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Ginsburg, Sha'ul

(1866–1940), founder and editor of Der fraynd; political and cultural historian of Russian Jewry. Sha’ul (Saul Moiseevich) Ginsburg was born to a wealthy merchant and industrialist family in Minsk. He received a Jewish education from private tutors and a general education at gymnasium and the law faculty of the University of Saint Petersburg, graduating in 1892. Ginsburg began his journalism career quite young as a correspondent for the moderate maskilic and proto-nationalist Hebrew newspaper Ha-Magid.

In 1892, Ginsburg began to write for the Russian Jewish press, particularly the liberal intelligentsia’s “thick journal” of Jewish affairs, Voskhod. His contributions included a regular survey of the Jewish press and articles on Russian Jewish history, ranging from the history of the early Russian Jewish press to the histories of Haskalah and Hasidism. With the amateur historian and folklorist Peysekh Marek, Ginsburg compiled and edited the landmark collection of Yiddish folk songs Evreiskiia narodnyia piesni v Rossii in 1901. Containing lyrics only, the anthology was based on submissions by readers in response to an 1898 appeal in the press, and included songs on historical and current events.

In 1903, Ginsburg cofounded and coedited Der fraynd, the first Yiddish daily in the Russian Empire. The paper quickly found a wide readership (it claimed 90,000 subscribers at the height of its popularity) and drew some of the finest Russian Jewish writers of the day, including many primarily identified with Hebrew and Russian letters. The appearance of Der fraynd was a milestone in the history of the Yiddish popular press, due to its pathbreaking legal status, journalistic standards, and broad coverage, and it played an important consolidating role in the development of modern Yiddish letters due to its relatively high literary and orthographic standards and stated respect for Yiddish as the primary instrument of intra-Jewish national dialogue. Ginsburg also wrote political columns for the paper under the pseudonym Sh. Freydes.

In 1908, Ginsburg left Der fraynd, which was already declining in the face of a burgeoning Yiddish daily press in Warsaw. Thereafter, although he remained active in liberal Russian Jewish public life (helping to found the Petersburg Jewish Literary Society in 1908), he devoted himself primarily to the study of Russian Jewish political, social, and cultural history. Between 1910 and 1913, he coedited Perezhitoe, one of two Russian-language journals in Saint Petersburg devoted to publishing primary sources for the study of Jewish history (in this case, memoirs deemed to have special historical value). In 1912, he published a monograph on the Jews of Rusia during Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, Otechestvennaia voina 1812 goda i Russkie evrei. Chapters of this study also appeared in Yiddish translation in the new thick journal Di idishe velt (Saint Petersburg, 1912; Vilna, 1913–1915). The study, which emphasized Jewish service and loyalty to the Russian Empire, can be read as part of a wider body of contemporary historical writing and research by liberal Russian Jewish historians emphasizing Jewish loyalty to Russia while indicting the state’s policies toward and suspicions of Jews. Fittingly, in the 1920s Ginsburg became a pioneering historian of the cantonist phenomenon under Nicholas I.

Arguably, both his journalistic writings in Der fraynd and his choices of scholarly focus in the interrevolutionary period reflected a shift in Ginsburg’s political views. He was active in the early Ḥoveve Tsiyon circle Kibuts nidḥe Yisra’el and remained identified with Russian Zionism for some years after. But with the 1905 Revolution, and perhaps earlier, he seems to have refocused his political hopes on liberal reform and multiethnic citizenship in the Russian Empire, in keeping with the Russian Jewish circles of Saint Petersburg in which he made his career between the 1890s and 1930.

In the wake of the February Revolution, Ginsburg turned to Hebrew in his scholarship (for reasons not explained), publishing two volumes of the historical journal He-Avar (The Past; Petrograd 1917–1918). Remaining in the Soviet Union until 1930, he briefly occupied a professorship of Jewish history in the short-lived Institute for (Higher) Judaic Studies in Petrograd/Leningrad (1919–1925) and, within the framework of the otherwise largely defunct Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE), edited several Russian Jewish publications devoted to Jewish literature and history, Evreiskaia Mysl’ (1926) and Evreiskii Vestnik (1928). Throughout, he continued to publish on a wide range of topics in nineteenth-century Russian Jewish history. These studies appeared both in Russian publications in Petrograd/Leningrad and in the New York Tsukunft. Topics included the history of the Jewish press, Russian state policy toward Jewish theater and publishing, the Haskalah movement and Russian Jewish intelligentsia, Jewish agricultural settlement and colonization efforts, and the cantonists. Ginsburg left the Soviet Union for New York in 1930, and continued to publish historical research, primarily in the New York Forverts.

Some of Ginsburg’s earlier works were anthologized in Russian in Minuvshee (Petrograd, 1923). In 1937, colleagues in New York began to publish a much larger Yiddish collection of his historical essays, which ultimately consisted of three volumes under the collective title Historishe verk (1937–1946).. The essays reflect a very broad range of interests, including, in addition to the topics listed above, studies of radical assimilation and conversion, Jewish banditry, Hasidism in the Russian Empire, Jewish communal efforts to combat cholera, and the private system of mail delivery for Jews in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe. Among his works, the most influential was undoubtedly his study of the cantonist phenomenon, which made use of Russian state and Synod archival sources; however, more recent work has tended to to discredit his emphasis on a coherent conversionist agenda at the heart of Nicholas I’s draft policies.

Suggested Reading

Mikhail Beizer, The Jews of St. Petersburg: Excursions through a Noble Past, ed. Martin Gilbert, tr. Michael Sherbourne (Philadelphia, 1989); “Ginzburg, Shoyl,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 2, cols. 227–229 (New York, 1958); Olga Litvak, Conscription and the Search for Modern Russian Jewry (Bloomington, Ind., 2006); Zalman Reisen (Rejzen), “Ginzburg, Shoyl,” in Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese, un filologye, vol. 1, cols. 567–572 (Vilna, 1926); Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Making Jews Modern: The Yiddish and Ladino Press in the Russian and Ottoman Empires (Bloomington, Ind., 2004); Alex Valdman. "Sha’ul Ginsburg ve-ha-megamah ha-lo radikalit be-historiografyah ha-Yehudit-Rusit,” Zion LXXX  4 (2015): 521-549.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 108, Manuscripts, Collection, ; RG 1121, Saul Ginsburg, Papers, ; RG 1139, Abraham Cahan, Papers, 1906-1952; RG 201, Abraham Liessin, Papers, 1906-1944; RG 204, David Pinsky, Papers, 1893-1949; RG 206, A. Litwin, Papers, 1907-1940s; RG 81, Elias Tcherikower, Papers, 1903-1963.