Zhitlowsky, Chaim

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ZHITLOWSKY, CHAIM (1865–1943), Yiddish philosopher and writer. Zhitlowsky was the chief theoretician of galut ("Diaspora") nationalism and Yiddishism. Born in a small town near Vitebsk, Russia, he gave up his studies at 15 when he became a Socialist, and moved to Tula in Central Russia, where he joined the Narodniki, the anti-czarist populist movement. Engaged in propaganda among non-Jews, he was completely estranged from Jewish interests, but the pogroms of the 1880s brought him back to Vitebsk and to his Jewish roots. The Ḥibbat Zion movement, and particularly M.L. *Lilienblum, influenced him profoundly without converting him to Zionism. He believed that a full Jewish national life could be lived in the Diaspora. In 1886 he began research in Jewish history at St. Petersburg and in 1887 published his study in Russian on Judaism's historic destiny. A basic idea of this study was that the Jewish people in its difficult struggle for survival had become estranged from the historic ideals which had justified its existence. This study was violently attacked by S. *Dubnow in the Russian press, while the Hebrew press dubbed Zhitlowsky a Jewish antisemite and heretic. In 1888 Zhitlowsky left for Berlin and then moved to Zurich. He tried to convince the Russian Social Democratic leaders in exile of the desirability of issuing propaganda literature in Yiddish for the Jewish masses. He failed because these leaders, including the Jews among them, felt that publications in Yiddish might impede the complete assimilation of Jews to Russian ways. In his Zurich period, he also expressed his doubts as to the necessary connection between socialism and economic materialism. In 1892 he called upon Jewish intellectuals to return to their people, stating that not only equal civil rights but also equal national rights were needed for a Jewish resurgence, because Jews formed a distinct national group and must therefore strive for national emancipation. In 1893 he helped to found the Russian party of Socialist-Revolutionaries in exile and coedited its journal Russky Rabochy. He also founded a Jewish Socialist Union, which published socialist literature in Yiddish. He participated as a correspondent in the First Zionist Congress at Basle, 1897, but rejected Zionism as a reactionary movement dangerous for Eastern European Jewry. Only under socialism would Jews be redeemed as Jews and as workers. Jews need not emigrate to Zion. They could engage in productive labor and develop Jewish schools, universities, national and cultural institutions in their present countries. An article entitled "Farvos Davke Yidish?" ("Why Yiddish?"), written in 1897 and published in 1900, initiated his intensive activity as the theoretician of Yiddishism. He joined the *Bund in 1898, a year after its foundation, and published in its ideological organ Der Yidisher Arbeter his essay, "Tsionizmus oder Sotsyalizmus" (1899), in which he argued that socialism was not necessarily linked with faceless cosmopolitanism and nondescript humanity but afforded each nation an opportunity to develop its national uniqueness in multi-national states. The Kishinev pogroms in 1903 brought about a change of ideas and inclined him toward *Territorialism.

In 1904 Zhitlowsky arrived in the United States for a lecture tour on behalf of his Socialist-Revolutionary Party and stirred Jewish immigrant masses with his oratory. His lectures on "Jew and Man" and on "The Future of Peoples in America" opposed the melting-pot philosophy and advanced a United States of harmoniously functioning nationalities. These lectures converted many Yiddish-speaking cosmopolitan socialists into Jewish socialists. While in the United States, he became coeditor of the weekly Dos Folk, a territorialist socialist publication, in which he advocated a fusion of socialism and Jewish nationalism, of autonomy in the Diaspora and a Jewish territorial center. Returning to Europe, he was elected to the Second Russian Duma, and participated as chairman in the *Czernowitz Yiddish Conference of 1908. After 1908 he made his permanent home in New York, where he edited the monthly Dos Naye Lebn (1908–13), which was revived in 1922 with S. *Niger as coeditor. His two-volume work, Di Filosofye, Vos Zi Iz un Vi Zi Hot Zikh Antvikelt ("The Development of Philosophy," 1910), an outgrowth of lectures to American and Canadian audiences, was the first serious history of philosophy written in Yiddish. His Gezamlte Shriftn appeared in three editions (10 vols., 1912–19, 1929–32, and 1945–51). A Hebrew edition, Ketavim, with an introduction by R. Mahler, appeared in 1961. In 1914 Zhitlowsky visited Ereẓ Israel, became interested in Labor Zionism, and wrote pamphlets in the spirit of *Po'alei Zion. Returning to New York, he joined the staff of the Yiddish daily The Day and helped to found the *American Jewish Congress. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the establishment of the *Jewish Legion. Zhitlowsky translated Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra (1919) into Yiddish and wrote scholarly essays on Kant, Einstein, Job, and Faust.

In 1936 Zhitlowsky, who had been a lifelong, bitter foe of dogmatic Marxism and Bolshevism, was shocked into a more friendly attitude toward Soviet Russia by the ever increasing danger of Hitlerism. He endorsed Birobidzhan as the realization of his idea of a Jewish territory for productive Jewish masses. He justified Soviet actions, including the Moscow Trials of 1936. He considered the German persecution of the Jews as a punishment for the negative socioeconomic role played by the Jewish middle classes. As a result he became estranged from all except a pro-Soviet sector of his Jewish admirers during the last years of his life.

As the outstanding ideologist of Diaspora nationalism and Yiddishism, Zhitlowsky influenced the programs of all Jewish national parties, but only in his struggle against assimilationism was his influence profound and enduring, both in the former Russian Pale and among the American Jewish immigrants. More important than his theoretical justification for the existence of Yiddish was his practical application of Yiddish in his journalistic and scholarly style which delineated ideas and philosophical systems.


Rejzen, Leksikon 1 (1928), 1118–36; lnyl, 3 (1960), 685–705; Zhitlowsky Zamlbukh (1929), incl. his bibl. 459–79; N. Mayzel, Forgeyer un Mittsaytler (1946), 147–81; S. Bickel, Shrayber fun Mayn Dor, 1 (1958), 195–203; 2 (1965), 288–94; S. Liptzin, The Flowering of Yiddish Literature (1963), 165–77.

[Jerucham Tolkes]