NOKHUM SOKOLOV (NAHUM SOKOLOW) (January 10, 1859-May 17, 1936)
He was born in Vishegrad (Wyszogród), Plotsk (Płock) region, Poland, into a family that drew its pedigree back to Rabbi Natan Nata Shpiro, the “Megale amukot” (Revealer of depths) [1585-1633]. At age three he was already in religious elementary school; at age five he moved with his parents to Płock where he studied under his father’s purview and later in synagogue study hall. He was studying Talmud with commentaries at age ten, and he soon had gained fame as a prodigy. His father wanted him to become a rabbi and stood by him earnestly in the Torah world, but in his thirst for knowledge about secular things as well, at age eight Sokolov secretly kept dictionaries and grammars and began to learn foreign languages. Thanks to a phenomenal memory, he quickly mastered numerous European languages, and under the influence of various people close to him, including among them the governor of Płock, Baron Wrangel, who was acquainted with the Sokolov family, Sokolov’s father and grandfather finally allowed the young Sokolov to take private lessons with professors (tutors) from the Płock high school, when he was free from his synagogue studies. He thus went through the high school course of study and was always thankful thereafter to his teachers, the Polish professors Maslawski, Debicki, and Schultz, who taught him Latin, Greek, and history. His teachers wanted him to prepare himself for subsequent examinations for higher education. This alarmed his father and grandfather, and they decided that there was no time to lose to have him sent away from this heresy-laden Płock. So he left Płock and began going from one rebbe to another, wrote his own Torah novellae, and was exhaustive with learning. At the same time he was reading secular books. When he returned to Płock, he and his friends began to publish a handwritten newspaper, Hashoshana (The rose), in which he placed poems and translations from Schiller and Shakespeare. At that time as well, he began sending in correspondence pieces to the Hebrew-language press, mainly to Hamelits (The advocate). He married a relative at age eighteen, Regine Segal, an intelligent young woman from Makov (Maków), who encouraged him greatly in his literary ambitions. For a certain period of time, he became a wool merchant and to that end traveled to Bukhara and Kavkaz. In 1874 he debuted in print with a correspondence piece from Płock in the Galician periodical Ivri anokhi (I am Jewish), published in Brody. In 1877 he published a translation of a handbook of geography, Metsuke erets o yesode yediat hageografiya hativit (The precipices of the earth or basic information on natural geography) (Warsaw, 1877), 96 pp. He also wrote essays for Hamagid (The preacher), in which he placed (unsigned) his work Letora veleteuda (On Torah and duty), which appeared over time in installments and raised quite a stir. He published numerous articles in Hakol (The voice) in Königsberg and therein conducted a lengthy polemic with the first writers of the Jewish Enlightenment. From Maków he also wrote in German, in Rohmer’s literary newspaper and in Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums (General newspaper of Jewish affairs) in Bonn; and in French for Archives israélites (Jewish records). In 1879 he settled in Warsaw, where he became a regular contributor (later, also editor) of Hatsfira (The siren), initially published weekly and later daily. Through Hatsfira his influence began with his weekly survey of Jewish life, entitled “Hatsofe levet yisrael” (Observer of the House of Israel) and later with his daily political notes entitled “Divre hayamim” (Chronicles). He also wrote literary critical essays, popular historical and philosophical treatments, and travel narratives; his feature piece “Mishabat leshabat” (From Sabbath to Sabbath)—in the style of the informal French “causerie”—was a huge success with readers. He also published short novellas and poetry, and he tried as well to write a long novel from Roman times (Neure hanesher or Youth of the eagle). As a supplement for everyone, he published and edited Haasif (The harvest), an annual Hebrew anthology, to which well-known Jewish scholars, story writers, and poets contributed work—these anthologies, six in all, encompass from 600 to 1,600 pages annually. Sokolov also published and edited four volumes of Sefer hashana (Yearbook). He published the books: Erets ḥemda (Desirable country), a history and geography of the land of Israel (Warsaw, 1885) 191 pp.; Sinat olam laam olam (Eternal hatred for the eternal people), on anti-Semitism (Warsaw, 1882), 309 pp.; and Torat sefat anglit (Rules of the English language), a textbook for English (1882). He began but did not complete an epic of Jewish life in Poland under the title “Napolyon min hageto” (Napoleon of the ghetto); twelve or thirteen chapters of this work were published only after his death.
His first work in Yiddish was Naye praktishe methode der englishen shprakhe (New practical method for the English language), “to master in a short time without any help from a teacher to write and speak English freely, and a new, very simple system, originally worked out by N. Sokolov” (Warsaw: A. Tsukerman, 1904), 96 pp.—this work went through sixteen editions, each with roughly 10,000 copies. Characteristic of his ties to Yiddish at this time is the foreword to this book, in which he writes: “As for the method of practical uses to which this may be put for each individual without exception, educated or uneducated, I use in the explanation and in the translation an easy Judeo-German, for with a base zhargon one will be unable to use a living European language to make proper adjustments, and therefore I stand midway, neither to proper German nor to common gibberish.” Later, though, when Warsaw became, thanks to Y. L. Perets, the center of modern Yiddish literature, Sokolov ceased to think of Yiddish as a “base zhargon” and became a Yiddish writer himself. He soon turned away from his Germanized gibberish and demonstrated in Yiddish that he was a splendid stylist and spirited feature writer. His Yiddish debut (using the name Amitai) actually took place in Perets’s Yudishe biblyotek (Jewish library) 3 (1891), pp. 173-91: “Rabi nakhmen krokhmal, a shmues in vagon” (Rabbi Nachman Krochmal, a chat on a train)—a treatment in a semi-fictional form with tendencies toward enlightenment concerning the famed thinker from Żółkiew. A large portion of his essays in Ishim (Personages) were initially written in Yiddish and then translated into Hebrew, especially the entry for A. Shlonski. His systematic activities as a writer in Yiddish began in the years around Der telegraf (The telegraph), the daily Yiddish newspaper which he founded in late 1905 in Warsaw after the collapse of Hatsfira. He would on a virtually daily basis publish articles under various and sundry pseudonyms. Of these one should tale particular note of his feature “Yidish” (Yiddish), written as an example of how one ought write Yiddish in connection with the polemic that was then going on in literary circles around introducing German words into the Yiddish language. Living in London in 1906, he also wrote numerous articles for Yudishe velt (Jewish world), the Yiddish supplement to the well-known weekly The Jewish World, published by the Westernized, English community leader Lucian Wolf. He later contributed to Yidishes tageblat (Jewish daily newspaper) and Yudishe gazetten (Jewish gazette) in New York, and even later for Haynt (Today) in Warsaw, with articles entitled “Fun mayn literarishn notits-bukh” (From my literary notebook), as well as “A serye brif tsu der yidisher froy” (A series of letters to the Jewish woman). On several occasions he also came out to defend the Yiddish language against its enemies (he made a particular impression with his article, “Hip-hip keneged hazhargon” [Opposition to zhargon] in Hazman [The times]). Only a small number of his Yiddish journalistic efforts is included in the volume of his Oysgeveylte shriftn (Selected writings) (Warsaw: P. Kantorovitsh, 1912), 158 pp. Also, translated into Yiddish—in the daily newspaper Dos yudishe folk (The Jewish people) in Warsaw (1919)—are chapters from his English work, History of Zionism (1918). Initially, Sokolov took no side with respect to the Zionist movement, was close to the Polish Jewish organ Izraelita (Israelite), and warmly supported (in Hatsfira) emigration to Argentina. As an opponent of “Ḥibat tsiyon” (Love of Zion), he was publicly opposed Dr. Pinsker’s Selbstemanzipation (Auto-emancipation) and Herzl’s Der Judenstaat (The state of the Jews), but later, after the first Zionist Congress in Basel, he became a firm adherent of Herzl and later (around 1901-1902) he also contributed to the weekly newspaper Di velt (The world), the central organ of the World Zionist Organization. Sokolov translated Herzl’s Altneuland (Old-New land) into Hebrew. When Hatsfira closed its doors, Sokolov settled in Köln, and there he served as the main administrator of the movement. Around 1907 he helped to found the Hebrew journal Haolam (The world). Several years later, when Hatsfira was revived, he returned to Warsaw. When WWI broke out, Sokolov—now a leader in the Zionist movement—settled in London. Following the announcement of the Balfour Declaration (1918), he became the ambassador of Zionism to the world, visited dozens of cities and countries, addressed conferences, gave innumerable speeches and lectures, and engaged in talks with well-known political leaders throughout the world. He was chairman of the Zionist Executive under the presidency of Dr. Chaim Weizmann, and over the course of four years (1931-1935) he was himself president of the World Zionist Organization. Even in old age, he remained president of Zionist Congresses, participated in meetings, and traveled on distant assignments. On the literary front, he remained fresh and cheerful until the last day of his life. Even at the presidium table at Zionist congresses, he composed one of his life works, Dos hebreishe verterbukh (The Hebrew dictionary). Sokolov died in London. In his memory there was built in the center of Tel Aviv a two-story house for journalists, “Bet sokolov” (Sokolov house). In 1956 his remains (and his wife’s) were transported to the state of Israel and buried with state honors in Jerusalem on Mount Herzl. The number of his articles numbers in the thousands, and few of them were published in book form. Aside from those books cited above, he published the following works in Hebrew: Sefer hazikaron lesofre yisrael haḥayim itanu kayom (The book of remembrance for the Jewish writers living as if today), 2 vols., a handbook of the most important writers in the two halves of the nineteenth century (Warsaw, 1889), 208 pp.; Barukh shpinoza uzemano (Barukh Spinoza and his times), a historical-philosophical biography (Paris, 1929), 418 pp.; Tsadik venisgav (Righteous and sublime), a historical novella about Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller (Warsaw, 1882), 72 pp.; Toldot sifrut yisrael (History of Jewish literature); Ishim, 3 vols., essays about personages who excelled in their deeds or literary writings (Jerusalem: Hasifriya hatsiyonit, 1954), first published by Stybl in Tel Aviv (1935), 532 pp.; Hatsofe levet yisrael (Jerusalem, 1960/1961), 586 pp. A much smaller portion of his work, written first in Yiddish, as well as translated from Hebrew, was published in book form: Naye praktishe methode der englishen shprakhe (sixteenthe printing: Warsaw, 1904), 94 pp., also published under the title Lernt aykh english (Teach yourself English) (Warsaw, 1939), 96 pp.; Di likhtlekh, a gedikht in proze (The little candles, a poem in prose), written in London (London: Jewish National Commission for England, 1916), 16 pp.; Idishe froy (Jewish woman) (London: Zionist Federation, 1917), 22 pp.; Nokhum sokolovs redes in erets-yisroel (Nokhum Sokolov’s speeches in the land of Israel) (London: Head Office, Jewish National Fund, 1926/1927), 24 pp.; Oysgeveylte shriftn, vol. 1 (original work and translations); Vos mir viln, rede gehalten af der tsienistisher folks-konferents in london (What we want, speech given at the Zionist public conference in London) (Warsaw: Histadruth Hatseirim, 1916), 29 pp. (this speech given at a Zionist meeting in London was also published in Yiddish by the local Zionist Federation); Perzenlekhkeytn (Personalities), translation of Ishim from Hebrew by M. Shenderay (Buenos Aires: Central Association of Polish Jews in Argentina, 1948), 254 pp.; Perzenlekhkeytn un folk (Personalities and people) (Jerusalem: Hasifriya hatsiyonit, 1966), 401 pp.—a translation of Ishim by L. Olitski.
As Shloyme Bikl noted:
Sokolov did not sit, as he said of himself, by the waters of ideological contradiction…. He was not and did not wish to be an ideological decisor and of course not the ultimate arbiter. Sokolov also understood the ideas of his opponents and had an organic aversion to extremist ideas and to ideological fanaticism, which clogged up the ears [eyes] so they would not see anything other than their own tears…. Reading Sokolov’s essays, one senses not only his tolerance and generosity as a writer, but there is also revealed to us Sokolov the man; Sokolov, the Leyvi-Yitskhok figure of our national renaissance. He was tolerant and full of sympathy not because he was by nature a weak, sentimental person and wanted to spare himself alone and to explain this kind of person his ideological sins, but because there lived within him, as in the legendary Leyvi-Yitskhok image, the organic law of cosmic harmony, which equalizes the bad with the good.
Arn Tsaytlin wrote:
Imagine that one poses the question, is there really such a unique person who was called Nokhum Sokolov. It would seem that the well-known name was borne by hundreds of different men. All the Sokolovs would, though, every day anew, become one person, one Sokolov…. One thing ties all the Sokolovs together: the strength of their extraordinary, quick, brilliant perception, the strength of knowledge and the ability to acquire it. Herzl was a man of the wider world in a natural way. Sokolov mastered the wider world, and without anyone’s help, with the power of an open mind. What one learns naturally from others (if one is not for himself alone), Sokolov learned “for himself” and by himself…. He could write a poem—when he had to or wished to—but he was not nor did he become a poet. He understood art but that did not make him an artist. On the topic of art, even a Sokolov could not demonstrate such wonder as to transcend understanding, to comprehend something—to become that something. Wonder came to an end here…. The same is true of Sokolov’s Ishim. Sokolov depicts there well-known personalities whom he knew, describes their lives and works, his meetings with them, and draws their portraits. It is fascinating. Sokolov’s language, Sokolov’s wisdom, Sokolov’s amazing memory—all may be found therein. All these sparkle in Sokolov. However, more than we see in his physical body, we hear—and with great interest—the writer himself. Sokolov’s magnitude as a writer generally was not in the least reduced because he was not an author of fiction. Great literature is not necessarily fiction. Sokolov, though, was not only a writer, for before all else he was Sokolov the person—Sokolov the phenomenon.
ca. 1890 later in life
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2, with a bibliography; D. Frishman, Tsvey tsaytungen un zhurnaln (Two newspaper and journals), vol. 3 (Warsaw-New York: Progres, 1911), pp. 96-99; Frishman, in Tsukunft (New York) (January 1928); Y. L. Perets, in Haynt (Warsaw) (July 30, 1912); A. Goldberg, Nokhum sokolov, zayn byografye un kharakteristik (Nokhum Sokolov, his biography and character) (Warsaw, 1912), 28 pp.; Goldberg, in Morgn-zhurnal (New York) (August 11, 1931; September 3, 1931); Goldberg, in Poylishe yidn (Polish Jews), yearbook (1936); A. Kretshmer-Izraeli, in Tsayt (New York) (November 13, 1921); Avrom Reyzen, Epizodn fun mayn lebn (Episodes from my life), part 2 (Vilna, 1935), pp. 148-50; A. Reyzen, in Di tsukunft (1936); A. Reyzen, in Di feder (New York) (1949); Bal-Makhshoves, Geklibene shrftn (Selected writings), vol. 4 (Warsaw, 1929), pp. 151-56; H. D. Nomberg, Mentshn un verk (People and works) (Warsaw, 1930), pp. 195-99; H. Lang, in Forverts (New York) (July 16, 