Title page of Mistere Pariz (Paris Mysteries), translated by Kalman Schulman (Vilna: Romm Press, 1858). This Hebrew translation of Eugène Sue’s Mystères de Paris enjoyed great popularity and was reprinted many times. (YIVO)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the


Hebrew Prose

Page 2 of 3:
1 | 2 | 3

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, shortly after the focal point of maskilic literature had shifted from Central to Eastern Europe, modern Hebrew fiction was invented in Galicia. This unprecedented event sprang from a literary void: creative fiction writing—unknown in Hebrew literature for generations—had been replaced by the folk story in all its various incarnations. During the course of the eighteenth century, Germany’s producers of maskilic Hebrew literature focused energy on cultivating the poem, the biblical epic, the allegory, and the lyrical drama, using models from traditional Hebrew and modern European literature as sources of inspiration. These writers resisted the urge to try their hands at belles lettres, however, even though they were intimately familiar with outstanding examples of contemporary European short stories and novels. They justified their resistance on two grounds: Hebrew literature was not meant to give concrete prosaic expression to present realities; and the linguistic tools then available were inadequate for this task. Indeed, the history of 120 years of Hebrew fiction in Eastern Europe may be described as a continuing struggle over the capacity of Hebrew—a language that was not used in daily conversation—to be able to depict landscapes, society, characters, spoken dialogue, and internal monologues, and to be able to create imaginary worlds representing reality in a satisfactory and credible manner.

Title page of Boḥen tsadik (Investigating a Righteous Man), by Yosef Perl (Prague: M. J. Landau, 1838). (YIVO)

Just as the East European Haskalah movement owed much of its origins to bitter clashes with the Hasidic movement, so too did the first type of Hebrew maskilic fiction owe its origins to the struggle against the genre of the Hasidic tale, and in fact began as a satirical parody of the style and content of that genre. Indeed, the publication of Yosef Perl’s satire Megaleh temirin (Revealer of Secrets; 1819) was a literary milestone. Perl, who came from Tarnopol, and who was thus intimately familiar with the customs and teachings of Hasidism, attacked the style by exploiting its peculiarities, which he did ingeniously by mimicking the literary conventions of collections of Hasidic stories about tsadikim (masters), the most famous of which was Shivḥe ha-Besht (Praises of the Besht [Ba‘al Shem Tov]). Perl’s book presents correspondence purportedly exchanged between various Hasidim who are principally concerned with locating and destroying a tome that denounced them to the authorities. Using his great descriptive and linguistic skill, Perl exposes what he regarded as a vile and repulsive Hasidic belief and custom. Perl’s second satirical work, Boḥen tsadik (Examiner of a Tsadik; 1838) is even more crucial to the development of the Hebrew short story, as his text does not focus exclusively upon Hasidim and their masters but is in fact a journey through Jewish society as a whole, featuring a host of characters that includes merchants and artisans, rabbis and maskilim, innkeepers, and farmers.

The trend of writing satire continued in the works of another Galician writer, Yitsḥak Erter, particularly in his story “Gilgul nefesh” (Transmigration of a Soul; 1845). Through its descriptions of various reincarnations of a Jewish soul passing from one body to the next, the piece presents a kaleidoscopic portrait of Jewish archetypes, including the Hasid, the cantor, the customs official, the kabbalist, the Hasidic tsadik, the doctor, the undertaker, and the self-important man. Though the story is presented through the distorted prism of satire, it introduces a narrative-descriptive panorama whose influence can be seen in the next generation’s maskilic works of Hebrew fiction.

In addition to the foundation laid by Perl and Erter, mention must be made of other pioneering attempts at developing Hebrew prose in Galicia: Menaḥem Mendel Lefin’s Mas‘ot ha-yam (Sea Voyages; 1818), a translation-adaptation from the German of Joachim Campe’s books on the journeys of the world’s greatest explorers, notable for its fascinating content and for its rich and lucid Hebrew style; Shimshon Halevi Bloch’s geographic work Shevile ‘olam (The World’s Pathways; 1822 on), which appealed to readers more for its wonderful stories about faraway countries than for the theoretical and factual information that it contained; and the short stories of Naftali Keller (1834–1865), the Tarnów native whose works were collected after his death.

Though this type of fictional writing certainly set a precedent, it nevertheless constituted no more than a random set of tentative steps toward the founding of a permanent Hebrew prose tradition, the beginnings of which may be traced to the mid-nineteenth century, when Galicia ceded its position at the center of Hebrew maskilic literature to Lithuania. The new situation was signaled by the appearance of the first Hebrew novel, Ahavat Tsiyon (Love of Zion; 1853), by Avraham Mapu. This novel enchanted readers with its variegated pastoral descriptions of its setting—the Land of Israel—and with its rich and versatile biblical language. More than anything else its readers were drawn, so it appears, to the entangled plot, to the good and bad characters that confronted them, and to the anticipated ending that sees the two lovers, Amnon and Tamar, reunite. Ahavat Tsiyon provided the Hebrew reader with a tension-filled and exciting story modeled on the sentimental nineteenth-century European novel of intrigue. (Proof of the popularity of the European formula was the extraordinary success of Kalman Schulman’s Hebrew translation of Eugène Sue’s Mystères de Paris [Paris Mysteries]. First published in 1857, the work sold thousands of copies.)

