Born in Ushachy, Vitebsk district (in present – day Belarus) Chaim Zhitlovsky (1865 – 1943) was an eminent social and political philosopher, Yiddishist, secular humanist and exponent of diasporic nationalism (1). He was, in the words of Max Rosenfeld “teacher, goad, trailblazer, storm – center, visionary, idol. Throughout his long public career, he was linked with people and movements that struggled for human progress”. He was a champion of the Yiddish language and secularism but at the same time recognized the importance of religion as a cultural and historical force in the development and perpetuation of a Jewish identity. Zhitlovsky adhered to socialist ideals and principles, though he was critical of dogmatic Marxism. During his life he was tied to various currents and movements of the left, especially socialist territorialism. He was a trenchant opponent of bolshevism and the post – revolutionary Soviet system but toward the end, especially following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, moved closer to pro-Soviet groups. Zhitlovsky eagerly supported organizations that aided the Soviet Union against Nazism and sought unity among all Jews to come to the defense of the Soviets. Even earlier his pro-Soviet sympathies began to take shape when the Jewish autonomous region of Birobidjan was constituted in the USSR which he viewed as the realization of his dream of a socialist state based on an agrarian economy and a Jewish national identity.
Over a thirty-year period (1912 – 1942), Zhitlovsky made numerous trips to Winnipeg, where he spoke on various topics and served as inspiration and point of reference for progressive Jewry. In 1912 he delivered lectures on the following topics: the prophets; bankruptcy of assimilation; Judaism and Christianity; and Jewish education. That same year local community activist J. Alter Cherniack organized a program on Zhitlovsky’s impact on Jewish culture and which celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Zhitlovsky’s first book Ideas concerning the historical fate of Jewry. Jack Switzer wrote that Cherniack and Zhitlovsky may have met at a Territorialist Conference in Boston in 1907. They certainly met at a Poale Zion (Labour Zionist) conference held in Montreal in 1910. Cherniack became a friend and disciple of Zhitlovsky and a key figure in the development of Jewish secular education and Yiddish culture in Winnipeg. Zhitlovsky’s papers, deposited in the YIVO archives, includes a folder of correspondence with Cherniack which spans the years 1913 to 1943.
In 1916, Zhitlovsky came to Winnipeg on two occasions. The first of these was as a guest speaker at a conference that served as the basis for the creation of the future Canadian Jewish Congress. Later, he held five lectures sponsored by Branch 506 of the Arbeiter Ring. The topics were: a critical assessment of Goethe’s Faust; the spiritual strife for existence of the Jewish people; the Jew in nature and culture; the national progressive significance of Jewish literature; and nationalism and class politics. The following year, Zhitlovsky delivered four lectures at the Queen’s theatre on Selkirk Avenue. Shortly thereafter he lectured in Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary and Kenora and returned to Winnipeg where he delivered lectures on Jewish philosophy.
Zhitlovsky returned to speak in Winnipeg in 1920 at the invitation of the Canadian Jewish Congress. In 1925 he delivered lectures at the Queen’s theatre, participated in a conference to establish a local branch of ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training) and spoke at the I.L. Peretz School graduation exercises. On December 31 the I. L. Peretz school organized a banquet (held at the Talmud Torah) honouring Zhitlovsky’s 60th birthday. This was followed by a musical program on January 3 at the Playhouse Theatre. In an article in The Jewish Post by N.B. Zimmerman the author noted: “To Winnipeg Jews it is not necessary to introduce Dr. Zhitlovsky. His contributions to the revival of Jewish self – assertion and culture are well known, and it would be a reflection upon any respectable Jewish organization in Winnipeg not to be represented at the coming Banquet”. Before the decade was over Zhitlovsky was to return to Winnipeg on two occasions, in 1928 where he spoke at the I. L. Peretz graduation exercises and concert, and in 1929 as guest speaker at the Sholem Aleichem Memorial evening, organized by the Yiddish Culture Farein and I. L. Peretz School.
In 1935, Zhitlovsky’s 70th birthday was met with great adulation throughout the diaspora and celebrated as Zhitlovsky Month (as was his 60th birthday in 1925). According to Jack Switzer, the International Zhitlovsky Month committee had as honorary presidents noteworthy figures such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. J. Alter Cherniack travelled throughout western Canada and established Zhitlovsky Month committees in Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, and Saskatoon. According to Switzer, the Jewish Post reported that Winnipeg Jewry was expected to raise $1000.00. Three years later (1938) Zhitlovsky returned to Winnipeg and spoke on the future of Jewish culture and offered his perspective on twenty years of bolshevism. The talks were organized by the I. L. Peretz Institute.
The local Winnipeg branch of IKUF (International Yiddish Culture Movement), pro-Soviet in its orientation organized Chaim Zhitlovsky’s 75th birthday celebration in 1942 (though he was born in 1865 and his 75th birthday was in 1940). Zhitlovsky visited Winnipeg in 1942 or 1943, as the Jewish Heritage Centre photo archive shows him meeting with local activists at the home of Dr. B. A. Victor. One photo indicates 1942 while another has April 24, 1943, also at the home of Dr. B.A. Victor. Zhitlovsky’s papers, deposited in the YIVO archives include correspondence with Victor spanning the years 1938 to 1942.
Zhitlovsky was scheduled to lecture in Winnipeg in May of 1943. The April 23 edition of The Israelite Press reported that he was to speak on the topics “Reaction and Revolution” and “Jewish unity in the socialist world. These were never to materialize as Zhitlovsky died of a heart attack in Calgary during a lecture tour sponsored by the International Workers Order and organized by the local I. L. Peretz School. On May 14 a memorial service was held in Winnipeg at the Hebrew Sick Benefit Banquet Hall. The notice had the following inscriptions: “Fell at his post in the battle for survival of the Jewish people”, “For the unity of all Jews, for friendship with the Soviet Union and Soviet Jewry” and “Come to honour the eternal memory of Dr. Chaim Zhitlovsky which will shine forever and ever”. Speakers included B.A. Victor, Leybl Basman, Joseph Zuken and H. Guralnik.
The final word on Chaim Zhitlovsky goes to Abraham J. Arnold: “ Zhitlovsky favoured secularization of Jewish life not out of hostility to religion, but to make it possible for every Jew, believer or non – believer, to belong to the Jewish community, and held that the Jewish holidays, including the Sabbath day of rest contain national, lofty moments which render them worthy of celebration by secular Jews”.
(1) According to Zhitlovsky the theoretical underpinning of diasporic nationalism was adherence to the social and cultural autonomy of Jews in the diaspora. Zhitlovsky viewed Jews as an autonomous “nation” separate from the host society with unique cultural values best expressed and represented through the linguistic medium of Yiddish.
Arnold, Abraham J. Judaism: Myth, Legend, History and Custom. From the Religious to the Secular.
Montreal – Toronto: Rupert Davies Publishing, 1995
Canadian Israelite. Four Lectures by Zhitlovsky, March 14, 1912, p.1
Canadian Israelite. 25th Jubilee Celebration, November 14, 1912, p.1