Zelig Kalmanovitch: Translating Josephus into Yiddish

Zelig Kalmanovitch (1885-1944) was a Yiddishist and Diaspora Nationalist activist, intellectual and scholar who translated Josephus’s Jewish Wars into Yiddish and depicted Josephus as an analogue to the early twentieth-century Russified, nationally traitorous Russian-Jewish intellectual.  Having come of age in Courland, then a part of the Tsarist Empire, he received a traditional Jewish education in ḥeder and besmedrash before attending universities in Germany and Russia, where he studied philology and ancient history, among other subjects.   In the first years of the twentieth century, he became active in both socialist and Jewish nationalist politics, soon synthesizing the two in his affiliation with socialist Diaspora Nationalism.  Agreeing with the Zionists about the national nature of Jewish identity but rejecting their negative view of the Diaspora, Diaspora Nationalists argued that through national autonomy in democratically reformed multi-national states, Jews could achieve their national renaissance in Eastern Europe.  Not surprisingly, in time most Diaspora Nationalists wed their ideology to Yiddishism, which championed the diasporic language, Yiddish, as the agent that would unite the “folk masses” to the Jewish intelligentsia.  In the first decade of the twentieth century, Kalmanovitch became a fervent Yiddishist, contributing articles to both scholarly and more popular Yiddish journals and pursuing an academic interest in Yiddish philology. From 1929, he resided in Vilna where he was one of the key figures in YIVO (the Yiddish Scientific Institute).  During the Holocaust he was incarcerated in the Vilna Ghetto, whose inhabitants hailed him as their “prophet” for his intense cultural work, rousing sermons, and historiosophical musings regarding the destruction of East European Jewry.  He recorded these sermons and musings in a brief Hebrew diary, which was found and published posthumously.  He perished in a Nazi work camp in Estonia in 1944.

During the years of his early career, Kalmanovitch’s unique contributions to Yiddishist scholarship were his translations of both primary and secondary sources dealing with ancient Jewish history.  Mirroring his Diaspora Nationalist and Yiddishist ideologies that called for the merging of Jewishness and European culture, he hailed the ancient Alexandrian synthesis of Judaism and Hellenism as having brought together “two, in truth different, forms of the same eternal striving for honesty and truth and justice.”  He articulated this ideological interpretation of Jewish Hellenism in his introduction to his 1914 translation of Emil Schürer’s History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ.  That same year, he also published his Yiddish translation of Di idishe milkhomes fun yoysef ben matisyahu hakoyhen (Yosifus flavius) Ale 7 bikher in 2 teyl (The Jewish Wars by Joseph son of Matthias (Josephus Flavius)  All Seven Books in Two Parts.  One of Kalmanovitch’s colleagues, Joseph Kruk, later recalled having read Kalmanovitch’s introduction to this translation in the years immediately following its publication.  Although not appearing in the translated volumes themselves, this introduction has been preserved in an excerpt of Kalmanovitch’s translation, published in Berlin in 1922.

This introduction combined genuine erudition with socialist nationalist, Yiddishist ideology.  In it, Kalmanovitch depicted the Great Revolt as a result of Roman political and economic oppression of the Judean peasantry.  In contrast to the folksmasn (common people) who joined the zealots, the wealthy middle class (balebatim) together with the religious leadership sought peace with the Romans.  Josephus belonged to this class of traitorous balebatim, joining the revolt reluctantly and failing to unite the Jewish peasants under his command.  This failure resulted from Josephus’ economic and cultural alienation from the rank and file rebels, whose bravery he played down in favor of exaggerating their depredations.  By writing his history of the Great Revolt in Greek, Josephus demonstrated not only his class but also his national alienation from the Jewish rebels whose actions he condemned.  Instead of demonstrating national empathy, Josephus instead sought to ingratiate himself to his Roman audience.  Clearly viewing Josephus as a national traitor, the best that Kalmanovitch could say about him was the following: “And if in life Josephus was far from a great man, through his literary work he certainly earned an eternal name in Jewish history.”  In Josephus, Kalmanovitch thus found a symbol of the bourgeois, Russified Jewish intelligentsia whom Yiddishists condemned for their alleged abandonment of the Yiddish-speaking masses.  According to Kruk, Kalmanovitch’s depiction of Josephus and his role in the Great Revolt made a great impact on the young Yiddishist intelligentsia, which was in search of a pantheon of heroes and villains in its quest to create a new secular, national Jewish culture.

Dubnov, S., Algemeyne idishe geshikhte fun dem ur-elter biz der nayer tsayt, mit a nayer hakdome fun mekhaber.  In 4 teyln. Translated from Russian into Yiddish by Zelig Kalmanovitch (Vilna: Farlag hed ha-zman, 1909).
Kalmanovitch, Z., “Hakdome (funem iberzetser),” in E. Schürer, Geshikhte fun yudishn folk in der tsayt fun bayis sheyni¸ translation and introduction by Zelig Kalmanovitch (Vilna: Vilner farlag fun B. Kletskin, 1914): I-IX.
Kalmanovitch, Z. (translator), Di idishe milkhomes fun yoysef ben matisyahu hakoyhen (Yosifus flavius): Al 7 bikher in 2 teyl (Vilna: Vilner farlag fun b. Kletskin, 1914).
Kalmanovitch, Z. (translator), Di letste teg fun yerusholayim aroysgenumen fun zekstn bukh fun yosifus flavius “Yudishe milkhomes” (Berlin: Klal-farlag, 1922).

Karlip, J. M., The Tragedy of a Generation: The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism in Eastern Europe (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2013).
Kruk, J., Taḥat diglan shel shalosh mahpekhot: (Rusim, polanim, yehudim): ishim ve-tenu-‘ot be-dori: zikhronot (Tel Aviv: Maḥbarot le-sifrut, 1968).
Schürer, E., Geshikhte fun yudishn folk in der tsayt fun bayis sheyni.  Translated, edited, abridged and introduced by Zelig Kalmanovitch (Vilna: Vilner farlag fun B. Kletskin, 1914).

JRA entry contributed by Joshua Karlip