The Small Opinions of Great Men

Getsl (George) Selikovitch (1863–1926) was born in Riteve, near present-day Kaunas. As a young man Selikovitch excelled in his traditional education and was known as the “Riteve elui,” the Talmudic genius of Riteve, by the age of 13. In addition to these studies, he learned Hebrew, Russian, and German with his mother, who had received a secular education. In 1879 Selikovitch left his home for Paris, where he studied East Asian languages at the Sorbonne. In 1885 he served as an Arabic interpreter for the British relief force, called the Nile Expedition, to relieve General Charles Gordon during the Siege of Khartoum, for which he received the title of honorary lieutenant. When he returned to Paris he continued his studies of ancient Egyptian and other languages, and at the same time he began his journalistic career, writing for the Hebrew publication Hamelitz, among others. He immigrated to America in 1887, where he briefly lectured in Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania. He moved to New York, where he became a professional journalist. He edited several Yiddish publications, including Der folks advokat, Der yudisher herald, Yudishe obend-post, and Teglikhe prese, and for many years was a regular contributor to the Yudishen tageblat. He wrote popular and scholarly articles, feuilletons, sensational novels, and poetry under his own name and several pseudonyms, including “Der litvisher filozof” and “Sambatiyon.” He also published in Hebrew, French, and English.

The following letter was included among Selikovitch’s 1909 volume of collected literary letters. According to the publisher’s note, the intention was to bring before the Yiddish public an exemplar of good writing in contemporary Yiddish; the letters contained “brilliant ideas and philosophical points.” The publisher hoped to showcase for readers “how fine our language has become.”

This translation emerged out of the University of Chicago Yiddish tish, an informal gathering of students reading and discussing eclectic Yiddish texts in Yiddish. Our group was excited by the challenge of finding the appropriate register to match Selikovitch’s desire to appear erudite and to elevate the Yiddish language, even as the content of the letter affirms that an uneducated man has the potential to exhibit greatness.

 

Dear friend, M. R. Boston,

Indeed, what you expressed in your recent lecture at “Kerem Israel” is correct: every man is great in his own way.

If he is in possession of great talent or honor, love or mercy, geniality or cheer, then he is a great man!

Should his mere appreciation for a beautiful picture on the wall, a good article on a page, a sweet melody in the theater be all that constitutes his greatness, he is nevertheless a great man. Only rarely can one discern the sublime virtues that make a man great, and a man’s true worth is never written upon his face.

Do you see those men over there, sitting and conversing around a table? Suddenly one of them falls silent, lost in reflection. It is quite possible that in his silence he is actually performing a great and heroic deed in the struggle of reason against passion! In his silence, perhaps he is implementing a holy plan that he knows will cause him to suffer for the sake of humanity. Was something similar written across the great Zola’s face at the moment he decided to raise his voice about the Dreyfus affair, as he lay down his future and perhaps even his life on the altar of truth?

A man’s true greatness therefore lies in his character or his nature, and you encounter it in the factory just as you would in the university. Indeed, the worker who can barely muddle through two lines of a book in his own mother tongue is often a much greater man than its author!

It is therefore deeply illogical to say that only the “great man” can do or say this or that, as one so often hears. Unfortunately, we Jews constantly make this very mistake, searching for “authorities” at every turn. That is to say: we idolize every ill-conceived idea so long as it originates with a “great man,” and we sling mud at the noblest truths spoken by an honest and simple man. We often find the best argument to be “by virtue of who he is, because he is a great man.”

Every man is great in his own way, and the natural light of our own reason ought to be dearer to us than the artificial light of another’s greatness. Who among us hasn’t encountered “great men” who have mastered several languages, who are stuffed to the brim with scientific knowledge, and who still can’t think straight? Conversely, how many utterly uneducated men do we encounter each day who say hamoytse (the blessing over bread) over radishes and boyre mine mezoynes (the blessing over food) over a thunderclap, and yet they think so beautifully and speak so correctly? So often, it is impossible to converse with the highly educated “great man,” but when speaking with a clever railroad worker, you feel pleasure and pride. After all, why should it be surprising? Education can only polish one’s intellect; it can’t manufacture an intellect for someone who doesn’t have one!

“By virtue of who he is . . .”—stop! Who is this “he”? Kulanu khakhomim—we are all wise men. Every man is great in his own way. Even if he hasn’t studied with philological precision. Such a man is also concerned with the artificial light of scholarship, but by dint of his own natural intelligence. His understanding is often more substantive than that of a professor with a furrowed brow. The natural rays of the sun are always more brilliant than the artificial rays of electricity.

“By virtue of who he is . . .”—There is no “he,” dear sir! We are all “he’s,” each in his own way, and it is the greatest misfortune that we kneel before the small opinions of great men!

 

Original Yiddish published as “Kleyne meynungen fun groyse layt” in Getsl Selikovitch’s Literarishe brief (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1909).

MATTHEW JOHNSON is a PhD student in Germanic studies at the University of Chicago. His research interests include German and Yiddish literature in the twentieth century. 

JONAH LUBIN is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and the current Yiddish fellow at the Yiddish Forward. He is the editorial intern for In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.

CORBIN ALLARDICE is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, where he wrote his undergraduate thesis on Jacob Glatstein’s Zing Ladino as a modernist/Utopian re-imagining of Yiddish language politics. He currently works as a supertitlist in the Yiddish theater in New York.

JESSICA KIRZANE is the lecturer in Yiddish at the University of Chicago and the editor-in-chief of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. Her translation of Miriam Karpilove’s novel, Diary of a Lonely Girl, is forthcoming from Syracuse University Press this fall. Jessica was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow in 2017.