NAKHMEN SIRKIN (NACHMAN SYRKIN) (February 11, 1867-September 6, 1924)
He was born in Mohilyev (Mahilyow, Mogilev), Byelorussia, into a prominent family. He studied with teachers in the home, private tutors, and at the Mogilev high school. In the early 1880s he moved with his parents to Minsk, where he graduated from high school in 1884. At this time he was a proficient in Talmud and in medieval and general Hebrew literature; he belonged to “Ḥoveve-tsiyon” (Lovers of Zion) circles, and in the group discussions he already demonstrated his volatile temperament and great erudition. For his proximity to socialist groups, he spent several weeks under arrest in Minsk and was freed thanks to the intercession of his relative, the Minsk community leader and Hebrew writer Grigori Yakovlevich Sirkin. In 1887 he departed for Berlin and there he began to study medicine, later turning to philosophy and political economy at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität. He went on to receive his doctoral degree in philosophy from Zurich University. In the late 1880s, when the Russian universities were closed to Jewish youth, there assembled in Berlin (a considerable number of) Jewish students, and Syrkin—together with other Palestinophiles—founded the “Russian Jewish Scholarly Association,” which became a national center for Jewish youth and intellectuals at the time and to which many important Zionist figures brought their national aspirations, such as: Chaim Weizmann, Shmaryahu Levin, Isadore Eliashev (later known as Bal-Makhshoves), and Leon Motzkin, among others. Syrkin was one of the first to link Zionism with the socialist world view, though he fought against the materialist conception of history and constructed everything on the doctrine of voluntarism. He tried to justify his scientific-philosophical consciousness at that time in his German work, Geschichtsphilosophische Betrachtungen (Historical-philosophical considerations) (Berlin: F. Gottheiner, 1896), in which he came to the conclusion that it was not circumstances that controlled a person, but the person who endeavors all the more to liberate himself from the power of circumstances and through this comes to his own “I”: “History,” wrote Syrkin, “has no plan and no laws; it is a free design of individuals.” He remained faithful to these ideas over the course of all his activities as one of the founders and ideologues of the Jewish national radical movement. At the first Zionist congress in Basel (1897), he stood with political Zionism (under the influence of Moses Hess, in whose name he had created a Zionist socialist group). In 1898 he published in the German periodical Deutsche Worte (German word), brought out in Vienna by Engelbert Pernerstorfer, the Social Democratic deputy in the Austrian Reichsrat (Imperial Diet), an article on the Jewish question—that same year he published it under the pen name “Ben-Eliezer”—in Berne in pamphlet format under the title Die Judenfrage und der sozialistische Judenstaat (The Jewish question and the socialist Jewish state), 67 pp.—in which he strove to justify Zionism from a socialist standpoint. He also expressed his main thoughts on socialist Zionism in his Russian-language pamphlet Vozzvanie k evreiskoi molodezhi (Appeal to Jewish youth) (London, 1901), 16 pp. Syrkin believed that all the values that Jews have created in the diaspora were of a negative character and that remaining in the lands of the diaspora has a deleterious impact not only on the Jews themselves but also on all human progress. Assimilation of Jews with the surrounding peoples also creates the same negative values, and thus assimilation can only be realized by the upper bourgeois strata of Jewry. The Zionist movement of the democratic layers is, thus, a reaction against the international aspirations of the Jewish bourgeoisie—and its ultimate goal is the construction of a socialist state in the land of Israel. The sole bearer of the Jewish national liberation movement was—according to Syrkin—the Jewish “hamon” (masses), the toiling masses of the Jewish people, and not only the industrial proletariat. Around 1901-1902, Syrkin founded the Zionist socialist group “Ḥerut” (Freedom), which, in addition to other tasks, was to fight against Jewish plutocracy. The group Ḥerut had an influence only within the narrow circles of Jewish intellectuals in Zurich, London, and especially Berlin, but in Russia itself one heard practically nothing of it. For a theoretical treatment of the issues of the Zionist socialist program and tactics, Syrkin founded the periodicals Der hamoyn (The masses) in Yiddish and Hashaḥar (The morning) in Hebrew in Berlin (1903), for which he wrote almost the entirety of its articles (also under the pseudonym of Ben-Eliezer). At the sixth Zionist congress in 1903, he joined the Ugandists, and at the seventh congress (1905) in Basel when the “no” votes were victorious, he was one of the founders of the territorialist organization, and then joined the newly established Zionist Socialist Party. According to the memoirs of his daughter Marie Syrkin, he was deported from Germany at this time for participating in 1904 in a political demonstration. He lived for a time, 1904-1905, in Paris, before returning to Russia, living primarily in Vilna, where he contributed (and co-edited) the organ of the Zionist socialist party, Der nayer veg (The new path), writing editorials and theoretical essays. At the time of the elections to the second Duma, he stood as a candidate from Kovno province, but he was not elected. At the invitation of the American socialist-territorialists, he traveled to the United States (March 1908) to edit Dos folk (The people), organ of the Zionist socialists. Syrkin later became disappointed with territorialism and in 1909 became one of the leaders of Labor Zionism in America. During WWI he supported the Allies and, contrary to the majority of American Jews, Russia—against Germany. He was also the head of the American Jewish Congress movement. As a delegate to the conference of the Jewish Congress in Philadelphia (December 1918), he—with Morris Winchevsky, Louis Marshall, Stephen Wise, and others—was elected onto a delegation to defend the resolutions of the American Jewish Congress at the Peace Conference in Versailles. He took part (1919) in the world conference of Labor Zionism in Stockholm. He was in the land of Israel (January-May 1920), and on his way back to America he visited Warsaw; in 1923 he was in Carlsbad at the thirteenth Zionist congress. Syrkin contributed to many different American Yiddish periodicals, such as: Di tsukunft (The future), Dos naye land (The new land), Dos naye leben (The new life), and from the founding of Tog (Day) he was a regular contributor to the newspaper with a one and one-half year break when he was writing for the Labor Zionist daily newspaper, Di tsayt (The times). At different times he also wrote for Jewish and general newspapers in Russian, German, and English, as well as in Hebrew publications in the United States. Among other items, he translated into German the moral philosophical writings of Lev Tolstoy in Jüdisch-Deutsche Monatshefte (German Jewish monthly) in 1911, a critique of the moral searchings of the Russian Doukhovors. As Zalmen Reyzen put it:
Syrkin was one of the most original figures in the Jewish radical national movement. For the entire time of his thirty years of literary and community activities, he sought a synthesis between Zionism and socialism, and with a rare temperament and great polemical talent, though with much utopianism and metaphysics, he led a fight for his ideals…. In connection with Yiddish, he was a bitter enemy not only of the Yiddishist movement, but even of the Yiddish language, against which he would appear in public in the fiercest manner in the name of his burning love of Hebrew, the language of the prophet Isaiah whom he believed was the greatest person in world history. Characteristic of his views of the language question was his long article “Der zhurnal” (The journal) in Yud (Jew) 30-47 (1900), in which he introduced not only a series of anti-Yiddishist proofs, but also provided an interesting analysis of the linguistic and psychological character of the Germanic and Hebraic elements in the Yiddish language. In his territorialist period, he also turned aside from Hebraism, so as later to return to his harshest, uncompromising form (see his series of articles concerning Yiddish and Hebrew in the monthly Dos naye leben in New York , edited by Chaim Zhitlovsky and Shmuel Niger). For him spiritual Judaism was just as important as the living, concrete entity, and herein derived his negation of the diaspora, his fantastic optimism, his utopian dreams, and lastly a certain religious mysticism (although one of the publications of his organ of Ḥerut, Der hamoyn, was, to be sure, the struggle against religion). In his personal life, he excelled in his idealism, magnanimity, and naïveté, and was one of the most interesting personalities in New York’s Jewish Bohemia.
A magnificent, distinctive journalist, Syrkin also acquired a reputation throughout the Jewish world as a great speaker at lecture venues, meetings, conferences, and congresses in various countries. At different times, Syrkin placed work in Russian, German, and English journals and newspapers. For a time he contributed correspondence pieces and features to Hamelits (The advocate). He also wrote at varying times for: Der hamoyn and Hashaḥar in Berlin (1903); Nayer veg (New path), Dos vort (The word), and Unzer veg (Our way) in Vilna; Der yud (The Jew) in Warsaw; Arbeter vort (Workers’ word) in Cracow; Dos folk (which he edited in 1908), Idisher kemfer (Jewish fighter [co-editor in 1909]), Dos naye land, Dos vort, Di varhayt (The truth), Dos yudishe folk (The Jewish people), Di tsayt, Di tsukunft, and Der idisher kongres (The Jewish congress), among others, in New York; and Folks-tsaytung (People’s newspaper) in Montreal (1912); among others. He published his travel impressions of the land of Israel in Kuntres (Pamphlet) in Israel. He was a regular contributor to Tog in New York, from the time the newspaper was founded.
Among his published books: Die Judenfrage und der sozialistische Judenstaat (1898); Empfindung und Vorstellung (Sensation and imagination) (Berne: Scheitlin Spring, 1903), 86 pp.; Idisher kongres in amerike (Jewish Congress in America) (New York: Jewish National Workers’ Alliance, 1915), 24 + 2 pp.; translation of Moses Hess, Roym un yerusholayim, iberzetsung un ophandlung vegn moyshe hes, zayn lebn, zayn virkung un zayn filozofye (Rome and Jerusalem [original: Rom und Jerusalem], translation and assessment of Moses Hess, his life, his impact, and his philosophy) (New York: M. N. Mayzel, 1916), 233 pp.; Natsyonale frayhayṭ un internatsyonale eynheyt, tsu der frage vegn natsyonalizm un internatsyonalizm (National freedom and international unity, on the question of nationalism and internationalism) (New York: Jewish National Workers’ Alliance, 1917), 63 pp.; Geklibene tsienistish-sotsialistishe shriftn (Selected Zionist-socialist writings), 2 vols., ed. Yude Koyfman, Y. Zak, and Yoyel Entin (New York: Central Committee, Labor Zionists, 1925-1926), 632 pp. (combined), with a biography and characterization of Syrkin written by Y. Zak (both volumes contain essays and a series of treatments of philosophy and Jewish history entitled “Epokhn in der idisher geshikhte” (Epochs in Jewish history) on which Syrkin worked over the last years of his life and left unfinished; Kitve naḥman sirkin (Writings of Nachman Syrkin), comp. and arranged by Berl Katznelson (Tel Aviv: Davar, 1939), 308 pp.; Di yidn-frage un di yidishe sotsyalistishe medine (The Jewish question and the Jewish socialist state), translated from the Hebrew by Ruvn Matis (Munich, 1947), 55 pp. [translation of his Die Judenfrage und der sozialistische Judenstaat]. Syrkin translated a significant number of writings by Leo Tolstoy for German periodicals. He also composed (1909) a five-act tragedy, entitled “Dos yidishe folk” (The Jewish people), in which he brought out a gallery of representatives of all the Jewish parties. He also wrote a foreword to Heine’s eight volumes of poetry, which were translated into Yiddish by a host of well-known Jewish poets: Di ṿerk fun haynrikh hayne, mit a biografye fun a. kalisher un a forvorṭ fun n. sirkin (The works of Heinrich Heine, with a biography by A. Kalisher and a foreword by N. Syrkin) (New York, 1918). He also authored the preface to Moyshe Freilicoff’s Dzhuzepa matsini, denker un bafreyer (Giuseppe Mazzini, thinker and liberator) (Washington, D.C.: Ḥerut, 1924). His essays also appeared in the autobiographical volume by his daughter Marie Syrkin, which she published about her father in English: Nachman Syrkin, Socialist Zionist: A Biographical Memoir (New York : Herzl Press and Sharon Books, 1961). Streets have been named for Syrkin in Tel Aviv and other cities in the state of Israel. There is a settlement named Kfar Sirkin (Kefar Syrkin) near Petaḥ Tikva. Nachmen Syrkin died in New York. His grave has been located since September 1951 in the Galilee, near the Kineret. As B. Tsukerman stated:
He continued his literary activities for over thirty-five years in both speech and writing. He expressed his thoughts in an era of a great spiritual revolution in Jewish history. He formulated them in blunt language, as he was almost always at war with other Jewish personalities of his generation and virtually all organized Jewish groups from that time. Even the movement that he established could not always go along with his characteristic bluntness.… Syrkin’s central idea, it would seem, might be formulated as follows: all creative peoples of mankind have a portion in human culture. Each people bring, by virtue of their creative distinctiveness, a brick to the building of world culture. The Jewish people possess a special cultural treasure which enriches its own life and enable it to contribute a great gift to the culture of mankind. The principal foundations of the Jewish cultural treasure are: social justice and human sanctity. To assure its cultural treasure and enrich with it, the Jewish people must lead an independent life in their own country. Along this pathway of ideas two goals emerge: worry about basic existence of the Jewish people and erecting a Jewish state on the basis of social justice and human sanctity.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2, with a bibliography; Morris Winchevsky, “editorial notices,” Di tsukunft (New York) (December 1908); B. Tsvien, “Teritoryalizm oder avanturizm” (Territorialism or adventurism), Di tsukunft (July 1909); M. Zametkin, in Di tsukunft (August 1909); N. Grinblat, in Hatekufa (Moscow) 1 (1918), pp. 656-64; H. Leivick, in Di tsayt (New York) (September 6, 1920); V. Grosman, in Di tsukunft (October 1920); Y. Milkh, Naye bavegungen baym hign idishn proletaryat (New movements among the local Jewish proletariat) (New York, 1920), pp. 147-208; Kh. Liberman, “Di toesn fun di groyse” (The errors of the great), Di tsayt (March 25, 1921); Chaim Zhitlovsky, in Di tsayt (April 16, 1921; April 23, 1921; May 2, 1921; May 3, 1921; September 27, 1921); A. Lyesin, in Di tsukunft (July 1921; August 1921); M. Ribalov, in Hadoar (New York) (September 12, 1924); Ribalov, Sefer hamasot (Book of essays) (New York, 1928), pp. 221-23; A. Revutski, in Di tsukunft (October 1924); Y. Kopelov, Amol un shpeter (Once and later) (Vilna: Altnay, 1932); Shmuel Niger, in Di tsukunft (August 1933); Marie Syrkin, “Zikhroynes vegn mayn foter” (Memories of my father), Idisher kemfer (New York) (September 7, 1934); M. Syrkin, in Pyonern-froy (New York) (October 1951); M. Syrkin, Nachman Syrkin, Socialist Zionist: A Biographical Memoir (New York : Herzl Press and Sharon Books, 1961), 332 pp.; Moyshe Shtarkman, in Yorbukh (New York) (1942/1943); Shtarkman, in Hadoar (New York) (Sivan 4 [= May 23], 1947); Sh. Grodzenski, in Idisher kemfer (September 29, 1944); Y. Khaykin, Yidishe bleter in amerike (Yiddish newspapers in America) (New York, 1946), see index; M. Regalski, Tsvishn tsvey velt-milkhomes (Between two world wars) (Buenos Aires, 1946); G. Bader, in Morgn-zhurnal (New York) (March 14, 1948); Y. Zar, in Morgn-zhurnal (September 23, 1949); Borekh Tsukerman, in Der tog (New York) (October 1, 1949); Tsukerman, in Idisher kemfer (October 5, 1954; October 15, 1954; October 22, 1954; November 23, 1962; Rosh Hashanah issue, 1963; Tsukerman, in Afn veg (On the road) (New York, 1956), pp. 59-118; A. Leyeles, in Der tog (September 8, 1951); Arn Tsaytlin, in Der tog (June 1, 1952); A. B. in Unzer tsayt (New York) (September 1952); Sh. Levenberg, in Unzer vort (Paris) (September 25, 1954); 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; Shpizman, in Idisher kemfer (Rosh Hashanah issue, 1956); Shpizman, in Geshtaltn (Images) (Buenos Aires, 1962), pp. 85-90; Kh. Sh. Kazdan, Fun kheyder un shkoles biz tsisho (From religious and secular primary schools to Tsisho) (Mexico City, 1956), see index; B. Y. Byalostotski, Kholem un var (Dream and reality) (New York, 1956), pp. 376-80; Zalman Shazar, Or ishim (Light of personalities) (Tel Aviv, 1955), pp. 217-32, part 2 (Jerusalem, 1963/1964), pp. 11-22; Shazar, in Moledet lanoar velaam (1963/1964), pp. 312-14; D. Perski, in Hadoar (February 10, 1956); Y. Cohen, Gesharim, ishim uveayot bitenuat haavoda (Personalities and problems in the labor movement) (Tel Aviv, 1955); M. Freylikov, in Idisher kemfer (March 23, 1956); A. Kritshmar-Yizraeli, in Idisher kemfer (March 23, 1956; August 21, 1959); Y. Grinboym, Fun mayn dor (Of my generation) (Tel Aviv, 1959), pp. 287-89; M. Braun, Mit yidishe oygn (With Jewish eyes) (New York, 1958), pp. 261-62; Y. Kruk, in Hapoel hatsayir (Tel Aviv) (Ḥeshvan 4 [= October 29], 1957); B. Sherman, in Idisher kemfer (Passover issue, 1958; May 12, 1961); Kalmen Marmor, Mayn lebns-geshikhte (My life story) (New York, 1959), vol. 1, p. 388, vol. 2 (1959), p. 674; D. Tidhar, in Entsiklopedyah leḥalutse hayishuv uvonav (Encyclopedia of the pioneers and builders of the yishuv), vol. 10 (Tel Aviv, 1959), see index; B. Katsnelson, Oysgeveylte shriftn (Selected writings) (Tel Aviv, n.d.); Y. Klausner, Opozitsya lehertsl (Opposition to Herzl) (Jerusalem, 1959/1960), see index; Klausner, in Hahistadrut yehuda haḥafshit (Tel Aviv) (Nisan [= March-April] 1961), p. 186; Raḥel Yanait-Ben-Zvi, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (August 19, 1961); Y. Zerubavl, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (English column) (March 10, 1964; March 11, 1964; March 12, 1964); Marie Syrkin,