Lunacharsky and Hebrew

Jacob Mazeh


During the summer of 5679 [1919] the government suddenly stopped supporting Tarbut and its schools, and after regaining our composure, we decided to address [Anatoly] Lunacharsky regarding this question. [ . . . ] I received a telegram from Yaroslavl addressed to me, saying: “Comrade Dolgorukov reported to me about your desire to meet with me, and I would be very pleased to meet you if you come to Yaroslavl.” It was signed with his name in full: Commissar for Matters of Public Instruction [Enlightenment], Lunacharsky. Naturally I showed the telegram to Rodnitsky, and accordingly we immediately received a permit and also tickets to travel to Yaroslavl. [ . . . ] Since I was ill at that time, I also took my secretary with me, A. A. Zusmanovitz, and the three of us set out. On Thursday evening we left Moscow and on Friday morning we arrived in Yaroslavl. [ . . . ]

We looked for a hotel but couldn’t find one. We wanted a place to drink tea, and we couldn’t find that either. And when we got into the center of the city, we found a house, which once was, it seems, openly, a tavern, and now it had become a secret tavern, pretending to be a place where one drinks tea. We went in and found the proprietor, a man with a big belly, a “true” Russian, with murder in his eyes, sitting at a table, and when he saw the faces covered with the veil of Jewishness—he became very furious. But his commercial instincts wouldn’t let him insult me, because he realized at last that in any case I wasn’t asking him for money, but he would receive money from me. He asked me: What do you want? And when Rodnitsky and Zusmanovich told him that we wanted tea, he said: Go into the other room.

We went into that room, and it was full of smoke. I went back to the corridor and said to him, “Maybe there’s a room without smoke?” And he answered me: “There is, but in Berdichev [a “classic” Jewish city in Ukraine].”

We wanted to leave the place immediately, but fatigue overcame us, and we stayed sitting there for a while, and already without asking us, they served us tea. Of course, that tea had neither taste nor smell. We rested for a while and paid whatever they asked, and I said to myself: This time I paid for pain, healing, and humiliation (that is: I thought of the repose as healing). [ . . . ]

To avoid wasting time, I went into a barber shop, which I had seen in a street, and the barber was a Jew, an exile from Brisk [Brest-Litovsk] in Liteh [today, Belarus], one of the exiles banished by Nikolai Nikolayevich, the chief general from the days of the old regime, and he immediately called me by name, and I asked him, “Where do you know my name from, sir?”

He said to me: “According to your photograph.

“Are you not Jacob Isayevich Mazeh, and certainly you wish to have your hair cut in honor of the Sabbath and because of his honor the Minister Lunacharsky, to whom you have come.”

Hearing those words, I was astonished, and at the same time I remembered what I had read in Sholem Aleichem’s books, and even more what I had heard from his mouth, that the Jews have a well-developed sense of smell, and from a thousand miles away they sniff out every new person who enters their domain. I had my hair cut and went outside to walk to Lunacharsky through alleys and twisting paths, so that the people with “a sense of smell” wouldn’t know where I was headed. And I almost managed the whole way. But at the entrance to the hotel I saw a lot of Jews standing in a line, and when I went in, they called out “Shalom” to me. [ . . . ] I understood that all my efforts had been in vain, and that these people had a “sense of smell,” and they had acted cagily by not following my steps as I walked on my way, except to greet me upon my entry to the hotel. [ . . . ]

[When the hour came for the reception] I went into the “lord’s” room—for that is what Jews are used to calling anyone in power. It was a splendid room, full of beds, with a desk at one end, and around it girls writing on machines [typewriters]. One of them, a very beautiful Armenian, with eyes burning like fire, met me with a smile floating on her lips, and asked:

“Have you come to see Anatoli Vasilievich? He’s a little busy, and he’ll come in half an hour.”

She asked me to be seated and also gave me a local newspaper. In that newspaper I read the speech that Lunacharsky had given at a large assembly the day before. There he quoted the prophet Amos, whom he called a “communist,” and in a general way he said: “All the prophets were communists in their day because it is impossible for any honest man not to be a communist,” and with the clarity of his tongue he explained the justice of that system and its principles in a popular manner. Just as I finished the article, its author himself entered. He greeted me and sat opposite me. [ . . . ]

Then he asked me a question: “What is this about?” [ . . . ]

From my pocket I withdrew the telegram, which I had received from my friend, the activist H. Gissin of Mogilev, who was then in Gomel. It was a long telegram, in which he complained that they had closed the model Hebrew school in Gomel without any cause, only because the Hebrew language prevailed there. He concluded the telegram with this language: “The parents, the teachers, and the pupils appoint you to intercede with the Commissariat for Education to revoke the decree.” Lunacharsky read the telegram and returned it to me, and he began to speak, and the Armenian girl was already tapping the machine: “Moscow.” [ . . . ] “Telegraph urgently: By whom and when and according to what principles did they use repressive measures against the Hebrew school in Gomel?”

He immediately signed and said: “Send this telegram right away.”

Then I began to speak to Lunacharsky about the whole matter at length. [ . . . ]

“You certainly know, sir, as the man who heads all the institutions of learning for the people in Russia, the great value of the Hebrew language in the world of science in general, and that there is no university in enlightened countries which does not support scholars in the discipline of the philology of this language, in the subjects of the poetry of its most ancient literature, which everyone admits is one of the most beautiful languages that the ancient world created, and that its literature is full of treasures of scholarly investigations in philosophy, theology, linguistics, and that all the greatest sages in the world from time immemorial have dealt with it no less than with the languages of Rome and Greece, and the sages of the nations of the world have written marvelous books about its language, its lexicons, and historical investigations. Is it possible that the Jewish people, which bears this language, would not make an effort to have its sons know it? [ . . . ]

“In this language all the Jews in the world pray, in this language they exchange letters with one another, in this language, I assure you, sir, our ancestors even kept their accounts, in this language they write all sorts of business documents, and many of them were used to speaking this language, and now has begun a time when this language is spoken about secular matters, and the aspiration is the inner aspiration of the nation, not a party matter, as they say, of the Zionists alone, this is the aspiration of the entire nation. And since the new law says explicitly that any group of no less than twenty-five people can start a school for all sorts of studies that they choose, and the state will support them—why should the lot of this language be worse than that of all the other languages? [ . . . ]”

Lunacharsky: “I don’t know anyone who denies the value of the Hebrew language except Jewish communists, who share our opinions, and we cannot refrain from believing what they say, that the Hebrew language is a language of the bourgeoisie, and not the language of the people, and this is only a bourgeois or clerical ornament, and the schools for the people should be in the language of the people and not in the language of the people’s history, and it seems to me, that this is the bone of contention. You think that this is the language of the people, and they come in the name of the people and deny it.”

I: “I can promise your honor, that I am familiar in all its details with everything that is done in the inner life of my people, and I never heard any Jew when he was talking, say, ‘The time has come to teach my son,’ that he was not referring to the language I am speaking of, because he does not teach the dialect [zhargon, that is, Yiddish] at all, since he knows it anyway, and it is not regarded by him as something worth studying. And as for the bourgeoisie, let me say, and I can testify, that any bourgeois, or anyone who regards himself as worthy of being bourgeois in the future, does not teach his children the Hebrew language. He teaches them all the languages in the world except Hebrew, and only the children of the poor, the children of the masses, raised up all the Hebrew authors for the Jewish people, everyone who knows the Torah, all the scholars of Hebrew literature, and also all the great poets of our time, all of them are the sons of the streets of the poor and not the rich: And what will be the end of the matter? The dialect [Yiddish] will be forgotten from the mouths of their children, and they will not know the Hebrew language, and thus the Jewish people will be left without its national language.”

Lunacharsky: “It’s not such a great catastrophe if the Jewish people remains without a special language, but what you assert, that the Hebrew language is the language of the poor, this is entirely new in my eyes, though I now remember, that you have a poet named Bialik. Was he also from a poor home?”

I: “Not only poor, but the poorest of the poor. His ancestors’ ancestors were poor, and not only Bialik but also all the other Hebrew authors, aside from a few exceptions that a boy could name, all of them came from the poor of the Hebrew nation.”

Lunacharsky: “And was Sholem Aleichem also one of the poor?”

I: “He, at any rate was from the people who were called wealthy in their village, but it seems to me that any bourgeois would faint if he heard that his friends were wealthy like that. All the wealth of wealthy people like that lay in that they had a bit of bread every week and a slice of white bread, that is, on the Sabbath. It seems to me that the author Maxim Gorky, who is well versed in the life of ‘rich’ Jews of that kind, will testify to your honor that they were proletarians from birth to death.”

Translated by
Jeffrey M.


Jacob Mazeh, “Lunacharskii ve–ha–ivrit” [Lunacharsky and Hebrew], from Zihronot, 4 vols. (Tel Aviv: Yalkut, 1936), vol 4: pp. 7–14.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 8.

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