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Bick, Ya‘akov Shemu’el

(1772–1831), Hebrew writer, satirist, translator, and merchant. Ya‘akov Shemu’el Bick was one of the most prominent figures in the first generation of Galician maskilim but was eventually drawn to Hasidism. He was born in Brody in eastern Galicia, a major commercial town that became famous, in those years, as a focal point in the conflict between Hasidism and its opponents.

The Bick family, one of the most respected and privileged in Galicia, had extensive trade connections throughout Europe, and young Ya‘akov Shemu’el soon was involved in the family business. At the same time, he studied languages and acquired extensive general knowledge in addition to his traditional Jewish education. Bick, who lived in Brody for most of his life, was closely associated with prominent Galician maskilim, including Naḥman Krochmal, Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport, and Dov Ber Gintsburg, and was regarded as a prominent student of Menaḥem Mendel Lefin of Satanów, who lived in Brody for a few years.

In 1817, Bick published a Hebrew periodical titled ‘Olat Shabat, which was distributed in handwritten form and included contributions from prominent maskilim of his generation. He also contributed to the single issue of Me’ir Letteris’s periodical Ha-Tsefirah, writing a historiosophic article “El maskile bene ‘amenu” (To the Enlightened among Our People; 1823), on the place of Jewish society among the nations. Bick advocated, among other things, the promotion of wisdom, learning, and education in Galicia and stressed the importance of labor and agriculture.

Bick translated English and French poetry into Hebrew, and these translations were published in Bikure ha-‘itim. He wrote several biographies, notably those of Menaḥem Mendel Lefin, Efrayim Zalman Margoliot (the chief rabbi of Brody), Yehudah Leib ben Ze’ev (of the Berlin maskilim), and others, references to which were found in his draft notebook. Additionally, he wrote satirical skits about Hasidism and the Hasidic world. The sparseness of his surviving writings is in no way indicative of a small body of work, however. Bick was a pillar of the first generation of Galician maskilim; he managed to assemble around him a large circle of students, members of the wealthiest Jewish families of Brody and graduates of the Brody Natural Sciences Secondary School. Unfortunately, the fire that consumed large parts of Brody in 1835 also destroyed the bulk of Bick’s manuscripts. Some letters that survived the fire were later published in Kerem ḥemed. Among other material that did not perish were his draft notebook and a few manuscripts that are available at Yosef Perl’s archive, such as Bick’s satire “Ḥezyone hitul” (Jest Visions), which was published in 1954 by Dov Sadan.

The issue of Bick’s ambivalent feelings toward Hasidism, which ultimately led him to abandon the Haskalah camp, is one of the most interesting stories in the history of early Haskalah in Eastern Europe. Originally Bick, as was the case with most of his fellow maskilim, regarded Hasidism as a pernicious influence in Jewish society. This attitude was reflected in his outspokenly anti-Hasidic notes and satires (including the above-mentioned “Ḥezyone hitul” in the early 1820s). At the same time, he was deeply interested in Hasidism and eager to acquire its literature.

In 1815, Bick was involved in a debate regarding Lefin’s controversial translation of the Book of Proverbs into Yiddish. (Lefin had translated parts of the Bible in order to make it more accessible to the masses.) Bick defended his mentor, formulating a principled stand that was sympathetic to Yiddish as a language and symbol for the masses and defying the dominant maskilic view that emphasized the exclusive use of Hebrew. This debate marked the beginning of a gradual change in Bick’s views on Hasidism and the widening of his ideological rifts with the Haskalah. Bick accused the maskilim of proclaiming tolerance while fueling divisiveness and agitation within Jewish society, and he demanded that they include Hasidism in their implementation of the concept of tolerance. Bick regarded the Hasidim as an integral part of the Jewish people and opposed the coercive measures initiated by such maskilim as Yosef Perl and Yehudah Leib Mieses, who approached the authorities to complain against Hasidim.

In the mid-1820s, Bick’s ostentatious displays of sympathy to Hasidism and the dispute between him and his fellow maskilim reached a peak, and he abandoned the Haskalah camp, leaving behind confusion, discontent, and resentment. At the same time, it is not absolutely clear whether Bick actually became a Hasid, and there is no direct evidence regarding his actual connections with the world of Hasidism.

Bick devoted the last years of his life to public and community work in his hometown, Brody, becoming a prominent public figure and a respected community leader. He worked tirelessly and faithfully on behalf of his community during the days of the severe cholera epidemic that devastated Brody in 1831—an epidemic that eventually claimed his own life as well.

Suggested Reading

Ḥayim Shalom Ha-Levi, “Ya‘akov Shemu’el Bik,” Sinai 63 (1968): 252–279; Ephraim Kupfer, “Ya‘akov Shemu’el Bik le-or te‘udot ḥadashot,” Gal-Ed 4–5 (1978): 535–547; Samuel Werses, “Yankev Shmuel Bik, der blondzhendiker maskil,” YIVO-bleter 13.7–8 (November–December 1938): 505–536; Samuel Werses, “Ha-Nusaḥ ha-mekori ha-bilti yadu‘a shel igeret Shemu’el Ya‘akov Bik el Tuvyah Feder,” Kiryat sefer 58.1 (1983): 170–187; Samuel Werses, “Ben shene ‘olamot: Ya‘akov Shemu’el Bik ben ha-haskalah la-ḥasidut—Le-‘iyun me-ḥadash,” Gal-Ed 9 (1986): 27–76.



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann