Thursday, April 7, 2016

Daniel Persky: Slave to the Hebrew Language. The Forgotten Men: American Hebreaism, Part Two.

Daniel Persky as portrayed by Saul Raskin
             Memorializing a teacher and a gadfly is a difficult thing to do when the audience you are speaking to never knew the person. For many years Daniel Persky was just a gold-stamped name on the spine of a few slow selling Hebrew books. He only came alive to me in an obituary, a random clipping that I found in another book one day The author was loving but light-hearted. The Persky he knew was a devoted teacher at the Herzliah Hebrew Teachers' College and a bit of an oddball. Persky, he wrote, never bothered to own more than one suit at a time. Persky selected his attire from the finest goods that thrift stores provided. One day the white batting was streaming out of the shoulder pad of one of these fine suits. His eager students apprised him of this sartorial flaw. Persky calmly dipped his fountain pen in ink and blotted the contrast away before preceding on with his lesson. This is the Persky that for many years I thought I knew. .
         Luckily many different voices once rose to speak Persky's deeds. Dwight MacDonald profiled Persky in greater depth for the New Yorker in 1959. MacDonald wrote, "He buys good suits, but after that they're on their own. 'I can't be emptying my pockets all the time just to get a suit pressed,' he [Persky] says." (MacDonald, New Yorker, Nov. 28, 1959, p. 72.) MacDonald saw in Persky a man with little concern for the externals. His challenge was to understand how Persky could flourish outside of any version of a normal life.
         MacDonald, neither Jewish nor a speaker of Hebrew nor even Yiddish, was a left-wing writer and critic. He was the editor of the Partisan Review from 1937 to 1943, a position that put him at the center of New York Jewish intellectual life. By the time he wrote his profile of Persky he must have known him for some time. MacDonald appears to have first come in contact with Persky in Persky's own apartment. Persky serially sublet the majority of his apartment to various leftish tenants. MacDonald was visiting his friends Edith and Noah Greenberg when Persky wandered into one of the Greenbergs lively parties to pose a question relevant to his work on a large Hebrew-English dictionary. What possessed MacDonald to pitch (successfully) Persky as a good profile subject is unknown. Nevertheless, MacDonald's portrayal of Persky was still very much in the mind of many of those who wrote about Persky at the time of and after his death. Eisig Silberschlag even footnotes MacDonald in his entry on Persky for the Encyclopedia Judaica.
           In 1906, at age nineteen, Persky arrived in the US. He immediately sought work as a teacher of Hebrew. He was slowly able to accumulate private students. Some of their parents stepped up to offer financial support to his Hebraist organizing and publishing efforts. Bernard Isaacs, a longtime friend of Persky, was able to see Persky's idiosyncrasies even as he saw past them to appreciate his accomplishments.
           Isaacs founded the United Hebrew Schools of Detroit, Michigan. This was the first community wide entrenchment of the Ivrit be-Ivrit approach in America. The Detroit schools were for both girls and boys which was still a new thing. MacDonald mentions Eliezer Ben Yehuda's Jerusalem school, founded in 1891, where girls were educated. The local Orthodox community in Jerusalem considered his efforts borderline demonic. (MacDonald, 1959, P. 60-61). The first of the Bais Yaakov schools for Orthodox girls opened in Krakow in 1917 only two years before Isaac's United Hebrew Schools opened in Detroit. Isaacs founded the United Hebrew Schools two years before Moshe Feinstein established the Herzliah Hebrew Teachers' College. Persky was the first teacher that Feinstein hired. Persky had long since begun teaching Hebrew language to girls and he continued to do so at Herzlia.
           Isaacs gives a description of Persky's activities in a colloquy that I am guessing could be dated from 1945 or possibly 1961 (as it refers to Persky's 40th anniversary of "service to the Hebrew language and literature.") He described two essential activities that Persky performed outside of his teaching responsibilities. Firstly, "When it comes to his love and devotion to Hebrew authors, Persky knows no discrimination. Both the veteran and newcomer in literature are equally dear to him. He loves the budding author, he hovers over him and commands him to write, like the legendary angel who hovers over the sprouting plant and commands it to grow." (Sefer B. Issacs, P. 64). Isaacs describes Persky as a miniature paper bridge, a smaller version of a piece of architecture of the messianic times, a paper bridge that would carry the Jewish people back to the land of Israel from exile. But Persky's bridge carried two way traffic, "A veritable stream of books flows from his well-stocked room to Israel and a similar stream flows back from Israel to Persky."(Sefer B. Isaacs, P. 65).  "Persky is one of the biggest non-corporate customers of the Cooper Union post office."  (MacDonald, 1959, P. 75).
           MacDonald's picture of Persky's cultural transfer effort focused as much on the physical details - drawers full of used string and unkempt mounds of papers and books - as it did on the success of the mission for which these were only the means. Persky's parents ran a Kosher butcher shop and his technique in book shipping was probably derived from that experience. To my knowledge, the butcher paper and twine shipping technique is still in use at Y.L. Peretz Farlag in Tel Aviv, and despite my amusement seeing the Peretz Farlagers in action I am able to see past that and remember how vital their string-tied bundles are to today's Yiddishist enterprise. MacDonald failed to see a metaphor for sustenance that seems clear to me.
           Persky spent the years 1927-1933 traveling in Mandate Palestine and Eastern and Central Europe. His initial destination was the Fifteenth Zionist Congress in Basel. He traveled from town to town offering free lectures on Hebrew language and literature. Somehow he got by with no real source of income. This way of living never entirely ended for Persky even long after he had come in off the road. He saw some very difficult things in Europe and only avoided violent attack by a group of Nazi's because he happened to be in the bathroom when they attacked the restaurant he was in. He was also attacked by some Jews who mistook him for a Communist organizer. It seems possible that Persky's return to the US was motivated by a sense that America was the only physically safe place for his love of Hebrew though the entry on Persky in the Leksikon Ha-Sifrut Ha-Ivrit Ha-Hadashah suggests otherwise. Perhaps Persky really did return to the US because he felt that American Hebraism was doomed without him. But, things had changed in his absence. Persky's obsessive focus on Hebrew language and literature was no longer in sync with Jewish society even to the extent that it had been between the years 1910 and 1925.Persky was always at the center of American Hebraism. Sadly, after the 1920s the movement itself drifted farther and farther from the center of American life.
           There were quite a few Hebrew language newspapers and periodicals in the US starting in the 1880s. They were edited and produced by the Maskilim who arrived from Eastern Europe in the early part of the great Jewish migration. These publications, varying widely in their merit, flickered into print briefly and were swiftly snuffed out. With the rise of Chaim Bialik and then Yosef Chaim Brenner the younger generation of immigrants, among them Persky and nearly all of the group that I refer to as the American Hebraists, there was a desire to create a literature that reflected the new current that could be found in Ha-Shiloah and other European Hebrew periodicals.
          Along with Reuben Brainin, Persky was active in the Ahiever group. This group, formed in 1910, was involved with Silkiner's publication of Mul ohel Tumura: shiray po'ema (Before Timmura's Tent) and the Brainin edited anthology, Senunit: ḳovets-shirim. (Senunit is one of the Hebrew words for the bird name swallow.) Persky suggested the title for a new periodical that would carry on that work, "Ha-Toren," or "The Mast." He chose the name, "As a sign that our Hebrew ship sails here from beyond the sea." (Mintz, Alan, edited by. Hebrew in America: Perspectives and Prospects, Detroit, 1993, P. 74-75). "Ha-Toren" would become the main American Hebraist journal in the US in the critical period when a successful American Hebraist future seemed genuinely possible. It was the first long running Hebrew language periodical and ran until 1925. Only "Ha-Doar," which Persky later edited and wrote for lasted longer.
Image result for ha-toren
           Persky was one of the initial editors of "Ha-Toren," in 1913-1914. At that time it was a monthly. In 1915 "Ha-Toren," was reorganized for the first time and Y.D. Berkowitz became the editor. Under his editorship it became a weekly. Berkovitz was part of a cadre of European Hebraists and Zionists who arrived in the US fleeing from the chaos of the First World War. Berkowitz, of course, was Sholom Aleichem's son-in-law. Also arriving in that immigration with him were Shemarya Levin (and Mintz lists) "David Ben-Gurion, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, Eleizer Ben-Yehuda, Meyer Berlin (Bar-Ilan) and Judah L. Fischman (Maimon,)" (Mintz, 1993, P. 35) as some of the others in the emigre group. At that time the Zionist project in Ottoman Palestine was at a low ebb and it was unclear if Herzl or Ahad Ha'am would prevail in the conflict over the proper direction of Zionism. Persky was less involved in the production of "Ha-Toren," under Berkowitz. With the end of hostilities and the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration that cadre dissipated and leadership of the journal fell to Reuben Brainin. Brainin was at the time a Hebraist though in later years he transformed into a Yiddishist Territorialist and proselytizer for the Soviet Yiddish state in Birobidzhan. Brainin was unable to maintain the journal in the face of rising expenses and falling subscription. Persky was certainly very active in the distribution of the journal.
          The most important contribution that Persky made to "Ha-Toren" after his initial editorial stint was a letter by Persky that appeared in the March-April 1915 issue. Mintz discusses this letter in his contribution to Hebrew in America, "A Sanctuary in the Wilderness: The Beginnings of the Hebrew Movement in America in Hatoren." Persky wrote about his identity as a Hebraist. He states flat-out his alienation from traditional faith and plays at being a sort of simple soul. While Persky may have been a simple soul in his emotional life his dedication to his cause was already exceptional. Mintz explains that for Persky (and I quote here from Mintz at length in hope again for forgiveness for my presumptuousness), "...the struggles of belief belong to an earlier era. But yet the Torah and the commandments were the 'portable sanctuary' that Israel had brought with them into exile and that furnished them with a culture of daily holiness, a culture that was tangible, material, and deeply textured. Denied recourse to this culture by the failure of faith - a condition over which one can have no control - a Jew can make do with abstract talk about the ideals of Judaism (yahadut avirit = luft yiddishkeit), that is, tell the story without performing the practice, or a Jew can turn to the one element of the tradition that has not been invalidated by apostasy: the Hebrew language. The emphasis is on language as a concrete experience in the here and now, an ambient fluid of everyday life. Like the commandments, then, Hebrew enacts the paradox of the holy within the everyday. As the only salvageable component of the tradition, Hebrew becomes invested with all the sanctity and ultimate importance that inhered in the total system of which it was once a part. The Hebrew movement, Persky declares, is 'my Ohel Moed to which I repair to become sanctified and re-purified; it is the synagogue in which I pray.'" (Mintz, 1993, P. 42-43).
          Persky was not an enemy of religious faith. He could take pleasure among those who celebrated the joys of faith. MacDonald quotes Persky to good effect on this: "I had no need to lunch on Simhath Torah. The reason is a simple one. I was treated in every synagogue to goblets of liquor followed by a dessert of cookies and sponge cake. Some treated me to a bit of herring - until I had more than my fill....And if I did meet up with one or two victims of drink, what did they talk and sing about? These drunken Jews, who poured down their throats a dozen portions of hundred-proof stuff, opened their mouths and sang, 'Praises to the Holy One, Blessed by He of the Election of Israel!'" (MacDonald, New Yorker, P. 102). As long as Persky was among Hebrew speakers he was happy.
         With the specific land of Israel potentially optional and religious faith off the table the purpose of American Hebraism was difficult to explain. A few other writers in "Ha-Toren," attempted to explain the mission of the Hebraists in America. Mintz mentions the contributions of Moshe Halevi and Kalman Whiteman to the definitional cause. (Mintz, 1993, P. 52). The approaches of Halevi and Whiteman leaned heavily on a negative definition of American Hebraism. They proposed Hebraism as an antidote to a venality of the crude Yiddishist crowd and the larger crude and anti-spiritual American Nation as a whole. While this logic offered some appeal to Persky it was a logic that would serve the Hebraists poorly in the period after 1920. The Jewish historian M.Z. Frank sub-titled his obituary of Persky, "Hebrew Language Was His Wife." (Frank, M.Z., The National and Jewish post and Opinion, Friday, June 1, 1962). [Mintz has an extended discussion of an erotic emotion and expression particularly in his chapter on Abraham Regelson's Ḥaḳuḳot otiyotayikh: shirim in Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry.] Love offered a more potent sustenance than did angry disdain.
          Persky's letter offered a potential way of being that the American Hebraists could live for rather than against. For some it provided a model for a lifetime (Ephraim Lisitsky, Gabriel Preil and Eisig Silberschlag, for instance). For others the declaration of the state of Israel collapsed that possibility (Israel Efros, Simon Halkin and Abraham Regelson). In his later years Persky may have finally let the disappointment of the decline of the American Hebreaist's project get to him. He was always capable of a snarky remark. However, even from within his "mikdash me'at," the emotional aspect of Whiteman and Halevi's theories began to creep into in his later writings. (Waxman, Meyer, A History of Jewish Literature, Volume IV, Part Two, New York, 1960 [Second Edition], P. 1081).
          Image result for daniel persky hebrew  Persky was probably more important for his teaching, speaking, editing, advocacy and dissemination of literature than for his own literary contributions. His presence was seemingly everywhere and his column for "Ha-Doar," was sometimes a venue for Hebraist gossip. MacDonald quotes a variety of unnamed colleagues: "He is a fanatic, but a sweet-natured one. Everyone is indulgent toward him, and yet everyone respects him." "He is a kibitzer. At Meetings he stands around and tells everyone else how to do things." "...there is only one Daniel Persky. Un type as the French say,..." and "Persky is boring in a very interesting way." (MacDonald, 1959, P. 84-85).
          Persky's specialty as a writer was the feuilleton. The form was originally a French form, a light essay. It was very popular in Yiddish and early Modern Hebrew literature. Persky was a great practitioner of the form. Meyer Waxman described his work in that area:"The range of his theme is wide, a daily event, a date in the Jewish calendar, the appearance of a book, the celebration of a writer's jubilee or his demise, impressions of travels, and numerous other episodes. The humor is wholesome and much of it consists in puns and manipulations of the language. ... There is little depth in the thoughtful essays, but we meet frequently with a brilliant reflection that makes us pause. Of interest is also the numerous anecdotes relating to the life and activities of many Hebrew writers met by Persky ... he has preserves bits of conversation and bon mots of his chosen heroes." (Waxman, Volume IV, Part Two, P. 1081-1082).
           Among the collections of feuilletons are:

     Persky, Daniel. Li-khevod ha-regel: mo'ade Yisra'el bi-kedushatam uve-simhatam. New York, 1946. Octavo, black cloth with gold lettering against red panels with minor soiling at the base of the spine, 328 pp. Hardbound. Very Good. Text is in Hebrew. (48556)      $30.00

Persky, Daniel. Ivri anokhi (On Hebrew Language, Literature and Culture). Kitve Daniel Persky Kerakh Rishon. New York, 1947. Octavo, brown cloth with gold lettering, 315 pp., index. Hardbound. Very Good. Text is in Hebrew. (52254)      $25.00

  Persky, Daniel. Mat'amim le-hag: reshimot u-feletonim, bedihot ve-hidudim le-kol mo'ede ha-shanah. New York, Pardes , 1939. Octavo, green cloth with gold lettering, 256 pp. Hardbound. Very Good. Text is in Hebrew. (10488)      $25.00
  Persky, Daniel. Zemanim Tovim. New York, Hotzaat "Pardes", 1944. Octavo, pinkish cloth with black lettering, 272 pp. Soiling to the rear board. Hardbound. Good. Text is in Hebrew. Inscribed by the author on the title page. (11281)      $25.00

  Persky, Daniel. Le-Elef Yedidim. New York, Vaad Ha-Yuval, 1935. Octavo, tan cloth spine green cloth covered boards with blue lettering, 96 pp. With a portrait of the author by Saul Raskin. Hardbound. Very Good. Text is in Hebrew. (32262)       $25.00
                Persky was the house linguist for Camp Massad one of several Hebreaist summer camps that tried to advance the Ivrit be-Ivrit agenda. Summer camp took the children out of their English language environments and immersed them in Hebrew for weeks at a time. I don't know how many years Persky attended the camp, but for a certain number of years he was on hand to provide new words to fill out the lexicon needed for camp life. He created a dictionary for the Camp.

  Persky, Daniel, edited by. The Massad English-Hebrew Dictionary: A Classified Listing of Everyday Words, Cross Indexed/ Milon Shimishi Angli-Ivri le-fi Ha-Inyanim veha-miktso'ot. New York, Camp Massad, 1947. 16mo, brown cloth with gold lettering, xxii, 271 pp. Hardbound. Very Good. In Hebrew and English. Compiled by Shlomo Shulsinger and Hillel Rudavsky. Meant for use at an American Hebrew speaking summer camp. (34206)  $20.00
             The Massad Dictionary was not organized in ABC order. Rather it was organized by subject so that the campers could familiarize themselves with all the vocabulary related to a specific activity.
             Persky was always involved in the children's supplement of "Ha-Doar," where he was the resident vocalizer. He did publish some material for children such as below.

  Persky, Daniel. Tsehok me-Erets Yisrael. Kitve Daniel Persky: Kerakh Sheni/ Israel Laughs. New York, 1950/1. Octavo, grey cloth with gold lettering and illustration in green, 267 pp. Hardbound. Very Good. Text is in Hebrew. (55021)      $25.00
         Persky was not the most aggressive practitioner of "Amerikaniyut," but he did apparently have at least a minor moment of patriotism when he translated the US Constitution into Hebrew.

   Persky, Daniel, translated into Hebrew by. Hukat Artsot ha-Berit shel Amerikah/ The Constitution of the United States of America. New York, Ha-Histadrut ha-Ivrit ba-Amerikah, 1928. Octavo, stapled paper covers, 14 pp.  Softbound. Very Good. Text is in Hebrew. (78230)      $18.00
             Nowadays when the "Mikdash Me'at" for most people is an iphone or a tablet it comforts me to remember a man who loved words and good company more than data and social media. Daniel Persky offered an individual model for engagement with Jewish culture (whether one is religious or not) that still has something to say to today's American Jews and perhaps even to today's Israelis though few if any of them still are ready to listen.


Brown, Michael Gary. "All, All Alone: The Hebrew Press in America from 1914-1924," in American Jewish Historical Quarterly, Volume LIX, December, 1969, Number 2. Hebrew and Yiddish in America. Waltham, Mass., American Jewish Historical Society, 1969. Edited by Nathan M. Kaganoff. 

Frank, M.Z. "Persky Spurred Re-birth of Hebrew in U.S.: Hebrew Language was His Wife," in The National Jewish Post and Opinion, Friday, June, 1, 1962. Indianapolis, Ind., National Jewish Post, Inc., 1962

MacDonald, Dwight. "The Slave of Hebrew," in The New Yorker, November 28, 1959. New York, The New Yorker, 1959.

Mintz, Alan, edited by. Hebrew in America: Perspectives and Prospects. Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1993.

Mintz, Alan. Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 2012.

Nobel, Morris, editor. Sefer B. Isaacs. New York, Publications Committee, 1977. 

Waxman, Meyer. A History of Jewish Literature. (Five Volumes in Six Parts). New York, Thomas Yoseloff, 1960. Second Edition.

Another good bibliographical reference on Persky can be found in the 
                                          לקסיקון הספרות העברית החדשה 
edited by Yossi Galron at This entry, largely based on the work of the Israeli bibliographer G. Kressel details Persky's early years, his family, his education, his Zionist activities and his problems with the Russian authorities. It is a good source for some details of Persky's activities between 1927 and 1933. It also lists his publications and notes a variety of Hebrew language sources in him. It also reveals the pseudonyms, D. Daniel and Daniel Ben Rebecca, that he used when he wrote in Yiddish. 

The entry for Persky in the Encyclopedia Judaica is by Eisig Silberschlag and can be found online entire in the entry Persky, Daniel on the Jewish Virtual Library website.