Poet of the Jewish Enlightenment
1. Y.L. Gordon was born in 1831 in Vilna. His parents were well-to-do hoteliers. He studied Torah and Talmud, and he began writing Hebrew poetry at a young age.
2. He became a teacher in some of Europe’s major yeshivot, and his poetry began to be widely read. “The Love of David and Michal” (1856) was noteworthy for its attempt to voice the concerns, feelings and even the sexuality of a woman. Indeed, much of his poetry used biblical themes to espouse enlightenment values.
3. More evidence of his enlightenment philosophy appears in his “Fables of Judah” (1859), which included stories of Aesop, LaFontaine and Ivan Krylov.
4. Two of his most famous poems urged Jews to partake in Russian and western culture while remaining committed to Jewish culture. His most famous line – from “Awake, My People” (1863) – was widely quoted, becoming a rallying cry for the Haskalah (secularist) movement: “Be a man in the streets [outdoors] and a Jew at home [in your tent].” In “The Tip of the Yud,” (where Yud refers to the Hebrew letter) Gordon called for the Jewish woman’s liberation from traditional roles, so that she, too, could benefit from enlightenment ideas.
5. Gordon’s style was modern, rather than biblical, though it was full of references to biblical and rabbinic words and thought. He wrote mostly in Hebrew, only occasionally in Yiddish, viewing Yiddish as a language of degradation.
6. In 1872, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he served as secretary of the St. Petersburg Jewish community and the main branch of the Society for the Promotion of Culture Among the Jews of Russia. His fervor for western ideas brought him into conflict with Orthodox Jewry. Denounced to the Russian authorities for alleged anti-tsarist activities, he was sent into internal exile within Russia. But exile did not stop him from writing his anti- traditionalist, pro-humanist verse. His “King Zedekiah in Prison” is one example from this period.
7. After his return to St. Petersburg, he became editor of HaMelits, the most important Hebrew newspaper of the time. In his daily columns, he continued to promote enlightenment ideals, urging the translation of general literature into Hebrew and the education of Jews in Russian (and other languages) as well as Hebrew.
8. Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander in 1881 – with its subsequent pogroms and the consequent development of Jewish nationalism – Gordon hung on to his liberal, reformist stance, thus coming into conflict with Jewish nationalists. He supported emigration to the United States, rather than Palestine, for he was concerned that Jewish hegemony in Eretz Yisrael would lead to a theocracy if Judaism was not first purged of its religious traditionalism. (Hmmmm.)
9. He died in 1892, having been repudiated by his friends, who no longer subscribed to his liberal, pre-nationalist ideology. He died believing that “our spiritual deliverance” had to be a precursor to the Jewish physical return to Zion.
10. He is remembered as a poet who projected the image of a prophet, a forerunner of Bialik.
You can find Gordon Street in Tel Aviv off Rabin Square, running between the sea and the square.