Naḥum Sokolow, Warsaw, ca. 1890. (YIVO)

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Sokolow, Naḥum

(1859–1936), journalist, writer, and Zionist leader. Born in Wyszogród, Poland, Naḥum Sokolow grew up in the town of Płock. He received a comprehensive Jewish education as well as a thoroughly secular one largely as a result of his own efforts. By 1874, he had published his first articles in the Hebrew press. After his marriage in 1876, Sokolow settled in the town of Maków, and that same year published articles on scientific subjects in the newspaper Ha-Tsefirah.

Sokolow also contributed articles to Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish, and French newspapers, again mainly on topics related to natural sciences. In 1878, his earliest book, Matsuke Arets (The Earth’s Precipices), explored physical geography. At the end of that year he wrote his first article of a political nature for Ha-Melits, calling on the Russian government to grant civil rights to Jews. More and more of his articles appeared in Ha-Tsefirah, which, thanks to his influence, abandoned its focus on disseminating scientific information in favor of literature and current affairs.

In 1880, Sokolow moved to Warsaw and became the director of Ha-Tsefirah’s editorial board. By that time he had formulated his position on the essential task of the press as the instrument for creating public opinion. He believed the press was crucial for the establishment of orderly public life, especially when it came to the divided and fractious Jewish nation. He gave voice to these principles in his own column, Ha-Tsofeh le-vet Yisra’el (The Observer of the House of Israel), which surveyed and commented on the situations of Jews in various diasporas, and later on as editor of the newspaper. Aside from his prolific journalistic writings, Sokolow also wrote books on a wide range of subjects. Among these were Sin’at ‘olam le-‘am ‘olam (Eternal Hatred for the Eternal People; 1882), tracing the origins and history of antisemitism; Torat sefat Anglit (The Rules of the English Language; 1882) a textbook for teaching English that was popular with Jewish emigrants; Tsadik ve-nisgav (Righteous and Sublime; 1883), a historical biography of Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller; and Erets ḥemdah (The Desirable Land, an adaptation of Laurence Oliphant’s Land of Gilead; 1885) on the geography of the Land of Israel. He also founded and edited the annual Ha-Asif (1884–1888; 1893), whose thick volumes of literature and criticism were widely distributed.

“Lecture by president of the Executive of the World Zionist Organization Naḥum Sokolow on the topic, ‘The Revival of the Land of Israel,’” Polish/Yiddish poster. Printed by Vilner Produtsir Kooperativ, Vilna, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

Ha-Tsefirah remained Sokolow’s central platform, however, and it was through his initiative that in April 1886 the paper was turned into a daily, coedited with its founder Ḥayim Zelig Słonimski. For the next 20 years, Sokolow became the most prominent, influential, and popular Hebrew journalist, and in his capacity as editor he served as a mentor for new literary talent, to the extent that a journey to Warsaw to present oneself before Sokolow became an almost essential rite of passage for many aspiring writers. His effortless writing was legendary: he would compose entire sections of the newspaper by himself, publishing thousands of articles and entire books in serial form. His influence stemmed mainly from his feuilletons, in which he addressed readers in a relaxed tone that camouflaged his didactic aims, and explained at length what was happening in the Jewish and general world. Sokolow’s broad following stemmed from his ability to address his audience in language familiar to traditionalists while seeking to expose them to European culture.

In addition to numerous articles, Sokolow continued to involve himself in other writing and editing projects, some of them under the auspices of Ha-Tsefirah. These included the first biographical lexicon of Hebrew writers, Sefer ha-zikaron (Book of Remembrance; 1889); the editing of the Polish weekly Izraelita (1895) and the literary annual Sefer ha-shanah (The Yearbook; 1899–1905); a text that explained Zionism to religious circles, Le-Maranan ve-rabanan (To Our Masters and Rabbis; 1901); a historical novel set in the days of Bar Kokhba, Ne‘ure ha-nesher (The Eagle’s Youth; 1901); and the founding and editing of the Yiddish daily newspaper Der telegraf (1906). In 1904, the thirtieth anniversary of Sokolow’s literary debut was marked with the issuing of a partial collection of his writings, and the publication in his honor of a Festschrift, or anniversary volume.

Sokolow’s writing style and his editorial policy turned Ha-Tsefirah into the main Hebrew daily of the early twentieth century. Aside from his contribution to the development of the feuilleton, he also introduced other journalistic genres, such as reportage, travel reports, and the weekly literary supplement, all of which both increased the importance of the newspaper and expanded its readership. He recognized the importance of factual, up-to-date, and accurate information, and turned his daily into a reliable source of news. His writings bore his trademark idiomatic style—a rich mosaic of the strata of the Hebrew language together with linguistic innovations of his own and a multitude of foreign words, all in the service of clarity of expression. In addition, he worked hard to strengthen journalistic ethics and was particularly determined to present the truth as accurately as possible and to avoid sensationalism. Sokolow is justifiably dubbed the father of modern Hebrew journalism.

Though he was in sympathy with the aims of the Ḥibat Tsiyon (Love of Zion) movement, Sokolow greeted it with a degree of suspicion; and his doubts were not allayed even after Herzl entered the fray. After attending the First Zionist Congress (1897) in his capacity as a journalist, however, Sokolow became an enthusiastic Zionist activist, turning Ha-Tsefirah into the principal platform for Herzl and political Zionism. Even during the “Uganda” debate of 1903, the newspaper sided with Herzl, though it did provide space for dissenters. At the request of its author, Sokolow translated Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland (Old New Land; 1902) into Hebrew. The biblical title that he chose for this edition, Tel-Aviv, became the name of the first Hebrew city in 1909.

It was only natural that in 1906 after Ha-Tsefirah closed temporarily, Sokolow was asked to serve as secretary of the World Zionist Organization. His responsibilities included establishing the Hebrew weekly Ha-‘Olam (The World) in Cologne in 1907, which he edited during its first few years of publication along with its German counterpart, Die Welt. After publication of Ha-Tsefirah was resumed in 1910, Sokolow continued to be listed as its editor even though, in practice, the work was done by a group of writers and his actual involvement was confined to that of a guest columnist. During those years he added many new chapters to his travel diary, but his main literary activity focused on developing a new genre of writing: the portrait in essay form of contemporary writers, artists, and public figures. These were notable for their psychological depth and for placing subjects within a broad historical and cultural context. The essays marked the end of Sokolow’s work as a daily journalist.

Instead, Sokolow put his heart and soul into political and propaganda activity for the Zionist cause. Among other things, he represented the Zionist movement at the Versailles Peace Conference (1919), and was elected chair of the Zionist Executive (1920). From then on he chaired all Zionist congresses, and at the seventeenth one in 1931, he was chosen to replace Chaim Weizmann as president of the World Zionist Organization. Though based in London, Sokolow frequently traveled and from time to time visited Palestine. Even during these years he invested energy writing on a variety of topics: books in various languages on the history of Zionism (including the comprehensive English book History of Zionism; 1918); a monograph on Barukh Spinoza (Barukh Shpinozah u-zemano; 1929); and even a study of the psychology of the collective, Ha-“Ani” ha-kibutsi (The Collective Ego; 1930). In 1935, he compiled some of his essay portraits into the three-volume Ishim (Personages), considered by most scholars to be his best literary work.

In 1936, Sokolow died in London, and 20 years later his body was reinterred in Jerusalem. A comprehensive selection reflecting the whole spectrum of his writings appeared in Hebrew in three volumes between 1958 and 1961. A similar collection, in Yiddish, was published in 1966.

Suggested Reading

Getzel Kressel, “Naḥum Sokolov: Darko u-fo‘alo,” in Ha-Tsofeh le-vet Yisra’el, by Nahum Sokolow, pp. 11–97 (Jerusalem, 1960/61); Simon Rawidowicz, ed., Sefer Sokolov (Jerusalem, 1942/43); Shoshana Stiftel, “Naḥum Sokolov ke-‘itona’i ukhe-‘orekh,” Kesher 8 (November 1990): 55–63; Leyb Vaserman, “Sokolov, Nokhem,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 6, cols. 318–325 (New York, 1965).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 108, Manuscripts, Collection, ; RG 348, Lucien Wolf and David Mowshowitch, Papers, 1865-1957.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler