YITSKHOK-BER LEVINZON (YITSḤAK BER, ISAAC BAER LEVINSOHN, RIBAL) (September 14, 1788-February 13, 1860)
He was born in Kremenets (Krzemieniec), Volhynia, into a destitute, well-pedigreed family. His father, Yehuda Levin (from whom arose the family name Levinzon), a learned Jew, had already become a bit modern, spoke fluent Polish, and wrote excellent Hebrew. He raised his son initially as was common at the time. Yitskhok-Ber proved to be exceptional already in childhood: at age three he began religious primary school, at nine he composed a treatise on the Kabbala, and at ten he was almost able to recite by heart all twenty-four books of the Prophets and Writings. He also as a child mastered Russian, both speaking and writing. At age nineteen he was married in Radzhivilov, a town at the Russian-Austrian border. He was supported by his father-in-law and enjoyed many free days and nights to read. Soon, though, the young married couple no longer had any peace in their home and a divorce ensued. Levinzon had by then learned Russian and German. He was also studying French, Latin, and a little Greek. He “gave lessons” to support himself. In 1812, at the time of the Franco-Russian war, he became a translator of Hebrew and Yiddish into Russian for the Radzhivilov city commandant, General Girs. In late 1812 he composed a patriotic song (“Anut gevura” [Sound of heroism]) in honor of victory which the Russians scored over the French. The general sent his song to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the latter was much pleased by it. Levinzon would later receive 3,000 rubles, and he was given credit for the song. At the time, late 1812, signs of his inherited nervous ailment began to appear, and he proceeded to move to recuperate in Galicia, where he lived until 1820. He was in Lemberg, Brody, Tarnopol, and Żołkiew—all centers of the Galician Jewish Enlightenment. There he became acquainted with all the major figures in the Enlightenment: Yosef Perl, Yehuda Rapoport, Nachman Krochmal, Yitsḥak Erter, and Yehuda-Leib Mieses, among others. He worked for a time in Brody as a bookseller, but he did not remain there and left for Tarnopol, where passed the examinations and received Perl’s recommendation for a teacher’s position in his senior high school. He translated from Russian into Yiddish the regulations on the customs tariff (Luekh hamekes) and traveled to Żołkiew to print his manuscript. There he got to know Nachman Krochmal (Ranak). In the years in which Levinzon lived in Galicia, his personality as a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment, his conception of the world, and his writing style were all formed. In 1820 he arrived in Russia. There he worked as a tutor in Berdichev, Ostrov, Nemirov, and Tulchin. On the way to Tulchin in the summer of 1823, he passed by the town of Kaminke. The count of the region, Wittgenstein, took him in as an intimate in his palace. In the summer evenings, they would carry on debates about Judaism and Christianity. The palace was also home to a well-stocked library, and that summer were laid the foundations for Levinzon later works: Aḥiyah ha-shiloni ha-ḥozeh (Ahijah the Shilonite, the seer), Zerubavel, Yemin tsidki (My vindication), and Efes damim (No blood). In the winter of 1823, he became extremely ill in Tulchin, and for twelve years (1823-1835) he was confined to his bed. Sick as he was, in late 1823 or early 1824, he returned to Kremenets and remained there in town until the end of his life—a full thirty-seven years. He lived in great poverty and had to seek philanthropic assistance. He was all alone and spent more time in bed than walking around, and only on rare occasions when his illness let up for awhile could he write his works.
Levinzon was the father of the Jewish Enlightenment movement in Russia—“the Mendelssohn of Russian Jewry,” as people dubbed him. He wrote practically only in Hebrew. In Yiddish, we have only Luekh hamekes, Di hefker-velt (The wanton world), and a satirical poem “Purim-shpil oysgerufn in shul” (Purim play declaimed in synagogue). His main works in Hebrew include: Teuda beyisrael (Testimony in Israel) (Vilna-Horodno, 1828); Bet yehuda (House of Judah), two parts (Vilna, 1839); Zerubavel (Odessa, 1863); and Efes damim (Vilna, 1837)—all of these in several editions. Teuda beyisrael (published with the approbation of the rabbi of Vilna) was the programmatic guide to the Jewish Enlightenment in Russia. If one were to have scolded a follower of the Enlightenment, one would have called him a “teudke” [diminutive of “Teuda”], meaning: lured by the ideas of Teuda beyisrael. In his Bet yehuda Levinzon introduced his practical plan of reform: (1) schools need be founded, in which, aside from Torah, secular subjects and trades need be taught to the children; (2) reforms need to be carried out in the rabbinate and Jewish community practices, such as selection of a rabbi over the entire Jewish community in the country with a constitution; (3) institution in every city of preachers and remonstrators; (4) persuade the government that it should distribute land for at least one-third of the Jewish population; and (5) the rabbis should prohibit luxury among Jews, because it elicited demoralization and rivalry on the part of non-Jews for Jews (Mendele’s Dos kleyne mentshele [The little man] was written in the spirit of Levinzon’s Enlightenment program). In essence, he was an opponent of Yiddish; writing in Yiddish, though, afforded him influence in the Galician Enlightenment. Yet, despite it all, in 1830 he composed his work Di hefker-velt. It was not published during his lifetime, but was passed from hand to hand in manuscript. Levinzon likely was ashamed of his “zhargon,” but there was an important reason for it: he did not want the anti-Semites to learn of the internal affairs of Jewish life. Di hefker-velt is missing its ending which was probably lost when it was in manuscript. In 1903/1904, the publisher Dovid Sova in Warsaw brought out Levinzon’s selected writings, and there one will find Di hefker-velt with a “second part” entitled: Vos s’tut zikh af yener velt (What takes place in the world of the dead); in truth, this “second part” was a reworking of Levinzon’s anti-Hassidic satire Emek refaim (Valley of the ghosts). Natanzon, Levinzon’s faithful publisher, affirmed that Di hefker-velt was missing only one page. In Zalmen Reyzen’s Fun mendelson biz mendele, hantbukh far der geshikhte fun der yidisher haskole-literatur mit reproduktsyes un bilder (From Mendelssohn to Mendele, handbook of the history of the Yiddish Enlightenment literature with reproduced texts and pictures) (Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1923), Di hefker-velt takes up a mere twelve pages. The text is written in the form of a conversation carried on between two ordinary Volhynian Jews, Zorekh and Faytl, and a third man, a guest from Byelorussia—a kind of mentor figure. It came with a motto, a Gentile saying: “God is high up, and the Tsar is far away.” “Hefker-velt”—a wanton in Jewish life. Powerful people, community leaders, and tax collectors on kosher meat have all importuned themselves on the community; they’ve bribed the authorities, and there are neither laws nor judges [i.e., no recourse]. From day to day people are quarrelling over new taxes, “imposts”: “This is money for porridge, this is more bad luck, this is jail money.” Poor children are grabbed off the street and handed over to be recruited into the military, but the children of the wealthy remain in their homes: “The poor man is always the scapegoat.” Jewish life has to be rebuilt on a healthy foundation. We have to restore a healthy condition back to the life of our fathers: tilling, sowing, raising animals, “as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes conducted themselves.” A portion of Di hefker-velt was published in Sholem-Aleykhem’s Folks-biblyotek (People’s library). It was published by B. Natanzon who later brought out the entire Di hefker-velt. Levinzon wrote one further item (in either 1844 or 1850) in Yiddish: “Purim-shpil oysgerufn in shul,” a poem which may be found in his Hebrew work, “Toldot ploni almoni hakozavi” (History of Mr. X the liar). The poem was a stinging satire of the ringleaders of the Jewish community. For example: “The good times have come to an end, / When I’d ride roughshod over the community! / They ate by the spoonful, /And I by the bushel.” Levinzon devoted little time to writing fiction—either in Hebrew or in Yiddish. More important than anything for him were the ideas of the Jewish Enlightenment: Fighting the old and conservative, and introducing the new and progressive. And, although an opponent of Yiddish, in the few Yiddish items he inserted a mighty vigorousness with the Jewish vernacular. “Presumably, as one loves his people, he must also love their language,” noted Max Erik; we see “in Levinzon the beginning of that realistic sense that prevailed in Russian literature of the Enlightenment until Mendele inclusive.”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2, with a bibliography; Reyzen, “Tsu der geshikhte fun der haskole-literatur” (On the history of Enlightenment literature), Yivo-bleter (Vilna) 1.3 (March 1931), pp. 193-207; Dr. Joseph Klausner, Historiya shel hasifrut haivrit haḥadasha (History of modern Hebrew literature), vol. 3 (Jerusalem, 1952), pp. 29-123 (with a rich bibliography of works in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, English, and German); Yankev Leshtshinski, Dos idishe ekonomishe lebn in der idisher literatur (Jewish economic life in Yiddish literature) (Minsk, 1921; Leipzig, 1922); N. Shtif, Di eltere yidishe literatur (The older Yiddish literature), a literary reader (Kiev, 1928), pp. 21-35; Max Erik and A. Rozentsvayg, Di yidishe literatur in 19tn yorhundert (Yiddish literature in the nineteenth century), vol. 1 (1800-1881) (Kiev-Kharkov, 1935), pp. 38-50; Getzel Kressel, in Davar (Tel Aviv) (December 7, 1962); M. Zahari, Mishnato haleumit she yitsḥak ber levinzon (Jerusalem, 1983).
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 349.]