Knowledge vs religion

Yiddish writer S. An-sky portrays a character caught in the clash between the yeshiva world and secular culture.

Students at a yeshiva in Trzebinia, Poland (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
Students at a yeshiva in Trzebinia, Poland
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
As Pioneers: The First Breach begins, Zalmen Itzkowitz, a freethinker, has left his yeshiva in Vitebsk to earn his living in the shtetl town of Miloslavka, teaching students the Russian language and other secular subjects. When he asks Chana Leah, the wife of his innkeeper, to put in a good word for him with the townswomen, she shrugs: “Well, honestly, I really don’t understand why anyone would want to learn all those things. Can’t people get by without knowledge?”
Her husband, Reb Leivik, is convinced that the rabbis will chase anyone teaching “such nonsense” out of town. But when he learns that Itzkowitz has promised a few rubles for her help, he tells Chana Leah to go ahead, throws the tutor “a contemptuous glance,” and heads out the door “to Baruch to tear out his beard.”
Set in the 1880s, when the anti-religious Haskala movement was gaining adherents in Europe (and first published in 1904), Pioneers was written by S. An-sky and translated from Yiddish by Rose Waldman, with an informative introduction by Nathaniel Deutsch. The book is a charming, by turns serious and comic exploration of the search for identity among small-town Jews.
A work of social history as well as literature, Pioneers reminds us that debates over ideas and cultural movements are invariably conducted by imperfect individuals, who are struggling to improve their real-world circumstances.
As Deutsch notes, like An-sky (the pen name of Shloyme-Zanvi Rappaport, a Russian-Jewish writer and political activist, best known as the author of the play The Dybbuk), Itzkowitz received a Jewish education in a Vitebsk cheder, joined a Maskil Haskala circle of “enlighteners,” and then had second thoughts.
Before he wrote Pioneers, An-sky had become a Jewish nationalist and part of a burgeoning folk-based Yiddish literary culture, led by I.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, which celebrated the unique, distinctive character of the Jewish people.
For this reason, no doubt, An-sky’s Itzkowitz is at once a sympathetic character and a classic feckless schlemiel.
“Deep down,” we learn, Zalmen “considered education a frivolous, worthless thing that was easy to do without.” It seemed crazy to him that householders would pay a tutor. Moreover, Itzkowitz was not fluent in Russian, had limited knowledge of history and geography, and “knew grammar, at least the verbs, almost without errors.”
Zalmen did not become a Maskil because he was well-versed in its core precepts. Berated by the dean of the yeshiva where he (an orphan) had lived for five years for studying Russian for an hour between afternoon and evening prayers, Itzkowitz left in a huff. When the dean asked him to return, he refused. “I’m stubborn,” Itzkowitz explains. Relinquishing “the best meal plan in Vitebsk,” he embraced the Haskala movement.
Interestingly, An-sky does not undercut the rabbi of Miloslavka. He and he alone recognizes that Zalmen is “dull-headed, without a glint of contemplativeness,” reading Gemara “like a cheder-boy, without flavor.” The rabbi’s pleas to the tutor to “return to God, abandon your studies, become a Jew as you were before,” are sincere and eloquent. Also important, perhaps, the rabbi tells the young man to remember “that the most important thing isn’t study, but deeds, mitzvot.”
An-sky also lays out but does not sort through other responses to the Haskala movement. Readers may well discount the recommendation of one shtetl dweller that Maskilim should be told “you can’t have it both ways” and be forced to make a choice.
Less clear is what to make of a suggestion to disarm the enlighteners. When Maskilim sent Rabbi Eliyahu, the genius of Vilna, a pig instead of the traditional basket of food on Purim, this man tells his fellow congregants that Eliyahu gave the messenger a tip and a note of thanks. Dumbfounded, the Maskilim asked for an explanation. “I was very moved by your gift,” the rabbi explained. “You took your favorite food and sent it to me.”
Pioneers: The First Breach leaves us hanging. Zalmen has made a commitment to return to the fold. He burns all of his heretical books except a grammar text, which reminds him of what he has learned “about life, about the world.” Should he “chuck the cursed Miloslavka, the synagogue, all of it,” he wonders? Might the Russian bureaucrat, who gave him a copy of the New Testament, help him “worm his way out of the quagmire, save himself,” by returning to Vitebsk?
When he vanishes, some of the townspeople conclude that Zalmen has returned to the apostates. Others notice that the rabbi remains silent and keeps sighing, as if he knows something. And the bureaucrat declares that Zalmen Itzkowitz is now Stefan Ivanich, and is ensconced in a monastery.
An-sky wants his readers to stay tuned and to get themselves a copy of volume two, variously titled Booklets of Dawn and Pioneers: A Tale of Russian Jewish Life in the 1880s.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.