This Day in Jewish History / A Fiercely Secular Yiddish Writer Dies

How life boiled down for Itche Goldberg: 'Check for $150,000 or corned beef sandwich'

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On December 27, 2006, Yiddish writer, editor, teacher and tireless promoter of the language Itche Goldberg died, at the age of 102.

Even as the number of Yiddish speakers dwindled dramatically over the course of the 20th century, largely as a result of the Holocaust, Goldberg, a secular communist-turned-socialist, continued to fight to keep alive his vision of a secular Yiddish culture, and dismissed any rumors that the language was “dead.”

Yitzhak Gutnik Goldberg was born March 22, 1904, in Opatow, Poland. From a young age he was called “Itche” – Little Yitzhak – a name that stuck with him throughout his life.

In 1914, his father and a brother moved to Canada, while Itche, his mother and four other siblings relocated to Warsaw, staying there another six years. During that time, Itche studied at a Hebrew teachers seminary. Later, when he arrived in Toronto, he attended McMaster University, though he never finished his degree.

Goldberg became involved with the Workmen’s Circle organization, a secular, socialist group that ran a network of schools operating in Yiddish. He taught, first in Toronto, and later in New York, where he broke with the Workmen’s Circle over ideology, and helped found a school system within the more radical, communistic International Workers Order.

Tear down the mezuzah

Although his personal politics moderated with the years, particularly in the wake of the bloody and anti-Semitic rule of Stalin in the Soviet Union, Goldberg remained dedicated all his life to the idea of a secular Jewish identity, which he saw as espousing humanistic and non-religious values, but still dipping deep into Jewish culture and history. Toward the end of his life, he told an interviewer, “Just because I’m secular doesn’t mean I’m antireligious,” though he was furious when a photograph of him donning tallit and tefillin made its way into a Yiddish paper in New York, and he ordered the removal of a mezuzah attached to his door by the same Chabad missionary who had supplied the tefillin.

Goldberg’s industriousness was impressive: He taught, both in schools and at the “red-diaper baby” summer camp Kinderland, and later at Queens College; and he directed the schools run by the IWO, which at their peak had some 80,000 students in 140 schools. He edited a classic Yiddish anthology for children, “Yiddish Stories for Young People,” and wrote librettos for more than 20 vocal pieces in Yiddish. He translated such diverse works as Latin-language classics and the poems of Langston Hughes into Yiddish, and from 1964 to 2004, he edited and kept alive the literary journal Yidishe Kultur. Each year, the periodical published a memorial volume dedicated to the Jewish writers murdered under Stalin.

Itche Goldberg remained sharp until his death, in which he was survived by his wife, the former Jennie Wilensky, age 101. When he turned 100, the year he finally had to close Yidishe Kulture, Goldberg was honored with a series of celebrations. At that time, he told an interviewer from The Times about his two dreams: “One dream is that someone will knock on the door and I will open it and they give me a check for $150,000 for the magazine. Second dream is that someone knocks at the door and I open it up and he gives me a corned beef sandwich. Those are my only two dreams. I’m not asking for much. Really, I’m not. And I think they’re both reachable.”

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

Itche GoldbergCredit: YouTube