Tagore’s Association with Jews
By Navras Jaat Aafreedi
During my post-doctoral research at Tel Aviv University in the academic year 2006-2007, I was resident on a street in the Ramat Aviv neighbourhood of Tel Aviv named after Tagore, who is said to have been privately called by the punning name ‘Rabbi’ Tagore by Einstein, one of the greatest Jews ever. The fact that there is an important street named after him in the world’s only Jewish state, Israel, is only a little hint of the respect he came to command among the Jews and his close association with some of them, the most prominent being Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945), Alex Aronson (1912-1995), Moriz Winternitz (1863-1937), Sylvain Levi (1863-1935) and Stella Kramrisch (1896-1993). In fact, the credit for introducing Tagore to the West goes to a Jew, Sir William Rothenstein, to whom Tagore dedicated his collection of poems, Gitanjali: “He had the vision to see the truth and the heart to love it.” Rothenstein not only arranged for Tagore to read from it before an audience that included poets such as Ezra Pound, but also had his friend, William Butler Yeats, write the introduction to the English translation. Gitanjali got Tagore the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. Interestingly, Tagore’s response to his new international fame greatly concerned the very man who played such a crucial role in achieving it for him, Rothenstein, which he expressed in the following words:
I was concerned only lest Tagore’s saintly looks, and the mystical element in his poetry, should attract the Schwarmerei of the sentimentalists who abound in England and America, and who pursue idealists even more hungrily than ideals…great fame is a perilous thing …Tagore, who had hitherto lived quietly in Bengal, devoting himself to poetry and to his school, would now grow restless. As a man longs for wine or tobacco, so Tagore would not resist the sympathy shown to a great idealist.
Sir William Rothenstein vigorously promoted Indian art and literature and strongly supported the Bengal School of art, in his capacity as the principal of the Royal College of Art, London, from 1920 to 1935. He became friends with painters in the Tagore family and made his only trip to India in 1910 at the invitation of one of them, a nephew of Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), considered the father of the Bengal School of art. In Calcutta, he met the members of the local art society and saw collections of old bronzes and paintings. It was under Rothenstein’s friend E.B. Havell, Principal of the Calcutta School of Art, that Abanindranath became the institution’s vice-principal. Rothenstein also supported an elder brother of Rabindranath Tagore, Jyotindranath (1849-1925), an excellent artist. He arranged in London for the publication of Twenty-five Collotypes from the Original Drawings of Jyotindranth Tagore. Rabindranath Tagore took up painting long after Rothenstein’s trip to India. Rothenstein saw him as “one of the most remarkable men of his time” with an “inner charm as well as great physical beauty.” In 1915, MacMillan published his folio, Six Portraits of Rabindranath Tagore. Rothenstein and Tagore remained lifelong friends and exchanged letters for three decades.
Although Rothenstein came from a Jewish family and also underwent a bar mitzvah ceremony, yet he did not identify himself as a Jew. Another assimilated Jew, who played an important role in bringing Tagore’s poetry to Europe, was the Nobel Prize winner for literature, Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), who translated his poetry into Russian.
Stella Kramrisch was another Jewish artist Tagore came in close association with. She was invited by him to join Kala-Bhavan at Visv-Bharati as a teacher of art history. Her experience working with Tagore is summed up in her own words: “Living in the nearness of Dr Tagore makes me realise India in full intensity.”
Kramrisch was not the only Jew to be invited by Tagore to teach at Visva Bharati, the university established by him. In fact, the very first visiting professor at Visva Bharati was a Jew, Sylvain Levi, one of the greatest orientalists ever, who Tagore met during his visit to Paris in 1920-21 and immediately extended him the invitation to be a Visiting Professor at Visva-Bharati, which he readily accepted. Levi stayed there for a year, 1921-22, and taught French, Chinese and Tibetan languages. We get an idea of his experience there from what he wrote to Tagore I923:
I do not know if Santiniketan will ever rank among the most developed institutions of learning in the world, but you can be satisfied that you have built up an abode of unparallel peace. I long [for] the day when I can sit again in the shade of the mango-trees, walk along the noble alley of shals, talk, dream, listen to music, to verses, enjoy your delightful, sweet, dear company together with the beloved friends there.
Another Jew to teach at Visva-Bharati was Moriz Winternitz, professor of Indian philology and ethnology at German University, who was acknowledged as an authority on ancient and medieval Indian literature. He was a Visiting Professor at Visva-Bharati from February 1923 to September 1924, during which he delivered lectures on the history of Sanskrit literature. Tagore had met him on a visit to Prague in 1920.
But of all the Jews he made friends with, it was his friendship with Albert Einstein which made international news. It was his dialogue with him that came to be written about extensively. He met Albert Einstein a number of times; the first being during his second visit to Germany in 1926. But Einstein was certainly aware of Tagore by 1919 (or even earlier), for they had signed together an anti-war ‘Declaration of the Independence of Spirit’. Their conversation in 1926 was not recorded, but the conversations that followed in 1930 when they met four times were, the earlier two of which were published: the first one (that on 14th July) in the New York Times on 10th August, the second (that on 19th August) in the New York based magazine Asia (March 1931). Although both conversations concerned science, yet the first one, which was focused on reality, came to be considered as the more significant and was reported about under the heading “Einstein and Tagore Plumb the Truth” in the following words:
It was interesting to see them together – Tagore, the poet with the head of a thinker, and Einstein, the thinker with the head of a poet…Neither sought to press his opinion. They simply exchanged ideas. But it seemed to an observer as though two planets were engaged in a chat.
Einstein later termed his conversation with Tagore “rather unsuccessful because of difficulties of communication” and thought it should “never have been published.” But three months later, in October, he contributed to a Festschrift for Tagore’s seventieth birthday, The Golden Book of Tagore (1931). It is said that Tagore declined an offer of honorary doctorate from Berlin University in protest against the Nazi treatment of Einstein. He also voiced his protest against Einstein’s ill treatment by the Nazis, a protest which found its way into newspapers. In a letter from 1934, addressed to N E B Ezra, editor of the Israel Messenger, Tagore wrote:
…if the brutalities we read of are authentic, then no civilized conscience can allow compromise with them. The insults offered to my friend Einstein have shocked me to the point of torturing my faith in modern civilisation.
However, scholars have come to recognize roots of the lack of philosophical communication between the two as much deeper than mere linguistic barrier, as illustrated by what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who attended Tagore’s Oxford lectures, commented in 1993:
I do not believe that, apart from professions of mutual regard and the fact that Einstein and Tagore were both sincere and highly gifted and idealistic thinkers, there was much in common between them – although their social ideals may well have been very similar.
Einstein could never agree with Tagore’s concept of a universal mind controlling nature, because of his commitment to the realism, determinism and strict causality of classical physics. Tagore wrote: “The Universe is like a cobweb and minds are spiders; for mind is one as well as many.” Tagore was of the view that nature could be conceived only in terms of our mental consciousness for what we perceive is subject to what we think. In his words:
The world is a human world – the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man… What we call truth lies in the rational harmony between the subjective and objective aspects of reality, both of which belong to the super-personal man…if there by any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity, then for us it is absolutely non-existing.
In contrast to Tagore, Einstein held the view that nature exists, objectively, irrespective of our awareness of it. Hence, he thought, it was necessary to describe “what nature does”, rather than just speaking about our knowledge of nature.
Much as he would have liked to, Tagore could not offer asylum to Jewish refugees from Europe because of the financial constraints of Visva-Bharati, but he did invite members of a Zionist organization to establish small farms in Sriniketan modeled on Kibutzim. Tagore wrote to the great Sanskrit scholar and Zionist emissary to India, Dr. Immanuel Olsvanger in 1937:
…the inspiration that your workers can give us if some of them would join us here and start settlements of their own would be invaluable; their experience and example would, I feel sure, bring untold benefit both to our village organizers and to the villagers themselves.
Although Tagore even sent an “outline scheme for cooperation between Jewish pioneers and workers at Visva-Bharati,” yet nothing came out of it. Another attempt at achieving collaboration with Jews in Palestine (now Israel) was made by his son Rathindranath Tagore, certainly with his approval, when he suggested to the rector of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem a “scheme for increasing collaboration and interchange of scholars between Visva Bharati” and that university after the Second World War.
Alex Aronson (1912-1995) was an exception among European Jews who found employment at Visva Bharati. Aronson left the country his Russian parents had settled in, Germany, at the age of twenty for his Bachelor’s at Cambridge. But upon the completion of the course he decided not to return to Germany, as the Nazis had already come into power by then and started implementing their anti-Jewish agenda. Considering how hard it was to find a suitable job in England, he wrote to Rabindranath Tagore at the suggestion of a visiting Chinese scholar, who had stopped by in India and visited Santiniketan. He got a response to it from Rabindranath’s son, Rathindranath, offering him lectureship in English literature. Aronson joined Visva Bharati in November 1937 and continued to teach there until he accepted a position in the Department of English at Dhaka University in July or August 1944. During his tenure at Viswa Bharati, Aronson wrote three books; the most important of them being Rabindranath through Western Eyes (1943), which was based on the Western popular responses to Tagore expressed through the daily press. Another book that Aronson wrote, focused on Tagore, was Rolland and Tagore, which he edited jointly with Krishna Kripalani. It was a compilation of Rolland’s letters to Tagore and also brought together the essays these two figures wrote on each other.
Rabindranath Tagore interceded on behalf of Aronson twice when he was threatened with internment during the Second World War because of his being a German national in spite of his having been stripped of his German citizenship by the Nazis. Tagore personally wrote a three-page-letter, dated 4th August, 1940, to Sir Reginald M. Maxwell, the Home Member of the Government of India. He also wrote to Sir Khawaja Nazimuddin, an influential member of the government in undivided Bengal who later served as the prime minister of Pakistan. As a result of these efforts of Tagore, Aronson’s internment was indefinitely postponed. In 1946, he settled in Israel (then Palestine), where he taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University. He continued to write on Tagore, revisited India in 1980 and passed away in 1995.
A bust of Rabindranath Tagore was installed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2012 on his 150th birth anniversary. It is best to conclude this essay with the words of the Israeli scholar, David Shulman, who in his tribute to Tagore at the unveiling ceremony said: “A man of peace who had a presence in the Hebrew culture of early years before the establishment of the state.”
Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi is Assistant Professor of History at School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Gautam Buddha University, Greater NOIDA (India) and currently Endeavour Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies, School of Languages & Cultures, University of Sydney (Aug-Dec 2015). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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