Gordon, Judah Leib

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GORDON, JUDAH LEIB (Leon ; 1831–1892), Hebrew poet, writer, critic, and allegorist. One of the outstanding poets of the 19th century, Gordon was also a witty, incisive journalist who courageously militated against the ills in Jewish society. He advocated social and religious reform and fiercely denounced the rigidness of its leaders, especially the rabbis. His wrath was vented most directly in his poetry and in satirical feuilletons. Probably the severest critic of his time and a fiery exponent of the *Haskalah, Gordon is rightly considered one of its key spokesmen. He embodied an age which ended with him, but at the same time he paved the way for such poets as Ḥayyim Naḥman *Bialik, Saul *Tchernichowsky, and others whom he had influenced. Bialik, his great admirer and successor as the "poet laureate" of Hebrew literature, called him "the mighty hammer of the Hebrew language."

Childhood and Education

Gordon was born in Vilna. His father was "a cultured and erudite man" who engaged as Judah Leib's first teacher Rabbi Lipa, the pupil of a disciple of the Gaon of Vilna. The boy was taught according to the Gaon's method which involved first the study of the Bible and Hebrew grammar, and then the study of Talmud (an unusual procedure in traditional Jewish education at that time). At 14, he already had the reputation of a prodigy. He was permitted to study without the guidance of a teacher and soon became thoroughly versed in rabbinic literature. His brother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Mikhel *Gordon, exercised a considerable influence on Judah Leib, who, at 17, began studying European culture and languages (Russian, German, Polish, French, and English). At 22, he graduated from the government teachers seminary in Vilna and in 1853 began his teaching career in various Jewish government schools in the Kovno province (Lithuania): in Ponevezh (1853–60); in Shavli (1860–65) where he taught French and other secular subjects in the higher grades of the government secondary school; and in Telz (1865–72).

First Steps in Literature (Ponevezh and Shavli Periods)

Mikhel Gordon introduced Judah Leib to the Vilna circle of Hebrew maskilim whose leading members were Abraham Dov *Lebensohn, the outstanding Hebrew poet of the generation, and his son, the poet Micah Joseph *Lebensohn (Michal), Gordon's contemporary and friend. Both of them influenced his early literary efforts. At the behest of A.D. Lebensohn, Gordon transcribed Micah Joseph Lebensohn's manuscript poems, making minor editorial emendations, and when the latter died in 1852 at the age of 24, Gordon composed a eulogy to his memory, "Hoi Aḥ" ("O, Brother").

Gordon's first poems, Shirei Higgayon and Shirei Alilah (1851), were written under the influence of A.D. Lebensohn and his son. His first major work, Ahavat David u-Mikhal ("The Love of David and Michal," 1857), an epic, he dedicated to the "high priest," Lebensohn, who proofread and corrected it. Lebensohn also wrote a haskamah (a laudatory introduction) in verse to Gordon's book Mishlei Yehudah ("Judah's Parables," Vilna, 1859) which contains mostly translations and adaptations of works by Aesop, Phaedrus, La Fontaine, Lessing, and Krylov, as well as a few fables whose themes, while derived from the Bible, the aggadah, and the Midrash, are original in their rendering. The work became very popular and its reputation extended beyond the Hebrew reading public of Russia. Some of the fables were included in Karaite children's collections (in the Crimea and the Caucasus), and a chrestomathy compiled by M. *Steinschneider (Berlin, 1861) for D. Sassoon's Jewish school in Bombay includes many of Gordon's fables.

At this time, Gordon, besides composing poetry, already wrote polemic essays. In an article in the Hebrew periodical *Ha-Maggid (signed "Dan Gabriel"), he advocated the translation of general literary works of universal human interest into Hebrew and denounced the opponents of such projects, accusing them of wishing "to drive out our Hebrew language from the lands of the living.…" Gordon also reproached the German Jewish scholars, who published their Jewish studies in German, for their indifference to the Hebrew language. Thus already in the 1850s Gordon used the Hebrew language as a cudgel with which to rap Jewish society, especially the maskilim who failed to see in the revival of Hebrew a renaissance of the people itself.

Besides Ha-Maggid, Gordon published in Ha-Karmel, in L. Philippson's Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums, and in Russian-Jewish periodicals (e.g., Raszvet, Den). His articles in the non-Hebrew press were mostly on Hebrew literature. During the blood libel case in Shavli in which two Jews were accused of the murder of a little peasant girl (1861), he strongly denounced prejudice in the Jewish and in the general press, writing especially for Golos, a liberal Russian paper which came out for the rights of Jews, and on whose staff Gordon was employed.

Later Haskalah Activity

In 1865 Gordon became the principal of the Hebrew public school of Telz and later established a girls' school in that city. He gave up teaching in 1872 and moved to St. Petersburg where he was secretary of the Jewish community and director of the *Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews. He held these offices simultaneously from 1872 to 1879 when he was incarcerated for purported anti-czarist activities. While imprisoned, and in banishment in Pudozh in the province of Olonets, he wrote Ẓidkiyyahu be-Veit ha-Pekuddot ("King Zedekiah in Prison," 1879), a historical biblical poem which reflects his prison experiences. Exonerated in 1880, he returned to St. Petersburg but was not reappointed to his former position. The passiveness with which the Jewish community leaders of St. Petersburg reacted to his imprisonment, with their failure to reinstate him after his release, was a blow to Gordon. Lacking any other income, he accepted A. *Zederbaum's invitation to become editor of the Hebrew daily *Ha-Meliẓ.

Gordon was a prolific and versatile writer and editor. Besides editing, he wrote editorials and various columns ("Halikhot Olam" and "Be-Mishkenot Ya'akov be-Ḥuẓ la-Areẓ") anonymously, and published stories, feuilletons, and book reviews under diverse pseudonyms. He turned the Hebrew feuilleton into an effective vehicle of expression. His poetry imitates the form of the biblical verse, but his prose style (stories and feuilletons) is a synthesis of biblical, talmudic, midrashic, and later Hebrew literature. Characterized by typical Hebrew scholarly humor, the style contains many puns and Gordon's literary and conceptual associations range over the whole body of Hebrew literature.

Gordon was also the science editor and literary critic of the Russian Jewish monthly Voskhod (1881–82), writing under the pseudonym "Mevakker" (Hebrew for "critic"). In "The History of Jewish Settlement in St. Petersburg," and "Attempts at Reforming the Jewish Religion," two articles published in Voskhod, he denounced basic reforms in the Jewish religion and the negative attitude to the Talmud taken by some. At the same time, however, he advocated moderate changes. Following a disagreement with his publisher, Gordon resigned from Ha-Meliẓ in May 1883 and began editing a collection of his poems which was published by the Jubilee Committee (4 vols., 1884), established in 1881 to honor the 25th anniversary of his writing career. He also worked on the staff of the 82-volume Russian encyclopedic dictionary, published by F. Brockhaus and I. *Efron, to which he contributed articles on Jewish history and Hebrew literature. Gordon's poetry of this period, which he published in the annual Ha-Asif, was mostly satirical and included some biting verse against Zederbaum, the publisher of Ha-Meliẓ. This, however, did not stop the latter from recalling Gordon to the editorship of his paper. Gordon returned in December 1885 and, having meanwhile been completely cleared by the Russian secret police, his name now appeared on the masthead. He continued as editor for two years (December 1885–88), during which time Ha-Meliẓ became a daily.

Literary Periods in Gordon's Work

Gordon's work falls into three periods: (1) the romantic period; (2) the realistic period; (3) the period of national awakening.

the romantic period

Influenced by the Haskalah and its exponents, he wrote long epics on biblical themes during this period, e.g., Ahavat David u-Mikhal (Vilna, 1857), "David u-Varzillai" (written between 1851 and 1856), and "Asenat Bat Potifera" (publ. in 1868). They are imbued with the Haskalah spirit and are of allegorical tenor, yet echo yearnings for a distant and enchanting biblical past.

the realistic period

In his poetry as well as in his polemical articles, Gordon was the foremost combatant against the ills of Jewish society and the intransigent religious conservatism of its leaders who, in his view, disregarded the reality of the modern age. He fearlessly chided the people and their leaders. In one of his letters he called himself "the national prosecutor." He became an advocate of the common people, the poor, and the oppressed. Among those whose cause he championed was the Jewish woman whom he saw deprived of rights and subordinate to the male. The heroine of the poem "Koẓo shel Yod" ("The Point on Top of the Yod," completed in 1876) is the beautiful Bat-Shu'a (Gen. 38:12) who, after much suffering and hardships, succeeds in obtaining a divorce from her husband Hillel, a ne'er-do-well who had gone abroad to seek his fortune and had deserted her and their two children. An educated young man, a government employee, wants to marry Bat-Shu'a, but "Rav Vafsi ha-Kuzari" (the name being an anagram of the letters of the then well-known Rabbi Joseph Zechariah [Stern]) invalidates the divorce bill because the husband's name "Hillel" had not been signed in plene, lacking the letter yod. Bat-Shu'a therefore remains an *agunah and poor. The poem is an outcry against the lot of the Jewish woman who, because of the "point of a yod," is denied happiness. In fighting for the rights of Jewish women, Gordon was influenced by the powerful Russian women's liberation movement of the 1860–70s. "Koẓo shel Yod" became a catchword quoted by the fighters for women's rights: "Hebrew woman, who knows your life? / In darkness you came and in darkness shall go; / Your sorrow, your joy, your misfortune, your desires / In you are born, in you they die."

the period of national awakening

Gordon, like the maskilim of his generation, at first believed that isolation was at the root of all the troubles that plagued the Jews. "Be a Jew in your home and a man in the street," a line from his poem Hakiẓah Ammi ("My People Awake"), became the motto for a whole generation of maskilim. The source of the evil was the rabbis whom he considered intransigent and rigid adherents to the halakhah and to old customs and tradition. The only solution for Russian Jewry was to leave its narrow, confined existence and to adapt itself to the wider environment. He urged Jews to stop speaking Yiddish, which he regarded as a jargon, and to adopt Russian. He advocated universal general education, reform of religious customs, and prompted Jews to engage in more productive occupations, such as crafts, industry, and agriculture. Caught up in the liberal spirit that swept Russia at the time, Gordon firmly believed in Russian liberalism, especially after serfdom was abolished in 1861 and the Jews were granted some rights. He thought that adaptation to the non-Jewish environment would lead to a relationship of friendship and brotherhood between Jews and the people among whom they lived.

Gordon was to become disillusioned in Russian liberalism and in his whole conception of the viability of Jewish life in the Diaspora. This led him to reexamine his ideas and values in the light of everyday reality. With the growth of the antisemitic movement in Russia and in light of the ineptness of Russian liberalism, Gordon despaired of the Russian Jewish community ever integrating within the Russian environment and cultural milieu. He was also disappointed in the Jewish maskilim, particularly the young, who were carried away by the assimilationist trend, rejecting indiscriminately and forsaking Jewish values and the Hebrew language which Gordon loved and championed without reservation. In his poem "Le-Mi Ani Amel" ("For Whom Do I Labor?") he cries out in despair: "My enlightened brothers have learned science. / They mock the old mother who holds the distaff / Forsake it [Hebrew] and let us each follow the language of his country." He concludes on an ominous note of dejection: "Oh, who can tell the future, who can tell me? / Perhaps I am the last of Zion's poets / And you, the last readers." Thus he protested against the assimilationist trend as well as against his adversaries who accused him of preaching russification.

The 1881 pogroms in southern Russia (instigated with the knowledge and perhaps the support of the government) completely crushed Gordon's spirit. He began to look upon emigration to Western countries as the only salvation for Russian Jewry. Gordon did not believe that the Ereẓ Israel of his time, under the yoke of a degenerate and cruel Turkish rule which closed the country to Jewish immigration, could absorb all the Jews who would want to settle there. He therefore advocated immigration to Western countries, particularly to the United States. In his powerful poem "Aḥoti Ruḥamah" ("Ruhamah, My Sister"), written in 1882 after the Russian pogroms, he pleaded for "the honor of Jacob's daughter whom the son of Hamor had violated." The use of biblical names – Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and Shechem, son of Hamor – enabled the poet to evade Russian censorship and to publish his poem of wrath against the Russian rioters in Migdanot, a literary supplement to Ha-Meliẓ. Gordon thunders in his wrath: "Abel's blood marks Cain's forehead! / And your blood too all shall behold / A mark of Cain, disgrace and eternal shame / On the forehead of the murderous villains."

He ends his poem: "Come, let's go, my sister Ruḥamah!" In "Bi-Ne'areinu u-vi-Zekeneinu Nelekh" ("We Shall Go, Young and Old"), a poem also written in the aftermath of the Russian atrocities, he calls out to the Jewish people: "Fear not, Jacob, be not dejected, / Thousands slaughtered will not deter! / Our God's voice calls from the storm / 'Let's go, young and old'."

Gordon's changed attitude is manifest in his articles and feuilletons written when he returned as editor of Ha-Meliẓ which had become the organ of the *Ḥibbat Zion movement. He was sharply attacked by *Ha-Ẓefirah and *Ha-Yom, rival Hebrew newspapers. They accused him of disavowing the views he had preached all his life and of submitting, for material reasons, to the dictates of the owner of Ha-Meliẓ. Gordon, however, never actually joined the Hibbat Zion movement and did not explicitly endorse emigration to "Turkish" Ereẓ Israel as a solution for Russian Jewry. Settlement in Ereẓ Israel, without the renaissance of the nation, in his view, would be ineffectual, and such a revival depended on religious and cultural modifications: "Our redemption can come about only after our spiritual deliverance" (Ha-Meliẓ, 18 (1882), 209–16).

His writings, in which he fervently urged the revival of Hebrew and which express his great love for the Jews as a people, undoubtedly influenced the movement for national revival and later the Zionist movement. In his introduction to Al Parashat Derakhim ("At the Crossroads," 1895), Aḥad *Ha-Am, father of spiritual Zionism, notes his indebtedness to Gordon. Gordon's call, "O House of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk" (Isa. 2:5), in his article in Ha-Karmel (1866), in which he advocated enlightenment and rapprochement to Europe, eventually became the motto of the first *Bilu pioneers who turned their back on Europe and its enlightenment and immigrated to Ereẓ Israel (1882) to rebuild its wilderness. Gordon, while not committing himself formally, actively upheld the Zionist cause. Thus his criticism (in Hebrew and Russian) of L. *Pinsker's Autoemancipation (1882) was favorable, as was his view on Britain's occupation of Egypt in 1882. Realizing that the occupation would increase Palestine's importance "as a corridor to Egypt and a center for Asian trade and that the British rule would attract many of our brethren throughout the Diaspora to Palestine to till the soil, build railways, and introduce new life in trade, property, and arts and crafts," he proposed the founding of "the society for those going to Palestine" in his article in Ha-Meliẓ (1882).

Gordon's place in Jewish literature as the poet of the Haskalah is undisputed. The aesthetic value of his writings, however, was questioned soon after his death and is still being contended. The dispute grew out of a literary atmosphere which had reexamined the values of the past. The last decade of the 19th century had witnessed cultural changes in society in general, and the Jewish community in particular, that affected literature and modified aesthetic taste. It was debated whether Gordon was a poet or merely a versifier. Strong views were voiced by both his admirers and his detractors but the former always prevailed.

