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Gordon, Shemu’el Leib

(Shalag; 1865–1933), Hebrew writer, editor, and educator. Shemu’el Leib Gordon was born in Lida (Vilna province; now in Hrodna, Bel.) and received a traditional education. He was self-taught in secular studies and became a Hebrew teacher from a young age.

Gordon began his literary career as a poet, publishing three short anthologies under the title Kinor Yeshurun (The Violin of Yeshurun [The People of Israel]; 1891–1894). Regarded as one of the most significant and popular poets of the Ḥibat Tsiyon generation, he composed poems in the style of the historic or legendary ballad. Developing motifs drawn from the history of the Jewish people, his works focus on several types of heroes: martyrs (in “Rabi Ḥanina’ ben Tradyon” and “Be-Lev yam” [In the Heart of the Sea]); redeemers (“Ha-Ne‘elam” [The Concealed One] and “Ha-Rav mi-Prag” [The Rabbi from Prague]); and exceptional individuals (“Me-Ḥezyonot lailah” [From the Visions of the Night] and “Ger tsedek” [A Righteous Proselyte]). These poems highlight their characters’ spiritual fortitude against the backdrop of an essentially tragic national history.

Shalag also composed lyrical poems filled with pathos, whose dominant theme was affection for the land of Israel as the central focus for all metaphysical yearning. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he gradually stopped writing poetry, having reached the conclusion that it was not within his power to attain the high standards of the new poets of Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik’s generation.

In 1898, Gordon immigrated to Palestine, where he taught at the Jaffa Boys’ School. After losing his position in 1901, he returned to Warsaw, where he founded a ḥeder metukan (reformed heder), with Hebrew as the language of instruction. His home, imbued with a Hebrew spiritual atmosphere, was renowned for its hospitality among writers of that period.

After his return to Warsaw, Shalag devoted himself to creating and cultivating Hebrew children’s literature—a field in which he successfully merged his literary and pedagogic talents. With his brother-in-law Avraham Leib Shalkovich (Ben-Avigdor) he founded and edited the Zionist-leaning children’s weekly ‘Olam katan (A Small World; 1901–1905), which served as a platform for many of the finest young writers of that time. Building on its success, Shalag founded and edited the educational affairs monthly Ha-Pedagog (The Pedagogue; 1903–1904) as well as the illustrated youth magazine Ha-Ne‘urim (Adolescence; 1904–1905). He became a prolific writer of children’s and adolescents’ literature, producing a series of short monographs on prominent Jewish personalities (1907); a compilation of popular songs for children (Ha-Mezamer ha-katan [The Little Singer]; 1904); legends about national historical subjects; and poems for children adapted from popular and historical sources, written in simple yet elegant language (Shirim le-yalde Yisra’el [Poems for the Children of Israel]; 1907).

Shalag frequently translated works drawn from world literature for adults (e.g., Shakespeare’s King Lear; 1899) as well as for children (e.g., Les fables de La Fontaine; 1907). He also compiled the popular textbook Torat ha-sifrut (The Theory of Literature), which went through several editions beginning in 1902, and Ha-Lashon (The Language), which also saw many editions from 1910 on.

Gordon’s pedagogical magnum opus was his comprehensive commentary on the Bible, which first appeared in Warsaw in 1912 and occupied him for the last 20 years of his life. This work, which integrates traditional interpretations with modern scientific research, served as a textbook for generations of students. It has been through several editions and continues to be reprinted.

In 1924, Shalag moved once again from Warsaw to Palestine. There he devoted himself primarily to the completion of his biblical commentary, delivering lectures on that subject within the framework of Bialik’s ‘Oneg Shabat (Sabbath Cultural Gathering). Gordon’s poetry for adults was collected and published in book form in 1955.

Suggested Reading

Hillel Barzel, Shirat Ḥibat Tsiyon (Tel Aviv, 1987), pp. 185–196, 451–453; Jacob Fichman, “S. L. Gordon,” in Ruḥot menagnot: Sofre Polin (Jerusalem, 1952), pp. 383–386; Simon Halkin, “Shirat S. L. Gordon,” in ‘Im shaḥar: Shirim u-fo’emot by Samuel Leib Gordon, pp. 217–240 (Jerusalem, 1954/55); Uri’el Ofek, Sifrut ha-yeladim ha-‘ivrit, 1900–1948, vol. 1 (Tel Aviv, 1988), pp. 58–61.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler