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Shapiro, Konstantin Abba

(1839–1900), Hebrew poet. Konstantin Abba Shapiro was born in Grodno and was raised in a strict and religious home in which his authoritarian father tried to divert him from an interest in secular literature. To discourage Shapiro from following the Haskalah, his parents married him off at the age of 15. Shapiro’s marriage was shortly annulled, and in an effort to free himself from his restrictive family environment, he moved briefly to Białystok and Vienna, eventually settling in Saint Petersburg. The first phase of his life there was marked by financial hardship and illness, but he overcame these difficulties with the help of a gentile Russian family, whose daughter he married. It was under these circumstances that he converted to Christianity—a decision that continually tormented and embarrassed him greatly, even though he never repudiated it in practice. Paradoxically, it was his conversion to Christianity that was responsible for the strengthening of his national Jewish identity. He retained fond recollections of Jewish experiences and traditions, so much so that toward the end of his life he described himself as one of the anusim (forced converts).

While still in Grodno, Shapiro had studied photography, a field that provided him with both a livelihood and aesthetic satisfaction. In Saint Petersburg he honed his skills, becoming a professional photographer with a flourishing business that attracted many of the city’s eminent citizens. His clientele included distinguished Russian writers, high-level government officials, and even members of the royal family.

At the same time, Shapiro began to make a name for himself as a Hebrew poet. His earliest pieces were published in the 1870s, but his most prolific decade was the 1880s. Shapiro soon became a major voice in contemporary Hebrew poetry, alongside poets such as Menaḥem Mendel Dolitzki and Mordekhai Tsevi Mane; some even considered Shapiro to be the natural successor to Yehudah Leib Gordon.

In the 1880s, Shapiro wrote his two poetic masterpieces. The first, the two-part lyrical poem titled Me-Ḥezyonot bat ‘ami (From the Visions of the Daughter of My People; 1884–1898), recounts episodes from his childhood and intertwines them with stories about ancient Jewish history and biblical heroes that he had learned from his melamed. The second, a series titled Mi-Shire Yeshurun (From the Poetry of Yeshurun [People of Israel]; collected only in 1911), presents a portrait of the poet as the Jewish community’s emissary, entrusted with the mission of lamenting the suffering of his people and voicing its national yearnings. The best-known poem in this anthology is Ba-Shadmot Bet Leḥem (In the Cornfields of Bethlehem), which eventually became a popular folk song. In an emotive and melodramatic style, Shapiro would often express his feelings through bitter weeping and outbursts of anger, employing extreme, radical, and rhetorical effects to achieve his ends.

During the 1890s, Shapiro’s creativity gradually deteriorated. A new age of young poets, headed by Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik and Sha’ul Tchernichowsky, appeared on the horizon. It is also likely that Shapiro’s conversion to Christianity (for which he received forgiveness from many maskilic peers) was judged more harshly by younger writers, who had been raised in an atmosphere of renewed nationalism. During this distressful stage, Shapiro made several unsuccessful attempts to mock the new wave of Hebrew poetry through satire. His last work, Sedom (Sodom; 1899), based on the Dreyfus trial, received harsh reviews and embittered his final days. Most of Shapiro’s poems were posthumously collected by Ya‘akov Fichmann and appeared in book form in 1911.

Suggested Reading

Hillel Barzel, Shirat Ḥibat Tsiyon (Tel Aviv, 1987), pp. 139–155, 442–445; Jacob Fichman, “K. A. Shapiro,” in Shirim nivḥarim, by Konstantin A. Shapiro, pp. i–xvi (Warsaw, 1911); Jacob Fichman, Be-Terem aviv (Tel Aviv, 1959), pp. 42–63; Haim Toren, “Aba Konstantin Sha-piro,” Moznayim 17 (1943/44): 41–53, 143–151.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler