MIKHL GORDON (November 4, 1823-December 24, 1890)
He was born in Vilna. His father Arn-Dovid was the author of the religious text Apik neḥalim (Course of the rivers) (Vilna, 1836), written in imitation of Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s work “Layesharim tehila” (Praise be to the upright). His great uncle, Yisrael Gordon, was a rabbi in Vilna. As a child, Mikhl studied in religious primary school and later in synagogue study halls where he acquired proficiency in Tanakh and Hebrew grammar, studied Russian and German, and also began to write poems. He was a frequent visitor to Avraham Dov Lebensohn and became a close friend of his son Micha-Yosef—people used to call them: “big Mikhl” (Gordon) and “little Mikhl” (Lebensohn)—as well as with other followers of the Jewish Enlightenment in Vilna. At age twenty he married the sister of Yehuda-Leib Gordon, the subsequently famous poet, and lived for several years with his in-laws. Six years older than his brother-in-law, he had a major influence on him, awakening him to the need for an education and the Enlightenment; he also inspired in him the desire to write. The friendship between the two Gordons was not torn asunder even after Mikhl’s wife died and he remarried. His second wife was a daughter of a prominent family in New Zhager (Žagarė), and he moved there to take up residence. He lived there for over ten years. At that time he began to write poetry which “he would read in front of a circle of followers of the Jewish Enlightenment,” wrote Y. Shatski. “Shiye Shteynberg, the censor and lexicographer, offered him a piece of advice not to have those [poems] published, while his brother-in-law, Yehuda-Leib Gordon, was encouraging him to write and publish in Yiddish.” (Shatski, Kultur-geshikhte fun der haskole bay yidn in lite [Cultural history of the Jewish Enlightenment in Lithuania], p. 145). From that time, Yankev Dinezon recounted in his memoirs (published in Spektor’s Hoyzfraynd [House friend] 1  and in Shmuel Niger’s Pinkes [Records] in 1913) many interesting things in the life of Mikhl Gordon, who was then living with Dinezon’s parents “in one house, under one roof,” and the young Dinezon “had [him] on his hands.” Gordon always lived under difficult economic circumstances: he had learned no trade, received no systematic education, was unfit for the life of a merchant, and he lived a life of want. Early in the 1860s, he received a position as a bookseller from Baron Ginzburg, in Poltava, but he was unhappy with this employment. He refused to be a business representative of a large Moscow manufacturing form in Shpole (Shpola), Kiev region. He preferred to take the harsh road full of misery of a teacher and educator of the younger generation, and he had therefore to come under the support of enlightened patrons. He remained in Ukraine and was a private tutor to elite families in various cities, and in Zlatopol (Zlatopil) he earned a salary for high school students. In 1884 his second wife died in Cherkasy, and in 1889 he himself became ill with cancer. At that point in time, he was living in Pyriatyn, and from there he was brought to a hospital in Kiev where he died a half-year later. He was buried in the old Kiev cemetery, not far from the Malbim (Meyer Leybush ben Yeḥiel Mikhl Viser). On his gravestone was etched the last two stanzas of his poem “Mayn letster tog” (My final day). His death passed unnoticed in the Yiddish and Hebrew press of the time. Then, in 1891, at the time of his first yortsayt, Y. L. Peretz published a short obituary for him in the first volume of Di yudishe biblyotek (The Yiddish library). In the third volume of Spektor’s Hoyzfraynd, Shimen Frug published a poem entitled “Af mikhl gordons keyver” (At Mikhl Gordon’s grave), and Yitskhok-Yankev Vaysberg, a close friend of the late poet, published in three issues (287, 289, and 292 ) of Hamelits (The advocate) a detailed appreciation concerning him. Gordon’s first published poem appeared in the Hebrew anthology Kol bokhim (Voice of crying) in 1846. The anthology included Kalman Shulman’s translation from German of the censor Jakob Tugendhold’s eulogy at the death of Mordechai-Aharon Ginzburg, which also involved four poems by four Hebrew poets, among them Mikhl Gordon. He later published short notices and notes in Hamagid (The preacher), Hashaḥar (The dawn), Kokhve yitsḥak (The stars of Isaac), Haboker or (Good morning), Hakarmel (The Carmel), and the like. He also brought out Hebrew essays, Tiferet banim (The glory of children), a textbook for youth (St. Petersburg, 1881), and Shever gaon (Pride before a fall), a critical work on the Talmudical text Ḥad veḥalak (Plain and simple). He first published Shever gaon in 1883 with Y. Y. Vaysberg’s Gaon veshevro (Pride and its fall), also a critique of Ḥad veḥalak but in a witty form (“Halatsa” or witticism), and one year later (1884) he published Shever gaon as a separate imprint. His popularity as a writer, however, was not thanks to his Hebrew tracts, but to his Yiddish poems with which he opened up a new, distinctive chapter in the history of Yiddish poetry. He wrote a great part of his Yiddish poetic output in his younger years. The Enlightenment surroundings with their attitude toward Yiddish, however, was such that a Yiddish poet regarded his own Yiddish poetry as so much mischief, and this may have been one of the reasons for why so many of his poems were lost. In his poem, “Mayne liderekh” (My little poems), the first in his collection Yudishe lider (Yiddish poems) of 1889, he wrote: “I must tell you, my children, / You had many brothers, / I misplaced them as poor sinners / and have no longer set eyes on them.” In 1868 he first was willing to publish a collection of his poems under the title Di bord un dertsu nokh andere sheyne idishe lider (The beard and other beautiful Yiddish songs), “all by a great Hassid” (Zhitomir, 1868), 96 pp. He hid his identity behind the ironic signature of “a great Hassid,” because he feared revenge from Hassidim whom he ridiculed in the poems. He only signed the introduction to the collection as “Ger dal makh ani” (wretched stranger, poor me), which was an anagram for “Mikhl Gordon.” B. Voloderski, the author of the “Kurtse byografye fun mikhl gordon” (Short biography of Mikhl Gordon), published in Hoyzfraynd 2 (1889), wrote that Gordon did not sign his name to his first collection of poems, because he was ashamed of having written them in Yiddish. Zalmen Reyzen later repeated this contention in his Leksikon (Biographical dictionary). However, Gordon himself wrote in 1869 in his approbatory poem to Sh. Berenshteyn’s Magazin fun yudishe lider far dem yudishn folk (Storehouse of Yiddish poems for the Jewish people): “My poems have been published for the world, / As meticulously as contraband; / I have not placed my name upon them, / I feared a malicious hand. / Your Storehouse is full of kosher goods, / Sweets little poems, written in zhargon; / so I can sign my name without fear or trepidation, / your true friend Mikhl Gordon.” And, in a well-known poem, “Di bildung, di vare bildung un di falshe bildung” (Education, the true education and the false education)—in the first edition of Gordon’s poems in 1868, he titled this “Di bildungs pilin” (Education’s ??)—he wrote of teasing a young girl who can “scratch a little bit on the clavier and had already read books three and four,” wickedly and painfully: “The heart takes a turn for the worse, full of poor manners, as the first sacrifice is a bit of Yiddish.” Evidently, Gordon had a deep and abiding love for the Yiddish language, although he regarded the folk language like all the other followers of the Jewish Enlightenment, and in his famed poem of the Enlightenment, “Shtey oyf mayn folk!” (Arise, my people!) of 1869, he wrote: “You aren’t speaking a language, which anyone understands, / Your language is alien, confused, garbled, / The language of the land is clear and pure.”
In his first collection (1868) were seventeen of his early songs and poems, among them: “Der yud in goles” (The Jew in exile), “Di bildung” (Education), “Di bord” (The beard), “Der get” (The divorce), “Di mashke” (The booze), “Di shtifmuter” (The stepmother), “Di getlekhe hant” (The divine hand)—all poems known from earlier and popular due to their spread in manuscript form. In 1869 his poem “Shtey oys, mayn folk!” became well-known, and it appears that, over the course of the 1870s, no more of his poems were forthcoming. Then, in the 1880s he published his new poems in Tsederboym’s Yidishes folksblat (Jewish people’s newspaper) (supplements 8 and 9), in Spektor’s Hoyzfraynd (book 1 of 1888 and book 2 of 1889), in Familyenfraynd (Family friend) (supplement to Hoyzfraynd, 1887), and in Sholem-Aleykhem’s Yudishe folks-biblyotek (Jewish people’s library) 2 (1889). The great majority of these new poems, together with twelve of the seventeen poems from his first collection, were included in the second, enlarged edition of his poetry, Shirey m. gordon / Yidishe lider fun mikhl gordon (Poems of M. Gordon, Yiddish poems by Mikhl Gordon) (Warsaw, 1889), 112 pp. Twenty-seven songs and poems were included in this edition. The difference between the two collections was not simply in the number of poems, but also in the poet’s mood and vision which marked a change in the intervening twenty-year period. In 1869 in his approbatory poem to Berenshteyn’s Magazin fun yudishe lider far dem yudishn folk, Gordon expressed his poetic self-characterization: “I have sung a handful of songs, / Not because I have the nature of a singer, / But when I see the cases of my brothers, / My heart within me bursts.” Gordon witnessed his poetic publications in those years in protest, awakening, reproving, and instruction. In 1889, though, in his aforementioned “Mayne liderekh,” one sees something else: “There lay Yisroelik bruised, beaten, / He had to be consoled, entertained; / What good is his crying, his lamentations, / To stir his wounds.” He accompanied the old poems which he reissued in the new edition with notes and annotations with the goal of correcting and clarifying many of his previous notions, because he was already disappointed in himself. In his poem “Der yud in goles,” for example, he had written in the 1860s: “Soon it will be 2,000 years that I, a Jew, will have walked around—despised everywhere, moaning like a worm…, but people have now become wiser…. Quick, make a blessing to the redeemer of Israel.” In 1889, he added in a comment here: “Owing to our great sins, suddenly a new wild beast with iron horns [meaning: anti-Semitism] has been born atop the Jew…. All magnificent hopes have burst like a vial of soap bubbles.” At the time, Gordon adapted this widely known and oft recited poem to his changed viewpoint, and in a newly added stanza he wrote: “The troubles have overcome my strength; strengthen me, God, to bear up under the troubles and remain a Jew.” In the great Enlightenment program poem, “Shtey oyf, mayn folk!,” in 1869, he had courageously sought to awaken the Jew from slumber, because “The sun long ago set on the world.” In 1889, it would appear that the poet did not conform to the new times: “It was good”—he wrote by way of annotation—“in 1869 when the Jew had good prospects, good hopes.” In 1889 he no longer believed in the “good will of the government,” and was generally disappointed in life. His lyrical, philosophical poems of the 1880s “Mayn letster tog,” “Mayne yorn” (My years), and “Mayn lebnstsayt” (My vital years), which demonstrated that his poetic talent was so much stronger that in his Enlightenment poems, had an elegiac, melancholy Koheleth-like tone. In the 1889 edition, Gordon included his oldest Yiddish poem—“Fun der khupe” (From the wedding canopy)—“from the wedding canopy to the feast, I’m left, I’m left holding the bag”—and “Mayn deye” (My influence), which was also in the first edition, and for both poems he added a long introduction concerning the old-fashioned Jewish lifestyle, with the early weddings, with their bringing into the world large families without worry and without planning for the future, and with the veil on the young girl against her will. In the later edition were also included: the popular poems, “Di bord” and “Der get”—“You’re still here, Mr. Jew, in Poltava, and so you’ve seen my husband”—the anti-Hassidic poems “Mayn vide” (My confession of sins), “Mayn tshuve” (My penance), “Der borsht” (The borsht), “A naye moyfes” (A new miracle), and others; the anti-heder poem “A moshl” (A tale); the touching poem “Di shtifmuter”; the popular song “Di mashke” which is still sung today as a folksong (in the arrangement of M. Varshavski); the poignantly social poem “Yoytse zayn far der velt” (Repaying the world), and others as well.
With the publication of Gordon’s collection Yudishe lider in 1889, Shimen Frug in his poem “Tsu mikhl gordon” (published later with his poem “Af mikhl gordons keyver” in Spektor’s Hoyzfraynd 3 ) wrote to Gordon: “I see your Yiddish muse dressed in ordinary, old-fashioned Jewish clothing; they are, though, sewn well with strong and kosher thread…. The Yiddish muse!... The ancient orphan without a father and without a mother carrying on their shoulders a sack of rhymes.” Gordon succeeded in transforming this “sack with rhymes” into robust verses, and he thereby opened the way for Frug and other Yiddish poets. In the 1860s he carried around a plan to publish in Yiddish a series of popular scholarly booklets on history, geography, and natural science, but he lacked all material means and ultimately only succeeded, with partial help from the society “Mefitse haskalah” (Society for the promotion of enlightenment [among the Jews of Russia]), in publishing the first part of Di geshikhte fun rusland (The history of Russia)—“here we shall recount in ordinary Yiddish language the entire history of the Russian people, all the stories that have transpired in Russia since it became a state until contemporary times”—(Zhitomir, 1869), 214 pp. This book was an adaptation from Russian, and it was written in a nationalistic spirit of devotion to the government that characterized the Jewish Enlightenment. A. Kupernik wrote in detail about this book in Kol mevaser 11 (1869), and later Zalmen Reyzen did as well in his Leksikon.
Sources: Yevreyskaya entsiklopediya (Jewish encyclopedia) (St. Petersburg), vol. 6, pp. 696-97; Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with a bibliography); Y. Dinezon, in Hoyzfraynd 1 (1888); Dinezon, in Der pinkes (ed. Shmuel Niger) (Vilna, 1913), pp. 149-54; Y. Entin, Yidishe poetn (Jewish poets), vol. 1 (New York, 1927), p. 79; Nokhum Shtif, Di eltere yidishe literatur (Older Yiddish literature) (Kiev, 1929), pp. 143-67; A. Litvin, in the anthology Lite (Lithuania), ed. Y. Yeshurin (New York, 1935), republished from Tsukunft (New York) 1 and 2 (1915); Itsik Manger, Noente geshtaltn (Proximate images) (Warsaw, 1938), pp. 153-60; Kh. Gordon-Mlotek, in Yivo-bleter 35 (1951), pp. 299-311; Dr. Y. Shatski, Kultur-geshikhte fun der haskole bay yidn in lite (Cultural history of the Jewish Enlightenment in Lithuania) (Buenos Aires, 1950), see index; Shmuel Niger, in Lite 1 (New York, 1951), pp. 799-816; Y, Fikhman, Regnboygn (Rainbow) (Buenos Aires, 1953), pp. 227, 228; B. Wachstein, Die hebräische Publizistik in Wien (Vienna, 1930).