The Jewish people have an extensive history of Diaspora (migration), long after their exile from Israel in 587 B.C.E. by the Babylonian (Spitzer, J). Their struggles for inclusion into other nations were met with repeated rejections due to their inclination to preserve their distinct culture, which only alienated them. Without a permanent homeland, they migrated to several locations in Europe, notably in Russia during the late 19th and early 20th century. Anti-semitism existed in many European countries like Russia, where Jews were treated unequally and due their lack of national identity, it was difficult for the Jewish people to obtain the equality rights. It was during these times that two very influential poems, “Awake My People!” and “The City of Slaughter” wrote by Judah Leib Gordon (1831-1892) and Haim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934) respectively contributed to modern Jewish history; obtaining equality rights for Jews and eradicating anti-semitism.
The former empowered Jews to enlighten themselves by integrating in other different cultures of nations across Europe, while the latter advocated for Jews to mobilize against anti-semitism by demonstrating the defenseless nature of Jews. Considering the attitude towards dealing with anti-Semitism, Gordon “submits” to assimilation while Bialik “resists” it, but however, both authors criticized fundamental Jewish character as the root of all their long-term misery that required drastic self-change to truly liberate them from anti-semitism.
Judah Leib Gordon wrote “Awake My People” in 1866, several decades before “The City of Slaughter” by Haim Nahman Bialik. As influentially optimistic as it was, it re-enforced the idea that being a Jew, retaining their core Jewish elements would never allow them into European society, and thus in a sense can be considered ironically an acceptance or a greater tolerance of anti-Semitism. This idea manifested to Jewish Enlightenment, also common known as the “Haskala”. In essence, the Haskala promoted the cultural assimilation of Jews that provided prosperity which otherwise would have been virtually impossible in their current state of Jewish identity.
“Be a man abroad and a Jew in your tent”, the intent of this quote was to advise Jewish people to become more optimistic and engaged with other Europeans, meanwhile concealing their characteristic “Jew” in secrecy; it was a necessary trade-off for Jewish emancipation. It also implied that the Jewish way of life itself intervened with their acceptance into land that not is their own. “Awake, My people!” challenged the Jewish people, stated they should sever from their isolation in European societies and integrate themselves, “Become an enlightened people, and speak their language”. In regards to Russian Jewry, practicing Judaism in the isolation while already a being minority group to the Russian natives only further alienates them, but by learning to speak the Russian language, they can mitigate it.
“Every man of understanding should try to gain knowledge; let others learn all manner of arts and crafts…”, this statement advised the Jewish people living in Russia should partake in all the same labor and occupations as the Russian, thus allowing them to effectively blend into the Russian people. The Haskala gave Jews a promising solution to their long term suffering. Gordon’s optimism to adopt Russian traditions by disregarding Jewish identity was however, argued with a different point of view of the Jewish condition, several decades later when anti-semitism still persisted despite the Haskala.
Haim Nahman Bialik’s “The City of Slaughter”, represented his pessimistic view on assimilation, advocating for Jews to start opposing it. He was opposed to it compared to Gordon, because it was not a real, permanent solution to anti-semitism, it only hid the target of anti-semitism which was the Jewish character itself. Written about four decades after “Awake, My People!” in 1903, it expressed his resentment towards the helpless nature of Jews against anti-Semitic violence; how they fail to defend themselves which led to their extended oppression in many parts of Europe.
“The City of Slaughter” painted a scenario where Jewish men were locked in cellars forced to watch as their women and children were raped, tortured, mutilated to death as Bialik described, “crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks, watching the sacred bodies struggling underneath”. “Crushed in their shame, they saw it all; they did not stir nor move; they did not pluck their eyes out; they beat not their brains against the wall!”, the message directed at the Jews themselves heavily implied the passiveness of Jews against anti-Semitic treatment. After four decades since the Haskala, and anti-semitism was still strongly present, so assimilation was clearly not the true answer. It was as if their indifferent nature has been accumulated since their exile from Israel, and no one else, but they can solve their own problem.
For example, in the section of the “The City of Slaughter” where it described how the survivors bear with their trauma by seeking priests called the Kohanim, “Tell me, O Rabbi, tell is my own wife permitted? The matter ends; and nothing more. And all is as it was before….”. What did the Jewish men expect from the priest? This demonstrated how in reality no one, not even priests or god for that matter can rescue them from their trapped situation. The main message was to reform Jewish identity itself; to strengthen the national character of the Jewish people instead of giving into assimilation. As for the poem itself, it became symbolic for the Jews leading to the formation of resistance groups called Zionist of which Bialik was a supporter. Compared to Gordon’s more optimistic poem, Bialik’s revealed a pathetic, but necessary and truthful statement about the condition of the Jewish people.
The characteristic state of being a Jew was criticized by both Gordon and Bialik in both poems as being the primary obstacle to Jewish Emancipation. In both poems, a call to reform the Jewish people was said to be mandatory if Jews were to liberate themselves from anti-semitism. Jews have the tendency to isolate themselves, fearful of engagement with foreigners because they want to hold onto their integral Jewish elements, and so neither author referred to the Russians or such as the problem. Gordon in particular, criticized their omission to seize opportunities for themselves by writing, “The land of Eden [Russia] now opens its gates to you. Her sons call you “brother”! How long will you dwell among them as guest, and why do you affront them?” referring to the Russians. “Awake, My People!” was directed primarily at the Eastern Jews who resided in Russia, but lived in isolated communities.
Similarly, “The City of Slaughter” also blamed the Jewish nature as the primary source of anti-semitism. It came to the point where the Jews became passive indifferent to anti-Semitic treatment, so both Gordon and Bialik claimed that Jewish people are themselves are obstacles to gaining equality amongst European society. “Awake, My People!” and “The City of Slaughter” were national messages about the necessity to reform the Jewish identity, which was stated by both authors to be necessary actions to eradicate anti-Semitism. And so, these two poems made profoundly effective contributions to reform the condition of the Jewish people. While both poems differed on assimilation, both criticized Jewish nature as the primary issue. Judah Leib Gordon’s “Awake, My People!” advocated for assimilation leading to the development of an initiative, the Haskala.
It promoted the idea that Jews should enlighten themselves in other European societies by engaging in the same practices and customs as their migrated home. This was a movement that seemed to promise a solution to anti-semitism for Jews living in Russia until about four decades later when Haim Nahman Bialik wrote “The City of Slaughter”. Bialik’s opposing view on assimilation was based on the concern that the Jewish people themselves are the cause of their suffering. Despite the antagonistic opinions, both poems attempted to reform the Jewish identity to achieve their methods of eliminating anti-semitism and are considered influential poems today that contribute to modern Jewish history.