Mapu himself regarded his novels primarily as a means of healing the exilic Jewish soul by reconnecting it with its glorious national past, and by refining the aesthetic tastes of his readers. In this spirit he composed his second novel, Ashmat Shomron (The Guilt of Samaria; 1865–1866), which, though also set in the First Jewish Commonwealth era, was much more dense and complex than its predecessor. Mapu had achieved another breakthrough with his novel ‘Ayit tsavu‘a (The Hypocrite; 1857), the first Hebrew novel to be set in contemporary Lithuania, which presented the maskilic message in the form of an exaggerated melodramatic confrontation between hypocritical sinners and pure saints. The appearance of ‘Ayit tsavu‘a stoked the flames of a debate over the genre of the novel between conservative critics such as Eli‘ezer Zweifel and Adam ha-Kohen (Avraham Dov Lebensohn), both of whom regarded the novel on moral and on aesthetic grounds as an alien genre that endangered Hebrew literature, and defenders of the new genre, including Avraham Uri Kovner and the young Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim), who saw the fictionalizing of realistic characters as essential to any literature worthy of the name.

Postcard celebrating Hebrew authors Perets Smolenskin (center) and (clockwise from top left) Shelomoh Mandelkern, Mordekhai Tsevi Mane, Avraham Ber Gottlober, and Avraham Shalom Friedberg. Publisher unknown, Russian Empire. (YIVO)

Another significant contribution of the Lithuanian center toward the development of Hebrew belles lettres was the literary autobiography, beginning with Mordekhai Aharon Gintsburg’s Avi‘ezer (its first few chapters published in 1844; issued as a complete volume in 1863/64), followed by Mosheh Leib Lilienblum’s Ḥat’ot Ne‘urim (Sins of Youth; 1876). Both books trace the formative path traveled by the Hebrew maskil who has become alienated from traditional Jewish society; both contain intimate confessions and revelations of convincing authenticity and realistic detail; and both convey the power of their experiences through the medium of a fictionalized account.

After the debate over the novel as a genre subsided by the mid-1860s, the realistic Hebrew novel in Eastern Europe had become an established genre. Its content and structure was determined in Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh’s Limdu hetev (Learn to Do Good; 1862; an expanded version in 1868 was titled Ha-Avot veha-banim [Fathers and Sons]). The first principle of its storyline—the interweaving of romantic melodrama with maskilic struggle, and the identification of ideological confrontation with the generational divide—was emulated by two principal novelists of that generation: Perets Smolenskin in Kevurat ḥamor (A Donkey’s Burial; 1874), and Re’uven Asher Braudes in Ha-Dat veha-ḥayim (Religion and Life; 1876–1878). Along with the novel, the fictional short story began to make an appearance; it too was based almost completely upon the maskilic struggle with tradition. Its chief creators included Yehudah Leib Gordon, Mordekhai David Brandstetter, Ayzik Meyer Dik, and Avraham Ber Gottlober.

By the 1880s, the great maskilic storytellers (Smolenskin, Braudes, and Gordon) had reached the end of their careers, thus completing that particular period of Hebrew literature. Nonetheless, their signature style continued to exist and even flourish until at least the end of the nineteenth century through popular media that catered to conservative tastes. Among these were sentimental adventure stories (from writers such as Yisra’el Weisbrem, Y. Y. Sirkis, Sarah Foner-Meinkin, N. M. Shaykevich), or Jewish-themed historical novels that were mainly translations and adaptations of the works of Ludwig Phillipson, Herman Reckendorf, Berthold Auerbach, and Leopold Kompert.

At the same time, Hebrew prose was renewed and dramatically enriched by a series of changes and developments. After 20 years of writing Yiddish fiction had established him as the founder of modern Yiddish literature under his alias Mendele Moykher-Sforim, a significant landmark was reached in 1886 with Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh’s return to writing Hebrew fiction. He published a series of short stories based on actual events of the 1880s. In 1896, he began to prepare Hebrew renditions of his principal Yiddish novels. Through these stories and novels, Abramovitsh established his highly influential linguistic style, which—by organically integrating biblical and Talmudic language with the later strata of Hebrew literary language—became a rich and versatile instrument for depicting contemporary Jewish reality, and at the same time acted as a linguistic resonator for endless intertextual play.

Hebrew fiction cultivated another form of realism, initiated by Ben-Avigdor (Avraham Leib Shalkovich). In 1891, he began to publish his series of Sifre Agorah (Penny Novels) written by himself and by others. These works presented the experiences of Jews in naturalistic detail, using straightforward, unadorned language that strove for precision. In Ben-Avigdor’s and his colleagues’ works appear the first attempts at cultivating individualistic psychological characters, most strikingly in the work of Yesha‘yahu Bershadsky, author of the novel Be-En matarah (Without a Goal; 1899).

There also developed at the turn of the twentieth century a trend toward romanticism or neoromanticism that relied on stylized poetic, picturesque motifs. This mode employed the style of and often based itself on legends and myths, including tales from Hasidic sources. The most prominent representatives of the trend were Y. L. Peretz, David Frishman, Mordekhai Ze’ev Feierberg, and Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski. In Berdyczewski’s case, however, a penchant for romantic motifs was just one significant dimension, since the stories and novels he published from 1899 on turned him—almost overnight—into the virtual leader of modern Hebrew fiction as a whole, a counterweight and polar opposite of Abramovitsh.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, East European Hebrew fiction reached a peak of richness and maturity. The works it produced comprise the classical sources for modern Hebrew literature. Abramovitsh’s style served as the paradigm for an important group of storytellers, including Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, S. Ben-Zion (Simḥah Alter Gutmann), Aharon Avraham Kabak, Asher Barash, Yehudah Steinberg, and Yitsḥak Dov Berkowitz, who even if they did not adopt Abramovitsh’s tendency toward grotesque distortions of reality, inherited his tools of expression that enabled them to create an authentic portrait of social reality, culled mainly from shtetl life, and incorporating a rich, balanced style.

Malkah Shapiro, Poland, ca. 1910. (Nehemia Polen)

Another group of writers, including Yosef Ḥayim Brenner, Uri Nisan Gnessin, Gershom Shofman, Ya‘akov Steinberg, Devorah Baron, and Ya‘akov Rabinowitz, came under the influence of Berdyczewski, who sought to portray the conflicted soul of the young and lonely Jew uprooted from a traditional environment but unable to find redemption in large European cities. Each member of this latter group developed a distinct style that fluctuated between expressionistic intensity and lyrical impressionism. Both groups confined their talents to the short story and novella, whereas the Hebrew novel almost completely disappeared after the end of the Haskalah period, to be reestablished only after World War I.

During the interwar period, Eastern Europe lost its position as principal host to Hebrew literary innovation. Some Hebrew writing did continue in Poland, where Leib Ḥazan, Yehudah Warszawiak, Tsevi Zevulun Weinberg, Yakir Varshavsky, Re’uven Fahn, and others produced compositions reflecting longings for Zionist redemption on the one hand, and the mounting depression that had set in—in light of the gloomy future that awaited Polish Jewry—on the other. In Soviet Russia, the few prose writers who continued their activities before and after World War II (including Mosheh Ḥiyug and Tsevi Hirsh Preigerzon) left a literary testament of the sufferings they endured while incarcerated in Stalinist labor camps.

All of the above, however, represented the last gasp of literary activity; in fact, from the 1920s on, the most talented Hebrew storytellers left Eastern Europe. While most of them immigrated to Palestine, they continued for many years to draw their inspiration from the environment of their native countries, before the Holocaust; afterward, they produced intense and elaborate literary portraits of the shtetls of Russia, Galicia, Poland, and Lithuania. Devorah Baron, for instance, lived in Tel Aviv for decades, and yet in her stories Parashiyot (Episodes; 1951) she constructed an entire mythological world of life in a Lithuanian shtetl in its eternal cyclic existence. Ḥayim Hazaz describes in his stories and novels the Ukrainian shtetls from the first generations up to the Russian Revolution; Gershom Shofman presents his fragmented memories of childhood in Belorussia through concise and polished stories; and Yitsḥak Dov Berkowitz preserves the Jewish literary scene in Warsaw, Vilna, and Odessa in his wide-ranging memoir Ha-Rishonim ki-vene adam (Our Forebears as Human Beings; 1938). The most prominent of all these writers was Shemu’el Yosef Agnon, who dedicated the best of his creative writing talents to the Galician Jewish world in various periods. Among the novels he wrote in this vein are Hakhnasat kalah (Bridal Dowry; 1931), Sipur pashut (A Simple Story; 1935), Oreaḥ natah lalun (A Guest for the Night; 1938), and a memoir of his hometown of Buczacz, ‘Ir u-melo’ah (The Town and its Fullness; 1973).

If in present-day Israel there is any connection to the life experiences of East European Jewry, it may be found in these masterpieces that have bequeathed to generations of readers a feeling of intimate contact with the rich, deep, and complex world from which their ancestors hailed.

Suggested Reading

Robert Alter, The Invention of Hebrew Prose: Modern Fiction and the Language of Realism (Seattle, 1988); Alan Mintz, “Banished from Their Father’s Table”: Loss of Faith and Hebrew Autobiography (Bloomington, Ind., 1989); Dan Miron, The Image of the Shtetl and Other Studies of Modern Jewish Literary Imagination (Syracuse, N.Y., 2000); David Patterson, The Hebrew Novel in Czarist Russia (Edinburgh, 1964); Gershon Shaked, Modern Hebrew Fiction, trans. Yael Lotan (Bloomington, Ind., 2000).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler