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Feitelson, Menaḥem Mendel

(1870–1912), Hebrew literary critic. Born in a village in Crimea, Menaḥem Feitelson received a traditional and secular education from his father, a maskil who worked as a melamed. In 1884, while still an adolescent, Feitelson published articles and impressions in the local press. He then turned to literary criticism as the main focus of his writings. Feitelson’s most significant early essays were about Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh; 1891) and Ben-Avigdor (Avraham Leib Shalkovich; 1893). In 1891, he issued his only published book, a booklet titled Meḥkarim be-divre yeme Yisra’el (Studies on Jewish History). At various points he lived in Melitopol, Ukraine, as well as in Galicia and Austria.

After 1893, having failed to pass university entrance examinations, Feitelson spent a decade becoming self-educated. He moved to Ekaterinoslav and resumed his literary activities in 1904, and for the remaining eight years of his life published approximately 20 articles, the topics of which included studies of prominent living writers (Y. L. Peretz, Perets Smolenskin, Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski, Zalman Shneour, Sholem Asch, Dovid Pinski, and Hersh Dovid Nomberg); book reviews; and essays on general literary topics (for example, “Ha-Ishah ha-mishtaḥreret be-sifrutenu” [The Liberated Woman in Our Literature]; 1905).

Feitelson’s efforts to settle permanently in either Warsaw or Odessa met with failure mainly because influential writers were hostile toward him after having been targets of his criticism. This ostracism, coupled with various other personal problems, eventually led to his suicide. In 1914, Fishel Lachower compiled a selection of his articles into a single volume. More than half a century later, A. B. Yoffe published a more comprehensive volume (1970).

Feitelson’s writings were heavily influenced by Russian positivist criticism, which emphasized literature’s public mission and its social and educational benefits. Accordingly, he charged contemporary writers with the task of providing guidance to their readers on public and national issues rather than devoting themselves to art for art’s sake, or for the expression of individual emotions. Trying to decipher the personalities of writers by looking into their social background, Feitelson held the opinion that the “inferiority” of Hebrew and Yiddish literature in relation to other examples of European literature was a consequence of traditional inherited suffering (sevel ha-yerushah) that stunted the growth of great artists in the Jewish Pale of Settlement.

Despite his tough ideological stance, Feitelson’s reviews of literary works were suffused with an aesthetic and spiritual sensitivity. This sensitivity allowed him to be swept away by the lyrical foundations of Berdyczewski’s stories, and to recognize the importance of emotional and implausible imagery in the Hasidic short story. Moreover, his essays leave the reader with the overwhelming impression that he regarded literature as crucial to the continued survival of the Jewish people, and for that reason considered the job of a literary critic to be essential.

While Feitelson’s contemporaries respected his seriousness as well as his impartiality, they recoiled from the wrathful tone that characterized his articles. The significance of Feitelson’s work derives from his position as virtually the only professional literary critic of the generation that immediately followed the maskilic period. Indeed, his review essays have been noted for their outstanding rational arguments, and for their lucid style.

Suggested Reading

Nathan Goren, “M. M. Faitelson,” in Mevakrim be-sifrutenu, pp. 59–68 (Tel Aviv, 1943/44); Nisson Touroff (Nisan Turov), “M. M. Faitelson,” in Be‘ayot ha-hit’abdut, pp. 280–288 (Tel Aviv, 1952/53); A. B. Yafeh, “M. M. Faitelson: Ha-Mevaker ha-nishkaḥ,” in Beḥinot ve-ha‘arakhot: Mivḥar ketavim, by Menaḥem Mendel Feitelsohn, pp. 5–24 (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1970).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler