Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

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

Part 4 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.

who, however, once emancipated, hastened to abandon that to which they
owed their enlightenment. It has become the receptacle of the national
literature of the Jewish people.

In 1885, when the distinguished editor of _Ha-Zefirah_, Nahum
Sokolow, undertook the publication of the great literary annual, _He-
Asif_ ("The Collector"), the success he achieved went beyond the
wildest expectations. The edition ran up to seven thousand copies. It
was followed by other enterprises of a similar character, notably
_Keneset Yisrael_ ("The Assembly of Israel"), published by Saul
Phinehas Rabbinowitz, the learned historian.

In 1886, the journalist, Jehudah Lob Kantor, encouraged by the vogue
acquired by the Hebrew language, founded the first daily paper in it,
_Ha-Yom_ ("The Day"), at St. Petersburg. The success of this organ
induced _Ha-Meliz_ and _Ha-Zefirah_ to change into dailies. A
Hebrew political press thus came into being, and it has contributed
tremendously to the spread of Zionism and culture. Even the Hasidim, who
had until then remained contumacious toward modern ideas, were reached
by its influence. It was, however, the Hebrew language that profited
most by the development of journalism in it. The demands of daily life
enriched its vocabulary and its resources, completing the work of

In Palestine, the need felt for an academic language common to the
children of immigrants from all countries was a great factor in the
practical rehabilitation of Hebrew as the vernacular. Ben-Jehudah was
the first to use it in his home, in intercourse with the members of his
family and his household, and a number of educated Jews followed his
example, not permitting any other to be spoken within their four walls.
In the schools at Jerusalem and in the newly-established colonies, it
has become the official language. A recoil from the Palestinian movement
was felt in Europe and in America, and a limited number of circles were
formed everywhere in which only Hebrew was spoken. The journal _Ha-
Zebi_ ("The Deer"), published by Ben-Jehudah, became the organ of
Hebrew as a spoken language, which differs from the literary language
only in the greater freedom granted it of borrowing modern words and
expressions from the Arabic and even from the European languages, and by
its tendency to create new words from old Hebrew roots, in compliance
with forms occurring in the Bible and the Mishnah. Here are a couple of
examples of this tendency: The Hebrew word _Sha'ah_ means "time",
"hour". To this word the modern Hebrew adds the termination _on_,
making it _Sha'on_, with the meaning "watch", or "clock". The verb
_darak_, in Biblical Hebrew "to walk", gives rise in the modern
language to _Midrakah_, "pavement."

The spread of the language and the increase in the number of readers
together produced a change in the material condition of the writers.
Their compensation became ampler in proportion, the consequence of which
was that they could devote themselves to work requiring more sustained
effort, and what they produced was more finished in detail. With the
founding of the publishing society _Ahiasaf_, and more particularly
the one called _Tushiyah_, due to the energy of Abraham L. Ben-
Avigdor, a sympathetic writer, Hebrew was afforded the possibility of
developing naturally, in the manner of a modern language.

There was a short interval of non-production, caused by the brutality
and sadness of unexpected events, but literary creativeness recovered
quickly, and manifested itself, with growing force, in varied and
widespread activity worthy of a literature that had grown out of the
needs of a national group. On the field of poetry, there is, first of
all, Constantin Shapiro, the virile lyricist, who knew how to put into
fitting words the indignation and revolt of the people against the
injustice levelled against them. His "Poems of Jeshurun" published in
_He-Asif_ for 1888, alive with emotion and patriotic ardor, as well
as his Haggadic legends, must be put in the first rank. After him comes
Menahem M. Dolitzki, the elegiac poet of Zionism, the singer of sweet
"Zionides." [Footnote: Poems published in New York, in 1896.] Then a
young writer, snatched away all too early, Mordecai Zebi Manne, who was
distinguished for his tender lyrics and deep feeling for nature and art.
[Footnote: His works appeared in Warsaw in 1897.] And, finally, there is
Naphtali Herz Imber, the song-writer of the Palestinian colonies, the
poet of the reborn Holy Land and the Zionist hope. [Footnote: Poems
published at Jerusalem in 1886.]

Among the latest to claim the attention of the public, the name of
Hayyim N. Bialik [1] ought to be mentioned, a vigorous lyricist and an
incomparable stylist, and of S. Tchernichovski, [2] an erotic poet, the
singer of love and beauty, a Hebrew with an Hellenic soul. [Footnote 1:
Poems published at Warsaw In 1902.] [Footnote 2: Poems published at
Warsaw in 1900-2.] These two, both of them at the beginning of their
career, are the most brilliant in a group of poets more or less well

Again, there are two story-writers that are particularly prominent,
Abramowitsch, the old favorite, who, having abandoned Hebrew for a brief
period in favor of jargon, returned to enrich Hebrew literature with a
series of tales, poetic and humorous, of incomparable originality and in
a style all his own. [Footnote: Collected Tales and Novels, Odessa,
1900.] The second one is Isaac Lob Perez, the symbolist painter of love
and misery, a charming teller of tales and a distinguished artist.
[Footnote: Works, in ten volumes, Hebrew Library of _Tushiyah_,

Of novelists and romancers, in prose and in verse, Samuely may be
mentioned, and Goldin, Berschadsky, Feierberg, J. Kahn, Berditchevsky,
S. L. Gordon, N. Pines, Rabinovitz, Steinberg, and Loubochitzky, to name
only a few among many. Ben-Avigdor is the creator of the young realist
movement, through his psychologic tales of ghetto life, particularly his
_Menahem ha-Sofer_ ("Menahem the Scribe"), wherein he opposes the
new chauvinism.

Among the masters of the _feuilleton_ are the subtle critic David
Frischmann, translator of numerous scientific books; the writer of
charming _causeries_, A. L. Levinski, author of a Zionist Utopia,
"Journey to Palestine in the Year 5800", published in _Ha-Pardes_
("Paradise"), in Odessa; and J. H. Taviow, the witty writer.

On the field of thought and criticism, the most prominent place belongs
to Ahad ha-'Am, the first editor of the review _Ha-Shiloah_, a
critic who often drops into paradoxes, but is always original and bold.
[Footnote: Collected Essays, published at Odessa in 1885, and at Warsaw
in 1901.] He is the promoter of "spiritual Zionism", the counterstroke
dealt to the practical, political movement by Messianic mysticism
clothed in a somewhat more rational garb than its traditional form. He
has a fine critical mind and is an acute observer, as well as a
remarkable stylist.

To Ahad ha-'Am we may oppose Wolf Jawitz, the philosopher of religious
romanticism, the defender of tradition, and one of the regenerators of
Hebrew style. [Footnote: _Ha-Arez_, published at Jerusalem in 1893-
96; "History of the Jews", published at Wilna, 1898-1902, etc.] Between
these two extremes, there is a moderate party, the foremost
representative of which is Nahum Sokolow, the popular and prolific
editor of _Ha-Zefirah_, prominent at once as a writer and a man of
action. Dr. S. Bernfeld also deserves mention, as the admirable
popularizer of the Science of Judaism, and an excellent historian, the
author of a history of Jewish theology recently published at Warsaw.

Among the latest claimants of public attention is M. J. Berditchevsky,
author of numerous tales bordering upon the decadent, but not wholly
bare of the spirit of poetry. David Neumark takes rank as a thinker.
Philology is worthily represented by Joshua Steinberg, author of a
scientific grammar on original lines, not yet known to the scholars of
Europe, and translator of the Sibylline books. [Footnote: _Ma'arke
Leshon Eber_ ("The Principles of the Hebrew Language"), Wilna, 1884,
etc.] Fabius Mises has published a history of modern philosophy in
Europe, and J. L. Katzenelenson is the author of a treatise on anatomy
and of a number of literary works acceptable to the public. Then there
are Leon Rabinovich, editor of _Ha-Meliz_, David Yellin, Lerner, A.
Kahana, and others.

The history of modern literature has found a worthy representative in
the person of Reuben Brainin, a master of style, himself the author of
popular tales. His remarkable studies of Mapu, Smolenskin, and other
writers, are conceived and executed according to the approved methods of
modern critics. They have done good work in refining the taste and
aesthetic feeling of the Hebrew-reading public.

All these, and a number of others, have given the Hebrew language an
assured place. To their original works must be added numberless
translations, text books, and editions of all sorts, and then we can
form a fair idea of the actual significance of Hebrew in its modern
development. In the number of publications, it ranks as the third
literature in Russia, the Russian and the Polish being the only ones
ahead of it, and no estimate of the influence it wields can afford to
leave out of account its vogue in Palestine, Austria, and America.

* * * * *


A glance at modern Hebrew literature as a whole reveals a striking
tendency in its development, at once unexpected and inevitable. The
humanist ideal, which stood sponsor at its rebirth, bore within itself a
germ of dissolution. For national and religious aims it desired to
substitute the idea of liberty and equality. Sooner or later it would
have had to end in assimilation. During the course of a whole century,
from the appearance of the first issue of _Ha-Meassef_, in 1784-5,
until the cessation of _Ha-Shahar_, in 1885, Hebrew literature
offers the spectacle of a constant conflict between the humanist ideals
and Judaism. In spite of obstacles of every kind, and in spite of the
dangerous rivalry of the European languages, the rivalry of the Jewish-
German itself, the Hebrew language has given proof of persistent
vitality, and displayed surprising power of adaptation to all sorts of
circumstances and all departments of literature, and widely separated
countries have been the scene of its development. So far as the earliest
humanists had planned, the Hebrew language was to serve only as an
instrument of propaganda and emancipation. Thanks to the efforts of
Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, Mendes, and Wessely, it rose for a brief moment
to the rank of a truly literary medium, very soon, however, to make way
for the languages of the various countries, while it receded to the
narrow confines provided by the Maskilim. Its final destiny was to be
decided in Slav lands. In Galicia, it gave birth, in the domain of
philosophy, to the ideal of the "mission of the Jewish people", and to
the "science of Judaism." But for the great mass of the Jews remaining
faithful to the Messianic ideal, what was of greatest significance was
the national and religious romanticism expounded by Samuel David

Lithuania, with its inexhaustible resources, moral and intellectual,
became the stronghold of Hebrew. In its double aspect as a humanistic
and a romantic force, Hebrew literature bounded forward on new paths
with the lustiness of youth. Before long, under the impetus of social
and economic reforms, the Hebrew writers declared war upon a Rabbinical
authority that rejected every innovation, and was opposed to all
progress. To meet the issue, the realistic literature came forward,
polemic and destructive in character. A pitiless combat ensued between
the humanists and Rabbinism, and the consequences were fateful for the
one party as well as the other. Rabbinism felt that its very essence had
been shaken, and that it was destined to disappear, at least in its
traditional form. Humanism, on the other side, startled out of its
dreams of justice and equality, lost ground, inch by inch, by reason of
having broken with the national hope of the people. The attempt made by
some writers to bring about the harmonization of religion and life
turned out a lamentable miscarriage. The antagonism between the literary
folk and the mass of believers ended in the breaking up of the whole
literature created by the humanists. At that moment the progressive
national movement made its appearance with Smolenskin, and supplied
Hebrew literature with a purpose and its civilizing mission.

The predominant note of contemporary Hebrew literature is the Zionist
ideal stripped of its mystical envelopes. It may be asserted that the
Messianic hope in this new form is in the act of producing a
transformation in Polish Hasidic surroundings, identical with that
achieved by humanism in Lithuania. The rabid opposition offered to
Hebrew literature by the Hasidim suffices to confirm this
prognostication of a dreaded result.

Also beyond the boundaries of the Slav countries, in the distant Orient,
the Hebrew lion is gaining territory, from Palestine to Morocco, and
wherever his foot treads, culture springs up and national regeneration.

* * * * *

Deep down in the sorely tried soul of the Jewish masses, there reposes a
fund of idealism, and ardent faith in a better future unshaken by time
or disappointments. Defraud them of the millennial ideal which sustains
their courage, which is the very cornerstone of their existence, and you
surrender them into the power of a dangerous despair, you push them into
the arms of the demoralization that lies in wait everywhere, and in some
countries has already come out in the open.

Hebrew literature, faithful to its Biblical mission, has within it the
power of replenishing the moral resources of the masses and making their
hearts thrill with enthusiasm for justice and the ideal. It is the focus
of the rays vivifying all that breathes, that struggles, that creates,
that hopes within the Jewish soul.

To misunderstand this moral bearing of the renascence of the Hebrew
language is to fail to know the very life of the better part of Judaism
and the Jew.

* * * * *

Literary creation is now at its full blossom, and the ferment of ideas
instilled from all sides is so powerful that an abundant harvest may be

And that Bible language which has given humanity so many glorious pages,
which has but now, thanks to the humanists, added a new page, is it
destined in very truth to be born anew, and become once more the
language of the national culture of the whole of the Jewish people? It
would be rash to reply with a categorical affirmative.

What has been proved in the foregoing pages is, we believe, that it
exists, and is developing both as a literary and a spoken language; that
it has shown itself to be the equal of the modern languages; that it is
capable of giving expression to all thoughts and all forms of human
activity; and, finally, that it is accomplishing a work of culture and
emancipation. The expansion of the language of the prophets taking place
under our eyes is a fact that cannot but fascinate every mind interested
in the mysterious evolution of the destinies of mankind in the direction
of the ideal.

Book of the day: