Goldberg was born in Apt, Poland, and moved to Warsaw in 1914, attending Poznanski Teachers Seminary. In 1920 he moved to Toronto, Canada, studying philosophy, German and political science at McMaster University. While in Toronto, he taught Yiddish at The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring school; it was in Toronto that his leftist/pro-communist sympathies matured. He moved to New York City in the late 1920s, and continued teaching Yiddish there as well as in Philadelphia, but left the socialist Workmen's Circle schools for the more radical Arbeter Ordn Shuln. The education schism, with Goldberg and many schools leaving the Arbeter Ring to form the Ordn network, was part of an exceedingly vituperative break within the leftist Yiddish community between the communist and socialists. (The scathing sectarian term the communists had for their socialist rivals was "social fascists".)
Passing on the Yiddish tradition to future generations was a mainstay of his life. From 1937 to 1951 he was editor of Yunvarg, a children's magazine. He wrote many children's stories, and his book, Yiddish Stories for Young People, is still being used at Workmen's Circle schools. From 1970 to 1985 he was professor of Yiddish language and literature at Queens College (C.U.N.Y.). He may be currently best known as editor from 1964 to 2004 of the longest running journal of Yiddish literature, Yidishe Kultur. The frequency of publication went down during this period, as Yiddish writers and speakers gradually died off. The final edition was published in 2004. Yet, he clung to the notion that Yiddish can still be a living language. He saw in the Yiddish/Jewish culture of Eastern Europe humanistic and progressive values. He felt that these were important, not religious ritual. He even criticized Nobel Prize winning author I.B. Singer for not portraying these ideals in his writings.
Goldberg, a secular Jew, had been closely associated with left-wing causes for many years. There were probably several threads to his attraction to a radical cause. His close associates in Toronto were Communists, including his brother-in-law, who shared his revolutionary world view of social justice. He saw the Soviet Union as the salvation for the Jewish national and social problems. Also, he described an embedded rebelliousness in the those doubly alienated, "suffering and benefiting from 'rejection [and persecution] by the Gentiles, but also their own rejection of the narrowness of the rabbi and merchant dominated shtetl life'".
Shortly after moving to New York City, he became director of the Arbeter Ordn Shuln, and helped set up a nationwide network of these schools, reaching a peak number of 140. Best described as supplemental schools, they aimed at promoting Yiddish identity, as well as inculcating the concepts of class consciousness and social justice. Goldberg saw two function of the shuln; "to revolutionize Yiddish education and to separate religion from education for the first time in Jewish history; and on the other hand to insure that progressive secularism is carried forward from generation to generation. For decades beginning in the 1920s, including two as director, he was associated with Camp Kinderland, known as a red diaper baby camp. From 1937 to 1951, he was national school and cultural director of the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, a branch of the pro-Communist International Workers Order. At its peak after World War II the JPFO had 50,000 members. When the IWO was about to be liquidated during the Red Scare in 1954 by the Department of Insurance of New York State (IWO was a fiscally sound fraternal benefit insurance company with close 200,000 members in its peak years, 1946-47), Itche withdrew the Yiddish shules from the JPFO in order to preserve them, creating the independent Service Bureau for Jewish Education so that the schools could continue to function. In the anti-left atmosphere of the period, this effort was only partially successful.
Over time he made a transition to democratic socialism, eventually seeing the Soviet Union as an anti-model. By the 1950s his enthusiasm for the Soviet Union had completely evaporated, particularly after the Soviets executed Jewish writers in 1952. Beginning in 1957 Yiddishe Kultur co-sponsored an annual public remembrance of the 12 August 1952 murders. Nevertheless, he remained a central figure in the Jewish left for decades. . In contrast to literary critics on the right who saw in Soviet Yiddish literature enforced or servile obeisence to Soviet ideology, Goldberg wrote and lectured frequently on the proud Jewish content he found in the works of such Soviet Yiddish writers as Perets Markish, Dovid Hofshteyn, and Dovid Bergelson. The Yidisher Kultur Farband (YKUF) in whose leadership Goldberg served for many years published numerous works by these authors when other Yiddish publishers in the west rejected them as outside of the Yiddish canon.
"Itche Goldberg is priceless."
"[He] has devoted his adult life to ensuring the 1,000-year-old Yiddish language and culture survive.
"Over the decades he grew as an innovative literary researcher and a beloved teacher of Yiddish language and literature, from elementary school level to the university."
"A leading cultural figure; he was part of an ideological movement that used the Yiddish language to teach and convince Jews about the international proletariat struggle.
"It is rare to encounter a man who has achieved as much as Itche has, but that is not what truly makes Itche unique. What sets Itche apart from those few who can match his accomplishments is his continued passion to learn, explore and delve further into the subjects he studies."
"A titan, a brilliant scholar of literature. A master teacher of generations."
"One of the most foremost scholars of Yiddish culture.
"Erudite head of the erstwhile communist Yiddish cultural world."
"A passion for an ancient Jewish language that threatens to slip into obscurity.
His writing has been described as "imbued with understanding and compassion, and possessed of the rarest ingredients, a subtle, sparkling, and heart-warming sense of humor.
"Today's eldest left-wing Yiddish pedagogue.
"Master Yiddish editor, educator, scholar, and writer"
"Itche Goldberg has pretty much single-handedly kept the Yiddish Left going for the last 30 years."
"The oldest writer ever to have published a new book."
"Mir shatsn op ayer vunderlekhe arbet l'toyves der yidisher kultur vos hot baraikhert dem gontsn Yidishn yishev. (“We honor your wonderful work for the benefit of Yiddish culture which enriches all of Yiddish heritage.”)
"For a century [he] was a living link to the Yiddish culture of East European immigrants.
Regarding Yiddishe Kultur: "Itche Goldberg is the dynamic force behind this publication.
"A champion of Yiddish who wrote and edited and taught his beloved language in the face of all those who said keeping Yiddish alive was a lost cause.
"A fixture in the communist struggles of the 1920s and 30s. "Veteran of the communist heyday of the 1920s."
"Embraced then rejected Communism during a lifelong dedication to the preservation of Yiddish culture.
In honor of his 100th birthday the Jewish People's Philharmonic Chorus had a concert which included a musical adaptation of I.L. Peretz's "Oyb Nit Nokh Hekher", with libretto by Itche Goldberg. In another 100th tribute, Jerrold Nadler honored him in the United States House of Representatives by saying: "Mir shatsn op ayer vunderlekhe arbet l'toyves der yidisher kultur vos hot baraikhert dem gontsn Yiddishn yishev." (English translation ``We honor your wonderful work for the benefit of Yiddish culture which enriches all of Yiddish heritage.'') He died at 102 years of age with, still, a very sharp mind. His last book was "Essayen Tsvey" ("Essays Two"), in 2004, at age 100. In honor of this publication, a commemoration of his life was held 25 July, 2006, sponsored by YIVO and League for Yiddish. A Josh Wiletsky documentary was made of his lfe at age 101, "Itche Goldberg, A Century Of Yiddish Letters, and was shown at this event.
“Never, never in history, did we produce so many poets and so much poetry in such a short period of time, barely one century. It is rare to find so much creativity in the entire history of our involvement with other languages. Look at the Tanakh — you have any number of splendors put together by various writers over the course of centuries. But here, they weren’t given any time. Time was so short for all of us. And we’re speaking only of poetry. But the prose that was produced! ... It was a time of exceptional, history-making creativity. And if we don’t understand this, we will perhaps not understand how to inherit or what to inherit.” (Speaking of Yiddish literature in first half of 20th century)
“Just because I’m secular doesn’t mean I’m antireligious.”
"The need to keep Yiddish alive in one shape or another is very basic. And after what we went through -- the loss not only of six million but also Eastern Europe -- do you allow a culture to drift away and stop existing?"
"You can't possibly see a future Jewish life with the disappearance of a 1,000-year-old language and with it a 1,000-year-old culture. Somehow it has to be there.
"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; here was 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."
"We're dealing with a language that is about 1,000 years old and a literature that is 600 or 700 years old. What developed was an extraordinary and profound modern literature which would become the equivalent of French and German literature."
"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. Those are my only two dreams. I'm not asking for much. Really, I'm not. And I think they're both reachable."
"They were killed simply because they were Jewish intellectuals. Their Jewishness was the reason. They were all stamped as spies." (Re' 1952 Stalin victims)
At age 100: "The question of where we go from here is on my mind a lot. What’s happened to socialism? What is the future of Yiddishism? When I came, at age 21, into the Workmen’s Circle shule in Toronto, I had so much eagerness, energy, and faith in socialism and in Yiddishism. Now I have insecurity. But I am used to insecurity. For over forty years I have published Yidishe Kultur without ever being able to secure its existence!"
"So a generation passes.
"Nu, far vos a bissel? Lernst du!" ("So, why just a little? Learn!", response to someone who knew only a little Yiddish)
On Eruv Yom Kippur, 2006, three months before dying, he said (in Yiddish) to his secretary: “I want to put on Teffilin." She almost fainted. Itche, the radical, left wing socialist from the Arbeter Ordn Shuln wanted to put on Teffilin – why? “Not only that, I also want Mezuzos on all my doors.”
"There will... be a full ‘transfer of power’ to the new emerging generation. I stress emerging, because I do not anticipate a Venus-like birth of a new Jewish Homo Americanus flowing out of the foam of the Sea of History. It will be a slow process of continuity and change.... The historic challenge for us will be: can we carry over and implant our secular and humanist national values into the Jewish cultural patterns of the ‘80s? I am not going to define secularism here. However, I want to make a very broad statement: secularism is for us the only point of entry into Jewish life. We have ideologically and philosophically rejected for ourselves religion as the point of entry. Zionism — despite our positive stand on Israel — is not our link, either. National negation we eschew and reject. We therefore have no alternative whatsoever except a historic-cultural secular tie which binds us with the people. Realistically and historically we have no alternative. However, to influence others — yes, and to give identity to ourselves — we must raise secularism to a meaningful expression and link with the people.... Meaningful implies depth, knowledge, commitment, involvement, renewal and — yes, of course — tradition."
"Nonsense" (his response to the idea that Yiddish is dying)
"I sometimes feel that we were wrong in failing to incorporate more Jewish values in our Yiddishkayt. I’ve always enjoyed reading the Bible, particularly the prophets, and I wonder at times if we were a bit too dismissive, or ignorant, of our Jewishness.... I would not now permit so much to be brushed aside." (See also )
“As the medieval walls around Jewish life collapsed, the role of religion as the sole expression of national connection dwindled.” [Religion became] “a branch of the Jewish tree but not its trunk.” This thesis, writes Goldberg, “was a significant act of historical liberation. The branch-stem concept became the groundwork for the ventures of Jewish secularism. Secularism rests on two notions: on the one hand accepting religion as an important form of expression for a certain sector of the people, and, on the other, proclaiming secularism as a branch of the same stem with equal rights and values — immersed in tradition and a natural outgrowth of the people’s past. For the first time, the concept of pluralism became acceptable within the Jewish community — not according to economic class, but according to beliefs and ideas of nationhood. Although secularism continued to rely on the lower layers of society — the workers, middle-class folks, and large parts of the modern intelligentsia — for the first time the basic idea was confirmed that every segment of the people, so long as it remains tied to the stem, has a right to shape its own national connections and its national destiny according to its perception of its history.”
1953 - "The first annual concert of the Jewish Cultural Clubs and Societies features the sister chorus of the JPPC, the Jewish People's Chorus of New York (JPCNY) conducted by Maurice Rauch, performing the first of many dramatic chorales written by Itche Goldberg in collaboration with Rauch as composer More than 20 works were done with Rauch.
1981 Yiddish musical play: "Tevye's Hodl"
Musical adaptation of I.L. Peretz's "Oyb Nit Nokh Hekher