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Under the Hammer of History

Such is the task of the heavy hammer—it shatters glass and forges steel

Zelig Kalmanovitch
June 17, 2021
Courtesy of Yuval Luria
Zelig and Rivele Kalmanovitch with their infant son, Sholem, in Soviet Minsk, 1920Courtesy of Yuval Luria
Courtesy of Yuval Luria
Zelig and Rivele Kalmanovitch with their infant son, Sholem, in Soviet Minsk, 1920Courtesy of Yuval Luria
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Zelig Hirsh Kalmanovitch’s essay, “Untern hamer fun der geshikhte”, “Under the Hammer of History”, which appeared in the first issue of a journal of ideological revision, “Oyfn Sheydveg” [At the Crossroads], edited by Elias Tcherikower and Yisroel Efroikin in April 1939.A former Diaspora Nationalist and Yiddishist, Kalmanovitch articulated a bold ideological revision in this piece by bemoaning the collective disintegration of the Jewish people in the Diaspora and its reconstitution in the Zionist Yishuv of Palestine. This essay, which was translated by Yankl Salant and myself, will appear in its entirety in my forthcoming book “Oyfn Sheydveg: At the Crossroads: Jewish Intellectuals and the Crisis of 1939.” -Joshua M. Karlip 

Jewish leaders, the wealthy, and intellectuals have pity on the Jewish individual; they will do whatever it takes to save hundreds of thousands, millions of Jewish individuals. However, they do not want to know about or hear about a Jewish collective; they are afraid of it.

But not only wealthy Jews fear Klal-Yisroel. The proletariat—at least the main party of the Jewish proletariat, the Bund—cannot stand Klal-Yisroel. Both explain their opposition with “Let the nations not say.” The wealthy and their spokesmen, the intellectuals, claim that if even now, when Jewish unity is only an illusion, it serves as the best fodder for antisemitic agitation, which frightens the world with the specter of a worldwide Jewish government and with the “elders of Zion” and causes suffering, then what will happen when a national Jewish representative body is really founded? The whole world will rise up against the Jews! The proletarians further point out that the idea of evacuating Jews from the Diaspora, as long as it is not clear how it will imminently be implemented, is liable to strengthen the antisemites since it confirms their assumption that Jews are foreigners in their countries and that they must and can rid themselves of them.

It really is possible that the people who say this mean it sincerely. However, there is, of course, still another internal reason why some Jews find the idea of Klal-Yisroel odious: Enlightened Jews have feared the Jewish collective since the time of the Haskalah.

You probably will stop me here: What do you mean Haskalah? The Haskalah failed long ago. Every Jewish schoolchild knows that!

To that, I answer: There is no greater agreed-upon lie than talk of the failure of the Haskalah. Such a thought could only have arisen because our writers are accustomed to looking outwardly and not inwardly. Only one point of the Haskalah program has not been fulfilled, precisely the one that did not depend on Jews: that when Jews were put on an equal footing with everyone else, the world would stop hating them. To the extent that they believed this to be true, the maskilim were deceiving themselves; they judged the world too optimistically. But to the extent that it involved Jews, the maskilim carried out their Haskalah program to the fullest. Let us hope that by the 100th anniversary of Pinsker’s “Auto-Emancipation,” we will have progressed as far with the national movement as we had with the Haskalah movement by the 100th anniversary of “Te’udah be-Yisrael.”

True, now there is no ideology of assimilation; now we no longer need to justify the “ideas” of the Haskalah, and we no longer need to propagandize on behalf of education. Just the opposite—we even have the right to speak with scorn about the dry rationalism of the maskilim, about their destructive tendencies, about their ahistoricism, etc., etc.; yet everyone, even those who claim at every opportunity that it died long ago, fulfills the commandments of the Haskalah in all its details. Here we see the fulfillment of “They have abandoned me, yet they have kept my Torah.” As Aḥad Ha-‘am correctly noted, that is the highest level an idea can reach. We belittle the maskilim, we convince both ourselves and the world that their approach failed—and we ourselves do everything that they demanded. The Agudah now has accepted the educational program outlined in “Te’udah be-Yisrael”: “Torah ‘im derekh erets.” A kheyder called Toras Emes advertises itself through announcements on the doors of the study houses that [say] it has workshops in which to learn a trade! And where does a Jew exist today who would ban learning the state language? Moreover, the great emigration to the countries overseas is the practical implementation of the program of the maskilim who exhorted, “Jews, do not remain in your stinking shtetls with folded hands and with faith in your hearts that ‘He who gives life will provide upon what to live.’ Rather, get up, become active, start working, become citizens.” And if the Jews could not achieve this in the old country, they left for the United States and did there what the maskilim demanded of them, and succeeded to the utmost degree. The emigration movement is the Haskalah movement in its dynamics, in the way it has penetrated the masses.

True, this was all possible because the hammer of history was working—the hammer of capitalism. Still, the Haskalah turned out to be a very successful symbol of capitalism in the Jewish environment, brightening its heaven and fructifying its soil to this day.

And this hammer of capitalism, for which the Haskalah is its symbol and assimilation its blade, was what shattered that which had existed since the Middle Ages until the Haskalah and the struggle for emancipation arrived on the scene. And it shattered Klal-Yisroel in the name of Reb Yisroel, in the name of the Jewish individual, in the name of his right to enjoy this world and to operate in this world. And indeed now, the Jewish individual, who has gone out into the wide world and has operated and lived in it, fears Klal-Yisroel: He believes that certainly he will not receive any benefit from it. It can only fetter him once again and tear him from the roots from which he draws his physical and spiritual nourishment.

When the capitalist era arrived, Klal-Yisroel, a creation of the precapitalist era, needed to change, to evolve in order to adapt to the new conditions. It was, however, incapable of doing so, and it was shattered under the blows of the capitalist hammer, and its fragments are now wallowing in all the farthest corners of the earth in the form of the various “healthy Jewish communities.” The collective was crushed and the individual became free! Through the destruction of the collective, the individual was restored.

A discrepancy between the individual and the collective exists in all societies. Yet only when the individual is decidedly above or below the average can this lead to a conflict—and the individual either tears himself away or is expelled. For the average individual, this tension always goes unnoticed, balanced out by the fact that the individual relinquishes a portion of his freedom for the great benefits that he receives from the collective. In our case, however, the most ordinary average people, the everyday Jews, rebelled against the collective. The collective was poor, pitiful. It was not capable of compensating for the obligations that it imposed, and it was allowed to fall to pieces. And everyone joined a new collective, that of the people of the country where they lived—they assimilated.

Our generation lived for a length of time with the illusion that this process operated only in the countries in which Jews live in the tens or hundreds of thousands and had no effect where millions of Jews are living more or less compactly. In the time of the first Russian Revolution, and even until the second Russian Revolution, Sh. Dubnov hoped and taught that the emancipation of the Russian Jewish community would not be an emancipation of the individual but rather an emancipation of the collective, namely, that the Jewish nation would be recognized as having equal rights alongside those of the other national minorities. We are now 20 years removed from the Russian Revolution, and whoever has eyes to see and a brain to think sees that, regarding Jews, the idea of equal rights as a nation, of national autonomy, cannot be realized … National autonomy cannot be realized in a nondemocratic regime, but neither can it be realized in a democratic regime, because Jews cannot find common cause with one another since their life paths have diverged so greatly that they have no common Jewish culture. Among Jews, there is not one work, not one idea, not one great person accepted by everyone. To the extent that Jews are engaged in cultural work, they are divided into at least three groups: the Orthodox, Hebraists, and Yiddishists, and in some countries, assimilationists can be added to the list.

In one other matter, all Jews from all movements and all countries in the world are united. In this, they actually are a “universal nation”: This is the matter of “rights”—equal rights. In this matter, Jews are in league with one another. However, this is the right of the individual—more specifically, the right and better chance for the individual to exit the national collective, to assimilate into the national majority…

In short, we have not been able to concretely find the vital “Jewish nation” anywhere (except for its beginnings in Eretz Yisroel). So far, it is no more than a remembrance from the past and an idea for the future. It once was a beautiful community, with fine, capable people. Modern Jewish culture, both in the Diaspora and in Eretz Yisroel, gains its nourishment from the fruits of the culture that this collective produced. Of course, the idea of a Jewish nation in the future, if it is realized, will rescue the Jews, redeeming them from all troubles. But with the way we currently see Jews, we must be frank and state that it may be easier to establish democracy in the world than to reconstitute the Jews as a nation. We must always remember, however, that the struggle for democracy in and of itself, without a specific effort to rebuild the Jewish nation, leads away from the nation, leads toward assimilation.

The hammer of history smashed the Jewish nation of the Middle Ages. The connection among its parts did not withstand the severe blows. Now, it strikes again, targeting individuals. It finds them cut off from their roots. It finds them with no one to rely on but themselves, wandering lost in an empty world. What are they, these fragments of the Jewish nation: Are they glass or are they steel? Will the blow from the heavy hammer shatter them once and for all, or will it forge them together into a new unity?

Zelig Hirsh Kalmanovitch (1885-1944) was a Yiddishist, Diaspora Nationalist, public intellectual, philologist, and co-director of the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) in Vilna. Hailed as the “prophet” of the Vilna Ghetto for his calls to return to Judaism and to embrace Zionism, he perished in the Nazi work camps of Estonia in 1944

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