposed to Jewish emigration from Russia, he believed that one should rather develop a major movement to settle them on the land in Jewish colonies in Russia (Den’ [Day], a Russian Jewish serial, May 23, 1869). For a time he served as the representative of the railroad in Vilkomir; he held the lease to the mail over certain areas in Lithuania; and he furnished provisions for the Russian military. In 1874 he settled in St. Petersburg, and in 1879 when Y. L. Gordon, then secretary of the Jewish community of St. Petersburg, was due to a denunciation exiled by the regime to the Olonets Governorate in northwestern Russia, Levi became secretary of the St. Petersburg community. He also became chairman of the St. Petersburg “Mefitse haskala” ([Society for the] promotion of enlightenment). In 1880 he set up an immense publishing house with an assortment of writings, among them those in Yiddish. Tsederboym’s Hebrew-language Hamelits (The advocate) and the Yidishes (Yudishes) folksblat (Jewish people’s newspaper), which he founded in 1881, were both published in Levi’s publishing house. In 1887 Tsederboym, apparently for financial reasons, withdrew from the editorial management of Yidishes folksblat, and the newspaper was entrusted to the realm of the publisher, Yisroel Levi. Soon Tsederboym completely left the Yiddish newspaper, and although Levi remained formally just the publisher of the newspaper and Dr. Y. L. Kantor became editor, in fact from August 1887 until March 1890 (when the newspaper ceased publication), Levi was also boss of editorial board of Yidishe folksblat. An eccentric nature with ability and pointed ambitions as well as caprice, Levi ruled the newspaper, filling out every page of it and its supplement with polemical essays on literature, book reviews, language criticism, stories, feature pieces, portions of his autobiography, and translations from Russian, Hebrew, German, and English, among them: Y. Sh. Fin, “A nesie iber Ashur un bovl” (A voyage through Assyria and Babylonia); M. Adelman, “Di yidn in abisinyen” (The Jews in Abyssinia); Yevgenii Markov, “Bilder fun erets yisroel” (Pictures from the land of Israel); and novels that he reworked and published under various pseudonyms. Among his articles (signed “Der aroysgeber” [The publisher]) may be found the series “Vi ikh bin gevorn a kolonist” (How I became a colonist) and “Vos viln di palestintses” (What do advocates of immigrating to Palestine want). With many of his articles, Levi elicited excitement and distaste with the writers and readers of the newspaper; he ridiculed the Yiddish language, assailed Yiddish literature and Yiddish theater, and at the same time he published in his newspaper works by the greatest Yiddish writers of the era, such as: Sholem-Aleykhem, M. Spektor, Yankev Dinezon, and A. L. Levinski, among others; he also attracted to the newspaper Shimen Frug who published his first Yiddish poems there. In March 1890 Yidishes folksblat closed down, and at the end of the year Levin embarked on a number of different business ventures which led him to bankruptcy. He had to liquidate his publishing house, and the police arrested him for living in St. Petersburg without “Pravozhitelstvo” (right of residence) and banished him from the city. He then left for Israel with the intention of settling there permanently, but he returned to Lithuania disappointed. He lived for a time in Kovno, later in Vilkomir where he became a recluse, sitting the entire day in synagogue and studying Talmud, as he threw himself into Hassidism and mysticism, observing acts of self-mortification and fasts and dying in the synagogue. He also published under such pen names as: Der Aroysgeber, Yabasha, Yevashel, Yizbaḥash, Lo-Li, Elyohu, Y. D. Nevun, Belibi, Anshil bar Dovid, Y. Ben-Yosef Libtse Hershls, Der Idisher Gazlen, and Graf M. Y. Kveytel.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2, under the biographies of A. Tsderboym and Dr. Y. L. Kantor; Reyzen, in Yivo-bleter (Vilna) 7-8 (1939); Reyzen, Psevdonimen in der yidisher literatur (Pseudonyms in Yiddish literature) (Vilna, 1939); Y. Tsinberg, Istoriia evreiskoi pechati v Rossii (History of the Jewish press in Russia) (Petrograd, 1915), p. 182; Sh. L. Tsitron, Di geshikhte fun der yidisher prese (The history of the Yiddish press) (Vilna-Warsaw, 1923), pp. 150-71; Tsitron, Dray literarishe doyres (Three literary generations) (Warsaw, 1924), pp. 152-64; Y. D. Berkovitsh, Sholem aleykhem bukh (Sholem Aleykhem volume) (New York, 1926), pp. 167, 184, 207; A. Kirzshnits, Di yidishe prese in der gevezener ruslendisher imperye (1823-1916) (The Yiddish press in former Russian empire, 1823-1916) (Moscow, 1930), with a supplement on Yidishes folksblat; G. Aronson, in the anthology Lite (Lithuania) (New York, 1951), p. 213; Kalmen Marmor archives in YIVO (New York).
Khayim Leyb Fuks