BEN-TSIYON KATS (BENZION KATZ) (December 1870-February 3, 1958)
He was born in Doig (Daugai), Vilna district, the son of a local rabbi. Until age eighteen he studied with his father, acquiring a reputation as the “Doig child prodigy”—at the time of his Bar Mitzvah he was already proficient in Mishnah. He taught himself secular subject matter. His writing career began with a string of essays in Hatsfira (The siren), in which he came out against the rabbi’s stringencies in Jewish law vis-à-vis kosher and treyf. Shortly thereafter, he published a composition on this very matter (Warsaw, 1895). This short work pushed the young author to a place of honor in the Lithuanian scholarly world. At the time he had already acquired a considerable degree of knowledge in secular subject matter, but by contrast to the majority of young lads of his sort, he evinced no signs of heresy, and he wrote about the Talmud with love and reverence. In that same year, 1895, he published the booklet: Or noga al sheme hatalmud, bishelosha maamarim (Bright light on the heavens of the Talmud, in three essays) (Warsaw, 58 pp.), in which he attempted to explain in a simple but profound manner a series of difficult, entangled passages in the Talmud. He was at this time already corresponding with an entire array of brilliant Jews and, to the invitation from the well-known Orientalist, Baron Horatio Ginzburg, Kats moved to St. Petersburg and there turned his attention to research on Jewish history. At the recommendation of the famed Professor Daniel Chwolson, he was accepted as a free auditor at St. Petersburg University, where he diligently studied in the field of Orientalism and Semitics for three years’ time. Aside from Baron Ginzburg and Professor Chwolson, he also at that time came to know such learned Jews in St. Petersburg as: Dr. Katsenelson (Buki ben Yogli), Professor Baksht, and Constantine (Kalman-Abba) Shapiro—they all encouraged him in his research work in the field of Jewish history. In 1898 he published a book in the field of Russian Jewish history, Lekorot hayehudim berusiya, polin, velita, bishenot meot hashesh esre vehasheva esreh (Toward a history of Jews in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) (Berlin, 64 pp.), which in 1899 was awarded the then exceedingly prominent Tsaytlin Prize. In this book he compiled questions-and-answers materials for the history of Jews in Russia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet, he was unable to remain solely with scholarly work for long, as there grew within him the temperament of a fighting journalist, and in 1903 he founded the newspaper Hazman (The times) in St. Petersburg, which in late 1904 he took to Vilna where he had been lured by publishers, F. Margolin and Ben-Avigdor, among others (in St. Petersburg, the newspaper had as a supplement quarterlies in which he published the first portion of his major work, Lekorot hayehudim berusiya, polin, velita). Also that year he succeeded in gaining from the authorities permission to bring out a daily newspaper in Yiddish: Di tsayt (The times), which was published by Hazman for several months in 1905-1906. Both newspapers under his editorship had considerable success. His articles after the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 were published as well in the foreign press and aroused the Jewish world. During the events of revolutionary October in 1905, Kats took a revolutionary line in both of his newspapers, and when the deputies from the liquidated first state Duma assembled in Vyborg, Finland, and issued their famed clarion call to resistance against Tsarism, Kats published the text of their call in Hazman. The authorities then closed down the newspaper—it soon reappeared under the title Had hazman (Echo of the times)—and the editor was sentenced to one year in prison which he served at the Grodno Fortress. At the sorrowful, well-known trial of Mendel Beilis in 1912, he played a significant role in unmasking the priest Justinas Pranaitis. With Hazman and later Had hazman, Kats modernized the Hebrew press at the time. Intellectually close to the territorialists, he was also a friend of Yiddish and brought into the Hebrew press a tolerance and respect for Yiddish and for Yiddish literature. WWI broke out while he was in Germany, and when he returned to Vilna, he described the experiences of his trip in the daily Der fraynd (The friend), which F. Margolin was then publishing. In the spring of 1915, Had hazman ceased publication and Kats moved to Mexico, where after the March Revolution of 1917 he published the Hebrew weekly Haam (The people). In 1920 he was an expert on behalf of Lithuania in concluding the Soviet-Lithuanian peace, and he then departed for Kovno and in his official position, which he held onto for a fair period of time, he helped Jewish writers escape from Soviet Russia.
In 1922 Kats settled in Berlin and from there began intensive journalistic and literary activity in Yiddish. He contributed pieces to: Morgn-zhurnal (Morning journal) in New York; Haynt (Today) in Warsaw; Di tsayt in London; Dos folk (The people) in Riga; and Idishe tsaytung (Jewish newspaper) in Buenos Aires. Aside from journalistic articles, Kats also published serially in Morgn-zhurnal a string of important essays, such as: “Idishe firer fun mendelson un vilner goen biz der letster tsayt” (Jewish leaders from Mendelssohn and the Vilna Gaon until recent times), a series of articles on significant political leaders in Russia until the Revolution, articles on history in recent years, and the like. Knowledgeable about the Soviet regime, Kats in his journalistic pieces between the two world wars became highly concerned about Jewish and general matters in the Soviet Union. In 1931 he left for the land of Israel, where he was received as a veteran of the Hebrew press in Tsarist Russia and as a respectable Jewish scholar and modern journalist. In Tel Aviv he contributed for a time to Haarets (The land), later going on to establish and edit Haboker (This morning). He also continued contributing to the Yiddish press in all Jewish communities. In his later years he published his memoirs in all the major Jewish newspapers—a mixture of historical documentation and depictions of a way of life. He also edited Haavar (The past), a quarterly periodical for research in Jewish history of recent times. He published in Hebrew: Manhigim yehudiyim metekufat mendelson vehagaon mivilna vead yemenu ela (Jewish leaders from the age of Mendelssohn and the Gaon of Vilna until our own times) and Divre yeme hayehudim bizman aleksander hashlishi venikolai hasheni (Jewish history in the era of Alexander III and Nikolai II). In 1947 his historical work Perushim, tsedokim, kanaim, notsrim, shita ḥadasha beḥeker divre yeme yisrael (Pharisees, Sadducees, Zeolots, and Christians: A new method for the study of the history of Israel) (Tel Aviv, 414 pp.) was published—in it he argued against the position held by general historiography regarding that era that was linked to the rise of Christianity. He remained as dynamic and temperamental as always until his final days. He was interested in everything and everyone, and he reacted to every event of the time. In 1947, when the U.N. had to decide on the fate of the land of Israel, he published a pamphlet, in which he insisted on the historical rights that Arabs, too, had in Israel, and—as he himself was later to write in 1956—the pamphlet: “is being widely disseminated in the land, but I cannot say that it will fulfill its objective.” He died in Tel Aviv. After his death the publishing house of Devir (Tel Aviv) published the second volume: Rabanut, ḥasidut, haskala, letoldot hatarbut hayisraelit misof hamea ha-16 ad reshit hamea ha-19 (Rabbinate, Hassidism, Enlightenment, history of Israeli culture, from the end of the sixteenth century until the early nineteenth century) (1956-1958), 2 vols. Later still: Al itonim veanshim (On newspapers and people) (Tel Aviv, 1983), 170 pp.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2; Avrom Reyzen, Epizodn fun mayn lebn (Episodes from my life), vol. 1 (New York, 1951), pp. 1075-76; Dr. Joseph Klausner, Darkhe likerat ha-tehiya vehageula, autobiyografya, 1874-1944 (Roads toward revival and redemption, an autobiography, 1874-1944), pp. 100, 146, 156, 325; Meylekh Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon (My lexicon), vol. 3 (Montreal, 1958), p. 478; Y. D. Berkovitsh, in Forverts (New York) (February 15, 191931; March 1, 1931; January 22, 1933); A. Yoel, in Hadoar (New York) (Tevet 1 [= December 16], 1955); D. Eynhorn, in Forverts (October 14, 1956; October 28, 1956); M. Osherovitsh, in Forverts (February 8, 1958); Haavar (Tel Aviv) (Elul [August-September] 1958); Ḥ. Orlan, in Hadoar (February 20, 1959); Dr. Shloyme Bikl, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (December 6, 1959); Y. Kahan, Unter di sovetishe himlen (Under Soviet skies) (Tel Aviv, 1961), pp. 164, 165.
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 310.]