(Yid., Tseytlin), prominent writers and intellectuals in prewar Poland. The father, Hillel Zeitlin (1871–1942), was a thinker, journalist, and editor. His son Arn (Aharon; 1899–1973) was a prolific poet, fiction writer, playwright, essayist, and editor in both Hebrew and Yiddish. Elkhonen (Elḥanan; 1902–1942), Hillel’s younger son, was a Yiddish poet, critic, journalist, and social activist.
Hillel Zeitlin was born in Korma, Belorussia, to a deeply religious, Lubavitch Hasidic family. Along with his traditional education, during his teens Zeitlin was deeply influenced by Haskalah literature as well as by European literature and philosophy—notably, the writings of Schopenhauer, Hartman, and Nietzsche. At the age of 16 he began to teach, while continuing his autodidactic course of study. After his marriage in 1896, he moved to Homel (Gomel) where he lived until 1905, and met and became associated with a group of Hebrew and Yiddish writers including Yosef Ḥayim Brenner, Uri Nisan Gnessin, Zalman Yitsḥak Anokhi, Shim‘on Bikhowsky, and Gershom Shofman. In this period Zeitlin published his first major Hebrew writings. In 1905, he moved to Vilna to join the editorial board of Ha-Zeman, in which he himself published in various styles and genres.
Postcard with portraits of Hillel Zeitlin (left) and Nathan Birnbaum (right). (YIVO)
Concurrently, Zeitlin began to write and publish in the Yiddish press. He moved to Warsaw in 1906 to edit the weekly magazine Dos yidishe vokhnblat. From 1916 he was one of the most prolific Yiddish journalists, writing for both Haynt and Der moment. His Warsaw home was a meeting place for Jewish writers and journalists—“a literary house,” as captured in his son Elkhonen’s memoir. Zeitlin himself became synonymous in his later years with Polish Jewry. His murder by the Nazis in 1942 (allegedly with his tefillin and prayer shawl and with a copy of the Zohar in his hand) became a symbol of the tragic fate of Polish and East European Jewry in World War II.
Zeitlin was a creative, multifaceted intellectual who contributed Hebrew and Yiddish works in diverse realms: philosophy, literature, politics, and journalism. In fact, it is virtually impossible to sum up his career and legacy because he worked with great intensity in all these fields in seemingly incongruous ways.
Zeitlin’s first publication in Hebrew (in the journal Ha-Shiloaḥ; 1899) was a highly original study titled “Ha-Tov veha-ra‘ ‘al pi hashkafot ḥakhme Yisra’el ve-ḥakhme ha-‘amim” (Good and Evil in Jewish and General Thought). He published a monograph on Baruch Spinoza (1900) and the first monograph in Hebrew on Friedrich Nietzsche (1905). These studies influenced an entire generation of Jewish intellectuals who became exposed to these thinkers through Zeitlin’s mediation. He also published a number of literary texts that were pathbreaking in the way they crossed generic and stylistic boundaries. He wrote prose poems, meditations, aphorisms, prayers, and songs, as well as fiction characterized by intense emotionality.
In his literary and philosophical writing in this period, Zeitlin sought to find a synthesis between Russian symbolist writers and thinkers who were considered part of the “Silver Age” and what he believed to be their indigenous Jewish qualities. Typical in this context is the essay he wrote on the Russian Jewish thinker Lev Shestov in 1906 in Ha-Me’orer, as well as poetic–philosophic–religious texts such as “Kavanot ve-yiḥudim” (Intentions and Unions; 1903), “Le-Ḥeshbono shel ‘olam” (Pondering the World; 1904), “Shekhinah” (1908), and his first Yiddish publication, “Dos benkshaft nokh sheynkayt” (The Longing for Beauty; in Dos yudishe folk, 1906).
Almost from the beginning of his career, Zeitlin was intensely involved in political issues and movements. In 1901 he participated in the Fifth Zionist Congress. After this experience he wrote his first assessment and criticism of both political and cultural Zionism in “Mi-Kitve aḥad ha-tse‘irim” (From the Writings of One of the Young Ones; 1901), published in Frishman’s Ha-Dor, in which Zeitlin took issue with Herzl, Ahad Ha-Am, and Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski (Berdichevsky). For Zeitlin, a comprehensive and deep Jewish national revival could not be reduced to a political or cultural project of “normalization.” After the Uganda Crisis of 1903, Zeitlin was disappointed with the direction of Zionism and aligned with the Territorialists, led by Israel Zangwill. Zeitlin became a fully engaged public intellectual writing extensively in both Hebrew and Yiddish about social, political, and cultural problems inside and outside the Jewish world.
Beginning in the years before World War I, Zeitlin actively pursued the study of Kabbalah and Hasidism, and continued to work in this direction with growing intensity until the end of his life. These influences were expressed in his monographs on major Kabbalists and Hasidic figures, in his work on Jewish esoteric literature, and especially in a pioneering project of translating the Zohar into Hebrew. He sought to establish a philosophic and religious relationship between Jewish mysticism and Hasidism on one hand, and Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche on the other. Like Berdyczewski, An-ski, and other figures in this period, he thought of his efforts as a radical change of values, but unlike these other Jewish thinkers, the quest brought him closer to religious piety. Zeitlin thus became involved in what can be called a practice of Jewish mysticism. He wrote an account of his ecstatic dreams and visions in a mystical diary, ‘Al gevul shene ‘olamot (On the Border of Two Worlds; 1919). Zeitlin’s final years were preoccupied with mystical, messianic yearning and with deep Hasidic piety. He envisioned the idea of a “future Hasidism,” involving the renewal of the relationship with the Hasidism of the eighteenth century, an idea to which he clung until his death at the hands of the Nazis. He wrote about this concept in Sifran shel yeḥidim (The Book of Individuals; 1928), and Demamah ve-kol (Silence and Sound; 1936).
From Arn Zeitlin in Warsaw, to Yoysef Opatoshu in New York, 8 April 1930. Zeitlin has been elected the chair of the local PEN Club and looks forward to seeing Opatoshu at the upcoming PEN Congress. He agrees with Opatoshu that Shmuel Niger is "our only literary critic." A recent issue of Literarishe bleter focusing on Opatoshu's work "made a strong impression." As per Opatoshu's request, Zeitlin has asked his father Hillel about the eighteenth-century Eybeschütz–Emden controversy, and the senior Zeitlin notes that some of Emden's pamphlets accused Eybeschütz of being an apostate who wore a "copper cross" on his chest; nonetheless, he regards this a slander on the part of Emden. Arn asks Opatoshu for news of the American Yiddish journal Di vokh and sends regards to writers H. Leivick and Aaron Glanz-Leyeles. Yiddish. RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu Papers, F206. (YIVO)
Arn Zeitlin, Hillel’s older son, wrote in both Hebrew and Yiddish. The fact that he produced almost equal amounts of work in the two languages was exceptional at a time when most Jewish writers felt obliged to choose one language or the other. He lived in Warsaw from 1907 to 1938, with a brief sojourn (with his brother Elkhonen) to Palestine in 1920–1921. From the beginning of World War II until his death he lived and worked in the United States, with a brief stay in Cuba in 1939.
Arn began his literary career as a child, publishing lyrical poetry in both Hebrew (1909) and Yiddish (1914). His most productive artistic period took place during the interwar years in Warsaw, when he continued to write both lyrical poems and long poems with mystical themes (including Metatron, Lilith, and Dela-Reina) in both languages. His style tied the historical and political spirit of the time to a traditional way of interpreting reality within a Jewish existential and mystical framework.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Arn Zeitlin published short stories, numerous philosophical and journalistic essays, and works of literary and cultural criticism. His first attempt to outline his poetic principles was Der kult fun gornisht un di kunst vi darf zayn (The Cult of Nothing and Art As It Should Be; 1926), in which he attacked the politicization of Yiddish literature and the zeal to adopt European influences. Nonetheless, he called for developing an indigenous Jewish poetics of modernism, and between 1927 and 1937, he published Yiddish plays such as Yankev Frank, Brenner, and Di yidishe melukhe oder Veytsman der tsveyter (The Jewish Kingdom or Weizmann the Second), in which he combined historical events and figures with existential and mystical themes. In 1937, he published Brenendike erd (Burning Earth), a Yiddish novel based on his brief experience in Palestine.
During the 1930s, Zeitlin took an important role in Yiddish literary life in Poland, serving as chair of the Yiddish PEN Club in Warsaw (1930–1934). Since he believed that Yiddish literature in that country was losing ground and becoming too enmeshed in politics, he founded a new literary monthly, Globus, intended to reflect the highest literary standards. The journal, which indeed attracted some of the best Yiddish writers, appeared between 1932 and 1934, and was edited by Zeitlin with substantial help from Isaac Bashevis Singer, who became a close friend and associate.
In 1939, Zeitlin traveled to the United States to work on the production of his play Esterke with Maurice Schwartz. In the following years he continued his literary, journalistic, and cultural activities in Yiddish and Hebrew in New York. There he devoted equal energies to writing poems and essays in both languages, and produced some of the most powerful literary works in response to the Holocaust, such as the Hebrew book Ben ha-esh veha-yesha‘ (Between Fire and Redemption; 1957) and the Yiddish collection Lider fun khurbn un lider fun gloybn (Poems of Destruction and Poems of Belief; 1967). He taught modern Hebrew and Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
Elkhonen Zeitlin was born in Rogachev, Belorussia. In 1920–1921, he visited Palestine with his brother Arn, and upon returning to Warsaw studied medicine but did not graduate from the university. He joined the Folkspartey for a short time but later was active in a wider range of public, cultural, educational, and theatrical organizations across party lines.
From 1926 until World War II, Elkhonen was coeditor and a major contributor to the Warsaw newspaper Undzer ekspres (Our Express), a paper that represented a broad spectrum of opinion and appealed to a mass readership. He also contributed to Globus, Literarishe bleter, and other Yiddish periodicals. Unlike his father and elder brother, Elkhonen had no inclination toward mysticism; his style was clear and lucid, his worldview positivist. A small collection of his lyrical poetry, A bikhele lider (A Little Book of Poetry), came out in Warsaw in 1931, but the main area of his literary activity was journalism. In the first volume of his memoirs, In a literarisher shtub (In a Literary Home; 1937), he recreated the lively and intense atmosphere of literary and intellectual life in Jewish Warsaw before and after World War I; this book is among the best examples of the memoir genre in Yiddish literature (the manuscript of second volume was lost during the war). About six months before the outbreak of World War II, he published a collection of essays about Yiddish theater, Bukh un bine (The Book and the Stage). When Germany invaded Poland he left Warsaw for Soviet-occupied Lwów, but when the German army occupied that city he returned to Warsaw. In the Warsaw ghetto he carried on his cultural and public activities. He died of illness in the ghetto and was buried in the Jewish cemetery.
Sheraga Bar-Sela‘, Ben sa‘ar li-demamah: Ḥayav u-mishnato shel Hilel Tsaitlin (Tel Aviv, 1999); Joseph Dan, “Aharon Tsaitlin: Ben Ḥurban le-ge’ulah,” in Ha-Nokhri veha-Mandarin: ‘Iyunim be-sifrut zemanenu (Ramat-Gan, 1975); Arthur Green, “Three Warsaw Mystics,” in Rivkah Shatz-Uffenheimer Memorial Volume, vol. 2, ed. Rachel Elior and Joseph Dan, pp. 1–58 (Jerusalem, 1996); Eli’ezer Raphael Malakhi, “Hilel Tsaitlin: Bibliyografyah,” Ha-Tekufah 32–33 (1948): 848–876; 33–34 (1949): 843–848; Yonatan Me’ir, “Hithavuto ve-gilgulav shel mif‘al tirgum u-ve’ur Sefer ha-Zohar le-Hilel Tsaitlin,” Kabalah 10 (2004): 119–157; Dov Sadan, “Ha-Romantikan,” in Avne boḥan, pp. 321–327 (Tel Aviv, 1950/51); Yechiel Szeintuch (Yeḥi’el Shaintukh), Bi-Reshut ha-rabim uvi-reshut ha-yaḥid:Aharon Tsaitlin ve-sifrut Yidish (Jerusalem, 2000); Symcha Bunem Urbach, Toldot neshamah aḥat: Hilel Tsaitlin, ha-ish u-mishnato (Jerusalem, 1953); Moshe Waldoks, “Hillel Zeitlin: The Early Years, 1894–1919” (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1984); Oskar (Yesha‘yahu) Wolfsberg and Tsevi Harkavi, eds., Sefer Tsaitlin (Jerusalem, 1944/45); Elḥanan Zeitlin (Elkhonen Tseytlin), In a literarisher shtub (Buenos Aires, 1946), with essays by Shmuel Niger, Mark Turkow, and Aharon Zeitlin.