Letter from Yisroel Tsinberg, n.d. From Yisroel Tsinberg in Saint Petersburg, to (?), n.d., asking for help in obtaining two early Jewish socialist newspapers that he cannot find in Russia for research for his Russian-language Geshikhte der nay hebreyishn un yidishn (zhargon) literatur (History of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish [Zhargon] Literature). Yiddish. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

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Tsinberg, Yisroel

(1873–1939), historian of Jewish literature; chemist. Yisroel Tsinberg, also known as Sergei Lazarevich Tsinberg (often spelled Zinberg in English sources), received a traditional and a secular education, first from private teachers in his father’s home in Volhynia and then at a secondary school in Rovno (Ukr., Rivne). He studied chemistry at the Karlsruhe Polytechnic Institute from 1891 to 1895, received a doctorate in philosophy from Basel University, and settled in Saint Petersburg in 1898.

From 1899 to 1938, Tsinberg worked as a chemist at the Putilov (from 1934, Kirov) Steel Mill, where, from 1905, he was head of the laboratory. From 1896 to 1938, he published numerous articles on chemistry and metallurgy in Russian and German journals. For his work during World War I, Tsinberg was awarded a medal, and in the Soviet period he made significant contributions to developments in metallurgical science.

In Saint Petersburg, Tsinberg participated in the work of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE), composing, for example, a Yiddish pamphlet on popular science (1900). That same year, he published a Russian essay on the maskil and thinker Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon. From 1901 to 1906, Tsinberg contributed a regular column to the leading Russian Jewish weekly Voskhod, calling on the Jewish intelligentsia to promote national self-consciousness and to come to the aid of the Jewish people. In his 1903 essay on Yiddish literature and its readership, he argued in favor of Yiddish as the language for enlightening the popular masses and creating literature. Tsinberg referred to Hebrew as the Jewish national language, while Yiddish, to him, was the “living popular tongue.” An ideological opponent of Zionism, he criticized Ahad Ha-Am but recognized the movement’s role in Jewish public life.

In 1905, Tsinberg published the article “Dva techeniia v evreiskoi zhizni” (Two Trends in Jewish Life) in the magazine Knizhki voskhoda; this article later became the basis for the structure of his voluminous work on Jewish literature. He interpreted the history of Jewish thought as a centuries-long struggle between two opposing trends: the democratic, mystical “religion of the heart,” which reflected popular psychology, and the rationalist “intellectual aristocratism” of the philosophers. He regarded the thinking of Ahad Ha-Am and the class theories of leftist political parties as examples of aristocratic abstract thought. Tsinberg idealized a harmonious merging of the two trends, represented particularly in the work and legacy of Yehudah ha-Levi.

In 1905, Tsinberg joined the Folkspartey (People’s Party) and wrote for its publications; in 1918 he was elected as the party’s candidate for the Jewish National Council. In 1912 he helped create the monthly Di yudishe velt. Tsinberg was also active in several Jewish academic and cultural associations, including the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society (1908–1929). He contributed more than 300 entries on the history of Jewish literature to the Evreiskaia entsiklopediia (Jewish Encyclopedia; 1908–1913), of which he was an editor, and wrote three chapters on literature for the collective work Istoriia evreev v Rossii (History of the Jews in Russia; 1914). In a 1915 monograph, Tsinberg examined the Russian Jewish press in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, and Polish between 1860 and 1880 as a factor for the awakening of national self-consciousness.

As a literary critic, Tsinberg devoted particular attention to Yiddish writing, including the classics of Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, and particularly Y. L. Peretz (in whose works he saw a reflection of the spiritual seeking of his own generation). He wrote about contemporary Yiddish writers too (such as Hersh Dovid Nomberg, Dovid Bergelson, Perets Hirshbeyn, and A. Vayter), and his studies touched on Hebrew texts (the works of Mikhah Yosef BerdyczewskiSha’ul Tchernichowsky, and Zalman Shneour) and Russian Jewish writers (in particular, Semen Iushkevich).

During the Soviet period, Tsinberg did not succumb to ideological pressures. From 1919 to 1925, he was the academic secretary of the Jewish University in Petrograd, where he taught Jewish literary history and the history of Yiddish. Until 1930 he was among the most prominent leaders of the remaining Jewish cultural organizations; he published articles in Russian Jewish periodicals and almanacs, including an essay on the young Soviet Yiddish poets Perets Markish, Dovid Hofshteyn, Leyb Kvitko, and Itsik Fefer. After the liquidation of all independent Jewish cultural organizations, Tsinberg’s home served as a gathering place for a small circle of enthusiasts of Jewish culture. He continued to correspond with foreign colleagues, and occasionally met with visitors from abroad who came to Leningrad. During the 1920s and 1930s his articles on the history of Yiddish theater and literature also appeared in Yiddish publications outside the Soviet Union.

For more than 20 years, Tsinberg worked on his monumental Di geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn (A History of Jewish Literature). The initial four volumes were written and several chapters published in Russian. Realizing the impossibility of producing the entire work in the Soviet Union, Tsinberg in 1924 began translating it into Yiddish. After several fragments appeared in Yiddish and Hebrew periodicals, the entire eight-volume work was published in Vilna (1929–1937); the first part of volume 9 appeared posthumously in New York in 1965. In his work, Tsinberg examined the development of Jewish culture, starting with Muslim Spain in the eleventh century and continuing through the literature of the Haskalah in Russia in the 1860s, with a separate volume on older Yiddish literature. In his interpretation of literary history, he consistently gave expression to his concept of “two trends,” which meant that he included mystical works in the context of his narrative—a new departure for historiography. He intended his history to treat the entire period up to 1914, but he was not able to complete the text.

Tsinberg was arrested on 4 April 1938 and convicted of counterrevolutionary activity and of participating in a Zionist organization. He died in a transit camp in Vladivostok, either on 28 December 1938 or on 3 January 1939. His personal archives were preserved by his family’s determined efforts and between 1947 and 1977 were transferred to the Saint Petersburg branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

From the first moment of its publication, scholars recognized the importance of Tsinberg’s History; they remarked on its contribution to the study of older Yiddish literature and its utilization of archival collections in Saint Petersburg. Yankev Shatzky noted Tsinberg’s innovative approach to mysticism, and compared him to Gershom Scholem, while also observing Tsinberg’s eclectic methodology, which Shatzky defined as “historical determinism.” Without belittling the strengths of Tsinberg’s work, critics mentioned that various errors and inaccuracies crept into the text because he had been denied access to studies published abroad. In his study, Tsinberg presented dramatic psychological portraits of Jewish heroes and vivid depictions of the cultural life of each epoch, so that his work retains its interest even today. His History stands alongside the most important Jewish historiographic studies produced in the first half of the twentieth century.

Suggested Reading

Galina Eliasberg, “Publitsistika S. L. Tsinberga kak material dlia izucheniia ego kul’turno-istoricheskoi kontseptsii,” Judaica Rossica 1 (2001): 174–201; Avraham Greenbaum, Jewish Scholarship and Scholarly Institutions in Soviet Russia, 1918–1953 (Jerusalem, 1978); David Roskies, “Israel Zinberg: The Scholar as Folk Hero,” Moment 5 (1980): 46–47; Israel Zinberg (S. L. Tsinberg), Istoriia evreiskoi pechati v Rossii v sviazi s obshchestvennymi techeniiami (Petrograd, 1915); Israel Zinberg, Di geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn: Eyropeishe tkufe, 8 vols. (Vilna, 1929–1937); Israel Zinberg, Kultur-historishe shtudies (New York, 1949); Israel Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, ed. Bernard Martin, 12 vols. (New York, 1972–1978).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 206, A. Litwin, Papers, 1907-1940s; RG 3, Yiddish Literature and Language, Collection, 1870s-1941.



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson