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Wunderbar, Re’uven Yosef

(1812–1868), historian, teacher, translator, and government-appointed rabbi. Born in Mitau, Courland guberniia (now Jelgava, Lat.), and educated in a traditional heder, Re’uven Yosef Wunderbar adopted a Haskalah (Enlightenment) worldview in spiritual and cultural matters. Self-taught, he acquired a broad general education in addition to a knowledge of German and Russian. In 1835, he passed the official examinations to acquire a teaching certificate for government-sponsored schools, and in 1840 moved to Riga to teach at the Haskalah school under the direction of Max Lilienthal.

About a year later, Lilienthal was commissioned by the Russian Ministry of Education to direct a project for “government-sponsored secular and religious education” among Jews. Because of Wunderbar’s unique combination of Jewish and secular learning, his knowledge of German, and his impressive powers of expression, he was chosen to replace Lilienthal as head of the school in Riga. Wunderbar remained in this position, however, only until 1843, though how he spent the subsequent five years is unknown. Upon his return to Mitau in 1848, he joined the faculty of the local government-sponsored, Haskalah-oriented Jewish school. He also worked as a translator. In 1855 and between 1858 and 1859, he also served as the government-appointed rabbi of the Mitau community.

Apart from these activities, Wunderbar was involved in the social life of the maskilim throughout the Baltic area and maintained friendships with many, including the author Avraham Mapu. In the absence of a Jewish press within the territory of the Russian Empire, the multilanguage Jewish press that developed in Central Europe served as the primary platform to discuss issues of public interest. It also served as a bridge between the East European maskilim and their colleagues in Central Europe. By the mid-1840s, Wunderbar was publishing articles in the most outstanding examples of these papers, including Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums and Literaturblatt des Orients. Like many of the scholarly maskilim of his time, Wunderbar delved into different fields, publishing works in history, linguistics, and religious thought, among other subjects. In these works, Wunderbar’s wide range of interests, his mastery of various languages, and his approach to education and teaching all found expression. One of his most outstanding compositions was a study of the history of Jewish medicine, Biblisch-Talmudische Medicin; oder, Pragmatische Darstellung der Arzneikunde der alten Israeliten (Biblical and Talmudic Medicine; or, Pragmatic Description of the Pharmacology of the Ancient Israelites; 1850–1860).

Wunderbar’s other significant writings included Immerwaehrender Kalender der Juden: Deutsch und Hebraeisch (Perpetual Jewish Calendar: German and Hebrew; 1854) and Deutsches elementar-Lesebuch für die Israelitische Jugend: Zunaechst für die Hebraeischen Krons- und Privatschulen des Dorpatschen Lehrbezirks (Elementary Primer in German for Israelite Youth: First [Book] for Jewish Crown and Private Schools in the Dorpat School District; 1853). Wunderbar’s most important text was Geschichte der Juden in den Provinzen Liv- und Kurland (History of the Jews in the Livland and Kurland Provinces; 1853). This was the first historical study of Jews in the northern Baltic region, and it considered internal Jewish developments within a wider political, economic, social, and religious context. The book became the foundation for all later research into the history of Jews of the region.

Suggested Reading

Mendel Bobe, Perakim be-toldot yahadut Latviyah: 1651–1918 (Tel Aviv, 1965); J. O. Leibowitz, “Me’ah shanah le-ḥeker toldot ha-refu’ah be-Yisra’el,” in Shenaton Davar (Tel Aviv, 1946–1947); Dov Levin, ed., Pinkas ha-kehilot: Latviyah ve-Estonyah (Jerusalem, 1988); Mordekhai Zalkin, Ba-‘Alot ha-shaḥar: ha-Haskalah ha-yehudit ba-Imperyah ha-Rusit ba-me’ah ha-tesha‘ ‘esreh (Jerusalem, 2000).



Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson