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HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND POLAND - S.M. Dubnow




jewish genealogy in Argentina

HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND POLAND

FROM THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER I UNTIL THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER III

by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook

4. THE RISE OF NEO-HEBRAIC CULTURE

The Volhynian soil proved unfavorable for the seeds of enlightenment. The Haskalah pioneers were looked upon as dangerous enemies in this hot-bed of Tzaddikism. They were held in disgrace and were often the victims of cruel persecutions, from which some saved themselves by conversion. A more favorable soil for cultural endeavors was found in the extreme south of the Pale of Settlement as well as in its northern section: Odessa, the youthful capital of New Russia, and Vilna, the old capital of Lithuania, both became centers of the Haskalah movement.

As far as Odessa was concerned, the seeds of enlightenment had been carried hither from neighboring Galicia by the Jews of Brody, who formed a wealthy merchant colony in that city. As early as 1826 Odessa saw the opening of the first Jewish school for secular education, which was managed at first by Sittenfeld and later on by the well-known public worker Bezalel Stern. Among the teachers of the new school was Simha Pinsker, who subsequently became the historian of Karaism. This school, the only educational establishment of its kind during that period, served in Odessa as a center for the "Friends of Enlightenment." Being a new city, unfettered by traditions, and at the same time a large sea-port, with a checkered international population, Odessa outran other Jewish centers in the process of modernization, though it must be confessed that it never went beyond the externalities of civilization. As far as the period under discussion is concerned, the Jewish center of the South can claim no share in the production of new Jewish values.

While yielding to Odessa in point of external civilization, Vilna surpassed the capital of the South by her store of mental energy. The circle of the Vilna Maskilim, which came into being during the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, gave rise to the two founders of the Neo-Hebraic literary style: the prose writer Mordecai Aaron Ginzburg (1796-1846) and the poet Abraham Baer Lebensohn (1794-1878).

Ginzburg, born in the townlet Salant, in the Zhmud region, [1] lived for some time in Courland, and finally settled in Vilna. He managed to familiarize himself with German literature, and was so fascinated by it that he started his literary career by translating and adapting German works into Hebrew. His translation of Campe's "Discovery of America" and Politz' Universal History, as well as his own history of the Franco-Russian War of 1812, compiled from various sources, were, as far as Russia is concerned, the first specimens of secular literature in pure Hebrew, which boldly claimed their place side by side with rabbinic and hasidic writings. In that juvenile stage of the Hebrew renaissance, when the mere treatment of language and style was considered an achievement, even the appearance of such elementary books was hailed as epoch-making.

[Footnote 1: Zhmud, or Samogitia, is part of the present government of Kovno. Compare Vol. I, p. 293, n. 1.]

The profoundest influence on the formation of the Neo-Hebraic style must be ascribed to two other works by the same author, _Kiriai Sefer_, [1] an epistolary manual containing specimens of personal, commercial, and other forms of correspondence (Vilna, 1835, and many later editions), and _Debir_, [2] a miscellaneous collection of essays, consisting for the most part of translations and compilations (Vilna, 1844). Ginzburg's premature death in 1846 was mourned by the Vilna Maskilim as the loss of a leader in the struggle for the Neo-Hebraic renaissance, and they gave expression to these sentiments in verse and prose. Ginzburg's autobiography _(Abi-'ezer,_ 1863) and his letters _(Debir,_ Vol. II., 1861) portray the milieu in which our author grew up and developed.

[Footnote 1: See next note.]

[Footnote 2: Both titles are derived from the message in Josh. 15. 15, according to which _Debir_, a city in the territory of the tribe of Judah, was originally called _Kiriat Sefer_, "Book City."]

Abraham Baer Lebensohn, [1] a native of Vilna, awakened the dormant Hebrew lyre by the sonorous rhymes of his "Songs in the Sacred Tongue" (_Shire Sefat Kodesh_, Vol. I., Leipsic, 1842). In this volume solemn odes celebrating events of all kinds alternate with lyrical poems of a philosophical content. The unaccustomed ear of the Jew of that period was struck by these powerful sounds of rhymed biblical speech which exhibited greater elegance and harmony than the Mosaid of Wessely, the Jewish Klopstock. [2] His compositions, which are marked by thought rather than by feeling, suited to perfection the taste of the contemporary Jewish reader, who was ever on the lookout for "intellectuality," even where poetry was concerned. Philosophic and moralizing lyrics are a characteristic feature of Lebensohn's pen. The general human sorrow, common to all individuals, stirs him more deeply than national grief. His only composition of a nationalistic character, "The Wailing of the Daughter of Judah," seems strangely out of harmony with the accompanying odes which celebrate the coronation of Nicholas I. and similar patriotic occasions, although the "Wailing" is shrewdly prefaced by a note, evidently meant for the censor, to the effect that the poem refers to the Middle Ages. At any rate, the principal merit of the "Songs in the Sacred Tongue" is not to be sought in their poetry but rather in their style, for it was this style which became the basis of Neo-Hebraic poetic diction, perfected more and more by the poets of the succeeding generations.

[Footnote 1: He assumed the pen-name "Adam," the initials of Abraham Dob (Hebrew equivalent for Baer) Mikhailishker (from the town of Mikhailishok, in the government of Vilna, where he resided for a number of years). See later, p. 226.]

[Footnote 2: The author refers to Naphtali Hirz Wessely (d. 1805), an associate of Mendelssohn in his cultural endeavors. He wrote _Shire Tif'eret_, "Songs of Glory," an epic in five parts dealing with the Exodus. The poem was patterned after the epic _Der Messias_ of his famous German contemporary Gottlieb Friedrich Klopstock, who, in turn, was influenced by Milton.]

Ginzburg and Lebensohn were the central pillars of the Vilna Maskilim circle, which also included men of the type of Samuel Joseph Fuenn, the historian, Mattathiah Strashun, the Talmudist, the censor Tugendhold, the bibliographer Ben-jacob, N. Rosenthal, in a word, the "radicals" of that era--for the mere striving for the restoration of biblical Hebrew and for elementary secular education was looked upon as bold radicalism. The same circle made an attempt to create a scientific periodical after the pattern of similar publications in Galicia and Germany, In 1841 and 1843 two issues of the magazine _Pirhe Tzafon_, "Flowers of the North," appeared in Vilna, under Fuenn's editorship. The volumes contained scientific and publicistic articles as well as poems, contributed by the feeble literary talents which were then active in the Hebrew literary and educational revival in Russia--all of them efforts of not very high merit. But even these poor hot-house flowers were fated to be nipped in the Northern chill. The ruthless Russian censorship scented in the unassuming magazine of the Vilna Maskilim a criminal attempt to publish a Hebrew periodical. Such an undertaking required an official license from the central Government in St. Petersburg, and the latter was not in the habit of granting licenses for such purposes.

In Vilna, as in Odessa, the coterie of local Maskilim formed the mainstay of Lilienthal, the apostle of enlightenment, in, his struggle with the orthodox. In the year 1840, prior to Lilienthal's arrival, when the first intimation of Uvarov's plans reached the city of Vilna, the local Maskilim responded to the call of the Government in a circular letter, in which the following four cardinal reforms were emphasized:

  1. The transformation of the Rabbinate through the establishment of   rabbinical seminaries, the appointment of graduates from German   universities as rabbis, and the formation of consistories after the   pattern of Western Europe.

  2. The reform of school education through the opening of secular   schools after the model of Odessa and Riga and the training of new   teachers from among the Maskilim.

  3. The struggle with the fiends of obscurantism, who stifle every   endeavor for popular enlightenment.

  4. The improvement of Jewish economic life by intensifying   agricultural colonization, the establishment of technical and arts   and crafts schools, and similar measures.

Several years later the authors of this circular had reason to share Lilienthal's disillusionment over the "benevolent intentions" of the Government. This, however, was not strong enough to uproot the original sin of the Haskalah: its constant readiness to lean for support upon "enlightened absolutism." The despotism of the orthodox and the intolerance of the unenlightened masses forced the handful of Maskilim to fall back upon those who in the eyes of the Jewish populace were the source of its sorrow and tears. There was a profound tragedy in this incongruity.

The culture movement in Russia of the second quarter of the nineteenth century corresponds in its complexion to the early stage of the Mendelssohnian enlightenment in Germany, the period of the _Me'assefim_. [1] But there were also essential differences between the two. The beginning of German enlightenment was accompanied by a strong drift toward assimilation which led to the elimination of the national language from literature. In Russia the initial period of Haskalah was not marked by any sudden social and cultural upheavals.

[Footnote 1: So named after the Hebrew periodical _ha-Me'assef_ "The Collector," which was founded in Berlin in 1784. Compare Vol. I, p. 386, n. 3.]

On the contrary, it laid the foundations for a national literary renaissance which in the following period was destined to become an important social factor.



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