Galleys for Abramovitsh’s Di klyatshe (The Nag) (Odessa: A. Varshaver, 1889). The handwritten corrections are believed to have been made by the author himself. (YIVO)

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Abramovitsh, Sholem Yankev

(Mendele Moykher-Sforim; 1835–1917), Hebrew and Yiddish writer. Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh is acknowledged, almost universally, as the founder of modern artistic prose in Hebrew and Yiddish. Born to a middle-class family in the Belorussian town of Kapulye (Kopyl), he lost all familial support at the age of 15. After spending several years as a student at various yeshivas, he made an adventuresome, perilous trek south to Ukraine on foot and in the company of itinerant beggars, arriving in Kamenets Podolski in 1853, where he stayed for five years as a teacher and then as the son-in-law of a middle-class family. He cultivated the friendship of the few local exponents of the Haskalah (especially Avraham Ber Gottlober) and began writing on matters pertaining to education.

Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh at his writing desk, Odessa, 1910. From Mendele Jubilee Album (Vilna, Warsaw, New York; ca. 1935). (YIVO)

After the dissolution of his first marriage, Abramovitsh married the daughter of a respected notary from Berdichev and moved to that bustling commercial center in Volhynia, where he spent a restful decade (1858–1868). At the home of his in-laws, Abramovitsh devoted his time to secular studies, a series of literary projects, and communal and charitable activities. It was at this time that he developed a keen sensitivity to the travails of the poor and the exploited.

As a writer, Abramovitsh launched his career quite ambitiously in four different directions. His presence in Hebrew literature was felt as early as 1860 when he created a scandal by attacking a literary miscellany edited by an older fellow maskil (Eli‘ezer Zweifel). At the same time, he became known as a journalist and essayist. He dedicated much time to what he regarded then as his central project: preparation of scientific textbooks in Hebrew, of which the earliest was the first volume of Toldot ha-teva‘ (Natural History; 1862). He also began writing a didactic Hebrew novel, Limdu hetev (Learn to Do Good), the first part of which appeared in 1862. This movement between genres indicated not only that Abramovitsh was still searching for his true literary vocation, but also that he was bringing to this writing a rather complex notion of what form literature should take and should accomplish.

Two qualities characterized this early phase of Abramovitsh’s development. First, from the outset he showed himself to be an innovator. Not only was he one of the founders of Hebrew literary criticism as a professional discipline with his notorious essay of 1860, but his activity as a novelist who focused on contemporary Jewish life in Eastern Europe proved equally precocious. Second, Abramovitsh’s disparate efforts were unified by his central idea of orienting the minds of Hebrew readers toward a tangible reality and distancing them from abstractions. The Jewish people had to acknowledge their existence within the physical surroundings of space, time, and the existential cycle of life. Such acknowledgment, which could only arise through the disciplined study of natural sciences, would banish foggy mysticism and superstition (but not pure religion; Abramovitsh, like most maskilim, was not an atheist), and prepare Jewish youth to enter contemporary society.

Abramovitsh soon saw that another element had to be integrated into this synthesis: the Yiddish language. Spoken and understood by virtually all Jews in Eastern Europe, its use was dictated logically by the reality principle. Putting aside all other projects, Abramovitsh published his first Yiddish story in 1864, the novella Dos kleyne mentshele (lit., both The Little Man and The Pupil [of the eye]). A year later, he published “Dos vintshfingerl” (The Magic Ring). Such projects as the launching in 1862 of the first Yiddish weekly magazine, Kol mevaser, undoubtedly encouraged his switch from Hebrew to Yiddish; nevertheless, the decision to do so was difficult for Abramovitsh. He knew that by adopting Yiddish he was crossing a cultural boundary, for as far as the proponents of the Haskalah were concerned, Yiddish was regarded as a language devoid of normative grammar, without cultural status, and unworthy of serious intellectual and literary use. Therefore, in publishing both stories, the author took every precaution to hide his identity. His first story was published anonymously in Kol mevaser, and presented as an authentic testament that had been entrusted to a real local book peddler, known by the name of Senderl, changed by the editor to Mendele, who was charged with the task of making the document public. The second story, published as a pamphlet, was signed with the acronym alef, yod, shin (ish, Hebrew for man). It was offered to the public (whether seriously or not is unclear) by the same itinerant book peddler, Mendele, as an introduction to and advertisement for a forthcoming Yiddish text on the natural sciences.

Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim) and his grandchildren, ca. 1900. (YIVO)

Both stories are presented as authentic autobiographies, organized around the theme of disillusionment and involving a fallacious perception of reality that ultimately yields to a sober one based on reason and morality. They clearly reflect the agenda of young Abramovitsh, which he shared with most maskilim: education was the panacea, the singular solution to the many problems that contemporary Jewry faced. Critical to the formation of the mind and heart of Jewish youth, positive educational tools would usher in a generation of happy, economically independent, and morally grounded individuals. Thus, “Dos vintshfingerl”—an allusion to the superstitious belief in miraculous solutions (including messianism)—should be replaced by the realism and sobriety of science, the “natural magic ring,” which alone could offer true solutions to all problems.

Gradually, however, the hold of this typical creed of the maskil on Abramovitsh weakened. Traditionally, the Jewish Enlightenment and its Hebrew representatives had cast their lot with the mercantile middle class. They relied on the patronage of this expanding group of large and middle-scale entrepreneurs participating in the development of capitalism in Eastern Europe, and, moreover, assumed that this group would be the source from which rationality, common sense, and liberal attitudes would spread among the Jewish population as a whole. Abramovitsh originally shared this belief, yet, after encountering the power hierarchy in Berdichev, he concluded that the middle classes cared only about their own economic privileges. They had little concern either for morality or for the freedom of the individual, and were quite willing to collaborate with “benighted” elements such as Hasidic dynasts and corrupt communal leaders at the expense of the poor.

Abramovitsh’s gradual estrangement from the socio-ideological moorings of the Haskalah was undoubtedly connected to his switch to Yiddish, signifying not only a shift in language and narrative mode—no longer authorial, omniscient, objective, but colloquial, monologic-dramatic, subjective—but also marking a change in his subject matter. In the two Yiddish works he published in 1869, Abramovitsh drastically shifted the social focus of his fiction. In one, “Fishke der krumer” (Fishke the Lame), a simpleminded cripple tells the story of his life in the Jewish underworld to two members of the lower middle class: Mendele the book peddler and Alter, a fellow bookseller. Though uneducated, the cripple is a mentsh (a decent person), and the outcome of the story, in which the two booksellers are morally edified by Fishke’s unintentionally stirring words, serves to subvert the notion of formal education as the panacea of all of Jewish life. In questioning the central ethos of the Haskalah, Abramovitsh appears here as a radical writer, in touch with the new European wave of interest in poverty, the lower depths of society, and moral issues popularized by the likes of Victor Hugo, Eugène Sue, Charles Dickens, and early Dostoevsky. The story’s subtitle, “A mayse fun oreme-layt” (A Story of Poor People), underlines this connection.

In the second work and his first drama, Di takse (The Tax [on kosher meat]; 1869), Abramovitsh invested effort in differentiating the various representatives of the middle class. However, the differentiation serves only to emphasize their common denominator: the readiness of all to cooperate as long as it was profitable, as well as the general desire to exploit the poor and powerless. The raisonneur of the piece, Shloyme Veker, tries to help the poor, yet in doing so arouses the malevolence of the bourgeois. The notion that education could effect a significant difference is presented in this Swiftian satire as preposterous. The educator himself is gobbled up before he manages to impart any knowledge.

Abramovitsh claimed that the publication of Di takse necessitated his departure from Berdichev in 1869 after powerful members of the community whom he had exposed in his drama threatened his life and the well-being of his family. However, he actually had left Berdichev and settled in the Volhynian capital of Zhitomir a few months before the publication of his savage satire. The move was triggered by the death of his father-in-law, whose business had been deteriorating for some time. Suddenly, the 33-year-old Abramovitsh, now responsible for a growing family, had to earn a livelihood.

The 1870s were the most trying years of his life. Although he was ordained at the government-sponsored rabbinical seminary in Zhitomir as a crown rabbi after a brief period of study, he failed to find a position. Unable to make ends meet, he wasted much energy on hack work. Nevertheless, it was in this period that he came of age as a writer. In 1873, he wrote his brilliant allegorical and satirical novel Di klyatshe (The Nag), and he scored a second artistic triumph in 1878 with the publication of the first part of his mock epic: Kitser masoes Binyomin hashlishi (The Brief Travels of Benjamin the Third; further parts never appeared). While his earlier fictions were rudimentary and skeletal, the achievements of the 1870s radiated with the full light of the author’s extraordinary talent.

Montage of portraits of members of the committee for the celebration of the centennial of Yiddish writer Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh) at the I. L. Peretz Jewish Library, Ejszyszki, Poland (now Eišiškės, Lith.), 1936. (Bottom, center) Yiddish writer Daniel Tsharni. (YIVO)

Having wrenched himself free of the habitual concerns of the Haskalah, Abramovitsh began to contemplate the dynamics and evolution of Jewish history. He perceived, for example, that antisemitism was not merely a remnant of the Middle Ages but an integral part of the European mindset that showed no sign of disappearing, merely changing its outward forms. His new insights (first worked out in a writer’s diary of which mere fragments survive) found expression in Di klyatshe and the long allegorical poem, Yudl (1875), as well as in extended Hebrew essays such as “Mah anu?” (Who Are We?; 1875) and in “Ahavah le’umit ve-toldotehah” (Patriotism and Its Consequences; 1878); the latter warned against the consequences of chauvinism. In Di klyatshe, the protagonist, Isrolik, a typical maskilic rationalist educator, encounters the essence of his own national historical identity as personified by a miserable and beleaguered nag. Isrolik initially offers the beast the conventional Haskalah cure: self-improvement through education, but low-spirited and submissive as the horse is, she has learned from her long historical experience of persecution. As the story unfolds, the nag waxes increasingly frank and intimate with her self-appointed benefactor. “How could a hungry and persecuted creature be expected to improve itself through education?” she asks. Is the stipulation that help to the needy should depend on self-improvement realistic, fair, or morally tenable? Her negative answer, “No dancing before feeding,” is devastatingly logical on both moral and practical grounds. Thus, the intellectual and educated Isrolik, rather like Mendele and Alter in “Fishke der krumer,” is reduced to the role of a humble student, and the ignorant nag becomes his teacher. As a moral allegory, a psychologically convincing fantasy, and a novel of ideas, Di klyatshe is akin to Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

In 1881, in the midst of a personal crisis (among other woes, his oldest son, Mikhail, a political radical, converted to Christianity and married a Christian woman), Abramovitsh was invited to direct a new school founded by the Jewish community of Odessa. He gladly accepted this assurance of financial stability and the chance to move to the city that had emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century as the crucible of both modern Jewish literary culture and the nascent Zionist movement in its East European, pre-Herzlian guise. He was quickly absorbed into Odessa’s circle of Jewish nationalist intellectuals, and the invigorating atmosphere revived his flagging literary élan. Starting with his melodrama, Der priziv (The Conscription [Military Service]; 1884), new publications followed in abundance.

Alter Druyanow (left) with (left to right) writers Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Yehoshu‘a Ḥana Ravnitski, Mendele Moykher-Sforim, and Yitsḥak Dov Berkowitz, Odessa (?), ca. 1910. (Asher Barash Gnazim Institute, Tel Aviv)

Abramovitsh now developed a two-pronged literary agenda: completely rewriting all of his earlier works, and attempting to give expression to the mood that had emerged in the wake of the pogroms of 1881–1882 and the consequent enlivening of Jewish national politics. The former project gradually took over Abramovitsh’s literary activity and occupied him for the rest of his active life. He wrote only one completely new novel, the autobiographical Shloyme Reb Khayims (never completed; 1899–1912). His earlier stories, particularly “Fishke der krumer” (1888) and “Dos vintshfingerl” (1888–1909), emerged in their now canonical versions as novels.

The second project led to about a dozen short stories and novellas written almost exclusively in Hebrew. These stories included “Be-Seter ra‘am” (In the Secret Places of Thunder; 1886–1887), “Shem va-Yefet ba-‘agalah” (Shem and Japheth in the Train Compartment; 1890), “Lo naḥat be-Ya‘akov” (There Is No Good in Jacob; 1892), “Bi-Yeme ha-ra‘ash” (In Days of Tumult; 1894), and “Bi-Yeshivah shel ma‘alah uvi-yeshivah shel mata” (In the Heavenly Assembly and the Earthly One; 1894–1895). They capture the dense atmosphere of Jewish life in tsarist Russia during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, but view this tumultuous period from an ironic distance that allowed for both restrained pathos and for subtle but razor-sharp wit. The works are addressed primarily to readers of the burgeoning Hebrew literature of the day whose attention to these moods and issues was more urgent than that of the Yiddish audience.

In these years, Abramovitsh insisted on recasting almost all of his Yiddish extended fictions (except “Dos kleyne mentshele”) in Hebrew, translating or rather artistically reenacting them. Thus, “Masoes Binyomin” appeared as “Mas‘ot Binyamin ha-Shelishi” in 1896 together with Theodor (Benjamin) Herzl’s Judenstaat. “Dos vintshfingerl,” now titled “Be-‘Emek ha-bakha’” (In the Vale of Tears, after Yosef Ha-Kohen’ssixteenth-century chronicle of the Spanish expulsion) was published in installments from 1897 to 1909. Shloyme Reb Khayims appeared in Hebrew at the same time that it was published in Yiddish (starting in 1900, sometimes Hebrew chapters preceded Yiddish ones) under two titles, Ba-yamim ha-hem (In Those Bygone Days) and Ḥaye Shelomoh (The Life of Solomon). “Fishke der krumer” was published as “Sefer ha-kabtsanim” (The Book of Beggars) in a Hebrew version prepared by Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik in 1902 and then in a new version in that language by Abramovitsh himself (1909). Di klyatshe was reworked and enlarged as “Susati” (My Mare), included in the jubilee edition of Abramovitsh’s Hebrew works (1909–1912).

Set design by Robert Fal'k for Mendele Moykher-Sforim's Kitser masoes Binyomin hashlishi (The Brief Travels of Benjamin III), produced by Aleksandr Granovskii, Moscow State Yiddish Theater, 1927. Oil on canvas. (GDC 989. 313889; © Federal State Institution of Culture "A.A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatrical Museum," Moscow)

The veneration and celebration that attached itself to Abramovitsh was captured by the young Sholem Aleichem who, in 1888, dubbed him “the grandfather” of Yiddish literature. Furthermore, with many readers wrongly assuming that Abramovitsh’s chief fictional character, Mendele Moykher-Sforim, was a pen name, Mendele became a household intimate. The author’s heroic status was a consequence first and foremost of his artistic accomplishments. It was also facilitated by the rise of Jewish nationalism and the cultural function that Jewish literature appropriated for itself at the time. The perception of Yiddish was transformed from a mere jargon into a national language on a par with Hebrew. Abramovitsh, now the paragon of Yiddish–Hebrew bilingualism, maintained that for a Jewish writer, expression in both languages was like breathing through both nostrils. Thus, two “jubilee editions” of his life work were published, in Hebrew (1909–1912) and in Yiddish (1911–1913).

Abramovitsh’s monumental contribution to modern Jewish literary culture is reflected by the vast critical and scholarly literature dealing with his work. During the last decades of his life, this literature was characterized by the assumption that his achievement inhered in his mimetic representation of social reality. Descriptive verisimilitude, in Jewish literature of the Haskalah, existed only in a primitive form, it was claimed, before Abramovitsh forged the stylistic roots necessary for artistic mimesis. For critics reared on nineteenth-century Russian realist fiction (especially Turgenev and Tolstoy), such mimetic verisimilitude was of the greatest importance. By creating an artistic replica of Jewish reality, it was presumed that Abramovitsh produced a veritable historical–ethnographical treasure trove.

Other critics emphasized that Abramovitsh’s realism infused his work with an extraordinary moral verve. He awakened in his readers the dormant sense of an empirical reality. Upon reading his works, one could not avoid introspection and self-criticism, what the Hebrew novelist Yosef Ḥayim Brenner called ha-‘arakhat atsmenu (self-evaluation). Thus, art encouraged constructive change. As this claim emphasized the writer’s ties to the Haskalah and its ideological legacy, it did not dovetail with the view of the apotheosis of art as the acme of painterly realism. In this way, the criticism of Brenner, and of critics close to the Bund, differed greatly from that of David Frishman, Bialik, Shmuel Niger, and a host of others. The latter further claimed that in structure and plot Abramovitsh’s stories manifest traits peculiar to Jewish storytelling characterized by intricate and artificial subplots emphasizing the small descriptive unit at the expense of an overall architectural plan, a penchant for which was regarded as “un-Jewish.” Bialik even compared the waywardness of Abramovitsh’s narratives to the Talmudic argument. In short, Abramovitsh’s work affirmatively answered the question that preoccupied a generation of nationalist writers: was there a specifically Jewish art, a specifically Jewish sense of beauty?

Critiques of Abramovitsh changed in the interwar period. In the West, modernism undermined the ideal of mimetic verisimilitude, dismissing works written in this fashion as reductive and bereft of spiritual and religious dimensions. In the USSR, however, Abramovitsh’s scathing realism and withering critique of traditional Jewish life were still regarded positively. On the other hand, Soviet scholars exploded the myth of Abramovitsh’s “Jewish” originality by showing how his work was related to European novelistic traditions that preceded mature nineteenth-century realism and reflected a social order that had not yet assumed the characteristics of late capitalism. Abramovitsh, it was claimed, did not produce well-rounded novels in the spirit of Turgenev because the society reflected in his work was of an older, more primitive phase in the development of the bourgeoisie.

Scholars and linguists, in the USSR and the West, studied Abramovitsh’s use of language, showing how, out of a spoken dialect, he fashioned a literary idiom that retained the idiomatic pungency of the language of the people. Purifying it of localisms and dialectological idiosyncrasies, he produced a Yiddish available to speakers of the language in all regions. Almost all great writers of Yiddish followed his lead in this realm.

As for his Hebrew stylistic legacy, by blending the various historical layers of the language, particularly the biblical and the Mishnaic—with a good measure of Talmudic Aramaic—Abramovitsh all but invented normative pre-Israeli Hebrew prose. No writer before him had produced a compound that was as smoothly blended and potent as the one he created.

Since the Holocaust, critics have insisted on reading Abramovitsh’s novels and stories as artistic constructs rather than as mimetic replicas of historic realities. Thus, for example, Mendele is now understood as a full-fledged fictional character and not as a pen name. Indeed, Mendele is the most elaborate fictional character created by Abramovitsh (who, as such, belied the allegation of some critics that the writer’s realism was devoid of psychological depth), but also a mask and a persona, an in-between and not always reliable narrator and commentator who constantly traverses the distance between the world of the stories and that of the reader. Critics now study the Mendele persona, the reasons for his growth from a mere editor to a major character—the folksy “philosopher” of the writer’s works—and the fictional and supramimetic nature of the “world” made of such satirical abstractions as towns with names like Pauperville, Fools’ Town, Hypocrites’ Village, and Idlers’ Place. Mendele’s cultural and literary role is seen as that of a Janus-faced intermediary between the author and his “other”—the traditional Jew he once was but now rejects.

The cultural significance of Abramovitsh’s work consists of two differences: that distancing Mendele from the world he comments on, and that separating the implied author (and us) from Mendele and his caustic wisdom. This insight leads to a new understanding of Abramovitsh’s revolutionary role in modern Yiddish and Hebrew fiction: through Mendele, Abramovitsh, for the first time in the history of modern Jewish fiction (which had sprung from a world different from and inimical to that of traditional Jewry), bridged the gap between the dramatic-subjective presentation of reality—letting the traditional Jew speak for himself and unintentionally reveal his limitations—and that of the earlier distanced pseudoepic of his predecessors that employed a hostile omniscient narrator using Germanized Yiddish or biblical Hebrew. Abramovitsh was the writer who, more than any other, contributed to the creation of a lively and credible epic tonality in both Yiddish and Hebrew fiction. It was he who helped this fiction to surmount the most formidable impediment created by the literary culture of the Haskalah: the all but unbridgeable gap separating the telling from what is told.

Suggested Reading

Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, “Mendele u-sheloshet ha-kerakhim” and “Yotser ha-nusaḥ,” in Kol kitve Ḥ. N. Bialik, pp. 236–239, 240–241 (Tel Aviv, 1937/38); Yosef Ḥayim Brener, “Ha-‘Arakhat ‘atsmenu bi-sheloshet ha-kerakhim,” Ketavim, vol. 4, pp. 1225–1296 (Tel Aviv, 1985); Jacob Fikhman, “Mendele,” in Amat ha-binyan, pp. 11–121 (Jerusalem, 1950/51); David Frishman, “Mendele Mokher-Sefarim,” in Kol kitve David Frishman, vol. 7, pp. 70–111 (Warsaw and New York, 1931); Y. Goldberg, “Der veg roman un der intimer stil,” Shriftn fun vaysrusishn melukhe-universitet 1 (1929): 45–60; A. (Aron) Gurshteyn, “Sakhaklen fun der Mendele-forshung,” Tsaytshrift 3–4 (1928): 485–524; Avraham Kariv, ‘Atarah le-yoshnah (Tel Aviv, 1956), pp. 30–115; Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 6 (Jerusalem, 1950), pp. 315–453; Nachman Mayzel, ed., Dos Mendele-bukh (New York, 1959); M. Mezheritski, “Fishke der krumer: Stil un kompozitsye,” Di royte velt 12 (1927): 104–128; Dan Miron, “Der onheyb fun aktueln hebreishn roman: Historishe un kritishe bamerkungen tsu Sh. Y. Abramovitsh’s Limdu hetev,” in Limdu hetev, by Sh. Y. Abramovitsh, pp. 1–88 (New York, 1969); Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised: The Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1973); Samuel Niger, Mendele Moykher-Sforim: Zayn lebn, zayne gezelshaftlekhe un literarishe oyftuungen (New York, 1970); Menaḥem Peri, “Ha-Analogyah u-mekomah be-mivneh ha-roman shel Mendele Mokher-Sefarim,” Ha-Sifrut 1 (1968): 65–100; Sanford Pinsker, “Mendele Mocher Seforim: Hasidic Tradition and the Individual Artist,” Modern Language Quarterly 30 (1969): 234–247; Gershon Shaked, Ben seḥok le-dema‘ (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1965); Samuel Werses, “Ha-Roman ha-‘ivri ha-ri’shon shel Mendele ve-gilgulav,” in Sipur ve-shorsho, pp. 60–87 (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1971).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945; RG 227, Alexander Mukdoni, Papers, 1918-1958; RG 3, Yiddish Literature and Language, Collection, 1870s-1941; RG 584, Max Weinreich, Papers, 1930s-1968.