Everyone active in the world of Yiddish culture has to have shoulders broad enough to carry the weight of history, but Itche Goldberg, who died December 27 at age 102, had the broadest shoulders of all.
As editor of the journal Yiddishe Kultur, Goldberg found the energy, even in his 80s and 90s, to maintain what he could of the lost world of Eastern Europe. Almost single-handedly, he kept America’s Yiddish culture afloat for the past 25 years.
While some half his age became embittered by the weak state of Yiddish today, Goldberg, never despairing, focused on practical solutions. Yiddishists of all stripes admired his ageless dedication.
Itche Goldberg was born in Apt, Poland, in 1904. He grew up in Warsaw and studied there in a modern secular Zionist school and a Jewish teachers’ seminary. He immigrated to Canada in 1920 and began teaching at socialist and leftist Zionist Yiddish schools in Toronto in 1925.
In 1932 he settled in New York. Following the radicalization of many of the Yiddish schools in the late 1920s, he became active during the 1930s in the newly organized Jewish People‘s Fraternal Order (the Ordn), which was aligned with the Soviet Union and the communists. Eventually he would become a central pillar in all the cultural branches of the Ordn, especially in their shuln, a national network of afternoon elementary schools and high schools.
When the politics of his earlier years no longer found an audience, Goldberg became a spokesman for the treasures to be discovered in Yiddish literature. Following in the footsteps of his models, Yiddish writers and thinkers I.L. Peretz and Chaim Zhitlovsky, he argued that the profound humanistic values of a secular Yiddish culture as reflected in this literature had yet to be fully appreciated.
As a teacher and writer he inspired thousands of students. He accomplished much: He edited such journals as Proletarishe dertsiung (Proletarian Education), and Yungvarg (Youth); wrote popular leftist Yiddish textbooks for schools, and, finally, wrote a major volume on Yiddish dramaturgy and two volumes of essays, the second of which was just published last year.
Now that he is gone, we will surely never again meet someone who attended Peretz’s funeral in Warsaw in 1915, as Goldberg did, or who met Ludwig Zamenhof, founder of Esperanto, and, more importantly, who, against all odds, was so central to building a Yiddish culture in America.