Part 2 out of 4
mother croons at the cradle of her child.
In those days a Rabbinic authority arose like unto whom none had been
known among Jews in the later centuries, and his earnest, independent
genius, as well as his moral grandeur, conferred a consecration upon the
peculiar spiritual tendencies prevailing in Lithuanian Judaism, which he
personified at its loftiest. Elijah of Wilna, surnamed "the Gaon", "his
Excellency", succeeded in resisting the assaults of Hasidism, which
threatened to overwhelm, if not the learned among them, certainly the
Lithuanian masses. To parry the dangers of mysticism, which exercised so
powerful an attraction that the dry and subtle casuistry of Rabbinic
learning could not damp its ardor, he broke with scholastic methods, and
took up a comparatively rational interpretation of texts and the laws.
He went to the extreme of asserting the value of profane and practical
knowledge, the pursuit of which could not but bring advantage to the
study of the Law--a position unheard of at his day, and excusable only
in so popular a man as he was. He himself wrote a treatise on
mathematics, and philologic research was a favorite occupation with him.
His pupils followed his example; they translated several scientific
works into Hebrew, and founded schools and centres of puritanism, not
only in Lithuania, but also as far away as Palestine. From this time on
the _Yeshibah_ of Wolosin became the chief seat of traditional
Talmud study and Rabbinic rationalism.
One of the contemporaries of "the Gaon" was the physician Judah Hurwitz,
of Wilna, who opposed Hasidism in his pamphlet _Megillat Sedarim_
("A Book of Essays"), and in his ethical work _Ammude Bet-Yehudah_
("The Pillars of the House of Judah ", Prague, 1793), he pleads the
cause of internationalism and the equality of men and races!
It would be rash to suppose that an echo of the studies of the
Encyclopedists had reached a province double-barred and double-locked by
politics and religion. The European languages were unknown in the
Lithuanian Jewries of the Gaon's day, and his pupils sought their mental
pabulum in the writings of the Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages,
Maimonides, and Albo, and their compeers. The result was an odd,
whimsical science. False, antiquated notions and theories were
introduced through the medium of the Hebrew, and they attained no slight
vogue. At the end of the eighteenth century, a certain Elias, a Rabbi,
also of Wilna, undertook to gather all the facts of science into one
collection. He compiled a curious encyclopedia, the _Sefer ha-
Berit_ ("The Book of the Covenant"). By the side of geographic
details of the most fantastic sort, he set down chemical discoveries and
physical laws in the form of magical formulas. This book, by no means
the only one of its kind, was reprinted many a time, and in our own day
it still affords delight to orthodox readers.
A long time passed before the Russian government took note of the
intellectual condition of its Jewish subjects, who, in turn, asked
nothing better than to be left undisturbed. Nevertheless, the treatment
accorded them by the government was not calculated to inspire them with
great confidence in it. As for a Russification of the Jewish masses,
there could be no question of that, at a time when Russian civilization
and language were themselves in an embryonic state.
It was only when the first Alexander came to the throne that the reforms
planned by the government began to make an impression upon the distant
ghetto. A special commission was instituted for the purpose of studying
the conditions under which the Jews were living, and how to ameliorate
them materially and intellectually. The first close contact between Jews
and Russians took place in the little town of Shklow, inhabited almost
entirely by Jews. It was an important station on the route from the
capital to Western Europe, and the Jews were afforded an opportunity of
entering into relations with men of mark, both Russians and strangers,
who passed through on their way to St. Petersburg. [Footnote: As early
as 1780 a Hebrew ode was published on the occasion of Empress Catherine
II's passing through Shklow. A printing press was set up there about
1777, and it was at Shklow that a litterateur, N. H. Schulmann, made the
first attempt to found a weekly political journal in Hebrew, announcing
it in his edition of the _Zeker Rab_.] A circle of literary men
under the influence of the Meassefim was founded there, and a curious
literary document issued thence testifies to the hopes aroused by the
reform projects planned in the reign of Alexander I for the improvement
of the condition of the Jews. It is a pamphlet bearing the title _Kol
Shaw'at Bat-Yehudah_, or _Sinat ha-Dat_ ("The Loud Voice of the
Daughter of Judah", or "Religious Hatred"), and published, in Shklow in
1803, in Hebrew and Russian. The author, whose name was Lob Nevakhovich,
protests energetically, in behalf of truth and humanity, against the
contemptuous treatment accorded the Jews. [Footnote: Grandfather of the
well-known scholar E. Metchnikoff, of the Pasteur Institute.]
"Ah, ye Christians, men of the newer faith, who vaunt your mercy
and lovingkindness! Exercise your mercy upon us, turn your loving
hearts toward us. Why do you scorn the Jew? If he forsakes his
faith, how doth it profit you? Have you not heard the voice of
Moses Mendelssohn, the celebrated writer of our people, who asked
your co-religionists, 'Of what avail that you should continue to
attach men lacking faith and religion to yourselves'? Can you
not understand that the Jew, too, loves righteousness and justice
like unto yourselves? Why do you constantly scrutinize the
_man_ to find the _Jew_ in him? Seek but the man in the
Jew, and you will surely find him!"
Like so many that have followed, this first appeal awakened no answering
echo in Russian hearts. A century has passed since then, and Russia
still fails to find the man in the unconverted Jew!
The hopes aroused in the Jews of Lithuania by the Napoleonic wars were
disappointed. An iron hand held them down, and they continued to
vegetate miserably in their gloomy, abandoned corner.
* * * * *
The story goes that when Napoleon at the head of the _grande armee_
entered Wilna, the exclamation was forced from him, "Why, this is the
Jerusalem of Lithuania!" Whether the story is true or not, it is a fact
that no other city was more deserving of the epithet. The residence of
the Gaon was a Jewish metropolis as early as the eighteenth century, and
during the whole of the nineteenth century Wilna was the Jewish city
_par excellence_, a distinction to which it was helped by several
facts--by the systematic and intentional elimination of the Polish
element, especially since the insurrection of 1831, by the prohibition
of the Polish language, the closing of the university, and the absence
of a Lithuanian population. The dethroned capital of a people betrayed
by its nobility became, after its abandonment by the native inhabitants,
the centre of a Jewry independent of its surroundings and undisturbed in
its internal development. Without in the least deviating from Rabbinic
traditions, its constitutional platform, Jewish society in Wilna was
gradually penetrated by modern ideas.
The humanism of the German Jews, the Haskalah, met with no effective
resistance in a comparatively enlightened world, prepared for it by the
school of the Gaon. The Rabbinical students themselves were the first
representatives of humanism in Lithuania. They became as ambitious in
cultivating the Hebrew language and studying the secular sciences
presented in it, as in searching out and examining the Talmud. Sprung
from the people, living its life and sharing in its miseries, separated
from Christian society by a barrier of prescriptions that seemed
insuperable to them, the earliest of the Lithuanian litterateurs
vitalized their young love for science and Hebrew letters with the
disinterested devotion that characterizes the idealists of the ghetto in
A literary circle, known as the "Berliners", was formed in Wilna, about
1830. It was the pattern after which a large number were modelled a
little later, all of them pursuing Hebrew literature with zeal and
Two writers of worth, both from Wilna, the one a poet, the other a prose
writer, headed the literary procession in Lithuania.
Abraham Bar Lebensohn (Adam ha-Kohen, 1794-1880), surnamed the "father
of poetry", was born at Wilna. He spent a sad childhood. Left motherless
early, he was deprived of the love and the care that are the only
consolations known to a child of the ghetto. At the age of three, he was
sent to the _Heder_, at seven he was a student of the Talmud, then
casuistry occupied his mind, and, finally, the Kabbalah. The last had
but feeble attractions for the future poet. His mental mould was
determined by his thorough study of the Bible and Hebrew grammar, which
was good form in Wilna as early as his day, and the works of Wessely,
for whom he always professed warm admiration, had a decided influence
upon his poetic bias.
In his first attempts at poetry, Lebensohn did not depart greatly from
the achievements of the many Rabbinical students whose favorite pastime
was to discuss the events of the day in Hebrew verse. An elegy to the
memory of a Rabbi, an ode celebrating the equivocal glory of a Polish
nobleman, and similar subjects, were the natural choice of the muse of
the era, and the early flights of our author were not different. There
was nothing in them to betray the future poet of merit. A little later
he took up the study of German, but his knowledge of the language was
never more than superficial. Haunted by the fame of Schiller, he devoted
himself to poetry, and imitated the German poets, or tried to imitate
them, for he never succeeded in grasping the true meaning of German
poetry, nor in understanding erotic literature. To the Rabbinical
student, with his puritanic spirit and austere manners, it was a
collocation of poetic figures of speech and symbolic expressions.
His life differed in no wise from that of the poor Jews of the ghetto.
Given in marriage early by his father, he suddenly found himself deep in
the bitter struggle for existence, before he had known the transport of
living, or youth, or the passions, or love, or the inner doubts and
beliefs that contend with one another in the heart of man. Feeling for
nature, aesthetic delights, were strange provinces to this son of the
ghetto. A conception of art that is destitute of a moral aim would have
passed his understanding and his puritanic horizon. Too much of a free-
thinker to follow the Rabbinical profession, he taught Hebrew to
children--an unremunerative occupation, and little respected in a
society in which the most ignorant are not uninstructed, and in which,
the choice of vocations being restricted, the unsuccessful and the
unskilled naturally drop into teaching. Ten years of it, daily from
eight in the morning until nine at night, undermined his health. He fell
sick, and was compelled to give up his hap-hazard calling, to the great
gain of Hebrew poetry. He went into the brokerage business, and his
small leisure he devoted to his muse. Harassed by petty, sordid cares,
this broker was yet a genuine idealist, though it cannot be maintained
that Lebensohn was of the stuff of which dreamers are made and great
poets. But in his mind, rationalistic and logical to the point of
dryness, there was a secluded recess pervaded with melancholy and real
feeling. The Hebrew language he cherished with ardent and exalted love.
Is it not a beautiful language and admirable? Is it not the last relic
saved from the shipwreck in which all the national possessions of our
people were lost? And is not he, Lebensohn himself, the heir to the
prophets, the poet laureate and high priest to the holy language? With
what pride he unveils the state of his soul to us:
"I am seated at the table of God, and with my hand I guide His
pen; and my hand writes the language holy unto Him, the language
of His Law, the language of His people, Selah! O God, arouse,
awake my spirit, for is it not Thy holy language wherein I sing
unto Thee?" [Footnote: _Shire Sefat Kodesh_, II, i.]
A creature of his surroundings, and a disciple of the Rabbis, as he was,
the dialectics of a logician were in him joined to native simplicity of
spirit, yet he never reached the point of understanding the inner world
of struggles and passions that agitate the individual lives of men. For
a love song or a poem in praise of nature, he thought it necessary only
to copy the German authors and link together a series of pointed verses.
The poem "David and Bath-sheba" is a failure. His descriptions of nature
are dry and artificial. He was never able to account for what was
happening under his eyes and around him. Events produced an effect upon
him out of all proportion to their importance. The military and civic
reforms of Nicholas I, he celebrated in an ode, in which he applied the
enthusiastic praise "Henceforth Israel will see only good!" to
regulations that were wholly prejudicial to Jewish interests. When some
Jewish banker or other was appointed consul-general in the Orient, he
welcomed the occurrence in dithyrambic verses, dedicated to the poor
fellow in the name of the Jews of Lithuania and White Russia. But
whenever the heart of our poet beats in unison with the sentiments of
his Jewish brethren, whenever he surrenders himself to the sadness, the
peculiar melancholy, that pervades Jewish relations, then he attains to
moral heights and lyric vigor unsurpassed. In his three volumes of
poetry, by the side of numerous worthless pieces, we meet many gems of
style and thought. The distressed cry of humanity against the
wretchedness under which it staggers, the sorrowful protest man makes
against the lack of compassion he encounters in his fellow, his
obstinate refusal to understand the implacable cruelty of nature when
she snatches his dearest from him, and his impotence in the presence of
death--these are the subjects that have inspired Lebensohn's best
efforts. He insists constantly, Is not pity the daughter of heaven? Do
we not find her among beasts even, and among reptiles? Man alone is a
stranger to her, and he makes himself the tyrant of his neighbor.
But it is not man alone who refuses to know this daughter of heaven,
Nature denies pity, too, and shows herself relentless:
"O world! House of mourning, valley of weeping! Thy rivers are
tears, and thy soil ashes. Upon thy surface thou bearest men that
mourn, and in thy bowels the corpses of the dead.... From out of
the mountains covered with snow and ice comes forth a chariot
with none to guide. Within sits man and the wife of his bosom,
beautiful as a flower, and at their knees play sweet children.
Alas! a caravan of the dead simulating life! They journey on, and
they go astray, and perish on the icy fields."
Distress round about, and all hopes collapsed, death hovers apart, yet
near, remorseless, threatening, and in the end victorious.
In another poem, entitled "The Weeping Woman", his subject is pity
again. He cries out:
"Thy enemy [cruelty] is stronger than thou. If thou art a burning
fire, she is a current of icy water!... Alas for thee, O pity!
Where is he that will have pity upon thee?"
With a few vigorous strokes, the Hebrew poet describes the nothingness
of man in the face of the vast world. The lot of the Hamlets and of the
Renes is more enviable than that of the "Mourner" of the ghetto. They at
least taste of life before becoming a prey to melancholy and delivering
themselves up to pessimism. They know the charms of living and its
vexations. The disappointed son of the ghetto lays no stress on
gratifications and pleasures. In the name of the supreme moral law he
sets himself up for a pessimistic philosopher.
"Our life is a breath, light as a floating bark. The grave is at
the very threshold of life, it awaits us not far from the womb of
"Since the beginnings of the earth, we have been here, and she
changes us like the grass of her soil. She stands firm, unshaken.
We alone are changeable, and help there is none for us, no
refuge, nor may we decline to come hither. Like an angler of
fish, the world brings us up on a hook. Before it has finished
devouring one generation, the next is ready for its fate. One is
swallowed up, the other snatched away. Whence cometh our help?"
To this general destruction, this wildness of the elements, which the
"Mourner" fails to comprehend, permeated as he is with belief in Divine
justice, is superadded the malice of man.
"And thou also, thou becomest a scourge unto thy brother! The
heavenly host is joined by thy fellow-man. From the wrath of man,
O man, thou wilt never escape. His jealousy of thee will last for
aye, until thou art no more!"
And with all this, does life offer aught substantial, aught that is
"Where are they, the forgotten generations? Their very name and
memory have disappeared. And in the generation to come, we, too,
shall be forgotten. And who escapes his lot? Not a single one of
us all. None is secure from death. Wealth, wisdom, strength,
beauty, all are nothing, nothing...."
In a burst of revolt, our poet exclaims:
"If I knew that my voice with its reverberations sufficed to
destroy the earth and the fulness thereof, and all the hosts of
heaven, I would cry with a thundering noise: Cease! Myself I
would return to nothing with the rest of mankind. Know not the
living that the grave will swallow them up after a life of
sadness and cruel misery? See they not that the whole of human
life is like the flash that goes before the fatal thunderbolt?"
The same train of thought is not met with again until we come down to
our own time, and Maupassant himself does not present it with greater
vigor in _Sur l'eau_.
And the end of the matter is that "man has nothing but the consciousness
of sorrow; he is naked and starved, feeble and without energy. His soul
desires all that he has not, and so he longs and languishes day and
The uncertainty caused by the certainty of death, the terror inspired by
the fatal end, the aching regrets over the parting with dear ones, these
feelings, which possess even the devoutest Jew, are expressed in one of
Lebensohn's most beautiful poems, "The Death Agony", and in "Knowledge
and Death" the skepticism of the Maskil prevails over the optimism of
Sometimes he permits himself to sing of the misery of his people as
such. In "The Wail of the Daughter of Judah" (_Naakat Bat-
Yehudah_), it would not be too much to say that there is an echo of
the best of the Psalms. The weakest of his verses are, nevertheless,
those in which he expresses longing for Jerusalem.
A great misfortune befell Lebensohn. The premature death of his son, the
young poet Micah Joseph, the centre of many and legitimate hopes,
extorted cries of distress and despair from him.
"Who, alas! hath driven my bird from my nest? Who is it that hath
banished my lyre from my abode? Who hath shattered my heart, and
brought me lamentation?... Who hath with one blow blasted my
There is enough in his writings to make the fortune of a great poet, in
spite of their ballast of mediocre and tiresome verses, which the reader
should disregard as he goes along. Between him and his contemporary, the
haughty recluse Alfred de Vigny, there is not a little resemblance.
Needless to say that Lebensohn had no acquaintance whatsoever with the
works of the French poet.
Lebensohn's poems, published at Wilna, in 1852, under the title "Poems
in the Holy Language" (_Shire Sefat Kodesh_), were greeted with
enthusiasm. The author was hailed as the "father of poetry". Besides, he
published several works treating of grammar and exegesis.
When the celebrated philanthropist Montefiore went to Russia, in 1848,
to induce the Czar's government to ameliorate the civil condition of the
Jews and grant reforms in the conduct of the schools, Lebensohn ranged
himself publicly on the side of the reformers. According to him, the
degradation of the Jews was due to three main causes:
1. Absence of Haskalah, that is, a rational education, founded upon
instruction in the language of the land, the ordinary branches of
knowledge, and a handicraft.
2. The ignorance of the Rabbis and preachers on all subjects outside of
3. Indulgence in luxuries, especially of the table and of dress.
If the first two causes are more or less just, the third displays a
ludicrously naive conception of life. Lebensohn was speaking of a
famished people, the majority of whom ate meat only once a week, on the
Sabbath, and he reproaches them with gastronomic excesses and
extravagance in dress. We shall see that his simple outlook was shared
by most of the Russian Maskilim.
In 1867, at the time when the struggle for the emancipation of the Jews
and internal reforms in general was at its highest point, Lebensohn
published his drama "Truth and Faith" (_Emet we-Emunah_, Wilna),
which he had written all of twenty years earlier. It is a purely
didactic work, blameless of any trace of poetic ardor. It must be
conceded that the style is clear and fluent, and the ethical problem is
stated with precision. But it lacks every attempt at analysis of
character, and is destitute of all psychologic motivation. These being
of the very essence of dramatic composition, his drama reduces itself to
a moral treatise, wearisome at once and worthless. The plan is simple
enough. Sheker (Falsehood) seeks to seduce and win over Hamon (the
Crowd). He offers to give him his daughter Emunah (Faith) in marriage,
but she is wooed by two lovers, Emet (Truth) and Sekel (Reason).
The influence of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto is direct and manifest. Like the
older author, Lebensohn, skeptic though he is, does not go to the length
of casting doubt upon faith. He rises up against falsehood, hypocrisy,
and mock piety, the piety that persecutes others, and steeps its
votaries in ignorance. "Pure reason is not opposed to a pure religion",
was the device adopted by the Wilna school.
Belief in God being set aside as a basic principle, the reason invoked
by the dramatist is positive reason, the reason of science, of justice,
of rational logic. In verbose monologues, he combats the superstitions
and fanaticism of the orthodox. The whole force of the Maskil's hatred
against obscurantism is expressed through the character named Zibeon,
Jewish hypocrite and chief adjutant in the camp of Sheker (Falsehood).
This Jewish Tartufe is very different in his complexity from the
character created by Moliere. Zibeon is a wonderworking Rabbi, a subtle
sophist, a crafty dialectician. The waves of the Talmud, the casuistry
of more than a millennium of scholasticism, have left their traces in
his mind and personality. In his hatred of the adversaries of the
Haskalah, Lebensohn depicts him, besides, as a hypocrite, a lover of the
good things of this world, and given to lewdness, which are not the
usual traits of these Rabbis. The alleged Tartufe of the ghetto cannot
be called a hypocrite. He is a believer, and hence sincere. What leads
him to commit the worst excesses, is his fanaticism, his blind piety.
On the other hand, the dramatist is full of admiration for Sekel
(Reason), Hokmah (Knowledge), Emet (Truth), and even Emunah (Faith).
On the background of the prosiness of this work by Lebensohn, there
stands out one passage of remarkable beauty, the prayer of Sekel
beseeching God to liberate Emet. The triumph of Truth closes the drama.
One characteristic feature should be pointed out: Neither Regesh
(Sentiment), a prominent Jewish quality, nor Taawah (Passion), appears
in this gallery of allegorical characters personifying the moral
attributes. For Lebensohn, as for the whole school of the humanists of
his time, the only thing that mattered was reason, and reason had to be
shown all-sufficing to ensure the triumph of truth.
In its day Lebensohn's drama excited the wrath of the orthodox. A Rabbi
with literary pretensions, Malbim (Meir Lob ben Jehiel Michael),
considered it his duty to intervene, and to the accusations launched by
Lebensohn he replied in another drama, called _Mashal u-Melizah_
("Allegory and Interpretation"), wherein he undertakes the defense of
the orthodox against the charges of ill-disposed Maskilim.
* * * * *
If Abraham Bar Lebensohn is considered the father of poetry, his no less
celebrated contemporary and compatriot, Mordecai Aaron Ginzburg, has an
equally good claim to be called the foremost master of modern Hebrew
prose. Ginzburg is the creator of a realistic Hebrew prose style, though
he was permeated to the end with the style and the spirit of the Bible.
Whenever the Biblical style can render modern thoughts only by torturing
and twisting it, or by resorting to cumbersome circumlocutions, Ginzburg
does not hesitate to levy contributions from Talmudic literature and
even the modern languages. These linguistic additions made by him are
always excellent, and in no way prejudicial to the elegance of Hebrew
style. For it should be reiterated, in season and out of season, that it
is a mistake to believe the neo-Hebrew to be essentially different from
the language of the Bible, analogous to the difference between the
modern and the classic Greek. The modern Hebrew is nothing more than an
adaptation of the ancient Hebrew, conformable to the modern spirit and
new ideas. The extreme innovators, who at best are few in number, cannot
but confirm this statement of the case.
Ginzburg was a fertile writer; he has left us fifteen volumes, and more,
on various subjects. Endowed with good common sense, and equipped with a
more solid modern education than the majority of the writers of the
time, he exercised a very great influence upon his readers and upon the
development of Hebrew literature. His "Abiezer", a sort of
autobiography, very realistic, presents a striking picture of the
defective education and backward ways of the ghetto, which the critic
denounces, with remarkable subtlety, in the name of civilization and
progress. Besides, he published two volumes on the Napoleonic wars; one
volume, under the title _Hamat Damesek_ (1840), on the ritual
murder accusation at Damascus; a history of Russia; a translation of the
Alexandrian Philo's account of his mission to Rome; and a treatise on
style (_Debir_). He was very successful with his works, and all of
them were published during his lifetime, at Wilna, Prague, and Leipsic,
and have been republished since. One of his achievements is that he
helped to create a public of Hebrew readers. It must be admitted that
the great mass of the people were at first somewhat repelled by his
realism and by his terse and accurate way of writing. Their taste was
not sufficiently refined to appreciate these qualities, and their
primitive sensibilities could not derive pleasure from a description of
things as they actually are. This is the difficulty which the second
generation of Lithuanian writers took account of, and overcame, when
they introduced romanticism into Hebrew literature.
Though it was the first, Wilna was not the only centre of Hebrew
literature in Russia. In the south, and quite independent of the Wilna
school, literary circles were formed under the influence of the Galician
writers and workers.
At Odessa, a European window opening on the Empire of the Czar, we see
the first enlightened Jewish community come into existence. The educated
flocked thither from all parts, especially from Galicia. Simhah Pinsker
and B. Stern are the representatives of the Science of Judaism in
Russia, and the contributions of the Karaite Abraham Firkovich in the
same field were most valuable, while Eichenbaum, Gottlober, and others
distinguished themselves as poets and writers.
Isaac Eichenbaum (1796-1861) was a graceful poet. Besides his prose
writings and his remarkable treatise on the game of chess, we have a
collection in verse by him, entitled _Kol Zimrah_ ("The Voice of
Song", Leipsic, 1836). His sweetness and tenderness, his elegant and
clear style, often recall Heine. The following quotation is from his
poem "The Four Seasons".
"Winter has passed, the cold has fled, the ice melts under the
fiery darts of the sun. A stream of melted snow sends its limpid
waters flowing down the declivity of the rock. My beloved alone
is unmoved, and all the fires of my love cannot melt her icy
"The hills are clothed with festive mirth, the face of the
valleys smiles joyously. The cedar beams, the vine is jubilant,
and the pine tree finds a nest in the recesses of the jagged
mountain. But in me sighs increase, they bring me low--my friend
will not yet hearken unto me.
"All sings that lives in the woodland. The beasts of the earth
rejoice, and in the branches of the trees the winged creatures
warble, each to his mate. My well-beloved alone turns her steps
away from me, and under the shadow of my roof I am left in
"The plants spring from the soil, the grass glitters in the
splendor of the sun, and the earth is covered with verdure. Upon
the meadows, the lilies and the roses bloom. Thus my hopes
blossom, too, and I am filled with joyous expectation--my friend
will come back and in her arms enfold me."
The acknowledged master of the humanists in southern Russia was Isaac
Bar Levinsohn, of Kremenetz, in Wolhynia (1788-1860). His proper place
is in a history of the emancipation of the Russian Jews, rather than in
a history of literature. Levinsohn was born in the country of Hasidism.
A happy chance carried him to Brody when he was very young. He attached
himself there to the humanist circle, and made the acquaintance of the
Galician masters. On his return to his own country, he was actuated by
the desire to work for the emancipation and promote the culture of the
Like Wessely, Levinsohn remained on strictly orthodox ground in his
writings, and in the name of traditional religion itself he attacks
superstition, and urges the obligatory study of the Hebrew language, the
pursuit of the various branches of knowledge, and the learning of
trades. His profound scholarship, the gentleness and sincerity of his
writings, earned for him the respect of even the most orthodox. His
_Bet-Yehudah_ ("The House of Judah") and _Te'udah be-Yisrael_
("Testimony in Israel") are pleas in favor of modern schooling. In
"Zerubbabel" he treats of questions of Hebrew philology, and with the
help of documents he annihilates the legend of the ritual murder in his
_Efes-Dammim_ ("No Blood!"). _Ahijah ha-Shiloni_ is a defense
of Talmudic Judaism against its Christian detractors. Besides, Levinsohn
wrote a number of other things, epigrams, articles, and essays.
[Footnote: We owe a new edition of all his works to Nathansohn, Warsaw,
The contemporaries of Levinsohn exaggerated the importance of the
literary part of his work. Not much of it, outside of his philologic
studies, deserves to be called literary, and even they often fall below
the mark on account of the simplicity of his views, and especially on
account of his prolixity and his awkward diction and style. Also the
direct influence which he has exerted upon Jews is less considerable
than once was thought. Upon Hasidism he made no impression whatsoever.
In Lithuania, to be sure, his works were widely read by the Jews, but in
that home of the Hebrew language the subject-matter and arguments of an
author play but little part in giving vogue to what is written in the
By his self-abnegation and his wretched fortunes, his isolated life in a
remote town, weak in body yet working for the elevation of his co-
religionists, he won the admiration of his contemporaries without
The fame of the solitary idealist of Kremenetz spread until it reached
government circles. Levinsohn was the first of the Jewish humanists who
maintained direct relations with the Russian authorities. Czar Nicholas
I gave him a personal audience, and several times sought his advice on
problems connected with the endeavor to ameliorate the social condition
of the Jews. The founding of Jewish elementary schools, the opening of
two Rabbinical seminaries, one at Wilna and one at Zhitomir, the
establishment of numerous agricultural colonies, the improvements
effected in the political condition of the Jews and in the censorship of
Hebrew books--all these progressive measures are in great part, if not
entirely, due to the influence of Levinsohn. And the educated men of his
time paid the tribute of veneration to a compeer who enjoyed the esteem
of the governing classes to so high a degree.
* * * * *
THE ROMANTIC MOVEMENT
The political reaction following upon the Polish revolution of 1831 made
itself felt in Lithuania particularly. The hand of the government
weighed heavy upon the people of this province. The University of Wilna
was closed, and all traces of civilization were effaced.
From the arbitrariness of the Polish nobles, the Jews were rescued only
to fall into the tender mercies of unscrupulous officials. As it was,
since 1823 the most rigorous measures had been devised against them.
They were exposed to expulsions from the villages, and their commercial
and other privileges had been considerably curtailed. Besides, a new
scourge was inflicted upon them, compulsory service in the army, unknown
until then, a frightful service, with an active period of twenty-five
years. Children were torn from their families and their faith, and the
whole life of a man was swallowed up. They struggled against this new
incubus with all the weapons at the disposal of a feeble population.
Bribery, premature marriage, wholesale evasion, voluntary or forced
substitution, were the means employed by the well-to-do to save their
progeny from military service.
In order to ensure the regular recruiting of soldiers among the Jews,
Czar Nicholas I, while abolishing the central synod organization,
maintained the local _Kahal_ everywhere, and made it responsible
for the military conscription. The wealthy, the learned, the heads of
the communities profited greatly by this official recognition of the
Kahal. It enabled them to free the members of their families from
enrollment in the army. In their hands, it became an instrument for the
oppression and exploitation of the poor. "The devil take the hindmost!"
expresses the state of mind of the Russian Jews in the middle of the
nineteenth century, during the whole of the period called the
The reforms projected by Alexander I for the benefit of the Jews, the
hopes cherished by the Lithuanian humanists, proved abortive.
Reactionary tendencies made themselves felt everywhere cruelly, but
chiefly they injured the Jews, forever persecuted, downtrodden, and
humiliated. The profound pessimism of Lebensohn's poetry is eloquent
testimony to the feelings of educated Jews. And yet, these votaries of
knowledge, of civilization, the daughter of heaven, clung to their
illusions. They continued to insist that only thoroughgoing reforms can
solve the Jewish question. The people at large did not side with them,
and even among the educated their view of the situation was not shared
by the younger men. In this moral disorder, the masses of the people
permitted themselves to be carried along unresistingly by the current of
Hasidic views, which had long been waiting to capture the last fortress
of rational Judaism. The Rabbis stood by alarmed, unable to do anything
to arrest the growing encroachments of the mystic movement. Yet there
was an adversary ready and equipped. In the young neo-Hebrew literature,
mysticism found a foeman far more powerful than ever logic and
rationalism had been.
The Hebrew language was cultivated with zeal by the educated classes,
and even by the young Rabbis. It was the epoch of the _Melizah_,
and the _Melizah_ was to supplement the jejuneness of Rabbinism and
oppose the Hasidim with good results. Hebrew was in the ascendant, not
only for poetry, but for general purposes as well. In the sunshine of
the nineteenth century, it became the language of commerce, of
jurisprudence, of friendly intercourse. Folklore itself, in the very
teeth of the now despised jargon, knew no other tongue. The period
produced a large quantity of popular poems, which to this day are sung
by the Jews of Lithuania. The dominant note is the national plaint of
the Jewish people, its dreams, and its Messianic hopes. They are
In polished and tender Hebrew, with lofty expressions and despairful
cries worthy of Byron, a poet of the people mourns the misfortunes of
"Zion, Zion, city of our God! How awful is thy breach! Who will
heal thee!... Every nation, every country, sees its splendor grow
from day to day. Thou alone and thy people, ye fall from depth to
"Holy land, O Zion and Jerusalem! How dare the stranger trample
on thy soil with haughty foot? How, O Heaven, can the son of the
stranger stand upon the spot whence Thy command banishes him?"
But hope is not entirely blasted:
"In the name of all thy people, in all their dwelling-places,
have we sworn unto thee, O Zion, with scorching tears, that thou
shalt always rest upon our hearts as a seal. Not by night and not
by day shalt thou be forgotten by us."
Another popular poem, anonymous like the last, entitled "The Rose", is
still more dolorous and despairful in tone. Stepped upon by every
passerby, the rose supplicates incessantly, "O man, have pity on me,
restore me to my home!"
Besides these and others with the same underlying ideas, the lyrics of
Lebensohn and "The Mourning Dove" by Letteris constituted the repertory
of the people. But soon romanticism on the part of the litterateurs
began to respond to the romanticism of the masses, asserting itself as a
national Jewish need.
A translation of _Les Mysteres de Paris_, published in Wilna in
1847-8, introduced the romantic movement among the Jews, and at the same
time the novel into the Hebrew language. This translation, or, rather,
adaptation, of Sue's work, executed in a stilted Biblical style, won
great renown for its young author, Kalman Schulman of Wilna (1826-1900).
From the literary point of view, Schulman's achievement is interesting
because of the kind of literature it was the first to offer to readers
of Hebrew--pastime literature, fiction in place of the serious writings
of the humanists. The enormous success obtained by this first work of
the translator, the repeated editions which it underwent, testify to the
existence of a public that craved light literature. Thenceforth,
romanticism was to occupy the first place, and the _Melizah_ style
was appropriated for the purposes of fiction, to the delight of the
friends of the Bible language.
In spite of his small originality, it happened that Kalman Schulman
contributed more than any other writer to the achievement of securing a
place for Hebrew in the hearts of the people. For the length of a half-
century, he was regarded popularly as the master of Hebrew style.
Romantic and conservative in religion, enthusiastic for whatsoever the
Jewish genius produced, naive in his conception of life, he let his
activity play upon all the fields of literature. He published a History
of the World in ten volumes; a geography, likewise in ten volumes; four
volumes of biographical and literary essays on the Jewish writers of the
Middle Ages; a national romance dealing with the time of Bar Kokbah (a
composite made up of a number of translations); and curious Biblical and
Talmudic essays. [Footnote: These works, first published at Wilna, have
been republished again and again.]
His language is the Hebrew of Isaiah. The artificialities and the undue
emphasis of his style, his childlike views, his romantic sentimentality
in all that touches Jews and Judaism, which appealed directly to the
hearts of the simple, ignorant readers who constituted his public,
explain the success of this writer, well merited even though he lacked
originality. His books were spread broadcast, by the millions of copies,
and they fostered love of Hebrew, of science, and knowledge in general
among the people. By this token, Schulman was a civilizing agent of the
first rank. His work is the portal through which the Maskil had to pass,
and sometimes passes to this day, on the path of development toward
Schulman became the head of a school. His poetic and inflated style long
imposed itself upon all subjects, and hindered the natural development
of Hebrew prose, inaugurated by Mordecai A. Ginzburg.
More creative writers were not long in making their appearance. Among
the poets of the romantic school, a prominent place belongs to Micah
Joseph Lebensohn, briefly called Mikal (1828-1852), the son of Abraham
Gentle and gracious in the same measure in which his father was hard and
unyielding, Micah Joseph Lebensohn was the only writer of the time to
enjoy the advantage of a complete modern education, and the only one of
his generation to escape cruel want and the struggle for personal
freedom. He knew German literature thoroughly, and he had taken a course
in philosophy at Berlin, under Schelling. Along with these attainments,
he was master of Hebrew as a living language. It was the vehicle for his
most intimate thoughts and the subtlest shades of feeling.
His rich poetic imagination, his harmonious style, warm figures of
speech, consummate lyric quality, unmarred by the blatant, crude
exaggerations of his predecessors, constitute Mikal the first artist of
his day in Hebrew poetry.
He made his appearance in the world of letters, in 1851, with a
translation of Schiller's "Destruction of Troy", finished in style and
in poetic polish. He was the first to apply the rules of modern prosody
strictly to Hebrew poetry. His collection of poems, _Shire Bat-
Ziyyon_ ("The Songs of the Daughter of Zion"), is a masterpiece. It
contains six historical poems, admirable in thought, form, and
inspiration. In "Solomon and Kohelet", his most ambitious poem, he
brings the youth of King Solomon before our eyes. [Footnote: Wilna,
1852. German translation by J. Steinberg, Wilna, 1859.] It was the first
time the love of Solomon for the Shulammite was celebrated--a sublime,
exalted love sung in marvellous fashion. The joy of life trembles in all
the fibres of the poet's heart.... Then, the old age of Ecclesiastes is
contrasted strikingly with the youth of Solomon--the king disillusioned,
skeptical, convinced of the vanity of love, beauty, and knowledge. All
is dross, vanity of vanities! And the young romantic poet ends his work
with the conclusion that wisdom cannot exist without faith--that faith
alone is capable of giving man supreme satisfaction.
"Jael and Sisera", a noble production, treats of the silent struggle, in
the heart of the valiant woman extolled by Deborah, between the duty of
hospitality on the one side, and love of country on the other. The
latter triumphs in the end:
"With this people I dwell, and in its land I am sheltered!
Should I not desire its prosperity and its happiness?"
"Moses on Mount Abarim" is full of admiration for the great legislator.
The poet says regarding his death:
"The light of the world is obscured and dun,
Of what avail the light of the sun?"
His elegy on Jehudah Halevi is instinct with the pathos of patriotic
love for the Holy Land:
"That land, where every stone is an altar to the living God, and
every rock a seat for a prophet of the supreme Lord".
Or, as he exclaims in another poem, "Land of the muses, perfection of
beauty, wherein every stone is a book, every rock a graven tablet!"
Another collection of poems by Mikal, _Kinnor Bat-Ziyyon_ ("The
Harp of the Daughter of Zion"), published at Wilna, posthumously,
contains, besides a number of pieces translated from the German, also
lyric poems, in which the poet breathes forth his soul and his
suffering. He loves life passionately, but he divines that he will not
be granted the opportunity of enjoying it long, and, in an access of
despair, he cries out: "Accursed be death, accursed also life!" His
nature changes, his muse grows sad, and, like his father, he discerns
only injustice and misfortune in the world. In a poem addressed to "The
Stars", he fairly storms high heaven to wrest from it the secret of the
"Answer me, I pray, answer me, ye who are denizens on high! O,
stop the march of the eternal laws a single instant! Alas, my
heart is full of disgust over this earth. Here man is born unto
pain and misery!... Here reigns religious Hatred! On her lips
she bears the name of the God of mercy, and in her hands the
blood-dripping sword. She prays, she throws herself upon her
knees, yet without cease, and in the name of God, she slaughters
her victims. This world, when the Lord created it in a fit of
anger, He cast it far away from Him in wrath. Then Death threw
herself upon it, scattering terror everywhere. She holds this
world in her talons. Misery also precipitates herself upon it,
gnashing her teeth in beast-like rage. She clutches man like a
beast of prey, she torments him without reprieve...."
This posthumous collection of poems contains also love poems and Zionist
lamentations, all bearing the impress of the deep melancholy and the
sadness that characterized the last years of the poet's short life. A
cruel malady carried him off at the age of twenty-four, and the friends
of Hebrew poetry were left mourning in despair.
Romantic fiction in Hebrew, which the strait-laced life and the
austerity of the educated had rendered impossible up to this time, now
made its first appearance in the form of translations of modern
romances. They were received with acclaim by a well-disposed public
greedy for novelties. The creators of original romances were not long in
coming. The first master in the department, the father of Hebrew
romance, was Abraham Mapu (1808-1867).
Mapu was born at Slobodka, a suburb of Kowno, a sad town inhabited
almost entirely by Jews. The whole of the population vegetates there
amid the most deplorable conditions, economic and sanitary. The father
of Mapu was a poor, melancholy _Melammed_, a teacher of Hebrew and
the Talmud, simple in his outlook upon life, yet not without a certain
degree of education. He loved and cultivated knowledge as taught by the
Hebrew masters of the Middle Ages. Mapu's mother was gentle and sweet.
With resignation and fortitude she endured the physical suffering that
hampered her all her life. His brother Mattathias, a Rabbinical student,
was a man of parts.
In brief, it was misery itself, the life he knew, but the misery once
surmounted, and vain desires eliminated, it was a life that tended to
bind closer the ties of family love. Being a sickly child, Mapu did not
begin to study the elementary branches until he was five years old, an
advanced age among people whose children were usually sent to the
_Heder_ at four, to spend years upon years there that brought no
joy to the student as he sat all day long bent over the great folios of
the Talmud, except the joy that comes from success in study. Rational
instruction in the Bible and in Hebrew grammar, scorned by the Talmudic
dialecticians as superficial studies, was banished from the
_Heder_. Happily for the future writer, his father taught him the
Bible, and awakened love in his sensitive heart for the Hebrew language
and for the glorious past of his people. At the same time, his Talmudic
education went on admirably. At the age of twelve, he had the reputation
of being a scholar, at the age of thirteen, an _'Illui_, a
"phenomenon", and from that time on he was at liberty to devote himself
to his studies at his own free will, without submitting himself to the
discipline of a master.
Like all young Talmudists, he was soon sought after as a desirable son-
in-law, and it was not long before his father affianced him to the
daughter of a well-to-do burgher. At the age of seventeen, he was
married. Marriage, however, did not change his life. As before, he
pursued his studies, while his father-in-law provided for his wants. But
soon his studies took a new direction. His pensive mind, stifled by
Rabbinic scholasticism, turned to the Kabbalah. Mystical exaltation more
and more took possession of him, and the day came when he all but
declared himself a follower of Hasidism. It was his mother who saved
him. He yielded to her prayers, and was held back from committing a
perilous act of heresy.
These internal conflicts between feeling and reason, the perplexities
with which his spirit wrestled, did not affect our author to an
excessive degree. They produced no radical change in his personality.
All his life Mapu remained the humble scholar of the ghetto, a successor
of the _Ebyonim_, of the psalmists and the prophets. Timorous,
melancholy, lacking all desire for the things connected with practical
life, often degraded by their own material wretchedness and by the
intellectual wretchedness of their surroundings, these dreamers of the
ghetto, more numerous than the outsider knows, hide a moral exaltation
in the depths of their hearts, a supreme idealism, always ready to do
battle, never conquered. In their persons we are offered the only
explanation there is for the activity and persistence of the Messianic
Mapu was on the point of succumbing, like so many others, the darkness
of mysticism was about to drop like a pall upon his mind, when something
happened, insignificant in itself, but important through its
consequences, and he was snatched out of danger. A Latin psalter fell
into his hands by chance; it gave a fresh turn to his studies, and his
mind took its bearings anew.
Was it curiosity, or was it desire for knowledge, that impelled him to
decipher the sacred text in an unknown language at what cost soever? It
is certain that no difficulty affrighted him. Word by word he translated
the Latin text by dint of comparing it with the Hebrew original, and he
succeeded in acquiring a large number of Latin words. He is not alone in
this achievement. Solomon Maimon learned the alphabet of the German, the
language in which he later wrote his best philosophic essays, from the
German names of the treatises of the Talmud prefixed to an edition
printed in Berlin. And many other such cases among the educated Jews of
Lithuania might be cited.
These mental gymnastics, the necessity of rendering account to himself
as to the precise value of each word, helped Mapu to a better
understanding of the Bible text and a closer identification with its
Good fortune and material well-being are not stable possessions with
people like the Russian Jews, obliged to earn their livelihood in the
face of rabid competition, and exposed to the caprices of a hostile
legislation. One day Mapu's father-in-law found himself ruined. The
young man was obliged to interrupt his studies and accept a place as
tutor in the family of a well-situated Jewish farmer.
His prolonged stay in the country exerted an excellent influence upon
the impressionable soul of the young man. His close communion with
nature, which quickly captivated his mind, rent asunder forever the
mystic veil that had enshrouded it. Still more important was his
association with the enlightened Polish curate of the village, who
interested himself in the young scholar and devoted much time to his
instruction. Mapu threw himself with ardor into the study of the Latin
classics. He is the first instance of a Hebrew poet having had the
opportunity of forming his mind upon the ample models of classic
antiquity. Continuing under the tuition of the curate, he studied
French, the language of his preference, then German, and, only in the
last instance, Russian. The Russian language was not held in high esteem
by the Maskilim of Mapu's day. In Kowno, whither he returned after some
time, he was compelled to hide his new acquisitions, for fear of
arousing the hatred of the fanatics and suffering injury in his
profession as teacher of Hebrew.
Infatuated with the works of the romanticists, especially the novels of
Eugene Sue, his favorite author, he began to think out the first part of
his historical romance _Ahabat Ziyyon_ ("The Love of Zion") as
early as 1830. Twenty-three years were to pass before it saw the light
of day. During that interval he led a life of never-ceasing privation
and toil, laboring by day, dreaming by night. The Haskalah had created
humanist centres in the little towns of Lithuania. In some of these, in
Zhagor and in Rossieny, "the city of the educated, of the friends of
their people and of the sacred tongue", Mapu finally found the
opportunity to display his talents. But his material condition, bad
enough to begin with, grew worse and worse. After oft-repeated
applications, he received the appointment as teacher at a Jewish
government school in Kowno, in 1848. This, together with the pecuniary
assistance granted him by his more fortunate brother, put an end
permanently to his embarrassment. Occupying an independent position, he
could devote himself to his romance. Finally, the success obtained by
the Hebrew translation of "The Mysteries of Paris" emboldened him to
publish his "Love of Zion", and the timid author was overwhelmed,
stupefied almost, when he realized the enthusiasm with which the public
had greeted his first literary product.
Into the ascetic and puritanic environment in which the world of
sentiment and the life of the spirit were unknown, Mapu's romance
descended like a flash of lightning, rending the cloud that enveloped
all hearts. A century after Rousseau, there was still a corner in Europe
in which pleasure, the joy of living, the good things of this life, and
nature, were considered futilities, in which love was condemned as a
crime, and the passions as the ruin of the soul. Such were the
surroundings amid which "The Love of Zion", a Jewish _Nouvelle
Heloise_, appeared as the first plea for nature and love.
"The Love of Zion" is an historical romance. It re-tells a chapter in
the life of the Jewish people at the time of the prophet Isaiah. The
poet could not exercise any choice as to his subject--it was forced upon
him inevitably. In order to be sure of touching a responsive chord in
his people, it was necessary to carry the action twenty-five centuries
back. A Jewish novel based on contemporaneous life would have been
incongruous both with truth and with the spirit of the ghetto.
The time of his novel was the golden age of ancient Judea. It was the
epoch of a great literary and prophetic outburst. Also it was an
agitated time, presenting striking contrasts. At Jerusalem, an
enlightened king was making a firm stand against the limitation of his
power from within and against an almost invincible enemy from without.
On the one side, society was decadent, on the other side arose the
greatest moralists the world has ever seen, the prophets, the intrepid
assailants of corruption. It was, finally, the period in which the
noblest dreams of a better, an ideal humanity were dreamed. That is the
time in which the author lets his story take place.
In the reign of King Ahaz, two friends lived at Jerusalem. The
one named Joram was an officer in the army and the owner of rich
domains; the other, Jedidiah, belonged to the royal family. Joram
had married two wives, Haggith and Naamah. The latter was his
favorite, but at the end of many years she had borne him no
children. Obliged to go forth to war against the Philistines,
Joram entrusted his family to the care of his friend Jedidiah. At
the moment of his departure, his wife Naamah, and also Tirzah,
the wife of Jedidiah, discovered, each, that she was with child.
The two friends agreed, that if the one bore a son and the other
a daughter, the two children should in time marry each other.
Things turned out according to the hopes of the fathers. The wife
of Jedidiah was the first to be confined, and she gave birth to a
daughter, who was named Tamar.
Joram was taken captive by the enemy, and did not return. At the
same time a great misfortune overtook his family. His steward
Achan permitted himself to be tempted to evil by a judge, Matthan
by name, a personal enemy of Joram. He set fire to the house of
his master, first having despoiled it of all there was in it. His
booty he carried to the house of Matthan, and Haggith and her
children perished in the flames. Achan laid the blame for the
fire upon Naamah, who, he said, desired to avenge herself upon
her rival Haggith. He substituted his own son Nabal for Azrikam,
the son of Haggith, the only one of Joram's family, he pretended,
to escape with his life. Poor Naamah, about to be delivered, was
compelled to flee and take refuge with a shepherd in the
neighborhood of Bethlehem. There she bore twins, a son named
Amnon, and a daughter, Peninnah.
Jedidiah, shocked by the calamity that had overwhelmed the house
of his friend, took the supposed Azrikam, the son of Joram, home
with him, and raised him with his own children. In order to keep
the spirit of his word to his friend, he considered Azrikam the
future husband of his daughter, seeing that Naamah had
disappeared, and was, besides, under the suspicion of being a
murderess. Achan's triumph was complete. His son was to take the
place of Azrikam, inherit the house of Joram, and marry the
In the meanwhile happened the fall of the kingdom of Samaria. The
Assyrians carried off the inhabitants captive, among them
Hananel, the father-in-law of Jedidiah. One of the captives, the
Samaritan priest Zimri, succeeded in making his escape, and he
fled to Jerusalem. The name of his fellow-prisoner Hananel, which
he used as a recommendation, opened the house and the trustful
heart of Jedidiah to him.
Tamar and Azrikam grew up side by side in the house of Jedidiah.
They differed from each other radically. Beautiful as Tamar
was, and good and generous, so ugly and perverse was Azrikam. The
maiden despised him with all her heart. One day Tamar, while
walking in the country near Bethlehem, was attacked by a lion. A
shepherd hastened to her rescue and saved her life. This shepherd
was none but Amnon, the son of the unfortunate Naamah.
Teman, the brother of Tamar, by chance happened upon Peninnah,
the sister of Amnon, who pretended she was an alien, and he was
seized with violent love for her. Thus the son and the daughter
of Jedidiah were infatuated, the one with the daughter of Naamah,
the other with her son, without suspecting who they were.
Amnon, who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of
Tabernacles, was received with joy, by Jedidiah and his wife, as
the savior of their daughter. He was made at home in their house,
and won general favor by reason of his excellent character. The
young shepherd felt attracted to the study of sacred subjects. He
frequented the school of the prophets, and he was particularly
entranced with the eloquence of the great Isaiah.
The pretended Azrikam did not view the friendship established
between Tamar and Amnon with a favorable eye. He took the priest
Zimri into his confidence, and made him his accomplice and aid in
disposing of his rival. Jedidiah, meanwhile, remained faithful to
his promise, and persisted in his intention of giving his
daughter in marriage to Azrikam, in spite of her own wishes in
the matter. When the tender feeling between Tamar and Amnon
became evident, Jedidiah dismissed the latter from his house.
The period treated of is the most turbulent in the history of
Judea. The conflict of passions and intrigues is going on that
preceded the downfall of the kingdom of Judah and the great
Assyrian invasion. Moral disorder reigns everywhere, iniquity and
lies rule in place of justice. The upright tremble and hope,
encouraged by the prophets. The wicked are defiant, and give
themselves up shamelessly to their debauches.
"Let us drink, let us sing!" exclaimed the crowd of the impious.
"Who knows whether to-morrow finds us alive!"
Zimri meditates a master stroke. Every evening Amnon betook
himself to a little hut on the outskirts of the town, where his
mother and his sister lived. Zimri surprises him. He takes Tamar
and Teman there, and they watch Amnon embrace his sister. Now all
is over. A dreadful blow is dealt the love of brother and sister,
who are ignorant of the bonds of kinship uniting Amnon and
Peninnah. Repulsed by Tamar, for he knows not what reason, Amnon
leaves Jerusalem, despair in his heart.
All is not lost yet. Maltreated by his own son and plagued by
remorse, Achan confesses his misdeeds to the alleged Azrikam, and
reveals his real origin to him. Furious, Azrikam thinks of
nothing but to get rid of his father. He sets his father's house
afire, but, before his death, Achan makes a confession to the
court. Everything is disclosed, and everything is cleared up.
Tamar, now made aware of the error she has committed, is
inconsolable at having separated from Amnon.
Meantime the political events take their course. The brave king
Hezekiah carries on the struggle against his minister Shebnah,
who desires to surrender the capital to the Assyrians. The
miraculous defeat of the enemy at the gates of Jerusalem assures
the triumph of Hezekiah. Peace and justice are established once
During this time, Amnon, taken prisoner in war and sold as slave
to a master living on one of the Ionian isles, has found his
father Jorara there. Both together succeed in making good their
escape, and they return to Jerusalem.
The joy of the Holy City delivered from the invader coincides
with the joy of the two reunited families, whose cherished wishes
are realized. The loves of Tamar and Amnon, and Teman and
This is the frame of the novel, which recalls the wonder-tales of the
eighteenth century. From the point of view of romantic intrigue, study
of character, and development of plot, it is a puerile work. The
interest does not reside in the romantic story. Borrowed from modern
works, the fiction rather injures Mapu's novel, which is primarily a
poem and an historical reconstruction. "The Love of Zion" is more than
an historical romance, more than a narrative invented by an imaginative
romancer--it is ancient Judea herself, the Judea of the prophets and the
kings, brought to life again in the dreams of the poet. The
reconstruction of Jewish society of long ago, the appreciation of the
prophetic life, the local color, the majesty of the descriptions of
nature, the vivid and striking figures of speech, the elevated and
vigorous style, everything is so instinct with the spirit of the Bible
that, without the romantic story, one would believe himself to be
perusing a long-lost and now recovered book of poetry of ancient Judea.
Dreamy, guileless, ignorant of the actual and complicated phenomena of
modern life, Mapu was able to identify himself with the times of the
prophets so well that he confounded them with modern times. He committed
the anachronism of transporting the humanist ideas of the Lithuanian
Maskil to the period of Isaiah. But by reason of wishing to show himself
modern, he became ancient. He was not even aware of the fact that he was
restoring the past with its peculiar civilization, its manners, and
None the less his aim as a reformer was attained. Guided by prophetic
intuition, Mapu accomplished a task making for morality and culture. To
men given over to a degenerate asceticism, or to a mystic attitude
hostile to the present, he revealed a glorious past as it really had
been, not as their brains, weighed down by misery and befogged by
ignorance, pictured it to have been. He showed them, not the Judea of
the Rabbis, of the pious, and the ascetics, but the land blessed by
nature, the land where men took joy in living, the land of life, flowing
with gaiety and love, the land of the Song of Songs and of Ruth. He drew
Isaiah for them, not as a saintly Rabbi or a teller of mystical dreams,
but a poetic Isaiah, patriot, sublime moralist, the prophet of a free
Judea, the preacher of earthly prosperity, of goodness, and justice,
opposing the narrow doctrines and minute and senseless ceremonialism
inculcated by the priests, who were the predecessors of the Rabbis.
The lesson of the novel is an exhortation to return to a natural life.
It presents a world of pleasure, of feeling, of joyous living, justified
and idealized in the name of the past. It sets forth the charms of rural
life in a succession of poetic pictures. Judea, the pastoral land,
passes under the eyes of the reader. The blithe humor of the vine-
dressers, the light-heartedness of the shepherds, the popular festivals
with their outbursts of joy and high spirits, are reproduced with
masterly skill. The moral grandeur of Judea appears in the magnificent
description of a whole people assembled to celebrate the Feast in the
Holy City, and in the impassioned discourses of the prophets, who openly
criticise the great and the priests in the name of justice and truth.
But especially it is love that pervades the work, love, chaste and
ingenuous, apotheosized in the relation of Amnon and Tamar.
The impression that was made by the book is inconceivable. It can be
compared with nothing less than the effect produced by the publication
of the _Nouvelle Heloise_.
At last the Hebrew language had found the master who could make the
appeal to popular taste, who understood the art of speaking to the
multitude and touching them deeply. The success of the book was
impressive. In spite of the fanatical intriguers, who looked with horror
upon this profanation of the holy language, the novel made its way
everywhere, into the academies for Rabbinical students, into the very
synagogues. The young were amazed and entranced by the poetic flights
and by the sentimentalism of the book. A whole people seemed to be
reborn unto life, to emerge from its millennial lethargy. Upon all minds
the comparison between ancient grandeur and actually existing misery
The Lithuanian woods witnessed a startling spectacle. Rabbinical
students, playing truant, resorted thither to read Mapu's novel in
secret. Luxuriously they lived the ancient days over again. The elevated
love celebrated in the book touched all hearts, and many an artless
romance was sketched in outline.
But the greatest beneficiary of the new movement ushered into being by
the appearance of "The Love of Zion" was the Hebrew language, revived in
all its splendor.
"I have searched out the ancient Latin in its majestic vigor, the
German with its depth of meaning, the French full of charm and
ravishing expressions, the Russian in the flower of its youth.
Each has qualities of its own, each is crowned with beauty. But
in the face of all of them, whose voice appeals unto me? Is it
not thy voice, my dove? How pellucid is thy word, though its
music issues from the land of destruction!... The melody of thy
words sings in my ear like a heavenly harp." [Footnote: See
Brainin, "Abraham Mapu", p. 107.]
This idealization of a language of the past, and of that past itself,
produced an enormous effect upon all minds, and it prepared the soil for
an abundant harvest. The success won by "The Love of Zion" encouraged
Mapu to publish his other historical romance, the action of which is
placed in the same period as the first work. _Ashmat Shomeron_
("The Transgression of Samaria"), also published at Wilna, is an epic in
the true sense. It reproduces the conflicts set afoot by the rivalry
between Jerusalem and Samaria. The underlying idea in this novel is not
unlike that of "The Love of Zion". But the author allows himself to run
riot in the use of antitheses and contrasts. He arraigns the poor
inhabitants of Samaria with pitiless severity. Whatever is good, just,
beautiful, lofty, and chaste in love, proceeds from Jerusalem; whatever
savors of hypocrisy, crookedness, dogmatism, absurdity, sensuality,
proceeds from Samaria. The author is particularly implacable toward the
hypocrites, and toward the blind fanatics with their narrow-mindedness.
The personification of certain types of ghetto fanatics is a transparent
ruse. The book excited the anger of the obscurantists, and, in their
wrath, they persecuted all who read the works of Mapu.
"The Transgression of Samaria" shares a number of faults of technique
with the first novel, but also it is equally with the other a product of
rich imaginativeness and epic vigor. In reproducing local color and the
Biblical life, the author's touch is even surer than in "The Love of
If one were inclined to apply to Mapu's novels the standards of art
criticism, a radical fault would reveal itself. Mapu is not a
psychologist. He does not know how to create heroes of flesh and blood.
His men and women are blurred, artificial. The moral aim dominates. The
plot is puerile, and the succession of events tiresome. But these
shortcomings were not noticed by his simple, uncultivated readers, for
the reason that they shared the artless _naivete_ of the author.
Besides these two, we have some poetic fragments of a third historical
romance by Mapu, which was destroyed by the Russian censor. There is
also an excellent manual of the Hebrew language, _Amon Padgug_
("The Master Pedagogue"), very much valued by teachers of Hebrew, and,
finally, a method of the French language In Hebrew.
We shall revert elsewhere to his last novel, '_Ayit Zabua_' ("The
Hypocrite"), which is very different in style and character from his
first two romances.
In his last years he was afflicted with a severe disease. Unable to
work, he was supported by his brother, who had settled in Paris, and who
invited Mapu to join him there. On the way, death overtook him, and he
never saw the capital of the country for which he had expressed the
greatest admiration all his life.
In southern Russia, especially at Odessa, literary activity continued to
be carried on with success. Abraham Bar Gottlober (1811-1900), writing
under the pseudonym Mahalalel, was the most productive of the poets, if
not the best endowed of the whole school.
A disciple of Isaac Bar Levinsohn, and visibly affected by the influence
of Wessely and Abraham Bar Lebensohn, he devoted himself to poetry. The
first volume of his poems appeared at Wilna in 1851. Toward the end of
his days, he published his complete works in three volumes, _Kol Shire
Mahalalel_ ("Collected Poems", Warsaw, 1890). His earliest
productions go back to the middle of the last century. He is a
remarkable stylist, and, in some of his works, his language is both
simple and polished. "Cain", or the Vagabond, is a marvel in style and
In the poem entitled "The Bird in the Cage", he writes as a Zionist, and
he weeps over the trials of his people in exile. In another poem,
_Nezah Yisrael_ ("The Eternity of Israel"), perhaps the best that
issued from his pen, he puts forward a dignified claim to his title as
Jew, of which he is proud.
"Judah has neither bow nor warring hosts, nor avenging dart, nor
sharpened sword. But he has a suit in the name of justice with
the nations that contend with him....
"I take good heed not to recount to you our glory. Why should I
extol the eternal people, for you detest its virtues, you desire
not to hear of them.... But remember, ye peoples, if I commit a
transgression, not in me lies the wrong--through your sin I have
"I ask not for pity, I ask but for justice."
On the whole, Gottlober lacks poetic warmth. In the majority of his
poems, his style errs on the side of prolixity and wordiness. He has
made a number of translations into Hebrew, and his prose is excellent.
His satires frequently display wit. His versified history of Hebrew
poetry, contained in the third volume of his works, is inferior to the
_Melizat Yeshurun_ by Solomon Levinsohn referred to above. Later he
published a monthly review in Hebrew, under the title _Ha-Boker Or_
("The Clear Morning"). His reminiscences of the Hasidim, whom he opposed
all his life, are the best of his prose writings, and put him in a class
with the realists. He also wrote a history of the Kabbalah and Hasidism
(_Toledot ha-Kabbalah weha-Hasidut_). [Footnote: In the monthly
_Ha-Boker Or_, and _Orot me-Ofel_ ("Gleams in the Darkness"),
Gottlober was the _Mehabber_ personified, the type of the vagabond
author, who is obliged to go about in person and force his works upon
patrons in easy circumstances.
The number of writers belonging to the romantic school, by reason of the
form of their works, or by reason of their content, is too large for us
to give them all by name. Only a few can be mentioned and characterized
Elias Mordecai Werbel (1805-1880) was the official poet of the literary
circle at Odessa. A collection of his poems, which appeared at Odessa,
is distinguished by its polished execution. Besides odes and occasional
poems, they contain several historical pieces, the most remarkable of
them "Huldah and Bor", Wilna, 1848, based on a Talmudic legend.
[Footnote: In _Keneset Yisrael_, Warsaw, 1888.]
He was excelled by Israel Roll (1830-1893), a Galician by birth, but
living in Odessa. His _Shire Romi_ ("Roman Poems"), all translated
from the works of the great Latin poets, give evidence of considerable
poetic endowment. His style is classic, copious, and precise, and his
volume of poems will always maintain a place in a library of Hebrew
literature by the side of Mikal's version of Ovid and the admirable
translation of the Sibylline books made by the eminent philologist
In prose, first place belongs to Benjamin Mandelstamm (died 1886). Among
his works is a history of Russia, but his most important production,
_Hazon la-Mo'ed_, is a narrative of his travels and the impressions
he received in the "Jewish zone", chiefly Lithuania. In certain
respects, he must be classified with Mordecai A. Ginzburg, with whom he
shares clarity of thought and wit. But his sentimentality, and his
excessive indulgence in certain affectations of style, range him with
the romantic poets.
The distinguished poet Judah Leon Gordon in his beginnings also belonged
to the romantic school. His earliest poems, especially "David and
Michal", treat of Bible times. But Gordon did not remain long in
sympathy with the endeavors of the romanticists, and the mature stage of
his literary activity belongs to a later epoch.
The characteristic trait of Hebrew romanticism, which distinguishes it
from most analogous movements in Europe, is that it remained in the path
of orderly progress and emancipation. It showed no sign of turning aside
toward reactionary measures in religion or in other concerns. Neither
the retrograde policy adopted by the government against the Jews, nor
the uncompromising fanaticism of certain parties among the Jews
themselves, could arrest the development of the humanitarian ideas
disseminated by the Austrian and the Italian school.
Since the origin of the German Meassefim movement, the evolution of
Hebrew literature has not been stopped for a single instant in its
striving for knowledge and light. The romantic movement is one of its
most characteristic stages, and at the same time one most productive of
good results. The sombre present held out no promises for the future,
and the dark clouds on the political horizon eclipsed every hope of
better fortunes. At such a time the champions of the Haskalah opposed
ignorance and prejudice in the name of the past, and in the name of
morality and idealism they sought to win the hearts of the populace for
the "Divine Haskalah".
The influence of Hebrew romanticism was many-sided. The blending of the
rationalism of the first humanists with the patriotic sentiments of
Luzzatto fortified the bonds that united the writers to the mass of the
faithful believers. A sentimentalism that was called forth by a poetic
revival of the times of the prophets did more for the diffusion of sane
and natural ideas than exhortations and arguments without end, and the
declaration, repeated again and again by the school of Wilna, that
science and faith stand in no sort of opposition to each other, was an
equally powerful means of bringing together the educated with the
moderate among the religious.
Soon the times were to become more favorable to a renewal of the combat
with the obscurants, and then the antagonism between the educated
classes and the orthodox would be resumed with fresh vigor. When that
time arrived, a whole school of ardent realistic writers set themselves
the task of counteracting the misery of Jewish life, and they executed
it without sparing the susceptibilities and the self-love of the
religious masses. They rose up in judgment against orthodox and
traditional Judaism; they chastised it and traduced it. With acerbity
they promulgated the gospel of modern humanism and the surrender of
outward beliefs. By their side, however, we shall see a more moderate
school claim its own, and one not less efficient. It will proclaim words
of charity, faith, and hope. To the negations and destructive aphorisms
of the realistic school it will oppose firm confidence in the early
regeneration of the Jewish people, called to fulfil its destiny upon its
national soil. The Zionist appeal will unite the orthodox masses and the
emancipated youth in a single transport of action and hope.
* * * * *
THE EMANCIPATION MOVEMENT
The accession of Alexander II to the throne marks a decisive moment in
the history of the Russian empire. The fresh impetus that proceeded from
the generous and liberal ideas encouraged by the Czar himself reached
the ghetto. Substantial improvements in the political situation of the
Jews the empire and the easier access to the liberal professions granted
them, the abolition of the old order of military service and the
suppression of the Kahal--these, joined to the expectation of an early
civil emancipation, stirred the Jewish humanists profoundly. Startled
out of their age-long dreams, the Jews with a modern education found
themselves suddenly face to face with reality, and engaged in a struggle
with the exigencies of modern life. In justice to them it must be said
that they realized at once where their duty lay, and they were not found
They ranged themselves on the side of the reform government, and with
all their strength they tried to neutralize the resistance with which
the conservative Jews met the reforms, projected or achieved. They were
particularly active in the regions remote from the large cities, which
had hardly been touched by the new currents. Early in the struggle, the
creation of a Hebrew press placed an effective instrument in the hands
of the defenders of the new order.
The interest aroused among the Jews by the Crimean War suggested the
idea of a political and literary journal in Hebrew to Eliezer Lipman
Silberman. It was called _Ha-Maggid_ ("The Herald"), and the first
issue appeared in 1856, in the little Prussian town of Lyck, situated on
the Russo-Polish frontier. It was successful beyond expectation. The
enthusiasm of the readers at sight of the periodical published in the
holy language expressed itself in dithyrambic eulogies and a vast number
of odes that filled its columns. The influence it exercised was great.
It formed a meeting-place for the educated Jews of all countries and all
shades of opinion. Besides news bearing on politics and literature, and
philological essays, and poems more or less bombastic, _Ha-Maggid_
published a number of original articles of great value. Its issues
formed the link between the old masters, Rapoport and Luzzatto, and
young Russian writers like Gordon and Lilienblum.
The learned French Orientalist Joseph Halevy, later the author of an
interesting collection of Hebrew poems, used _Ha-Maggid_ for the
promulgation of his bold ideas on the revival of Hebrew, and its
practical adjustment to modern notions and needs by means of the
invention of new terms. In part, his propositions have been realized in
our own days. To Rabbi Hirsch Kalisher and the editor, David Gordon, as
the first promoters of the Zionist idea, _Ha-Maggid_ gave the
opportunity, as early as 1860, of urging its practical realization, and
due to their propaganda the first society was formed for the
colonization of Palestine.
This pioneer venture in the field of Hebrew journalism stimulated many
others. Hebrew newspapers sprang up in all countries, varying in their
tendencies according to their surroundings and the opinions of their
editors. In Galicia especially, where there was no absurd censorship to
manacle thought, Hebrew journals were published in abundance. In
Palestine, in Austria, at one time in Paris even, periodicals were
founded, and they created a public opinion as well as readers. But it
was above all in Russia, in the measure in which the censorship was
relaxed, that the Hebrew press became eventually a popular tribunal in
the true sense of the word, with a steady army of readers at its back.
Samuel Joseph Finn, an historian and a philologist of merit, published a
review at Wilna, called _Ha-Karmel_ (1860-1880), which was devoted
to the Science of Judaism in particular.
Hayyim Selig Slonimski, the renowned mathematician, founded his journal
_Ha-Zefirah_ ("The Morningstar") in 1872. It was issued first in
Berlin and later in Warsaw. He himself wrote a large number of articles
in it, in his chosen field as popularizer of the natural sciences.
In Galicia, Joseph Kohen-Zedek published _Ha-Mebasser_ ("The
Messenger") and _Ha-Nesher_ ("The Eagle"), and Baruch Werber,
_Ha-'Ibri_ ("The Hebrew").
By far outstripping all these in importance was the first Hebrew journal
that appeared in Russia, _Ha-Meliz_ ("The Interpreter"), founded at
Odessa in 1860, by Alexander Zederbaum, one of the most faithful
champions of humanism. _Ha-Meliz_ became the principal organ of the
movement for emancipation, and the spokesman of the Jewish reformers.
The Hebrew press with all its shortcomings, and in spite of its meagre
resources, which prevented it from securing regular, paid contributors,
and left it at the mercy of an irresponsible set of amateurs, yet
exercised considerable influence upon the Jews of Russia. [Footnote:
Sometimes ten readers clubbed together for one subscription.]
Unremittingly it busied itself with the spread of civilization,
knowledge, and Hebrew literature.
In the large centres, especially in the more recently established
communities in the south of Russia, the intellectual emancipation of the
Jews was an accomplished fact at an early day. The young people streamed
to the schools, and applied themselves voluntarily to manual trades. The
professional schools and the Rabbinical seminaries established by the
government robbed the _Hedarim_ and the _Yeshibot_ of
thousands of students. The Russian language, hitherto neglected, began
to dispute the first place with the jargon and even the Hebrew. Wherever
the breath of economic and political reforms had penetrated,
emancipation made its way, and without encountering serious opposition
on the part of traditional Judaism.
Wilna, the capital of Lithuania, sorely tried by the Polish insurrection
of 1863, and intentionally excluded by the government from the benefits
of all administrative and political reforms, did not continue to be the
centre of the new life of the Russian Jews, as it had been of their old
life. The "Lithuanian Jerusalem" had put aside its sceptre, and it lay
down for a long sleep, with dreams of the Haskalah, "twin-sister of
faith". As Wilna has since that time witnessed no excesses of
fanaticism, so also it has not known an intense life, the acrid
opposition between Haskalah and religion. It remained the capital of the
moderate, traditional attitude and religious opportunism.
By way of compensation, the small country towns and the Talmudic centres
in Lithuania put up a stubborn resistance to the new reforms. The poor
literary folk stranded in out-of-the-way corners far removed from
civilization were treated as pernicious heretics. Nothing could stop the
fanatics in their persecution, and they had recourse to the extremest
expedients. Made to believe that the reformers harbored designs against
the fundamental principles of Judaism, the people, deluded and erring,
thought the obscurantists right and applauded them, while they rose up
against the modernizers as one man.
The opposition between humanism and the religious fanatics degenerated
into a remorseless struggle. The early Haskalah, the gentle, celestial
daughter of dreamers, was a thing of the past. The educated classes,
conscious of the support of the authorities and of the public opinion
prevailing in the centres of enlightenment, became aggressive, and made
a bold attack upon the course and ways of the traditionalists. They
displayed openly, with bluntest realism, all the evils that were
corroding the system of their antagonists. They followed the example of
the Russian realistic literature of their day, in exposing, branding,
scourging, and chastising whatever is old and antiquated, whatever
mutinies against the modern spirit. Such is the character of the
realistic literature succeeding the epoch of the romanticists.
The signal was again given by Abraham Mapu, in his novel descriptive of
the manners of the small town, '_Ayit Zabua_' ("The Hypocrite"), of
which the early volumes appeared about the year 1860, at Wilna. In view
of the growing insolence of the fanatics, and the urgency of the reforms
projected by the government, the master of Hebrew romance decided to
abandon the poetic heights to which his dreams had been soaring. He
threw himself into the scrimmage, adding the weight of his authority to
the efforts of those who were carrying on the combat with the
obscurantists. Even in his historical romances, especially in the second
of them, he had permitted his hatred against the hypocrites of the
ghetto, disguised in the skin of the false prophet Zimri and his
emulators, to make itself plainly visible. Now he unmasked them in full
view of all, and without regard for the feelings of the other party.
"The Hypocrite" is an ambitious novel in five parts. All the types of
ghetto fanatics are portrayed with the crudest realism. The most
prominent figure is Rabbi Zadok, canting, unmannerly, lewd, an
unscrupulous criminal, covering his malpractices with the mantle of
piety. He is the prototype of all the Tartufes of the ghetto, who play
upon the ignorance and credulity of the people. His chief follower,
Gadiel, is a blind fanatic, an implacable persecutor of all who do not
share his opinions, the enemy of Hebrew literature, embittering the life
of any who venture to read a modern publication. Devoted adherent of the
Haskalah as he was, Mapu was not sparing of paint in blackening these
enemies of culture.
Around his central figure a large number of characters are grouped, each
personifying a type peculiar to the Lithuanian province. The darkest
portrait is that of Gaal, the ignorant upstart who rules the whole
community, and makes common cause with Rabbi Zadok and his followers.
The venality of the officials gives the heartless _parvenu_ free
scope for his arbitrary misdeeds, and without let or hindrance he
persecutes all who are suspected of modernizing tendencies. He is
enveloped in an atmosphere of crime and terror. Mapu was guilty of
overdrawing his characters; he exceeded the limits of truth. On the
other hand, he grows more indulgent and more veracious when he describes
the life of the humbler denizens of the ghetto.
Jerahmeel, the _Batlan_, is a finished product. The _Batlan_
is a species unknown outside of the ghetto. In a sense, he is the
bohemian in Jewry. His distinguishing traits are his oddity and farcical
ways. Not that he is an ignoramus--far from that. In many instances he
is an erudite Talmudist, but his simplicity, his absent-mindedness, his
lack of all practical sense, incapacitate him from undertaking anything,
of whatever nature it may be. He is a parasite, and by reason of mere
inertia he becomes attached to the enemies of progress.
The _Shadhan_, the influential matrimonial agent lacking in no
Jewish community, is painted true to life. Spiteful, cunning, witty,
even learned, he excels in the art of bringing together the eligibles of
the two sexes and unravelling intricate situations.
The most sympathetic figure in the whole novel is the honest burgher.
Mapu has given us the idealization of the large class of humble
tradesmen who have been well grounded in the Talmud, who are endowed
with an open heart for every generous feeling, and whose good common
sense and profoundly moral character the congested condition of the
ghetto has not succeeded in perverting.
All these figures represent real individuals, living and acting. Mapu
has without a doubt exaggerated reality, and frequently to the detriment
of truth. Nevertheless they remain veracious types.
On the other hand, he has not succeeded so well in the creation of the
Maskilim type. The new generation, the enlightened friends of culture,
are puppets without life, without personality, who speak and move only
for the purpose of glorifying the "Divine Haskalah".
Mapu's conception of Jewish life can be summed up in two phrases:
_enlightened_, hence good, just, generous; _fanatic_, hence
wicked, hypocritical, lewd, cowardly.
If the novel on account of its treatment of the subject has some claims
upon the description realistic, it has none by reason of its form. "The
Hypocrite" suffers from all the defects of Mapu's historical romances,
which, in the work under consideration, take on a graver aspect. The
style of Isaiah and poetic flights do not comport well with a modern
subject and a modern environment. Herein, again, Mapu's example became
pernicious for his successors.
When the novel is in full swing, there occurs a series of letters
written by one of the heroes from Palestine. The enthusiasm of the
author for the Holy Land cannot deny itself, and this unexpected Zionist
note, in a purely modern work, reveals his soul as it really is, the
soul of a great dreamer.
It was after the appearance of Mapu's "Hypocrite", in the year 1867,
that Abraham Bar Lebensohn published, at Wilna, his drama "Truth and
Faith", written twenty years before, in which, also, the Tartufe of the
ghetto plays a great part.
At about the same time a young writer, Solomon Jacob Abramowitsch,
issued his realistic novel _Ha-Abot weha-Banim_ ("Fathers and
Sons", Zhitomir, 1868). Abramowitsch had already acquired some fame by a
natural history (_Toledot ha-Teba'_) in four volumes, in which he
taxed his ingenuity to create a complete nomenclature for zoology in
Hebrew. His novel is a failure. The subject is the antagonism between
religious fathers and emancipated sons, and the action takes place in
Hasidic surroundings. There is nothing to betray the future master, the
delicate satirist, the admirable painter of manners. Abramowitsch then
turned away from Hebrew for a while, and made the literary fortune of
the Jewish-German jargon by writing his tales of Jewish life in it, but
about ten years ago he re-entered the ranks of the writers of Hebrew,
and became one of the most original authors handling the sacred
language. What distinguishes Abramowitsch from his contemporaries is his
style. He was among the first to introduce the diction of the Talmud and
the Midrash into modern Hebrew. The result is a picturesque idiom, to
which the Talmudic expressions give its peculiar charm. Though it
continues essentially Biblical, the new element in it puts it into
perfect accord with the spirit and the environment it is called upon to
depict. It lends itself marvellously well to the description of the life
and manners of the Jews of Wolhynia, the province which forms the
background of his novels.
All these creators of a Hebrew realism were outstripped by the poet
Gordon, who expresses the whole of his agitated epoch in his own person
* * * * *
THE CONFLICT WITH RABBINISM
JUDAH LEON GORDON
Judah Leon Gordon (1830-1892) was born at Wilna, of well-to-do parents,
who were pious and comparatively enlightened. As was customary in his
day, he received a Rabbinical education, but at the same time he was not
permitted to neglect the study of the Bible and the classical Hebrew. He
was a brilliant student, and all circumstances pointed to his future
eminence as a Talmudist. The academic address which he delivered on the
occasion of his _Bar-Mizwah_, on his thirteenth birthday,
proclaimed him an _'Illui_, and he was betrothed to the daughter of
a rich burgher.
His father's financial ruin caused the rupture of his engagement, and, a
marriage being out of the question, he was left free to continue his
studies as he would. He returned to Wilna, the first centre of the
Haskalah in Russia. The secular literature couched in Hebrew had
penetrated to the very synagogue, if not openly, at least by the back
door. In secret Gordon devoured all the modern writings that fell in his
hands. It was the time of the elder Lebensohn, when he stood at the
summit of his fame and influence. Very soon Gordon perceived that the
study of Hebrew is not sufficient for the equipment of a man of learning
and cultivation. Under the guidance of an intelligent kinsman, he
studied German, Russian, French, and Latin, one of the first Hebrew
writers to become thoroughly acquainted with Russian literature. He
devoted much time to the study of Hebrew philology and grammar, and he
was justly reputed a distinguished connoisseur of the language. Both his
linguistic researches and his new linguistic formations in Hebrew are
The muse visited him early, and by his first attempts at poetry he
earned the good-will and favor of Lebensohn the father and the
friendship of Lebensohn the son. In his youthful fervor, he offers
enthusiastic admiration to the older man, and proclaims himself his
disciple. But it was the younger poet, Micah Joseph, who exerted the
greater influence upon him. A little drama dedicated to the memory of
the poet snatched away in the prime of his years shows the depth and
tenderness of Gordon's affection for him.
All this time Gordon did not cease to be a student. In 1852 he passed
his final examinations, graduating him from the Rabbinical Seminary at
Wilna, and he was appointed teacher at a Jewish government school at
Poneviej, a small town in the Government of Kowno. Successively he was
transferred from town to town in the same district. Twenty years of
wrangling with fanatics and teaching of children in the most backward
province of Lithuania did not arrest his literary activity. In 1872 he
was called to the post of secretary to the Jewish community of St.
Petersburg and secretary to the recently formed Society for the
Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia. Thenceforward his
material needs were provided for, and he held an assured, independent
position. Denounced in 1879 as a political conspirator, he was thrown
into prison, with the result that he suffered considerable financial
loss and irreparable physical injury. His innocence was established,
and, having been set free, he became one of the editors of the journal
_Ha-Meliz_, the Hebrew periodical with the largest circulation at
the time. But the disease he had contracted ate away his strength, and
he died a victim of the Russian espionage system.
As was said, the young poet followed in the tracks of the two
Lebensohns. In 1857 he published his first ambitious poem, _Ahabat
David u-Michal_, the product of a naive dreamer, who swears a solemn
oath to "remain the slave of the Hebrew language forever, and consecrate
all his life to it". [Footnote: The collected poems of Gordon appeared,
in four volumes, in 1884, at St. Petersburg, and in six volumes, in
1900, at Wilna.] "David and Michal" rehearses poetically the tale of the
shepherd's love for the daughter of the king. The poet carries us back
to Biblical times. He tells us how the daughter of Saul is enamored of
the young shepherd summoned to the royal court to dispel the king's
melancholy. Jealousy springs up in the heart of Saul, and he takes
umbrage at the popularity of David. Before granting him the hand of his
daughter, he imposes superhuman tests upon the young suitor, which would
seem to doom him to certain death. But David emerges from every trial
with glory, and returns triumphant. The king is mastered by consuming
jealousy, and in his anger pursues David relentlessly. David is obliged
to flee, and Michal is given to his rival. The friendship of David and
Jonathan is depicted in touching words. Finally David prevails, and he
is anointed king over Israel. He takes Michal back unto himself, love
being stronger than the sense of injury. The shame of the past is
forgotten. But the poor victim is never to know the joy of bearing a
child--Michal remains barren until the last, and leads a solitary
existence. Old and forgotten, she passes out of life on the very day of
In this simple, pure drama, the influence of Schiller and of Micah
Joseph Lebensohn is clearly seen. But real feeling for nature and real
understanding of the emotion of love are lacking in Gordon. His
descriptions of nature are a pale retracing of the pictures of the
romanticists. Poet of the ghetto as he was, he knew neither nature at
first hand, nor love, nor art. [Footnote: The first collection of his
lyrics and his epic poems appeared at Wilna, in 1866, under the title
_Shire Yehudah._] His poems of love are destitute of the personal
note. On the other hand, in point of classic style and the modern polish
of his verses, he outdistances all who preceded him. Lebensohn the
younger removed from the arena, Gordon attained the first place among
In "David and Barzillai", the poet contrasts the tranquillity of the
shepherd's life with that of the king. Gordon was happily inspired by
the desire for outdoor life that had sprung up in the ghetto since
Mapu's warm praise of rural scenes and pleasures, and also under the
influence of the Jewish agricultural colonies founded in Russia. He
shows us the aged king, crushed under a load of hardships, betrayed by
his own son, standing face to face with the old shepherd, who refuses
"And David reigned as Israel's head,
And Barzillai his flocks to pasture led."
The charm of this little poem lies in the description of the land of
Gilead. It seems that in reviving the past, the Hebrew poets were often
vouchsafed remarkable insight into nature and local coloring, which
ordinarily was not a characteristic of theirs. The same warmth and
historical verisimilitude is found again in _Asenath Bat-
From the same period dates the first volume of fables by Gordon,
published at Vienna, in 1860, under the title _Mishle Yehudah_,
forming the second part of his collected poems, and being itself divided
into four books. It consists of translations, or, better, imitations of
Aesop, La Fontaine, and Kryloff, together with fables drawn from the
Midrash. The style is concise and telling, and the satire is keen.
The production of these fables marks a turning-point in the work of
Gordon. Snatched out of the indulgent and conciliatory surroundings in
which he had developed, he found himself face to face with the sad
reality of Jewish life in the provinces. The invincible fanaticism of
the Rabbis, the anachronistic education given the children, who were
kept in a state of ignorance, weighed heavily upon the heart of the
patriot and man of intellect. It was the time in which liberal ideas and
European civilization had penetrated into Russia under the protection of
Czar Alexander II, and Gordon yearned to see his Russian co-religionists
occupy a position similar to that enjoyed by their brethren in the West.
Those envied Jews of the West had had a proper understanding of the
exigencies of their time. They had liberated themselves from the yoke of
Rabbinism, and had assimilated with their fellow-citizens of other
faiths. The Russian government encouraged the spread of education among
the Jews, and granted privileges to such as profited by the
opportunities offered. The reformers were strengthened also by the
support of the newly-founded Hebrew journals. Gordon threw himself
deliberately into the _fracas_. Poetry and prose, Hebrew and
Russian, all served him to champion the cause of the Haskalah. With him
the Haskalah was no longer limited to the cultivation of the Hebrew
language and to the writing of philosophical treatises. It had become an
undisguised conflict with obscurantism, ignorance, a time-worn routine,
and all that barred the way to culture. Since the government permitted
the Jews to enter the social life of the country, and seeing that they
might in the future aspire to a better lot, the Haskalah should and
would work to prepare them for it and make them worthy of it.
In 1863, after the liberation of the serfs in Russia, Gordon uttered a
thrilling cry, _Hakizah 'Ammi!_
"Awake, O my people! How long wilt thou slumber? Lo, the night
has vanished, the sun shines bright. Open thy eyes, look hither
and thither. I pray thee, see in what place thou art, in what
time thou livest!...
"The land wherein we were born, wherein we live, is it not part
of Europe, the most civilized of all continents?...
"This land, Eden itself, behold, it is open unto thee, its sons
welcome thee as brother.... Thou hast but to apply thy heart to
wisdom and knowledge, become a public-spirited people, and speak
In another poem, the writer acclaims the dawn of a new time for the
Jews. Their zeal to enter the liberal professions augurs well for a
speedy and complete emancipation.
We have seen how stubborn a resistance was opposed by the orthodox to
this new phase of the Haskalah. Terror seized upon them when they saw
the young desert the religious schools and give themselves up to profane
studies. As for the new Rabbinical seminaries, they regarded them as
outright nurseries of atheism.
However, the government standing on the side of the reformers, the
orthodox could not fight in the open. They entrenched themselves behind
a passive resistance. In this struggle, as was observed above, Gordon
occupied the foremost place. Thenceforth a single idea animated him,
opposition to the enemies of light. His bitter, trenchant sarcasm, his
caustic, vengeful pen, were put at the service of this cause. Even his
historical poems quiver with his resentment. He loses no opportunity to
scourge the Rabbis and their conservative adherents.
_Ben Shinne Arayot_ ("Between the Teeth of the Lions") is an
historical poem on a subject connected with the Judeo-Roman wars. The
hero, Simon the Zealot, is taken captive by Titus. At the moment of
succumbing in the arena, his eyes meet those of his beloved Martha, sold
by the enemy as a slave, and the two expire at the same time.
The poem is a masterpiece by reason of the truly poetic inspiration that
informs it, and the deep national feeling expressed in it. But Gordon
did not stop at that. He makes use of the opportunity to attack
Rabbinism in its vital beginnings, wherein he discerns the cause of his
"Woe is thee, O Israel! Thy teachers have not taught thee how to
conduct war with skill and strategem.
"Rebellion and bravery, of what avail are they without discipline
"True, for many long centuries, they led thee, and constructed
houses of learning for thee--but what did they teach thee?
"What accomplished they? They but sowed the wind, and ploughed
the rock, drew water in a sieve, and threshed empty straw!
"They taught thee to run counter to life, to isolate thyself
between walls of precepts and prescriptions, to be dead on earth
and alive in heaven, to walk about in a dream and speak in thy
"Thus thy spirit grew faint, thy strength dried up, and the dust
of thy scribes has sepulchred thee, a living mummy....
"Woe is thee, O Jerusalem that art lost!"
Yet, though he accuses Rabbinism of all possible ills that have befallen
the Jewish people, it does not follow that he justifies the Roman
invasion. All his wrath is aroused against Rome, the perennial enemy of
Judaism. In the name of humanity and justice, he pours out his scorn
over her. The first he presents is Titus, "the delight of mankind",
preparing brilliant but sanguinary spectacles for his people, and
revelling in the sight of innocent blood shed in the gladiators' arena.
Then he arraigns Rome herself, "the great people who is mistress of
three-quarters of the earth, the terror of the world, whose triumph can
know no limit now that she has carried off the victory over a people
destined to perish, whose territory can be covered in a five hours'
march". And finally his Jewish heart is revolted by "the noble matrons
followed by their servants, whose tender soul is about to take delight
in the bloody sights of the arena".
_Bi-Mezulot Yam_ ("In the Depths of the Sea") revives a terrible
episode of the exodus of the Jews from Spain (1492). The refugees
embarked on pirate vessels, where they were exploited pitilessly. The
cupidity of the corsairs is insatiable. After despoiling the Jews of all
they own, they sell them as slaves or cast them into the water. This is
the lot that threatens to overtake a group of exiles on a certain ship.
But the captain falls in love with the daughter of a Rabbi, a maiden of
rare beauty. To rescue her companions, she pretends to yield to the
solicitations of the captain, who promises to land the passengers safe
and sound on the coast. He keeps his word, but the girl and her mother
must stay with him. At a distance from the coast, the two women, with
prayers to God upon their lips, throw themselves into the sea, to save
the girl from having to surrender herself to the desires of the corsair.
It is one of the most beautiful of Gordon's poems. Indignation and grief
inspire such words as these:
"The daughter of Jacob is banished from every foot of Spanish
soil. Portugal also has thrust her out. Europe turns her back
upon the unfortunates. She grants them only the grave, martyrdom,
hell. Their bones are strewn upon the rocks of Africa. Their
blood floods the shores of Asia.... And the Judge of the world
appeareth not! And the tears of the oppressed are not avenged!"
What revolts the poet above all is the thought that the downtrodden
victims will never have their revenge--all the crimes against them will
"Never, O Israel, wilt thou be avenged! Power is with thy
oppressors. What they desire they accomplish, what they do,
prospereth.... Spain--did her vessels not set forth and discover
the New World, the day thou wast driven out a fugitive and
outlaw? And Portugal, did she not find the way to the Indies? And
in that far-off country, too, she ruined the land that welcomed
thy refugees. Yea, Spain and Portugal stand unassailed!"
But if vengeance is withheld from the Jews, implacable hatred takes
possession of all hearts, and never will it be appeased.
"Enjoin it upon your children until the end of days. Adjure your
descendants, the great and the little, never to return to the
land of Spain, reddened with your blood, never again to set foot
upon the Pyrenean peninsula!"
The despair, the grief of the poet are concentrated in the last stanzas,
telling how the maiden and her mother throw themselves into the water:
"Only the Eye of the World, silently looking through the clouds,
the eye that witnesseth the end of all things, views the ruin of
these thousands of beings, and it sheds not a single tear."
His last historical poem, "King Zedekiah in Prison", dates from the
period when the poet's skepticism was a confirmed temper of mind.
According to Gordon, the ruin of the Jewish State was brought about by
the weight given to moral as compared with political considerations. He
no longer contents himself with attacking Rabbinism, he goes back to the
very principles of the Judaism of the prophets. These are the ideas
which he puts into the mouth of the King of Judah, the captive of
Nebuchadnezzar. He makes him the advocate of the claims of political
power as against the moralist pretensions of the prophets.
The king passes all his misfortunes in review, and he asks himself to
what cause they are attributable.
"Because I did not submit to the will of Jeremiah? But what was
it that the priest of Anathoth required of me to do?"
No, the king cannot concede that "the City would still be standing if
her inhabitants had not borne burdens on the Sabbath day".
The prophet proclaims the rule of the letter and of the Law, supreme
over work and war, but can a people of dreamers and visionaries exist a
The king does not stop at such rebellious thoughts. He remembers all too
well the story of Saul and Samuel--how the king was castigated for
having resisted the whims of the prophets.
"Thus the seers and prophets have always sought to crush the kings in
Israel", he maintains.
"Alas! I see that the words of the son of Hilkiah will be
fulfilled without fail. The Law will stand, the kingdom will be
ruined. The book, the word--they will succeed to the royal
sceptre. I foresee a whole people of scholars and teachers,
degenerate folk and feeble."
This amazing view, so disconcerting to the prophet-people, Gordon held
to the very end. And seeing that the Law had killed the nation, and a
cruel fatality dogged the footsteps of the people of the Book, would it
not be best to free the individuals from the chains of the faith and
liberate the masses from the minute religious ceremonial that has
obstructed their path to life? This was the task Gordon set himself for
the rest of his days.
In a poem inscribed to Smolenskin, the editor of _Ha-Shahar_
("Daybreak"), on the occasion of the periodical's resuming publication
after an interval, the poet poured forth his afflicted soul, and pointed
out the aim he had decided to pursue:
"Once upon a time I sang of love, too, and pleasure, and
friendship; I announced the advent of days of joy, liberty, and
hope. The strings of my lyre thrilled with emotion....
"But yonder comes _Ha-Shahar_ again, and I shall attune my
harp to hail the break of day.
"Alas, I am no more the same, I know not how to sing, I waken
naught but grief. Disquieting dreams trouble my nights. They show
me my people face to face.... They show me my people in all its
abasement, with all its unprobed wounds. They reveal to me the
iniquity that is the source of all its ills.
"I see its leaders go astray, and its teachers deceiving it. My
heart bleeds with grief. The strings of my lyre groan, my song is
"Since that day I sing no more of joy and solace; I hope no more
for the light, I wait no more for liberty. I sing only of bitter
days, I foretell everlasting slavery, degradation, and no end.
And from the strings of my lyre tears gush forth for the ruin of
"Since that day my muse is black as a raven, her mouth is filled
with abuse, from her tongue drops complaint. She groans like the