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Chaim Zhitlowsky

Chaim Zhitlowsky was a Jewish socialist, philosopher, social and political thinker, writer and literary critic.

Background

  • Chaim Zhitlowsky was born in 1865, in the small town of Ushachy, in the province of Vitebsk Governorate, Russian Empire. When he was five years old, his parents moved to Vitebsk, the capital of the province.

  • Education

    • On his mother's side he was descended from artisans and merchants, on his father's—from an aristocratic and well-educated family. His father, Joseph, studied to be a rabbi in the Yeshiva of Volozhin, but chose to become a merchant. Though an ardent Lubavich Chassid he was well versed in Haskalah (enlightenment) literature, and often recited satiric Haskalah tales and poems in Yiddish and Hebrew at family gatherings.

      Joseph Zhitlowsky's business prospered. He moved to a richer, more exclusive section of the city. He kept an open house. A tutor of the Russian language was engaged for Chaim, but he continued his elementary religious studies at a kheyder. Soon Chaim became friendly with high school students of his neighborhood and began to read Russian literature. He made his first literary attempt, translating the Yiddish version of Uncle Tom's Cabin into Hebrew.

      On his 13th birthday (his bar-mitzvah) Chaim made the acquaintance of Shloyme Rappaport, who was later to become S. Ansky, the famous author of The Dybuk. A warm lifelong friendship developed between Zhitlowsky and Ansky, who had a weakness in common – writing. For a short time they issued a handwritten (holographic) magazine called Vitebsk Bells

    Career

    • On entering the third grade of the Russian Gymnasium in 1879, Zhitlowsky came into contact with revolutionary circles, and, for the time being was estranged from Yiddish and other matters of Jewish interest. He was sobered, however, by the pogroms of the early 1880s, and his naive cosmopolitanism was quickly dissipated. He left the gymnasium, went to Tula in 1881 and there was engaged in spreading Socialist Revolutionary propaganda. Shocked by the view of some members of that party, that pogroms were a step toward the liberation of the Russian people, he left the party. When he returned to Vitebsk he was caught in the current of the then rising Palestine movement. He was inspired by the vision of the Jewish colonies and a Jewish peasantry, but the religious character of that Palestinism did not appeal to him. He sought to publish a magazine to propagandize "his idea"—a synthesis of Jewish nationalism and socialism. At first his father was willing to finance this enterprise, but was talked out of it by an ardent Palestinian friend.

      In 1885 Zhitlowsky tried to found a Jewish section of the illegal Narodnya Volya party, but the Jews in the central committee of the Narodnya Volya who believed in cosmopolitanism and assimilation defeated the Zhitlowsky project. This was a severe blow for the young Jewish revolutionary. His grandfather consoled him, pointing out the revolutionary character of the prophets, and of the great Jewish intellects of the later times. This quickened Zhitlowsky's interest in Jewish history. At the St. Petersburg Imperial Library he found books he needed, and soon he established contact with a St. Petersburg group of the Narodnaya Volya.

      His first work, a treatise in Russian entitled Thought of the Historical Fate of the Jewish People was published in Moscow in 1887 when he was only twenty-two. (Shortly before that he had been banished by the police from St. Petersburg). The liberal Russian press enthusiastically greeted and responded warmly to his ideas, but it met with scant favor among Jewish critics, because it contained no solution of the problems it treated. Several suspected him of being a Christian missionary.

      Zhitlowsky returned to Vitebsk for a short time, from there he went to Galicia where it was much easier to preach Socialist doctrines among the Jewish masses. He became acquainted with a group of Jewish revolutionists from Zurich, who were engaged in disseminating radical literature in Yiddish.

      When famine broke out in Russia in 1891, he and Charles Rappaport founded a non-partisan organization to help the afflicted. The work was doomed to failure from the start. The representatives of the various political groups could not forget their differences. The work ended, even before it had begun.

      Though engrossed as ever in social and political activity, he found time to prepare his Ph.D. thesis, and to continue his studies in Marxism. His debut in Jewish literature took place in 1891.

      The London newspaper Freie Welt published his translation of two revolutionary poems. In 1892 The London Fund for Revolutionary Publication printed his Russian tractate A Jew to Jews, under the pseudonym of I. Khisin. In his first socialist pamphlet on a Jewish theme, he demanded national as well as civil equality for Jews. He was also active in an organization which combated the anti-Jewish "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals."

      Toward the latter part of 1893, Zhitlowsky, now a Ph.D., aided by Shloyme Rappaport, M. Rosenbaum and several other Russian radicals, founded the Federation of Socialist Revolutionaries from which later developed the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The group opposed dogmatic Marxism. The newspaper The Russian Worker, appearing under Zhitlowsky's and Rappaport's editorship, spread propaganda among the masses. The Verband published in 1898 Zhitlowsky's theoretical work, Socialism and the Fight for Political Freedom, written under the pen name Gregorovich. In this work, he tried to synthesize the three principal currents of the Russian revolutionary movement. From time to time, he contributed to several well-known Russian magazines, such as Russkoye Bogastvo; articles on Marxism and philosophy in the Jewish—Russian Voskhod; and contributed also to Sozialistische Monatshefte and Deutsche Worte.

      In 1896, he organized the Group of Jewish Socialists Abroad, the purpose of which was to prepare revolutionary propaganda literature in Yiddish, with the Communist Manifesto as a beginning. For this revolutionary library, Zhitlowsky wrote an introduction entitled Yiddish—Why?. The Bund which published the booklet thought that Zhitlowsky's introduction was not sufficiently revolutionary and too nationalistic, because the author expressed the belief that the rebirth of the Yiddish language and literature would lead to the national and social awakening of the Jewish people.

      When famine broke out in Russia in 1891, he and Charles Rappaport founded a non-partisan organization to help the afflicted. The work was doomed to failure from the start. The representatives of the various political groups could not forget their differences. The work ended, even before it had begun.

      Though engrossed as ever in social and political activity, he found time to prepare his Ph.D. thesis, and to continue his studies in Marxism. His debut in Jewish literature took place in 1891.

      The London newspaper Freie Welt published his translation of two revolutionary poems. In 1892 The London Fund for Revolutionary Publication printed his Russian tractate A Jew to Jews, under the pseudonym of I. Khisin. In his first socialist pamphlet on a Jewish theme, he demanded national as well as civil equality for Jews. He was also active in an organization which combated the anti-Jewish "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals."

      Toward the latter part of 1893, Zhitlowsky, now a Ph.D., aided by Shloyme Rappaport, M. Rosenbaum and several other Russian radicals, founded the Federation of Socialist Revolutionaries from which later developed the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The group opposed dogmatic Marxism. The newspaper The Russian Worker, appearing under Zhitlowsky's and Rappaport's editorship, spread propaganda among the masses. The Verband published in 1898 Zhitlowsky's theoretical work, Socialism and the Fight for Political Freedom, written under the pen name Gregorovich. In this work, he tried to synthesize the three principal currents of the Russian revolutionary movement. From time to time, he contributed to several well-known Russian magazines, such as Russkoye Bogastvo; articles on Marxism and philosophy in the Jewish—Russian Voskhod; and contributed also to Sozialistische Monatshefte and Deutsche Worte.

      In 1896, he organized the Group of Jewish Socialists Abroad, the purpose of which was to prepare revolutionary propaganda literature in Yiddish, with the Communist Manifesto as a beginning. For this revolutionary library, Zhitlowsky wrote an introduction entitled Yiddish—Why?. The Bund which published the booklet thought that Zhitlowsky's introduction was not sufficiently revolutionary and too nationalistic, because the author expressed the belief that the rebirth of the Yiddish language and literature would lead to the national and social awakening of the Jewish people.

      In 1912, the thousands of Zhitlowsky's followers attracted by his writings and lectures, celebrated the 25th anniversary of his literary activity. Four volumes of his collected works, shortly followed by two others, were published in connection with this anniversary.

      In 1913 publication of Dos Naye Leben ceased, and Zhitlowsky made a lecture tour of Jewish student colonies of the important academic centers in France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. He also visited Palestine in order to study the possibilities of widespread Jewish colonization there.

      He returned to America at the outbreak of the World War I. Until then he had been a contributor to the Warheit, edited by L. A. Miller. He now joined the staff of the newly organized Day. He advocated America's neutrality, and battled against the pro-German feelings of the man in the street and of the Yiddish press.

      Zhitlowsky also joined the movement for a Jewish congress and when it was convened he played an important part in its deliberations. At the same time, he continued his tracts on philosophy and sociology in the Yiddish magazine Zukunft.

      In 1920, publication commenced of Die Zeit (The Times), a daily of the Poale Zion party, a party that Zhitlowsky had joined a few years before, and he became one of its major contributors. When the publication ceased in 1921, Zhitlowsky became a contributor of Der Tog (The Day).

      In 1922, Zhitlowsky and Shmuel Niger renewed the publication of Dos Naye Leben. Its point of view remained unaltered. In 1923, when the magazine was discontinued, Zhitlowsky returned to Europe to complete The Spiritual Struggle of the Jewish People for Freedom. He visited Palestine and toured the Jewish centers in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, between 1924 and 1925. Everywhere he was received with the greatest enthusiasm and admiration.