There was no conflict between Gordon, the poet and visionary, and the Gordon who attempted to forge a new style, had mastered several languages, both classical and modern, and was a gifted translator. Among his translations are Byron's Hebrew Melodies (Zemirot Yisrael, 1884), the Pentateuch (from Hebrew into Russian, 1875), and classical fables which he translated from Russian into Hebrew (Mishlei Mofet). Gordon also wrote in Russian and German on Judaism and Hebrew literature. His light, humoristic poems in Yiddish, a language he had always disparaged, were published in Kol Mevasser, a Yiddish weekly supplement (1862–72) to Ha-Meliẓ. At the request of friends, the poems were collected in a book and published under the title Siḥat Ḥullin ("Small Talk," 1887, 18892). At home in all of Jewish literature, Gordon was able to draw on its sources with remarkable versatility and ease. He invested obsolete expressions and idioms with fresh meaning and created new syntactical units. Bialik called him one of the greatest wizards in Hebrew of all times – a title his prodigious mastery and control of the language have deservedly earned.

Kitvei J.L. Gordon (2 vols., 1953–60), his collected works (prose and poetry), includes an autobiography and diary. His letters were published by I.J. Weissberg (Iggerot Y.L. Gordon, 2 vols., 1894). S. Werses edited the correspondence Yedidato shel ha-Meshorer: Iggerot Miryam Markel-Mendelson el Y.L. Gordon (2004).


A.B. Rhine, Leon Gordon: An Appreciation (1910), incl. bibl.; Waxman, Literature, 3 (19602), 234–55; Kitvei J.L. Gordon, 1 (1953), introd. by J. Fichmann; Meḥkarim bi-Leshon Bialik vi-Yhudah Leib Gordon (1953); Klausner, Sifrut, 4 pt. 2 (1942); Leksikon fun der Yidisher Literatur un Prese (1914); J.S. Raisin, Haskalah Movement in Russia (1913), index; Sefer Zikkaron le-Soferei Yisrael ha-Ḥayyim Ittanu ka-Yom (1889), 19–20; Ha-Asif, 6 (1893), 1855–56; Spiegel, Hebrew Reborn (1930), index; G. Karpeles, in: azdj, no. 43 (1892); ye, vol. 6, pp. 690–5. add. bibliography: M. Duvshani, Yalag u-Mendele (1961); S. Kottek, "Y.L. Gordon al ha-Rofe'im," in: Korot, 7/5–6 (1978), 515–20; J. Strauss, Yehuda Leib Gordon: poète hébru (1980); T. Cohen, "Ereẓ lo Noda'at," in: Zehut, 2 (1982), 145–53; M. Stanislwaski, For Whom Do I Toil? Jehuda Lieb Gordon and the Crisis of Russian Jewry (1988); S. Nash, "The Discussion over YaLaG' s Legacy," in: Jewish Book Annual, 49 (1991), 152–57; Y. Itzhaki, "Zionist Roots in Haskala Literature. The Case of Y.L. Gordon," in: Jewish Affairs 47/4 (1992), 21–27; Z.J. Goodman, "Traced in Ink: Women's Lives in ' Qotzo shel Yud' by YaLaG and ' Mishpacha' by D. Baron," in: Gender and Judaism (1995), 191–207; U. Shavit, "Shirei Y.L. Gordon ki-Nekudat Mifneh ba-Hitpatḥut ha-Ide'it shel ha-Shirah ha-Ivrit," in: Akhshav, 61 (1995), 101–09; Z. Shamir, Iyyunim bi-Yeẓirat Y.L. Gordon (1998); U. Shavit, "Intertextualiyut ke-Even Bohan le-Ma'avar mi-Tekufah li-Tekufah: YaLaG ke-Historyon Ḥadash," in: Sadan, 3 (1998), 11–25; Z. Karniel, "Bein YaLaG le-Sokolov," in: Sadan, 3 (1998), 323–30; S. Werses, "Deyukano shel Y.L. Gordon ba-Aspaklariya shel Igrotav," in: Sadan, 3 (1998), 187–210; Y. Friedlander, "Ha-Pulmus ha-Satiri bein YaLaG le-Rabanei Lita," in: Bein Halakhah le-Haskalah (2004), 181–93.

[Aharon Zeev Ben-Yishai]

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