“Portraits of the Great Poets of Israel.” Commercially produced lithograph based on an illustration printed in the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Asif, 1886. (1) Mikhah Yosef Lebensohn, (2) Yehudah Leib Gordon, (3) Naftali Herts Wessely, (4) Adam ha-Kohen (Avraham Dov Lebensohn), and (5) Avraham Ber Gottlober. (YIVO)

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Gottlober, Avraham Ber

(1811–1899), maskil, poet, translator, historian, and publicist. Born in Starokonstantinov, Volhynia guberniia, Avraham Ber Gottlober married the daughter of a Hasidic family at the age of 14. With the encouragement and guidance of his father, and notwithstanding his attraction to Hasidism, he showed an interest in Jewish philosophical and Haskalah literature, along with Hebrew grammar, while still quite young.

In 1828, Gottlober traveled with his father to Satanov, Tarnopol, and Brody, where he grew acquainted with some of the leading maskilim of Galicia (including Yosef Perl and Betsal’el Stern). When his Haskalah tendencies were revealed, he was forced to divorce his wife. He remarried, but this marriage, too, ended after a short time.

In 1830, Gottlober became a wanderer, staying for short periods in Odessa, Kishinev, Kremenets, Dubno, Mezhirichi, Warsaw, and Berdichev, often working as a tutor. His encounters with the maskilim of the region (Simḥah Pinsker, Eliyahu Frankel, Yehudah Ke’ari, and others) and with a wide variety of literary works contributed to shaping his worldview as a follower of the Haskalah, as well as to fashioning his literary inclinations. While in Odessa he became acquainted with members of the local Karaite community, and through them was introduced to their culture’s literature.

In 1834 Gottlober married again. While residing in Kremenets, he came to know the Haskalah thinker Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon. In 1836, he continued his wandering, from 1838 to 1844 living in Mogilev-Podolski and then wandering yet again. He came back to Mogilev-Podolski in 1851 when he was offered a teaching position. In 1855, he returned to his birthplace, Starokonstantinov, and taught there until 1865. From 1865 to 1873, he taught Talmud at the Zhitomir Rabbinical Seminary; when this institution was closed he resumed his itinerant lifestyle, seeking subscribers for his books and in 1878 moving to Romania for this purpose. His main residences during this time were in Dubno (at the home of his daughter), Rivne, and Białystok. Pogroms in southern Russia in 1881 shook Gottlober’s belief in the possibility of Jewish integration into Russian society. He joined the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement and began to express his views in his poetry.

While still quite young, Gottlober gained prominence as a central figure in early circles promoting the Haskalah in the Russian Empire. He associated with a network of maskilim through his many travels. But because of Gottlober’s difficult and contentious personality, his relationships with many of his colleagues, such as Perets Smolenskin and Re’uven Asher Braudes, were difficult and complicated. Gottlober fought for his opinions and positions and had no compunctions about using harsh words in debates with his rivals.

Gottlober expressed his views as a maskil in a wide variety of literary genres, in both Hebrew and Yiddish, the most prominent being poetry. His poems were published in the collections Pirḥe ha-aviv (1837) and Ha-Nitsanim (1851) and, much later, in Kol shire Mahalal’el (1890). These works dealt with a variety of topics—as was typical of poetry collections by nineteenth-century maskilim—and included nature poems, eulogies, wedding and birthday poems, poems of gratitude and praise to generous donors, and tombstone epitaphs, along with verses about the Jewish people and assimilation, Enlightenment and the struggles over it in the Jewish community, and emigration to America. Like many of his maskil colleagues, Gottlober also published collections of poems praising the Russian royal family: ‘Anaf ‘ets ‘avot (1858), Mizmor le-todah (1866), and Rane falet (1879).

While some maskilim at the time did not attribute much importance to Gottlober’s poetry, others held his compositions in very high esteem. Gottlober’s popularity may be deduced from the prepublication subscription lists (prenumeranten in Yiddish) that appeared on the title pages of his books. Judging by the number of subscribers and their geographical dispersion, he was indeed popular: 766 persons from 19 different communities—from Odessa in the south to Vilna in the north—subscribed to Ha-Nitsanim. Nevertheless, as the literary historian Joseph Klausner stated, Gottlober was “a poet for his age rather than a poet for the ages” (Klausner, 1955, p. 324).

Gottlober wrote in various genres in Yiddish, including poetry, a play, fables, and a memior (Zikhroynes vegen yudishe shrayber; 1888). Much of his work was parodic, such as Dos lid funem kugl (1863), or satirical, such as “Der gilgul” (1871).

Gottlober also published Hebrew short stories: “Kol rinah vi-yeshu‘ah be-ohole tsadikim” (1975), “Hizaharu bi-vene ha-‘aniyim” (1880), and “Orot me-ofel” (1881). His stories commonly focused on issues that agitated the Jewish communities he was familiar with: unequal distribution of the burden of the Russian military draft, and obstacles in the way of youth who hoped to explore the Enlightenment. Gottlober also published a play, Tif’eret li-vene binah (1867).

Gottlober’s proficiency in various languages (including Russian and German) enabled him to translate poetry and prose into Hebrew. Among the works he translated were Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise; 1874) and Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem (1867). In his poetry anthologies, Gottlober also incorporated translations of poems from German and Russian, including German poets such as Schiller and Goethe.

Gottlober was one of the first maskilim of his time to write about Jewish history. His initial book in this field was Bikoret le-toldot ha-Kara’im (Critique of the History of the Karaites; 1865). Several years later, his Toldot ha-Kabalah veha-ḥasidut (History of the Kabbalah and Hasidism; 1869) appeared. His inclination was to deal with social and intellectual history, a topic that found expression in his autobiographical works: Zikhronot mi-yeme ne‘urai, meshulavim ‘im zikhronot ha-dor (Memoirs from the Days of My Youth, Joined with Memoirs of the Generation; 1880) and Zikhronot le-korot Haskalat ‘amenu be-artsenu erets Rusya’ (Memoirs of the History of the Enlightenment of Our People in Our Land, the Land of Russia; 1884). In 1867, Gottlober began planning the publication of a history of Jews in the southwest Russian Empire, based on communal registers and the records of local societies.

Gottlober also often published in the Hebrew press, with his articles appearing in such periodicals as Kokheve Yitsḥak and Ha-Asif, and in the newspapers Ha-Magid, Ha-Melits, Ha-Shaḥar, and Ha-Ḥavatselet. In 1876, after a dispute with the editor of Ha-Shaḥar, Perets Smolenskin, Gottlober launched publication of the monthly Ha-Boker or, which served as the main platform for his writings until 1881. He was assisted in editing this periodical by Braudes and others. The monthly’s stance, as fashioned by Gottlober, was that of classical Haskalah, which dictated both its format and content. Like most Haskalah periodicals and newspapers of the time, Ha-Boker or’s contents included poetry and prose literature, popular science, feature articles, and literary criticism. It served as a platform for maskilim of Gottlober’s generation, such as Eli‘ezer Zweifel and Ze’ev Kaplan, as well as for maskilim of the second and third generations, including Naḥum Me’ir Shaikovits, Shelomoh Mandelkern, Y. L. Peretz, David Frishman, Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim), and Pesaḥ Roderman.

Because of the wide range of his activities, his proficiency in various languages, his diversified fields of interest, and his educational, literary, and journalistic activities—and because during his long lifetime he was acquainted with most of its major figures—Gottlober personified the Jewish Enlightenment of Eastern Europe more than any other East European maskil of his time. Despite his sharp criticism of various aspects of the life of traditional Jewish society, his roots remained deeply implanted in the world of that society. At the same time, he attached great importance to imparting the Haskalah heritage to the younger generation—and indeed, some of his disciples, among them Abramovitsh and Re’uven Kulisher, played important roles in shaping Jewish culture in the Russian Empire during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Suggested Reading

Shmuel Feiner, Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness, trans. Chaya Naor and Sondra Silverton (Oxford and Portland, Ore., 2002); Isaac Fridkin, Avrom-Ber Gotlober un zayn epokhe, 2 vols. (Vilna, 1925–1927); Reuven Goldberg, “Mavo’,” in Zikhronot u-masa‘ot, by Abraham Baer Gottlober, vol. 1, pp. 7–50 (Jerusalem, 1976); Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘Ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 5, pp. 286–344 (Jerusalem, 1955); Yair Mazor, Panim u-megamot ba-mivneh shel ha-poetikah ba-siporet ha-‘Ivrit ha-realistit ba-tekufat ha-Haskalah (Tel Aviv, 1981); Puah Shalev-Toren, A. B. Gotlober vi-yetsirato ha-piyutit (Tel Aviv, 1958); Arn Tseytlin (Arn Zeitlin), “Di yidish-yerushe fun di tsvey Haskole-shraybers: Y. L. Gordon un A. B. Gotlober,” YIVO-bleter 36 (1952): 99–112; Mordekhai Zalkin, Ba-‘Alot ha-shaḥar (Jerusalem, 2000); Israel Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, vol. 9, Hasidism and Enlightenment, trans. and ed. Bernard Martin (Cleveland, Ohio, 1976).



Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson