Ayzik Meyer Dik (center) and other maskilim; (clockwise from top) Mikhl Gordon, Yehudah Leib Gordon, Tsevi ha-Kohen Rabinovich, and Eli‘ezer Zweifel. (YIVO)

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Gordon, Mikhl

(1823–1890), Hebrew-Yiddish maskil and popular songwriter. Born in Vilna, Mikhl Gordon was a second-generation maskil. His great uncle, Yisra’el Gordon, was the government rabbi of Vilna, and Mikhl’s father, Aharon David, published a Hebrew work that imitated the style of Mosheh Ḥayim Luzzato. At the age of 16, Mikhl married Neḥamah Gordon, the sister of writer Yehudah Leib Gordon, and lived comfortably under his father-in-law’s roof for the next seven years.

As part of the circle of Avraham Dov Lebensohn and his son, Mikhah Yosef, Gordon lived the typical double life of an aspiring intellectual: punctilious in matters of Jewish religious practice, while learning German and Russian, writing Hebrew poems, and publishing articles in the leading publications: Ha-Magid, Ha-Shaḥar, Ha-Boker or, and Ha-Karmel. Also typical was the split between his Hebrew and Yiddish personas. In Hebrew, he remained wedded to the ornate style and hermetic concerns of the early Haskalah. His Shever ga’on (The Ruin of Greatness; 1884), for example, is a parodic review of a nonexistent work of rabbinic casuistry. (The copy belonging to HUC-JIR in Los Angeles is appropriately bound together with Yosef Perl’s Megaleh temirin.) In Yiddish, Gordon became one of the most popular (and militant) folksinger-songwriters in Eastern Europe.

Following the death of his wife, Gordon married into another maskilic family, this time in Zagare, where he exerted a powerful influence on the young Yankev Dinezon and began writing and composing Yiddish songs. He published the lyrics to 17 of them in a tiny chapbook titled Di bord, un dertsu nokh andere sheyne yidishe lider (The Beard and Other Beautiful Yiddish Songs; 1868), hiding their authorship behind an anagram, for fear of persecution at the hands of the Hasidim.

The speaker in the title song is a fervently pious wife lamenting her wayward husband. Proof positive of his deviance is that he returns home without his beard. “Gevald!” she screams at the end of each stanza, “Di bord zol mir vern!” (I want your beard back again!). Behind the satire, Gordon here develops one of his major themes: the travails of Jewish matrimony and motherhood. Love, Gordon later explained in a footnote to one of his songs, was an unknown concept in Jewish Eastern Europe; all the evils of Jewish family life follow from that. He was the first folk poet to write songs for solo female voice.

One of Gordon’s most famous songs, “Shtey oyf mayn folk” (Arise, My People!) was inspired by the reforms of Alexander II and by his brother-in-law Yehudah Leib’s famous Hebrew poem of the same name. Like so many maskilim of his generation, he appealed to the Yiddish-speaking folk to abandon its backward, fiercely insular, and arrogant ways, learn a proper language, and combine faith with secular knowledge. The theme of patriotism underlay his project of publishing a two-part Geshikhte fun Rusland (History of Russia; 1869), but the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (the OPE) gave him a subvention for only one volume.

Gordon saw Hasidism as a main source of Jewish obscurantism, drunkenness, and “Asiatic” demeanor. Yet some of his anti-Hasidic songs, including “Der borsht” (The Borscht) and “Di mashke” (The Booze), were to live on among the folk quite apart from their anti-Hasidic provenance, thanks to their ebullient celebration of the good life, their witty rhymes, their parodic use of Jewish myth, and their dance rhythms. “Di mashke,” for example, in its stripped-down and folklorized version, has become a favorite of contemporary “klezmer” bands.

Then came the pogroms, which Gordon experienced close at hand because by the 1870s he and his family had moved south in search of employment. Gordon never fully recovered from the trauma of a narrowly averted pogrom. In the same year, 1881, Gordon also lost his second wife. He expressed his profound disillusionment with the Haskalah—the program of self-improvement in exchange for emancipation—in the introduction, revisions, and annotations to his retrospective anthology, Shirey M. Gordon / Yidishe lider fun Mikhl Gordon (Yiddish Poems by Mikhl Gordon; 1889), which contains 27 texts. While he disavowed much of the social program of the Haskalah, his critique of Jewish family life and the plight of the Jewish woman remained fully in force. Gordon died alone in Kiev, with none but the members of the burial society attending his funeral.

Suggested Reading

I. Charlash, “Mikhl Gordon: Biografish-kritishe notitsn,” YIVO-bleter 41 (1957–1958): 56–71; Chana Gordon Mlotek, “A gilgl fun Mikhl Gordons Di bord,YIVO-bleter 35 (1951): 299–311; Nokhem Shtif, Di eltere yidishe literatur: Literarishe khrestomatye (Kiev, 1929); Michael Stanislawski, For Whom Do I Toil?: Judah Leib Gordon and the Crisis of Russian Jewry (New York, 1988).