A gathering of Jewish intellectuals in Kulautuva, Lithuania, 1920 or 1921. Those identified in the photograph include journalist Reuven Tsarfat (2, in fedora); Bal-Makhshoves (4, wearing white boater); Dovid Bergelson (6, on ground with his head on his neighbor’s knee), his wife (10, seated, second from left), and son (5, small child to Bergelson’s left); Zelig Kalmanovitch (7, with striped tie, center); Jakob Lestschinsky (8, to Kalmanovitch’s right); and Nokhem Shtif (9, to the left of Bergelson’s wife). (YIVO)

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(1873–1924), literary critic. Bal-Makhshoves (“Man of Thoughts”; pseudonym of Isidor [Yisroel] Eliashev) was born in Kovno, Lithuania, to a wealthy family. His father, Shloyme Zalkind Eliashev, had been a maskil in his youth, but after marriage reverted to religion, becoming an adherent of the Musar Movement. The dim, penitential sermons Bal-Makhshoves attended with his father as a child filled him with “gloom and terror,” stamping his personality with the pervasive melancholy that characterized him as an adult. This piety, however, was offset in the household by an open attitude to the learning of French, German, and Russian. At age 10, Bal-Makhshoves was sent to the Musar yeshiva in Grobin, from which he was expelled for heretical tendencies some two years later. A year or so afterward, his parents made the surprising decision to send him to high school in Switzerland.

Eliashev went on to study medicine and biology at the universities of Heidelberg and Berlin, qualifying as a doctor. His contact with Jewish student groups in the latter city led him to espouse the Zionism of Theodor Herzl, a cause to which he remained faithful. He made his literary debut in articles published in German and Russian in the mid-1890s. His first Yiddish literary piece, a feuilleton of slight value, was published in a Romanian journal in 1897. Bal-Makhshoves only took up serious Yiddish writing in 1899 at the urging of Yoysef Lurie, editor of the Warsaw weekly Der yud.

In 1901, Bal-Makhshoves returned to Warsaw after 15 years in the West. He practiced medicine only intermittently, devoting himself mainly to Yiddish belles lettres. Within several years, his regular articles in Der yud and other Yiddish periodicals made him the leading Yiddish literary critic of the day. From about 1910 on, however, he struck an increasingly pessimistic tone; in correspondence from this period he despairs of the present and future of modern Yiddish culture. This pessimism may have been partially due to his depression, exacerbated by the collapse of his marriage to a much younger woman. The World War I years marked a hiatus in his literary activity; the Yiddish press was banned in Russia in 1915 and Bal-Makhshoves was mobilized as a military doctor. In the postwar years his mood seems to have lifted and he resumed his literary activity with gusto. Returning to Berlin in 1921, his morale was much boosted by the widespread acclaim accorded him on the twenty-fifth jubilee of his literary activity celebrated in the city on 14 July 1923. Shortly thereafter, however, his chronic physical and psychological ailments took a turn for the worse and he returned to Kovno, where he died.

From Bal-Makhshoves in Kaunas, Lithuania, to Yoysef Opatoshu in New York, n.d. He thanks Opatoshu for sending him his novel In poylishe velder and the anthology of his some of his other works, and says that the novel is now being passed around. Dovid Bergelson is the first to have read it and talks every evening about what an impression it has made on him. Bergelson is going to review it for Bal-Makhshoves's Yudishe shtime. About Opatoshu's suggestion that they form a Peretz Society, he can't yet say anything. All the locals are still "too exhausted" to take on something like this, but he expects that in a few weeks they might be in better shape to consider it. A poet, Leyb Kvitko, is helping Bal-Makhshoves edit the "anthology." "I'm sure you have some idea how people, even literati, who come from the Soviet Union, throw themselves on books, all but ripping them out of your hands, and then tirelessly gulping them down." Yiddish. RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu Papers, F32. (YIVO)

The most significant of Bal-Makhshoves’s earlier writings were published in the five volumes of his Geklibene shriftn (Collected Writings) between 1910 and 1915. The initial two volumes were actually the first works of Yiddish literary criticism ever to be published. The majority of his later literary and critical writings were never issued in book form. Bal-Makhshoves’s publicistic essays, written between 1915 and 1923, were published posthumously in a book titled Untern rod (Under the Wheel; 1927). In 1953, an anthology of his works, Geklibene verk (Collected Works), was published in New York; this collection includes autobiographical essays that had never appeared in book form. In addition to his original writings, Bal-Makhshoves translated a number of works of European literature to Yiddish, including Herzl’s Altneuland, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and Tolstoy’s Cossacks.

Bal-Makhshoves’s unusually polarized biographical background left a deep imprint upon his critical works. He himself stated, “In Warsaw, among the Polish Jews, I made my entrance like a man from a foreign people with a high culture (no small thing—a Berlin doctor, who had lived in Western Europe for 14 or 15 years). I studied them like the Aztecs; but they were close to me like children born of one father” (“25 yor literatur,” in Geklibene verk, p. 33). Characteristic of this insider–outsider stance is the first pseudonym he adopted for his Yiddish writings, Ger Tsedek (Righteous Convert); the pseudonym Bal-Makhshoves, by which he became well known, was bestowed upon him later by the editor of Der yud.

Bal-Makhshoves’s critical works are colored by a strong autobiographical investment; he seeks via Yiddish language and literature to recapture the environment from which he became estranged. Heavily influenced by Hippolyte Taine’s notion of literature as reflective of “race, environment, epoch,” Bal-Makhshoves was thus drawn considerably to those writers most steeped in the patriarchal past and in whose work is reflected the collective psychology of the folk—most notably Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim). As was true of Abramovitsh, however, Bal-Makhshoves’s purview of traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe was profoundly ambivalent; nostalgic longing goes hand in hand in his writing with expressions of revulsion toward the backwardness, provincialism, and religious fanaticism he attributed to this culture.

Bal-Makhshoves defined his own method as “national criticism.” He attributed vital importance to the Yiddish language itself as an antidote to assimilation and a repository of the wellsprings of the Jewish collective soul. A romantic populist, he believed that the alienated Jewish intelligentsia of his day should be educated, through immersion in Yiddish, by the folk rather than vice versa. He took upon himself the role of apostle of nascent national literature in Yiddish, aspiring to create an informed Yiddish readership both from the ranks of the intelligentsia and from the folk. Refusing, however, to align himself with either side in the dispute between Hebraists and Yiddishists, he advocated a harmonic coexistence of Hebrew and Yiddish as twin branches of a unitary national literature. Bal-Makhshoves was the forerunner of the sociopsychological approach to Yiddish literature, reading a work as expressive of the ills and strengths of the national psyche. In this respect, his influence cannot be underestimated: Yiddish literary criticism of all ideological persuasions was to follow, by and large, the path he had blazed.

Particularly prescient and far-reaching in influence was Bal-Makhshoves’s appraisal of Sholem Aleichem. The first critic to take Sholem Aleichem seriously, Bal-Makhshoves arrived at a penetrating psychological explanation of the spell this writer cast upon his readership. Sholem Aleichem, he writes, “transforms our real life into a dream. Thanks to his free laughter our real world becomes transformed into a cock-and-bull story (bobe mayse)” (Geklibene shriftn, vol. 1, p. 93). Building his essay on the polarities of Jewish life as represented by Tevye the milkman on the one hand, and Menakhem Mendl on the other, Bal-Makhshoves exposes the nightmarish reality that underlies Sholem Aleichem’s comedic metamorphosis of exilic Jewish life. Bal-Makhshoves sees Menakhem Mendl as a horrific embodiment of the lunatic dynamism of the East European Jewish petty trader and luftmentsh in the period of transition to capitalism. While he is more sympathetic to Tevye, he finds the latter’s congealed stasis, his solipsistic, purblind attitude to the modern world as disturbing as Menakhem Mendl’s headlong dive into modernity.

The polarization of Menakhem Mendl and Tevye as national archetypes, initiated in that essay, recurs in almost every later critical treatment of Sholem Aleichem of every ideological stripe. Consideration of Sholem Aleichem leads Bal-Makhshoves to the direst assessment of the life of the Jewish masses in the Diaspora, which “repels every healthy man. . . . They live like a worm reared in the gutter of a roof which then falls off the roof into a street-drain, but perforce then acclimatizes itself to its new environs” (Geklibene shriftn, vol. 1, p. 103).

While he did not write Hebrew pieces (though his Yiddish essays, in translation, appeared in Hebrew periodicals), Bal-Makhshoves’s literary criticism treats Hebrew works quite extensively. Aside from his Sholem Aleichem essay, it is Bal-Makhshoves’s longer, synthetic pieces that have best stood the test of time.

Suggested Reading

Y. Kharlash, “Bal-Makhshoves,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 1, cols. 359–366 (New York, 1956); Nokhem Minkoff, Zeks yidishe kritiker (Buenos Aires, 1954), pp. 227–290; Samuel Niger, Geklibene shriftn, vol. 2, Lezer, dikhter, kritiker (New York, 1928), pp. 495–565.