1931); Sh. Yudson, in Morgn-zhurnal (December 30, 1931; July 22, 1932); Sh. Bernshteyn, in Tog (New York) (December 31, 1931; April 14, 1932; March 22, 1935); B. Ts. Goldberg, in Tog (January 7, 1932); M. Dantsis, in Tog (February 13, 1932); B. Ts. Kats, in Morgn-zhurnal (June 26, 1932); Tsvi-Hirsh Maslyanski, in Tog (September 30, 1932); N. Mayzil, in Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (April 7, 1933); Mayzil, in Haynt (March 8, 1935); Mayzil, Y. l. perets vesofre doro (Y. L. Perets and writers of his generation) (Merḥavya, 1960), pp. 280-301; Sh. Roznfeld, in Tog (February 9, 1935); M. Ribalov, in Hadoar (New York) (May 22, 1936; June 19, 1936); A. R. Malachi, in Hadoar (June 19, 1936; August 7, 1942; December 28, 1951); Malachi, in Bitsaron (New York) (Kislev [=November-December] 1960); Sh. Shnitser, Nokhum sokolov (Nokhum Sokolov) (Warsaw, 1936), 60 pp.; Dr. Sh. Ravidovitsh, in Di tsukunft (September-December 1938); Sh. Kruk, Plotsk (Płock) (Buenos Aires, 1945), pp. 128-30; M. Ginzburg, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (May 31, 1946); Sh. N. (Shmuel Niger), in Yivo-bleter (New York) 28 (1946), pp. 204-5; L. Finkelshteyn, in Der veker (New York) (August 1, 1949); Dr. Y. Tsinberg, Kultur-historishe shtudyes (Cultural-historical studies) (New York, 1949), pp. 341-43; Aharon Ben-Or, Toldot hasifrut haivrit haḥadasha (History of modern Hebrew literature), vol. 2 (Tel Aviv, 1951), pp. 65-70; Y. Mastboym, in Letste nayes (Tel Aviv) (May 7, 1954); Y. Fikhman, in Di naye tsayt (Buenos Aires) (June 11, 1954); F. Sokolov, in Unzer vort (Paris) (May 10, 1954-September 14, 1954); Zalman Shazar, Or ishim (Light of personalities) (Tel Aviv, 1955), pp. 78-86; Dr. Shloyme Bikl, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (May 20, 1956); Bikl, in Di tsukunft (July-August 1960); Igfrot harav nisnboim (Letters of Rabbi Nisnboym) (Jerusalem, 1955/1956); Shlomo Shreberk, Zikhronot hamotsi laor (Memoirs of a publisher) (Tel Aviv, 1954/1955), pp. 130-31, 146-47; Getzel Kressel, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 28 (1957); Kressel, Naḥum sokolov, darko vepoalo (Nokhum Sokolov, his way and deeds) (Jerusalem, 1960/1961), 97 pp.; Kessel, in Sefer hashana shel haitonaim (Yearbook for journalists) (Tel Aviv, 1961/1962), pp. 179-88; Y. Grinboym, Pene hador (The face of the generation) (Tel Aviv, 1959), pp. 70-95; Grinboym, Fun mayn dor (From my generation) (Tel Aviv, 1959), pp. 102-37; Moyshe Shtarkman, in Keneder odler (November 29, 1959); Dr. M. Z. Sole, in Hapoal hatsair (Tel Aviv) (March 15, 1960); Arn Tsaytlin, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (May 13, 1960); D. Perski, in Hadoar (Sivan 15 [= June 10], 1960); Dr. M. Vaksman, in Bitsaron (Sivan-Tamuz [= May-July] 1960); Simcha Kling, Nachum Sokolow, Servant of His People (New York: Herzl Press, 1960), 205 pp.; Sh. Grinshpan, Yidn in plotsk (Jews in Płock) (New York, 1960), pp. 61-92; Grinshpan, in Keneder odler (June 5, 1961; June 6, 1961; June 7, 1961); B. Kruzo, in Sefer hashana shel haitonaim (Tel Aviv, 1960), pp. 269-72; M. Gros-Tsimerman, in Der veg (Mexico City) (March 25, 1961); M. Ungerfeld, in Davar (Tel Aviv) (October 13, 1961); Dr. Y. Aviad-Volfsberg, Deyoknaot (Portraits) (Jerusalem, 1961/1962), pp. 251-59; A. Alperin, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (January 6, 1963); B. G. Zak, in Keneder odler (March 10, 1963); Dov Sadan, Ben din leḥeshbon (Between law and accounting) (Tel Aviv, 1963), pp. 345-47; Floryan Sokolov, Mayn foter nokhum sokolov (My father, Nokhum Sokolov), trans. Naftali Zilberberg (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1972), 311 pp.
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 397.]