BLTC Press Titles


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Vanity Fair

William Thackery


My Man Jeeves

P. G. Wodehouse


The Diplomatic Background of the War

Charles Seymour


Mortal Coils

Aldous Huxley


Leon Gordon

by Abraham Benedict Rhine

Excerpt:

It must be borne in mind, in order to understand the great influence these papers wielded, especially upon the Talmudic students, that any books except the Codes and the folio volumes of the Talmud, were strictly interdicted in the Yeshibot. The interdict sufficed to invest all other literature with heightened charm. Stolen waters taste sweet. The above papers were smuggled into the Rabbinical schools, and their contents were eagerly absorbed. A new world was presented to the Talmudic students—a world of intellect pictured in the most glowing colors. Eager for information as most of them were, this presentation of an unlimited sphere of knowledge outside of the Talmud inflamed their imagination, and they began to study secular subjects. In the dead of night, when all the students and the proctors had retired to rest, the newlyawakened spirits would steal into the women's division of the synagogue, and there, under the flickering light of a wax candle, would pore over HaMeliz and Ha-Zefirah, a Hebrew grammar, or a Russian and German book, till the footsteps of the early risers would warn them that dawn was near, and they would then retire to their beds on the benches of the synagogue, and rise with the others as if nothing had happened. The choicer spirits, who could be trusted, would communicate with each other, and secret societies of the Maskilim were organized. In the daytime, in order to avoid suspicion, they would rock diligently over their folio volumes, to the usual sing-song, thinking perhaps in the meantime of some poem or satire of Gordon's that had appeared lately in one of the periodicals, and they would chuckle with secret satisfaction at the thought of the wry face the superintendent would make, were he to know in what studies they had indulged the previous night. Not infrequently the big folio volume served as a receptacle for some interdicted little book in Russian or German, which the student perused under the cloak of Talmud study.

These subterfuges would be practised for a time, until some fine day the Yeshibah would be startled by the announcement that the best and most diligent " arm-Bahur" had become a student of the Gymnasium. A search in all the desks for dangerous books would then follow; some students would save themselves by making away with the interdicted books in their possession. Those who were discovered with anything that savored of the Haskalah would be expelled from the school, and were thus, ipso facto, thrown, as it were, into the ranks of the Maskilim. The Talmudic students' eager perusal of Ha-Meliz taught them Hebrew, and not a few of these exiled Talmudists became good writers later on, and worked for the spread of the Haskalah.

In 1869 a new champion of the cause of the Haskalah appeared in the shape of Ha-Shahar, a monthly by Peter Smolensky. The editor was a man of pronounced literary ability, with a ready pen and an incisive mind; above all, he was a fearless, independent thinker. He aimed at making his magazine a purely literary organ, in the European sense. Smolensky possessed a winning personality, and succeeded in gathering around his magazine the most talented Hebrew writers. The literary character of Ha-Shahar was dignified. It contained scientific articles full of interest and instruction. The contributors to its columns preached reforms in Judaism, and called upon their people "to leave the intellectual Ghetto and participate in universal culture."" Its popularity was immense. Every new issue was anticipated with eagerness and impatience, and read and re-read, until its contents were known almost by heart. This magazine also was circulated among the Talmud students, and did even more effective work among them than the weeklies mentioned above.

Gordon, recognizing the beneficent influence of Ha-Shahar, affiliated himself with it from its very beginning. He contributed willingly, even eagerly, his best and longest poems to its columns, which tended to make Ha-Shahar still more popular. His contributions were all freewill offerings. He wrote in order to rouse his people to the reality of modern life, and Ha-Shahar was a worthy vehicle for his thoughts.

Ha-Shahar marked a new departure in the development of the Haskalah. The decade from i860 to 1870, as we have shown, had seen the new awakening. In a letter written in 1864, Gordon says:

"In the majority of Jewish cities our brethren are still walking in darkness, but withal the rays of the sun are beginning to penetrate among them, too. In 1850 I remember a certain Jewish student who did not dare walk through the streets in his uniform. He would leave it with the janitor of the Gymnasium, to which he used to come in his 'Kosher' garments and long earlocks, and only when he was safe inside the Gymnasium building would he comb his hair, put his locks behind his ears, don his uniform, and become another man. To-day you will find many a Jewish youth writing good Russian, or German, or French—all the product of the last ten years." **

By 1870 the number of Europeanized Jews was considerably augmented. Unfortunately, the tide of reform once having set in, it could not be stemmed easily. The Europeanized Jews, in their eagerness to become so, neglected and endeavored to forget their Judaism. The young generation, getting a thoroughly Russian education, no longer studied Hebrew; and the true Maskilim realized, with alarm, that their efforts to wean the youth from the useless Rabbinical studies, had weaned them from Judaism as well. Gordon and Smolensky appreciated the danger and undertook to cope with it. Both directed their efforts towards bringing the young, extreme Maskilim back into the fold. They endeavored to unite Jewish feeling with European culture;" or, in the words of Gordon, unite a " Jewish heart with a human head."" Smolensky, writing Hebrew only, began to preach nationalism, an ideal that appealed strongly to the old as well as the young generation. Gordon, on the other hand, when writing Hebrew never spared his people. "I think it harmful and dangerous to flatter my people when I write Hebrew," he said. He always called attention to faults, abuses, and bad practices. It may safely be said that the people like censure when inflicted skilfully and cleverly. But Gordon, in order to reach the Russianized Jews that read Hebrew no longer, wrote in Russian also. In this case, however, his policy was different. Here he tried to show the nobility of Judaism, and the purity of motive underlying it. He defended his people against all false allegations and accusations, and upheld the dignity of the Jewish character. In a letter to Frishman (May, 1885), he says:


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