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by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook


With all deflections from the course of normal development, such as are unavoidable in times of violent mental disturbances, the main line of the whole cultural movement, the resultant of the various forces within it, was headed towards the healthy progress of Judaism. The most substantial product of this movement was the Neo-Hebraic literary renaissance which had already appeared in faint outlines on the sombre background of external oppression and internal obscurantism during the preceding period. The Haskalah, formerly anathematized, was now able to unfold all its creative powers. What in the time of Isaac Baer Levinsohn had been accomplished stealthily by a few isolated conspirators of enlightenment in some petty society in Vilna or in some out-of-the-way town like Kamenetz-Podolsk was now done in the full light of the day. Instead of a few stray writers, the harbingers of the new literature, there now appeared this literature itself, new both in form and content. The restoration of the Hebrew language to its biblical purity and the removal of the linguistic excrescences of the later rabbinic idiom became for some writers an end in itself, for others a weapon in the fight for enlightenment. _Melitzah_, a conventionalized style, which, moving strictly within the confines of the biblical diction, endeavored to adapt the form of an ancient language to the content of a modern life, became the fashion of the day.

In point of content rejuvenated Hebrew literature was of necessity elementary. Mental restlessness and naiveness of thought were not conducive to the development of that "science of Judaism" which had attained to such luxurious growth in Germany. The Hebrew writers of Russia during that period had no means of propagating their ideas, except through the medium of poetry, fiction, or journalism. The results of historic research were squeezed into the mould of a poem or novel, or it furnished the material for a press article, in which the Jewish past was considered from the point of view of the present. Objective scientific investigation could find no place, and the little that was accomplished in that direction did not bear the character of a living account of the past, but was rather in the nature of crude archaeological material. At the same time, as the crest of the social progress was rising, the border-line between poetry and fiction, on the one hand, and topical journalism, on the other, was gradually obliterated. The poet or novelist was often turned into a fighter, who attacked the old order of things and defended the new.

Even before the first blush of dawn, when every one in Russia was yet groaning under the strokes of an autocratic tyranny, which the presentiment of its speedy end had driven into madness, the bewitching strains of the new Hebrew lyre resounded through Lithuania. They came from Micah Joseph Lebensohn, the son of "Adam" Lebensohn, author of high-flown Hebrew odes [1]--a contemplative Jewish youth, suffering from tuberculosis and _Weltschmerz_. He began his poetic career in 1840 by a Hebrew adaptation of the second book of Virgil's _Aeneid_ [2] but soon turned to Jewish _motifs_. In the musical rhymes of the "Songs of the Daughter of Zion" (_Shire bat Zion_, Vilna, 1851), the author poured forth the anguish of his suffering soul, which was torn between faith and science, weighed down by the oppression from without and stirred to its depth by the tragedy of his homeless nation. [3] A cruel disease cut short the poet's life in 1852, at the age of twenty-four. A small collection of lyrical poems, published after his death under the title _Kinnor bat Zion_ ("The Harp of the Daughter of Zion"), exhibited even more brilliantly the wealth of creative energy which was hidden in the soul of this prematurely cut-off youth, who on the brink of the grave sang so touchingly of love, beauty, and the pure joys of life.

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 134 et seq.]

[Footnote 2: It was made from the German translation of Schiller]

[Footnote 3: See the poems "Solomon and Koheleth," "Jael and Sisera," and "Judah ha-Levi."]

A year after the death of our poet, in 1853, there appeared in the same capital of Lithuania the historic novel _Ahabat Zion_ ("Love of Zion"). Its author, Abraham Mapu of Kovno (1808-1867), was a poor melammed who had by his own endeavors and without the help of a teacher raised himself to the level of a modern Hebrew pedagogue. He lived in two worlds, in the valley of tears, such as the ghetto presented during the reign of Nicholas, and in the radiant recollections of the far-off biblical past. The inspired dreamer, while strolling on the banks of the Niemen, among the hills which skirt the city of Kovno, was picturing to himself the luminous dawn of the Jewish nation. He published these radiant descriptions of ancient Judaea in the dismal year of the "captured recruits." [1] The youths of the ghetto, who had been poring over talmudic folios, fell eagerly upon this little book which breathed the perfumes of Sharon and Carmel. They read it in secret--to read a novel openly was not a safe thing in those days--, and their hearts expanded with rapture over the enchanting idyls of the time of King Hezekiah, the portrayal of tumultuous Jerusalem and peaceful Beth-lehem. They sighed over the fate of the lovers Amnon and Tamar, and in their flight of imagination were carried far away from painful reality. The naive literary construction of the plot was of no consequence to the reader who tasted a novel for the first time in his life. The _naivete_ of the plot was in keeping with the naive, artificially reproduced language of the prophet Isaiah and the biblical annals, which intensified the illusion of antiquity.

[Footnote 1: See on this expression above, p. 148 et seq.]

Several years after the publication of his "Love of Zion," when social currents had begun to stir Russian Jewry, Mapu began his five volume novel of contemporary life, under the title _'Ayit Tzabua'_, "The Speckled Bird," or "The Hypocrite" (1857-1869). In his naive diction, which is curiously out of harmony with the complex plot in sensational French style, the author pictures the life of an obscure Lithuanian townlet: the Kahal bosses who hide their misdeeds beneath the cloak of piety; the fanatical rabbis, the Tartuffes of the Pale of Settlement, who persecute the champions of enlightenment. As an offset against these shadows of the past, Mapu lovingly paints the barely visible shoots of the new life, the _Maskil_, who strives to reconcile religion and science, the misty figure of the Jewish youth who goes to the Russian school in the hope of serving his people, the profiles of the Russian Jewish intellectuals, and the captains of industry from among the rising Jewish plutocracy.

Toward the end of his life Mapu returned to the historical novel, and in the "Transgression of Samaria" (_Ashmat Shomron_, 1865) he attempted to draw a picture of ancient Hebrew life during the declining years of the Northern Kingdom. But this novel, appearing as it did at the height of the cultural movement, failed to produce the powerful effect of his _Ahabat Zion_, although its charming biblical diction enraptured the lovers of _Melitzah_. [1]

[Footnote 1: An imitation of the biblical Hebrew diction. Compare p. 225.]

The noise of the new Jewish life, with its constantly growing problems, invaded the precincts of literature, and even the poets were impelled to take sides in the burning questions of the day. The most important poet of that era, Judah Leib Gordon (1830-1892), who began by composing biblical epics and moralistic fables, soon entered the field of "intellectual poetry," and became the champion of enlightenment and a trenchant critic of old-fashioned Jewish life. As far back as 1863, while active as a teacher at a Crown school [1] in Lithuania, he composed his "Marseillaise of Enlightenment" (_Hakitzah 'ammi_, "Awake, My People"). In it he sang of the sun shedding its rays over the "Land of Eden," where the neck of the enslaved was freed from the yoke and where the modern Jew was welcomed with a brotherly embrace. The poet calls upon his people to join the ranks of their fellow-countrymen, the hosts of cultured Russian citizens who speak the language of the land, and offers his Jewish contemporaries the brief formula: "Be a man on the street and a Jew in the house," [2] i.e., be a Russian in public and a Jew in private life.

[Footnote 1: See on the Crown schools pp. 74 and 77.]

[Footnote 2: _Heye adam be-tzeteka, wihudi be-oholeka._]

Gordon himself defined his function in the work of Jewish regeneration to be that of exposing the inner ills of the people, of fighting rabbinical orthodoxy and the tyranny of ceremonialism. This carping tendency, which implies a condemnation of the whole historic structure of Judaism, manifested itself as early as 1868 in his "Songs of Judah" (_Shire Yehudah_), in strophes radiant with the beauty of their Hebrew diction:

    To live by soulless rites hast thou been taught,     To swim against life, and the lifeless letter to keep;     To be dead upon earth, and in heaven alive,     To dream while awake, and to speak while asleep.

During the seventies, Gordon joined the ranks of the official agents of enlightenment. He removed to St. Petersburg, and became secretary of the Society for the Diffusion of Enlightenment. The new Hebrew periodical _ha-Shahar_ [1] published several of his "contemporary epics" in which he vented his wrath against petrified Rabbinism. He portrays the misery of a Jewish woman who is condemned to enter married life at the bidding of the marriage-broker, without love and without happiness, or he describes the tragedy of another woman whose future is wrecked by a "Dot over the _i_." [2] He lashes furiously the orthodox spiders, the official leaders of the community, who catch the young pioneers of enlightenment in the meshes of Kabal authority, backed by police force. Climbing higher upon the ladder of history, the poet registers his protest against the predominance of the spiritual over the worldly element in the whole evolution of Judaism. He assails the prophet Jeremiah who in beleaguered Jerusalem preaches submission to the Babylonians and strict obedience to the Law: the prophet, dressed up in the garb of a contemporary orthodox rabbi, was to be exhibited as a terrifying incarnation of the soulless formula "Law above Life." [3]

[Footnote 1: See p. 218.]

[Footnote 2: The title of a famous poem by Gordon, _Kotzo shel Yod_, literally "the tittle of the Yod" the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The poem in question pictures the tragedy of a woman who remained unhappy the rest of her life because the Hebrew bill of divorce which she had obtained from her husband was declared void on account of a trifling error in spelling.]

[Footnote 3: The author alludes to Gordon's poem "_Tzidkiyyahu be-bet hapekuddot_" ("Zedekiah in Prison"), in which the defeated and blinded Judean ruler (see Jer. 52. 11) bitterly complains of the evil effects of the prophetic doctrine.]

The implication is obvious: the power of orthodoxy must be broken and Jewish life must be secularized. But while unmasking the old, Gordon could not fail to perceive the sore spots in the new, "enlightened" generation. He saw the flight of the educated youth from the Jewish camp, its ever-growing estrangement from the national tongue in which the poet uttered his songs, and a cry of anguish burst from his lips: "For Whom Do I Labor?" [1] It seemed to him that the rising generation, detached from the fountain-head of Jewish culture, would no more be able to read the "Songs of Zion," and that the poet's rhymes were limited in their appeal to the last handful of the worshippers of the Hebrew Muse:

[Footnote 1: Title of a poem by Gordon, _Lemi ani 'amel!_]

    Who knows, but I am the last singer of Zion,     And you are the last who my songs understand.

These lines were penned on the threshold of the new era of the eighties. The exponent of Jewish self-criticism lived to see not only the horrors of the pogroms but also the misty dawn of the national movement, and he could comfort himself with the conviction that he was destined to be the singer for more than one generation.

The question "For whom do I labor?" was approached and solved in a different way by another writer, whose genius expanded with the increasing years of his long life. During the first years of his activity, Shalom Jacob Abramovich (born in 1836) tried his strength in various fields. He wrote Hebrew essays on literary criticism (_Mishpat Shalom_ [1] 1859), adapted books on natural science written in modern languages (_Toldot ha-teba'_, "Natural History," 1862, ff.), composed a social _Tendenzroman_ under the title "Fathers and Children" (_Ha-abot we-ha-banim_, 1868 [2]); but all this left him dissatisfied. Pondering over the question "For whom do I labor?," he came to the conclusion that his labors belonged to the people at large, to the down-trodden masses, instead of being limited to the educated classes who understood the national tongue. A profound observer of Jewish conditions in the Pale, he realized that the concrete life of the masses should be portrayed in their living daily speech, in the Yiddish vernacular, which was treated with contempt by nearly all the Maskilim of that period.

[Footnote 1: "The Judgment of Shalom," with reference to the author's first name and with a clever allusion to the Hebrew text of Zech. 8.16.]

[Footnote 2: Written under the influence of Turgenyev's famous novel which bears the same title. See above, p. 210, n. 1.]

Accordingly, Abramovich began to write in the dialect of the people, under the assumed pen-name of _Mendele Mokher Sforim_ (Mendele the Bookseller). Choosing his subjects from the life of the lower classes, he portrayed the pariahs of Jewish society and their oppressors (_Dos kleine Menshele_, "A Humble Man"), the life of Jewish beggars and vagrants (_Fishke der Krummer_, "Fishke the Cripple"), and the immense cobweb which had been spun around the destitute masses by the contractors of the meat tax and their accomplices, the alleged benefactors of the community (_Die Taxe, oder die Bande Stodt Bale Toyvos_, "The Meat Tax, or the Gang of Town Benefactors"). His trenchant satire on the "tax" hit the mark, and the author had reason to fear the ire of those who were hurt to the quick by his literary shafts. He had to leave the town of Berdychev in which he resided at the time, and removed to Zhitomir.

Here he wrote in 1873 one of his ripest works, "The Mare, or Prevention of Cruelty to Animals" (_Die Klache_). In his allegorical narrative he depicts a homeless mare, the personification of the Jewish masses, which is pursued by the "bosses of the town" who do not allow her to graze on the common pasture-lands with the "town cattle," and who set street loafers and dogs at her heels. "The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals" (the Government) cannot make up its mind whether the mare should be granted equal rights with the native horses, or should be left unprotected, and the matter is submitted to a special commission. In the meantime, certain horsemen from among the "communal benefactors" jump upon the back of the unfortunate mare, beat and torment her well-nigh to death, and drive her for their pleasure, until she collapses.

Leaving the field of polemical allegory, Abramovich published the humorous description of the "Travels of Benjamin the Third" (_Masse'ot Benyamin ha-Shelishi_, 1878), [1] portraying a Jewish Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, who make an oversea journey to the mythical river Sambation--on the way from Berdychev to Kiev. A subtle observation of existing conditions combined with a profound analysis of the problems of Jewish life, artistic power matched with publicistic skill--such are the salient features of the first phase of Abramovich's literary activity.

[Footnote 1: A famous Jewish traveller by the name of Benjamin lived in the twelfth century. Another modern Jewish traveller by the name of Joseph Israel, who died in 1864, adopted the name Benjamin II. Abramovich humorously designates his fictitious travelling hero as Benjamin III.]

In the following period, beginning with the eighties, his literary creations exhibit greater artistic harmony in their content. As far as their linguistic garb is concerned, they combine the Yiddish vernacular with the Hebrew national tongue, which are employed side by side by our author as the vehicles of his thought, and reach at his hands an equally high state of perfection.

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