Nietzsche in Yiddish
By Josh Price
Perhaps the best answer to the question of why Khayem Zhitlovski saw fit to translate Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra into Yiddish in 1919 is the quintessential Yiddish response: Nu, far vos nit? Why not? While this answer is, of course, reductive, I will ultimately return to this trope of “Why not” as in “Why not translate into Yiddish? Why not Nietzsche? Why not translate Nietzsche into Yiddish?” as a central tenet of Zhitlovski’s idiosyncratic ideology. But first, I will attempt to place Zhitlovski’s translation of Nietzsche within a Yiddishist theory of translation in general, and then examine the extent to which Zhitlovski saw any deeper affinities between Nietzsche’s project and the Yiddishist program which called for Yiddish to be a, if not the, national language of Jews in the early 20th century.
1 Zhitlovski’s Case for Translation in General
Khayem Zhitlovski (1865-1943) was a Russian ideologue who spent his entire life searching for yidishkayt amidst an increasingly atomized modern world. Zhitlovski drifted between such disparate movements as Russian populism, agrarian socialism, Zionism, and territorialism. Settling in America after the failed 1905 Russian revolution, Zhitlovski ultimately championed secular Yiddish culture as the key to a secure Jewish future. This conviction was manifested in his participation at the 1908 Tshernovits Conference, his advocacy for secular Yiddish schools in America, and his support for Birobidhzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast created by Stalin in 1934. Zhitlovski’s struggle to make Yiddish a recognized foundation for modern Jewish identity will be examined here first through his position regarding the act of translation itself.
Zhitlovksi’s 1910 essay “On the Worth of Translations” sheds some light on the impetus for his Azoy hot geredt zaratustra a decade later. Zhitlovski begins with the following question: “What should give me more joy – a good, truly artistic Yiddish translation of Goethe’s Faust, or the collected works of … insert Yiddish writer here?” Before providing his own answer, Zhitlovski first justifies his question with a diagnosis of the insularity of the Yiddish literary world. The literary critics’ confinement to their own daled amos (four cubits) is driven by two sentiments:
(1) A natural motherly love: “For the mother, every coherent word from her child is more profound than the entire wisdom of King Solomon, and she is inclined to find genius where the detached observer notices only the symptoms of an entirely ordinary development.”
(2) A reflexive, irrational response to the anti-Yiddish demagoguery of Zionist, Hebraist, and assimilationist critics. Adherents to each of these ideologies were often united in their dismissal of Yiddish as a dirty and impoverished half-language that at best had only instrumental value in educating the masses and offered no long-term basis for Jewish cultural development in the diaspora or in Palestine.
The result is a blind and misplaced enthusiasm for original works created in Yiddish, what Zhitlovski terms an “exited, nervous, and deluded” love for Yiddish literature whose literary worth is exclusively a function its being an original Yiddish creation.
Zhitlovski next details two opposing arguments offered in defense of original work in Yiddish (which I represent with Perets) and translation into Yiddish (which I represent with Goethe). The argument for Perets – deemed “nationalist” by Zhitlovski – claims that the richer individual national cultures are, the richer the “garden of general human culture.” And what constitutes this richness if not the unique cultural creations of the Yiddish people? While a Yiddish version of Goethe does nothing to enrich “human culture,” Perets both adds to the national treasure of Yiddish and resultantly to the richness and diversity of human culture at large. What matters, then, is not the shabes per se, but the fact that the shabes is “far zikh” – made for oneself.
The argument for Goethe over Perets claims that for the cultivation of high culture among the masses, the intelligentsia of the nation in question must transfer the “spiritual treasure of humanity” into a language accessible to the majority. In this “cosmopolitan argument,” the development of an original culture in Yiddish is not the goal. The goal is rather the propagation of a pre-existing human culture (this will be contemporary European culture for Zhitlovski) amongst the classes of the people of the nation. The value of any given work, then, is not derived from its originality (as in the case for Perets), but from its educational content, the efficacy with which the work assists in the elevation of mass culture to a comparable bildungs-madreyge (“cultural and educational level”) of other nations. This argument seeks to fashion each member of the Jewish nation into a member of a broader international cultural community. Yiddish, as part of this international community of languages, deserves to possess the same cultural resources available to all: “Everything that humanity created, it created for humanity, and we are a part of humanity.” Furthermore, the argument for Goethe sees this kind of cultural work – the appropriation of Faust into the stream of Yiddish – as more valuable for the Jewish people than the creation of original work in Yiddish: “Goethe’s Faust is our Faust, and if we lack it, it is of course better for us to channel all our efforts in order to receive it, rather than create products that cannot stand at the same height.” A Yiddish Faust legitimates Yiddish culture amidst a broader, progressive, human culture.
Regarding the choice between the self-made log cabin and the foreign-made marble palace, Zhitlovski situates himself between the two aforementioned arguments. Zhitlovski sees translation as the best way to accomplish the dual goals of the Yiddishist project: to prove to both Jews and other peoples that Yiddish can indeed express the richness of modern culture, and, in enriching the reservoir of modern Yiddish culture with the literary gems of European culture, to create the foundation for future original creation in Yiddish on par in originality with those very gems that had been translated.
Zhitlovski envisions for Yiddish culture a full embrace of modern European culture (the peak of human development) and more broadly envisions Jews’ harmonious existence with the rest of humanity. This harmony and embrace are only possible when the Jewish nation “take[s] into itself all of humanity’s treasures, the entire enormous wealth, which was created in it from Homer on until today.” In Zhitlovski’s schema, the development of Yiddish culture reaches its full potential when Yiddish culture is in constant contact with European culture, both appropriating its forms and (eventually) adding its own forms to the international “garden.” In order for this symbiosis to happen, Yiddish culture must first possess what European culture already possesses. Translation is the precondition for this ascent and final partnership.
2 Methodologies of Yiddish(ist) Translation
If translation is indeed the first step to a new symbiosis between Yiddish and European culture, how exactly does it work? In the afterword to his translation of Zarathustra, Zhitlovski offers a few brief notes on the nature of translation into Yiddish. Just as Zhitlovski found himself somewhere between the nationalist and cosmopolitan arguments for Perets and Goethe, he locates his idea of translation somewhere between two philosophies of what a translation should be:
(1) A work should be translated as if the author were writing in the language of those reading the translation.
(2) “Not only the idiosyncratic style but the entire non-Jewish language atmosphere of the work should be brought before the eyes of the Jewish reader.”
The first approach seems consistent with Zhitlovski’s goal of educating the masses through translation, but it also threatens to completely swallow up the original work in the target language, such that nothing from Goethe, say, remains in Yiddish. The second approach exposes the new audience to the beauty of a foreign language (and thus somehow enriches their cultural understanding) but can also obfuscate the work’s content.
Zhitlovski’s resolution is in perfect accord with the symbiotic picture of before. A basic commitment to the first principle – “carrying over into Yiddish the entire language-treasure of the original” – ensures the masses will benefit from the particular literary merits of the work. But a simultaneous attempt to “see that the translation also makes the same linguistic impression that the original had made upon the non-Jewish readership” will imbue the masses with a sense of the general value of European culture. And both of these translation methods can create the potential for the creation of original works in Yiddish that synthesize internal values (“the heymish”) with the values of those cultures from which the translations emerge.
In the case of translating Nietzsche into Yiddish, Zhitlovski admits that this methodology is imperfect. The two primary difficulties Zhitlovski sees in translating Zarathustra are (1) capturing the “old oriental, almost biblical style” and the “splendid linguistic richness” and (2) the proximity between German and Yiddish. Nevertheless, Zhitlovski’s act of translation remains a concrete example, however imperfect, of the ideal of Yiddish(ist) translation.
3 The Cooking-Out: Zhitlovski’s critique of Nietzsche
As of now, the question of “Why translate?” seems to have been answered. But the question of “Why Nietzsche?” remains. Accounting for Zhitlovski’s attraction to Nietzsche’s philosophy requires a look beyond his translation, namely to his 1920 monograph, entitled Friedrich Nietzsche and His Philosophical Development. Perhaps the best summary of Zhitlovski’s ambivalent attitude towards Nietzsche is the following, which appears at the end of this intellectual biography:
Nietzsche’s teachings are in my eyes, a beautiful, healthy philosophical tree, which carries a lot of beautiful, healthy, pleasing fruit. But one shouldn’t eat these fruits raw, since a bitter poison lies in them that should first be cooked out. It’s possible that had the growth of this tree not been interrupted due to the tragedy of his life – Nietzsche lost his understanding at the very height of his golden creativity – the bitter taste would, with time, disappear from his fruits. But now [the poison] remains in them and our critical remarks had no other goal, than merely to warn his reader about this and to show briefly, how [the poison] should be cooked out.
Zhitlovski’s critique of Nietzsche suggests that there is a basic agreement between Nietzsche’s vision of self-overcoming and the Jewish-socialist program of creating naye mentshn (“new humans”) to meet the challenge of modernity. How does Zhitlovski account for Nietzsche’s clearly antisocialist tendencies? He argues that Nietzsche misinterprets socialism, and as a result of this myopic misreading, fails to appreciate either socialism’s diagnosis of modern ills or the compatibility of its bold normative program with Nietzsche’s own.
Zhitlovski posits that Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the physical and biological degeneration of the higher classes of society is overly psychological in nature. Zhitlovski argues that in addition to a “pure biological and psycho-physical process,” this degeneration is a product of the division of labor into the physical and spiritual. This historical force, which Nietzsche overlooks but is a cornerstone of socialist theory, has created economic conditions in which those engaged in physical labor have no time for spiritual development, and those engaged in spiritual labor have no desire for physical development. The result has been “degenerate bodies” among the higher classes and a “dulled spirit” among the lower classes. Zhitlovski concludes that in order to give a thorough picture of why the elite class in society is weak (and ultimately in order to construct a program to relieve the ills that produced such weakness), Nietzsche must turn to the socialist account of the division between the rulers and the ruled, the workers and the idle. This supplementary account is just as necessary as Nietzsche’s own to explain the current fragments of men Nietzsche encounters and his lamentations over the rarity of true genius in the modern age.
Nietzsche also overlooks the normative side of socialism. Zhitlovski maintains that in reducing socialism to a crude project of forced economic equality and pity for the masses, Nietzsche misses the fundamental convergence between his own longing for the perfection of human condition and the articulation of a similar longing within socialism. Nietzsche, for instance reads the traditional socialist trope “Life and only life shapes man.” as a kind of denial of human ideals in the face of historical development. Nietzsche further sees in socialism a complete avoidance of the question of the individual and the process by which “individual human conscience” is elevated. In inverting this trope by claiming that “Life does not make the man, but man makes the life,” Nietzsche wages war with an enemy that is actually more of an ally. In truth, Zhitlovski holds, socialism has at its core a normative program very similar to Zarathustra’s renunciation of the dirty struggles of money, politics, and war, as well as his belief in the perfection of the human condition. Zhitlovski even goes so far as to say that if anyone approximates Nietzsche’s vision of the ubermensch, it is the hero of the socialist revolutionary struggle, and that socialism envisions an entire society of ubermenschen, of naye mentshn.
Zhitlovski’s “cooking out” may be a misreading in and of itself, or the result of a knee-jerk response to defend socialism from Nietzsche’s pointed critiques. The durability of Zhitlovski’s critique, however, is not at stake in the question of “Why Nietzsche?” Rather, Zhitlovski’s remarkable chutzpah in “cooking out” Nietzsche’s poisonous fruits is his attempt to demonstrate the capacity of the Yiddish language to engage with the products of modern European culture. The mere fact that Zhitlovski writes his critique in Yiddish is sufficient proof, for Zhitlovski at least, that Yiddish is up to the challenge. And this is one of the bedrock principles of Yiddishism – that modern Yiddish, far from the jargon of goles (Diaspora) parochialism, can rise to new levels of scholarship and intellectual rigor and is thus worthy of inclusion in the international network of languages of cultures.
It is tempting to piece together Zhitlovski’s two literary projects regarding Nietzsche – the translation of Zarathustra and his subsequent monograph – as paradigms of the theoretical cultural symbiosis Zhitlovksi imagined. Once again, this symbiosis is the mechanism for the balance between:
(1) educating progressive, cultured Jewish masses who, after having absorbed the translations of the great European literary treasures, are the beneficiaries of general European culture, and
(2) establishing new Jewish intelligentsia whose post-translation cultural products are tokens of original, creative, and self-directed Jewish national development.
I hesitate to go this far, however. While Zhitlovski’s translation clearly strives to meet the first objective, the monograph falls short of the kind of creativity Zhitlovski envisioned in the second objective. First, Zhitlovski’s presumption that he can reconcile Nietzsche with socialism within a dozen pages is rather quixotic. Zhitlovski’s “cooking-out” is crude and fails to engage with Nietzsche on a deep level. Second, there is nothing particularly Jewish about Zhitlovski’s critique other than that it is written in a Jewish language. This aspect alone is insufficient to establish the kind of deep cultural fusion that Zhitlovski envisioned. This failure to meet his own standard implies nothing, however, about the worth of his attempt to do so. The final case for Nietzsche in Yiddish begins where we began: Why not?
4 The Endurance of “Why Not?”
After all of his musing, Zhitlovski turns to the perennial good-for-the-Jews-bad-for-the-Jews dialectic. In asking whether Nietzsche is in fact for us or against us, Zhitlovski is reminded of Joshua 5:13:
Once, when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him, drawn sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and asked him, “Are you one of us or of our enemies?”
Zhitlovski cannot answer the question directly other than to suggest that Nietzsche’s teachings deserve our attention because of the relationship between the Jewish historical predicament and Nietzsche’s deeply religious and moral longing for transcendence and overcoming: “For everything is holy which struggles to overcome itself and give itself up completely for an ideal which is tied to eternality. And it’s a rare case when a human soul is so saturated with longing for the ‘endless’ and ‘eternal’ than Nietzsche’s.” In this sense, it is the fundamental synchrony between Nietzsche’s view of the future and the Jewish socialist notion of progress that merits our attention, study, and engagement, the result of which has been the translation and the monograph analyzed here.
But in another sense, Zhitlovski’s comments that “the ground upon which [Nietzsche] stands is holy” and that we should remove the shoes from our feet just as Joshua does (Joshua 5:15) “when we step inside [Nietzsche’s] temple” suggest a slightly different motivation for translation and study of Nietzsche, something akin to the “Why Not?” with which this essay started. That is, Nietzsche’s “ground” and “temple” are the Western philosophical tradition. Nietzsche is worthy of study because Nietzsche’s works are a product of modern European culture. And Yiddish had reached a point in its development when a symbiosis with this modern culture could occur.
Nietzsche is as good of a place as any to start this massive process of translation – in other words, why not Nietzsche? In his afterword to Zarathustra, Zhitlovski notes that the work is simply great literature and, as a representative of the “modern radical persuasion,” “should not be lacking in any modern literature.” One axiom of Yiddishist theory was that Yiddish literature was on its way to establishing itself, if it had not already, as commensurate with other European literatures. It sees to follow that Yiddish, as a burgeoning modern literature, ought to include within its canon Nietzsche, “the poet-philosopher” who, just as Zhitlovski, endeavored to articulate a new sense of identity – yidishkayt in Zhitlovskian terms – in an age where the traditional foundations of belief and human excellence were no longer.
 “Vegn dem vert fun iberzetsungen.” In Ale verk fun doktor Khayem zhitlovski, band 3 (New York: YKUF Farlag, 1951) 195-208. Originally published as a foreword to a Yiddish translation of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. All translations are mine.
 “A por verter vegn der iberzetsung.” In Azoy hot geredt zaratustra: a bukh far alemen un keynem nit (New York: Jewish Book Agency, 1919) I–V.
 Fridrikh nitshe un zayn filosofisher antviklungs-gang (New York: Jewish Book Agency, 1920).
 New JPS translation.