Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

The Renascence of Hebrew Literature (1743-1885) by Nahum Slouschz

Part 3 out of 4

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.4 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

Bat-Kol upon Mount Horeb's ruins. She cries out against the
wicked shepherds, against the sottish people.

"She recounts unto God, unto all the human kind, the degrading
miseries of a hand-to-mouth existence, of the soul that pierces
to the depths of evil."

But the patriotism of the poet carries the day over his discouragement:

"From pity for my people, from compassion, I will tell unto its
shepherds their crimes, unto its teachers the error of their

Will he succeed in his purpose? Is not all hope lost? No matter, he at
least will do his duty until the end:

"From every part of the Law, from every retreat of the people, I
shall gather together all vain teachings, all the poisonous
vipers, wherever they may be, and in the sight of all suspend
them like a banner. Let the wounded look upon them, perhaps they
will be cured--perhaps there is still healing for their ills,
perhaps there is still life in them!"

The poet kept his word. In a series of satires, fables, and epistles, he
reveals the moral plagues that eat into the fabric of Jewish society in
the Slav countries. He gives a realistic description, at once accurate
and subjective, of an extraordinary _milieu_, lacking plausibility
though it existed and defied all opposition. Gordon descended to the
innermost depths of the people's soul, he knew its profoundest secrets.
He caught the spirit of the peculiar manners of the ghetto and
reproduced them with unfailing fidelity. Also he knew all the dishonor
of some of the persons who ruled its society, and he sounded their mean,
crafty brains. His heart was filled with indignation at the painful
spectacle he himself bodied forth, and he suffered the misfortunes of
his people.

His poetic manner changed with the new direction taken by his mind. He
was no more an artist for art's sake. Classical purity ceased to
interest him. What he pursued above all things was an object which can
be reached only by struggle and propaganda. His style became more
realistic. He saturated it with Talmudic terms and phrases, thus
adapting it more closely to the spirit of the scenes and things and acts
he was occupied with, and making it the proper medium for the
description of a world that was Rabbinical in all essential points. But
Gordon never went to excess in the use of Talmudisms; he always
maintained a just sense of proportion. It requires discriminating taste
to appreciate his style, now delicate and now sarcastic, by turns
appealing and vehement. Here Gordon displayed the whole range of his
talent, all his creative powers. The language he uses is the genuine
modern Hebrew, a polished and expressive medium, yielding in naught to
the classical Hebrew.

The social condition of the Jewish woman, the saddest conceivable in the
ghetto, inspired the first of Gordon's satires. The poem is entitled
"The Dot on the I", or, more literally, "The Hanger of the Yod" (_Kozo
shel Yod_).

"O thou, Jewish Woman, who knows thy life! Unnoticed thou
enterest the world, unnoticed thou departest from it.

"Thy heart-aches and thy joys, thy sorrows and thy desires spring
up within thee and die within thee.

"All the good things of this life, its pleasures, its enjoyments,
they were created for the daughters of the other nations. The
Jewish woman's life is naught but servitude, toil without end.
Thou conceivest, thou bearest, thou givest suck, thou weanest thy
babes, thou bakest, thou cookest, and thou witherest before thy

"Vain for thee to be dowered with an impressionable heart, to be
beautiful, gentle, intelligent!"

"The Law in thy mouth is turned to foolishness, beauty in thee is
a taint, every gift a fault, all knowledge a defect.... Thou art
but a hen good to raise a brood of chicks!"

It is vain for a Jewish woman to cherish aspirations after life, after
knowledge--nothing of all this is accessible to her.

"The planting of the Lord wastes away in a desert land without
having seen the light of the sun...."

"Before thou becomest conscious of thy soul, before thou knowest
aught, thou art given in marriage, thou art a mother."

"Before thou hast learnt to be a daughter to thy parents, thou
art a wife, and mother to children of thine own."

"Thou art betrothed--knowest thou him for whom thou art destined?
Dost thou love him? Yea, hast thou seen him?--Love! Thou unhappy
being! Knowest thou not that to the heart of a Jewish woman love
is prohibited?"

"Forty days before thy birth, thy mate and life companion was
assigned to thee." [1]

"Cover thy head, cut off thy braids of hair. Of what avail to
look at him who stands beside thee? Is he hunchbacked or one-
eyed? Is he young or old? What matters it? Not thou hast chosen,
but thy parents, they rule over thee, like merchandise thou
passest from hand to hand."

[Footnote 1: According to popular belief, it is decided forty days
before its birth to whom a child will be married.]

Slave to her parents, slave to her husband, she is not permitted to
taste even the joys of motherhood in peace. Unforeseen misfortunes
assail her and lay her low. Her husband, without an education, without a
profession, often without a heart, finds himself suddenly at odds with
life, after having eaten at the table and lodged in the house of his
wife's parents for a number of years following his marriage, as is
customary among the Jews of the Slavic countries. If no chance of
success presents itself soon, he grows weary, abandons his wife and
children, and goes off no one knows whither, without a sign of his
whereabouts, and she remains behind, an _'Agunah_, a forsaken wife,
widowed without being a widow, most unfortunate of unfortunate

"This is the history of all Jewish women, and it is the history
of Bath-shua the beautiful."

Bath-shua is a noble creature, endowed by nature with all fine
qualities--she is beautiful, intelligent, pure, good, attractive, and an
excellent housekeeper. She is admired by everybody. Even the miserable
_Parush_, the recluse student, conceals himself behind the railing
that divides the women's gallery from the rest of the synagogue, to
steal a look at her. Alas, this flower of womankind is betrothed by her
father to a certain Hillel, a sour specimen, ugly, stupid, repulsive.
But he knows the Talmud by heart, folio by folio, and to say that is to
say everything. The marriage comes off in due time, the young couple eat
at the table of Bath-shua's parents for three years, and two children
spring from the union.

The wife's father loses his fortune, and Hillel must earn his own
livelihood. Incapable as he is, he finds nothing to do, and he goes to
foreign parts to seek his fortunes. Never is he heard of again. Bath-
shua remains behind alone with her two children. By painful toil, she
earns her bread with unfailing courage. All the love of her rich nature
she pours out upon her children, whom by a supreme effort she dresses
and adorns like the children of the wealthy.

Meantime a young man by the name of Fabi makes his appearance in the
little town. He is the type of the modern Jew, educated and intelligent,
and he is handsome and generous besides. He begins by taking an interest
in the young woman, and ends by falling in love with her. Bath-shua does
not dare believe in her happiness. But an insurmountable obstacle lies
in the path of their union. Bath-shua is not divorced from her husband,
and none can tell whether he is dead or alive. Energetically Fabi
undertakes to find the hiding-place of the faithless man. He traces him,
and bribes him to give his wife a divorce. The official document,
properly drawn up and attested by a Rabbinical authority, is sent to
her. Hillel embarks for America, and his vessel suffers shipwreck.

Finally, it would seem, Bath-shua will enjoy the happiness she has amply
merited. Alas, no! In the person of Rabbi Wofsi, fortune plays her
another trick. This Rabbi is a rigid legalist, the slightest of slips
suffices to render the divorce invalid. According to certain
commentators the name Hillel is spelled incorrectly in the document.
After the _He_ a _Yod_ is missing! Thus is the happiness
glimpsed by Bath-shua shattered forever!

Her fate is not unique--the Bath-shuas are counted by the legion in the
ghetto. And there are other fates no less poignant caused by reasons no
less futile.

In another poem, _Ashakka de-Rispak_ ("The Shaft of the Wagon",
meaning "For a Trifle"), the poet tells how the peace of a household was
undermined on account of a barley grain discovered by accident in the
soup at the Passover meal, which must be free from every trace of
fermented food. Brooding over the incident and filled with remorse for
having served the doubtful soup to her family, the poor woman runs to
the Rabbi, who decides that she has, indeed, caused her family to eat
prohibited food, and the dishes in which it was prepared and served must
be broken, they cannot be used, they may not even be sold. But the
husband, a simple carter, does not accept the decision tranquilly. He
vents his anger upon the woman. The peace of the house is troubled, and
finally the man repudiates his wife.

The poet fulminates against the Rabbis and their narrow, senseless
interpretations of texts.

"Slaves we were in the land of Egypt.... And what are we now? Do
we not sink lower from year to year? Are we not bound with ropes
of absurdities, with cords of quibbles, with all sorts of
prejudices?... The stranger no longer oppresses us, our despots
are the progeny of our own bodies. Our hands are no longer
manacled, but our soul is in chains."

In the last of his great satires, "The Two Joseph-ben-Simons", Gordon
gives a sombre and at the same time lofty picture of the manners of the
ghetto, an exact description of the wicked, arbitrary domination
exercised by the _Kahal_, and an idealization of the Maskil,
powerless to prevail single-handed in the combat with combined
reactionary forces. A young Talmudist, devotee of the sciences and of
modern literature, is persecuted by the fanatics. Unable to resist the
seductions of his alien studies, he is forced to expatriate himself. He
goes to Italy, to the University of Padua, whither the renown of Samuel
David Luzzatto has attracted many a young Russian Jew eager for
knowledge. There he pursues both Rabbinical and medical courses.

His efforts are crowned with success, and he dreams of returning to his
country and consecrating his powers to the amelioration of the material
and moral condition of his brethren. In his mind's eye he sees himself
at the head of his community, healing souls and bodies, redressing
wrongs, introducing reforms, breathing a new spirit into the dry bones
and limbs of Judaism. Hardly has he set foot upon the soil of his native
town when he is arrested and thrown into prison. The Kahal had made out
a passport in his name for the cobbler's son, a degraded character, a
highway robber and sneak thief, and charged with murder. Now the true
Joseph ben Simon is to expiate the crime of the other. It is vain for
him to protest his innocence. The president of the Kahal, before whom he
is arraigned, declares there is no other Joseph ben Simon, and he is the
guilty one.

The little town is described minutely. We are on the public square, the
market place, the dumping ground of all the offal and dirt, whence an
offensive odor rises in the nostrils of the passer-by. Facing this
square is the synagogue, a mean, dilapidated building. "Mud and filth
detract from holiness", but the Lord takes no offense, "He thrones too
high to be incommoded by it". The greatest impurity, however, a moral
infection, oozes from the little chamber adjoining the synagogue--the
meeting-room of the Kahal. That is the breeding place of crime and
injustice. Oppression and venality assert themselves there with
barefaced impudence. The Kahal keeps the lists relating to military
service; it makes out the passports, and the whole town is at its mercy.
It offers the hypocrite of the ghetto the opportunity of exercising his
fatal power. There the widow is despoiled, and the orphans are abused.
Together with the unfortunates who have dared aspire to the light, the
fatherless are delivered to the recruiting agent as substitutes for the
sons of the wealthy. It is the domain over which reigns the venerated
Rabbi, powerful and fear-inspiring, Shamgar ben Anath, a stupid and
uncouth upstart.

The life of sacrifices and privations led by the Jewish students who go
abroad in search of an education, inspires Gordon with one of the most
beautiful passages in his poem. In the true sense of the word, these
young men are loyal to Jewish traditions. They are the genuine
successors of those who formerly braved hunger and cold upon the benches
of the _Yeshibot_.

"How strong it is, the desire for knowledge in the hearts of the
youth of Israel, the crushed people! It is like the fire, never
extinguished, burning upon the altar!...

"Stop upon the highways leading to Mir, Eisheshok, and Wolosin.
[1] See yon haggard youths walking on foot! Whither lead their
steps? What do they seek?--Naked they will sleep upon the floor,
and lead a life of privation.

"It is said: 'The Torah is given to him alone who dies for her!'"

[Footnote 1: Lithuanian towns well-known for their Talmudic academies.]

And here is the modern counterpart:

"Go to no matter what university in Europe: the lot of the young
Jewish strangers is no better.... The Russians are proud
of the fame of a Lomonossoff, the son of a poor moujik who became
a luminary in the world of science. How numerous are the
Lomonossoffs of the Jew alley!..."

And then the poet, in an access of patriotism, cries out:

"And what, in fine, art thou, O Israel, but a poor _Bahur_
among the peoples, eating one day with one of them, another day
with the other!...

"Thou hast kindled a perpetual lamp for the whole world. Around
thee alone the world is dark, O People, slave of slaves,
desperate and despised!"

With this poem we bring to a close the analysis of Gordon's satires. It
shows at their best the dreams, the aspirations, the struggles of the
Maskilim, in their opposition to the aims of the reactionaries and the
moral and material confusion in which Slavic Judaism wallowed.

The same order of ideas is presented in the greater part of the original
pieces in his "Little Fables for Big Children". They are written in a
vivid, pithy style. The delicate, bantering criticism and the deep
philosophy with which they are impregnated put these fables among the
finest productions of Hebrew literature.

To the same period as the fables belong the several volumes of tales
published by Gordon, _Shene Yomim we-Lailah Ehad_ ("Two Days and
One Night"), _'Olam ke-Minhago_ ("The World as It is"), and later
the first part of _Kol Kitbe Yehudah_ ("Collected Writings of
Gordon"). They also relate to the life and manners of the Jews of
Lithuania, and the struggle of the modern element with the old. Gordon
as story teller is inferior to Gordon as poet. Nevertheless his prose
displays all the delicacy of his mind and the precision of his
observations. At all events, these tales of his are not a negligible
quantity in Hebrew literature.

The reaction which set in about 1870, after a period of social reforms
and unrealized hopes, affected the poet deeply. The government put
obstacles in the forward march of the Jews, the masses remained steeped
in fanaticism, and the men of light and leading themselves fell short of
doing their whole duty. Disillusioned, he cherished no hope of anything.
He could not share the optimism of Smolenskin and his school. For an
instant he stops to look back over the road travelled. He sees nothing,
and in anguish he asks himself:

"For whom have I toiled all the years of my prime?

"My parents, they cling to the faith and to their people, they
think of nothing but business and religious observances all day
long; they despise knowledge, and are hostile to good sense....

"Our intellectuals scorn the national language, and all their
love is lavished upon the language of the land.

"Our daughters, charming as they are, are kept in absolute
ignorance of Hebrew....

"And the young generation go on and on, God knows how far and
whither ... perhaps to the point whence they will never return."

He therefore addresses himself to a handful of the elect, amateurs, the
only ones who do not despise the Hebrew poet, but understand him and
approve his ways:

"To you I bring my genius as a sacrifice, before you I shed my
tears as a libation.... Who knows but I am the last to sing of
Zion, and you the last to read the Zion songs?"

This pessimistic strain recurs in all the later writings of Gordon. Even
after the events of 1882, when revived hatred and persecution had thrown
the camp of the emancipators into disorder, and the most ardent of the
anti-Rabbinic champions, like Lilienblum and Braudes, had been driven to
the point of raising the flag of Zionism, Gordon alone of all was not
carried along with the current. His skepticism kept him from embracing
the illusions of his friends converted to Zionism.

All his contempt for the tyrants, and his compassion for his people
unjustly oppressed, he puts into his poem _Ahoti Ruhamah_, which is
inscribed "to the Honor of the Daughter of Jacob violated by the Son of

"Why weepest thou, my afflicted sister?

"Wherefore this desolation of spirit, this anguish of heart?

"If thieves surprised thee and ravished thy honor, if the hand of
the malefactor has prevailed against thee, is it thy fault, my
afflicted sister?

"Whither shall I bear my shame?

"Where is thy shame, seeing thy heart is pure and chaste? Arise,
display thy wound, that all the world may see the blood of Abel
upon the forehead of Cain. Let the world know, my afflicted
sister, how thou art tortured!

"Not upon thee falls the shame, but upon thy oppressors.

"Thy purity has not been sullied by their polluting touch....
Thou art white as snow, my afflicted sister."

Almost the poet seems to regret his efforts of other days to bring the
Jews close to the Christians.

"What of humiliation hath befallen thee is a solace unto me. Long
I bore distress and injustice, violence and spoliation; yet I
remained loyal to my country; for better days I hoped, and
submitted to all. But to bear thy shame, my afflicted sister, I
have no spirit more."

But what was to become of it all? Whither were the Jews to turn? The
Palestine of the Turk has not too many attractions for the poet. He
still believes in the existence of a country somewhere "in which the
light shines for all human beings alike, in which man is not humiliated
on account of his race or his faith." Thither he invites his brethren to
go and seek an asylum, "until what day our Father in heaven will take
pity on us and return us to our ancient mother."

It was the agitated time in which Pinsker sent forth his manifesto,
"Auto-Emancipation", and Gordon dedicated his poem, "The Flock of the
Lord", to him.

"What are we, you ask, and what our life? Are we a people like
those around us, or only members of a religious community? I will
tell you: We are neither a people, nor a brotherhood, we are but
a flock--the holy flock of the Lord God, and the whole earth is
an altar for us. Thereon we are laid either as burnt offerings
sacrificed by the other peoples, or as victims bound by the
precepts of our own Rabbis. A flock wandering in the waste
desert, sheep set upon on all sides by the wolves.... We cry out--
in vain! We utter laments--none hears! The desert shuts us in on
all sides. The earth is of copper, the heavens are of brass.

"Not an ordinary flock are we, but a flock of iron. We survive
the slaughter. But will our strength endure forever?

"A flock dispersed, undisciplined, without a bond--we are the
flock of the Lord God!"

Not that the idea of a national rebirth displeased the poet. Far from
it. Zionism cannot but exercise a charm upon the Jewish heart. But he
believed the time had not yet arrived for a national regeneration.
According to his opinion, there was a work of religious liberation to be
accomplished before the reconstruction of the Jewish State could be
thought of. He defended this idea in a series of articles published in
_Ha-Meliz_, of which he was the editor at that time.

The last years of his life were tragic, pathetic. With a torn heart he
sat by and looked upon the desperate situation into which the government
had put millions of his brethren. To this he alludes in his fable
"Adoni-bezek", which we reproduce in its entirety, to give a notion of
Gordon as a fabulist:

"In a sumptuous palace, in the middle of a vast hall, perfumed,
and draped with Egyptian fabrics, stands a table, and upon it are
the most delicious viands. Adoni-bezek is dining. His attendants
are standing each in his place--his cupbearer, the master baker,
and the chief cook. The eunuchs, his slaves, come and go;
bringing every variety of dainty dishes, and the flesh of all
sorts of beasts and birds, roasted and stewed.

"On the floor, insolent dogs lie sprawling, their jaws agape,
panting to snap up the bones and scraps their master throws to

"Prostrate under the table are seventy captive kings, with their
thumbs and big toes cut off. To appease their appetite they must
scramble for the scraps that drop under the table of their
sovereign lord.

"Adoni-bezek has finished his repast, and he amuses himself with
throwing bones to the creatures under the table. Suddenly there
is a hubbub, the dogs bark, and yap at their human neighbors, who
have appropriated morsels meant for them.

"The wounded kings complain to the master: O king, see our
suffering and deliver us from thy dogs. And Adoni-bezek's answer
is: But it is you who are to be blamed, and they are in the
right. Why do you do them wrong?

"With bitterness the kings make reply:

"O king, is it our fault if we have been brought so low that we
must vie with your dogs and pick up the crumbs that drop from
your table? Thou didst come up against us and crush us with thy
powerful hand, thou didst mutilate us and chain us in these
cages. No longer are we able to work or seek our sustenance. Why
should these dogs have the right to bite and bark? O that the
just--if still there are such men in our time--might rise up! O
that one whose heart has been touched by God might judge between
ourselves and those who bite us, which of us is the hangman and
which the victim?"

Toward the end of his days the poet was permitted to enjoy a great
gratification. The Jewish notabilities of the capital arranged a
celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his activity as a writer.
At the reunion of Gordon's friends on this occasion it was decided to
publish an _edition de luxe_ of his poetical works. A final
optimistic note was forced from his heart, deeply moved by this
unexpected tribute. He recalled the vow once made by him, always to
remain loyal to Hebrew, and he recounted the vexations and
disappointments to which the poet is exposed who chooses to write in a
dead language doomed to oblivion. Then he addressed a salutation to the
young "of whom we had despaired, and who are coming back, and to the
dawn of the rebirth of the Hebrew language and the Jewish people."

However, Gordon never entered into the national revival with full faith
in its promises. Until the end he remained the poet of misery and

The death of Smolenskin elicited a last disconsolate word from him. It
may be considered the ghetto poet's testament. He compared the great
writer to the Jewish people, and asked himself:

"What is our people, and what its literature?
A giant felled to the ground unable to rise.
The whole earth is its sepulchre.
And its books?--the epitaph engraved upon its tomb-stone...."

* * * * *




Though Gordon was the most distinguished, he was not the only
representative of the anti-Rabbinic school in the neo-Hebrew literature.
The decline of liberalism in official state circles, and the frustration
of every hope of equality, had their effect in reshaping the policy
pursued by educated Jews. Up to this time they had cherished no desire
except for external emancipation and to assimilate with their neighbors
of other faiths. Liberty and justice suddenly removed from their
horizon, they could not but transfer their ambition and their activity
to the inner chambers of Judaism. Other circumstances contributed to the
result. The economic changes affecting the bourgeoisie and the influence
exercised by the realism and the utilitarian tendencies of the Russian
literature of the time had not a little to do with the modified aims
cherished in the camp of the Maskilim. Jews of education living in
Galicia or in the small towns of Russia, who had the best opportunity of
penetrating to the intimate life of the people and knowing its day by
day misery, could and did make clear, how helpless the masses of the
Jews were in the face of the moral and economic ruin that menaced them,
and how serious an obstacle religious restrictions and ignorance placed
in the way of any change in their condition. And therefore they made it
their object to extol practical, thoroughgoing reforms.

In religion, they demanded, with Gordon, the abolition of all
restrictions weighing upon the people, and a radical reform of Jewish

In practical life, they were desirous of turning the attention of their
brethren to the manual trades, to the technical professions, and to
agriculture. Besides, it was their purpose to extend modern primary
instruction and bring it within the reach of considerably larger

The government viewed these efforts with a favorable eye, and under its
protection the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews in
Russia was formed, with headquarters at St. Petersburg. Thus supported,
the educated could carry on their propaganda in the open, and throw
light into the remotest corners of the country. The Hebrew press, though
still in its infancy, co-operated with them zealously in furthering
their beneficent purposes.

The most determined group of the anti-religious propagandists was at
Brody in Galicia. Thence emanated the influences that operated in
Russia, and thence _He-Haluz_ ("The Pioneer"), founded by Erter and
Schorr in 1853, and published at Lemberg, carried on a brilliant
campaign against religious superstitions, shrinking not even from
attacks upon the Biblical tradition itself. The boldest of the
contributors to _He-Haluz_, not counting its valiant editor, was
Abraham Krochmal, the son of the philosopher. A scholar and subtle
thinker, he introduced Biblical criticism into Hebrew literature. In his
books as well as in his articles in _He-Haluz_ and in _Ha-
Kol_, the latter edited by Rodkinson, he goes so far as to dispute
the Divine character of the Bible, and he demands radical reforms in
Judaism. [Footnote: _Ha-Ketab weha-Miktab_ ("Writing and the
Scriptures"), Lemberg, 1875; _'lyyun Tefillah_ ("Reflections on
Prayer"), Lemberg, 1885, etc.] His writings gave the signal for a
considerable stir and expression of opinion. Even the most moderate
among the orthodox could not remain tranquil in the presence of such
blasphemous views. They put Krochmal outside of the pale of Judaism,
together with all scholars occupied with Bible criticism, among them
Geiger, who had exerted great influence upon the school of reformers
writing in Hebrew.

In Lithuania things did not go so far. The hard conditions of existence
there were not propitious to the rise of a purely scholarly school or to
theoretic discussion. Scientific centres were entirely wanting, and the
censor permitted no trifling with the subject of religion. A new
movement, realistic and utilitarian in the main, began to take shape,
first in the form of a protest against the unsubstantial ideals of the
Hebrew press and Hebrew literature. In 1867, Abraham Kowner, an ardent
controversialist, published his _Heker Dabar_ ("A Word of
Criticism"), and his _Zeror Perahim_ ("A Bouquet of Flowers"), in
which he takes the press and the writers severely to task for indulging
in rhetoric and futile scintillations, instead of occupying themselves
with the real exigencies of life. In the same year, Abraham Jacob
Paperna published his essay in literary criticism, and the young
Smolenskin, in an article appearing at Odessa, attacked Letteris for his
artificial, insincere translation of Goethe's _Faust_ into Hebrew.
On all sides there blew a fresh breath of realism, and the critical
spirit was abroad.

The most characteristic exponent of this reforming movement was Moses
Lob Lilienblum, a native of the Government of Kowno. Endowed with a
temperate, logical mind, untroubled by an excess of sentimentality,
Lilienblum, one of those deliberate, puritanic scholars that constitute
the glory of Lithuanian Talmudism, was at once hero and actor in the
intense drama performed in the Russian ghetto, which he himself
described as the "Jewish tragi-comedy".

He began his literary career with an article entitled _Orhot ha-
Talmud_ ("The Paths of the Talmud"), and published in _Ha-Meliz_
in 1868. Here, as well as in the articles following it, he does not
depart from established tradition. In the very name of the spirit of the
Talmud, he demands religious reforms and the abolition of the
restrictions that make daily life burdensome. These excessive
requirements, he urges, were heaped up by the Rabbis subsequent to the
full development of the Law, and in opposition to its spirit. The young
scholar showed himself to be a zealous admirer of the Talmud, and with
clinching logic he proves that the Rabbis of later times, in asserting
its immutability, had distinctly deviated from the principles of the
Law, the fundamental idea of which was the harmonizing of "Law and
Life". The wrath aroused by such articles can easily be imagined.
Lilienblum was an _Apikoros_, the "heretic" _par excellence_
of the Lithuanian ghetto. The young writer had to undergo a series of
outrageous persecutions and acts of vengeance inflicted by the fanatics,
especially the Hasidim, of his town. He tells the story in detail in his
autobiography, _Hattot Neurim_ ("The Sins of Youth"), published at
Vienna, in 1876, one of the most noteworthy productions of modern Hebrew
literature. With the logical directness of a _Mitnagged_ [1], and
the cruel, sarcastic candor of a wasted existence, Lilienblum probes and
exposes the depths of his tortured conscience, at the same time
following up inexorably the steps which remove the free-thinker from the
faithful believer, without, however, reaching a real or positive result--
in the spirit at once of Rousseau and Voltaire. [Footnote 1: Literally,
"one who is opposed" [to the mystical system of Hasidism]; a
protestant, a Puritan.] As he himself says:

"It is a drama essentially Jewish, because it is a life without
dramatic effect, without extraordinary adventure. It is made up
of torment and suffering, all the more grievous as they are kept
hidden in the recesses of one's heart...."

Better than any one else he knows the cause of these ills. Like Gordon,
he holds that the Book has killed the Man, the dead letter has been
substituted for feeling.

"You ask me, O reader", he says with bitterness, "who I am, and
what my name is?--Well, then, I am a living being, not a Job who
has never existed. Nor am I one of the dead in the valley of
bones brought back to life by the prophet Ezekiel, which is only
a tale that is told. But I am one of the living dead of the
Babylonian Talmud, revived by the new Hebrew literature, itself a
dead literature, powerless to bring the dead to life with its
dew, scarcely able to transport us into a state between life and
death. I am a Talmudist, a believer aforetimes, now become an
unbeliever, no longer clinging to the dreams and the hopes which
my ancestors bequeathed to me. I am a wreck, a miserable wretch,
hopeless unto despair...."

And he narrates the incidents of his childhood, the period of the
_Tohu_, of chaos and confusion, the days of study, misery,
superstition. He recalls the years of adolescence, his premature
marriage, his struggle for a bare existence, his wretched life as a
teacher of the Talmud, panting under the double yoke of a mother-in-law
and a rigid ceremonial. Then comes his introduction to Hebrew
literature. His conscience long refuses assent, but stern logic
triumphs, and the result is that all the ideas that have been his
guiding principles crumble into dust one by one. Negation replaces
faith. The terrible conflict begins with a whole town of formalists, who
declare him outside of the community of Israel,--a pitiless conflict, in
which he is supported half-heartedly by two or three of the strong-
minded. The publication of his first article, on the necessity of
reforms in religion, increases the fury of the people against him, and
his ruin is determined. Had there not been intervention from the
outside, he would have been delivered to the authorities to serve in the
army, or denounced as a dangerous heretic. And yet the so-called heretic
cursed by every mouth had proceeded so short a distance on the path of
heterodoxy that he still entertained scruples about carrying a book from
one house to another on the Sabbath!

This naive soul, in which all sorts of feelings had long before begun to
stir obscurely, was aroused to full consciousness by the reading of
Mapu's works. Casual acquaintance with an intelligent woman made his
heart vibrate with notes unknown until then. Life in his native town
became intolerable, and he left it for Odessa, the El Dorado of all
ghetto dreamers. Again disillusionment was his lot. He who was ready to
undergo martyrdom for his ideas, this champion of the Haskalah, his
heart famishing for knowledge and justice, was not long in discerning,
with his penetrating, perspicacious mind, that he had not yet reached
the best of modern worlds. With bitterness he notes that the Jews of the
south of Russia, "where the Talmud is cut out of practical life, if they
are more liberal than the others, are yet not exempt from stupid
superstitions." He notes that the Hebrew literature so dear to his heart
is excluded from the circles of the intellectual. He sees that egotistic
materialism has superseded the ideal aspirations of the ghetto. He
discovers that feeling has no place in modern life, and tolerance, the
loudly vaunted, is but a sound. When he ventures to put his complaints
into words, he is treated as a "religious fanatic" by people who have no
interest beyond their own selfish pleasures and the satisfaction of
their material cravings. He is deeply affected by what he observes and
notes. In the presence of the egotistic indifference of the emancipated
Jews, he is shaken in his firmest convictions, and he admits with
anguish that the ideal for which he has fought and sacrificed his life
is but a phantom. Under the stress of such disappointment he writes
these lines:

"In very truth, I tell you, never will the Jewish religion be in
accord with life. It will sink, or, at best, it will remain the
cherished possession of the limited few, as it is now in the
Western countries of Europe.... Practical reality is in
opposition to religion. Now I know that we have no public on our
side; and actual life with its great movements produces its
results without the aid of literature, which even in our people
is an effective influence only with the simple spirits of the
country districts. The desire for life and liberty, the
prevalence of charlatanism on the one side, and on the other the
abandoning of religious studies in favor of secular studies, will
have baleful consequences for the Jewish youth, even in

This whole period of our author's life is characterized by similar
regrets--he mourns over days spent in barren struggles and over the
follies of youth.

"To-day I finished writing my autobiography, which I call 'The
Sins of Youth'. I have drawn up the balance-sheet of my life of
thirty years and one month, and I am deeply grieved to see that
the sum total is a cipher. How heavily the hand of fortune has
lain upon me! The education I received was the reverse of
everything I had need of later. I was raised with the idea of
becoming a distinguished Rabbinical authority, and here I am a
business man; I was raised in an imaginary world, to be a
faithful observer of the Law, shrinking back from whatever has
the odor of sin, and the very things I was taught crush me to
earth now that the imaginary man has disappeared in me; I was
raised to live in the atmosphere of the dead, and here I am cast
among people who lead a real life, in which I am unable to take
my part; I was raised in a world of dreams and pure theory, and I
find myself now in the midst of the chaos of practical life, to
which I am driven by my needs to apply myself, though my brain
refuses to leave the old ruts and substitute practice for
speculation. I am not even equipped to carry on a discussion with
business men discussing nothing but business. I was raised to be
the father of a family, in the sphere chosen for me by my father
in his wisdom.... How far removed my heart is from all such

"I weep over my shattered little world which I cannot restore!"

The regrets of Lilienblum over the useless work attempted by Hebrew
literature betray themselves also in his pamphlet in verse, _Kehal
Refaim_ ("The Assembly of the Dead"). The dead are impersonated by
the Hebrew periodicals and reviews.

Later, a novelist of talent, Reuben Asher Braudes, resumed the attempt
to harmonize theory and practice, in his great novel, "Religion and
Life". The hero, the young Rabbi Samuel, is the picture of Lilienblum.
From the point of view of art, it is one of the best novels in Hebrew
literature. Life in the rural districts, the austere idealism of the
enlightened, the superstitions of the crowd, are depicted with
extraordinary clearness of outline. [Footnote: _Ha-Dat weha-
Hayyim_, Lemberg, 1880. Another long novel by Braudes is called
_Shete ha-Kezawot_ ("The Two Extremes"), published in 1886, wherein
he extols the national revival and religious romanticism.] The novel ran
in _Ha-Boker Or_ (1877-1880), and was never completed--a
counterpart of its hero. Had not Lilienblum, too, stopped in the middle
of the road?

The crisis that occurred in the life of Lilienblum, torn from his ideal
speculations in a provincial town, and forced into contact with an
actuality that was as far as possible away from solving the problem of
harmonizing religion and life, was the typical fate of all the educated
Jews of the period. Lilienblum and his followers gave themselves up to
regrets over the futile work of three generations of humanists, who,
instead of restoring the ghetto to health, had but hastened its utter
ruin. The ideal aspirations of the Maskilim had been succeeded by a
gross utilitarianism without an ideal. What disquieted the soul of the
Maskil in the decade from 1870 to 1880 is expressed in the concluding
words of "The Sins of Youth":

"The young people are to work at nothing and think of nothing but
how to prepare for their own life. All is forbidden, wherefrom
they cannot derive direct profit--they are permitted only the
study of sciences and languages, or apprenticeship to a trade.

"The youth who break away from the laborious study of the Talmud,
throw themselves with avidity into the study of modern
literature. This headlong course has been in vogue with us about
a century. One generation disappears, to make place for the next,
and each generation is pushed forward by a blind force, no one
knows whither...!

"It is high time for us to throw a glance backward--to stop a
moment and ask ourselves: Whither are we hastening, and why do we

However, the gods did not forsake the ghetto. If Gordon and, with more
emphasis, Lilienblum predicted the ruin of all the dreams of the ghetto,
it was because, having been wrenched from the life of the masses and out
of traditional surroundings, they judged things from a distance, and
permitted themselves to be influenced by appearances. Blinded by their
bias, they saw only two well-defined camps in Judaism--the moderns,
indifferent to all that constitutes Judaism, and the bigots, opposed to
what savors of knowledge, free-thinking, and worldly pleasure. They made
their reckoning without the Jewish people. The humanist propaganda was
not so empty and vain as its later promoters were pleased to consider
it. The conservative romanticism of a Samuel David Luzzatto and the
Zionist sentiments of a Mapu had planted a germinating seed in the heart
of traditional Judaism itself. It is conceded that we cannot resort for
evidence to such old romanticists as Schulman, who in the serenity of
their souls gave little heed to the campaign of the reformers, though it
is nevertheless a fact that they contributed to the diffusion of
humanism and of Hebrew literature by their works, which were well
received in orthodox circles. Our contention is better proved by Rabbis
reputed orthodox, who devoted themselves with enthusiasm to the
cultivation of Hebrew literature. Without renouncing religion, they
found a way of effecting the harmonization of religion and life. In
point of fact, humanism of a conservative stripe reached its zenith at
the precise moment when the realists, deceived by superficial
appearances, were predicting the complete breaking up of traditional

The chief representatives of the reform press were _He-Haluz_,
_Ha-Meliz_, and later on _Ha-Kol_ ("The Voice"), and by their
side the views of the conservatives were defended in _Ha-Maggid_,
_Ha-Habazzelet_ ("The Lily"), published at Jerusalem, and
especially _Ha-Lebanon_, appearing first at Paris and then at
Mayence. In _Ha-Maggid_, beginning with the year 1871, the editor,
David Gordon, supported by the assenting opinion of his readers, carried
on an ardent campaign for the colonization of Palestine as the necessary
forerunner of the political revival of Israel.

A Galician thinker, Fabius Mises, published, in 1869, an article in
_Ha-Meliz_, entitled _Milhemet ha-Dat_ ("The Wars of the
Faith"), in which he wards off the attacks upon the Jewish religion by
the anti-Rabbinical school. He proves it to be a reasonable religion,
and a national religion _par excellence_. In his poems, Mises
assails Geiger for the religious reforms urged by him, and he opposes
also the school of _He-Haluz_ in the name of the national
tradition. Later on Mises published an important history of modern
philosophy in Hebrew.

Michael Pines, a writer in _Ha-Lebanon_, and the opponent of
Lilienblum, was the protagonist of the conservative party in Lithuania.
His chief work, _Yalde Ruhi_ ("The Children of My Spirit"),
appeared in 1872 at Mayence. It may be considered the literary
masterpiece on the conservative side, the counterstroke to Lilienblum's
"Sins of Youth". It is a defense of traditional Judaism, and is instinct
with an intuitive philosophy and with deep faith. Pines makes a closely
reasoned claim for the right of the Jewish religion to exist in its
integrity. Without being a fanatic, he believes, with Samuel David
Luzzatto, that the religion of the Jew on its poetic side is the
peculiar product of the Jewish national genius--that the religion, and
not the artificial legal system engrafted upon it, is the essential part
of Judaism. The ceremonies and the religious practices are necessary for
the purpose of maintaining the harmony of the faith, "as the wick is
necessary for the lamp". This harmony, reacting at once upon feeling and
morality, cannot be undone by the results of science, and therefore the
Jewish religion is eternal in its essence. The religious reforms
introduced by the German Rabbis have but had the effect of drying up the
springs of poetry in the religion, and as for the compromise between
faith and life, extolled and urged by Lilienblum, it is only a futile
phrase. Of what use is it, seeing that the religious feel no need of it,
but on the contrary take delight in the religion as it stands, which
fills the void in their soul?

Pines did not share the pessimistic fears of the realists of his time. A
true conservative, he believed in the national rebirth of the people of
Israel, and, a romantic Jew, he dreamed of the realization of the
humanitarian predictions of the prophets. Judaism to him is the pure
idea of justice, "and every just idea ends by conquering the whole of

Extremes meet. There is one point in common between Lilienblum, the last
of the humanists, the disillusioned skeptic, and Pines, the optimist of
the ghetto. Both maintained that the action of the humanists was
inefficacious, and the compromise between religion and life a vain
expedient. Nevertheless, there was no possibility of bringing the two to
stand upon the same platform. While the humanists, in abandoning the
perennial dreams of the people, had separated themselves from its moral
and religious life, and thus cut away the ground from under their own
feet, the romantic conservatives paid no attention to the demands of
modern life, the currents of which had loosed the foundations of the old
world, and were threatening to carry away the last national breastwork.

A synthesis was needed to merge the two currents, the humanist and the
romantic, and lead the languishing Haskalah back to the living sources
of national Judaism. This was the task accomplished by Perez Smolenskin,
the leader of the national progressive movement.

* * * * *




Perez Smolenskin was born, in 1842, at Monastryshchina, a little market
town near Mohilew. His father, a poor and an unfortunate man, who was
not able to support his wife and six children successfully, was forced
to leave his family on account of a slanderous accusation brought
against him by a Polish priest. The mother, a plucky woman of the
people, supported herself by hard work, in spite of which it was her
ambition to make Rabbis of her boys. At length the father joined his
family again, and a period of comparative prosperity set in.

The first care of the returned father was to look to the education of
his two sons, Leon and Perez. The latter showed unusual ability. At the
age of four he began the study of the Pentateuch, at five he had been
introduced to the Talmud. These studies absorbed him until his eleventh
year. Then, like all the sons of the ghetto desirous of an education, he
left his father and mother, and betook himself to the _Yeshibah_ at
Shklow. The journey was made on foot, and his only escort was the
blessing of his mother. The lad's youth proved no obstacle to his
entering the Talmud academy, nor to his acquiring celebrity for industry
and attainments. His brother Leon, who had preceded him to Shklow,
initiated him in the Russian language, and supplied him with modern
Hebrew writings. Openhearted and lively, he set prejudice at defiance,
and maintained friendly relations with a certain intellectual who was
reputed a heretic, an acquaintanceship that contributed greatly to the
mental development of young Perez. The dignified burghers who were
taking turns in supplying him with his meals, alarmed at his aberration
from the straight path, one after another withdrew their protection from
him. Black misery clutched him. He was but fourteen years old, and
already he had entered upon a life of disquiet and adventure. His story
is the Odyssey of an erring son of the ghetto. Repulsed by the
_Mitnaggedim_, he sought help with the Hasidim. He was equally ill-
fitted for their life. Their uncouth mystical exaltation, the absurdity
of their superstitions, and their hypocrisy drove him to exasperation.
He cast himself into the whirl of life, became assistant to a cantor at
a synagogue, and then teacher of Hebrew and Talmud. The whole gamut of
precarious employments open to a scholar of the ghetto he ran up and
down again. His restless spirit and the desire to complete his education
carried him to Odessa. There he established himself, and there years of
work and endeavor were passed. He acquired the modern languages, his
mind grew broader, and he gave up religious practices once for all,
always remaining attached to Judaism, however.

In 1867 appeared his first literary production, the article against
Letteris, who at that time occupied the position of an incontestable
authority, in which Smolenskin permits himself to pass severe and
independent criticism upon his Hebrew adaptation of Goethe's
_Faust_. In the Odessa period falls also the writing of the first
few chapters of his great novel, _Ha-To'eh be-Darke ha-Hayyim_ ("A
Wanderer Astray on the Path of Life"). [Footnote: A complete edition of
the novels and articles by Smolenskin appeared recently at St.
Petersburg and Wilna, published by Katzenelenbogen.] But his free spirit
could not adapt itself to the narrowness and meanness of the literary
folk and the editors of periodicals. He determined to leave Russia for
the civilized Occident, the promised land in the dreams of the Russian
Maskilim, beautified by the presence of Rapoport and Luzzatto. His first
destination was Prague, the residence of Rapoport, then Vienna, and
later he pushed his way to Paris and London. Everywhere he studied and
made notes. A sharp-eyed observer, he sought to probe European affairs
as well as Occidental Judaism to their depths. He established relations
with Rabbis, scholars, and Jewish notables, and finally he was in a
position to appraise at close range the liberty he had heard vaunted so
loudly, and the religious reforms wished for so eagerly by the
intelligent of his own country. He soon had occasion to see the reverse
of the medal, and his disenchantment was complete. Regretfully he came
to the conclusion that the modern emancipation movement had brought the
Jewish spirit in the Occident to the point at which the Western Jew was
turned away from the essence of Judaism. Form had taken the place of
substance, ceremonial the place of religious and national sentiment.
Heartsick over such disregard of the past, indignant at the indifference
displayed by modern Jews toward all he held dear, young Smolenskin
resolved to break the silence that was observed in the great capitals of
Europe respecting all things Jewish and carry the gospel of the ghetto
to the "neo-Gentiles".

The first shaft was delivered in Vienna, where he began the publication
of his review _Ha-Shahar_ ("Daybreak"). Almost without means, but
fired by the wish to work for the national and moral elevation of his
people, the young writer laid down the articles of his faith:

"The purpose of _Ha-Shahar_ is to shed the light of
knowledge upon the paths of the sons of Jacob, to open the eyes
of those who either have not beheld knowledge, or, beholding,
have not understood in value, to regenerate the beauty of the
Hebrew language, and increase the number of its devotees.

"... But when the eyes of the blind begin to open slowly, and
they shake off the sluggish slumber in which they have been sunk
since many years, then there is still another class to be dealt
with--those who, having tasted of the fruit of the tree of
knowledge, intentionally close their eyes to our language, the
only possession left to us that can bring together the hearts of
Israel and make one nation of it all over the earth.... Let them
take warning! If my hand is against the bigots and the hypocrites
who hide themselves under the mantle of the truth, ... it will be
equally unsparing of the enlightened hypocrites who seek with
honeyed words to alienate the sons of Israel from their ancestral

War to mediaeval obscurantism, war to modern indifference, was the plan
of his campaign. _Ha-Shahar_ soon became the organ of all in the
ghetto who thought, felt, and fought,--the spokesman of the nationalist
Maskilim, setting forth their demands as culture bearers and patriots.

At a time when Hebrew literature consisted mainly of translations or
works of minor significance, Smolenskin had the boldness to announce
that the columns of his periodical would be open to writers of original
articles only. The era of the translator and the vapid imitator had come
to a close. A new school of original writers stepped upon the boards,
and little by little the reading public accustomed itself to give
preference to them.

And at a time when disparagement of the national element in Judaism had
been carried to the furthest excess, Smolenskin asserted Judaism's right
to exist, in such words as these:

[The wilfully blind] "bid us to be like all the other nations,
and I repeat after them: Let us be like all the other nations,
pursuing and attaining knowledge, leaving off from wickedness and
folly, and dwelling as loyal citizens in the lands whither we
have been scattered. Yes, let us be like all the other nations,
unashamed of the rock whence we have been hewn, like the rest in
holding dear our language and the glory of our people. It is not
a disgrace for us to believe that our exile will once come to an
end, ... and we need not blush for clinging to the ancient
language with which we wandered from people to people, in which
our poets sang and our seers prophesied when we lived at ease in
our own land, and in which our fathers poured out their hearts
when their blood flowed like water in the sight of all.... They
who thrust us away from the Hebrew language meditate evil against
our people and against its glory!"

The reputation of _Ha-Shahar_ was firmly established by the
publication of Smolenskin's great novel _Ha-To'eh be-Darke ha-
Hayyim_ in its columns. In this as in the rest of his works, he is
the prophet denouncing the crimes and the depravity of the ghetto, and
proclaiming the revival of national dignity.

Smolenskin permitted himself to be thwarted by nothing in the execution
of his bold designs, neither by the meagreness of his material resources
nor by the animosities which his fearless course did not fail to arouse
among literary men.

In 1872, Smolenskin published, at Vienna, his masterpiece _'Am
'Olam_ ("The Eternal People"), which became the platform of the
movement for national emancipation. Noteworthy from every point of view,
this work shows him to have been an original thinker and an inspired
poet, a humanist and at the same time a patriot. He is full of love for
his people, and his faith in its future knows no limits. He demonstrates
convincingly that true nationalism is not incompatible with the final
realization of the ideal of the universal brotherhood of men. National
devotion is but a higher aspect of devotion to family. In nature we see
that, in the measure in which the individuality of a being is distinct,
its superiority and its independence are increased. Differentiation is
the law of progress. Why not apply the law to human groups, or nations?

The sum total of the qualities peculiar to the various nations, and the
various ways in which they respond to concepts presented to them from
without, these constitute the life and the culture of mankind as a
whole. While admitting that the historical past of a people is an
essential part of its existence, he believes it to be a still more
urgent necessity for every people to possess a present ideal, and
entertain national hopes for a better future. Judaism cherishes the
Messianic ideal, which at bottom is nothing but the hope of its national
rebirth. Unfortunately, the modern, unreligious Jew denies the ideal,
and the orthodox Jew envelops it in the obscurity of mysticism.

The last chapter of "The Eternal People", called "The Hope of Israel",
is pervaded by magnificent enthusiasm. For the first time in Hebrew,
Messianism is detached from its religious element. For the first time, a
Hebrew writer asserts that Messianism is the political and moral
resurrection of Israel, _the return to the prophetic tradition_.

Why should the Greeks, the Roumanians, desire a national emancipation,
and Israel, the people of the Bible, not?... The only obstacle is the
fact that the Jews have lost the notion of their national unity and the
feeling of their solidarity.

This conviction as to the existence of a Jewish nationality, the
national emancipation dreamed by Salvador, Hess, and Luzzatto,
considered a heresy by the orthodox and a dangerous theory by the
liberals, had at last found its prophet. In Smolenskin's enthusiastic
formulation of it, the ideal was carried to the masses in Russia and
Galicia, superseding the mystical Messianism they had cherished before.

Smolenskin's combative spirit did not allow him to rest at that. The
idea of national regeneration was in collision with the theory, raised
to a commanding position by Mendelssohn and his school, that Judaism
constitutes a religious confession. In a series of articles ("A Time to
Plant, and a Time to Pluck up that which is Planted"), [Footnote: _Ha-
Shahar_, 1875-6.] he deals with the Mendelssohnian theory.

Proceeding from history and his knowledge of Judaism, he proves that the
Jewish religion is not a rigid block of unalterable notions, but rather
a body of ethical and philosophical teachings constantly undergoing a
process of evolution, and changing its aspect according to the times and
the environment. If this doctrine is the quintessence of the national
genius of the Jew, it is nevertheless accessible, in theory and in
practice, to whosoever desires access. It is not the dogmatic and
exclusive privilege of a sacerdotal caste.

This is the rationale of Smolenskin's opposition to the religious
dogmatism of Mendelssohn, who had wished to confine Judaism inside of
the circle of Rabbinic law without recognizing its essentially
evolutionary character. Maimonides himself is not spared by Smolenskin,
for it was Maimonides who had set the seal of consecration upon logical
dogmatism. The less does he spare the modern school of reformers.
Religious reforms, he freely admits, are necessary, but they ought to be
spontaneous developments, emanations from the heart of the believers
themselves, in response to changes in the times and social relations.
They ought not to be the artificial product of a few intellectuals who
have long broken away from the masses of the people, sharing neither
their suffering nor their hopes. If Luther succeeded, it was because he
had faith himself. But the modern Jewish reformers are not believers,
therefore their work does not abide. It is only the study of the Hebrew
language, of the religion of the Jew, his culture, and his spirit that
is capable of replacing the dead letter and soulless regulations by a
keen national and religious sentiment in harmony with the exigencies of
life. The next century, he predicted, would see a renewed, unified

This is a summing up of the ideas which brought him approval and
endorsement from all sides, but also, and to a greater degree,
opposition and animosity, the latter from the old followers of the
German humanist movement. One of them, the poet Gottlober, founded, in
1876, a rival review, _Ha-Boker Or_, in which he pleaded the cause
of the school of Mendelssohn. But the new periodical, which continued to
appear until 1881, could neither supplant _Ha-Shahar_, nor diminish
Smolenskin's ardor. Other obstacles of all sorts, and the difficulties
raised by the Russian censor, were equally ineffectual in halting the
efforts of the valiant apostle of Jewish nationalism. He was assured the
cooperation of all independent literary men, for Smolenskin had never
posed as a believer in dogmatic religion or as its defender. On the
contrary, he waged constant war with Rabbinism. He was persuaded that an
untrammelled propaganda, bold speech issuing from a knowledge of the
heart of the masses and their urgent needs, would bring about a natural
and peaceable revolution, restoring to the Jewish people its free
spirit, its creative genius, and its lofty morality. It mattered little
to him that the young had ceased to be orthodox: in case of need,
national feeling would suffice to maintain Israel. At this point, it
appears, Smolenskin excelled Samuel David Luzzatto and his school as a
free-thinker. The Jewish people is to him the eternal people
personifying the prophetic idea, realizable in the Jewish land and not
in exile. The liberalism displayed by Europe toward the Jews during a
part of the nineteenth century is in his opinion but a transient
phenomenon, and as early as 1872 he foresaw the recrudescence of anti-

This conception of Jewish life was welcomed by the educated as a
revelation. The distinction of the editor of _Ha-Shahar_ is that he
knew how to develop the ideas enunciated by the masters preceding him,
how to carry them to completion, and render them accessible to the
people at large. He revealed a new formula to them, thanks to which
their claims as Jews were no longer in contradiction with the demands of
modern times. It was the revenge taken by the people speaking through
the mouth of the writer. It was the echo of the cry of the throbbing
soul of the ghetto.

* * * * *



_Ha-Shahar_ soon became the centre of a hot crusade against
obscurantism. The propaganda it carried on was all the more effectual as
it opposed an out-of-date Judaism in the name of a national
regeneration, the deathless ideal of the Jewish people. While admitting
the principle that reforms are necessary, provided they are reasonable
and slowly advanced, in agreement with the natural evolution of Judaism
and not in opposition to its spirit, Smolenskin's review at the same
time constituted itself the focus of a bold campaign against the kind of
religious reform introduced by the moderns.

Whoever thought, felt, suffered, and was alive to the new ideas,
hastened to range himself under the banner of the Hebrew review during
its eighteen years of a more or less regular existence, the occasional
interruptions being due to lack of funds. Its history forms an important
chapter in that of Hebrew literature. Smolenskin possessed the art of
stimulating well-tried powers, and discovering new talent and bringing
it forward. The school of _Ha-Shahar_ may almost be looked upon as
the creation of his strong hand. Gordon, it is true, published the best
of his satires in _Ha-Shahar_, and Lilienblum pursued his reform
purposes in its columns, _'Olam ha-Tohu_ ("The World of Chaos"),
his ringing criticism of "The Hypocrite", being among the articles
written by him for it, in which he casts upon Mapu's work the light of
the utilitarian realism borrowed from the Russian writers of his time,
and exposes it as a naive, unreal conception of Jewish life. Though
these two veterans gave him their support, the larger number of the
collaborators of Smolenskin made their first appearance in the world of
letters under his auspices, and it was due to his influence that German
and Austrian scholars returned to the use of Hebrew. On the other hand,
the co-operation of eminent professors, such as Heller, David Muller,
and others, contributed not a little to the success of _Ha-Shahar_.

The Galician novelist Mordecai D. Brandstatter is properly reckoned
among the best of the contributors to the review. His novels, a
collected edition of which appeared in 1891, are of distinguished
literary interest. Brandstatter is the painter of the customs and
manners of the Galician Hasidim, whom he rallies with kindliness that
yet has a keen edge, and with perfect artistic taste. Almost he is the
only humorist of the time. His style is classic without going to
extremes. He often makes use of the Talmudic jargon peculiar to
Rabbinical scholars, whom he has the skill to transfer to his canvas
down to their slightest gestures and mannerisms. But he does not
restrain his wit in showing up the ridiculous side of the moderns as
well. His best-known novels, which have been translated into Russian and
into German, are "Doctor Alfasi", "Mordecai Kisowitz", "The Beginning
and the End of a Quarrel", etc. Brandstatter also wrote satires in
verse. He has not a few points of resemblance to the painter of Galician
Jewish manners in German, Karl Emil Franzos.

Solomon Mandelkern, the erudite author of a new Biblical Concordance,
hailing from Dubno (1846-1902), was an inspired poet. His historical
pieces, his satires, and his epigrams, published for the most part in
_Ha-Shahar_, have finish and grace. In his Zionist poems, he gives
evidence of an enlightened patriotism. His popularity he gained by a
detailed history of Russia (_Dibre Yeme Russia_) in three volumes,
published at Wilna, in 1876, and a number of other works, all written in
a pure, Biblical style at once beautiful and lively.

Jehudah Lob Levin (born in 1845), surnamed Yehallel, another poet who
was an habitual contributor to _Ha-Shahar_, owes his fame to the
fervent realism of his poems, which, however, suffer from pompousness
and prolixity. His first appearance in the review was with a collection
of poems, _Sifte Renanot_ ("The Lips of Song"), in 1867. A long,
realistic poem of his, _Kishron ha-Ma'aseh_ ("The Value of Work"),
in which he extols the unrivalled place of work in the universe, also
was published in _Ha-Shahar_. In this poem, as well as in his prose
articles, he ranged himself with Lilienblum in demanding a reshaping of
Jewish life on an utilitarian, practical basis.

The criticism of Jewish customs and manners was brilliantly done by M.
Cahen and Ben-Zebi, to mention only two among the many journalists of
talent. The "Letters from Mohilew" by the former testify to the
impartiality and independence, not only of the author, but also of the
editor who accepted them for his periodical. Ben-Zebi wrote "Letters
from Palestine", in which he depicts the ways of the rapacious notables
of the old school in his country.

Science, historical and philosophical, found a sure welcome in _Ha-
Shahar_. Smolenskin knew how to arouse the interest of the educated
in these branches, which had been neglected by writers of Hebrew in
Russia. Besides such well-known names as Chwolson, the eminent
professor, Harkavy, the indefatigable explorer of Jewish history in the
Slav countries, and Gurland, the learned chronicler of the persecutions
of the Jews in Poland, it is proper to make mention of David Kahana, one
of the most eminent of the scientific contributors to _Ha-Shahar_,
a scholar of distinction, who has succeeded in throwing light upon the
obscure epoch of the false Messiahs and on the origin of Hasidism.

Dr. Solomon Rubin's ingenious philosophical studies on the origin of
religions and the history of ancient peoples were also for the most part
published in _Ha-Shahar_. Lazarus Schulman, the author of humorous
tales, wrote a painstaking analysis of Heine for Smolenskin's
periodical. Other contributors to the scientific department were Joshua
Lewinsohn, Schorr, Jehiel Bernstein, Moses Ornstein, Dr. Kantor, and Dr.
A. Poriess, the last of whom was the author of an excellent treatise on
physiology in Hebrew. The productions of these writers did more for the
spread of enlightenment than all the exhortations of the reformers.

Of litterateurs, the novelist Braudes, and the poets Menahem M. Dolitzki
and Zebi Schereschewsky, etc., made their first appearance in the
columns of _Ha-Shahar_.

The impetus issuing from _Ha-Shahar_ was visible on all fields of
Judaism. The number of Hebrew readers increased considerably, and the
interest in Hebrew literature grew. The eminent scholar I. H. Weiss
published his five-volume History of Tradition (_Dor Dor we-
Doreshaw_) in Hebrew (Vienna, 1883-1890). Though it was a purely
scientific work, laying bare the successive steps in the natural
development of Rabbinic law, it produced a veritable revolution in the
attitude of the orthodox of the backward countries.

As was mentioned above, Gottlober founded his review, _Ha-Boker
Or_, in 1876, to ensure the continuity of the humanist tradition and
defend the theories of the school of Mendelssohn. The last of the
followers of German humanism rallied about it,--Braudes published his
principal novel "Religion and Life" in it,--and it also attracted the
last representatives of the _Melizah_, like Wechsler (_Ish
Naomi_), who wrote Biblical criticism in an artificial, pompous

This artificiality, fostered in an earlier period by the _Melizim_,
had by no means disappeared from Hebrew literature. Its most popular
devotees in the later day of which we are speaking were, besides Kalman
Schulman, A. Friedberg, who wrote a Hebrew adaptation of Grace Aguilar's
tale, "The Vale of Cedars", published in 1876, and Ramesh, the
translator of "Robinson Crusoe."

Translations continued to enjoy great vogue, and it was vain for
Smolenskin, in the introduction to his novel _Ha-To'eh be-Darke ha-
Hayyim_, to warn the public against the abuses of which translators
were guilty. The readers of Hebrew sought, besides novels, chiefly works
on the natural sciences and on mathematics, especially astronomy. Among
the authors of original scientific books, Hirsch Rabinowitz should be
given the first place, as the writer of a series of treatises on
physics, chemistry, etc., which appeared at Wilna, between the years
1866 and 1880. After him come Lerner, Mises, Reifmann, and a number of

The period was also prolific in periodicals representing various
tendencies. At Jerusalem appeared _Ha-Habazzelet_, _Sha'are
Ziyyon_ ("The Gates of Zion"), and others. On the American side of
the Atlantic, the review _Ha-Zofeh be-Erez Nod_ ("The Watchman in
the Land of the Wanderer") reflected the fortunes and views of the
educated among the immigrants in the New World. Even the orthodox had
recourse to this modern expedient of periodicals in their endeavor to
put up a defense of Rabbinism. The journal _Ha-Yareah_ ("The
Moon"), and particularly _Mahazike ha-Dat_ ("The Pillars of the
Faith"), both issued in Galicia, were the organs of the faithful in
their opposition to humanism and progress. _Ha-Kol_, the journal
founded by Rodkinson (1876-1880), with reform purposes, played a role of
considerable importance in the conflict between the two parties.

Already tendencies were beginning to crop up radically different from
any Judaism had betrayed previously. In 1877, when Smolenskin was
publishing his weekly paper _Ha-Mabbit_ ("The Observer"), Freiman
founded the first Socialistic journal in Hebrew, _Ha-Emet_ ("The
Truth"). It also appeared in Vienna. And, again, S. A. Salkindson, a
convert from Judaism, the author of admirable translations of "Othello"
(1874) and "Romeo and Juliet" (1878), both published through the
endeavors of Smolenskin, brought out the Hebrew translation of an epic
wholly Christian in character, Milton's "Paradise Lost". It was a sign
of the times that this work of art was enjoyed and appreciated by the
educated Hebrew public in due accordance with its literary merits.

The clash of opinions and tendencies encouraged by the authority and the
tolerance of Smolenskin was fruitful of results. _Ha-Shahar_ had
made itself the centre of a synthetic movement, progressive and
national, which was gradually revealing the outline of its plan and
aims. The reaction caused by the unexpected revival of anti-Semitism in
Germany, Austria, Roumania, and Russia, had levelled the last ruins of
German humanism in the West, and had put disillusionment in the place of
dreams of equality in the East. Whoever remained faithful to the Hebrew
language and to the ideal of the regeneration of the Jewish people,
turned his eyes toward the stout-hearted writer who ten years earlier
had predicted the overthrow of all humanitarian hopes, and had been the
first to propose the practical solution of the Jewish problem by means
of national reconstruction.

Smolenskin's fame had by this time transcended the circle of his readers
and those interested in Hebrew literature. The _Alliance Israelite
Universelle_ entrusted to him the mission of investigating the
conditions of the life of the Roumanian Jews. During his stay in Paris,
Adolphe Cremieux, the tireless defender of the oppressed of his race,
agreed, in conversation with him, that only those who know the Hebrew
language, hold the key to the heart of the Jewish masses, and, Cremieux
continued, he would give ten years of his life to have known Hebrew.
[Footnote: Brainin, in his admirable "Life of Smolenskin", Warsaw, 1897,
p. 58; _Ha-Shahar_, X, 532.]

The war of 1877 between Russia and Turkey, and the nationalistic
sentiments it engendered everywhere in Eastern Europe, awakened a
patriotic movement among the Jewish youth who had until then resisted
the idea of national emancipation. A young student in Paris, a native of
Lithuania, Eliezer Ben-Jehudah, published two articles in _Ha-
Shahar_, in 1878, in which, setting aside all religious notions, he
urged the regeneration of the Jewish people on its ancient soil, and the
cultivation of the Biblical language.

In 1880, Smolenskin, who had undertaken a new and complete edition of
his works in twenty-four volumes, at Vienna, went on a tour through
Russia. Great was his joy when he noted the results produced by his own
activity, and saw that he had gained the affection and approval of all
enlightened classes of Jews. Under the influence of _Ha-Shahar_, a
new generation had grown up, free and nevertheless loyal to its nativity
and to the ideal of Judaism. Smolenskin's journey resembled a triumphal
procession. The university students at St. Petersburg and Moscow
arranged meetings in honor of the Hebrew writer, at which he was
acclaimed the master of the national tongue, the prophet of the
rejuvenation of his people. In the provincial districts, similar scenes
were enacted, and Smolenskin saw himself the object of honors never
before accorded a Hebrew author. He returned to Vienna, encouraged to
pursue the task he had assumed, and full of hope for the future.

It was the eve of the cataclysm foretold by the editor of _Ha-

* * * * *



Smolenskin owed his vast popularity and his influence on his
contemporaries only in part to his work as a journalist. What brought
him close to the people were his realistic novels, which occupy the
highest place in modern Hebrew literature.

Smolenskin's first piece of fiction, _Ha-Gemul_ ("The Recompense"),
was published at Odessa, in 1868, on a subject connected with the Polish
insurrection. Save its realistic style, there was nothing about it to
betray the future novel writer of eminence.

It was said above, that Smolenskin wrote the early chapters of his
_Ha-To'eh_ while at Odessa, and, also, he planned another novel
there, "The Joy of the Hypocrite". When he proposed working out the
latter for publication in _Ha-Meliz_, the editor rejected the idea
disdainfully, saying that he preferred translations to original stories,
so little likely did it seem that realistic writing could be done in
Hebrew. Once he had his own organ, _Ha-Shahar_, Smolenskin wrote
and published novel after novel in it, beginning with his _Ha-To'eh
be-Darke ha-Hayyim_. In _Ha-Shahar_ it appeared in three parts.
Later it came out in book form, in four volumes. It is the first work of
the Hebrew realistic school worthy of being classed as such.

As Cervantes makes his hero Don Quixote pass through all the social
strata of his time, so the Hebrew novelist conducts his wanderer, Joseph
the orphan, through the nooks and corners of the ghetto. He introduces
him to all the scenes of Jewish life, he displays before his eyes all
its customs and manners, he makes him a witness to all its
superstitions, fanaticism, and sordidness of every kind, a physical and
social abasement that has no parallel. A faithful observer, an
impressionist, an unemphatic realist, he discloses on every page
misunderstood lives, extravagant beliefs, movements, evils, greatnesses,
and miseries, of which the civilized world had not the slightest
suspicion. It is the Odyssey of the ghetto adventurer, the life and
journeyings of the author himself, magnified, and enveloped in the
fictitious circumstances in which the hero is placed, a human document
of the greatest significance.

Joseph, the orphan, whose father, persecuted by the Hasidim,
disappeared, and whose mother died in abject misery, is received into
the house of his uncle, the same brother of his father who had caused
the father's ruin. Abused by a wicked aunt and driven by an irresistible
hankering after a vagabond life, he runs away from his foster home.
First he is picked up by a band of rascally mendicants, then he becomes
an inmate in the house of a _Baal-Shem_, a charlatan wonder-worker,
and thus a changeful existence leads him to traverse the greater part of
Jewish Russia. In a series of photographic pictures, Smolenskin
reproduces in detail the ways and exploits of all the bohemians of the
ghetto, from the beggars up to the peripatetic cantors, their moral
shortcomings, their spitefulness, and their insolence. Impelled by the
wish to acquire an education, and perhaps also put a roof over his head,
Joseph finally enters a celebrated _Yeshibah_. It is the salvation
of the young tramp. He is given food, he sleeps on the school benches,
and he is rescued from military service. But soon, having incurred
disfavor by his frankness, and especially because he is discovered
reading secular books, in which he is initiated by one of his fellow-
students, he is obliged to leave the Yeshibah. By the skin of his teeth
he escapes being packed off to the army as a soldier. He takes refuge
with the Hasidim, and has the good fortune to find favor in the eyes of
the _Zaddik_ ("Saint") himself.

But very soon he revolts against the equivocal transports of the saintly
sect. In his wanderings, Joseph doubtless meets with good people,
disinterested idealists, simple men and women of the rank and file,
Rabbis worthy of the highest praise, enthusiastic intellectuals, but the
ordinary life of the ghetto, abnormal and narrow, disgusts him
completely. He departs to seek a freer life in the West. Passing through
Germany without stopping, he goes on to London. Everywhere he makes
Jewish society the object of study, and everywhere he suffers
disillusionment. _Ha-To'eh_ is a veritable encyclopedia of Jewish
life at the beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century.

As a work of fiction, the novel cannot bear inspection. It is a
succession of fantastic, sometimes incoherent events, an artificial
complex of personages appearing on the scene at the will of the author,
and acting like puppets on wires. The miraculous abounds, and the
characters are in part exaggerated, in part blurred.

On the other hand, it is an incomparable work taken as a panorama of
realistic scenes, not always consecutive scenes, but always absolutely
true to life--a gallery of pictures of the ghetto.

Joseph is a painter, a realist first and last, and an impressionist
besides. Looking at the lights and shadows of his picture, we feel that
what we see is not all pure, spontaneous art. Like Auerbach and like
Dickens, he is a thinker, a teacher. A true son of the ghetto, he
preaches and moralizes. Sometimes he goes too far in his desire to
impress a lesson. The reader perceives too clearly that the author has
not remained an indifferent outsider while writing his novel. It is
evident that his heart is torn by contradictory emotions--pity,
compassion, scorn, anger, and love, all at once.

In point of style also the novel is a realistic piece of work.
Smolenskin does not resort to Talmudisms, like Gordon and Abramowitsch,
but, also, he takes care not to indulge in too many Biblical metaphors.
This sometimes necessitates circumlocutions, and on the whole his
oratorical manner leads to prolixity, but his prose always remains pure,
flowing, and precise in the highest degree.

To illustrate Smolenskin's way of writing, and all the peculiarity of
the social life he depicts, we cannot do better than translate a few
passages from his novel dealing with characteristic phases of ghetto

Joseph is narrating his adventures and the impressions of his daily
routine. The following is his striking description of the _Heder_,
the well-known primary school of the ghetto, when his uncle first enters
him there as a pupil:

"When I say house, let not the reader imagine a stone structure.
What he would see is a small, low building, somewhat like a dog's
kennel, built of thin boards, rotten at that. The thatch that
covers it by way of roof hangs down to the ground, and yet it
cannot keep off the rain, for the goats browsing in the
neighborhood have munched off half of it to satisfy their
appetite. Within there is a single room covered with black soot,
the four walls garnished with spider-webs, and the floor paved
with mortar. On the eastern wall hangs a large sheet of paper
with the inscription, 'Hence blows the breath of life', which not
many visitors will believe, because, instead of a quickening
breath, pestilential odors enter by the window and offend the
nostrils of those whose olfactory nerve has not lost all
sensitiveness.... On the opposite wall, to the west, appear the
words, 'A memorial unto the destruction of the Temple'. To this
day I do not know what there was to commemorate the fall of the
Holy Place. The rickety rafters? Or were the little creatures
swarming all over the walls to remind one of 'the foxes that walk
upon the mountain of Zion'?

"A huge stove occupies one-fourth of the room-space. Between the
stove and the wall, to the right, is a bed made up ready for
use, and on the other side a smaller one full of straw and hay,
and without bed-covers. Opposite to it stands a large deal table
tattoed with marks that are the handiwork of the _Melammed_.
With his little penknife, which was never out of his hands, he
would cut them into the wood all the time he was teaching us--
figures of beasts and fowl, and queer words....

"Around this table about ten boys were sitting, some conning the
Talmud and others the Bible. One of the latter, seated at the
right of the teacher, was reading aloud, in a sing-song voice,
the section of the Pentateuch assigned for the following Sabbath
in the synagogue, and his cantillation blended with the crooning
of the teacher's wife as she sat by her baby's bed, ... but every
now and then the master's voice rose and drowned the sounds of
both, as the growl of the thunder stifles the roar of the waves.

"... The teacher was hideous to behold. He was short of stature
and thin, his cheeks were withered looking, his nose long and
aquiline. His two _Peot_ [1] were raven black and hung down
like ropes by the side of his face. Old as he was, his cheeks
showed only tufts of beard here and there, on account of his
habit of plucking the hairs out one by one when he was absorbed
in thought, not to mention those plucked out by his wife without
the excuse of thinking. His black cap shone like a buttered roll,
his linen shirt was neither an Egyptian nor a Swiss fabric, and
his chest, overgrown with long black hair, always showed bare
through the slit of his unbuttoned shirt. His linen trousers had
been white once upon a time, but now they were picturesquely
variegated from the dust and soot clinging to them, and by the
stains added by his young hopeful, when he sat and played on his
knees, by way of contributing his share to the glory in which his
father was resplendently arrayed.... His _Zizzit_ hung down
to his bare feet. When my uncle entered the house, the teacher
jumped up and ran hither and thither, seeking his shoes, but he
could not find them. My uncle relieved him from his embarrassment
by presenting me, with the words, 'Here is a new pupil for you!'
Calming down, the teacher resumed his seat, and when we
approached him, he tapped me on my cheek, saying, 'What hast thou
learnt, my son?' All the pupils opened their mouth and eyes in
amazement, and looked at me with envy. These many days, since
they themselves were entered as new pupils in the school, they
had not heard such gentle words issue from the mouth of the

[Footnote 1: See Lev. XIX, 27.]

This odd school prepared the child of the ghetto in very deed for the
life and the struggle for existence awaiting him. In the next higher
school, the Yeshibah, the _alma mater_ of the Rabbinical student,
the happenings were no less curious.

The young people in those strange colleges, for the most part precocious
urchins, fall into classes, which, however, are not sharply divided off
from one another. Day and night they sit bent over the huge folios of
the Rabbis, occupied constantly with the study of the Law. Their meals
are furnished them by the humble people of the town, often under
deplorable conditions, and, on the whole, the life they lead is misery
not untinged with humiliation. Such are the student years of the future
Rabbis. And yet this bohemian existence is not destitute of picturesque
elements and attractive features. Frequently it is at the Yeshibah that
the young man for the first time finds sincere friends for whom he forms
a lasting attachment, and they become his trusted advisers. It is a mob
of young people, enthusiastic and impetuous, yet among them is found the
aristocracy of the ghetto, those endowed with extraordinary intellectual
gifts, and the devotion displayed by some of them to Talmudic knowledge
is absolutely sublime.

Smolenskin paints a characteristic Yeshibah scene enacted by these
embryonic Talmudists:

"It is a strange spectacle that meets the eye of the observer on
his first visit to the women's gallery in the Yeshibah [at
nightfall]. He finds it suddenly transformed into a gathering-
place for merchants. The boys who have bread or money, try their
hands at trafficking, and those who have neither bread nor money,
try theirs at theft, and a large group of those who loathe the
one pursuit as well as the other, sit apart and entertain each
other with the wonderful exploits of brigands, and giants, and
witches, and devils, and evil spirits, who are abroad at night to
affright human beings, and the dead who leave their graves to
terrify the wicked or cure the sick with grass of the field, and
many more such tales that delight the heart and soul of the
listeners. Such things have I myself seen even while the
afternoon and the evening prayers were going on below. I heard
confused sounds. One would cry out, 'Who wants bread?' And
another would sing out in reply, 'Who has bread to sell? Who has
bread to sell?'--'Here is bread!'--'Will you take a penny for
it?'--'Two pennies, and no less!'--'Some one has stolen my bread!
Who stole my bread?'--' My bread is first-class! Come and buy!'--
'But I haven't a red copper!'--'All right, give me a pledge!'--
'You may have my troubles as a pledge, you old curmudgeon!'--
'Here are two pennies, give me the bread!'--'Get out, I was ahead
of you!'--'I insist upon my rights, I was the first.'--'Why, I
handed my money over long ago, it is my bread.'--'You stole my
bread.'--'You lie, it's my bread!'--'You're a liar, a thief, a
robber!'--'The devil take you, you hound!'--'Wait a moment, and
I'll show you my teeth, if I'm a hound!'

"And so the words fly from mouth to mouth in the women's gallery,
and cuffs and blows are not rare things, either, and not one of
the boys remembers that the congregation below is at prayers.
They go on trafficking and telling tales undisturbed, until the
end of the service, and then they return to their seats, every
boy to his own at the long tables, which are lighted each of them
by a single candle for its whole length. A dispute breaks out as
to where the candle is to stand. First one draws it up to
himself, and then another wrests it from his hand and sets it
next to his own book, and finally all decide to measure the
table. One of the boys takes off his belt, and ascertains the
breadth of the table and its length, and the candle is put in the
exact centre. The quarrel is settled, and the students begin to
drawl the text before them, and what they did the whole livelong
day, they continue to do at night.

"Then one of them says, 'I sold my bread for two pennies'.--
'And I bought an apple for one penny and a cake for half a
penny', returns another.--'Darkness swallow up the monitor! He
doesn't give us enough candles to light up the dark!'--'The devil
take him!'--'A plague on him!'--'I am going on a visit home at
Passover.'--'Sarah the widow lent me three pennies.'

"While the boys talk thus over their open books, their bodies are
swaying to and fro like reeds in a pond, and their voices rise
and fall in the same sing-song in which they con their texts, all
to deceive the monitor, who, hearing the usual drawl and seeing
the rocking bodies, believes the students to be busy at their
tasks. But little by little, they forget and drop out of their
recitative into the ordinary conversational tone.--'Tell me,
Zabualean [the pupils are called by their native town in the
Yeshibah], don't you think it's about time for the angel of death
to come and carry off our monitor? Or is he going to live
forever?'--'I pray to God to afflict his body with such ills that
he cannot come to the Yeshibah. Then we should have rest. I take
good care not to ask for his death. Another would take his place,
and there's no telling whether he would not be worse. If pain
keeps him abed, we shall have a respite.'--'But aren't you
committing a sin, cursing a deaf man?' interposes one of the
boys, indignantly.--'Look at that Azubian! A saint, isn't he?
Proof enough that he has seven sins hidden in his heart!' retorts
the Zabualean.--'No need of any such proof! Why, this very
Azubian could not resist the tempter, and is hard at work
studying Russian. That's as bad as bad can be, you don't have to
search out hidden sins.'--'I at least am not perverting the
right,' the Azubian flings out, 'because the Talmud itself says
that the law of the land is law, but you are committing an actual
sin against the Torah in cursing....' The sentence was never
finished, for the monitor had been standing behind the table
observing the boys for some time, and when he saw the excitement
of the Azubian,--being deaf, he could not hear what he said,--he
threw himself upon him, and, seizing him by the ear, shook him as
violently as his strength permitted, crying, 'You wretches, you
rebels, there, that's for you!' and he beat another boy with his
fists, and struck a third upon his cheeks.--'The monitor has
rained profuse kisses upon the Azubian for defending him!' one of
the boys paraphrased Proverbs, [1] drawling in the approved sing-
song, and keeping his eyes fixed upon his book. The others burst
into loud laughter at the sally. Even those who were still
smarting from the monitor's blows could not restrain themselves
and joined in. 'Are you making fun of me? You're not afraid?'
thundered the monitor, in towering rage, turning this way and
that, uncertain whom to select as the first victim of his heavy
hand. Before he could collect his wits, one of the boys yelled,
'Rabbi Isaac, Rabbi Isaac, the candles!'--It worked like a
conjurer's charm upon a serpent. In an instant the monitor turned
and ran to his room and searched it. Seeing no one there, he sank
into his chair, and groaned: 'Wicked, depraved children! Those
gallows-birds, I'll mangle their flesh, and flay the skin from
their bones!' and he kept on mumbling to himself in this strain,
until sleep fell upon his eyelids shaded by long eyebrows white
as snow, and his head dropped into his hands resting upon the

"As soon as he slept, the boys resumed their talk, and my friend
continued to tell me about life in the Yeshibah.... 'Do you think
that the Yeshibah students are guileless youths who have never
dropped their mother's apron strings? If you do, you are vastly
mistaken. They are up to all the tricks, and the dullest among
them can show a thing or two to the best of the rich boys. You
will do well to observe their ways and learn from them.'--'I
shall try to walk in their footsteps.'....

"Then I went out to get my supper. On returning I found the
greater part of the boys had gone to sleep, and almost all the
candles were out. Only a few of the students were sitting
together and talking. I sought out my friend, and discovered him
lying upon one of the tables in the women's gallery, but he was
still awake. 'Why don't you look for a place to lie down in?' he
asked me.--'I shall lie here next to you,' I replied.--' No, you
can't do that. Here each boy has a place in which he always
sleeps; he never changes about. Go down to the men's hall and
look for an unoccupied spot. If you find a table, so much the
better. If not, you must be satisfied with a bench.'--I did as he
advised. I found a long table in the men's hall, but hardly was I
stretched out upon it when a boy took me by the scruff of my neck
and shook me, saying: 'Get out, this is my place! And all the
tables here are taken by boys who came to the Yeshibah long ahead
of you. You must look for another place.'

"Not very much pleased, I slipped down from the table, and lay on
the bench. But I could not go to sleep. I was not accustomed to
the narrow board, nor to sleep without a bed-cover, and the
little and big insects that swarmed in the cracks of the wood
came forth from their nests and tickled me all over my body. But
there was nothing to do, and I lay there in discomfort until all
the lights were extinguished. Only one light of all burnt the
whole night, the _Ner tamid_, and under it sat two students,
the 'watchers' [whose duty it was to continue at their task until
morning, so that the study of the Law might not be interrupted
day or night]."

[Footnote 1: XXVII, 6.]

A life full of excitement, of which the above is a specimen, was not
likely to displease so adventurous a spirit as Joseph's. When all is
said, the Yeshibah provided a living for the young people, not
overabundant, it is true, but at least they were relieved of material
cares. The pious middle class Jews, and even the poor, considered it
their duty to supply the needs of the young Talmudists, and the ambition
of the latter was satisfied by the general good feeling that prevailed
in their favor. For the aristocracy among the Jews, whose minds had not
yet been stimulated by the new ideas, the Yeshibah was the home of all
the virtues, the school in which the ideal was pursued, and lofty dreams
were dreamed.

In another novel, "The Joy of the Hypocrite," which appeared in Vienna,
in 1872, Smolenskin extols the idealism of his hero Simon, a product of
the Yeshibah:

"Who had implanted in the mind of Simon the ideal of justice and
the sublime word? Who had kindled in his soul the sacred flame,
love of truth and research? Verily, he had found all these in the
Yeshibah. Glory and increase be to you, ye holy places, last
refuges of Israel's real heritage! From your portals came forth
the elect destined from birth to be the light of their people and
breathe new life into the dry bones."

Even during the period of the _Behalah_ ("Terror") the Yeshibah
remained unscathed, beyond the reach of misery and baseness. The venal
jobbers, who, with the assistance of the Kahal, delivered the sons of
the poor to the army in order to shield the rich, did not dare invade
the Rabbinical schools. Like the Temple in ancient times, the
_Yeshibot_ offered a sure refuge. Whenever these sanctuaries were
imperilled, national sentiment was aroused, and the threatened
encroachments upon the last national treasure were resisted with bitter
determination, for the idealism of the people of the ghetto, their hope
and their faith, were enshrined there.

Joseph forfeited the privilege of sanctuary residing in the Yeshibah on
the day he was taken redhanded, in the act of reading a profane book.
Religious fanaticism had never proceeded with so much rigor as during
the reign of terror following upon the disorganization of the social
life of the Jews by the authorities, and the triumphant assertion of
arbitrary power. Nevertheless, even at this disheartening juncture, the
Rabbinical schools were the asylum of whatever of ideal or sublime there
remained in Israel.

They furnished all the champions of humanism and the preachers and
disseminators of civilization. In them Joseph met the generous comrades
who introduced him to the Haskalah, and awakened love for the noble and
the good in him, and boundless devotion to his people.

Hard as flint toward the inefficient leaders, without pity for the
hypocrites and the fanatics, the heart of Joseph yet pulsated with love
for the Jewish masses. Their unsympathetic surroundings and the
persecutions to which they were exposed but increased his compassion for
the straying flock of his people. In the general degradation, he
succeeded in rising to moral heights, and so could set himself up for an
impartial judge. He did not permit himself to be carried away by the
sadness of the moment, though he did not remain indifferent to it, and
his heart bled at the thought of his people's sufferings. In the human
desert, in which he delighted to disport himself, he discovered noble
characters, lofty sentiments, generous friendships, and, above all,
lives devoted entirely to the pursuit of the ideal undeterred by any

One after the other he presents the idealists of the ghetto to the
reader. There is, first of all, Jedidiah, the common type of the Maskil,
working zealously for culture, spreading truth and light in all the
circles he can reach, dreaming of a Judaism, just, enlightened, exalted.
Then there are the ardent young apostles, like that noble friend of
Joseph, Gideon, most enlightened and most tolerant of Maskilim. In the
measure in which Gideon detests fanaticism, he loves the people. He
loves the masses with the heart of a patriot and the soul of a prophet.
He loves them exactly as they are, with their beliefs, their simple
faith, their poor, submissive lives, their ambitions as the chosen
people, and their Messianic hope, to which he himself clings, though in
a way less mystical than theirs. Thrilling, patriotic exaltation
pervades the chapter on "The Day of Atonement." There Smolenskin appears
as a genuine romanticist.

* * * * *

Such in outline are the features of this chaotic, superb novel, which,
in spite of its faults of technique, remains to this day the truest and
the most beautiful product of neo-Hebrew literature.

Ten years after finishing it, the author added a fourth part, which, on
the whole, is nothing but an artificial collection of letters relating
only indirectly to the main story. Joseph takes us with him through the
Western lands, and then to Russia, whither he returns. In France and in
England, he deplores the degeneracy of Judaism, attributing it to the
ascendency of the Mendelssohnian school, and he foresees the approach of
anti-Semitism. In Russia, he notes the prevalence of economic misery in
frightful proportions, especially in the small rural towns, while in the
large centres he regrets to see that the communities use every effort to
imitate Occidental Judaism with all its faults. The overhasty culture of
the Russian Jews, weakly correlated with the economic and political
conditions under which they lived, was bound to bring on the breaking up
of the passive idealism which constituted their chief strength.

The novel _Keburat Hamor_ ("The Burial of the Ass") is the most
elaborate and the most finished of Smolenskin's works. It describes the
time of the "Terror" and the domination of the Kahal. The hero, Hayyim
Jacob, is a wag, but pleasantries are not always understood in the
ghetto, and he is made to pay for them. His practical jokes and his
small respect for the notables of the community, whom he dares to defy
and poke fun at, are his ruin.

He was scarcely more than a child when he was guilty of unprecedented
conduct. Wrapped in blue drapery, like a corpse risen from the grave,
and spreading terror wherever he appeared, he made his way one evening
into the room in which cakes were stored for the next day's annual
banquet of the _Hebrah Kadisha_ ("Holy Brotherhood"), the all-
powerful society, organized primarily to perform the last rites and
ceremonies for the dead, to which the best Jews of a town belong. He got
possession of all the dainty morsels, and made away with them. It was an
unpardonable crime, high treason against saintliness. An inquiry was
ordered, but the culprit was not discovered.

In revenge, the Brotherhood ordained the "burial of an ass" for the
nameless criminal, and the verdict was recorded in the minutes of the

The incorrigible Hayyim Jacob continues to perpetrate jokes, and the
Kahal decides to surrender him to the army recruiting officer. Warned
betimes, he is able to make good his escape. He returns to his native
town later on under an assumed name, imposes upon everybody by his
scholarship, and marries the daughter of the head of the community. But
his natural inclinations get the upper hand again. Meantime, he has
confided the tale of his youthful tricks to his wife. She is disturbed
by what she knows, she cannot endure the idea of the unparalleled
punishment that awaits her husband should he be identified, for to
undergo the "burial of an ass" is the supremest indignity that can be
offered to a Jew. The body of the offender is dragged along the ground
to the cemetery, and there it is thrown into a ditch made for the
purpose behind the wall enclosing the grounds. But was not her father
the head of the community? Could he not annul the verdict? She discloses
the secret to him, and the effect is to fill him with instantaneous
rage: What! to that wicked fellow he has given his daughter, to that
heretic! He wants to force him to give up his wife, but no more than the
husband will the woman listen to any such proposal. Hayyim Jacob
succeeds in ingratiating himself with his father-in-law, though by fraud
and only for a short time. After that, one persecution after another is
inflicted upon him, and he succumbs.

So much for the background upon which the novelist has painted his
scenes, authentic reproductions from the life of the Jews in Russia. The
character of Hayyim Jacob stands out clear and forceful. His wife Esther
is the typical Jewish woman, loyal and devoted unto death, of
irreproachable conduct under reverses of fortune, and braving a world
for love of her husband. The prominent characters of the ghetto are
drawn with fidelity, though the colors are sometimes laid on too thick.
The author has been particularly happy in re-creating the atmosphere of
the ghetto, with its contradictions and its passions, the specialized
intellectuality which long seclusion has forged for it, and its odd,
original conception of life.

Smolenskin goes to the Yeshibah for the subject of one of his novels,
_Gemul Yesharim_ ("The Recompense of the Righteous"). The author
describes the part played by the Jewish youth in the Polish
insurrection. The ingratitude of the Poles proves that the Jews have
nothing to expect from others, and they should count only upon their own

_Gaon we-Sheber_ ("Greatness and Ruin") is a collection of
scattered novelettes, some of which are veritable works of art.

_Ha-Yerushah_ ("The Inheritance") is the last of Smolenskin's great
novels. It was first published in _Ha-Shahar_, in 1880-81. Its
three volumes are full of incoherencies and long drawn out arguments.
The life of the Jews of Odessa, however, and of Roumania, is well
depicted, and also the psychologic stages through which the older
humanists pass, deceived in their hopes, and groping for a return to
national Judaism.

Smolenskin's last novel, _Nekam Berit_ ("Holy Vengeance", _Ha-
Shahar_, 1884), is wholly Zionistic. It was the author's swan song.
Not long after its completion, an illness carried him off.

* * * * *

The novels of Smolenskin are a series of social documents and
propagandist writings rather than works of pure art. Their chief defects
are the incoherence of the action, the artificiality of the
_denouement_, their simplicity in all that concerns modern life, as
well as their excessive didactic tendencies and the long-winded style of
the author. Most of these defects he shares with such writers as
Auerbach, Jokai, and Thackeray, with whom he may be placed in the same
class. In passing judgment, it must be borne in mind that the Hebrew
writer's life was one prolonged and bitter struggle for bare existence,
his own and _Ha-Shahar's_, for the periodical never yielded him any
income. Only his idealism and the consciousness of the useful purpose he
was serving sustained him in critical moments. These circumstances
explain why his works bear the marks of hasty production. However that
may be, since he gave them to the Jewish world, his novels have, even
more than his articles, exercised unparalleled influence upon his

In a word, the life of the Russian ghetto, its misery and its passions,
the positive and the negative types of that vanishing world, have been
set down in the writings of Smolenskin with such power of realism and
such profound knowledge of conditions that it is impossible to form a
just idea of Russo-Polish Judaism without having read what he has

* * * * *



The years 1881-1882 mark off a distinct era in the history of the Jewish
people. The revival of anti-Semitism in Germany, the unexpected renewal
of persecutions and massacres in Russia and Roumania, the outlawing of
millions of human beings, whose situation grew less tenable from day to
day in those two countries--such were the occurrences that disconcerted
the most optimistic.

In the face of the precipitate exodus of crazed masses of the people and
the urgency of decisive action, the old disputes between humanists and
nationalists were laid aside. There could be but one choice between
impossible assimilation with the Slav people on the one hand, and the
idea, on the other hand, of a national emancipation divested of its
mystical envelope and supplied with a territory as a practicable basis.
All the Hebrew-writing authors were agreed that the time had passed for
wrangling over a divergence of opinions. It was imperative that all
forces should range themselves on the side of action. Even a skeptic
like Gordon issued at that time, among many things like it, his
thrilling poem: "We were a people, and we will a people be--with our
young and with our old will we go!"

But whither? Some decided for America with the Western philanthropists,
others, with Smolenskin, declared absolutely in favor of Palestine, the
country of the Jew's perennial dreams.

Academic discussions of such questions are futile. It may safely be left
to time and experience to decide between the two currents of opinion. As
early as 1880, the young dreamer Ben-Jehudah, inspired with the idea of
reviving the Hebrew as a national language, left Paris and established
himself at Jerusalem. And from Lithuania came the romantic conservative
Pines, forsaking the distinguished position he occupied there, in order
to give his aid in the elevation of the Jews of Palestine. The tracks
made by these two pioneers issuing from opposite camps were soon trodden
by the followers of important movements.

A select circle of four hundred university students, indignant at the
humiliating position into which they had been forced, thundered forth an
appeal that resounded throughout the length and breadth of Jewish
Russia: _Bet Ya'akob, leku we-nelekah_ ("O House of Jacob, come ye
and let us walk"). The practical result was the organization of the
group BILU, the first to leave for Palestine and establish a colony
there. [Footnote: Is. II, 5. BILU are the initials of the four words of
the Hebrew sentence quoted above.] This nucleus was enlarged by the
accession of hundreds of middle class burghers and of the educated, and
thus Jewish colonization was a permanently assured fact in the Holy

The surprising return of the younger generation, who had wholly broken
with Judaism, this first step toward the actual realization of the
Zionist dream, has had most important consequences for the renascence of
Hebrew literature. As for the educated element that had never, at least
in spirit, left the ghetto, men like Lilienblum, Braudes, and others,
whose later activity, a propaganda for economic reforms and instruction
in manual trades, had almost ceased to have a reason for continuing,--as
for them, their adhesion to Zionism could not be long delayed. And even
outside of the ghetto a voice was heard, the authoritative voice of Dr.
Leon Pinsker, announcing his support of the philo-Palestinian movement,
as it was then called. In his brochure "Auto-Emancipation", the learned
physician of Odessa, one of the old guard of staunch humanists, declares
that the disease of anti-Semitism is a chronic affection, incurable as
long as the Jews are in exile. There is but one solution for the Jewish
question, the national regeneration of the Jews upon their ancient soil.

A new dawn began to break upon the horizon of the Jewish people. Hebrew
literature was stimulated as never before, and the enthusiasm of the
writers incorporated itself in the spirited proposals of Moses Eismann,
Professor Schapira, and a number of others. In this sudden blossoming of
patriotic ideas, excesses were inevitable. A chauvinistic reaction was
not long in setting in. The religious reformers were attacked, they were
accused of hindering a fusion of diverse parties in Judaism whose
cordial agreement was indispensable to the success of the new movement.

Smolenskin alone was irreproachable. He who had never acknowledged the
benefits of assimilation, had no need now to go to extremes. He remained
faithful to his patriotic ideal, without renouncing any of his
humanitarian and cultural aspirations. The activity he displayed was
feverish. Now that he no longer stood alone in the defense of his ideas,
he redoubled his efforts with admirable energy--encouraging here,
exhorting there. But he was coming to the end of his strength, exhausted
by a life of struggle and wretchedness, by long overtaxing of his
physical and mental powers. He died in 1885, in the vigor of his years,
cut off by disease. The whole of Jewry mourned at his grave. And _Ha-
Shahar_ soon ceased to exist.

* * * * *

With the extinction of _Ha-Shahar_ we arrive at the end of the task
we have set ourselves, of following up a phase of literary evolution.
Modern Hebrew literature, for a century the handmaiden of one
preponderating idea, the humanist idea in all its various applications,
henceforth enters upon a new phase of its development. Led back by
Smolenskin to its national source, stripped of every religious element,
and imposed by the force of circumstances upon the masses and the
educated alike, as the link uniting them thenceforth for the furtherance
of the same patriotic end, it has again taken its place as the language
of the Jewish people. It has ceased to serve as the mere mediator
between Rabbinism and modern life. It is become an end in itself, an
important factor in the life of the Jews. It is no longer a parasite
flourishing at the expense of orthodoxy, from which it has for a century
been luring away successive generations of the best of the young men,

Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Pinterest