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

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- Semitism.

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.

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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 style.

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 others.

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- Shahar.

* * * * *



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 life.

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 teacher...."

[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 table.

"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 obstacle.

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 society.

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 resources.

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 readers.

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 written.

* * * * *



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 Land.

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, 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 modernization.

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 known.

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, 1899-1901.]

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 Luzzatto.

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 expected.

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.


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