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Gutmann, Simḥah Alter

(Ben-Tsiyon Gutmann; 1870–1932), Hebrew writer and educator. Known by his nom de plume S. Ben-Tsiyon (S. Ben-Zion in English sources), Simḥah Gutmann was born in Teleneshty, Bessarabia. Though he received a traditional heder education, Ben-Tsiyon was also exposed to Hebrew maskilic literature. His first story, “Mayn khaver” (My Friend), appeared in Yiddish (1899); he later translated it into Hebrew and published it under the title “Meshi” (Silk; 1902). His subsequent Hebrew stories appeared in prominent journals.

In 1897 Ben-Tsiyon left his detested profession—cattle trading—and switched to teaching, an occupation he regarded as his true calling and in which he was very successful. In 1899 the prestigious Ha-Ḥinukh society invited him to Odessa to teach in the city’s modernized heder, a school that quickly became a model institution. In 1900 Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik was invited to teach under Ben-Tsiyon’s supervision, and a friendship between the two men blossomed. An innovative teacher who pioneered the ‘Ivrit be-‘ivrit method (teaching Hebrew and related subjects by using solely the Hebrew language), Ben-Tsiyon systematically compiled the graded Ben-‘ami textbook series; the first of its many editions was issued in 1904.

Ben-Tsiyon was part of the Sofre Odessa, a circle of writers who had a major influence upon the development of Hebrew culture and literature. He was an ardent follower of Mendele Moykher-Sforim, even though they differed in their views about Zionism. With the goal of revitalizing Hebrew education, Ben-Tsiyon joined with Bialik, Elḥanan Leib Lewinsky, and Yehoshu‘a Ḥana Ravnitski to establish the Moriah Press. Throughout this period, Ben-Tsiyon remained one of the most highly regarded writers of his generation, exhibiting his finest skill in the stories “‘Al ketseh gevul ha-yaldut” (On the Edge of Childhood; 1899), “Nefesh retsutsah” (Fragmented Soul; 1902), “Zekenim” (Elders; 1903), and “Me-‘Ever le-ḥayim” (Beyond Life; 1904). In 1905, with his wife and five children (one of whom became the painter and writer Naḥum Gutman), Ben-Tsiyon left Odessa for Palestine, and was one of the founders of Tel Aviv in 1909, where he remained until his death in 1932.

As a disciple follower of Ahad Ha-Am, Ben-Tsiyon planned to create a literary center in pre-state Israel, modeled on the Odessa circle. The scholarly journal Ha-‘Omer and his continuing textbook series were part of this agenda. In 1910 he helped devise the youth periodical Moledet, which was published under the auspices of the Palestine Teachers Union. The journal was initially issued in 1911; however, by the end of its first year Ben-Tsiyon was crudely removed from its editorial body by the teachers’ central board. His failures as an editor embittered him, and he subsequently dissociated himself from cultural, public, and literary activities. His hope that in Palestine he would sustain the leadership position he had held in Odessa was dashed.

Ruptures widened between Ben-Tsiyon and the workers’ parties that had set the tone for literary standards in Palestine, as well as personally between him and their leaders (including Berl Katsenelson). These rejections led him to associate with “civilian circles” whose contribution to cultural activity in those years was marginal. Still, he continued to compile his textbook series Ben-‘ami. In 1914, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, he published Kol ketavav (All His Writings) in two volumes, and when the British occupied Palestine, he edited the literary supplement Shai shel sifrut (The Gift of Literature), which was attached to the daily Ḥadashot meha-arets (1918–1919), and Ha-Ezraḥ, an anthology “dedicated to literature, science, and contemporary questions” (1919–1920). He also served on the editorial board of Busten’ai, an organ of the Farmers Union. Despite his continued involvement in literary and public activities, Ben-Tsiyon is recorded in historical accounts as someone whose renown was forgotten during his lifetime. Nonetheless, his collected writings appeared in 1949.

S. Ben-Tsiyon’s life and works thus fall into two periods: his early years in the Diaspora and his later life in Palestine. Playing center stage to literary audiences and educators in his early adulthood, he was a chief storyteller of the shtetl, describing typical experiences, settings, and varieties of characters. His style balances mockery and criticism with softness and compassion, while his plot lines tell the fate of individuals worn down by the difficulties of survival. His famous novella Nefesh retsutsah is an indictment of traditional heder education. Another work on shtetl life, “Le-Ḥayim shel parnasah” (For a Prosperous Life; 1913), shows how the tensions associated with making a living lead to humiliation and moral degradation. Ben-Tsiyon’s prose exemplifies realism and demonstrates the flexible strata of the Hebrew language. Unfortunately, his rich linguistic infusion seemed affected to some of his audience, creating a barrier for the generation of readers that followed his own. Though S. Ben-Tsiyon paved the way for those who came after him, he himself paid a heavy price for helping to turn pre-state Israel into the center for Hebrew culture and literature.

Suggested Reading

Jacob Fichman (Ya‘akov Fichmann), “S. Ben-Tsiyon,” in Amat ha-binyan: Sofre Odesah, pp. 415–490 (Jerusalem, 1951); Nurit Govrin, “Meḥir ha-ri’shonut: S. Ben-Tsiyon,” in Devash mi-sela‘: Meḥkarim be-sifrut Erets Yisra’el, pp. 264–287 (Tel Aviv, 1989); Joseph Klausner, “S. Ben-Tsiyon,” in Yotsrim u-vonim: Ma’amre bikoret, vol. 2, pp. 183–199 (Jerusalem, 1929); Gershon Shaked, “S. Ben-Tsiyon (Simḥah Alter Gutman),” in Ha-Siporet ha-‘ivrit 1880–1970, vol. 1, pp. 295–302 (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1977).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler