Nov 29 2010

Yankev Gordin

by at 10:46 pm under Uncategorized

So I’m writing my final paper for Jameson about Yiddish Communism, by way of Yankev (or Jacob) Gordin. Now I don’t really do the whole reading about people’s writing careers and biography, but in this case I think it’s kind of important. I know very little about Yiddish literature in general and even less about Yankev Gordin, so in order to have a way of understanding the context by which “Moyshe Rabbeinu, Yesuz Christas, and Karl Marx Go to New York” I really need to understand who this guy was and where this wacky text is coming from.

So to start, here is some information about the dude:

Gordin was born in Russia in 1853, in the town of Mirgorod, which is now part of Ukraine. His father was a Maskil (aka: a member of the Jewish Enlightenment). He was not sent to Heder, elementary school for Jewish boys. Instead, he was homeschooled where he studied Hebrew, Russian, and German. Gordin may have studied Yiddish as a child, but his family adopted Russian instead of Yiddish as their primary language.

Gordin’s Relationship to the Jewish Language

Gordin’s complicated relationship with the Yiddish language:

“When he came to America, he was reluctant to speak Yiddish, although he wrote it in a perfectly fluent, colloquial style. Bessie Thomashefsky claimed that he spoke like a goy [Gentile], pronouncing Yiddish words with a hard Russian “h” (Gay and Glazer, 108).

Gordin’s complicated relationship to Jewish culture and language is something that comes up throughout his career most notably with regards to Gordin’s relationship to his “Jewishness.” When I say Jewishness here I am referringĀ to hisĀ relgious commitment to Judaism and its culture. He was accused of wanting to convert Jews to Christianity at different points in his life.

Gordin’s relationship to the Jewish Religion and Jewish Culture:

“A second group that attracted Gordin was founded in Elizavetgrad in January of 1880 by a non-Jew, a Dr. Michailovitch, and was called the Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood; it espoused rather vague principles of nonsectarian brotherhood that exactly suited Gordin’s way of thinking. Gordin joined it with great enthusiasm, eventually becoming its principal leader. The nature of this group remains mysterious since reports of people who actually attended the meetings on Saturday afternoons seem to indicate that it had strong religious leanings. After Gordin came to America, however he gave a lecture which was reported in the Yiddish newspaper Varhayt (Truth) denying the brotherhood’s religious purpose, saying that religion was merely a pretense, intended to hide from the tsarist police that it was actually a political group. However its strange religous ideas continued to haunt Gordin in America, where opponents denounced him as a “missionary” attempting to convert Jews to Christianity, citing his participation in the group. The nub of truth behind these recurring accusations was that a disciple of Gordin’s, Jacob Priluker, had gone off to Odessa, where he had founded a group called New Israel. And this group, together with Priluker, had indeed converted to Christianity” (110,111).

Gordin’s involvement in the Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood is really important I think. It seems to be very much in dialogue with Marx’s “On the Jewish Question,” which has been interpretted as an antisemitic text but Gordin’s beliefs and actions seem similar. Marx claims that Jews should not be asking for a Jewish emancipation because that excludes them from the rest of humanity. They should be seeking for an emancipation of all and the only way this can be done is if religious distinctions are dissolved. Gordin’s Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood seems to be a kind of compromise–a space where the distinctions between Jews and Christians could be minimized. So it would not call for the end of either, or the dissolution of Jews into Christians (at least from the way I’m understanding it now), but would create a kind of brotherhood between gentiles and jews, even while maintaining these basic categorical distinctions. How then does “Moyshe Rabbeinu” text come into all of this?” Hmmm, got ideas but still thinking them through.

More quotes in which Jacob Gordin is sounding a lot like Marx:

112, 113

“But Jacob Gordin remained firmly attached to his ideas about the brotherhood of man, despite the evidence of the pogroms, despite the flood of anti-Semitic articles in the Russian press, and he took surprising action. First, he supported and contributed to a fund for the benefit of the families who had taken part in the pogroms and had been arrested by the police for their violence. In additon he took the occasion to write an impassioned article in the Russian newspaper Yuzhni Krai (Southern Frontier) a few months after the pogrom. It was titled An Appeal to the Jewish People and opens with the words “Brother Jews.” He starts with the image of the Jewish people as the tooth, root and all. In the same way, writers Gordin, the Jews should tear out by the roots their deeply engrained bad habits. He then goes on to discuss these habits, beginning with a question:

Why do all elements of Russian society hate you? Is it simply a religious hatred? Or is it our love of money, unquenchable, our stinginess, chasing after ways of earning money, our impudence [chutzpah], our fawning style, our slavish and foolish imitation of the puffed up and corrupt Russian aristocracy our usury, our tavern keeping, our impulse to reade and all our other failings–all these provoke the Russian people against us. Of course there are also honorable people among us. But they are lost in the mass of traders who day and night think only of how to make a ruble and who never in their lives have had the slightest interest or need for anything else.

Then, refering to the pogroms, he continues:

It is just these events that give me the right to remind you, Brothers, that right now is the time to tear out the rotten teeth with which you have bitten others, and from which you yourselves have suffered from time to time unbearable pain and suffering. Brothers awake! Start a new life. [Meaning–a new life according to the principles of his Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood]” (Gay and Glazer, 112, 113)

No responses yet | Categories: Uncategorized

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.