Solomon Simon’s First Published Story

Looking for something else, I revisited the entry for Solomon Simon in the Leksikon of Yiddish Writers, this time in English translation (thanks to Joshua Fogel and his blog). Last time I looked at this entry I learned a few details about his life I hadn’t known, and fixed on the information that he also wrote under various pseudonyms. I also made some use of the list of people writing about him, many of which were hard to hunt down and turned out to be fairly prosaic book reviews.

This time, I read about his first forays into writing, which were much earlier than I had realized. Though in his autobiography he sheepishly mentions some early poetry, written in Hebrew and now lost, I had not realized that he was a published writer before he came to America. Because Simon’s wonderful autobiography ends when he leaves Europe, I have no account of how he became a Yiddish writer. I knew that in addition to house painting and wagon driving, he was a Hebrew teacher in his early years in America. I also knew that he went to school at night. I knew that, by the time he served in the Army in 1918, his English was good enough to exchange love letters in English with the woman who later became his wife. But most of his early immigrant experience is a blank to me.

As it happens, the Leksikon entry gives the title to his very first published story after coming to America. In 1915, he published a ‘sketch’ called An Italian Greenhorn, in the daily newspaper Der Tog. Amazingly, this newspaper is available online at Historical Jewish Press. Frankly, trying to search that database drives me a bit crazy, but this time I got lucky. I found the story, published when he was 20 years old. I’m sharing it here, along with my translation.

Click here to download a pdf of the Yiddish story


An Italian Greenhorn (a sketch)
by Shloyme

Midday. The sun blazing like fire. Our hero, a young man about 18 or 19 years old, dripping with sweat, walks rapidly on a noisy New York street, carrying a sack over his shoulder. He looks at his torn clothes, his worn out shoes and, looking in a large display window, at his sweaty face, his tousled hair, and his white cap with its blackened visor, and he sees the corners of his mouth twitch strangely, as tears appear in his sharp, gray eyes.

Suddenly, a mocking smile flashes onto his lips. He presses them together and quickens his stride, deep wrinkles appearing on his forehead.

He walks, murmuring to himself, “The first few months…” repeating the words several times without knowing himself what he is saying. As he walks on, the words grow quieter and quieter, until he is silent. Now he walks slower, and another image floats into his mind.

How happy he had been! Such enthusiastic letters he had sent those first three months.

“Nothing much: Only all my dreams have come true!” He recalled in exact detail how he described his life. “Do you remember how I would imagine my life here, when I was home with you? Do you remember my dream of America, that night of the new moon in the spring? My dream was: Work in the daytime, and study at night. I will drop all ‘silks’, all the pretenses of the intelegentsia, and join the ranks like an ordinary soldier. Imagine, calluses on my hands! I will know the life of the proletariat not from Talmudic argument over details and interpretations, but from my own experience. I will be rid of all my doubts and everything will be clear to me. The broad and rock-strewn path of the masses will stretch out before me. And it has all come true!

He smiles. “I will be rid of all my doubts.” How foolish, how childish that was.

He really was happy those first couple of months. He had been idle for so many years, and now he no longer had time. Running back and forth from work to school affected him oddly. It was all foreign to him, strange but seemingly agreeable. He felt his heart was opening to human suffering. And as he did his work, he used to look ironically at his surroundings and think, “If they only knew who I am.”

But he had soon sobered. Life was hard. And he came to understand that it did not revolve around his wishes; that the world did not depend on whether he lived this way or that—need pressed him. And it was going to be that way for a long, long time. The dark and narrow path of a poor worker stretched before him.

He had an urge to cry, but he felt that he could not. He stifled the thought and looked around wildly.

An automobile drove past. Two girls were half sitting, half leaning in the automobile. His wild look landed on them. The opened their eyes wide. And, like that, the automobile disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

His head went blank. With a childish stubbornness, he fixed on the automobile. Bits of thoughts about the girls and the chauffeur got tangled up in his mind until, before he knew it, they braided themselves into a fantasy:

If the automobile had run him over, he would have been left lying with his head askew, pale, with his hands splayed out. The girls would have jumped out, and would have started shrieking with fright. People would have laid him in a wagon. With the tip of her finger one of the sisters (of course the two of them were sisters) would take the sack and set it down next to the chauffeur. They would bring him to the hospital. He imagined the girls looks to the doctor, as though to say: “It is not our fault… the automobile could not stop…” It pleased him, and he smiled contentedly.

His thoughts kept going: “He would come to. The next morning he would be leaning there, washed and soaped, clean and tidy, pale and dressed in white. His gray eyes afire and his black hair combed. The girls would come in, approach him and ask him how he is. He would beg them to forgive his broken English, because he must tell them, he has been in the country for less than six months. Surprised, they would say that given the time, he spoke “alright”. He would ask them to bring him a book: An English classic translated into Hebrew: Cain by Byron, or Hiawatha, by Longfellow… They would wonder how he knew of the best English classics, and he would tell them about Hebrew literature, and about the survival of the Jewish people. In a low voice, he would talk to the, and they would sit leaning next to him and listen and listen… His eyes would take on a dark shine, as they always did when he was excited, his face would be pale, and—they would like him.

He would heal. The would take him to their house, would give him a job in their business. People would say strange things about him. He would look at them as if it was a secret, like a riddle, and their curiosity would grow and grow…

And he imagined another picture: He was sitting in a richly decorated room, in half darkness, the garden visible outside. There was a piano. He sat in a plush chair and told the younger sister about the Land of Israel, about a dark-skinned Jewish woman, about the Russian forest. And the girl listened attentively, her eyes burning like coals…

And without noticing he was off the sidewalk into the middle of the street — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

“The automobile disappeared…”
“What happened?”
“Ran over a boy. It looks like he is an Italian greenhorn…”
“Oy vey.”

And the crowd around him grew and grew.

[Trans. by D.R.F.]


Short, and adolescent (someone had to say it) though it may be, it does give a slice of the immigrant experience, of a young man who thinks himself ‘better than all this’, who is ground down by the life of an ordinary worker in the nineteen-teens. Given his later concerns with Jewish identity, I think he is also trying to indicate something else. That in being overwhelmed with work and fantasizing about the gentile girls around him, the hero is in danger of losing anything that marks him as distinctly Jewish. Finally, you see a protagonist who trades on his own exoticism to gain entry to the white world.

Young writers often betray their models in their work. I detect influences of both Avrom Reisen and Y. L. Perets here. When did Simon read them? Whom did he talk to about them? I wish his memoirs included a description of how Yiddish literature first captured him, as the autobiographies of many other writers do.

The story is signed simply “Shloyme” (or Shloime). So now I have concrete evidence of a second pseudonym. Unfortunately, pseudonyms being rampant in Yiddish literature, others also wrote just under first names, and Solomon is a pretty common name. Still, I expect more work that can be clearly attributed to him will turn up.


Green Italian Horn

A green Italian horn

Fellow Travelers 4: Journals By and For Children

The documents that happened to end up in Cornell’s IWO/JPFO collection are neither complete nor necessarily representative. It’s possible that precisely the ‘best’ stuff was removed from the JPFO’s office before the government raided them. What remains is nonetheless a gold mine. School magazines are a good example.

The collection has a large number and variety of school magazines and journals- a category I will use as a catchall to include yearbooks, annual concert programs, newsletters and magazines (making no particular theoretical distinctions among these) produced by individual schools, as well as journals or magazines written by adults for children.

The school-produced material heavily emphasizes the transitional period of the “Umpartayishe” schools. That is, the nineteen-twenties, when the communist faction of the Arbeter Ring founded their own schools, but before the I.W.O’s break with the Arbeter Ring was complete and the Ordn Shuln as such were established in 1930. Most of these are stamped with the name Isaac Hurwitz or Kalman Marmor.

Magazines produced for children are even more scattershot. In fact, the title with the most issues in this archive is the Kinder Zhurnal, which was produced by the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute. This is the magazine of those who the JPFO would have considered reactionaries. That is, not only non-communist, but officially apolitical. Though many of its members were very sympathetic to socialism, the Sholem Aleichem schools emphasized Jewish history and culture, and Jewish literature generally, without trying to unite behind a political program. Meanwhile, there is not a single issue of Yungvarg, the official children’s magazine of the Ordn Shuln.

School Produced Material

March 1929 Cover

Because different schools called their magazine, journal, almanac, program, bulletin, etc. different things, there is unfortunately no single search term that will return all of this material and only this material.

Here are the results of one sample search, using the word “Umpartayish”.

Here is another search, using the terms [“children’s essays” OR “children’s writing”].

A more serious research project might start with the word ‘children’, or ‘shuln’, and wade through the couple of hundred items that include those words somewhere in their title or description. Or with the link labeled ‘education’, at the bottom of the landing page (see my previous posts). But even just for the curious Yiddish reader, it’s easy enough to find a chunk of these, and fascinating to browse through them.

Here are some titles of the school-produced magazines: Unzer Zhurnal (our magazine, from Boro Park); Shul Bulletin (Trenton); Kinder Arbet; Shul un Arbet; Unzer Veg (from Harlem); Royt May; Kalman Marmor Prolet-Shul No 1 School Journal (Newark, NJ); Di Yung Kemfer; Arbeter Kinder; Funkn (sparks); Ershte Trit (first steps). Zikhere Trit (sure steps); Royte Blimelekh (red flowers); Serp un Hamer (hammer & sickle); Morgnshtern (morning star, from Trenton, again); Unzer Shul; Almanac; Bazaar Almanac etc. Prolet Shul; Naye Shtraln; Kveytelekh (little blossoms)…

I’m intrigued by the variability in how doctrinaire the different schools are at different times. Children’s essays are clearly heavily influenced by the curriculum and the individual teachers’ expectations. For example, children’s compositions from one Ordn Shul in the early 1930s are titled: Lenin; May Day; Impending War; The Poverty of Black Americans; The Soviet Union; Kentucky Miners; the Scottsboro Boys, and so on, clearly reflecting the left-wing party line, while in an Arbeter Ring Shul in Washington, D.C. in 1929, the children are writing about: Moses and his Mother; Washington’s Monument; The Lincoln Memorial; Sam and Benny (about a rich and a poor boy); My Little Brother; My Teacher in Public School; David and Goliath; and, A Stormy Night at Camp ‘Nitgedayget’.

But there are also schools where the two tendencies mix. You might still find an essay about Lenin in an Arbeter Ring school magazine or about My Puppy in an Umpartayish school magazine.

The more slickly-produced school almanacs or annual concert programs are clearly put out not just by a single teacher or by the children themselves, but by the administration. They often start with a formal greeting and essay by a principal or by someone from the Ordn equivalent of the board of education. These, too, include children’s writing, sometimes culling the best from more than one school. They also have greetings from other affiliated organizations, and they have ads. These often reveal something interesting about the environment in which the schools do their work. What stores and services were in the neighborhoods of the schools? Which ads are only in Yiddish, and which have English? The concert programs themselves help show what the aims of the school are, and how the work is distributed. Did the head teacher also write the school play? Is outside talent brought in?

almanac cover

Click to download a school almanac

Material Produced for the School Children

In addition to magazines produced by the schools, there is also material produced for the schoolchildren by others. Betzalel Fridman’s “My Book” is a school reader. Both the finished book, and unfinished galleys with penciled corrections are in this collection.

There are also the magazines Kinderland and Kinder Zhurnal. As I mentioned above, in this case, these are not reflective of the Ordn Schools, or of the secular Yiddish schools in general, but rather the opposite. If someone had a collection of the Kinder Tsaytung or of Yungvarg, it was gone before these materials were donated.

If you want a real overview of the subject of periodicals produced for the Yiddish secular schools, I enthusiastically recommend Naomi Prawer Kader’s book, “Raising Secular Jews”. It’s a mekhaye.

The Kinder Zhurnal achieved a high literary level under the editorship of the brilliant and prolific Shmuel Niger. Having once struggled through microfilms of the Kinder Zhurnal, I am delighted to have access to these clear scans. In addition to poems by Kadya Molodowsky and Yankev Glatshteyn, the June-July 1943 issue contains “The Old Gray Tailor”, an autobiographical story by none other than Solomon Simon. Characteristically, Simon does not confront the ongoing world war and the suffering of the Jews directly, but extols the virtues of the disappearing traditional way of life of his childhood shtetl. In his telling, the Jews try to do good by each other and value learning above everything else. Simon also gives voice to a mother’s frustration that while the men are off pursuing spiritual wholeness, the women bear the entire burden of keeping their families going.


In David Roskies’ introduction to the book “Raising Secular Jews”, mentioned above, he remembers how, unlike Jewish children’s magazines in English and in Hebrew, the secular Yiddish children’s magazines felt it important to inform children about the catastrophe overtaking Europe. You can see that in numerous places including, for example, the story by Daniel Charney, Vos is Geven in Kestele, in the January, 1943 issue.


It’s hard for me to describe how compelling I find all these materials related to the efforts of a subgroup of American Jews (differing with one another in many important ways, but all committed to Yiddish) to raise their children in the middle third of the twentieth century. I haven’t even touched on Itche Goldberg’s essays, talks, and handwritten notes. If I were a much younger person, starting out on graduate work in Jewish Studies, I would write my master’s thesis on the school material in this collection. But, alas, I must content myself with sporadic browsing. But even an idle hour or two of clicking, downloading and perusing is amply rewarding. I hope these blogposts are helping at least a few people to find a way in to that pleasure.

ads for books

January, 1943. Ads are extremely informative. Here, an issue of Kinder Zhurnal advertises Bar Kokhba, a book published by the Yidish-Natsiyonaler Arbeter Farband (the left-wing Zionists), right next to an ad placed by Farlag Matones, the Kinder Zhurnal’s own publisher. The divisions between right and left were not stark before the McCarthy era. People read, and even promoted, each other’s material.

Fellow Travelers 3: Poetry and “Di Linke”

Being a poet, it was an unexpected treat for me to encounter so much poetry among the JPFO materials. A political speech closes with a poem. A eulogy includes lines of poetry. A fundraising effort has an associated call for poetry. A speaker’s guide for a holiday evening is made up chiefly of suggested readings, many of which are poems. In the I.W.O. organ, “The Spark” (Oct-Nov, 1932), Nachum Vaysman delivers his report on a teacher’s conference in the form of a ten-section-long poem. Of course, children’s school curricula include poetry, their compositions are often poems, and (often well-known) poets contribute to the children’s magazines.

Even in the thick of World War II, the JPFO published Kalman Marmor’s brief biography of poet Dovid Edelstadt. After the war, they published an English poem, Never to Forget, by Howard Fast, elegizing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, accompanied by illustrations by William Gropper.

Tank Poems

During WWII, one major focus of the JPFO was in aiding the Soviet Union in its war effort. They devoted considerable resources to fund-raising campaign “for Soviet tanks and airplanes.” The tanks were to be named after Jewish heroes.

This may seem strange, but even knowing what we do now, it’s important to realize: first, how many Jews were behind Soviet lines; and second, that the Red Army, pushing from the East, was in closer proximity to the death camps and better placed to liberate Jews than the Americans were. With Roosevelt and Stalin “on the same side”, the JPFO believed that they could now be openly pro-Soviet without being accused of disloyalty.

In any case, in the summer of 1942 the Morgn Frayhayt put out a public call to their readers to write and submit tank poems, in the hopes of inspiring people to donate to the campaign. Many readers responded. Some of these poems are awful. Other contributions came from established, published poets. It is interesting and impressive to me to see the rank-and-file and the literati joining together in the same campaign.


A great resource on the poets associated with the Yiddish left is the book Proletpen: America’s Rebel Yiddish Poets, edited by Amelia Glazer and David Weintraub (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). Here is an excerpt from Dovid Katz’s foreword to that book [as reprinted in Jewish Currents], in which he describes why these poets are less known than he thinks they ought to be:

“In the mid-1950s, the Rekhte, in their own literary publications, particularly the Tsukunft, were applying unwritten rules that can be summarized with a simplicity so stark that it is almost embarrassing: Whoever left the Linke for the Rekhte after the Hebron riots of 1929 was completely kosher; whoever left after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 was sufficiently kosher; whoever waited until confirmation of the Moscow murders of 1952 was treyf, banished from the canon; and whoever stayed with the Linke after that was not ever to be mentioned.

“So it came to pass that the canon of American Yiddish literature in English translation that thrives to this day was a creation, in part, of 1950s American political conformity…”

Many of the poets who are included in that Proletpen anthology also make an appearance somewhere in Cornell’s I.W.O./JPFO collection, including: Malka Lee (Rappaport), Moyshe Nadir, Aaron Kurz, Shifre Vays [or Weiss], Yosl Cutler, and Meinke Katz. I’m sure there are a few others I missed. You can try putting their names in the search field to see what comes up, keeping in mind that some of these names have more than one possible transliteration.

Of course, the presence of someone’s poetry in a leftist songbook, magazine, or evening program is not necessarily an endorsement. Some literary works were beloved by groups of every ideology. Some poets might have allowed their work to be published anywhere, or may not even have known what uses their work was being put to. For example, a file in the JPFO archive held a loose sheet of paper with part of a Sutzkever poem, which was probably read at a holiday or cultural evening.

Rontsh – Among those of the Proletpen poets Y. A. Rontsh had particularly close and enduring ties to the JPFO. The copy of Rontsh’s 1947 book of selected poems, “Lider”, in Cornell’s Olin Library is inscribed to his friend Rubin Saltzman. Rontsh turns up in several places in the archive, not only for his poetry, but also his prose writing on various subjects, generally related to education and/or literature. He has articles in the two JPFO Almanacs (note- these are large downloads) and in several issues of the I.W.O.s “The Spark”. When he wants to move to California, Saltzman writes to the Ordn schools there looking for a post for him. He also makes an appearance as a courier, bringing Bella Chagall’s books from Marc Chagall to the Ordn’s office.

A Few Links

Search the collection with the word “poetry” and you will get around 100 hits to browse through. Many of these are school journals or magazines for children— I will talk more specifically about these in my next blog post. But you will also find letters accompanying poems submitted to the Morning Freiheit or other Ordn publications, tank poems, public speeches that include a poem, issues of The Spark, letters back and forth planning a culture congress, holiday evening speaker’s guides, and more.

While going through this material there were one or two occasions when I just couldn’t resist translating a couple of lines, in order to try to give something of the feel of a poem, along with the content. Here’s the first stanza of a poem by Shifre Vays [Weiss]:

“My torn-out heart
Where did you go?
If to the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto
Give them my hands to clasp
And kiss their eyes
Take the lead from their skies
Promise them, this too will pass.”

Here is Kalman Marmor’s biography of Dovid Edelstadt:

A loose page with last 10 stanzas of Avrom Sutzkever’s poem “Teacher Mira”

Press proofs of an essay by Y. A. Rontsh. Several items in the archive have a penciled note on them “H & D”, for the awkwardly-spelled Heym (or ‘Heim’, or ‘Haim’) un Derziung (‘Dertsiyung’?). Formerly ‘Proletarishe Derziung’. This was the Ordn’s education journal, targeted to teachers and parents.
Rontsh’s article views American literary history and culture through the lens of Sears Roebuck catalogs. The article has no title, and the long strips make it slightly awkward to read. Follow the page numbers all they way down column 2, then 3 (even though it’s printed on the left), then 4.

On Poetry and Politics: The word “front”.

The word ‘front’ has often been used in two ways with regard to the Communists. Describing an activity as part of the “culture front” is a way of saying that they believed all their cultural activities were helping build the proletariat into an educated and enlightened force. Thus, in arguing for financial support for the schools, an official might address a meeting with the sentiment that nothing is more important than the next generation of revolutionaries. Because a major purpose of creating culture is to lift up and energize the class, much of the JPFOs poetry contains direct social or political content. There are few pure love poems, for example, or lyric nature poems as such.

The second way the word ‘front’ was used was to call the I.W.O. a “Communist front organization,” From the McCarthyite point of view, everything the Ordn did was merely cover for its singular and sinister purpose of taking over the United States. This was basically the rationale that the New York State’s Insurance Department and the Attorney General used to shut the organization down. They reasoned that the political activities posed a ‘risk’ to the insured, and then seized all the agency’s assets (proving themselves right).

The matter of the intersection of politics and poetry is, frankly, over my head. Instead of making a stab at it and embarrassing myself, I will share another few links which are related to that intersection. But I will also say, given how thoroughly poetry is marbled through every one of the Ordn’s activities, I am convinced that they believed in poetry as more than merely a front, or a means to an end. I’m convinced that in their vision for a world “after the revolution,” whether implicit or explicit, the proletariat would not lay down their weapons of cultural warfare forever. On the contrary: Everyone would now have ample time for the good life, which would give pride of place to music, poetry, and art.

A pamphlet for discussion, which takes a broad view both of the role of culture in the ongoing work of the order, and of the concept of ‘fraternalism’. By Abraham Maymudes.

A 1937 letter from H. Leivick [Leyvik] and Yosef Opatoshu to [Chaim] Henri Slovès of IKUF, regarding an international cultural conference, which they fear will end up not being representative of Yiddish culture as a whole, but only of the hard left. They ask Sloves to postpone. Leyvik would later cut ties with the Communists after the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939.

Finally, another song book for my friend Arnold, who faithfully reads all my blog posts, and who loves Yiddish music. A ‘lid’ in Yiddish can be a song or a poem. Only a long narrative poem, or dramatic verse is typically called a ‘poeme’. And, of course, many Yiddish songs were first poems. So a song book is not off the topic. This one is from 1932, titled Mit gezang tsum kamf or, roughly, To the Battle with Songs. As the title suggests, these are not love songs, and if something is titled ‘lullaby’, don’t buy it. The pages are numbered from the end, and on page 4, Kalman Marmor (yes, him again) discusses the role of song in the struggle.

Tank Campaign

Illustration by William Gropper, showing Soviet tanks emblazoned with the names of Jewish heroes, vanquishing Hitler. The Ordn often used and reused his drawings in multiple contexts.

Fellow Travelers 2: Highlights of the Highlights

Here again is the link for the “landing page” of the IWO/JPFO archive that Cornell has shared:

My general introduction to this material is in my previous post [link here].

In this blog post, I hope to provoke an initial sense of curiosity and excitement about what is available in the Fellow Travelers collection. Obviously, trying to get a handle on 1700 items is overwhelming; so I’ll make it easy and we’ll mostly stick to the mere 600 or so Yiddish items. OK, actually, to 1% of them.

If you scroll to the very bottom of the landing page, there are links to sets of items by topic: “Black Jewish Relations”, “Education”, “Conferences Conventions Meetings”, and others. The title “Women’s Work” accurately reflects the marginalized position of the women’s clubs, or the women’s sections of the district committees, until finally the Emma Lazarus Division of the JPFO is formed. These sets are the results of searching the entire collection with a particular term. Each set may have many items, some of which will be more direct or more thorough in treating that particular subject matter than others.

Among those sets of items is one titled “Exhibit and Collection Highlights”. This is a great place to start. It will return 74 items that the curators felt are particularly likely to be interesting to the general public, are visually striking, or, in aggregate, give a good feel for the collection as a whole. You can go directly to that set by clicking here: [Exhibit and Collection Highlights]

But 74 things is still a lot, and so I thought I would give my own introduction, by picking and choosing just a few “Highlights of the Highlights.”

One: Rubin Saltzman’s letters from Warsaw: July, 1946.

In 1946, the JPFO’s Rubin Saltzman went to Warsaw, to offer monetary assistance, and to assess the needs of the postwar Jewish community, in Poland for ongoing aid. Poland was soon to fall completely under Soviet influence, but at that time, Soviet policy was still supportive of the victims of fascism. Saltzman’s contacts were at the Central Committee of Jews in Poland.
The aid mission, however, was immediately and dramatically affected by the news of a pogrom in Kielce. In these two letters back to the office in New York, Saltzman describes his arrival, the news of the pogrom, and the aftermath, including his attendance at the funeral for the victims. Unlike most other Yiddish material in the collection, these letters come with English translations, which are lineated to match the handwritten letters, should you want to read them side-by-side:

July 7th letter- Saltzman’s arrival in Warsaw

English translation

July 9th letter- Kielce pogrom aftermath

English translation

And a note of thanks to Jonathan Boyarin for his help with the translations.

Two: Clara Lemlich Shavelson’s handwriting and signature.

Clara Lemlich is a hero of the left. As a young woman, she was a leader in the garment workers’ strike of 1909, but she remained active in labor movements for the whole of her long life. The Wikipedia article on her gives a good overview. Recently, Chelsea Clinton published a children’s book “She Persisted”, which includes Lemlich’s story, but which also has been criticized for omitting her communism and her Jewishness from the account. Both were central to her identity and work.

This item is the handwritten draft of what would later be typed up and sent out as the bi-weekly letter of the Women’s City Committee of the I.W.O. The handwriting is careful and clear—presumably someone other than the author would type it. A slightly more fluid sample of her handwriting is on the back of page 3 in a note that signed, simply, “Clara”. There is also some intriguing-looking writing in what appears to be Yiddish shorthand.

Besides having a famous person’s handwriting, the letter shows the concerns of the women’s committee at the time, and shows Lemlich (now under her married name, Shavelson) doing the nitty-gritty work of organizing.

Three: A comment on the dangers of assimilation in 1929:

The JPFO collection includes numerous school yearbooks and student newspapers. These can be quite revealing. The children’s written work shows their level of Yiddish proficiency, and their choices of subject matter indicate how open or doctrinaire a given school was. Concert programs and advertisements provide additional clues as to what the life of a given school community was like.

The so-called “Umpartayish” (or, “nonpartisan”) schools were anything but. These were the schools that did not adhere to the official socialist ideology of the Arbeter Ring, because they were farther to the left. Soon they would splinter off to form the Ordn Shuln.

This particular school yearbook and spring concert program also interests me for a different reason. The school administration, in its introduction, writes:

We remind ourselves and think about the nature of the children when they all arrived at the Jewish Workers School– what was it? Not understanding or speaking a word of Yiddish. Their heroes? Jack Dempsey or Charlie Chaplin…

This comment provides a reminder of how long ago the assimilation process began. From shortly after the U.S. slammed the immigration doors shut in 1924, the children in the Yiddish secular schools would all be American-born, and apparently many were already from English-speaking homes, even in 1929. I have often thought about why so few Jewish parents chose to raise their children in Yiddish in the two decades following World War II. But by the late forties, many families were already a second generation removed from Yiddish as a mama-loshn.

Four: Letter from Marc Chagall to Rubin Saltzman

Chagall writes to Rubin Saltzman saying he is sending copies of “Belatchke’s” [his nickname for Bella Chagall] book, hoping Saltzman can get them to his friends in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow. With Bella’s second yortsayt approaching, Chagall asks if Saltzman is still ready to publish her second book, provisionally titled, “Life and Love”.
In fact, the Ordn (JPFO) did later publish Bella Chagall’s second book, under the title “Di ershte bagegenish”, or “First Encounter”, accompanied by Marc Chagall’s illustrations.

Five: A Ruth Rubin booklet on Jewish folk songs.

Rubin published a lot, so this is probably not new, but I am quite fond of it just the same.

Here’s an English version, also from the I.W.O./JPFO documents.

You can also find a large collection of Ruth Rubin recordings, recently made available online at Yivo’s webpage.

And, having just come from Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird’s album release concert, I can tell you that leftist Jewish music is still alive.

Six: A Speaker’s Guide for an evening commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

I could go on and on, but the point of this list is to be quick and manageable. Someone else’s top half-dozen would certainly be different than mine. It might include materials on the trial that led to the JPFOs dissolution, or have more about their political platform. Perhaps this would include their take on the battle for national health insurance in the 1940s. Other documents show the marginalization of the JPFO by mainstream Jewish groups as the cold war got underway, or how they would frame their qualified support for the new State of Israel. Keep exploring the website and you will find all manner of fascinating things.

Following my own interests, my next two blog posts are going to be about poetry and education, rather than ‘foregrounding’ politics and history. But politics and history infuse everything in the collection, and I will also address them later. Meanwhile, speaking of culture, I can’t resist adding one last highlight, this time in English.

[in English]. A January, 1946 letter from Rubin Saltzman to Robert Moses. Saltzman writes regarding a plan to erect a statue of Sholem Aleichem in time for his 30th yortsayt, which would be coming up in May. Moses’ reply urges Saltzman not to announce anything, but to proceed through the proper channels. In fact, the statue was never built.

Warsaw Ghetto William Gropper

Cover for a 1947 Speaker’s Guide for an evening commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Artwork is by William Gropper.

Fellow Travelers Part 1, Introduction

A Yiddish translation of a speech by Albert Einstein in support of our Soviet ally in our fight against Hitler. Children’s Yiddish school compositions about Lenin, the Scottsboro Boys, or “My First Time in a Train.” Postwar fundraising efforts for Jewish orphanages in Poland. Materials from a speaking tour by the widow of Yiddishist Chaim Zhitlowsky. A poet’s doodling on a thank you note (see below).

In the next series of posts, I want to share a little treasure trove of the Jewish left, that I had the privilege of working on this past year.

“Fellow Travelers: From Popular Front to Cold War” is the title for a set of documents that have been digitized by Cornell University Library and made available on the internet. These documents belonged to the International Workers Order (I.W.O.) and, more specifically, to its Jewish-language section, the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO).

Through the collection, you can view or download the material, which has sat relatively unknown and underutilized in an archive in the library at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. A little over a third of the 1700+ documents are in Yiddish.

The best introduction to the collection is on the webpage itself, but that essay is a little long, so I will also provide a slightly shorter orientation here.

The I.W.O. was both a political organization and a fraternal organization for workers. Before there was a social safety net, the I.W.O. both agitated for better government support and also directly provided disability, retirement, and funeral insurance for workers. It specialized in Jewish and other national minority workers, as well as African Americans, whom the corporate insurance companies were often unwilling to cover.

Their orientation was Communist. Not just small-c ‘communist’– they toed the Soviet party line. They split off from the socialists of the Workmen’s Circle after a decade of ideological tension and struggle following the Russian Revolution, over whether socialists in the U.S. should follow the Soviet model and the Comintern.

The JPFO (the Jewish section of the I.W.O.) was also a cultural organization. They had a press that published not just Communist propaganda and educational materials, but also Yiddish literature, biography, poetry, etc. They sponsored musical evenings, and their lodges often hosted speakers and writers. They also ran one of the largest systems of secular Yiddish schools in the U.S.- the Ordn Shuln. They ran summer camps.

The documents gathered here document the routine work of the office of JPFO general secretary Rubin Saltzman; the Ordn’s political and insurance work; and the full range of the cultural activities I just described.

Before our entry into World War II, when Stalin still had a non-aggression pact with Hitler, the JPFO took the Communist line against U.S. militarism. This can be seen in the women’s section documents, in which they organized a contingent to march for peace in Washington D.C., even into the spring of 1941. As Elissa Sampson writes in her introduction to the material:

“These documents contain the seeds of a fascinating and detailed history of competing and complementary loyalties and priorities: to the Soviet Union and the international left-wing movement; to the United States; and to the Jewish people and the propagation of a secular Yiddish culture.”

During WWII, the JPFO joined the war effort unreservedly, and immediately after the war it was active in raising money for reconstruction and relief, particularly in Poland, but also in Belgium, France, Palestine, and elsewhere.

The I.W.O. was shut down by McCarthyism. Whatever legitimate distaste and anger one may feel towards supporters of Stalin and Stalinism, the way the organization was shut down was clearly an abuse of power.

In the next few blog posts, spread over several days, I am going to guide you through the collection, focusing primarily on the Yiddish materials. I had the pleasure of working on them under the guidance of Cornell’s meta-data librarian Jasmine Burns and of Elissa Sampson from Cornell Jewish Studies. Sampson is the primary moving force behind selecting, classifying and describing this collection, and making it public. My job was to assist with the first pass through the Yiddish materials and provide a quick description of who-what-where-when, so that she could then fill in the details. In doing so, I got an aerial view of the collection, and I can point you to some of the more interesting bits.

Before I do, go ahead and visit the web page, browse through the collection, and see for yourself what you might find. Or wait for me, and we’ll tour the material together.

[Link to the collection again].



An envelope by poet Meinke Katz, addressed to Rubin Saltzman and to Pesach (Paul) Novick at the Morgn Frayhayt. Katz doodled not only on the envelope, but also all over his brief but delightful thank-you letter, which you can see if you go to this page and then click the button reading “download item”.


Everything in the Name of Art

Bashevis’ Yiddish writing is now available online! Until now, due to history, and to various quirks of the publishing industry and of copyright, Yiddish’s only Noble prize-winning writer has always been far, far easier to get in English than in Yiddish. Finally, due (I think) to a new agreement with his estate, the Yiddish Book Center has his books available on line.

Before I share the link with you, however, I must confess that my grandfather was not a fan of Isaac Bashevis Singer.  There is a family story about this, which I will perhaps share some other time. For now, I offer my rough translation of a review Simon published about the English edition of one of Singer’s books:

Simon, Solomon (1962). Everything in Name of Art: (On Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Book “The Spinoza of Market Street”). Originally published in the Fraye Arbeter Shtime, and reprinted in Kheshbn, 30-31, October, pp. 16 – 20.

Is art permitted everything? May one make a caricature of Jewish life in the name of art? Can events that are exceptions to the rule, present among all peoples and in all societies, be depicted as the characteristic way of life of a community?

Of course we cannot prohibit anyone from doing it. We do not have the legal power to appoint a censor, and even if we had the ability to prohibit this kind of writing, we should not be permitted to. There is a clever Jewish proverb: “You cannot measure the whole world with your own cubit”. But should we make a fuss over this kind of writing? May a Jewish community publisher (in this case, “The Jewish Publication Society” in Philadelphia) take upon itself the work of distributing such a book among the non-Yiddish-speaking world, which is very little versed in Yiddishkayt, as an example of Yiddish creation and creativity?

I ask these tough questions in reference to Bashevis-Singer’s book in English: “[The] Spinoza of Market Street,” which was released by Farrar & Straus, publishers—and of which the “Jewish Publication Society” not only took a number of copies to distribute among its members, but also sent out a special letter to its subscribers about the book. Something it rarely does.

Let us emphasize it here immediately: Bashevis has been gifted with a great talent. True, this current book is full of demons, phantoms, spirits, devils, imps, and even Ashmeday[1] himself is in residence everywhere. Lilith, too, is a close-by neighbor. The hereafter and this world are rooms in one house. Reality is a dream, and the imaginary is real. The future is predicted and the predictions come true. But despite all the hocus-pocus, Bashevis holds sway over the reader, the unbelievable is believed, and one overlooks the artifice, taking everything he says about Jewish life as true. In particular, he influences those who are not acquainted with Jewish customs, because he, Bashevis, is so talented that people believe him even when he says that black is green. Everthing he says about Jews rings true, which is why the shame is so great and the pain so sharp.

On the cover is an illustration of the protagonists of the stories, and in the illustration there is not one normal face. Also, with one exception (in the story “A Piece of Advice”) there is not one normal human being among the protagonists of the book. Well, so be it, he may be pardoned for that, Bashevis sees abnormality everywhere. Stranger is his preoccupation with sexual abnormality. Jewish faith is not a proponent of asceticism. No, Jewish faith holds that sex is a great matter, and the relationship between husband and wife is one of the most beautiful gifts that God has bestowed on human beings. This is not the place to go into details and quotations. But just one quote from the sages of the Mishna and Gemora: “When a man and a wife have the privilege, the shekhine rests between them.” In the eleven stories, except by implication, there is no trace of the joy of love. This is odd when you know that the book describes Jewish life when it was completely, monolithically Jewish. It is even odder that when he describes a Jewish face, it has a bent nose; this is more “charming” in English than in Yiddish:

His nose was as crooked as a beak (page 3).

His nose was shaped like a ram’s horn (page 37).

…a curly haired, black eyed imp with a hooked nose (p. 162).

She had a long, pale face and a beak of a nose (page 164).

It is not right to translate this into Yiddish, because in the original, in the Yiddish text, it could be that it doesn’t sound so bad. But I am writing about the English version.

Yes it is also strange to read a whole book of stories, where Jewish life is seen in a distorted mirror. But all that is minor compared to the direct slanders against Jews that are here.

I will discuss only one story in detail: “The Khurbn of Kreshev.” He does not tell how Hitler [may his name be blotted out] destroyed a Jewish shtetl. He tells of a cruel Jewish shtetl, a literal Sodom, which a young Jewish man, a victim of the town’s wickedness, burns down.

But first, an observation. I want to point out a curious passage in the story, “A Story of Two Liars.” It is altogether strange. Bashevis reproaches Yiddish writers for lacking expertise in issues of world culture and fundamentally ill-versed in Jewish ideas. But he himself in the above-mentioned story tells something that in no way can happen, because however corrupt a rabbinic judge may be, he would not openly contravene an explicit law. I suspect that Bashevis intentionally describes an impossibility for the sake of relating a debauched effect.

He tells of the depraved woman Glicke-Gnendl, who traveled to receive her get, which her husband the swindler, a delegate from Jerusalem, had sent to her via a courier. She comes to a judge, in order for him to send for the courier with the get. The judge tells her that everything has been done in accord with the law and she should go obtain the get from the courier herself. She goes to the courier and he does not want to give her the get unless she has sex with him. She agrees, and just when the two of them are rolling around on the hay in a stable, the police enter the stable and…

that’s that, with my apologies for the awe-inspiring story. But a rabbinic judge would never tell a woman to go get her divorce papers from a messenger with just the two of them there. Simply put, such a get is no get at all. The messenger must give the get to the woman in front of two witnesses. The [Talmudic] commentary is clear: In “Abn Hazr”, which is the rulebook from which rabbis answer [such] questions, the matter is discussed in detail in verse 133. The chapter is headed: [orig. Hebrew followed by Yiddish translation]: “He must deliver the get in the presence of two witnesses.” And in paragraph 1 it clearly says that if he has given her the get without witnesses, the get is not a get.

I don’t know, maybe Bashevis did not know about that law. It is hard to believe. He is a son of rabbis and, as he often tells it, he witnessed divorces. Did he do it deliberately so he would be able to tell a spicy story? But, after all, he is not so clumsy a writer as to have to resort to tricks. I don’t understand. The question of why he did it remains.

It’s also hard not to ask how and why an older Jewish married woman, a teacher and the mother of a married daughter, suddenly becomes a thief, a swindler and an adulteress; except that would be venturing into the territory of literary criticism, and that’s not what I’m about here.

But Bashevis truly takes the cake for his story “The Destruction[2] of Kreshev,” where we may hope that no such town ever comes to be. Listen to the opening of the story:

“The Jews of Kreshev are better informed and in a better economic condition than the [non-Jewish] peasants. Their wives are storekeepers, skilled at giving false weights and false measures. The Jewish village-goers know how to talk the peasants into buying all kinds of trinkets and knick-knacks, and in return they get potatoes, corn, flax, chickens, ducks, geese and sometimes something extra. What wouldn’t a woman give for a string of beads, a decorated feather duster, a cut of a floral calico, or even a kind word from a stranger? So it is not at all surprising that here and there among the flaxen-haired children a head of curly hair might be seen, a black-eyed imp, with a nose bent like a hook. The peasants are sluggards, but the devil will not let their young women rest. He leads them (always the devil, of course, and not, heaven forbid, Bashevis- Sh. S.) through backdoor routes to the stables, where the peddlers wait for them in the hay.” pp. 160 – 161.

Anyone who knew Jewish craftsmen and peddlers who went village to village knows how carefully guarded they were not to eat from non-Jewish tables. I myself went with my father the shoemaker to a village. For two full weeks I did not taste a bite of hot food except for Shabbes at the inkeeper’s. Bashevis tells a story of fornication, not as an isolated instance, but as if it was a daily happenstance, along with the Jewish swindling that he emphasizes.

It is a lie, that Jewish village-goers just brought ‘trinkets’, jewelry, and tchotchkes. Jewish peddlers not only brought a lot of necessary things to the villages, but in fact, they actually brought civilization. They did not grow rich from their “swindling”. About the fornication… perhaps such a thing once happened, but to describe it as if it was a customary appearance is either an outright lie, or an artistic lie.

What did Jews do after a day’s work? Here he was not able to think up anything nasty. But he did not begrudge us a description of the House of Study, full of people learning. He writes:

After a market day, the storekeepers had noting to do, so they’d slink into the House of Study. In the English it’s very charming: “Hang around the study house.” Just as if one were talking about a gang of kids who slink around into a soda shop or youths in a saloon. “They scratch themselves and leaf through the Talmud, or else they share horror stories about demons, evil spirits and werewolves” (p. 161).

Into this shtetl there comes a son-in-law “af kest” [supported by his father-in-law, so he can continue his studies], and this young man, Shloimele, is a Shabbatai Tzvinik[3]. He convinces his wife to have sex with her father’s coachman. Afterwards, the Shabbatai Tzvinik goes and confesses to the rabbi that he has driven his wife to adultery. Then comes the disgusting scene, where the shtetl settles accounts with the sinful wife and her lover.

Lise and Mendl, her lover, are driven through the streets and stopped in front of each house, where the inhabitants of the houses spit in their faces and curse them.

She is driven “in a torn nightshirt, with a makatershtchik on her head, a wreath of garlic around her neck, a broom in one hand, and in the other hand a duster made from a goose wing. Around her loins, a rope made of straw (p. 206).

I cannot bring myself to relate all the tortures. But the strangest thing is that not even a single Jew could be found who, as in Sodom, protested.

Hillel Rogoff writes (I do not have the Forverts in front of me, and am quoting from Di Prese, Argentina, Feb. 4, 1962): “The young Jewish English writers have prepared the way (for Bashevis.” Sh. S.). Rogoff says that they believe he is greater than Sholem Aleichem and Sholem Asch. He quotes one important journal after another, and he apprises Bashevis’ fame and greatness and great honors, according to the Jewish English-language critics and non-Jewish critics. He is not only famous among all the editors and critics, but also beloved. Very nice, good for Bashevis. But do we have to take pride in his slanders, even if he is a true artist?

Even in his best things, as for example in “The Satan of Goray”, the picture that Bashevis gives of Jewish life is not true. It seems as if someone cut off the “Lo” [“You shall not”] from the Ten Commandments and argued: “Did I do it wrong? Does the Torah not say, “Murder”, “Fornicate”, and “Steal”? I give you my word on it!” I believe that the story “The Destruction of Kreshev” is a worse slander against the Jews than “Fagan” in Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” Probably there was a Fagan, though he is not a typical Jewish character’ but there has never been a wicked town such as Kreshev among the Jews. I repeat my questions:

Must we Yiddish Jews[4], who know Jewish life and can feel the lies in Bashevis’ art, pride ourselves on him? And may a Jewish community publisher take upon itself the work of distributing such a book among the non-Yiddish-speaking world, which is very little acquainted with Yiddishkayt, as an example of Yiddish creation and creativity?

(F. A. Sh.)

—-  in the version of this article that appeared in Kheshbn, the editor adds his 2¢ —-

The Enemies of Israel with their anti-Semitic smear leaflets everywhere could not wish to find any better source for their mocking depictions and caricatures of Jews than in the so-called “artwork” of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Spinoza of Market Street,” from which they will be able to draw full buckets of filth from our own Yiddish well—Need they have a better recommendation?… If so, woe is unto us!..                           [Ed.]

English translation 2018, by David R. Forman. All rights reserved.

[1] Asmodeus, the king of the demons.

[2] The Yiddish title uses the word ‘Khurbn’ a loaded word typically used for the destruction of the First or Second Temple, or for the holocaust.

[3] A follower of Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676), who claimed to be the Messiah.

[4] Or, “Jewish Jews”.


For those whom my zeyde has not discouraged, here’s the link to Singer’s work, in the original Yiddish, and free of charge. If that link doesn’t work, try this one.



In Geveb publishes “The Fate of Our Yiddishist Schools”

For a generation, as the mismatch grew between the methods and curricula of the secular Yiddish schools and the needs of their students, my grandfather became increasingly restless and frustrated. He argued wherever he could find a platform, about the need for more formal institutions in the Yiddish sector, and for a shift in attitudes to match the inevitable gulf in values, backgrounds, and home-lives from the European-born Jews who had built the secular Yiddishist movement and their American-born children and grandchildren. In 1956, his exasperation gave birth to a pamphlet, a reprint from the Fraye Arbeter Shtime, the journal in which the essays first appeared.

Today marks a milestone for me, as the online journal In Geveb has published my translation of large swaths of Solomon Simon’s polemic Der goyrl fun undzere Yidishistishe shuln. This is my first published Yiddish translation. The editorial process was… extended, so I can barely remember what it says. Not really, but I’ve been buried in the details for a long time. My wonderful teacher Dveyre said that translating was “all about the pitshevkes,” and she was right. I will now sit down to read the full version again.

Due to length considerations, In Geveb broke it into two parts. Here are the links:
Click this for the In Geveb article, Part 1
Click this for the In Geveb article, Part 2

I am aware it’s long. Subscribing to my blog is not a contract. I myself really enjoy the side-by-side format in which In Geveb publishes its translations. I almost always learn something. These debates seem like ancient history, and at the same time I find them both relevant and moving now. I hope you do, too.

Yearbook SA Folkshul 15

Cover of the 1956 Almanac of the Sholem Aleichem Folk Shul No. 15. That year only seven children are pictured in the annual photograph of the school’s graduates. Their graduation essays are also notably shorter and less ambitious than those of half a generation earlier. In her opening letter, Esther Burstein writes: “Dr. Simon, leader in this area [of updating the shul to address the needs of changing times], has through his steady influence achieved certain reforms. The Oneg Shabes has become an established institution.” In the following paragraph, she adds: “The weekly Tanakh class that Dr. Simon conducts with such success, is also a partial answer to the wish that our Shul 15 become a besmedresh, a house of Torah and culture.”


The CDC Poetry Project

The CDC Poetry Project was formed as a response to a December 15 Washington Post report that the Trump Administration’s CDC had been told not to use seven words in its official reports to congress. The seven forbidden words were: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based. Irresistible as George Carlin’s famous routine about the seven words you’re not allowed to say on television.

So, Poets/Editors Amy Lemmon and Sarah Freligh started “The CDC Poetry Project.” Poets were encouraged to use the seven words in an original poem. Hundreds were submitted. Today, the editors chose mine, and since it contains some Yiddish, I’m putting a link to it here. It’s an odd poem, but then, we live in odd times.

“Suggested Synonyms and their Uses: A Style Guide” [click here for the poem].


I’m not sure what will happen in a few days, when my payment to WordPress expires. I had originally wanted a few bells and whistles– the domain name, and the ability to post audio and video. My hope is that when it expires, all my old blog posts will still be available at the original free address under which the blog was started “”. I guess we’re about to find out.

A Hasmonean Khanike: Conclusion

[They certainly opposed specific kings but rarely opposed the state itself. Except, the fact that the…]

page 45 top

…prophets did not place the emphasis on military might: on riders and chariots, on fortresses and diplomatic treaties, but on faith in God—already undermined the state as a matter of course. The prophet did not look at political events in the world from the standpoint of utility to the state, but from an ethical standpoint. How does the event fit into the divine plan for justice? The logical consequence of their approach is that a secular nation-state is sinful, a treason against God that destroys the covenant that God made with the Jews.[1] It was not important to the prophets whether their demands were practical for the state or not. The Pharisees were the true heirs of the prophets.

That concludes the text of Chapter Six. For more, here is the link to the complete text of the book: Yidn Tsvishn Felker.

[1] Note: Simon cites Moshe Zvi [Moses Hirsh] Segal here, but I cannot find a reference for the title.

A Few Concluding Thoughts

The book is framed as a recount of a struggle between two desires in Jewish life: The desire to be a people apart, a holy people, and the desire to be like everyone else.

His recap of the history repeatedly highlights certain attitudes that (though they have always been contested) Simon claims have been the dominant overall strain within Judaism. Not coincidentally, they are also his attitudes: An assumption that virtue derives from religious life; pacifism, except in self-defense; and skepticism about government power, even if wielded at first with good intentions.

Framing his concerns as an issue of “separation of church and state” would be anachronistic. It is to his credit that, although an ardent American patriot, he does not judge 2000-year-old political struggles by the standards of our US Constitution. But it is disorienting that he so one-sidedly champions the prophets and the Pharisees, whom he calls the prophets’ rightful heirs, for their detachment from “secular government”. This is a Jew who left the Yeshiva for the modern world, a dentist, and an activist in the secular Yiddish schools movement. He clearly did not want a theocracy. Why is ‘secular’ government the problem?

I think what it comes down to is that in the old country, at least in retrospect, he liked how the rabbis ran things. And even when he didn’t, he liked and admired the spiritual level of his parents and the other poor working people in his town of origin, all of whom were utterly politically disenfranchised in the greater world. A contemporary of Solomon Simon from the other side of my family had a more cynical take on the backwardness of life in Eastern Europe. “We had two enemies,” he said, “the tsar and the rabbi.” For his part, given the choice of the rabbi or the tsar, Simon went with the rabbi every time.

Be that as it may, in all of Simon’s writings, his apparent unquestioningly positive attitude towards “the tradition” is made considerably more palatable by the depth and complexity of his reading of that tradition. As a rule, he fleshes out the accounts of the Tanakh with competing potential interpretations from the Talmud, and also from the work of secular bible historians. He freely describes sacred text not as perfect, but as a fragmentary and redacted record that has come down to us, whose meaning must often be inferred indirectly. But not like a Rorshach test or like an expressionist work, where all interpretations are equally valid. The texts themselves still hold pride of place.

If you read this far, you have my sincere gratitude. Gut yontif, gut yor. Lights and latkes are good. Human company is even better.


From Eli Barnavi, “A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People”.


A Hasmonean Khanike, Night 8, pages 6-7

Ah, deadlines. Leonard Bernstein is quoted as having said: “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” Sometimes the point is to convince yourself you don’t have quite enough time when you actually do. One beauty of the Jewish calendar, with a day that goes from sunset to sunset, is that it has a kind of built-in false deadline. Eighth night, yes, but the eighth day is tomorrow.

I will share a couple of my reactions to this chapter tomorrow, along with the last short section of the text. Once again, I’m leaving a bit of a footnote undone for now. Thank you for your indulgence in letting me share my draft translations here. And, as always, anything you notice that needs correcting is appreciated.

Solomon Simon, Yidn Tsvishn Felker. Pages 43 and 44:

page 43a

[But then a delegation from a third faction came to Pompey…] from the Pharisees. The delegation argued that neither ruler was needed. It did not matter to the Pharisees whether Rome ruled Judah. What good was a Jewish dynasty that did evil, in which brother fought against brother?

The Pharisees and the people along with them were not opponents of government [or ‘monarchy’] as such. They wanted a king and a government, but they, just like the prophets, put such conditions on government that it could not exist. The Pharisees wanted a government such as the prophets had imagined: God’s kingdom. The king as God’s Messiah, the divinely anointed one, for whom the book of Leviticus would point the way. “And (the Torah) will be with him, and he will read from it all the days of his life, in order to learn to have the fear of the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this Torah, and these laws, to do them” (Leviticus 17:19). If the king did not conduct himself according to the Torah, he was an evil one, and not worthy of being king.

page 43b

“The Sadducees operated in a different milieu; the path before them had been trod by the Hasmoneans. It was clear to them that a “barbaric” state could be effective in the life of that era, and it would not be forced to change the ethical concepts of Judaism that were the foundations of the nation. True the state must adopt the form of a Hellenistic state, but only in its outward shape, which did not touch the essential cultural life of the people. The two things could be united. And this appeared to be the political doctrine of the Sadducees. They helped to develop the secular bases of the young state and at the same time, they declared that the Law of Moses was the core of the nation’s existence. They were concentrated around the government, which did not shy from calling itself “Philo-Hellenic”, and at the same time they helped the kings wage war against the Greeks and Judaize the Land of Israel. The wanted to build a Hellenistic state on a Jewish nationalist foundation.

“But it was an impossible task. Yiddiskayt and Hellenism were two powerful forces and too deeply original to come to a compromise in one country. It was impossible to build a Hellenistic state without completely contradicting and nullifying the…

page 44a

…theocracy in Jerusalem. A Jewish high priest (and the Hasmoneans were also high priests) could not be a Hellenistic king. The two concepts had to be distinguished. That is what Herod did: He separated the monarchy from the priesthood and built a Hellenistic state. But it was not established on the basis of the national character. The Pharisees had also wanted to divide secular rule from religious life. Beginning in Herods time, they began the great accomplishments of the sages of the Mishna— to establish the life of the people on the firm foundation of Jewish tradition. They created the groundwork for a national life that was not, however, state-mediated.[1]

The Pharisees went farther: the ideal stuation would be if “the whole earth would be full of the knowledge of God” and no power or rule would be necessary. But people live here on earth and one cannot do without government. There must be some secular governing power that can inspire fear in people, because “As with fish in the ocean, where the larger devours the smaller, so it would be with human beings; if there were no fear of the state the larger would devour the smaller.”[2] In the meantime, as long as this is still the case, secular power should be left in the hands of foreigners, of the goyim, and we Jews will introduce God’s kingdom right now. It’s only for…

page 44b

…a while, because in the end, “the earth will become full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the bottom of the ocean” (Isaiah 11:9). Then, le’osed lo’ve [in the distant future, when the Messiah comes], the true King will arise and a kingdom of justice and righteousness will be founded.

The Pharisees did not come out openly against the state and the monarchy. But they put such restraints on life with mitsves and commandments, emphasized the importance of holiness and of God’s mastery, that in practice no government or independent state could be able to exist. They emulated the tactics of the prophets. The prophets, too, had not came out against the monarchy or against government. They certainly opposed specific kings but rarely opposed the state. But that which the…

last night

[1] Avigdor Tcherikover. Ha-Yehudim ve’ha Yevanim bi’Tekufah ha-Hellenistit. p. 268. [note: later translated by the author as Hellenistic civilization and the Jews].

[2]Screen Shot 2017-12-20 at 12.21.15 AM.png