Abraham Benedict Rhine.

Leon Gordon; an appreciation online

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of poems, consisting of Kozo shel Yod, " The Dot
on a Yod," Shomeret Yabam, " Waiting for a
Brother-in-law," Ashakka de-Rispak, " A Wagon's
Axle," We-Somahta be-Hageka, " Rejoice on thy



Festival," and Shene Yosef ben Shimeon, " Two
Josephs ben Simon."

The greatest poem of the cycle is " The Dot on
a Yod," written in 1876" It is directed against
the rigorous interpretation of the laws of divorce
by the Rabbis. Bath-shua was married at the age
of seventeen to a certain Hillel, a Talmudic stu-
dent, and after living with her three years her hus-
band left her to seek his fortune abroad. At first
she heard from her husband regularly, but after a
few months he ceased to write, and nobody knew
his whereabouts. Her father died, too; and the
poor woman, left destitute with two children,
opened a small shop, to support her family. Mean-
while there arrived in Ayolon, the scene where the
action is laid, a young man, Fabi, to superintend
the railway constructions in the town. He fell in
love with Bath-shua and learned her story.
Through a friend in Liverpool he heard that Hillel
was peddling there, and would be willing to di-
vorce his wife according to Jewish law, for a con-
sideration of five hundred roubles, with which he
intended to go to America. Fabi sent the money,
and the Get, or bill of divorce, arrived in Ayolon,
and was duly transmitted to the Rabbi. Fabi and
Bath-shua were to be married after the ceremony



of the divorce was performed by the Rabbi. Un-
fortunately, the Rabbi 98 discovered that the name
Hillel (y?!i) was spelled without a Yod in the Get.
He declared the Get invalid. Meanwhile the news
arrived that the vessel on which Hillel had sailed
for America had foundered in the ocean, and all
on board were lost. Since, according to Rabbinical
law, " the wife of a man lost in bottomless waters
cannot remarry," the poor woman was left a grass-
widow (Agunah) all her life.

Such is the simple plot of the poem, but how
vividly and touchingly it is told! The whole sad
life of the Jewish woman of the time is passed in
review before us. The poet begins by describing
the Jewish woman in the pathetic lines :

Eternal bondage is the Jewess's life:
Her shop she tends incessant day by day;
A mother she she nurses and she weans,
And bakes and cooks and quickly fades away.

(Poems, iv, p. 5.).

For not only was she socially man's inferior, but

E'en heaven's dew they kept from thee:

Of all religious laws they heed

To thee the niggards gave but three.

She is given in marriage without her consent, dis-



regarding all feelings of love she may have, for

Love? Our mothers never knew it!

and are

Arameans they, the maiden to consult ? **

The poet next describes Bath-shua's beauty and
accomplishments; her engagement to Hillel, who
had nothing to recommend him but his Talmudic
scholarship, for

His eyes were calf-like, and his locks like tails,
His face all shrivelled a Rabbi Zadok's fig, 100
But he is versed in deep Rabbinic lore,

with which she must have been satisfied, for she
never said a word :

And can the gossips tell aright
Who claim Bath-shua weeps at night?

her marriage and life with him; his departure for
lands unknown; her acquaintance with Fabi; the
divorce; Rabbi nnon'DDi, so called, not because he
was a descendant of Tartars, but because

Rabbi Vofsi's was a Tartar soul, indeed;

the tragic scene when the divorce was declared in-
valid; and the subsequent misery of Bath-shua,
who summarizes her misfortune in the phrase,

A letter's dot has proved my ruin.


The poem is in many places sarcastic, but the
heart of the poet goes out to his people, who do not
realize the full extent of their misery :

The City's fall we constantly recall,
The nation's fall as constantly ignore ;
The sound of glass beneath the Huppah broken,
Echoes the misery of our children's cries. 101

(Poems, iv, p. 18.)

Pity the poet who sees and describes such scenes !

The poem has its shortcomings, too. The pic-
ture of Bath-shua is on the one hand overdrawn,
and on the other indefinite. Nor does the poet
enter deep into the inner psychology of his heroes
and heroines. But on the whole Kozo shel Yod is
one of the most realistic and impressive poems
ever written in Hebrew.

" Waiting for a Brother-in-law " is less vigorous
and realistic, though pathetic and impressive. The
avowed purpose of the poem is to hold up to scorn
the institution of the Levirate marriage, which is a
mere formality, and yet is practised to the discom-
fort and often the ruin of the unhappy widow
and accidentally to ridicule the greedy " enlight-
ened Rabbis," graduates of the Russian Rabbinical
Seminaries. A young man who has lived happily



with his wife for three years is lying on his death-
bed, watched day and night by his faithful wife,

A Jewish daughter she her duty knows

The couple are childless, and, to aggravate the mis-
ery of the woman about to become a widow, a son
had been born to her mother-in-law a short time
before. To obviate the necessity of the young
woman's waiting for the child to grow up, in order
to give her Halizah, the dying husband is deli-
cately requested by his mother to divorce his wife
before his death. He consents. The " enlight-
ened Rabbi " is sent for to perform the ceremony.
He is a practical man ; he knows " two hundred are
more than one hundred," and insists upon being
paid two hundred roubles for his services. The
dying man's parents beg him to take one hundred,
all their fortune having been spent in a vain effort
to save their son. The Rabbi insists upon two
hundred, but while they are haggling,

" Kind Death " sets Jonah free
From bickering and strife,
From Rabbis and from laws,

and the unhappy widow was left to wait for her
infant brother-in-law's Halizah.

It must be acknowledged that the Rabbi pictured


in the poem is not only unnatural, but impossible,
and that the entire episode does not present a scene
from real life. It is rather a criticism of the insti-
tution of Halizah carried to its extreme logical
conclusion. The poet intends to show what havoc
such an effete institution may cause in unfavorable
circumstances. After all, though the Rabbi is im-
possible, many women were actually ruined in simi-
lar cases, when the husband died without divorcing
his wife, and against such actualities the poem was
directed. The Rabbi might have been omitted
without injuring the poem; on the contrary, the
omission would have strengthened the impression.
Possibly Gordon had a special so-called " enlight-
ened Rabbi " in view, against whom he directed the
last stanza. This poem was written in 1879, in
St. Petersburg, after the author's return from exile.
Does he refer to the Rabbi by whose partisans he
was denounced and thrown into prison? The fact
that he selected an " enlightened Rabbi " instead
of an every-day Orthodox Rabbi, such as he usually
criticises, would lend color to the supposition. 108

" A Wagon's Axle," written in 1867, is a tragi-
comedy of the actual Jewish life of his time; and,
as in the poems analyzed above, presents the
Rabbi in an unfavorable light. Eliphelet, a coach-



man, sits down with his wife and children to the
Seder, on the first night of Passover, and after
skimming through the Haggadah, he prepares
himself for the sumptuous meal with pleasant an-
ticipations. Suddenly a cry of anguish rings out
from the kitchen, and Sarah, his wife, announces
the terrible news that " a grain has been found in
the soup ! " She makes ready to go to the Rabbi,
but her husband threatens her with his fist, and she
desists. He had worked so hard all winter to pre-
pare for the Passover, and now all his labor is to
be destroyed in an instant ! Sarah does not touch
the food; her husband and the children eat it, but
the joy of the holiday is gone. On the next day
Sarah finds another grain in the pot. She cannot
bear " the weight of two grains," and she hastens
to consult the Rabbi, who, by the single word
" leaven," destroys all her hopes, and prohibits the
use both of the food and the dishes. The poor
woman is afraid to go home, remembering the
threats of violence made by her husband the night
before. The Rabbi sends two public officers im to
arrest Eliphelet, and fines him. But henceforth
the peace of the family is broken. Eliphelet mal-
treats his wife for a time, and then divorces her.
Trivial and incomprehensible as all this may


seem to men of modern days, it forms part of the
tragedy of Russian Ghetto life in the days of
Nicholas I. The poet does not tell the incident in
a mock-heroic fashion; he describes it with all the
feeling and pathos of a tragedy. Thinking of the
Seder, and of the stereotyped answer in response to
the " four questions," the poet reflects:

We have been slaves alas! What are we now?
Do we not fall and sink, year in, year out?
Are we not fettered still, are we not bound
By superstition's shackles strong and stout?

And how vividly we see the Seder:

Thank God ! all is prepared ; the wine is red ;

Inviting looks the round unleavened bread ;

From floor to ceiling all is clean and bright;

The candles shed profuse a mellow light;

The children 'round the board ; and full of cheer

The pious wife attends now there, now here;

And he, arrayed in linen tunic white,

Of heart content, of countenance all bright,

Out of the pictured old Haggadah reads

The plagues, the exodus, God's wondrous deeds;

Asserts that soon Elijah the divine

Will come to drink with them his cup of wine.

(Poems, iv, p. 52.)

What a picture of Jewish idealism ! Unfortu-
nately everything is soon changed after the terrible



discovery of the grain in the soup. Eliphelet does
not finish the Haggadah, and

To guard the Afikoman he forgot;
The pillows stirred, 'twas gone, he saw it not;
Along the walls fantastic shadows crept,
And secretly the peaceful angels wept.
Slowly died the candle's flickering flame;
The door was opened no Elijah came.

Eliphelet avenges himself on Sarah for going to
consult the Rabbi :

He visited Sarah as he had said, 10 *
And did unto Sarah as he had spoken.

And after the divorce, was not Sarah justified in

A wagon's axle settled Bethar's doom,
Two barley grains destroyed my home!

Such is the tragedy of Jewish life!

" Rejoice on Thy Festival " is another instance
taken by the poet to show the inconveniences a
strict adherence to Rabbinical laws may cause.
Rabbi Kalman, a Jew from the Pale, who did busi-
ness in Moscow far away from his home, was in-
formed by his wife that a good match had been
proposed for their daughter. A meeting had been
agreed on for the intended bride and groom and
the parents and friends for the second day of Suk-
kot, and she requested him to come home for the



joyful occasion. Rabbi Kalman informed his wife
that he would arrive home on the seventh day
of Sukkot, and started out from Moscow. The
journey was long and tedious, for it was in ante-
railway days. The poor man tried his best to be
at home for the holidays; in fact, he had come to
within three miles of his place, when the shadows
of night told him that the holiday had begun.
Unwilling to travel even the short distance on a
holiday, Rabbi Kalman was forced to stop over in
a village near by. He reached home early on the
morning after the holiday, only to find his wife
and his daughter sick with disappointment, for the
groom and his party had left, disgusted with the
unnecessary delay on the part of the bride's father.
The poet purposely exaggerated, in order to
show the inconvenience of the Rabbinical law of
" limits." The moral is shown in the lines:

Two thousand paces! how much woe and grief
They sudden brought unto this family .... (P. 69.)


Had not your teachers led you with a pillar of cloud, you
would not have refrained from returning home after dark: for
to rejoice on a festival is a Biblical law, whereas the law of
" limits " is only Rabbinic.

For Rabbi Kalman, however, the Rabbinical ordi-



nances were as binding as the Mosaic, and he suf-
fered martyrdom for them.

The last poem of the series, " The Two Josephs
ben Simon," surpasses by far in its pathos, realism,
and depth of feeling any poem in the Hebrew lan-
guage. It is a terrible arraignment of the Jewish
Consistorial boards during the reign of Nicholas
I., and shows at the same time the attitude of the
masses towards the Maskilim, the men of the
newer school. Joseph ben Simon was a child-
prodigy. At thirteen he was famous for his knowl-
edge and acumen in the Talmud, and he was looked
upon as the future light of Israel in the Rabbinical
sense. But Joseph soon realized the futility of a
study of the Talmud only, and secretly he began
to indulge in secular studies also, to the consterna-
tion of his admirers. His father attempted to dis-
suade him from his course ; but Joseph maintained
that the study of the sciences was not subversive of
Judaism. He soon left his native town, and went
to Padua to study medicine.

In the same town there was another boy of Jo-
seph's age, Uri, the son of Johanan the shoemaker.
He was a wild lad, who never cared to study,
though his father tried hard to make a Rabbi of
him. By the age of nineteen he had become the



terror of the town. He took to horse-dealing, and
engaged in questionable undertakings. Upon be-
ing rebuked by his honest father, he left home and

Rabbi Shamgar, the head of the Consistory, now
appears on the scene. The board-rooms are de-
scribed, with Rabbi Shamgar sitting in judgment.
It was the time of conscription; the board is busy
selecting recruits, taken mostly from the ranks of
the poor; the rich buy exemptions for their sons.
One woman complains of the abduction of her only
son for military service; but Rabbi Shamgar finds
that she belongs to the family of a man who has
four sons, and since his sons are scholars, her only
son has to be the scapegoat. Other people come
on business, to get passports and similar things,
and every one is attended to in accordance with the
bribe he offers. Finally, a rough-looking, stout,
but well-dressed young man appears and asks for a
passport. He is Uri, the shoemaker's son. He
speaks arrogantly and impudently. He has to go
abroad on " business," and must have a passport.
" But," objects Shamgar, " you are a hidden
one." * In response, the applicant draws a hun-

* Many fathers, to save their sons from military conscription
under Nicholas, the length of service being twenty-five years,



dred-rouble note from his pocket. The argument
is convincing enough. Rabbi Shamgar knits his
brow, thinks hard for a few minutes, then his face
lights up: he has discovered a way out of the diffi-
culty. " Some three years ago," he says, " a young
man of your age disappeared, and nobody knows
his whereabouts. I will therefore issue a passport;
only you have to assume his name." Uri consents
readily; he pays the money, and leaves, a new man,
for he is now Joseph ben Simon. Rabbi Shamgar
goes to the synagogue to recite the afternoon

Meanwhile, the real Joseph ben Simon was
studying diligently in Padua, not only medicine, but
also Jewish branches. He was an idealist. Medi-
cine was to afford him his livelihood; for the rest he

refused to enroll their male children in the official registers at
their birth. These were called " hidden ones " ( D'oStfJ, m He-
brew). Officially, these were non-existent. As such proceedings
were, of course, illegal, the " hidden ones " were always at the
mercy of the professional informers, who constantly demanded
blackmail in payment of their silence; and they suffered the
further disadvantage of being unable to obtain a passport legally.
As a passport is absolutely essential to freedom of movement in
Russia, the " hidden ones " were forced to apply to the Con-
sistorial boards for the documents. The latter often issued
fraudulent passports in the name either of the dead or of
absentees, for a money consideration, of course, and thus caused
such tragedies as are described in the poem.



would preach and teach a more enlightened Juda-
ism, a Judaism more in harmony with philosophy.
After suffering hardships and privations for five
years, he reached his goal; he became a doctor of
medicine and philosophy. He hesitated about re-
turning to his native land. But the thought that
the people there needed him most, and the news
that his mother was sick, banished all hesitation.
With his documents and his old passport in his
pocket, he started home.

The train roared and puffed, and Joseph, tired
and weary, fell asleep. In his dreams he saw him-
self as a Rabbi, instituting various reforms to
lighten the life of his people, and a smile of satis-
faction played on his lips when he heard the bless-
ings showered upon him by his followers. He
awoke with pleasant emotions, but fell asleep again.
A disquieting dream came to torment him. He
saw himself in purgatory, where all who ridiculed
the Rabbis were punished. Among them he found
Elisha ben Abuya, Acosta, Spinoza, various Jewish
Maskilim, such as Levinsohn, Shatzkes, Erter, and
Lebensohn; and he heard a voice proclaiming his
own doom. He awoke with a start. Meanwhile
the train was rushing on. A little more puffing and
roaring of the engine, and Joseph found himself



on Russian soil. Officers demanded passports;
Joseph showed his, and trembled at the impression
it made on the officer. He thought it was be-
cause his passport was out of date, and declared
himself ready to pay the prescribed fine. The offi-
cer, however, arrested him on the charge of mur-
der. His fellow-passengers could hardly realize
that their quiet, apparently nai've, fellow-traveller,
whom they thought to be a doctor, was a murderer I
In prison Joseph was told that some months before
a horse-dealer had tried to smuggle a drove of
horses across the boundary line. The officers over-
took him ; a fight ensued, and in the melee that fol-
lowed one officer was killed by the desperate smug-
gler. He himself escaped, but among his effects
his passport was found, and the description and
name tallied with those of the present prisoner. In
vain Joseph protested that he had never dealt in
horses, and that he had been out of Russia these
five years. He was kept in prison for some time,
and then in company with other criminals he was
driven on foot to his native town for trial. The
convoy, upon arrival there, met a funeral proces-
sion. The soldiers, according to law, presented
arms in honor of the dead. Joseph recognized his
father as the chief mourner, and wanted to throw



himself on the bier; but the soldiers gruffly forced
him back into the line of march. Joseph was found
guilty because the Consistorial authorities, especi-
ally Rabbi Shamgar, deposed that there was only
one Joseph ben Simon in the town, who had long
ago acquired a bad reputation as a heretic. There
was nobody to take Joseph's part, since he was
considered a heretic. He was sentenced to hard
labor. Rabbi Shamgar continued as the head of
the Consistory.

The poem begins with a scathingly sarcastic
enumeration of the powers of Rabbi Shamgar, who
is described with all Divine attributes, for, by doc-
toring the official registers, he changed men into
women, young into old, gave childless parents a
half-dozen sons, and vice versa. These miracles,
however, happen to the rich only, who have to pay
for them.

Joseph's youth is described :

The Talmud he read at six,
The Tosafists at seven,
And casuistry at eight

At thirteen he was a Talmudist :

In the Talmudic sea
The leviathan was he,



and every rich man who had a daughter of mar-
riageable age

Schemed to bait the leviathan.

A realistic description of the synagogue-court is
next given (Canto iv) ; it is so realistic, in fact,
that we do not care to see it. Brainin says 10S that
such verses would not be written by a poet in any
other language. Perhaps; but then no other peo-
ple presents such a sight. Gordon's picture is,
however, undoubtedly overdrawn.

The poet takes occasion in Canto v to apostro-
phize the extraordinary desire for study, character-
istic of Jewish boys :

How strong art thou, all-conquering desire
To know, in youthful Jewish minds ingrained!
Upon the shrine thou art the constant fire ....

Upon the roads to Jewish schools that lead,

Behold poor youngsters hastening with all speed. (P. 101.)

And what awaits them there? A life of need
And misery, the cold, bare floor their bed
Such is the Law and what if one fall dead !

And again, speaking of the Russians who glory
in their Lomonosoff, a self-made poet:

How many Lomonosoffs in the Pale?


It is interesting to notice in Canto vi that all the
reforms Joseph, or rather Gordon, would like to
see instituted are of such a character that they
would not in the least infringe upon even Rabbin-
ical Judaism, and yet would lift a burden from off
the shoulders of the people. Even for advocating
such trifling reforms Joseph was looked upon as a
heretic !

The death and funeral of Joseph's mother are
drawn by the hands of a master, and touch us to
the heart with their genuine pathos. Especially
vivid are the lines :

From down the street there comes a rattling din

Of pennies jingling in a box of tin,

With " Charity from death saves " the refrain ;

The purses open, shut the shops remain,

And sighs escape, and tears profuse are shed:

They count, the tears, that flow for righteous dead.

But how terrible was the meeting of the two pro-
cessions :

While passed the mourners' train with solemn tread,
Another column down the road was led,

and at this very moment :

"Methinks," the sexton said, " the body stirred
And trembling shook as though it were alive."

Vain fright!



We are shocked at seeing Shamgar's hypocrisy,
who, after issuing the false passport and having
received the bribe,

The " Hundred " in his pocket stored away,
And went into the Synagogue to pray. (P. 96.)

But how ironical and pathetic are the lines :

.... The pious souls

Presented him [Joseph], with kind and gracious look,

Phylacteries and a little Prayer Book.

Indeed, what other comfort could the unhappy
Joseph find ? . . . .

In his r envoi, Al Ye'esham Yehudah, " Blame
not Judah," the poet acknowledges that the pic-
tures he has drawn are not at all agreeable; nay,
more, he says:

My own soul also bleeds, and heavy is my heart,
At my creations' sinking in a sea of woe. (P. 132.)

But he excuses himself in the lines :

Am I to blame if the life of brother Jews
Reflects but gloomy, darkly colored hues;
And that in every station, high or low,
I hear but moans, and see the tears that flow?

In a letter of October 27, 1876,'" he says:
" Perhaps my poem Ashakka de-Rispak will bring
it about that in the holes wherein Jews hide them-



selves, a family shall not be ruined because of a
* suspicion of leaven ' ; perhaps We-Somahta be-
Hageka will show the simple-minded Rabbi Kal-
man or his like the foolishness of distressing him-
self unnecessarily in order to fulfil the command-
ment ' Thou shalt rejoice on thy holidays ' ;
perhaps ' Stuffed Turkeys ' will stir up the Rabbis
to relax the rigor of the dietary laws; perhaps
Kozo shel Yod, which I wrote with blood and
tears, will save some Jewish woman in the future
from lifelong ruin through the ignorance of the
Rabbinical writers of grammar and the Bible; per-
haps ' The Two Josephs ben Simon ' will prevent
a Jewish publican from issuing a false passport."
And who shall say that his poems did not have
the desired effect, did not open the eyes of hundreds
and thousands of his readers? Mr. Brainin may
be right in holding 107 that there is nothing new in
what Gordon says about the Rabbis. But a poet
need not always be proclaiming something new,
like Mr. Brainin's ideal poet, who " sees from one
end of the world to the other." Gordon, by giv-
ing popular ideas a poetic garb, makes them more
striking, more impressive. Had Gordon followed
Brainin's suggestion as to what a poet should be,
he would be unknown to-day, and could have done



nothing towards the awakening of his people.
Fortunately Gordon knew his people better; he

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Online LibraryAbraham Benedict RhineLeon Gordon; an appreciation → online text (page 7 of 9)