One of the convenient aspects of studying Jewish history is its 3,000-year-old paper trail—the texts and records of the rabbinical and intellectual elite allow us to examine contours of Jewish law and history. But we tend to know less about the lives of average Jews, who didn’t receive much attention in the writings of the intellectuals. That began to change in the late 19th century, when the Yiddish press hit the streets, for the first time recounting the lives of the unwashed masses of Jews in the public record. Tablet Magazine offers some of these stories.
Yiddish poetry was once popular enough to make its way into the pages of major daily newspapers, where it shared space with reporting on politicians, criminals, and the feats of athletes, among other prosaic matters. Yiddish poets sometimes became minor celebrities, drawing large audiences to their readings.
Like the vast majority of the language’s literary figures in the late 19th and early 20th century, these poets had excised themselves from Orthodoxy in order to live and work in environments unfettered by traditional mores. Their productivity kept pace with changes and explosions in other fields—art, literature, and politics attracting young people and sometimes wooing those young away from Orthodoxy. Though many Orthodox Jews were threatened by the new Yiddish papers and literary journals that proliferated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they did not all turn away from the new media of the day. Some religious leaders saw the need to allow a measure of cultural permeability, especially after the failed Russian revolution of 1905, when a slew of new Yiddish papers were founded, lest modern art forms and print media lure community members away altogether.
One such figure was the Gerer Rebbe, a forward-thinking rabbi in charge of one of Poland’s largest Hasidic courts. In 1907, he gave the first religious dispensation for a newspaper to serve Orthodoxy, easing tension between tradition and a burgeoning press. He was also among those who founded Agudas Yisroel, the first Orthodox political party, in 1912. Though slowly, modernity was insinuating itself into traditional Jewish life, and the Gerer Rebbe showed that if Orthodox groups failed to adapt to the times, they would continue to bleed adherents.
For some people, the compulsion to write is as powerful as it is unavoidable, and a number of Orthodox writers—those willing to compose prose and poetry within the parameters of traditional Jewish life and law—began to appear in the pages of the newly minted religious press and in tiny literary journals during the 1920s. Many yeshiva kids revered these writers for being able to remain within tradition’s boundaries while writing modern poetry and prose.
One such poet was Shmuel Nadler, profiled in Beatrice Lang Caplan’s excellent essay in a recent anthology, Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon. Nadler was born in 1908 into a Hasidic family in a shtetl in Galicia, went to heder and yeshiva, but also studied in a public high school. Considered an excellent pupil, he studied at the Lublin Yeshiva with Rabbi Meyer Shapiro, renowned for having developed the daf yomi, or “page a day,” system, still in use, for Talmud study. Nadler took the unusual step of writing poetry in Aramaic and Hebrew, then considered somewhat daring; in Orthodox circles Hebrew was a holy language to be used for liturgical purposes. In addition, he contributed poems to several literary, political, and socially oriented journals such as Ortodoksishe Yungt Bleter and Beyz-Yankev.
In 1933, Nadler published Besht-symfoniye, the Baal Shem Tov Symphony, which mixed both prose and poetry as well as tradition and modernity in a paean to the founder of Hasidism.
A glowing sun
You have hung upon the skies,
And the trees and I
Draw strength from the sun’s burning.
Praised be God
Creator of Light.
(translated by Beatrice Lang Caplan)
Nadler also included, Lang notes, veiled hints at disbelief and disobedience, pushing the limits of what Orthodoxy would allow.
And though Nadler, the so-called “court poet of the Aguda,” was very much the darling of young religious readers who found him artistically appealing while maintaining some fidelity to traditional parameters, older readers, those who oversaw literary production at the Aguda-run newspapers and journals, were vexed by him.
Meantime, Nadler’s worm had turned, and by the end of 1933, he’d cut off his beard and peyes and left the religious world. His poems, with a distinctly left-wing political sensibility, advocating Communism, began to find their way into publications religious kids were not supposed to read—papers like the Lodz-based Communist journal Literarishe Tribune, where his poems shared space with ideologues like Isaac Deutscher.
Differences between Nadler and his Aguda handlers came to a head in late December 1933, when the party leaders meddled in a performance of the traditional play The Sale of Joseph, meant to be a fundraiser for Khinukh, an Aguda-run educational youth organization. Aguda leaders demanded that the actors in the play be either boys or girls, but not both. Mixing was mukste, or forbidden. They also demanded that the audience be divided by a mekhitse. In the end, neither the play’s directors at Khinukh nor the authorities at Aguda would budge, and the antagonism between them led to the performance’s cancellation.
Nadler, who wasn’t involved in the matter, was nevertheless furious at the meddling and angrily criticized the Aguda for putting its nose where it didn’t belong. He went on to attack Aguda representatives for their lack of action in Palestine, though he did not specify what that action should have been. As reported in the Yiddish daily Moment, Nadler’s grievances were news to the Aguda, and they were shocked by the acerbic provocations on the part of their “court poet.”
But Nadler’s criticisms were just an appetizer. In what seemed like an overnight transformation, he publicly announced that he had become a Communist, shocking everyone. The week after the Khinukh incident, in early January 1934, he gave a lecture at the Warsaw Jewish Literary Union in which he intended to explain his move from God to man. The hall was packed with young people—Hasidic and Communist alike. It was an uneasy mix, and furious arguments broke out between the two groups.
The Hasidim harangued Nadler the turncoat while the proletarians tried dragging them out of the hall. The two sides screamed and pushed and shoved each other until wild fistfights broke out. For his part, Nadler tried to read his text, to explain his exit from the world of Orthodoxy, which had apparently been a long time coming, but he was constantly interrupted by howling catcalls.
Amid the ruckus, a strange thing occurred. A young Hasid who looked remarkably like Nadler mounted the stage and awkwardly approached the poet, screaming in his face, “Akher! For me you are dead,” referencing the Talmudic figure, Elisha ben Abuya, who is said to have gone into pardes, paradise, and became an atheist. The young man began sobbing hysterically, tore his jacket, and collapsed to the floor, silencing the audience. The hysteric turned out to be Nadler’s brother, with whom he had studied in the Lublin Yeshiva, and who was now a rabbi in a Galician shtetl. Nadler’s transformation, in the mind of the brother, was a transgression so colossal that Nadler the poet had to be considered dead. Nadler the rabbi had, right then, begun the process of mourning.
According to Moment’s reporter, the reading was a complete fiasco, brought to an end with the onstage breakup of the Nadler brothers. The crowd dispersed shortly thereafter.
Nadler the poet didn’t stick around either. Immediately after the episode in the Warsaw Literary Union, he left for Paris to work for Di Naye prese, a new Communist Yiddish paper, and eventually became its editor, dropping the heavily biblical “Shmuel” for his nickname, “Munye.”
The last work he published in Warsaw was his Baal Shem Tov Symphony, a mix of Hasidic tales and poetry. Appearing just before he made his public break with tradition, it offered the following:
And to the believer—such goodness for he who believes
In the holy tsadik and the protection he offers,
And who attaches himself to the one above, in thanks and in praise,
When his prayer is realized.
And he who knows that justice will break his solitude
Will never be the man to stumble,
We should all be so privileged to make it
To the redemption in once piece, Amen.
When Nadler got to Paris, his style changed in both tone and content. In the1934 poem “I Didn’t Get My Revolutionary Newspaper Today,” he wrote:
I didn’t get my revolutionary newspaper today,
I waited fifteen minutes, a half hour, an hour
And the postman finally said to me: no way.
My revolutionary newspaper, you didn’t show up.
Not here … I know, my dear, you did not betray me.
Someone pointed you out, a reactionary, no doubt,
And had a policeman shut your powerful mouth.
I didn’t get my revolutionary newspaper today.
When World War II broke out and the Nazis occupied Paris, Nadler was still there. It wasn’t the safest place for a Jew or a Communist, but Nadler remained true to his revolutionary ideals and published underground French and Yiddish newspapers during the occupation. By summer of 1942, when it got really hot for the Jews in Vichy France, the Nazis caught and executed him, bringing the story of Shmuel Nadler to a close. He shared his radical attitude toward tradition while facing his own demise in a poem quoted in a Yizkor book for Yiddish writers in Paris:
You shouldn’t say Kaddish at my grave,
And don’t light candles for my soul,
This flourishing, fruitful life
Is our purpose on the earth
Eddy Portnoy, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is the Academic Advisor and Exhibitions Curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He is also the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.
Eddy Portnoy, the Academic Adviser and Exhibitions Curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, is the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.