YANKEV-TSVI SOBEL (1831-September 1913)
He was born in Shavel (Šiauliai), Kovno district, Lithuania, where he father was a rabbinical judge. His mother traced her pedigree back to the Vilna Gaon. He studied in religious elementary school, yeshiva, and on his own. At age twenty-two he married in Kelm (Kelmė), and there he taught Talmud to the children of wealthy families. In 1865 he moved to Kovno, became the headmaster of a yeshiva in Hirshl Gevyazhers School, and later received ordination into the rabbinate and became rabbi in Slobodka, but not for long. Surreptitiously he began reading Jewish Enlightenment books, acquainted himself with the writings of the Ribal (Rabbi Isaac Baer Levinsohn), Avraham Mapu, Kalman Shulman, and others, turned his attention to Russian, German, and mathematics, and was compelled to leave his rabbinical position. He then left Slobodka for Vilna (1861), wanted to enter the local rabbinical seminary, but he lacked sufficient knowledge and thus became a preacher in the “Opatów kloyz” (where a small group of mystics met in prayers). He then moved to Zhitomir and entered the local rabbinical seminary. After graduating, he left for Odessa, where for three years he studied mathematics in Novorossiya University. He made a living by teaching in a private school and a loaning library that he ran. He was part of a circle of Jewish intellectuals in Odessa (A. Tsederboym, Lilienblum, and others). He contributed work to: Hamagid (The preacher), Hamelits (The advocate), Hatsfira (The siren), and Hashaḥar (The dawn). After the Odessa pogrom of March 1871, when his library was destroyed, Sobel made his way to the United States (1875?), opened in New York a library, and also gave lessons as a tutor, while contributing to the local Hebrew periodicals, such as: Haivri (The Jew), Hapisga (The summit), and Hateḥiya (The revival), as well as English-language and Anglophone Jewish publications. His first work in book form was: Haḥoze ḥezyonot bearbaa olamot (The seer of visions of four worlds), four parts (Odessa, 1872), 92 pp.—from that point forward, Sobel was known by the name “the seer.” In Yiddish he published a short collection of poems entitled Shir zahav lekoved yisroel hazokn (A sonnet in honor of ancient Israel)—“which the poet Yankev-Tsvi Sobel / author of the work Haḥoze ḥezyonot bearbaa olamot / translated into Judeo-German [= Yiddish] / Yisroel der alte / published by M. Topolovski, New York / in the year dedicated to the glory of the people of Israel 1877”—in Hebrew and Yiddish, 32 pp. On the front page, one finds the following poem:
These golden poems,
Ah, my beloved brethren!
Written with energy,
To persuade properly
As splendid and important
Is Yiddish poetry.
The holy language,
Is the one thing,
Which works wonders us;
For when this language blossoms,
Then the Israelite will realize,
He has courage, pride, and daring.
The following poems were included in this booklet: “Hadevora” (The bee), “Talmid-ḥakham pulani bamerika” (Polish scholar in America), “Yisrael hazaken” (Ancient Israel), and “Khosn vekale un gmul hayehudim berusye” (Bride and groom and the reward of the Jews in Russia)—the first three poems came with parallel Yiddish translations. On the last four pages, one will find two prose items: “Meḥaa miparasha neged daat hanotsrim bekitve hakodesh” (Protest from the weekly Torah reading in opposition to the religion of the Christians in the sacred writings) and “Beur amiti verayon amok betargum onkelos” (A genuine explanation and the profound idea in the Targum Onkelos [Torah translation by Onkelos]). M. Ribulov opens his Antologiya shel hashira haivrit beamerika (Anthology of Hebrew poetry in America) (New York, 1938) with Sobel’s “Talmid-ḥakham pulani bamerika.” “This short book,” wrote Zalmen Reyzen, “perhaps the first the first book in Yiddish to be published in New World, had only a cultural-historical value; especially interesting in the few poems in the collection is the one about the “Polish scholar in America,” which throws some light on the living conditions of Jews in the United States in the 1880s. From 1890 Sobel was living in Chicago with his daughter and son-in-law, Dr. A. H. Levitan. He died in Chicago.
