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Rabinovich, Osip Aronovich

(1817–1869), writer and editor. Osip Rabinovich, who came from a Russified family, studied at Kharkov University before becoming a notary in Odessa. In the latter city, he published a Russian translation of a Hebrew poem (1847), as well as articles in which he alternately criticized Jewish traditionalism and Russian society for its prejudices about Jews.

As a fiction writer, Rabinovich composed stories that were sometimes less tendentious than his articles. His “Moritz Sephardi” (1850) depicts the rise and fall of a German Jewish businessman in Odessa; the businessman’s failings cast doubt on the ideals of the German Jewish enlightenment. In other genres, Rabinovich upheld these ideals, as in “O Moshkakh i Ios’kakh” (About the Moshkes and the Yos’kes) in Odesskii vestnik (Odessa Herald; 1858), where he argued that Russian Jews should stop using the diminutive names that they had once adopted to please Polish landlords.

Two of Rabinovich’s best-known stories, “Shtrafnoi” (The Penal Recruit; 1859), and “Nasledstvennyi podsvechnik” (The Family Candlestick; 1860), addressed the difficult relationship between Russian Jews and the tsarist army. Whereas army service was a path toward acculturation for Jews in many countries, in the Russian Empire it was perceived as a torment visited upon Jews by a government unwilling to repay them with privileges. The hero of “Shtrafnoi” is an elderly former community leader forced to turn himself in to the army, an act that provokes the death or downfall of his wife and daughters. In “Nasledstvennyi podsvechnik,” when two Jewish soldiers—father and son—die in battle, their widows are cruelly given only three days to leave the city of Nikolaev for the Pale of Settlement.

Rabinovich was called the “Jewish Grigorovich,” after Dmitrii Grigorovich, who was known for the sentimental naturalism of his pictures of peasant life and for vocal opposition to serfdom. Rabinovich’s stories display the same mix of sentiment, politics, and attention to a marginalized group.

In Razsvet, which Rabinovich edited from 1860 until it was closed by government order in May 1861, he continued both to criticize Jewish traditionalism and to defend Jews against Russian attack. He published little in his final decade, though his “Istoriia o tom, kak reb Khaim-Shulim Feiges puteshestvoval iz Kishineva v Odessa, i chto s nim sluchilos’” (The History of How Reb Khaim-Shulim Feiges Traveled from Kishinev to Odessa and What Happened with Him) suggests a new departure, a humorous treatment of a luftmensch that presages Sholem Aleichem’s Menakhem Mendl.

Suggested Reading

Olga Litvak, “The Literary Response to Conscription: Individuality and Authority in the Russian-Jewish Enlightenment” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1999); Shimon Markish, “Osip Rabinovich,” Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique 21.1–2 (1980); Osip A. Rabinovich, Sochineniia O. A. Rabinovicha, ed. M. Morgulis (vol. 1, St. Petersburg, 1880; vols. 2–3, Odessa, 1888).