Translatable But Debatable - עסקן (askan)

Translatable But Debatable — עסקן

In Jewish life, the figure of the askan has long been surrounded by ambivalence. In his Frum Follies blog, the pseudonymous Yerachmiel Lopin wrote a couple of years ago:

Askan is a noun derived from the verb osek (to involve oneself or engage oneself). The classic reference is in Yekum Purkan (may salvation arise) a prayer recited on Sabbath after torah reading asking for “blessing and good fortune for those engaged in torah and communal endeavors and all who support the community with acts of tzedakah (righteous charity).”  The key sentence for this discussion invokes blessings on “all who are engage themselves (oskim) in the needs of the community, b’emunah(in faith or faithfully).”

I am told that the Sanzer Rebbe once said “There is a special seat in heaven for such people but it remains empty, because most of them are not doing it b’emunah.” I suppose he meant that most of them are self-interested wheeler-dealers.

Yerachmiel also says:

Until 45 years ago people did not routinely speak of a special person known as an askan. We really owe the rise of the modern askan to President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his war on poverty. … Askanim emerged to solicit grants and distribute it to the community. People may not have loved these folks, but almost everyone was happy to share in the largesse. Askan became a regular part of Jewish political vocabulary. It is Jewish speak for poverty pimp. These are the brokers who try to shape Jewish voting behavior and trade it for programs. A lot of them do surprisingly well for themselves brokering deals.

Over here in Israel, if I understand my history correctly, the askan was the person who brought funds in to support the poor and their institutions as far back as the 19th century, when the poor and their institutions were pretty much all we had.  Our 20th-century socialist pioneers, strong on self-reliance, looked forward to the extinction of the askan and his fellow luftmenschen, and that pioneer contempt is nowhere better expressed than in the definition of askan as “go-getter, politico, wheeler-dealer.”

In the haredi sector, on the other hand, the term has by no means been thoroughly devalued.  In a much-reposted article, Marvin Schick writes:  “Lay leadership or askanos is a term that can be translated as the nearly all-consuming commitment to communal activity. An askan is someone whose primary life mission is service to the klal.”  And there is a website called which shows no sign of waggishness in applying the name to itself.

So what is an askan in English?  Looking at the fellow who chanelled money to the old yishuv, we could accurately call him a fundraiser.  But there are also the askanim whose involvement in philanthropy rests largely on their own wealth, and there are those who are more the “politico” of the Morfix definition and less to be defined in terms of moneyhandling.  Babylon’s definition is “politician, public activist.”

My little shelf of venerable paperback dictionaries provides “Public worker, community-minded worker” (Dov Ben Abba), “Public figure, public worker” (Sivan & Levenston), “Public man” (Shachter), and “Social worker” (Ben-Yehuda), all free of disdain and none with any pecuniary tinge.

My old hardbound Alkalay notes that there is the askan miflagti, the askan tsibori, and the askan bidvarim — the last being an “observer of nature, naturalist.”  As the main definition of askan, Alkalay gives “Communal worker” but also “(originally) experimenter.”

Among the Dvir dictionary’s definitions of askan is “busy, active person,” so some of us have been askanim a long time without even knowing it.

The last time the word came up in my own work, I translated it as “dealmaker.”  I think my translation fit the context.  But obviously this is one word that may need its context examined pretty carefully.

Further translations and relevant comments are welcome below.  If you’d like to suggest another word for discussion, please e-mail me instead at ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.