      On 28 November 1925, Zhitlowsky's 60th birthday was celebrated at the Manhattan Opera House in New York. Similar celebrations were held in other American and European cities visited by Zhitlowsky. A Zhitlowsky memorial volume was published in Berlin containing articles and reminiscences of his intimate friends and disciples. At Zhitlowsky's suggestion, the proceeds from the book were given to the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) of Vilno, which Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, as well as Zhitlowsky, were members of its Honorary Board of Directors.

    Works

    Politics

    After the Kishineff pogrom of 1903 Zhitlowsky turned toward the territorialistic movement. He conceived the idea of a Jewish Sejm (parliament). At his initiative a group of radical nationalists and Zionists organized the Jewish Socialist Workers Party (commonly called the Sejmist party). In 1904, Zhitlowsky served as delegate at the International Socialist Congress in Amsterdam, and his fight that the Socialist Revolutionary Party should have a representative in the International Socialist Bureau ended victoriously.

    When the first Yiddish daily in Russia, the St. Petersburg Frajnd, was founded, Zhitlowsky, under the pen name N. Gaydaroff, contributed a series of articles entitled The Jewish People and the Yiddish Language.

    In 1904 Zhitlowsky and "Babushka" (Granny) Breshkovskaya were sent by the Socialist Revolutionary Party to America to collect funds for the party and carry on a propaganda of its ideas.

    With the Party's permission he gave lectures on various Jewish matters during his stay in America. At that time the Jewish radical intelligentsia in America was under the influence of naive socialist cosmopolitanism, which expressed itself in scorn for Jewish national problems, and for the Yiddish language and culture. When Zhitlowsky in a series of lectures pointed out that there was no contradiction between progressive nationalism and the socialist ideal, he encountered strong opposition. Very soon, however, many of his erstwhile opponents turned into his most ardent partisans.

    After a two-year sojourn in America, he returned to Europe. He spent some time in Galicia and then went to Russia, where his native province, Vitebsk, nominated him for Duma elections. The government refused to allow him to take his seat when elected. The reversal of this decision by the Senate came too late, for the Tsar had dissolved the Duma.

    Zhitlowsky spent 1907 in Finland. With the aid of Gregory Gershuni, he engaged in a strong Socialist Revolutionary propaganda. He called a congress of socialist factions which leaned more closely to the Socialist Revolutionary ideology. This congress adopted several of his resolutions which increased the influence of the Sejmists (Parliamentarians) The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Sejmists sent him as their delegate to the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart that year. Here he fought for the rights of these two parties in the International Socialist Bureau.

    In 1908 he was sent to America by the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Sejmists. With the help of the following he had attracted among the radical Jewish intellectuals during his previous visit, Zhitlowsky founded a publishing house that issued a new monthly, Dos Naye Leben (The New Life). Under his editorship, the journal exercised great influence on Yiddish culture, including the development of free socialist thought, and became an organ of modern Yiddish literature; for the six years it existed (until 1914), Dos Naye Leben was a spiritual home of many Jewish publicists and scientists.

    Zhitlowsky returned to Europe in 1908, where he participated in the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference. Under the leadership of its originators, Zhitlowsky, J. L. Perez and Nathan Birnbaum, the Conference for the first time declared Yiddish to be "a national language of the Jewish people."

    Views

    In his monograph, Zhitlowsky; His Life and Work, Shmuel Niger made the following summary of Zhitlowsky's achievements:

    In the world of universal ideas:

    Fought against dogmatism in philosophy in general, and in the philosophy of Dialectic Materialism, in particular.

    Strove to unite all elements of labor, factory workers, peasants, intellectual workers—in the struggle for socialism.

    Fought for the principles of autonomy and federalism as against centralization in the State.

    Theoretic and practical propaganda of Socialist Revolutionary ideas.

    In the Jewish world:

    Fought for the secularization and separation of nationality from religion.

    Fought for progressive national culture, against assimilation and narrow nationalism.

    Theoretic proof of Galuth-nationalism.

    Synthesis of nationalism arid socialism, of Galuth-nationalism and territorialism.

    Influenced the programs of the Jewish nationalist parties.

    Interested radical Jewish intelligentsia in Yiddish cultural life and work.

    Helped to clarify and crystallize theYiddish radical movement in America.

    Enriched Yiddish language and oratory. Propagated the idea of the new secular Yiddish school.

    Pioneer work in the field of scientific and philosophical literature in Yiddish.

    This is a short summary of over a half of century of scientific, literary, journalistic work, and activity as a lecturer and publisher, all in the spirit of socialism and progressive nationalism among the Jewish masses in America and abroad.

    Chaim Zhitlowsky
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    Born April 19, 1865
    Died May 6, 1943
    (aged 78)
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