Friday 1 May 2015


AVROM-BER GOTLOBER (AVRAHAM BER GOTTLOBER) (January 14, 1811-April 12, 1899)
            He was born in Starokonstantinov, Volhynia, Ukraine, where his father Khayim Gotlob was a cantor.  For a short time he studied in a religious elementary school, later with an itinerant teacher and other teachers under his father’s supervision.  The young Gotlober also sang and even planned to become a cantor himself in a reformed synagogue.  Following the customs of that time, Gotlober was shortly after his bar mitzvah married to a girl twelve years old from the town of Chernihiv (Chernigov), and he was provided with room-and-board at the home of his father-in-law, a zealous Hassid.  Under his influence, Gotlober also became a Hassid, a Chabadnik, and studied Kabalah.  When Tsar Nikolai I’s decree concerning military service for teenagers was announced (August 1827), he and his father took off for Tarnopol, Galicia.  There he met Yosef Perl, and under his influence he began to take up Jewish Enlightenment ideas.  Meanwhile, his father passed away, and he returned to his father-in-law.  He lived happily with his wife who bore him a son.  As he had become an early follower of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Hassidim together with his father-in-law raised a huge storm, reported him to the rebbe, and compelled him to divorce his wife and abandon his child.  Gotlober wanted to go abroad to study, and his relatives made a second match for him in marriage—this time with the daughter of an early Zionist.  Unable to live with his second wife, he quickly departed.  In the interim, his three-year-old son died, and Gotlober, embittered and furious, set out on a stubborn struggle against Hassidism and became the “fiery missionary of the Enlightenment ideal” (Alexander Tsederbaum).  In 1830 he was in the town of Bar, staying with a fellow enlightened Jew, and he was introduced to Mendl Lefin’s writings in both Hebrew and Yiddish.  This afforded him a stimulus to try his out own efforts in the Yiddish language.  He left for Odessa, and from there to Kishinev, Dubosar, Dubno, and other cities; along the way he came to know enlightened figures, survived by teaching, worked as a resident tutor, and earnestly studied the German language, translated Schiller into Hebrew and Yiddish, composed amusing couplets in Yiddish, wrote melodies for them himself, and—like one of those “sociable people” of times past—sang them by himself for listeners.  In 1832 he met R. Yitskhok Ber Levenzon in Kremenets, who made a great impression on him.  He married for the third time (in Berdichev), and then settled in Dubno, where followers of the Enlightenment in the city formed a group around him.  He had by this point written poetry in Yiddish, but the great majority of that work is now lost.  In 1837 he visited Zamość and there met Dr. Shloyme Etinger, who read aloud for him his comedy Serkele.  Impressed by this work, Gotlober in 1838 wrote his own three-act comedy, Der dektukh, oder tsvey khupes in eyn nakht (The bridal veil, or two weddings in one night), which for a long period of time—just like his other writings in Yiddish—circulated in manuscript and finally in 1876, in a corrupted text, was published in Warsaw.  In 1830s and 1840s, Gotlober wrote frequently in Yiddish, although his attachment to the language was full of contradictions.  On the one hand, the enlightened Jew in him despised this “language without a literature, without a grammar, without logic” (from a letter of his to a well-known lady), and on the other hand, the man of the people and writer for the people in him understood that “one can only help our people and heal their wounds when one speaks to them in their language” (from a letter to Yehoshua Shternberg).  In 1841, during the period in which Max Lilienthal had begun his mission to assist the Russian government by opening schools for Jewish children, Gotlober traveled through Jewish towns, campaigning for Lilienthal’s ideas.  After the failure of Lilienthal’s plans, Gotlober left his family in Dubno and went to Zhitomir to prepare to take the examinations for a teacher.  When he passed these examinations in 1851, he was appointed a school teacher, first in Kamenets-Podolsk (Kamianets-Podilskyi), later (1855) in Starokonstantinov, and in 1865, as an expression of appreciation for his highly successful pedagogical work, he was appointed a teacher in the Zhitomir rabbinical school.  The next seven or eight years were the happiest of his life.  This was the radiant period of the Enlightenment in Russia, and Gotlober was one of the most important spokesmen in this period.  Like many other Enlightenment leaders, he also defended the Russification policies of the Tsarist government concerning Jews.  In his political and social views of the time, he was just as conflicted as he was in his relationship to Yiddish.  On the one hand, a reactionary, an opponent of every sort of revolution (see his Hebrew poem, “Al hashana hayotset shenat tr”ḥ” [From the outgoing year to 1848]; and his pamphlet Igeret tsaar baale ḥayim [Letter on the prevention of cruelty to living things]) (Zhitomir, 1868), 34 pp.  On the other hand, he was a courageous fighter, with humor, against the rich ringleaders (Der gilgl [The metamorphosis] of 1871 and other works in Yiddish).
            Over the course of three decades—from 1840s to the 1870s—Gotlober wrote his best Yiddish work, all of which was first published much later.  Much of this had been lost together with his poetry collection Feldblumen (Flowers of the field), but in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Yiddish researchers in Soviet Russia discovered a great portion of them.  In chronological order, Gotlober’s Yiddish works were composed as follows: Dos shtrayml mitn kapelyush (The Hassidic fur-edged hat and fancy lady’s hat), 1841; Der seim oder di groyse asife in vald (The Sejm or the large assembly in the forest) and Ven di khayes hobn oysgeklibn dem leyb far a meylekh (When the animals selected the lion for king), a satirical fable in poetic form, 1842 (initially published in Zhitomir in 1863); Der binde yisroelik, a highly popular poem, 1843 (initially published in Hayoets [The advisor], Bucharest, 1876); Gzeyre daytshen (Decree of the Germans), 1845; Dos groyse kints oder dos bisele mints (The big child or small change), 1945 (published serially in his later work, Der gilgl, and in fuller form in the anthology Tsaytshrift (Periodical writings) 5 [Minsk, 1931]); in the very same issue of Tsyatshrift was also published for the first time Gotlober’s poem Di deputatn (The deputies), his didactic poem Di farkerte velt (The reversed world), his poems Rav itsik (R. Itsik) and Mayn lid (My poem), and two variants of Ish khosid (Hassidic man), which had first been published in Sholem-Aleykhem’s Yudishe folks-biblyotek (Jewish people’s library) 2 (1889).  In volume 1 of Di historishe shriftn fun yivo (Historical writings from YIVO) (Warsaw, 1929), Gotlober’s poem Der yud in kiev (The Jew in Kiev) was published for the first time—it had also been in the lost collection of poetry.  All of these works were known to have been written in the late 1840s.  In 1863 (when this was actually written is unknown), his major work Dos lid funem kugl (The song of the pudding) appeared in Odessa—it was a parody of Schiller’s “Das Lied von der Glocke” (The Song of the Bell).  In 1871 Kol mevaser (The herald) published his well-known, perhaps best known, work, Der gilgl, humoristishe ertseylung, aroysgegebn fun dem gabes eynikl (The metamorphosis, a humorous story, published by the synagogue warden’s grandson); it appeared later in book form in Warsaw (1896), 110 pp.  This was an early imitation of Yitskhok Erter’s Hatsofe levet yisrael (Watchman at the house of Israel), a sharp social satire on certain aspects of Jewish ways of life.  In 1873 the Zhitomir rabbinical school closed down, and Gotlober returned to Dubno where a son-in-law of his lived.  The following year, he set out once again into the world to collect subscriptions for his Hebrew translation of Lessing’s Nathan der Weise (Nathan the wise), rendered: Natan haḥakham.  He visited numerous cities in Galicia, and he came to Vienna as well, where Perets Smolenskin helped him published the book.  Back in Dubno in 1876 he founded the journal Haboker or (Good morning), which until 1878 came out in Lemberg and thereafter was transferred to Warsaw.  The pogroms of the 1880s elicited a crisis in Gotlober’s mood.  In place of the Enlightenment’s earlier loyalty to the government, Ḥibat-tsiyon (Love of Zion, early Zionists) emerged, and in his newer poems he called on older writers to: “Go to school,” in Yidishes folksblat (Jewish people’s newspaper) 10 (St. Petersburg, 1882)—to go to Palestine (Di mame mit di kinder, der yudisher veker [The mother with her children, the Jewish alarm]) (Odessa, 1882); and he beat his chest “Al ḥet” (For the sin of…) for his earlier call for Russification and assimilation.  With Haboker or discontinued after this, in 1886 Gotlober lived for a short time in Dubno and in Rovno, and then he moved to his daughter and son-in-law in Bialystok.  The last, very valuable, and very interesting work by him in Yiddish was Zikhroynes vegn yudishe shrayber (Memoirs of Jewish writers), published in Sholem-Aleykhem’s Yudishe folks-biblyotek, vol. 1 (Kiev, 1888).
            In his final years, he became blind, and he died at the age of eighty-eight.  Gotlober’s personal reminiscences, and all the materials about his life and activities, which were of enormous value for the history of Jewish culture and literature in the nineteenth century, were translated and adapted by Ayzik (Isaac) Fridkin in his book Avrom-ber gotlober un zayn epokhe (Avrom-Ber Gotlober and his epoch) (Vilna: Kletskin, 1925), 380 pp.  An edition of his collected works in Yiddish, prepared by Zalmen Reyzen and Ayzik Fridkin, was published as the second volume of Avrom-ber gotlober un zayn epokhe in Vilna by the same publishing house in 1927, 257 pp.  Memoirs about Gotlober were written by Y. Ḥ. Zagorodski, in Sefer hashana (Yearbook) (1900), and by his student, L. Feygin, in the Bialystok serial Dos naye lebn (The new life) 14 (1925).  Gotlober’s manuscripts have been preserved by Dr. Israel Tsinberg.

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with bibliography); Z. Zilbertsvayg, Teater-leksikon, vol. 1 (with bibliography); Nokhum Shtif, Di eltere yidishe literatur (Older Yiddish literature) (Kiev, 1929), pp. 119-42; Z. Skudetski, in Tsaytshrift 5 (Minsk, 1931); Maks Erik and A. Rozentsvayg, Di yidishe literatur in XIX yorhundert Yiddish literature in the nineteenth century) (Kiev-Kharkov, 1935); Dr. Y. Tsinberg, Di geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn (The history of Jewish literature), vol. 8, book 2 (Vilna, 1936), pp. 202-15; Y. Riminik, in the anthology Mendele un zayn tsayt (Mendele and his times) (Moscow, 1940), pp. 221-25; Shmuel Niger, Dertseylers un romanistn (Storytellers and novelists) (New York, 1946), pp. 60-63; Dr. Y. Klausner, Historiya shel hasifrut haivrit haadasha (History of modern Hebrew literature), vol. 5 (Jerusalem, 1948), pp. 121-33, 331-89, 396; Sh. Lastik, Di yidishe literatur biz di klasiker (Jewish literature until the classics) (Warsaw, 1950), pp. 200-5; A. Tsaylin, in Yivo-bleter 36 (New York, 1952); Dr. Y. Shatski, Geshikhte fun yidn in varshe (History of Jews in Warsaw), vol. 3 (New York, 1953), pp. 279-81, 311; Dov Sadan, Kaarat egozim (A bowl of nuts) (Tel Aviv, 1952), see index; Y. Likhtnboym, in the anthology Hasipur haivri (The Hebrew story) (Tel Aviv, 1955), p. 516; Kh. Sh. Kazdan, Fun kheyder un shkoles biz tsisho (From religious and secular primary schools to Tsisho) (Mexico, 1956), see index; A. Dimov, in Tsukunft (New York) (April 1957); A. A. Roback, The Story of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1940), p. 88.

Yitskhok Kharlash

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