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Epstein, Zalman

(1860–1936), essayist and Zionist activist. Zalman Epstein was born in Lubań, in the Minsk district of Russia. During his adolescence he studied at the Volozhin yeshiva. At age 16, he moved with his family to Odessa, where he acquired a secular education but was not admitted to the university. Though he enjoyed a very fruitful literary career, he drew his main source of income from his lifelong work as a bookkeeper and merchant.

Epstein published his first essays, on Jewish nationalism, in 1879 in the Hebrew journals Ha-Kol, Ha-Melits, Ha-Tsefirah, and Ha-Boker or. His literary career began in earnest in 1882 with a series of essays on Ḥibat Tsiyon (Love of Zion) that appeared in Ha-Melits. In 1889, he was among the founders of the secret Zionist society Bene Mosheh (The Sons of Moses), headed by Ahad Ha-Am, and between 1890 and 1900 he served as the general secretary of the Odessa Ḥoveve Tsiyon (Lovers of Zion) society. Aside from his long-term association with Ha-Melits and Ha-Tsefirah, Epstein was also a regular contributor to the monthly Ha-Shiloaḥ and to other Hebrew journals. He also published in Yiddish and Russian, and in 1904 moved to Saint Petersburg to edit the Yiddish daily, Der tog.

Epstein was also very active in Hebrew education and in projects to rejuvenate the Hebrew language. In 1911, he helped establish the first Hebrew-language kindergarten and elementary school in Russia. Located in Kalinkowicz in the Minsk region, the school functioned for two years.

In 1925, Epstein escaped Soviet Russia and moved to Palestine. After failing in his attempts to earn a living in the clerical and commercial fields, he turned to writing, thanks to the efforts of Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik. Epstein was commissioned, for example, to write a monograph on Mosheh Leib Lilienblum (1935). At the same time, he contributed regularly to the Ha-Arets newspaper. A small selection of his articles have been published in two volumes, the first, Kitve Zalman Epshtayn (The Writings of Zalman Epstein; 1905) during his lifetime and the second, with the same title, two years after his death.

Epstein accurately described his own writing as reflecting “the mental disposition of the Hebrew man of the intermediate generation, with one foot placed firmly inside the ‘Pale’ and the other foot already marching in the outside world.” His essays of the 1880s and 1890s do indeed reflect the complex emotions of his contemporaries and the tensions of that period of historical and literary transition. The articles contain fond reminiscences of the Torah-traditional world along with calls to abandon religious texts for the sake of contact with nature. He also wrote essays on great Russian writers (including Tolstoy and Turgenev); showed deep appreciation for the creators of Hebrew literature from the Haskalah period and beyond (Yehudah Leib Gordon, Kalman Schulman, Mendele Moykher-Sforim); created portraits of personalities and institutions that were in the very heart of traditional Jewish society (the Gaon of Vilna; Volozhin yeshiva); and provided perceptive insights into the new Hebrew literature of the early twentieth century, which he defended from the criticisms of Ahad Ha-Am.

What most impressed Epstein’s contemporaries, however, were the autobiographical chapters that he published beginning in 1885 under the title Mi-Sefer ha-zikhronot li-Shelomoh ha-Elkoshi (Memoirs of Solomon Alkushi). In these chapters he depicts his experiences of childhood in the shtetl, using a richly lyrical though realistic style that had a profound impact on later poets and prose writers (Bialik, Mordekhai Ze’ev Feierberg, Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski, Yosef Ḥayim Brenner, Ya‘akov Fichmann), as they themselves testified.

Suggested Reading

Jacob Fichman, “Zalman ‘Epshtain,” in Kitve Zalman ‘Epshtain, pp. 8–16 (Tel Aviv, 1938); David Tidhar, “Zalman Epshtain,” in Entsiklopedyah la-ḥalutse ha-yishuv u-vonav, vol. 2, pp. 799–800 (Tel Aviv, 1947).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler