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Paperna, Avraham Ya‘akov

(1840–1919), Hebrew poet and critic. Avraham Ya‘akov Paperna was born in Kapolia (Kapyl), in the Minsk district of Russia, and was drawn to the Haskalah from an early age. In 1859, Paperna’s family moved to Bobruisk, and a year later he married. From 1862 to 1864, he studied at the rabbinical seminary in Zhitomir, and from 1864 to 1867 he was at the rabbinical seminary in Vilna. After teaching for a short time at a government school in Zakroczym, Poland (1868), he was appointed to teach religion at the government secondary school in Plotsk. During World War I, he fled to Bobruisk in 1915, and subsequently to Odessa, where he remained until his death.

Paperna’s work consisted primarily of poems and literary criticism. As a poet, he was neither recognized nor appreciated, despite the fact that his poetry is interesting, original, and worthy of attention. In “Emet ve-emunah” (Truth and Faith; 1863), which established his reputation as a Hebrew poet, he draws an analogy between truth and the sun (“light,” as something distant and sublime), and between faith and the moon (the latter symbolizing the dark, mysterious element of faith). In general, Paperna’s lyrical poetry is pessimistic, pondering the meaning of lives that consist primarily of toil and grief, with death offering the only refuge.

By contrast, Paperna’s satirical-allegorical poems contain fair shares of humor, irony, and social criticism. “Siḥat ḥayot ve-‘ofot” (A Conversation of Beasts and Fowl; 1893), for example, presents a dialogue between a young horse and its old father. The youngster enthuses about the accomplishments of Haskalah and “civilization,” while the father is realistic and critical. Paperna teaches that a horse (the common man) will always remain a horse, humiliated and exploited, even in a world of progress and emancipation.

Paperna also published a series of articles on literary criticism, titled Kankan ḥadash male’ yashan (A New Jug Filled with the Old; 1867). These essays enumerate what he feels are the shortcomings of contemporary Hebrew literature: excessively ornate prose; an overuse of rhyme; the domination of form over substance; and an absence of imagination and affinity to nature. Paperna examines various issues from a broad multidisciplinary perspective that is not merely aesthetic but also social, nationalistic, and didactic.

One essay, Ha-Deramah bi-khelal veha-‘ivrit bi-ferat (Drama in General and Hebrew [Drama] in Particular; 1867), triggered numerous responses, probably more than any other article by Paperna, and ultimately led to a prolonged public dispute with prominent contemporary playwrights, including Adam ha-Kohen (Avraham Dov Lebensohn). Paperna defines drama and its various subcategories (“Tragedy, Comedy, Vaudeville and the Like”), listing a number of prominent works of Hebrew (e.g., Melukhat Sha’ul [Saul’s Kingdom] by Yosef ha-Efrati). He devotes the bulk of his argument to allegorical drama, which, despite the successes of writers such as Mosheh Ḥayim Luzzatto, Paperna regards as an anachronistic genre.

Paperna was fully aware of his role as a critic. In a reply to his opponents, he stated that reserved, negative criticism is a necessity, intended to ensure appropriate standards for literature and the strict observance of aesthetic awareness and sensitivity.

Suggested Reading

Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 4, pp. 176–189 (Jerusalem, 1954); Morris Neiman, A Century of Modern Hebrew Literary Criticism, 1784–1884 (New York, 1983), pp. 175–204; Abraham Jacob Paperna, Kol ha-ketavim, ed. Yisra’el Zemorah (Tel Aviv, 1952); Iris Parush, “Tarbut ha-bikoret u-vikoret ha-tarbut: ‘Iyunim be-sifro shel A. Y. Papirna ‘Kankan ḥadash male’ yashan,’” Meḥkere Yerushalayim be-sifrut ‘ivrit 14 (1993): 197–239.



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann