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Itche Goldberg, 102; fixture in communist struggle and a teacher of Yiddish culture

January 09, 2007|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post

Itche Goldberg, a Polish-born Jew who became a fixture in the communist struggle of the 1920s and '30s and later emerged as a writer, editor, publisher and teacher of Yiddish language and culture, died of cancer Dec. 27 in his New York home. He was 102.

After his family settled in Canada, Goldberg became involved in a Jewish fraternal group called the Workmen's Circle. He became a Yiddish instructor, initially in Canada and later in Philadelphia and New York. He was part of an ideological movement that used Yiddish to teach Jews about the international proletariat struggle.

He became a leading cultural figure in the International Workers Order, a communist-affiliated insurance and fraternal organization that had splintered from the Workmen's Circle.

He once said about the split, which occurred around 1930: "There was no question about our Jewishness or Jewish consciousness, and the Jewish consciousness led us very naturally to the Soviet Union. Here was Romania, anti-Semitic. Poland, which was anti-Semitic. Suddenly we saw how Jewish culture was developing in the Soviet Union. It was really breathtaking. You had the feeling that both the national problem was solved and the social problem was solved. This was no small thing. It was overpowering, and we were young."

Before the International Workers Order folded amid the communist witch hunt of the early 1950s, Goldberg spent two decades as cultural director of its Jewish section.

In that position, he edited several journals -- including a children's publication with cartoons and stories -- and oversaw secular Yiddish-language schools that peaked with 80,000 students in the United States and Canada.

He started a publishing concern for Jewish history texts and Yiddish songbooks, and in the 1970s and 1980s he taught Yiddish at New York's Queens College.

He also persevered in publishing Yiddishe Kultur, a literary and cultural magazine started in the late 1930s. He assumed the editorship in 1964, when his predecessor left for a kibbutz in Israel. Goldberg became a relentless fundraiser to maintain bimonthly publication, which became increasingly difficult. Yiddishe Kultur had a few hundred subscribers when it last went to press in 2004.

Eugene Orenstein, who teaches Jewish studies at McGill University in Montreal and is a former student of Goldberg's, called his teacher one of the last links to a world that saw the blossoming of Yiddish culture in the West with the mass immigration of European Jews from the 1880s to the 1920s.

Besides promoting the work of modern Yiddish writers, many of whom he knew in the 1920s and '30s, Goldberg also translated varied works into Yiddish, from Latin classics to Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

Yitzhak Gutkind Goldberg was born in 1904 in Opatow, Poland. The family left for Warsaw in 1914, just before the start of World War I.

His father and older brother went ahead to Canada. Goldberg, his mother and four other siblings stayed in Poland six more years.

While they waited, Goldberg talked his way into a Hebrew teachers seminary in Warsaw. When the family was reunited in Toronto, where his father had become a junk dealer, Goldberg attended McMaster University in Ontario. Self-taught in English, he studied philosophy and economics until quitting school in his fourth year.

Goldberg gradually came to realize the horrors of Stalinist Russia and specifically the regime's murderous treatment of Jews. During his editorship of Yiddishe Kultur, Goldberg published a memorial issue every August honoring Yiddish writers executed under Stalin.

Goldberg was viewed as a far more avuncular figure in his later years and received a flurry of press attention as an eccentric and tenacious figure in a shrinking circle of Yiddish experts.

He believed that promoting Yiddish was critical to the survival of Jewish culture, especially as the language, estimated to have 12 million speakers in 1939, dwindled to half a million speakers.

"You get the impression that I'm full of fight?" he asked the New York Times in 2004. "I'm not really. I might as well tell you: I only have 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."

He is survived by his wife, Jennie Goldberg; two children, David Goldberg and Susan Goldberg, both of New York; two granddaughters; and two great-grandchildren.

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