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Judah Leib Gordon

1830 - 1892.


Born in Lithuania, Judah Leib Gordon was among the most influential Hebrew poets. He is considered one of the greatest poets of Haskalah and is known for his sharp fight against the rabbinic establishment.


Source: The David B. Keidan Collection of Digital Images from the Central Zionist Archives.

At a young age, he studied Torah with some of the most renowned educators. He quickly proved to be a great student, memorizing hundreds of Talmud pages.


At 17, he began learning European culture and languages.


After graduating at 22, he started his career as a teacher in 1853. During the twenty years he spent as a teacher, he produced his most significant work as a poet and author.


He wrote various pieces including satirical stories, fables, and polemic essays, all advocating for the revival of the Hebrew language.


Despite denouncing prejudice against Jews, he also fought against Jewish society's societal ills and its religious conservatism.


In 1865, Gordon became the principal of the Hebrew public school in Telz (Lithuania) where he established a girls' school. He resigned from teaching in 1872 and moved to St. Petersburg to work as secretary of both the community and the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia.


However, in 1879, he was jailed for alleged anti-Czarist activities. Gordon was cleared of these charges in 1880 and returned to St. Petersburg, where he became the editor of the Hebrew-language daily newspaper Ha-Melits. He also anonymously wrote editorials and columns, using various pseudonyms, and published stories, columns, and book reviews.


Two periods characterize his work: the first was characterized by romantic poetry on biblical subjects, and the second by satirical and militant poetry on public affairs. He was averse to religious fanatics, and at the same time, averse to assimilators who distanced themselves from their Jewish heritage.


His poem called "Hakitza Ami" (available in Hebrew here) is a great illustration of the second period.


"Hakitsa Ami" is a Hebrew poem written in 1866, and was an ideological manifesto of the Jewish Enlightenment movement. In the poem, Gordon addresses his people and demands that they stand up and integrate into European societies. This is following the social and philosophical developments of that time. The following verse appears in the 10th stanza and is a great example of that vision.

"הֱיֵה אָדָם בְּצֵאתְךָ וִיהוּדִי בְּאָהֳלֶךָ"
"Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home"

The poem became a proclamation toward emancipation, at a time when anti-Semitism and discrimination were decreasing.

The Jew has no choice but to become a naturalized citizen of his European mother country. He must become educated, learn the local language, and integrate into the economy to be a citizen with equal rights and duties. However, he should not forget his Jewish heritage and identity.


The verse "Be a man when you go out and a Jew in your tent" became the slogan of the Jewish Haskalah in the second half of the 19th century, on how to combine both parts of you, the citizen and the Jew. On the other hand, the poem was fiercely criticized when published.


Indeed, Judah Leib Gordon did not belong to the Hovevei Zion movement and did not encourage its ideas. He doubted the national solution proposed by the movement. He did not see in the Land of Israel the possibility of immediate and safe refuge for Jews. Apparently, he even feared the rabbis taking over a future settlement that would be rebuilt there. He called for Jewish immigration from Russia to America.


Judah Leib Gordon died in Saint Petersburg in 1892. In his later years, he wrote a letter that was published 30 days after his death, upon his request. In this letter, he expressed that he had changed his mind and decided to participate in the collective efforts for the settlement of the Land of Israel.


Here are links to other poems:


Sources:


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