Judah Leib Gordon

Judah Leib Gordon

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Judah Leib Gordon, also known as Leon Gordon, (December 7, 1830, Vilnius, Lithuania – September 16, 1892, St. Petersburg, Russia) (Hebrew: יהודה לייב גורדון) was among the most important Hebrew
Hebrew language
Hebrew is a Semitic language of the Afroasiatic language family. Culturally, is it considered by Jews and other religious groups as the language of the Jewish people, though other Jewish languages had originated among diaspora Jews, and the Hebrew language is also used by non-Jewish groups, such...

 poets of the Jewish Enlightenment
Haskalah , the Jewish Enlightenment, was a movement among European Jews in the 18th–19th centuries that advocated adopting enlightenment values, pressing for better integration into European society, and increasing education in secular studies, Hebrew language, and Jewish history...


Gordon was born to well-to-do Jewish parents who owned a hotel in Vilnius
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, and its largest city, with a population of 560,190 as of 2010. It is the seat of the Vilnius city municipality and of the Vilnius district municipality. It is also the capital of Vilnius County...

. As a privileged child, he was able to study Torah
Torah- A scroll containing the first five books of the BibleThe Torah , is name given by Jews to the first five books of the bible—Genesis , Exodus , Leviticus , Numbers and Deuteronomy Torah- A scroll containing the first five books of the BibleThe Torah , is name given by Jews to the first five...

with some of the great educators of the city, and soon proved to be an exceptional student. He had already mastered the entire Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

 by the age of eleven, and was fluent in hundreds of pages of Talmud
The Talmud is a central text of mainstream Judaism. It takes the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history....

Matters took a sharp turn when Gordon was fourteen, and his father went bankrupt
Bankruptcy is a legal status of an insolvent person or an organisation, that is, one that cannot repay the debts owed to creditors. In most jurisdictions bankruptcy is imposed by a court order, often initiated by the debtor....

. Unable to finance his son's education any longer, the younger Gordon began a course of independent study on one of the many study halls in the city. In just three years, he had mastered almost the entire Talmud and dozens of other religious texts. By that time, however, he was also drawn by the spirit of the Enlightenment that was sweeping across the city. He began reading secular literature
Literature is the art of written works, and is not bound to published sources...

 and learning foreign languages, and he befriended some of the leading Enlightenment figures of the time, including Kalman Shulman and his son Michel.

With the financial situation deteriorating at home, Gordon, then twenty-two, decided it was time for him to pursue a career. He received a teaching certificate from the local rabbinical college, and became a school teacher in some of the smaller towns that housed major yeshiva
Yeshiva is a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the Talmud and Torah study. Study is usually done through daily shiurim and in study pairs called chavrutas...

s, including Ponivezh
Ponevezh yeshiva
Ponevezh Yeshiva, often pronounced Ponevitch Yeshiva, is a world renowned yeshiva located in Bnei Brak, Israel. Donated by Henry Krausher, it was originally established in the town of Panevėžys, Lithuania...

 and Telz
Telshe yeshiva
Telshe yeshiva was a famous Eastern European yeshiva founded in the Lithuanian town of Telšiai. After World War II the yeshiva relocated to Wickliffe, Ohio, in the United States and is currently known as the Rabbinical College of Telshe, It is one of the most prominent Haredi institutions of Torah...

. During the twenty years he spent as a teacher, he produced his most important work as a poet and author. Having an established reputation, he was invited by the Jewish community of Saint Petersburg to serve as secretary of the community and of the Society for the Spread of Enlightenment among the Jews of Russia. He died in Saint Petersburg in 1892.

Gordon took a leading part in the modern revival of the Hebrew language and culture. His satire
Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...

s did much to rouse the Russian Jews to a new sense of the reality of life, and Gordon was the apostle of enlightenment in the Ghetto
A ghetto is a section of a city predominantly occupied by a group who live there, especially because of social, economic, or legal issues.The term was originally used in Venice to describe the area where Jews were compelled to live. The term now refers to an overcrowded urban area often associated...

s. His Hebrew style is classical and pure. Much of his poetry revolves around biblical and historical themes. These include The Love of David and Michal (1857), King Zedekiah in Prison (1879), Judah's Parables (1859), David and Barzilai, Osenath, Daughter of Potiphera, From between the Lion's Teeth, and From the Depths of the Sea. The works were intended to disseminate Enlightenment values and had a profound impact on Jewish life. Many feel his romantic works lack the same militancy of his poetic works, though his advocacy resurfaces in his realistic novels. Gordon also published collections of fables, most of them translated. In works such as "Little Fables for Big Children", he continues to advocate for the adoption of Enlightenment values, as he does in his memoirs, published in the last year of his life. Among his other writing on social issues is The Point on Top of the Yod, dealing with the rights of women. His poems were collected in four volumes, Kol Shire Yehudah (St. Petersburg, 1883–1884); his novels in Kol Kitbe Yehuda (Collected Writings of Gordon, Odessa
Odessa or Odesa is the administrative center of the Odessa Oblast located in southern Ukraine. The city is a major seaport located on the northwest shore of the Black Sea and the fourth largest city in Ukraine with a population of 1,029,000 .The predecessor of Odessa, a small Tatar settlement,...

, 1889).


Stanislawski, Michael: "For Whom Do I Toil?" Judah Leib Gordon and the Crisis of Russian Jewry, New York/Oxford 1988.