An Entry from “Between Two Worlds” from 100 Years Ago

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 3.43.43 PM

And so, as all the days of my life pass before me, my heart is torn asunder, for I see myself  as a man exploited by every side for their own interests against his own interests —  and the interests of the One who created him and breathed into his nostrils the very breath of life.

A unique literary document, the mystical journal of Hillel Zeitlin, “Between Two Worlds”, records the author’s inner experience in the momentous early months of 1917. Published in 1919 in the 4th issue of the literary journal HaTekufa, it was panned by the secularly-oriented literary establishment, who regarded Zeitlin’s visions and observations as nonsense. The journal is an eclectic hodgepodge of personal reflections upon the difficulties of living up to the religious admonitions set in the first entry, attempts to predict the end of World War I, speculation about the implications of the ongoing Russian Revolution (Zeitlin had strong feelings about the religious abilities of Rasputin) — all interspersed with accounts of Zeitlin’s fantastic dreams of flight and mystical experience.

In the Jewish collective memory, World War I tends to be overshadowed by the Holocaust. That being said, the war led to the displacement of many Jewish communities, wide-spread poverty, and the cessation of most Jewish communal activities. Collectively, the events of World War I comprised the greatest trauma to eastern European Jewry since the events of the Khmelnytsky Uprising of 1648-49. Additionally, Polish Jewry underwent rapid changes during these years, as an entire generation of younger people rejected traditional observance in order to pursue the many ideologies and movements which promised new solutions to the age-old problems of Jewish existence. Politically, the Polish community was so fragmented that the communal institutions which did survive the ravages of the war suffered from a gridlock which left them nearly entirely ineffective.

As a leading journalist for the Warsaw Yiddish daily Der Moment, whose editor Noach Pryłucki headed his own party, the Folkspartei, Zeitlin found himself in the eye of the storm which was laying waste to Polish Jewry. As recorded by the journal, the turmoil around him served as a both a mirror and catalyst for many chaotic inner experiences. A life-long “God-seeker”, Zeitlin viewed the suffering and destruction wrought by the war as a portent of the impending arrival of the Messianic age.

Zeitlin continued to write his journal for the duration of his life, and attempted on several occasions to publish continuations in the 1930s. As documented by Jonatan Meir, Zeitlin was rejected by the literary establishment, who had little interest in the eccentric religious writings of an aging writer whose greatest years were thought to have been long behind him. Like Zeitlin’s many other unpublished writings, the remainder of the journal was lost forever in the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Written 100 years ago yesterday, I am posting a translation of the entry of March 13, 1917 as an example of the character of the larger work. Within the one entry are many of the elements which appear throughout the journal: speculation about the fate of the world and the Jewish people, dreams of flight, and passionate calls to God.

For the original Hebrew, click here.

For more about Hillel Zeitlin and his life, click here.

19 Adar (March 13)

In the hour in which my thoughts are attached to God and I call and cry out with a powerful inner cry, I seek an answer to the question of the world: war or peace? — Through various signs, it seems to me that peace is indeed drawing near; but the moment I observe the world and life — I am overcome by despair, and it seems to me as though destruction has been decreed upon humanity, and particularly upon the Jewish people: pursued, flung and cast about in the sling of destruction, its children seemingly forgotten by God as they die of hunger and cold, vast multitudes of them cast about on every street corner, defenseless before every villain and enemy, before every robber and trampler, within and without.

And what does my heart tell me?

The heart hopes, yet the surroundings certainly bear a spirit of despair…

And so, between hope and despair, it happens that I doze off in the morning and behold visions, at times mournful and at times joyful, and the vision of the book (which I mentioned earlier) [1] returns to me, and the vision of flight, and then my legs are detached from the ground and I rise up and up, souring forth, and I experience a realistic sensation of sailing and ascending, and I always say (in the vision) to the members of my household, “Don’t you see? It is possible to be lifted upwards and walk in the air just as one walks on the ground.”

Just this past sabbath, the dream returned to me, and I say (in my vision) to the members of my household, “Here you see, my children, that the same God, who gives strength to mankind to walk on the ground, also gives strength to walk in the air”…

A curiosity from the aforementioned wondrous book: I saw within it many pages about the true tzaddikim, and amongst them — about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and amongst the words this peculiar line: “Even the dog of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had within in it more fear of heaven than in the hearts of other men.”

It appears that even in the world of vision there are jokers — “They told him false words and smiled at them”…

Perhaps it is a symbolic expression? And “dog” is a term for sensual life, meaning: even in the sensual life of the Berditchever there was more fear of heaven than in the spiritual lives of others.

I also saw at that time words from the Book of “Wonder” of the Ba’al Hakana, but I will not mention them. [2]

A few days ago I examined myself once more and was seized by a horrible fear: is my energy not given over entirely to foreign organizations and political parties that are distant to me by their very nature. In the end I wonder, “Whither shall I go?”

“They made me keeper of the vineyards; but my own vineyard I have not kept.” [3]

Where is my vineyard? And how shall I guard it?

My heart hurts continually on account of the disaster which has befallen my people, and I desire always to help, and I desire always to call out and galvanize, but for this purpose political parties are inevitably used. I am drawn after them, sometimes through mistake, sometimes through habit, and sometimes through weakness — what will be in the end?

My God, my God, help me, support me, show me my vineyard and make me keeper of my vineyard.

Over the course of my life, I have written many words with the very blood of my heart — and to what use? With my heart’s blood I established platforms, I aided in the founding, building, and development of various newspapers. I established high places, but when will I build an altar to the Living God? [4]

When, O Master of the World, will I be able to feel with all of my senses: Behold this is the undertaking which truly finds God’s favor, and this is the altar upon which I shall offer the blood of my heart?

I currently work as part of the Folkspartei, as their demands for Polish Jewry are proper, but are their ideals the same ideals as mine? Do they relate in any way to my ideals? [5]

In the end, I am greatly doubtful if I will remain with them for long…in the meantime the party makes use of my strengths and is aided by me, while the day will come when I — perhaps such a day will come — when I shall be compelled to wage war against them.

And so, as all the days of my life pass before me, my heart is torn asunder, for I see myself  as a man exploited by every side for their own interests against his own interests —  and the interests of the One who created him and breathed into his nostrils the very breath of life.

Please, O Lord my God, give me the strength to withstand everything, and the mind and will to serve You in truth, to serve You and You alone!

I sat and observed that I have not been doing well, for I have ceased to be exacting in the observance of the admonitions which I noted for myself on the first day of the past month of Shevat. At that time, during the first weeks of the month of Shevat, though I did occasionally stumble, as the admonitions were difficult for me to observe, my inner life was so much more beautiful and pure than my life now —

“If you leave her for a day — for two days shall she leave you.” [6]

And so, once more I am pushed into uncertainty, happenstance, desolation and melancholy, the stumbling block and the sin.

I say once more to my soul: desist!

And once more I say to my soul: Fulfill everything! Turn neither left nor right!

[1] Throughout 1917, Zeitlin had dreams of a mysterious book from which he would read passages, most of which he could not recall upon waking. In general, he noted, the message pertained to Ḥasidism and the Baal Shem Tov.

[2] A Kabbalistic commentary on the book of Genesis, attributed to R. Nekhunia ben Hakana, also known as the Ba’al Hakana.

[3] Song of Songs 1:6

[4] The Hebrew word for platform, bamah, refers in a Biblical context to “high places”, or private altars, whose use was prohibited in deference to the central altar in Jerusalem. Zeitlin has established bamot, private altars, but has yet to build a mizbeah, a national altar.

[5]  A non-Zionist anti-socialist political party originally founded by historian Simon Dubnow in 1905, advocating Diaspora Jewish nationalism and secular Yiddish culture. Its Warsaw branch emerged in 1916, led by Noach Pryłucki, editor of Der Moment, where Zeitlin published a weekly column. The party was primarily popular amongst the Jewish petite bourgeoisie of Warsaw and Lodz, but failed to achieve broader success.

[6]  Talmud Yerushalmi, Berakhot 14:4


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s