Photo: Alter Kacyzne / The Forward Archives
Max Weinreich at the YIVO conference in Vilna, 1929Photo: Alter Kacyzne / The Forward Archives
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An Illuminating Obituary for a Yiddish Giant

Rokhl’s Golden City: When YIVO co-founder Max Weinreich died 50 years ago, one newspaper’s reminiscence revealed the splits in the Yiddish world

Rokhl Kafrissen
September 11, 2019
Photo: Alter Kacyzne / The Forward Archives
Max Weinreich at the YIVO conference in Vilna, 1929Photo: Alter Kacyzne / The Forward Archives

When Max Weinreich, the co-founder of YIVO and great historian of Ashkenaz, died in 1969, many publications ran obituaries, including The New York Times. More illuminating than the Times, though, is a lengthy obituary that appeared for him in the then Communist Party-aligned Yiddish newspaper Morgn Frayhayt.

Curiously, the title of the piece was “Bay shabadn in hoyz bes dem vilner pogrom” (In Szabad’s house during the time of the Vilne pogrom). To the left side, in a small box, a subhed noted that the article was a personal remembrance on the death of Max Weinreich. Yiddish daily readers would have understood that to speak of Weinreich was to necessarily speak of his beloved, adopted hometown, Vilne, as well as his also beloved father-in-law Tsemakh Szabad, the doctor and public health pioneer. Family, place, and ideology were intimately bound up in the life of Max Weinreich.

The obituary, written by longtime Morgn Frayhayt editor Pesakh Novick, is not really an obituary, though. More a memoiristic first-person sketch, it spends only the briefest time on the facts and figures of Weinreich’s life. Rather, Novick focuses on a dramatic moment the two men shared, 50 years earlier, when they survived the Vilne pogrom.

Novick’s piece does far more than your standard obituary. It encapsulates the world from which both men emerged, and brilliantly brings to life the issues that shaped, and divided, them.

In 1919, Novick was working at a Bundist newspaper in Minsk called Veker. His editor there was the fiery Bundist (later communist) ideologue, Ester Frumkin. Then a call came from Vilne’s Bundist newspaper, Arbeter Shtime. The editor of Arbeter Shtime, a young man named Max Weinreich, had just been elected to the governing body of the Vilne Jewish community and they needed someone to replace him. As Novick writes, “Der goyrl iz oysgefaln oyf mir.” (That fate fell upon me.)

In Vilne, Novick took a room in the residence of Tsemakh Szabad, a doctor and Jewish communal leader. It was there that Novick met Weinreich. Since Novick was new to editorial work, and was struggling to fill a daily four-page paper by himself, Weinreich often helped him out.

At that time, the governments of Vilne and Minsk were in the hands of the Bolsheviks. Even so, Bundist newspapers were permitted to continue their work. As Novick describes it, the Arbeter Shtime exchanged “polemics” with the Bolshevik Yiddish newspaper, Emes.

Things weren’t so congenial, however, when the Polish army advanced on Vilne, clashing with the Red Army. The attack on Vilne led to the first modern pogrom in the city. While the violence raged in the streets, Szabad and his son, and Novick and Weinreich, were stuck inside the Szabad home, which quickly began to feel like a jail. They waited anxiously on news of their friends—who was safe, who had been injured? The playwright S. Ansky was OK, but literary critic Shmuel Niger had disappeared. And so on. It’s not hard to imagine how agonizing it must have been for the men during those days, waiting on the outcome of the political fighting, waiting for any scrap of news of their friends and loved ones.

And yet, rather than worrying about himself, Tsemakh Szabad risked a peek through the window, where he spotted a Red Army sentry posted across the street. The soldier’s appearance struck Szabad as so miserable that he tried to get his servant Jan to bring food to the guard.

The picture Novick paints of Szabad comports well with the quasi-hagiographic image of him that has come down to us today. He was selfless to an almost comical degree, worrying more about the welfare of a Red Army guard than his own safety. When the fighting was over, he wasted no time in rushing to aid those who needed him in the wake of the pogrom. Szabad was a cultural, communal, and political leader (he co-founded the Folkspartey with Shimon Dubnow) as well as modeling mentshlekhkayt (ethical cultivation) for the men who gravitated toward him.

That love went both ways in the case of Szabad and Weinreich, as Novick tells it. In the aftermath of the pogrom, Weinreich left to continue his academic study in Berlin. Now it was just Novick and Szabad in the house. Szabad was so hungry for letters from Weinreich that when one did arrive, Szabad left it, unopened, by his dinner plate, delaying as long as he could the period between letters. (In 1923, Weinreich returned to Vilne and married Szabad’s daughter, Regine.)

That’s pretty much where Novick’s historical reminiscence ends. He left for America in 1920. Weinreich, however, was fiercely committed to the continuation of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Almost against his will, Weinreich ended up in New York in 1940, having been in Denmark for a linguistic conference at the outbreak of the war and then fleeing to America with his son Uriel.

Yet, at the time of Weinreich’s death, Novick writes that he and Weinreich had seen each other in New York maybe once or twice in total.

Once or twice!

Novick writes, in a rather vague, mistakes-were-made, suspiciously passive voice, that by that time, the divisions in Jewish communal life had become too deep to overcome. I suppose that those divisions would have been too obvious to state for readers of the Yiddish press.

Novick remained editor of the Morgn Frayhayt until his death. Weinreich was also a lifelong journalist, starting at the precocious age of 13. In Berlin, he supported himself as a student by writing for the Forverts, a professional association that lasted the rest of his life. The hardening of enmities between Forverts and Morgn Frayhayt readers certainly wouldn’t have made things not awkward between the old friends.

A couple months ago I watched a really fabulous documentary made in the early 1980s about the Forverts. An elderly Pesakh Novick appears at one point in the film. With a sort of chuckle, he recalls an “expose” he published in the Morgn Frayhayt on the 30th anniversary of the Forverts. Novick recounts how the playwright Dovid Pinsky thanked him for it, calling the Forverts “the greatest misfortune to happen to the Jewish people since the destruction of the Temple.” We think the world of Jewish media is rough and tumble today, but it’s nothing compared to the brawls of the Yiddish press.

In his remembrance of Weinreich, Novick makes a point of describing the way the Bundist Arbeter Shtime and the Bolshevik Emes conducted a dialogue via polemic. At the risk of venturing too far into speculation, I read Novick’s emphasis on the “hey, it’s just polemic” nature of Yiddish journalism as perhaps, also, a piece of post hoc self-justification.

Though he was shaped by his Bundism, Weinreich was never driven by politics. After the war, he saw the ways that Jewish life had necessarily changed and he softened his once stark anticlerical and anti-Zionist views. The only thing from which he never wavered was his belief in Yiddish as vital to the continuation of the Jewish people.

Unlike Novick, Weinreich’s life was too expansive to be defined by a single ideology, profession, or field of inquiry. He was a journalist as well as a teacher. His teaching spanned the prestigious Vilne Teachers’ Seminar to the first Yiddish professorship in America, at City College. As a scholar he published in German, Yiddish, and English. His six volume History of the Yiddish Language is still authoritative. He translated Freud into Yiddish.

As a communal leader, Weinreich held elected positions in the Vilne kehile and then, for the rest of his life, as the research director of YIVO. Seeing the need for Yiddish language activities for young people, he founded and led a scouting movement in Vilne called Bin (Bee). His synthesis of community service, intellectual achievement, and ethical ideals no doubt owes much to the example set by his second father, Tsemakh Szabad.

Fifty years after Max Weinreich’s death, his remarkable life is still waiting for a full-length biography. To gather the necessary details, I called on Kalman Weiser, a scholar of Eastern European Jewry at Toronto’s York University. Weiser generously shared his research with me, as well as sending me one of his amazing archival finds, Pesakh Novick’s 1969 Weinreich obituary.

Weiser is currently at work on what will surely be an important work, focusing on the relationship between Weinreich and another pioneering scholar of Yiddish, Solomon Birnbaum. Weiser is probably the foremost expert on Weinreich among my generation. We are too young to have had direct contact with Weinreich’s generation of gedoylim (giants). Sad as that may be, as Weiser pointed out to me, perhaps a life as large, and as complex, as Weinreich’s needed that distance to be fully comprehended.

To my great annoyance, no proper 50th yortsayt activities were held in honor of Weinreich in New York City. In their place, I take Weiser’s impressive skill and energy as a sign of a new era of scholarship, in which one of the greatest lacunae in Jewish studies will finally be remedied, with all the skill and energy which it deserves.

LISTEN: In 1965 Max Weinreich gave a lunchtime talk on the 40th anniversary of YIVO. Parts of that talk were broadcast on WEVD as part of its regular Yiddish programming. (In Yiddish)

ATTEND: This year Ofer Dynes will give the Max Weinreich fellowship lecture at YIVO. His talk is called “A Jewish King of Poland for One Night: On the Polish-Jewish Royal Dynasty That Never Was.” The king in question is Saul Wahl, a wealthy 16th-century merchant, and the legend is that he was “elected” king for one night. The story of the “Jewish king” reminds me of the legend of Esterke, the 14th-century Jewish woman who was supposedly the mistress of the Polish king, Casimir the Great. According to legend, she convinced Casimir to invite the Jews to Poland. As I noted last Purim, the story of Esterke served an important mythic function, looking to the distant past for proof that the Jews of Poland had a noble, almost royal, lineage. It situates them firmly in the Polish landscape, not necessarily eligible to rule, but adjacent to power.

Making the Jews of Eastern Europe feel at home on the land they inhabited was very much part of Max Weinreich’s Yiddishist ideology. He was active in youth scouting, founding a group called Bin (Bee), in 1927 in Vilne. For adults, there was the landkentenish movement, which encouraged Jews to get out and explore the landscape. It also worked to preserve local sites of Jewish history, for present and future generations. With his book, 1000 yor vilne (1000 years of Vilne), Zalmen Szyk, chair of the Vilne branch of the Landkentenish Society, set out to rescue “Yerusholayim de Lite” (i.e., Vilne, the Jerusalem of Lithuania) as a universal Yiddish memory site …”

“A Jewish King of Poland for One Night: On the Polish-Jewish Royal Dynasty That Never Was,” at YIVO, Sept. 25 at 3 p.m.

WATCH: When you learn about the life of Max Weinreich, you naturally learn about his two extraordinary sons, Uriel and Gabriel. Uriel is well known to many generations of Yiddish students as the author (among other things) of the most famous Yiddish textbook, College Yiddish. The second Weinreich son, Gabriel, took another path, away from Yiddish. He became a specialist in the field of acoustic physics and then, later, an ordained Episcopalian priest. His is a fascinating story, told in his memoir, the aptly named Confessions of a Jewish Priest. As far as I know, there are no oral histories done with either Max or Uriel, but the Yiddish Book Center has a wonderful interview with Gabriel. Here, he explains the paradox of being raised by modern, Yiddishist Jews who saw no role for religion in their own lives. And here, he speculates what his parents would have thought of his conversion. Gabriel says that his parents raised him to have his own beliefs and his own path, and that, had they lived to see his conversion, they would have accepted and ultimately understood, how he came to religion. It’s a touching insight into the parenting, and deep mentshlekhkayt, of Max and Regina.

MORE: Tsibele violinist Zoe Aqua is leading the Community Klezmer Band class at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. First class is Sept. 16; sessions run through Dec. 9. See their website for registration info … Sept. 19 is the opening night of the fall season for the New York Klezmer Series. Come to the tantshoyz with Alicia Svigals, Dave Levitt, Lauren Brody, and Aaron Alexander, with Steve Weintraub leading dancing. See the NYKS website for the whole schedule. … Oct. 2 is the first meeting of Miriam Leberstein’s Yiddish Conversation class at the 14th Street Y. Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m. (Basic Yiddish skills required) … Oct. 3, visiting scholar Paula Ansaldo will give a lecture on Yiddish theater in Buenos Aires. At Fordham University-Lincoln Center, 155 West 60th Street, McMahon 109. … Oct. 6 is Pickle Day on the Lower East Side. … Oct. 15 is opening night of the Honk NYC festival, featuring Frank London’s Shikere Kapelye klezmer brass band and more If you’re in Boston and looking for a hot night of new klezmer at an Irish bar, you can celebrate the new CD from Ezekiel’s Wheels at the Burren in Somerville, Massachusetts, Oct. 19 … If you’re in Paris in November (or … you’re looking for an excuse to be in Paris in November), my teacher Miriam Trinh will be giving a two-and-a-half day Medem Library seminar on Yung-Vilne. Miriam is a terrific teacher and this is an amazing opportunity for those of us who don’t have big chunks of time to take off and immerse in the language.


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Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.