Friday 16 October 2015


            He was born in Vilna into an elite, scholarly family.  He studied in Rameyle’s Yeshiva and in the Vilna Gaon’s small synagogue.  Under the influence of ideas current at that time, he early on became follower of the Jewish Enlightenment.  He broke with his devout parents, entered the Vilna rabbinical school, and after receiving his rabbinical diploma he departed for St. Petersburg.  There he entered the university and studied philosophy and the humanities.  Romantic objectives brought about his conversion to Christianity.  He regretted, however, this rash step, departed from Russia without a permit or passport and without any means, and arrived in Berlin.  Because of the Prussian-Austrian War (1866), though, he was unable to remain there for long, and he finally reached London where his material needs compelled him to make contact with a missionary institution.  Once again he was soon overcome with feelings of regret, and with the help of the local rabbi, Dr. Nosn (Nathan) Adler, he succeeded in 1867 in making his way to Paris to study at the Sorbonne.  The missionaries, however, discover his new safe haven and took to persecuting him harshly.  To bring to an end his painful situation, in 1868 he published in Hamagid (The preacher), issues 38-40, a lengthy confession, appealing to Jewish public opinion that people forgive him his treasonous behavior and to receive him back into the fold as a faithful Jew.  The French Jewish organization Alliance Israélite Universelle came to his assistance and made it possible for him to emigrate to the United States in 1869.
            After Gersoni went through the difficult “green” period in the new country—he was a preacher in a prayer house, a town rabbi, even a guard at a summer residence—Tsvi Hirsh Bernshteyn, in 1870, offered him a job as editor of the planned weekly newspaper in Yiddish, Di post (The mail), in New York, which was the first Yiddish newspaper in America (there was earlier a hectographically produced one).  His work at Di post did not last long.  Of all the versions of the story of the rupture between him and Bernshteytn, the hypothesis seemingly close to the truth was that, as editor of the newspaper Gersoni marked a much too radical program.  In a letter of his from that time to the editor of Hashaḥar (The morning), Perets Smolenskin, he wrote that it was his aspiration “to raise his voice like a shofar and stridently protest against every temptation and against all obscurantisms.”  After leaving Di post, he took to writing in English, and he published in Chicago over the course of three years beginning in 1878 The Jewish Advance, a weekly, in English and German, and in New York in 1879 five issues of the monthly The Maccabean.  Meanwhile, for a short time, he served as a preacher in Temple Emanuel in New York, and a rabbi in Atlanta and Chicago.  In 1882 he settled for good in New York, where he contributed to the general English and to the then less well developed Yiddish press.  He published original stories in English, as well as translations from the Russian classics.  At the same he was corresponding with Hebrew periodicals in Europe, among them: Hashiloa (The shiloah), in which in 1872 he published a translation of Longfellow’s Excelsior.  In book form, he produced (in English): Sketches of Jewish Life and History, a collection of stories (originals and translations) (New York, 1872).  As a lover of Hebrew, he was one of the founders of the society Ḥoveve sefat ever (Lovers of the Hebrew language).  He died in New York.
            Gersoni was the first editor of a Yiddish publication in America which one can, with much reserve, mark as a newspaper.  “Gersoni believed,” wrote Kalmen Marmor, “that by using Yiddish solely, one was writing for Jewish women.  In his Hebrew manuscript, Sefer vesofer vesipur (Book and author and story), he thanks those authors who sought not their own honor but looked for the good and the useful—to teach their sisters in the language that they would understand.  Their reward will be found in their impact upon the next generation.”

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1; Moyshe Shtarkman, in Forverts (New York) (November 9, 1930); Shtarkman, in Di yidishe prese in amerike (The Yiddish press in America), anthology commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the Yiddish-language press in the United States (New York, 1937); E. R. Malachi, in Hadoar (New York) (November 27, 1937); Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (New York) (January 1940); E. Shulman, Geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in amerike (History of Yiddish literature in America) (New York, 1943), p. 37; K. Marmor, Der onhoyb fun der yidisher literatur in amerike (The beginning of Yiddish literature in America) (New York, 1944), pp. 101-13; Y. Khaykin, Yidishe bleter in amerike (Yiddish newspapers in America) (New York, 1946), p. 52; N. B. Minkov, in Tsukunft (April 1954); Morgn-frayhayt (New York) (November 6, 1955).

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