As Shmuel Niger notes:
The handful of Yiddish poems and polemical articles that Sobel later published are of meager significance. More important is his earlier Hebrew religious text, Haḥoze ḥezyonot bearbaa olamot (Odessa, 1872), especially the preface, which was written—it would appear—under the influence of A. A. Kovner, the “Hebrew Pisarev.” In this preface, Y. Ts. Sobel writes, among other matters: “Make haste and turn your synagogues and temples into factories. Remove the clothing of the Kohanim from the preacher, the singer [cantor?], and the player, and clothe the poor children of your people with it. Call upon specialists in every trade and technology from London, from Berlin, and have them teach your people’s children a trade and manufacture.” And to the rabbis, he said: “We no longer need you to take the trouble to purge the Shulḥan orekh of the impurity of mysticism, but we do need to live, oh, to live, to live! The life of the Jewish people which lies in your hands—lift up the honor of this trade.”… The foundation of the Yiddish press in America is laid with conservative elements,… but its first representative was a socialist.… His “Polish Scholar in America,” a poem consisting of twelve twelve-line stanza, is the first reaction of a Yiddish writer to the new Jewish community in America. This is the beginning of a literature which sought to reflect the transitional state of a transitional generation—of a generation which emerged at the border between two cultures, the older and the newer: in the old Jewish culture, he no longer had deep roots, while in the new American culture, he had not yet taken root. He was thus neither here nor there. The [Polish] scholar, a follower of the Enlightenment, arrives in America and feels lonesome. He goes there with great hopes, but they are not fulfilled.
Kalmen Marmor writes:
The most significant poem in Sobel’s poetry booklet is the “Polish scholar in America.” Sobel depicts there the disappointment of a Polish scholar or Lithuanian follower of the Enlightenment who arrives in America with great expectations. He then finds himself in a “free land” where the Jew is not “in disgrace,” where everyone has “equal rights” and the master is “just like the slave,” “no slaves and no counts, no putrid pedigrees, no Madame Grandees, jealousies, enemies, impudence, or impertinence.” He had only “one cent” on hand; he takes comfort, though, in that his son could be “perhaps president” here. He fantasizes about a new productive life of farm work, craftsmanship, and education. All of his beautiful dreams, however, dissipate, and he senses the heavy peddler’s bundle on his weary shoulders…. Yankev-Tsvi Sobel depicts the life of the Jewish hawkers, peddlers, and traveling booksellers in the 1870s in America. The peddler dragged himself around all day long with a heavy bundle on his “back” and had nothing by which to be “refreshed.” And, as the peddler worked his way up materially, he sank ever further down spiritually. The rising peddler joins a club to which also belong “together” Polish and German “gentlemen and gentlewomen, lords and ladies.” There they argue about who is more of a “Yankee.” One claims that he is, because he calls his spouse “wife”; while a second one claims that he has the greater right to this because he knows “how to hold a fork and knife while eating.” One boasts that he goes on “Sunday” to “church,” while another [brags] that he chews tobacco and “candy” and that he puts “both his feet on the table.”… Yankev-Tsvi Sobel scoffs good-naturedly at the passiveness of the Jewish immigrants of the 1870s. He grows angry only when he mentions the wealthy Jews who serve the golden calf and organ, around which they build a temple that “costs a million” from the “poor Jewish nation.” For good reason the folk-socialist poet Yehalel recommended Sobel as a revolutionary to Aharon Liberman.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2, with a bibliography; Kalmen Marmor, “Tsvey yubileyen” (Two jubilees), Pinkes fun amopteyl fun yivo (Records of the American division of YIVO), vol. 1 (New York, 1927-1928), pp. 34-52; Marmor, in Morgn-frayhayt (New York) (April 1, 1931; October 2, 1938); Marmor, in Almanakh fun internatsyonaln arbeter-ordn (Almanac of the International Labor Order) (New York, 1940); A. Prints, in Morgn-frayhayt (April 2, 1932); N. Khinitsh, in Shikage (Chicago) (June-July 1932); Shmuel Niger, in Der tog (New York) (September 18, 1932); Niger, in Di tsukunft (New York) (January 1940; April 1940); Niger, Di tsveyshprakhikeyt fun undzer literatur (Bilingualism in our literature) (Detroit, 1941), p. 104; Niger, in Algemeyne entsiklopedye (General encyclopedia), “Yidn 5” (New York, 1957); M. Ribulov, Antologiya shel hashira haivrit beamerika (Anthology of Hebrew poetry in America) (New York, 1938), pp. 13-18; Moyshe Shtarkman, Yorbukh fun amopteyl fun yivo (Yearbook of the American division of YIVO), vol. 2 (New York, 1939), see index; Shtarkman, in Yorbukh (New York) (1943/1944); Shtarkman (as Khizkuni), in Metsuda 7 (London, 1954); Elye (Elias) Shulman, Geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in amerike (History of Jewish literature in America) (New York, 1943), pp. 141-47; Yankev Glatshteyn, In tokh genumen (In essence) (New York, 1947); Ḥ. M. Rutblat, in Pinkas shikago (Records of Chicago) (1951/1952); Ber Grin, in Morgn-frayhayt (August 29, 1954); Grin, Yidishe shrayber in amerike (Yiddish writers in America) (New York, 1963), pp. 9-14; N. Mayzil, preface to Amerike in yidishn vort (America in the Yiddish word) (New York, 1955); Mayzil, Tsurikblikn un perspektivn (Retrospectives and perspectives) (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1962), see index; Y. Beylin, in Morgn-frayhayt (December 11, 1955).