Лев Бердников

The Jewish Antiquarian

“I would like to show how poetry gushes like a living spring from the depths of metrics; I would like to show why stilted recitation grates our ear while a skillful reading opens before us new, distant horizons; I would like to show how the works of our great poets should be interpreted and how their natural rhythm must be found in order for them to be truly appreciated; I would like to show how when our inner eye is informed by a correct understanding of meter is suddenly capable of seeing everything that is happening in their soul at the moment of inspiration; I would like to show how, if we cast off the alien yoke, we can, without cunning philosophizing or arcane theory, write beautiful verse and in full awareness of its internal structure”.

We have introduced a brief fragment from the book by Baron David Ginzburg (who also went by de Günzburg, 1857-1910) On Russian Verse: Experiencing the Rhythmic Structure of Lermontov s Poetry (which, unfortunately, has not been translated into English) to give the reader an opportunity to hear the voice of this outstanding scholar and educator. This work is marked by an ardent love of Russian poetry, and one is struck by the amazingly pure but also lively and emotional language of the author. He was nourished not only by the classics, but by the conversations that so often took place in the Ginzburg household among the masters of the Russian word that surrounded David when he was a young boy. The examples from other languages that he offers in his book make clear how knowledgeable and comfortable he was with French, German, English, Italian, Polish, Ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and even Arabic versification, and reveal an impressive philological erudition.

At an early age, as was to be expected in the Ginzburg family, David was already a polyglot. In addition to providing his son with a traditional Jewish upbringing, Horace saw that he learned the major European and classical languages. For his home education, elder Ginzburg made sure that David had the best mentors, top experts in their fields. One of them, the brilliant scholar of medieval Jewish literature and philosophy, Senior Sachs (1816-1892), proved extremely influential on David. The curator of the Ginzburg library, Sachs was also the compiler of a catalogue of ancient Jewish manuscripts and it was he would instill in David a consuming and enduring interest in rare books and manuscripts. This translated into a passion that David spent a lifetime pursuing. Another mentor was Hirsch Rabinovich (1832-1889), the compiler of a compendium on the natural sciences that was popular among Jews in his day, was also a gifted journalist and sharp-witted polemicist, something that rubbed off on his pupil. Another major force in David s intellectual development was one of the top humanists of the nineteenth century, the orientalist Adolf Neubauer (1831-1907), who went on to become a professor in the department of rabbinic literature at Oxford University. Neubauer, along with the beauties of ancient Hebrew and Karaite literature, introduced David to the charms of Arabic literature and language.

It became clear early in David s life that he did not have the Ginzburg talent for business and finance, but the makings of a scholar were clearly evident. He was drawn to the cradle of civilization, the Middle East of antiquity, and became absorbed in a quest to comprehend its history and culture. On his own initiative, in Paris David began to attend lectures by the eminent Arabist, historian of Islam, and expert in ancient poetry, StanislasGuyard (1846-1884). The young baron was inspired by Guyard s theory about a system of versification based on a language s natural rhythm. He would go on to develop this theory in his own scholarly works.

At St. PetersburgUniversity he audited lectures in the history of Middle Eastern cultures and the literature of medieval Arabia and Persia by professor Victor Rozen (1849-1908), the founder of a school of Arabic studies in Russia. Rosen was a broadly learned man with a particular interest in cultural history, an interest he instilled in the young Ginzburg.

The knowledge David acquired through his home education and subsequent self-education prepared him, at the age of 20, to pass examinations at St. PetersburgUniversity and earn a Candidate of Sciences degree (the approximate equivalent of a Ph.D.), despite the fact that he was never enrolled as a student there. He did not stop at that. His thirst for knowledge led him to the oldest university in Europe, the University of Greifswald, founded in the fifteenth century. Here he studied under the famous professor WilhelmAhlwardt (1828-1909), an expert in ancient Arabic poetry and oriental languages. Among the things Ginzburg studied there was the Coptic language, making him the only scholar of this language in Russia.

By Ginzburg standards, David married rather late in life, at age 26, choosing his cousin Matilda YuryevnaGinzburg, who was seven years his junior, as his bride. The ceremony, which took place in Paris, was a traditional huppa. The union resulted in five children: Anna, Joseph-Evzel, Mark, Sofia, and Eugene. All (except for Mark, who died in childhood) lived through the revolution and emigrated, Anna and Joseph-Evzel to France, Sofia to Palestine, and Eugene to Argentina.

The baron proved a highly productive scholar and writer. Among the many works he published was the first edition (in 1886) of The Topaz (Sefer ha-Anakor Sefer ha-Tarshish), a collection of poetry by the renowned medieval Jewish poet, philosopher, and linguist, Moses Ibn Ezra, and an Arabic translation of this work with commentaries (1887). In 1896 the collection he compiled, The Diwan of IbnQuzman, the eleventh century Muslim poet from Cordoba, was published.

But perhaps his most impressive achievement was a project he undertook in collaboration with the prominent critic VladimirStasov, L OrnementHébreu(1905). This sumptuously produced album, which features examples of ornamentation from Syrian, Yemeni, and African Jewish manuscripts, represented two decades of work with manuscripts from the Imperial Public Library. Stasov s enthusiastic participation in the project is noteworthy and should be instructive to today s Russian “patriots.” Here is what the researcher Alexander Kantsedikas had to say on the subject.

For Stasov, the search for the national identity of Jewish art was closely associated with the main objective of his overall cultural work – the study and introduction into contemporary artistic practice of the distinctive foundations of Russian art. This might seem paradoxical, since today expressions of Russian national feeling are often accompanied by manifestations of anti-Semitism.

David Ginzburg s bibliography is extremely impressive. He appeared in the most authoritative scholarly journals and anthologies of his day, publishing on a wide variety of topics – everything from an essay on the history of the cabala in the journal Issues of Philosophy and Psychology to an expansive study of the first Jewish school in Siberia for The Journal of the Russian Ministry of Education. His articles were eagerly published by such Jewish periodicals as Revue des Etudes Juives, Hameliz, Hajom, Hakedem, Voskhod, among others, and were sought out by the editors of commemorative anthologies in honor of eminent scholars, including professors Viktor Rozen, Daniel Chwolson, AvraamGarkavi, Leopold Tsunts, and MoritsSteinschneider. He also completed a fundamental and truly titanic work – a catalogue describing the manuscripts held by the Russian Foreign Ministry s Office of Oriental Languages.

It should be noted that not everything David Ginzburg produced was published in his lifetime. The book on Lermontov cited above came out only in 1915. His HaggadahShelPesah(a collection of Biblical prayers, blessings, and commentaries associated with the exodus from Egypt) was not published until 1962.

The unique library collected by three generations of Ginzburgs was passed down to David in his father s lifetime and in the 1880s was brought together in St.   Petersburg in the young baron s house located at No. 4 PervayaLiniya. Some of the books had been kept in Kamenets-Podolsk (where the collection first began) and others were brought from Paris (where, beginning in the 1850s, its most valuable components were kept). The centerpiece of the library was the Jewish manuscripts and books, the number of which expanded greatly under David Ginsburg s stewardship. The Jewish portion of the library was expanded through acquisitions from the leading booksellers of the day, including those outside Russia (Fischl Hirsch, EliezerAzhkenazi, Ephraim Deinard, among others), and as a result of the purchase of entire collections (for example, approximately 100 extremely rare Jewish publications from the collection of I.M. Vyazinsky). One fascinating contribution to the Ginzburg collection was the entire personal library of the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, including his theological writings.

It would be difficult to compile a list of all the scholarly societies in which David Ginzburg took part. He was a life-long member of the Russian Imperial Archeological Society and the Paris Société Asiatique and was on the Scholars Committee of the Russian Ministry of Education. These memberships were far from sinecures – they came with a great deal of hard work. He himself was the driving force behind the creation of the Society for Oriental Studies in St. Petersburgand the Société des Etudes Juives in Paris. He was intimately involved in the emergence of the Society for Jewish Scholarly Publications. One of the largest projects undertaken by this society was the publication of Russia s first Jewish encyclopedia compiled by Friederich Arnold Brockhaus and IlyaAbramovichEfron between 1908 and 1913, “a collection of knowledge about Jewry and its culture, past and present.” This is still the most complete and wide-ranging (in terms of the volume of text and quality of illustration) encyclopedia on this subject. Suffice it to say that it contains more than 21,000 articles.

“The idea to publish the encyclopedia – L.B. met with his ardent and energetic sympathy,” writes David Ginzburg s Russian biographer, Herman Henkel (German Genkel). “He was the first to support the idea and the encyclopedia owes its existence largely to his assistance.” Working in close collaboration with Dr. Lev Katsnelson, Ginzburg became the encyclopedia s editor-in-chief. He also contributed entries on Arab and Gaonic literature. The articles of this universal compendium written by the top scholars of the day has not gone out of date even today (especially when it comes to questions of history, biography, and issues of biblical interpretation).

David Ginzburg was behind the opening of the first secular Jewish institution of higher education in Russia – St. Petersburg s Courses in Eastern Studies. This name was imposed on the baron by officials at the Ministry of Education. It had been Ginzburg s intention to call the college the Institute of Jewish   Knowledge. As the historian Mikhail Beyzer remarked, “The Judophobic Russian government could not allow such an  unseemly  word as  Jewish  to appear above the entrance of an institution of higher learning and covered up this embarrasment with an  Eastern  fig leaf.”

The course of study included analysis of the Tanakh and the Talmud, Jewish and world history, philosophy, languages, literature, and art of the Middle East, as well as psychology and pedagogy. Baron Ginzburg himself served as rector. He recruited the best historians, orientalists, linguists, and experts in Jewish literature to join the faculty, which included Lev Katsnelson, SemyonDubnow, HenrikSliozberg, Mark Vishnitser, Isaac Markon, and AbrahamZarzovsky.

Ginzburg lectured on Talmudic, rabbinical, and Arabic literature, Semitic linguistics, and medieval philosophy. According to Dubnow, the baron often invited students to his library, where they took turns reading from the rare volumes that had been laid out on the tables out loud (he would help them decipher difficult passages). He saw the objective of the Courses in Eastern Studies as “creating a learned element among the Jews that would be able to successfully meet the spiritual and scholarly needs of Russian Jewry, serve its interests as a public rabbi or teacher, and generally help to uphold the covenants of the past.”

As a public figure the baron was a worthy heir to his remarkable father. Even during Horace s lifetime David became a member of the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among the Jews of Russia and the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture among the Jews of Russia. After his father s death he replaced him as the chairman of the St. Petersburg Jewish community and of the Central Committee of the Jewish Colonization Association. He also founded the St. Petersburg Society to Assist Impoverished Jews and a kosher dining hall for students and served as a trustee of a Jewish orphanage in St.  Petersburg, a Minsk farm, and an agricultural school for Jewish colonists in Novaya Poltava. 

David Ginzburg was a close friend of the famous archeologist and vice president of the Academy of Arts, Count Ivan Tolstoy, who served as Minister of Education from October 1905 to April 1906. It should be noted that this liberal dignitary proposed eliminating quotas for Jews in institutions of higher learning. In 1907 Tolstoy and Ginzburg, along with the philosopher Ernest Radlov; Yuri Milyutin, one of the leaders of the political party, the Union of October 17; EsperUkhtomsky, editor of the newspaper PeterburgskieVedomosti(St. Petersburg gazette); and PyotrIzvolsky, Ober-Procurator of the Governing Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, formed the Society for Equality and Fraternity. The members of the society (or rather kruzhok, meaning circle), regardless of their diverse political convictions, shared a common mission of restoring “peace, truth, and justice,” and “introducing their spirit into the University, the State Council, and the State Duma, and instill this spirit through secondary and elementary school instruction.” The goal of the society was to achieve equality for all the peoples of Russia, with special emphasis on the idea that its participants would have to “fight anti-Semitism through word and deed.”

The baron, like his father and grandfather before him, looked out for Jewish interests, and was always prepared to intercede on behalf of his fellow Jews. And he was in a position to do so: a prominent official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he had the rank of a State Councilor and was well received within the highest government circles.

He was also a patron of Jewish talent. It was he who saw in the fifteen-year-old SamuilMarshak a major poet, and he recommended the youth to the influential Vladimir Stasov (later the gifted young man found himself under the wing of Maxim Gorky).

Untimely death (at the age of 53) prevented the baron from realizing his full potential. He outlived his father, a legendary figure, by only two years. For this reason David Ginzburg was fated to go down in the annals of the advancement of Jewish rights as a successor to Horace Ginzburg rather than someone with great achievements in this area in his own right.

Clearly, in his views on the future of Russian Jewry he was not fully in accord with his father. While Ginzburg senior, believed that Jews could thrive in the Russia of the future, Ginzburg junior was an adherent of Russian Jewish resettlement to Palestine. It was for this reason that this Jewish antiquarian bequeathed his collection, lovingly assembled by three generations, to the Jewish Public Library in Jerusalem.

Would Evzel and Horace Ginzburg have approved? Hardly! Wholeheartedly devoted to their native land, they, it must be assumed, would be glad to know that the legacy of the three barons remains, at least for the time being, in Russia.


                                                                                  Translated by Nora Favorov

                                                           All rights reserved


Lev Berdnikov. Born in 1956, Moscow, he is a graduate of the philological faculty of the Moscow Pedagogical Institute and the Higher Library courses. He worked at the Museum of Books of the Russian State Library, where he led a research team on Russian incunabula. In 1985 he defended his thesis "The Formation of the Sonnet in Eighteenth-Century Russian Poetry". Since 1990 he has been living in Los Angeles. He is author of the books: Happy Phoenix: Essays on Russian Sonnet and Book Culture of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century, Dandies and Rakes:Heroes of the Russian Gallant Century, Jews in Livery: Literary Portraits, Jesters and Wits: Heroes of Yore, The Jews of the Russian State, in English as: Jews in Service to the Tsar (Montpelier, 2011), Russian Gallant Century in faces and scenes. Vol.1-2 (Montreal, 2013) and numerous publications in Russia, U.S., Canada, England, Israel, Germany, Denmark, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova. His works have been translated into Hebrew, Ukrainian, Danish and English.  He is member of the Russian PEN Center, the Moscow Writers  Union, the Union of Writers of the Twenty-First Century and the Union of Russian Writers of Israel. He is also member of the editorial board of the journals "New Beach" (Denmark) and "Seven Arts" (Germany). In 2010 he won the Gorky Literary Award in the category "Across Russia: Historical Journalism".


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