Page 36 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 34

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JACOB KABAKOFF
The Centenary of the First Book
of Hebrew-Yiddish Poetry in America
T
h e
y ea r
1977 will mark the centenary of the publication in
New York of the first book of Hebrew-Yiddish poetry in America,
Shir Zahav li-Khevod Yisrael ha-Zaken
(A Golden Song in Honor
of Age-Old Israel) by Jacob Zevi Sobel. This slim bilingual vol­
ume, of which only a few copies are extant, is more than a
literary curiosity. It contains the poetic reaction of a Hebrew
scholar and
maskil
to the new conditions in America and serves
as a valuable document of the immigrant era. Moreover, as the
pioneering work of Hebrew-Yiddish
belles-lettres
in this coun­
try, it has the distinction of being a literary first.
Sobel himself has supplied us with an account of why he de­
cided to leave Odessa, where he was a respected writer, and come
to this country. He was born of a rabbinic family in 1831 in
Shavli, district of Kovna, Lithuania. He became a student of the
renowned Rabbi Israel Salanter and received rabbinic ordina­
tion from Rabbi Isaac Avigdor. In the course of his varied
career he served as a
Rosh Yeshiva
in Kovna, a rabbi in Slobodka
and a preacher in Vilna.
After becoming an adherent of Haskalah, Sobel moved to
Zhitomir, where he completed his studies at the rabbinical semi­
nary. In 1865 he settled in Odessa, where he studied mathematics
and languages, and earned a scanty living from a circulating
library and from private teaching. Here he was in touch with
the leading Hebrew literary figures and contributed to the im­
portant Hebrew journals.
An event that took place in 1871 led ultimately to Sobel’s
decision to embark for America. In that year, many of his books
and manuscripts were destroyed in a pogrom, including his four-
part poetic work
Ha-Hozeh Hezyonot be-Arbaah Olamot
(The
Beholder of Visions in Four Worlds). The following year he
was able to publish a sectidn of the first part of this work. At­
tacking the adherents of the Kabbalah and Hasidism, Sobel
tried to demonstrate that only on the basis of the “pure Tal-
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