In 1931, the Hebrew-language schools of the Lithuanian Jewish community, known as the Tarbut schools, applied (not for the first time) for increased support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York. Tarbut’s executive committee, seeking to impress upon the Joint the gravity of the situation, turned not to a distinguished philanthropist or politician, but to a Hebrew poet: Chaim Nachman Bialik.
The Depression had crossed the Atlantic to Europe, and many Jews wrote to America that year for money. But this letter, which was discovered in the archives of the Joint last month, was remarkable in several respects. First was the eminence of its author, whose long poem “In the City of Slaughter,” written on the occasion of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, had transmuted calamity into a shofar blast for self-determination. And while Bialik is not often remembered as an activist, his further peregrinations between Odessa, Berlin, New York and Tel Aviv, and his leading role among Hebrew writers, were often devoted to the active support of Hebrew-language institutions.
Bialik’s letter, sent from the spa of Carlsbad where he was recuperating from an illness, came on the heels of his visit to the Tarbut schools in Lithuania, the most important of the Lithuanian Jewish community (which also supported Yiddish-language and religious schools). Shortly after this visit, and before Bialik sent his own letter, Tarbut officials fired off several typewritten pages to the Joint, informing them in rickety English of “the satisfaction and pleasure the greatest poet and Jew of our age, Mr. Bialik, has got on his visit, getting well-acquainted with our work and school and penetrating with his keen look to the very heart of them.”
Bialik’s letter is also remarkable for its language. Even in interwar Europe, at the height of an international, multilingual Jewish culture, Hebrew was a rarity in transatlantic correspondence among Jews, and had to be translated for the benefit of the Joint. But this Hebrew was not the flowery ivrit shel shabbat or highbrow Hebrew of his contemporaries, who peppered their prose with biblical quotes. His was a supple if formal style, conveying both the urgency of the moment and the repercussions of the Joint’s decision for future generations. Indeed, the reader of Bialik’s poetry knows exactly what is meant when he says of Lithuanian Jewish youth that they “have hope to find their way in life and at the same time remain faithful to their people.” In poem after
anguished poem, Bialik depicts himself as a yeshiva student unable to tear himself away from the traditions he cannot give himself over to completely, as an individual spirit, unmoved by mass assimilation, who finds national allegiance necessary although unsatisfactory.
To understand the dire need of the Tarbut schools, and the inability of the Joint to provide relief, one need only browse the archives of the aid agency in New York. In August 1929, mere weeks before Black Friday, the Tarbut wrote a letter to the Joint listing the “three destructions” with which it had been visited during the previous 15 years: the world war and the expulsion of Lithuanian Jews; German and Russian inflation, and the famine of 1928-29. As if this were not enough, the Lithuanian government itself, reawakened to nationalist (and in large measure antisemitic) fervor upon its post-war independence, had dissolved the Jewish communal structure on the national and local level. In short, the Jews of Lithuania were both poorer and less communally organized than their brethren in Poland, who were also beseeching the Joint for more funding.
In the midst of this renewed nationalism, the Lithuanian government reduced the subsidies available for Jewish schools. When the number of Tarbut students fell accordingly (by nearly a quarter in only five years), a number of schools were closed, thus sending the schools into a downward spiral from which the executive committee feared it would not emerge. Despite its manifold problems, as of 1927 the Tarbut network encompassed 106 schools for more than 9,000 children (about three-quarters of Jewish school-age children in Lithuania), from kindergarten to high schools, plus a teacher’s seminar, evening classes for adults and several dozen libraries. The Tarbut’s own publications referred to it, not without justification, as the vanguard of the “revival of Hebrew in Lithuania” and of the “rebirth of Hebrew culture in Europe.” Even so, the Tarbut was only one of a number of autonomous Jewish school systems across Eastern Europe, including Yiddish-language, Orthodox, Polish and Russian schools.
Before Bialik’s visit, the Tarbut executive committee had sent frequent letters to the Joint during the late 1920s and early 1930s, and had already asked various prominent figures to intervene on Tarbut’s behalf with Cyrus Adler, chair of the Joint’s Cultural Committee. But Adler, the Arkansas-born founder of many important American Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Publication Society and the United Synagogue of America, could only respond apologetically to the multiple pleadings of the Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow. Even the mellifluous English of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the head of the Zionist Revisionist movement, did not move the Joint to increase its contributions.
In fact, the Joint was itself short of funds. The Joint’s income had fallen from more than $4.5 million in 1927 to $741,706 in 1931, and plummeted to $385,226 in 1932. Adler told one correspondent privately, “The Tarbut in Lithuania has got its even share.… It is true, of course, that we had to reduce the appropriations, but you know Palestine is reduced, Poland is reduced and everything else.” But the Lithuanian Tarbut could not cease its requests. A 1930 telegram read: “IN THE NAME OF ALL HOLY WE IMPLORE FOR CERTAIN SUM BY CABLE TO SAVE OUR SCHOOLS PLIGHT AWFUL.”
And Bialik’s letter? The Joint’s response undoubtedly failed to satisfy the Tarbut. “I want you to believe,” Adler wrote, “that when we do little it is not for lack of desire, but for lack of ability. Our own Jewish educational institutions in America are suffering greatly — some actually closed down and some barely subsisting.”
The year 1933, in the midst of the Depression, saw a nearly four-fold rise in the Joint’s income, to $1,151,728: The generosity of the American Jewish community was quickened, perhaps too little and too late, by a new danger in Europe. For reasons unrelated to their poverty, the 1930s would be the last full decade of the Jewish school systems of Eastern Europe, including the Tarbut schools of Lithuania. In a few years their schools, parents, teachers and students would be no more.
Though written more than 70 years ago, Bialik’s letter is phrased in terms quite familiar to today’s Joint. “I find myself amazed at its contents,” said Eugene Ribakoff, the Joint’s president, in an interview with the Forward. “It is as actual as if it was written today.” The Joint, as the Jewish’s world’s rescue agency, must today perform the same budgetary triage as it struggles to cope with the needs of 60 countries. But while “the blanket of funding is shorter than the needs,” notes Ribakoff, Bialik, if he were alive today, might be pleased with the revitalization of Jewish life in Russia and Ukraine: 182 Jewish community centers, 27 Hillel centers, 184 Jewish libraries and more than 300 formal and informal Jewish studies programs are now funded there by the Joint. Perhaps these institutions might yet fulfill Bialik’s hope of a Jewish generation “finding their own way in life” yet “faithful to their people.”