Students and teachers in a classroom of the first Jewish kindergarten, Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi, Ukr.); ca. 1920s. Affiliated with Po‘ale Tsiyon, this was one of many schools known as “Borokhov” schools, which taught both Zionism and Yiddish culture. A portrait of Borokhov hangs in the background. (YIVO)

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Borokhov, Ber

(also Borochov, Borochow, Boruchow; 1881–1917), pivotal thinker and scholar who in his short life of 36 years founded two distinct fields: Labor Zionism and Yiddish studies. He played the dual roles of theoretician and primary activist in both.

Born in Zolotonosha, Ukraine, Ber (or Dov Ber) Borokhov grew up in the nearby city of Poltava in a home shaped by his father’s Zionism and his mother’s dedication to education. Early on he became active in the socialist branch of Zionism led by Naḥman Syrkin (1868–1924). Borokhov founded the Sionistskii Sotsialisticheskii Rabochii Soyuz (Zionist Socialist Workers Union) in 1901 in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipropetrovs’k, Ukraine), and faced opposition from both the Russian Social Democrats and the Zionists. He also showed an interest in philosophy, and after completing the gymnasium in Poltava in 1900 immersed himself in self-study. His essay “O kharaktere evreiskogo duma” (On the Character of Jewish Thinking; 1903) generated considerable discussion.

In fusing socialist with Zionist thought, Borokhov had a circle to square. For most socialists, Zionism was inherently nationalistic, focused upon the betterment of one’s own lot, and hence chauvinistic. For many Zionists, a link with socialist and antinational organizations was equally anathema, for practical reasons (in urging Jewish emigration, Zionists had to work with various types of regimes) as well as for ideological ones (some Zionists were antisocialist, antiuniversalist, or antirevolutionary). From the heart of socialist thinking, Borokhov took the concept of productivity of one’s own labor and Marxist notions about the role of the working classes, and joined the chorus of those who criticized the economic niches Jews had traditionally filled. He illustrated what he regarded to be the “upside-down” economics of Jewish life in the Diaspora; using his Borokhovian Inverted Pyramid, he showed that agriculture and industrial–production activities did not fill the usual broad base but were at the needle-thin tip. He concluded that the shift to a normal productive life could only take place in the historic homeland, the Land of Israel. Thanks to Borokhov, many East European Jews felt comfortable supporting socialism as well as Zionism.

A group of Jewish men on the eve of their induction into the Polish army at the age of 21, with a portrait of Marxist Zionist theoretician and founder of the Po‘ale Tsiyon party Ber Borokhov, Lublin, 1919. (YIVO)

When the territorialist and Uganda debates raged within Zionism, Borokhov championed the “Zionists of Zion” faction at the Seventh Zionist Congress of 1905, a point of view reflected also in his “K voprosu o Sione o territorii” (On the Question of Zionism and Territory; 1905). His writings charted the course for nonassimilationist socialism interwoven with resolute Palestinian Zionism as a recipe for self-liberation that did not have to rely on the theoretical crutch of antisemitism for justification. Borokhov’s “Nasha platforma” (Our Platform) became the manifesto of the Po‘ale Tsiyon party in 1906, and he was one of the molders who made this organization a distinct movement within international Zionism. Declaring himself a “prognostic Palestinian,” he argued that mass migration to Palestine was a historic inevitability that would occur as a stychic, or spontaneous, process.

Po‘ale Tsiyon was clearly distinguished from the two other major Zionist–socialist groupings of the early years of the twentieth century: the Zionist Socialist Workers Party, which flirted with non-Palestinian territorialism, and the Jewish Socialist Workers Party (Sejmists), which concentrated more on in situ national autonomy. Borokhov’s Po‘ale Tsiyon set up its World Alliance in 1907, with international offices in Vienna, where he moved to coordinate the work of party units in Argentina, Austria, Great Britain, Palestine, Russia, and the United States. Taken together, Borokhov’s writings represent a sophisticated synthesis of socialism and Zionism; they influenced both the leadership and the socioeconomic policies of the eventual State of Israel in its formative decades.

During his Vienna years (1907–1914) Borokhov undertook intensive research on the history of Yiddish language and literature. He wrote that he had learned to speak and write the language at age 26. Just as socialism and Zionism did not constitute a contradiction to his bold way of thinking, so too were Yiddish and Zionism mutually compatible for him. Borokhov debated avidly with the Zionist–Hebraist disdainers of Yiddish, but unlike Bundists and other non-Zionists, he was able to do so “from inside.” His “Hebreismus militans” (Militant Hebraism; 1913) remains a classic statement of combative Yiddishism. That he should so champion the language of the very people whom Zionism was meant to serve was natural for him, but his stand was shocking to friends and foes alike. It was a given assumption then that Zionism was linked with Hebrew, and that Bundism–non-Zionism was associated with Yiddish.

In 1913, Borokhov sought to transform the academic field of modern Yiddish via publication in Vilna of his two seminal pieces in Der pinkes (The Record Book): “Oyfgabn fun der yidisher filologye” (The Aims of Yiddish Philology) and “Di bibliotek funem yidishn filolog” (The Library of the Yiddish Philologist). The premise of the first essay is stated in its initial sentence: “Of all the sciences, philology plays the greatest role in the national revival of the oppressed peoples.” Borokhov used the Yiddish word filologye (philology) in the inclusive sense of language- and literature-based disciplines (linguistics, folklore, literary history, bibliography, and so on), and also as a catchword for expressing loyalty to the language of one’s people. He also included the more practical issues of stylistics and standardized spelling and grammar, to replace the chaos that can result when a culture is bereft of governmental authority.

Borokhov considered elevation of the status of Yiddish to be a prime component of modern Jewish nationhood. His syntheses of romantic nationalism, the broader social sciences, and the narrower field of technical linguistics are evident in his works on Yiddish studies. Resolutely challenging the accepted wisdom of the Judaic studies mainstream of the day (itself derived from the German Jewish tradition), which considered Yiddish to be a recent aberration, Borokhov proved Yiddish to be “not younger” than perhaps 700 years, traced its earliest preserved manuscripts to the thirteenth century, and analyzed its blended character. He demonstrated how the interweaving of Germanic, Semitic, and Slavic forms led to an inspiringly rich European Jewish language, which had by then produced a noteworthy modern literature. He argued that the “great languages” are fusions and that “unmixedness” is characteristic only of remote and undeveloped tribes. Borokhov asserted that “German, Hebrew, and Slavic elements, as soon as they enter the folk language, stop being German, Hebrew, and Slavic; they shed their erstwhile character and take on a new one: they become Yiddish.

First page of an undated manuscript of an outline for a work on Yiddish and other Jewish languages by Ber Borokhov. RG 3, Yiddish Literature and Language Collection, F1799. (YIVO)

“Oyfgabn fun der yidisher filologye” includes an analysis of the linguistic structure of the language and contains practical proposals for standardizing on the basis of genuine spoken Yiddish, rather than the Germanized, watered-down newspaper and pamphlet styles of the day. He called for modernized school systems and for the editing and reissuing of older Yiddish classics. The essay concludes with an impassioned plea for “an authoritative national organization for philological causes,” a call that was invoked in the mid-1920s when YIVO was founded in Vilna. Some cultural historians, however, ascribe a lesser role to Borokhov’s work in the establishment of modern Yiddish studies.

“Di bibliotek funem yidishn filolog” included a 499-item bibliography, annotated with incisive critical evaluations, demonstrating that Yiddish had been the object of intense scholarly fascination from the early sixteenth century. Most of that interest had come from scholars in other disciplines who had a tangential interest (for example, humanist students of Hebrew for whom Yiddish became an adjunct), or various ulterior motives (such as missionary activity or antisemitism). Borokhov called on East European Jewry to reclaim its heritage by developing a new Yiddish philology founded in tandem with a vibrant and sophisticated living culture, in which literary, linguistic, and folkloristic research would be carried out in the target language itself. His works inspired a generation of Yiddish scholars who came of age in the interwar period.

Borokhov settled in New York in 1914, where he continued both his Labor Zionist and his Yiddish work, earning a living by contributing to the city’s daily Yiddish press. His small dictionary of Old Yiddish was included in Moyshe Basin’s anthology Finf hundert yor yidishe poezye (Five Hundred Years of Yiddish Poetry; 1917). When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, he rushed back to Eastern Europe, and in September of that year read a paper in Kiev on Russia as a Commonwealth of Nations (“Rossiia kak sodruzhestvo narodov”). During the speaking tour that followed, he contracted pneumonia and quickly succumbed to it on 4 December. Aside from the discomfiture of his fatal illness, he suffered in his final days from the loss of his unpublished manuscripts and materials on the history of Yiddish, which disappeared en route from Stockholm to Saint Petersburg. These documents were found after his death and eventually became part of the YIVO archives, where they still await publication. Borokhov’s remains were reinterred in Israel in 1963 at the cemetery by the Sea of Galilee where other founders of Labor Zionism came to rest. As if to symbolize the continuing dissonance between the two fields he helped to establish, the Yiddish inscription on his gravestone was removed. A contrary symbol was provided by the many “Borochov schools” in the Diaspora where, in the twentieth century, Zionism and Yiddish culture were taught in harmony.

Suggested Reading

Shlomo Avineri, The Making of Modern Zionism: The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State (New York, 1981); Ber Borochov (Borokhov), Shprakh-forshung un literatur-geshíkhte, ed. Nachman Mayzel (Tel Aviv 1966); Ber Borochov, Nationalism and the Class Struggle: A Marxian Approach to the Jewish Problem, ed. Abraham G. Duker (Westport, Conn., 1972); Ber Borochov, Class Struggle and the Jewish Nation: Selected Essays in Marxist Zionism, ed. Mitchell Cohen (New Brunswick, N.J., 1984); Arthur Hertzberg, ed., The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader (Philadelphia, 1997); Dovid Katz, “Ber Borokhov, Pioneer of Yiddish Linguistics,” Jewish Frontier 47.6 [506] (June–July 1980): 10–20, includes translation of “The Aims of Yiddish Philology”; Dovid Katz, “On Yiddish, in Yiddish and for Yiddish: Five Hundred Years of Yiddish Scholarship,” in Identity and Ethos: A Festschrift for Sol Liptzin, ed. Mark H. Gelber, pp. 23–36 (New York, 1986); Dovid Katz, “Ber Borokhov’s Philology and Literary History,The Times Higher Education Supplement (September 13, 1996): 22; Zalman Rejzen (Reisen), “Borokhov, Ber,” Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese un filologye, vol. 1, cols. 212–221 (Vilna, 1926); Zeev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State, trans. David Maisel (Princeton, 1998).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 204, David Pinsky, Papers, 1893-1949; RG 205, Kalman Marmor, Papers, 1880s-1950s; RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945; RG 356, Jacob Shatzky, Papers, 1912-ca. 1960 (finding aid); RG 360, Shmuel Niger, Papers, 1907-1950s; RG 3, Yiddish Literature and Language, Collection, 1870s-1941; RG 546, Judah Achilles Joffe, Papers, 1893-1966; RG 83, Marc Ratner, Papers, 1906-1913.