Page 160 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 49

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The Discussion over YaLaG’s Legacy
On the Centenary of His Death
t h e
c e n t e n a r y
o f
t h e
birth o f YaLaG (Yehudah Leib Gordon,
1830-1892) was commemorated with ex trao rd inary vigor and
passion by his adm irers and detractors alike. At the time Gor­
don, and with him the en tire topic o f Haskalah literature , was
seen to possess great contemporary relevance; these were live
issues and not relegated merely to academic study .1
Gordon, in particular, had long been the focus o f ideological
controversy. He was the foremost poet o f the Haskalah, at once
the symbol o f a hoped-for amalgam o f Hebraic literary renas­
cence and Russian humanism and, at the same time, a relentless
satirical crusader for Jewish legal and societal reforms. His fa­
mous phrase
Heye adam be-tsetkha vi-yehudi be-ohalekha
(“Be a p e r­
son when you go out and a Jew in your ten t”) from his 1863
Hakitsah Ami
(“Awake My People”), epitomized this credo.
It was, unfortunately , misconstrued and distorted. Particularly
in the wake o f Go rdon ’s reluctance to jo in many o f his colleagues
in hailing Jewish nationalistic and Zionistic aspirations, it and
he became ana them a for a host o f rivals who reviled Gordon
as a craven assimilationist. T h e full exten t o f these gross mis­
representations is detailed in Michael Stanislawski’s recent ex­
cellent book on Gordon .2
Acclamation and debate raged for years over Go rdon ’s pow­
erful historical and satirical epics, o f which the most famous
1. Ben-Ami Feingold, “YaLaG be-Perspektivah Historit,”
March, 1982, pp. 45-50.
2. Michael Stanislawski,
For Whom Do I Toil? Judah Leib Gordon and the Crisis
o f Russian Jewry
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). And see my
review in
X (Summer/Fall 1989), pp. 84-86. For the English reader
seeking plot summaries o f Gordon’s work there is the vastly inferior book
by A.B. Rhine,
Leon Gordon
(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1910).