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Langer, Jiří

(1894–1943), Hebrew and Czech writer. Jiří (Mordekhai Georgo) Langer was born in Prague to an assimilated merchant family. His eldest brother was the well-known Czech writer and playwright František Langer (1888–1965). Langer’s parents sent him to Czech schools, but he noted that even as a young child he was drawn to Judaism and studied Talmud and Kabbalah on a regular basis with his classmate, Alfred Fuchs.

In the summer of 1913, Langer astounded his close associates when he went to Belz (Pol., Bełz), eastern Galicia, and joined the Hasidic court of Yisakhar Dov Rokeaḥ; he did so to fulfill his yearning to be immersed in what he felt were authentic sources of Judaism. The Hasidic rebbe and his disciples were also greatly taken aback when they realized that a modern young man chose to spend time in their quarters, but they received him with open arms. A few months, later Langer returned to his family in Prague, but his fervent observance of Jewish customs and his unusual outward appearance—that of a bearded Hasid with sidelocks—aroused feelings of alienation and ridicule from those around him. With the outbreak of World War I, Langer was drafted into the Austrian army, but he soon found himself in a military jail after refusing to obey orders that interfered with his religious practice. Soon afterward he was released on mental grounds. Langer returned to Belz and accompanied Rokeaḥ’s entourage when the latter was exiled to Hungary during the war years. In that period Langer became increasingly engrossed in the study of Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalah, while at the same time enjoying firsthand the unadulterated Hasidic experience.

In 1918, Langer left the Belz court for good and went to Vienna, where he studied for a number of months at the Pedagogyon ha-‘Ivri (The Hebrew Pedagogic Academy). His return to Prague marked a turning point in his weltanschauung, indicating his turn toward religious Zionism. He supported himself by doing clerical work for Zionist institutions and at the same time taught Jewish religion in Czech schools. During that period he formed a strong bond with Franz Kafka (to whom, he stated, he would usually speak in Hebrew), and especially with the writer Max Brod.

In 1919, Langer began to publish articles and poems in Hebrew, Czech, and German, reflecting a unique synthesis that he created out of the various disciplines that made up his world: Talmud, Kabbalah, Hasidism, psychoanalysis, world literature, Hebrew literature, and Zionism. He became engrossed in Freudian thought and published a number of studies in German that examined aspects of Judaism through the psychoanalytic prism: Die Erotic der Kabbala (The Eroticism of Kabbalah; 1923), [Zur] Funktion der Jüdischen Türpfostenroll (The Function of the Mezuzah; 1928), and Die (Jüdischen) Gebetriemen (The [Jewish] Phylacteries; 1931). In 1937, writing in Czech, he published his magnum opus: a compilation of Hasidic stories presented in a simple and populist style, titled Devĕt bran (Nine Gates). The book was hugely successful and was translated into a number of languages. In 1938, he published the first book in Czech on the Talmud, Talmud: ukázky a dĕjiny (Talmud: Anthology and History). That same year, he published an anthology of Hebrew poetry with selections ranging from the eleventh through the eighteenth centuries, which he translated into Czech, titled Zpĕvy zavržených (The Poems of the Rejected).

Langer’s first Hebrew poem was published in 1923 in Eli‘ezer Steinman’s Warsaw monthly Kolot (Voices). In language, style, and religious tone, his poems appear influenced by medieval Hebrew liturgical poetry, but their contents touch on a wide range of modern human experiences. In 1929, he compiled all his poems into a small book, Piyutim ve-shire yedidut (Odes and Poems of Friendship). Nonetheless, from the time he embarked on his career as a poet, Langer felt rejected by the Hebrew literary establishment, which he interpreted as a sign of their revulsion at undisguised homosexual references in many of his poems. Indeed, Langer wrote some of the most daring homoerotic poetry ever published in Hebrew, at a time when merely discussing such matters was considered shameful.

In autumn 1939, Langer escaped from Prague, and after a torturous journey that lasted approximately half a year, in the course of which his health was irreparably damaged, he reached Palestine. Upon his arrival, he devoted himself to writing in Hebrew. Barely earning a living from his writings, he published Hasidic tales, poems, essays, and critical reviews of literature and theater in the local press. His attempts at spurring the intellectuals in Palestine to protest the annihilation of European Jewry went largely unheeded. During his last days, and with the little strength that remained in him, he arranged the publication of his second poetry anthology, Me‘at tsori (A Little Balm), which appeared shortly after his death. Langer died in Tel Aviv on 12 March 1943. A comprehensive collection of his Hebrew writings was published in 1984.

Suggested Reading

Miriam Deror, “Mordekhai Georgo Langer: Ha-Ish ve-shirato,” in Me‘at tsori: Asufat ketavav, by Mordechai Georgo Langer, pp. 163–272 (Tel Aviv, 1984); František Langer, “My Brother Jiří,” in Nine Gates to the Chassidic Mysteries, by Mordechai Georgo (Jiří) Langer, pp. vii–xxxii (New York, 1961); Dov Sadan, “Ha-Baḥur he-ḥasid,” in Avne zikaron, pp. 243–249 (Tel Aviv, 1953/54).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler