Title page of Ahavat David u-Mikhal (The Love of David and Michal), Yehudah Leib Gordon (Vilna, 1856). (Columbia University Library)

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Gordon, Yehudah Leib

(1831–1892), the most important Hebrew poet of the nineteenth century; leading figure of the Russian Haskalah movement. Yehudah Leib Gordon was born in Vilna in 1831 and started writing Hebrew poetry at a young age. He soon became close to the circle of maskilim in that city, a group that included Adam ha-Kohen (Avraham Dov Lebensohn) and his son Mikhah Yosef Lebensohn. Writers associated with this group sought to expand their poetic and literary work and commitment to the renaissance of Hebrew letters in an Enlightenment key.

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

As was the case with many of his contemporaries, Gordon’s first works were based either on biblical models or on genres of classical literature. Thus, his Ahavat David u-Mikhal (The Love of David and Michal; 1856) retold the story of the love of King David and his young bride in a gripping modern Hebrew style, and was especially noteworthy for its innovative attempt to voice the concerns, feelings, and even sexuality of a woman. His Mishle Yehudah (Fables of Judah; 1859) took the form of the fable, so beloved by Enlighteners, and transformed it into a potent genre for Haskalah ideology: the stories of Aesop, La Fontaine, and Ivan Krylov were thus both Judaized and universalized in a manner that had an important and lasting influence for the generation of Hebrew-reading Jews coming of age in the hopeful period in the early part of the reign of Tsar Alexander II.

By the early 1860s, Gordon had emerged as the leading Hebrew poet of his generation and an important and innovative essayist as well. His prose style, both in his fiction and nonfiction pieces, was crisp, clear, and eminently modern, and set important models for the subsequent history of both the essay and the short-story genres in modern Hebrew literature; it also established a new sort of voice, highly differentiated from the bloated faux-biblicism of his elders, though it was imbued, as was all of his poetry, with continual textual subversions of biblical and rabbinic words, phrases, and images.

Despite the importance of this early work, Gordon’s most important creations of this period were undoubtedly two poems: “Hakitsah ‘ami” (Awake My People!) and “Kotso shel yod” (The Tip of the Yud [Hebrew letter]). The former called on Russian Jews to abandon their isolation from Russian and European culture and partake of the great civilization around them while remaining committed Jews. The penultimate verse of this poem—“Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home”—would become the phrase word of the Russian Haskalah, though it was often misunderstood as a call for an abandonment of public manifestations of Jewishness in favor of privatization of Judaism in the home.

“Portraits of the Great Poets of Israel.” Commercially produced lithograph based on an illustration printed in the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Asif, 1886. (1) Mikhah Yosef Lebensohn, (2) Yehudah Leib Gordon, (3) Naftali Herts Wessely, (4) Adam ha-Kohen (Avraham Dov Lebensohn), and (5) Avraham Ber Gottlober. (YIVO)

Gordon’s many other letters, poems, and essays of the period demonstrate that this was not his intent. He sought, rather, to forge a creative synthesis between Jewishness as a living culture, expressed in a revivified Hebrew language, and European civilization as exemplified in Russia by the adoption of the Russian language, abandonment of the traditional trades of Jews for artisan crafts and agriculture, and loyalty to the regime. “Kotso shel yod” was a sharp critique of the role of women in traditional, patriarchal Jewish society, and a stirring call for their liberation. Although to later audiences Gordon’s feminism was tempered by his acceptance of the emerging bourgeois model of the “proper” place of women in the home, in these years and in the context of traditional East European Judaism, he was offering a bold call for womens’ rights that inspired generations of Jewish women and men; its opening stanzas could be recited from memory by hundreds of thousands of Hebrew readers for generations to come. From the late 1860s, Gordon’s compositions became more theologically radical, reworking and subverting traditional biblical, Talmudic, and midrashic themes in the name of a new heterodox Hebrew humanism. Beyond his poetic work, Gordon founded and served as a teacher in government-sponsored Jewish schools in Lithuania, and was one of the leaders in the movement to provide modernist and secular education for Jewish girls.

In 1872, Gordon moved to Saint Petersburg, where he continued to write poetry while serving as the secretary of the Saint Petersburg Jewish community and the main branch of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia. As he had done earlier in Lithuania, here he called for a thoroughgoing religious reform of Judaism on the lines of the Breslau school of “positivist historical Judaism” in Germany, and in this connection he was denounced to the authorities as a revolutionary by Orthodox Jews and sentenced to exile in the interior of Russia, where he wrote some of his most stirring antitraditionalist verse, including “Tsidkiyahu be-vet ha-pekudot” (Zedekiah in Prison), which totally reversed the conventional lionization of the prophet as opposed to the king: in Gordon’s reworking, the prophet represents a defeatist Orthodoxy, ready to sacrifice the needs of Jews to their impractical and counterproductive theological ideals.

After his return to the capital, Gordon became editor of the most important Hebrew newspaper of the age, Ha-Melits, in which he expressed his liberal, Enlightenment-based ideology in daily columns and feuilletons. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and the consequent spread of modern Jewish nationalism, Gordon refused to abandon his liberal, reformist stance and criticized the new nationalists for their collaboration with Orthodox Judaism, which he regarded as the main source of Jewry’s problems. This position embroiled Gordon in a vicious feud with Mosheh Leib Lilienblum, the leader of the new Ḥibat Tsiyon (Love of Zion) movement, who denounced Gordon as a traitor to his people. At the same time, Gordon fought a continuous battle with the editor of Ha-Melits, Aleksander Zederbaum, and eventually left to work on Ha-Yom, a rival daily Hebrew newspaper in the Russian capital.

From Yehudah Leib Gordon in Telz, Russian Empire (now Telšiai, Lith.) to Mosheh Leib Lilienblum in Odessa (?), 1870, thanking him for defending Gordon against slanderous charges in the press, particularly an article written by Moshe Dovid Wolfson, which Gordon claims is a pseudonym for Zekharye Yosef Shtern, the rabbi of Shavli (Šiauliai). It seems that "Moshe Dovid Wolfson, man of Vilna" is the numerical equivalent of "Zekharye Yosef Shtern," according to gematria. Hebrew. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

Perhaps most controversially in these years, Gordon actively supported the emigration of Jews to the United States, as opposed to Palestine, and wrote several stirring poems arguing for that option. Although he believed that the Land of Israel was indeed the national homeland of the Jewish people and could serve as a beacon of light for Jews, he firmly held that the new nationalist movement would only succeed in Palestine if the Jews living there and moving there were first purged of their religious traditionalism; otherwise, he warned, a Jewish community in the Holy Land would run the grave danger of becoming a theocracy.

While Gordon was utterly devoted to the Hebrew language, and wrote a famous stirring poem fearing its demise (“Le-mi ani ‘amel” [For Whom Do I Toil?]; 1870–1871) he also believed that Jews should learn the Russian language and become active bearers of Russian, as well as Hebrew culture, and thus was an active contributor to the nascent Russian Jewish press. Although he despised Yiddish as the ultimate example of Jewish degradation, he also wrote some poetry in that, his native, language.

By the early 1890s, Gordon’s insistent and at times contrarian retention of the liberal Enlightenment ideology was increasingly unpopular among Russian Jewish intellectuals, though many of his beliefs both influenced and were shared, on the one hand, by Ahad Ha-Am and his followers in the cultural Zionist movement, and on the other hand, by the Russian Jewish liberals such as Simon Dubnow and later Maksim Vinaver, who were committed to Jewish continuity and emancipation within a liberal, multiethnic Russian state. But Gordon died as a lonely spirit, continuing to espouse his lifelong liberal politics and prenationalist Hebraism, now deemed superseded by most of his colleagues and friends.

Suggested Reading

Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 4, pp. 301–466 (Jerusalem, 1960); Michael Stanislawski, For Whom Do I Toil?: Judah Leib Gordon and the Crisis of Russian Jewry (New York, 1988).