The Spirit of the Nation or the War between the Jews and Sanballat: A Gift to the Jewish Studies Collection

Book cover of The Spirit of the Nation in Hebrew

Book cover of The Spirit of the Nation by Kless

Few voices like that of Menachem Mendel ben Hayim Kless have emerged to shed light on the emotional sentiments of the first Eastern European Jews who left their homes and lives behind to venture to Ottoman Palestine in the 1880s during the First Aliyah, a period that saw the emigration of tens of thousands of Jews. His book Ruah ha-Le’om (Kishinev: Tipografīi︠a︡. A.S. Stepanovoĭ, 1890) is one such voice. Thanks to the generosity of Linda Stern, a descendent of Kless, the University of Chicago Library is now one of only four libraries worldwide that holds a copy. The copy donated by Ms. Stern is in excellent condition and an excellent complement to the Ludwig Rosenberger Collection of Judaica. It is available for viewing through the Special Collections Research Center as well as accessible in digitized form through HathiTrust (title page pictured here).

As a participant in the Hibbat Tsiyon (Love of Zion) movement, Kless composed the work as a plea to its readers imploring them to follow their coreligionists out of a continent that had turned against them upon the ascension of Alexander III of Russia. Throughout this short book, Kless employs the metaphor of the opposition of Sanballat the Horonite to the construction of the Second Temple in Nehemiah’s time (see especially Nehemiah 4). Written entirely as an address to the reader and containing within it references to the Bible and rabbinic literature, the Ruah ha-Le’om reads like a well-crafted sermon – a pietistic rallying cry.

: Receipt for money wired from Bella Greenspan in Israel to her brother Leizar Kless

Receipt for money wired from Bella Greenspan (née Kless) in Israel to her brother Leizar Kless, ca. 1900 (image taken by Linda Stern).

Reading Ruah ha-Le’om serves to compliment the reading of more well-known works by the Hovevei Tsiyon (Lovers of Zion), most notably Leon Pinsker’s famous German language pamphlet Auto-Emancipation (1882) as well as the many works by the famed Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha’am. Reading Kless’s work in light of these two thinkers is of particular interest to those interested in the history of the revival of Hebrew as the official language of Jewish settlements in Palestine and eventually as the national language of Israel. When considering the debate between the rival Hebrew and German factions, we ought to consider a work like Ruah ha-Le’om as an influential factor.

Menachem Mendel Kless (1846-1916) was born and lived much of his life in Poland. He wrote Ruah ha-Le’om while he was still in Europe. After arriving to Palestine in 1902, Kless along with many of the Hovevei Tsiyon took up residence in Rishon le-Tsiyon, one of the first pre-state Jewish settlements, where he was a Hebrew teacher. Menachem’s devotion to Palestine was not uniformly shared by his children. According to family letters held by the donor, Linda Stern, we learn that only two children, Bella and Haim, remained in Palestine. Two children, Keila and Fabi, left for Egypt, though Fabi later returned at the end of his life. Keila’s daughter married a British citizen and moved to England after the Second World War. Menachem’s youngest daughter, Nehama, immigrated first to Berlin and then Riga and likely did not survive World War II. Leizar, later Louis, left Palestine early in his life and eventually settled in New York. He is the great grandfather of the donor, Linda Stern.

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