Avraham Mapu. Print by W. Boharski, Russia. (YIVO)

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Mapu, Avraham

(1808–1867), key figure in the Russian Haskalah movement, and the first Hebrew novelist. Avraham Mapu was born in Slobodka (near Kovno) to a Misnaged family of Torah scholars, and the only formal schooling he received was a broad Jewish education that inevitably shaped his use of the Hebrew language. Later, though, he taught himself German, Latin, Russian, and French.

After his marriage at the age of 17, Mapu became a teacher and moved among several Lithuanian towns—Georgenberg, Rossyieny, Vilna, and Kovno. Under the influence of Shneur Zaks (1816–1892) and other maskilim in Rossyieny he started to write Hebrew prose and began a novel, Shulamit, which was never completed but set the tone for his first published work, Ahavat Tsiyon (The Love of Zion; 1853). Four years later he published the first part of the novel ‘Ayit tsavu‘a (The Hypocrite; 1857; the other sections were published in 1861 and in 1864) and completed the manuscript for Part 1 of Ḥoze ḥezyonot (Seers). This manuscript was banned by the Russian censors and was not published until 1869, when it appeared as an addendum to the complete volume of ‘Ayit tsavu‘a. Mapu also published two children’s textbooks for teaching languages: Ḥinukh la-no‘ar (Educate the Child; 1859) for teaching Hebrew, and Der Hausfranzose (The French Home; 1859), written in German in Hebrew characters, for teaching French.

Writing was difficult for Mapu during the last years of his life because of ailments and the death of his beloved second wife. Nevertheless he continued to write and to publish, adding the concluding parts to ‘Ayit tsavu‘a and publishing a new novel, Ashmat Shomron (The Guilt of Samaria; published in two parts in 1865 and 1866). He also published a Hebrew textbook, Amon pedagog (Pedagogic Training; 1867).

Though Mapu did not write any essays on literary criticism, his opinions on literature were articulated in his letters to contemporary maskilim and to his brother Matityahu. His collected letters (published by Ben Zion Dinur, 1970) not only reveal much of his personal life (his relationship with his brother, his wife, his children, and his colleagues) but also offer insights into his opinions on writing and literature.

Ahavat Tsiyon, ‘Ayit tsavu‘a, and Ashmat Shomron were pivotal works of maskilic fiction. They ingeniously incorporated Hebrew literary developments that had preceded his era, and they served as prototypes for later writers. In these novels traditional biblical sources were interwoven with European literary influences. One major influence of that sort was the prose-romance genre, which gained a tremendous popularity in Europe with the appearance of Eugène Sue’s Les mystères de Paris (The Mysteries of Paris; 1857–1860).

The conventions of the prose romance distanced Mapu’s fiction from the reality of his times. This was because it dictated not only the basic lines of the story’s plot (such as the adventurous journey undertaken by the protagonist and the central love story) but also because instead of focusing on reality, it personified conflicts within the human soul. The protagonists in Mapu’s novels are therefore deliberately portrayed unrealistically (“larger than life”). Their personal struggles embody humankind’s central dilemmas.

Ahavat Tsiyon and Ashmat Shomron seem to be especially detached from East European Jewry of Mapu’s time, as they are set in biblical Israel. However, Mapu draws a bold comparison between the struggles and ideals of both periods. While focusing on the persistent human conflict between truth and hypocrisy, he creates a profile of the perfect protagonist, who is constructed as a maskil. Moreover, his utopian depiction of Jewish life in ancient Israel forcefully underscores Jewry’s miserable existence in Eastern Europe.

Both these literary works, and particularly the enormously popular Ahavat Tsiyon, which was translated into several languages, made an indelible impression upon contemporary maskilim. In these epics, young readers discovered an alternative Jewish society, and many longed to be able to imitate the lives of the fictional heroes. The descriptions of life in ancient Israel, which interweave passages of recent works (primarily Shelomoh Lewison’s Meḥkere arets (Studies of the Land; 1819) with biblical verses, exerted an especially profound effect. Even though Mapu did not visit Palestine, his vivid and accurate images of that land made readers yearn for the life of an independent nation in its own country. Indeed, many early Zionists traced their ideological zeal to Mapu’s writings.

In ‘Ayit tsavu‘a, Mapu changed course and described contemporary Jewish life. Although this novel too is formulated in accordance with the romance model of “larger than life” protagonists and conflicts, its descriptions are closer to the actual life of Lithuanian Jewry at the end of the 1850s. It contains vivid images of various personalities who inhabited that world: the honest Torah scholar and his nemesis, the scholar impersonator; the rich merchant and his opposite, the pauper; the sly innkeeper; the beautiful and educated rich heiress; and of course the heroic maskil. The plot also includes detailed accounts of typical social activities that reflect the changes then taking place: a description of maskilim spending an evening at the theater; Jews celebrating a Passover Seder in a wealthy home; a group of pretentious Torah scholars getting together at a local inn; and theatrical productions at the residence of an aristocrat. This portrait does not merely reflect the current state of affairs but also sharply criticizes the conservatism of society, on the one hand, and false Haskalah, on the other. However, Mapu’s criticism of contemporary Lithuanian Jewish society is by no means radical; essentially, he remains loyal to traditional society, which he seeks to correct rather than abandon or destroy.

Since Mapu’s literary works were the first of their kind and written so powerfully, they became the prototype on which maskilim of the following generation modeled their own fictional prose, even when making a conscious effort to liberate their prose from his influences. This was especially so because of his linguistic breakthrough, which took full advantage of the possibilities offered by biblical Hebrew. Israel’s ancient language, he demonstrated, need no longer be the exclusive province of high poetry, as had been the case during the previous generation of maskilic poets. It could be equally suitable for writing modern fictional prose. This development enabled Hebrew maskilic fiction to flourish throughout the 1860s and the 1870s. It also accelerated Hebrew’s adaptation to modern life, which in turn made it easier for the new immigrants to early twentieth-century Palestine to substitute modern colloquial Hebrew for Yiddish as their vernacular.

Suggested Reading

Tova Cohen, Me-Ḥalom li-metsi’ut: Erets Yisra’el be-sifrut ha-haskalah (Ramat Gan, 1982); Tova Cohen, Tsevu‘im vi-yesharim, elilot ve-liliyot: ‘Iyunim bi-yetsiroto shel Avraham Mapu (Tel Aviv, 1990); Tova Cohen, “Ha-Aḥat ahuvah veha-aḥat senu’ah”: Ben metsi’ut le-bidyon be-te’urei ha-ishah be-sifrut ha-haskalah (Jerusalem, 2002); Ben Zion Dinur, Mikhteve Avraham Mapu (Jerusalem, 1970); Yosef Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 3 (Jerusalem, 1953); Dan Miron, Ben ḥazon le-emet: Nitsane ha-roman ha-‘ivri veha-yidi ba-me‘ah ha-tesha‘ esreh (Jerusalem, 1979); David Patterson, Abraham Mapu (London, 1964); Shemu’el Verses (Samuel Werses), Sipur ve-shorsho: ‘Iyunim be-hitpatḥut ha-prozah ha-‘ivrit (Ramat Gan, 1971); Shemu’el Verses (Samuel Werses), “Zeman u-merḥav ba-roman ‘Ayit Tsavu‘a shel Mapu,” Te‘udah 5 (1986): 165–183.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler