YEHUDA-LEYB (JUDAH LEIB) GORDON (December 7, 1830-September 16, 1892)
He was born in Vilna, into a well-off Orthodox family. By age eleven he was already adjudged to be a child prodigy. At sixteen he was skilled at Talmud—later, under the influence of his brother-in-law, the poet Mikhl Gordon (see Igrot yehuda leb gordon [Letters of Yehuda-Leyb Gordon], vol. 1, p. 170), he went on to learn about the Jewish Enlightenment and secular education. He studied Russian, Polish, German, and French, and embraced the followers of the Enlightenment movement in Vilna, especially Mikhl Lebenzon (Micah Lebensohn). Just as his material condition at the time was dire (his father became impoverished and could no longer help him out), he went to study in the rabbinical school in Vilna, sat for the graduation examinations in 1852, and became a teacher initially in the Russian-Jewish state school in Ponevezh (Panevezys), later in Shavel (Šiauliai) where he founded a girls’ school, and in Telz where he served as the school manager. In his teaching years, he studied European literature and ancient languages, and he published his first poetic works which brought him considerable renown and accorded him honor in the world of Hebrew literature. Among these works were: the poem Ahavat david umikhal (The love of David and Michal) (1856); the collection Mishle yehuda (Yehuda’s fables) (1860), adapted from Aesop, La Fontaine, Krylov, and the Talmud, and masterly adjusted to Jewish coloring and to performances for Jewish children, with an ample historical, scholarly introduction on fables generally; and Shire yehuda (Yehuda’s songs) (1866). Gordon also wrote prose and contributed to such Russian Jewish and German Jewish serial publications as: Razsviet (Dawn), Sion (Zion), Yevreiskaya biblioteka (Jewish bibliography), and Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums (General newspaper on Judaism). In 1872 he moved to St. Petersburg, where he assumed the position of secretary to the “Khevre mefitse haskole” (Society for the promotion of enlightenment [among the Jews of Russia]), and from there, in the name of the Enlightenment’s ideals, he led a struggle against the hardened forms of traditional Jewishness and thereby forged the slogan “Be a Jew in your tent [home] and a man on the street” which soon became the credo of the Jewish Enlightenment in Russia. In 1879 during the rabbinical election in St. Petersburg, Gordon was arrested because of a false accusation and a denunciation, and together with his wife he was deported to Pudazh, Olonets district. Thanks, however, to the intercession of a friend, several months later he was freed (see his description of this episode in Perezhitoie [Past] 4 ). Following his return to St. Petersburg, he became assistant editor of Hamelits (The advocate), where he published editorials and literary critical articles, as well as spirited feature pieces under the pseudonym “Azov.” Gordon wrote a great deal about Hebrew literature, under the pen name “Mivaker” (reviewer), for the Russian-language Voskhod (Sunrise), in which he also published (nos. 1-2, 1881) a pioneering investigation of the history of the Jewish community in St. Petersburg, and in various Hebrew journals such as Hashaḥar (The dawn). In the Russian encyclopedia of Brockhaus and Efron, he published a series of Judaic articles. From his Hebrew writings of the 1870s and 1880s, his poems made a particularly strong impression—works such as: “Ben shne arayot” (Between two lions), “Tsidkiyahu babayit hapekudot” (Tsidkiyahu [Zedekiah] in prison), written in exile, “Shne yosef ben shimen” (Two Josephs, sons of Shimon), “Kotso shel yod” (The dot of a yod), a heartrending description of the sufferings of a Jewish woman due to the obscurantism of Jewish society), and “Lemi ani amel?” (For whom do I labor?), an expression of the poet’s deep disappointment in the last period of his life and works. The two-volume work Igrot yehuda leb gordon also has great historical and cultural value. In the last years of his life, Gordon suffered from cancer. He underwent an operation in 1891 in Berlin, but without positive results. He returned to St. Petersburg, and there one year later, all alone, an embittered man, he died.
Gordon is part of the history of Jewish literature not simply as the great poet of the Jewish Enlightenment, but also as the creator of a new style in Hebrew literature for Mendele. His collected writings in Hebrew have been published and republished several times. “The Jewish Nekrasov” (as he was dubbed by Shimon Dubnov in Voskhod, no. 7, 1884) was applied to him unsympathetically vis-à-vis the Yiddish language. Until the end of his life, he did not think highly of “zhargon.” His often-cited answer (1889) to Sholem-Aleykhem’s invitation to contribute something to Yudishe folks-biblyotek (Jewish people’s library) went, inter alia: “I do not agree with the survival of zhargon, which is glued to us like leprosy throughout the long ages of our dispersion…. Speaking zhargon is the same as strolling across Nevsky Prospekt, dressed in the traditional four-cornered undergarment of the Orthodox.” For his part, he was chastising Sholem-Aleykhem as to why he was wasting his strength on this “zhargon” instead of writing in Russian or Hebrew. However, Gordon himself over the course of thirty years also wrote in Yiddish. True, he did not use it seriously: “to make a fool of myself with zhargon”—as he put it in a letter to Dovid Frishman. He did not even want to sign his name beneath one of his poems that was published in a Yiddish serial at the time. Irrespective of all this, he and his Yiddish poems inscribed his own chapter in the history of Yiddish poetry. The first of his published poems in Yiddish (which he signed “L. Gordon”) appeared in Kol mevaser (Herald) (no. 11, March 17-29, 1866): “Der muter abshyed” (The mother’s farewell [to her child in the year 1845]). In this poem the poet sang the sorrows of the fate of the Jewish recruit who would have “to live in barracks for twenty-five dark years” and expressed the hope that he would both serve the Tsar faithfully and not forget his Jewishness. Later, in the 1880s, Gordon published his Yiddish poems primarily in Yidishes folksblat (Jewish daily newspaper) in St. Petersburg. In the first issue of this newspaper (January 1881), his poem “Zmir lesimḥat hatora” (Song to the joy of the Torah) was published and signed “G.” In issue no. 2 of the same year, he published “Unzere libe shvester un brider” (Our beloved sisters and brothers) which he left unsigned. This last poem does not appear in Gordon’s collection of Yiddish poems. In issue no. 5, same year, he published “Der bal loshn” (The master of language), signed: Y”L Gordon. In issue no. 14 (1883), he published “Ikev hakriye” (Inhibition to reading), again anonymous and with the heading “feature,” a story of old, a compelling social satire of the criminal “recruit irregularities” in the Jewish community of the time, of the “rabbi and the gabbay, the two moraines, murderers and bandits,” who have “thrown in the barracks” a poor woman’s son in place of the gabbay’s kid. Later, after the appearance of Gordon’s Yiddish poetry collection, Siḥat ḥulin (Ordinary conversation), there was published in Yidishes folksblat (Jewish people’s newspaper), no. 21 (May 21, 1887), under the title “Shikhes khulin fun tsvey talmide khakhomim” (Ordinary conversation of two scholars), an occasional poem dedicated to Professor Getsl Zelikovitsh. The was later included in the second edition of Siḥat ḥulin together with Zelikovitsh’s response poem which was published in Yudishe gazeten (Jewish gazette), a weekly supplement to Yidishe tageblat in New York, edited by Zelikovitsh. In issue nos. 18 and 20 (March 16 and 30, 1889), Yidishes folksblat published Gordon’s literary critical feature entitled “A kol mayrev leyam” (A voice west of the sea), with a subtitle: “On the new zhargon fiction.” In 1881-1882 he also wrote about domestic and foreign news for Folksblat.
In 1885-1886, according to the initiative of the bookseller and actor Eliezer-Yitskhok Shapiro, a collection of Gordon’s Yiddish poems appeared with the title Siḥat ḥulin, lider in der folksshprakh (Ordinary conversation, poems in the vernacular) (Warsaw, 1886), 92 pp.; it carried an introduction: “A word to the male and female readers from the publisher of these poems,” written in “Warsaw, September 15, 1885.” The publisher regretted in this introduction that “our Hebrew writers are ashamed on the whole of writing in zhargon,” and he was pleased that he was successful in getting Gordon to “have these poems, written in pure zhargon, brought out in print.” Dovid Frishman advised Gordon to issue his Yiddish poems in book form. The poet finally yielded, but he expressed his sole connection to this entire matter with the name itself: Siḥat ḥulin or everyday, ordinary conversations. In the collection with the poem “Mekhile-betn” (Asking for forgiveness), the poet expressed his scornful attitude toward Yiddish: “Beloved readers, I beg your forgiveness…as I have spoken to you in my stories, half in Yiddish and Judeo-Byelorussian…. The language of the Tsene urene is sacred to me,... the language of my great-grandmother Khyene, may she have a glorious paradise.” The second poem was simply beautiful, “Far vemen shrayb ikh?” (For whom do I write?)—Gordon’s credo in his Yiddish poems—and here the artist took the upper hand to the Enlightenment crusader (“My sisters and my brothers, who toil the entire week—the peddler with his heavy bundle, the coachman on his wagon, the broker in the market, the innkeeper and the shopkeeper, the Jewess embarrassed and the saloonkeeper with her glasses…. For you my brothers and sisters, I have compiled as a pastime this small booklet of poems.”) “Di yunge yorn” (The young years), a depiction of the lives of Jewish children in years gone by; “Der bal loshn,” a satire on assimilated followers of the Jewish Enlightenment; “Der koolsher indik” (The communal turkey), a satire on the old village rabbi; the unforgettable satire on past community life, entitled “Vos iz bay der asife geblibn?” (What remained from the meeting?); the aforementioned “recruit” description, “Ikev hakriye” and “Der muter abshyed”; the humorous “Lider fun der redavke” (Poems of a re-dafke)—all these and others were socially serious in content but light and playful in form. Gordon’s Yiddish poems had great success, and three years later (1889) a second “improved and enlarged” edition was published with several “opportune poems” added at the end. The final, fourth edition came out from the publishing house of Mortkhe Katsenelboygn (Vilna, 1899, 104 pp.), with a new, short preface from the publisher. (By mistake, into his poem Siḥat ḥulin was inserted—and later consciously republished by the publisher—the poem “Tsvey khsidim” [Two Hassids] by N. Goldberg, known by the name Baron Tarnegol [chicken], a popular parody of the contemporary, well-known poem, “Di grenadire” [The grenadiers]). Some of Gordon’s Hebrew works were translated into Yiddish by other writers, among them: “Stsenen fins yudishn lebn” (The Jewish life of ?), a “story, translated by Kh. P.” (Kol mevaser, 1872, issue nos. 4 and thereafter); “Iber a pintele” (Over a dot), “the celebrated Hebrew poem, ‘Kotso shel yod,’…in a free yet faithful translation…by Yitskhok Yoyel Linetski, Odessa, 1903”); “Barburim avusim” (Fattened swans), translated by A. Domeratski (Yidishes folksblat, supplement, 1888, no. 1). Paltiel Zamoshtshin translated “Bemitsulot hayam” (Amid the refuse of the sea) without the permission of the author and published it in the anthology Dos heylike land (The holy land) (Zhitomir, 1891) (in Gordon’s journal in Heavar [The past], Petrograd, 1918, no. 2, p. 21). His “Kotso shel yod” was also translated by the Enlightenment figure from Lemberg, Yitskhok-Leyb Hertser (1887), but he died that very year, and his translation was not published (see Gordon’s journal, p. 23). Just after Gordon’s own death, Yudishe gazeten (New York, October 12, 1892) published G. Zelikovitsh’s obituary for him (“Der litvisher filozof” [The Lithuanian philosopher]) and Morris Rozenfeld’s “Klage lid af yude-leyb gordon” (A mourning poem for Yehuda Leyb Gordon).
Sources: Igrot yehuda leb gordon, comp. and ed. Y. Y. Vaysberg, 2 volumes (Warsaw, 1894-1895); Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with a bibliography); M. Vintshevski, in Tsukunft (New York) (October 1907); Dr. A. Ginzburg, in Tsukunft (February 1913), pp. 132-38; E. R. Malachi, in Tsukunft (September 1917); “Omeni shel y. l. gordon” (My faith in Y. L. Gordon), Haavar 2 (1918), p. 18; Dr. A. Tsipruni, in Hadoar (New York) (January 29, 1922); Malachi, in Hadoar (August 17, 1923); Y. Entin, ed., Yidishe poetn (Yiddish poets), part 1 (New York, 1927), p. 87; Nokhum Shtif, Di eltere yidishe literatur (Older Yiddish literature) (Kiev, 1929), pp. 176-92; articles by Malachi, M. Ribalov, and P. Lipavtski, in the special issue of Hadoar for Gordon (December 26, 1930); Malachi, in Pinkes, vol. 2.1 (New York, 1929), pp. 80-84; Shoyl Ginzburg, in Tsukunft (November 1930; May 1931); Sh. L. Tsitron, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (February 6, 1931); N. Mayzil, Literarishe bleter (January 9, 1931); Nosn Grinblat, Yude-leyb gordon (Kovno, 1931), 79 pp.; Sh. Ginzburg, in Tsukunft (March-April 1932); Sh. Dubnov, in Tog (New York) (December 10, 1932); Sh. Rozenfeld, in the anthology Vilne (Vilna), ed. Yeshurin (New York, 1935), pp. 457-65; M. Rabinovitsh, “Y. l. gordon a nit gedrukte lid” (An unpublished poem by Y. L. Gordon), Yivo-bleter (Vilna) 13 (1938), pp. 629-30; Y. Sh. Yudelovits, in Afrikaner yidishe tsaytung (Johannesburg) (September 7, 1945); R. Brainin, Fun mayn lebns-geshikhte (From my book of life) (New York: IKUF, 1946), pp. 336-40; 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; Y. Likhtenboym, Sofrenu mimapu ad byalik (Our literature from Mapu to Bialik) (Jerusalem, 1950); Dov Sadan, ed., Kaarat tsimukim o elef bediha ubediha, asufat humor beyisrael (A bowl of raisins or one thousand and one jokes, an anthology of humor in Israel) (Tel Aviv, 1952); Shmuel Niger, in Zamlbukh lite (Anthology Lithuania), vol. 1 (New York, 1951), p. 813; Y. Fikhman, preface to Kitve yehuda leb gordon (The writings of Yehuda Leyb Gordon) (Tel Aviv, 1950); A. Ben-Or, Toldot hasifrut haivrit haḥadasha (History of modern Hebrew literature), vol. 1 (Tel Aviv, 1951), pp. 202-52; A. Tsaytlin, in Yivo-bleter 34 (1952), pp. 99-113; Moyshe Shtarkman, in Goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 17 (1955), pp. 236-40; Dov Sadan, Kaarat egozim o elef bediha ubediha, asufat humor beyisrael (A bowl of nuts or one thousand and one jokes, an anthology of humor in Israel) (Tel Aviv, 1953), see index; A. Avrunin, Meḥkarim belashon byalik veyalag (Studies in the language of Bialik and Y. L. Gordon) (Tel Aviv, 1953); G. Bader, Mayne zikhrones (My memoirs) (Buenos Aires, 1953), pp. 387-93; Dr. Y. Klausner, Historiya shel hasifrut haivrit haḥadasha (History of modern Hebrew literature), vol. 4 (Jerusalem, 1954), pp. 301-466; Y. Likhtenboym, ed., Hasipur haivri (The Hebrew story) (Tel Aviv, 1955), p. 517; Amerike in yidishn vort, antologye (America in the Yiddish word, anthology) (New York, 1955), see index; Shloyme Slutski, Avrom reyzen biblyografye (Avrom Reyzen bibliography) (New York, 1956), no. 4680; R. Goldberg, in Orlogin (February 1957).