Yehudah Leib Levin with a handwritten inscription of a verse from his Hebrew poem, “El ha-korim” (To the Reader): “All my joy in life I have ruined with my pen / Its future I have slashed mercilessly. / Only my pen is left, my portion and my inheritance / And I give it to you with all my soul and all my senses.” (Asher Barash Gnazim Institute, Tel Aviv)

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Levin, Yehudah Leib (poet)

(1844–1925), Hebrew and Yiddish poet and essayist. Yehudah Leib Levin (also known by the literary acronym Yehalel) was born in Minsk; his grandfather was a Hasidic rabbi. In 1862, Levin married and moved to the town of Puchowitz, where he resumed his religious studies and was drawn to Lubavitch Hasidism. However, he soon rejected his traditional upbringing.

In 1865, Levin published an excerpt from a ballad he had written, titled “Petsa’e ohev” (A Lover’s Wounds) in the compilation Ha-Kokhavim (The Stars; edited by Yisra’el Meir Vohlman). That same year, he published his first article, “Hashkafah ‘al matsav ha-haskalah ba-‘ir Minsk” (An Observation on the State of Haskalah in the Town of Minsk) in Ha-Melits. The piece provoked an outraged response from Hasidim in Minsk, forcing him to leave town temporarily.

In 1871, Levin moved to Kiev, where he worked as a tutor for the Brodskii family. At the end of that year, he published a poetry collection, Sifte renanot (Lips of Joyous Poetry) in Zhitomir. The book contained love poems and verse written for special occasions, and it apparently was popular with its readers. According to Levin, he was subsequently dubbed the “King of Poets” by Adam ha-Kohen (Avraham Dov Lebensohn).

Following the publication of Sifte renanot, Levin gradually turned to socialism and came to believe that only a change in the world economic order could effectively resolve issues affecting workers and Jews. He began publishing articles in the monthly Ha-Emet—the first socialist periodical in Hebrew (edited by Aharon Shemu’el Lieberman)—and was involved in its distribution. He also published “socialist” poems—a major innovation in Hebrew literature—between 1873 and 1876 in Ha-Shaḥar. Levin’s most important poem, “Kishron ha-ma‘aseh” (The Talent of Action) appeared in Vienna in 1877, protesting the exploitation of workers by the rich. Throughout his socialist period, Levin’s writings reflected his sympathy for Yiddish. He even went so far as to claim that articles should be written in Yiddish rather than in Hebrew, as a means of educating the masses in their native tongue.

Levin’s conflicting feelings about nationalism and socialism were reflected in a long article, “She’elat ha-Yehudim” (The Question of the Jews; 1879), published in weekly installments in Ha-Kol. Levin’s nationalism began to intensify in 1878, after he had read an anti-Jewish speech of Russian minister Aleksandr Gorchakov, who opposed granting equal rights to Jews. The pogroms of 1881 radically changed Levin’s point of view. Initially, he supported immigration to the United States, but ultimately became an avid supporter of the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement.

In Kiev in 1883, Levin established Agudat Tsiyon, a society for the settlement of the Land of Israel. He also translated Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Tancred, or the New Crusade into Hebrew as Nes la-goyim o Tankred (1884). The novel envisions the Jews’ return to their own land.

In 1887, Levin was forced to flee Kiev as a result of his political activity. He moved to Tomashpol where, in 1890, he completed the poem “Daniyel be-gov ha-arayot” (Daniel in the Lions’ Den), highlighting the struggle against antisemitism and Levin’s outspoken support of Zionism. Because of censorship, this poem was not published until 1898 in Warsaw. In the last decades of his life Levin’s career declined, although in 1910 he published his autobiography, Zikaron ba-sefer.

Suggested Reading

Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 6, pp. 118–187 (Jerusalem, 1958); Getzel Kressel, Leksikon ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ba-dorot ha-aḥaronim, vol. 2, cols. 199–202 (Merḥavyah, Isr., 1967); Meyer Waxman, A History of Jewish Literature, vol. 3, pp. 258–260 (New York, 1936).



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann