CHAPTER V. THE ROMANTIC MOVEMENT
The political reaction following upon the Polish revolution of 1831 made itself felt in Lithuania particularly. The hand of the government weighed heavy upon the people of this province. The University of Wilna was closed, and all traces of civilization were effaced.
From the arbitrariness of the Polish nobles, the Jews were rescued only to fall into the tender mercies of unscrupulous officials. As it was, since 1823 the most rigorous measures had been devised against them. They were exposed to expulsions from the villages, and their commercial and other privileges had been considerably curtailed. Besides, a new scourge was inflicted upon them, compulsory service in the army, unknown until then, a frightful service, with an active period of twenty-five years. Children were torn from their families and their faith, and the whole life of a man was swallowed up. They struggled against this new incubus with all the weapons at the disposal of a feeble population. Bribery, premature marriage, wholesale evasion, voluntary or forced substitution, were the means employed by the well-to-do to save their progeny from military service.
In order to ensure the regular recruiting of soldiers among the Jews, Czar Nicholas I, while abolishing the central synod organization, maintained the local Kahal everywhere, and made it responsible for the military conscription. The wealthy, the learned, the heads of the communities profited greatly by this official recognition of the Kahal. It enabled them to free the members of their families from enrollment in the army. In their hands, it became an instrument for the oppression and exploitation of the poor. “The devil take the hindmost!” expresses the state of mind of the Russian Jews in the middle of the nineteenth century, during the whole of the period called the Behalah (“Terror").
The reforms projected by Alexander I for the benefit of the Jews, the hopes cherished by the Lithuanian humanists, proved abortive. Reactionary tendencies made themselves felt everywhere cruelly, but chiefly they injured the Jews, forever persecuted, downtrodden, and humiliated. The profound pessimism of Lebensohn's poetry is eloquent testimony to the feelings of educated Jews. And yet, these votaries of knowledge, of civilization, the daughter of heaven, clung to their illusions. They continued to insist that only thoroughgoing reforms can solve the Jewish question. The people at large did not side with them, and even among the educated their view of the situation was not shared by the younger men. In this moral disorder, the masses of the people permitted themselves to be carried along unresistingly by the current of Hasidic views, which had long been waiting to capture the last fortress of rational Judaism. The Rabbis stood by alarmed, unable to do anything to arrest the growing encroachments of the mystic movement. Yet there was an adversary ready and equipped. In the young neo-Hebrew literature, mysticism found a foeman far more powerful than ever logic and rationalism had been.
The Hebrew language was cultivated with zeal by the educated classes, and even by the young Rabbis. It was the epoch of the Melizah, and the Melizah was to supplement the jejuneness of Rabbinism and oppose the Hasidim with good results. Hebrew was in the ascendant, not only for poetry, but for general purposes as well. In the sunshine of the nineteenth century, it became the language of commerce, of jurisprudence, of friendly intercourse. Folklore itself, in the very teeth of the now despised jargon, knew no other tongue. The period produced a large quantity of popular poems, which to this day are sung by the Jews of Lithuania. The dominant note is the national plaint of the Jewish people, its dreams, and its Messianic hopes. They are essentially Zionistic.
In polished and tender Hebrew, with lofty expressions and despairful cries worthy of Byron, a poet of the people mourns the misfortunes of Zion:
“Zion, Zion, city of our God! How awful is thy breach! Who will
heal thee!... Every nation, every country, sees its splendor grow
from day to day. Thou alone and thy people, ye fall from depth to
“Holy land, O Zion and Jerusalem! How dare the stranger trample
on thy soil with haughty foot? How, O Heaven, can the son of the
stranger stand upon the spot whence Thy command banishes him?”
But hope is not entirely blasted:
“In the name of all thy people, in all their dwelling-places,
have we sworn unto thee, O Zion, with scorching tears, that thou
shalt always rest upon our hearts as a seal. Not by night and not
by day shalt thou be forgotten by us.”
Another popular poem, anonymous like the last, entitled “The Rose", is still more dolorous and despairful in tone. Stepped upon by every passerby, the rose supplicates incessantly, “O man, have pity on me, restore me to my home!”
Besides these and others with the same underlying ideas, the lyrics of Lebensohn and “The Mourning Dove” by Letteris constituted the repertory of the people. But soon romanticism on the part of the litterateurs began to respond to the romanticism of the masses, asserting itself as a national Jewish need.
A translation of Les Mystères de Paris, published in Wilna in 1847-8, introduced the romantic movement among the Jews, and at the same time the novel into the Hebrew language. This translation, or, rather, adaptation, of Sue's work, executed in a stilted Biblical style, won great renown for its young author, Kalman Schulman of Wilna (1826-1900).
From the literary point of view, Schulman's achievement is interesting because of the kind of literature it was the first to offer to readers of Hebrew—pastime literature, fiction in place of the serious writings of the humanists. The enormous success obtained by this first work of the translator, the repeated editions which it underwent, testify to the existence of a public that craved light literature. Thenceforth, romanticism was to occupy the first place, and the Melizah style was appropriated for the purposes of fiction, to the delight of the friends of the Bible language.
In spite of his small originality, it happened that Kalman Schulman contributed more than any other writer to the achievement of securing a place for Hebrew in the hearts of the people. For the length of a half-century, he was regarded popularly as the master of Hebrew style. Romantic and conservative in religion, enthusiastic for whatsoever the Jewish genius produced, naïve in his conception of life, he let his activity play upon all the fields of literature. He published a History of the World in ten volumes; a geography, likewise in ten volumes; four volumes of biographical and literary essays on the Jewish writers of the Middle Ages; a national romance dealing with the time of Bar Kokbah (a composite made up of a number of translations); and curious Biblical and Talmudic essays. [Footnote: These works, first published at Wilna, have been republished again and again.]
His language is the Hebrew of Isaiah. The artificialities and the undue emphasis of his style, his childlike views, his romantic sentimentality in all that touches Jews and Judaism, which appealed directly to the hearts of the simple, ignorant readers who constituted his public, explain the success of this writer, well merited even though he lacked originality. His books were spread broadcast, by the millions of copies, and they fostered love of Hebrew, of science, and knowledge in general among the people. By this token, Schulman was a civilizing agent of the first rank. His work is the portal through which the Maskil had to pass, and sometimes passes to this day, on the path of development toward modern civilization.
Schulman became the head of a school. His poetic and inflated style long imposed itself upon all subjects, and hindered the natural development of Hebrew prose, inaugurated by Mordecai A. Ginzburg.
More creative writers were not long in making their appearance. Among the poets of the romantic school, a prominent place belongs to Micah Joseph Lebensohn, briefly called Mikal (1828-1852), the son of Abraham Bär Lebensohn.
Gentle and gracious in the same measure in which his father was hard and unyielding, Micah Joseph Lebensohn was the only writer of the time to enjoy the advantage of a complete modern education, and the only one of his generation to escape cruel want and the struggle for personal freedom. He knew German literature thoroughly, and he had taken a course in philosophy at Berlin, under Schelling. Along with these attainments, he was master of Hebrew as a living language. It was the vehicle for his most intimate thoughts and the subtlest shades of feeling.
His rich poetic imagination, his harmonious style, warm figures of speech, consummate lyric quality, unmarred by the blatant, crude exaggerations of his predecessors, constitute Mikal the first artist of his day in Hebrew poetry.
He made his appearance in the world of letters, in 1851, with a translation of Schiller's “Destruction of Troy", finished in style and in poetic polish. He was the first to apply the rules of modern prosody strictly to Hebrew poetry. His collection of poems, Shire Bat-Ziyyon (“The Songs of the Daughter of Zion"), is a masterpiece. It contains six historical poems, admirable in thought, form, and inspiration. In “Solomon and Kohelet", his most ambitious poem, he brings the youth of King Solomon before our eyes. [Footnote: Wilna, 1852. German translation by J. Steinberg, Wilna, 1859.] It was the first time the love of Solomon for the Shulammite was celebrated—a sublime, exalted love sung in marvellous fashion. The joy of life trembles in all the fibres of the poet's heart.... Then, the old age of Ecclesiastes is contrasted strikingly with the youth of Solomon—the king disillusioned, skeptical, convinced of the vanity of love, beauty, and knowledge. All is dross, vanity of vanities! And the young romantic poet ends his work with the conclusion that wisdom cannot exist without faith—that faith alone is capable of giving man supreme satisfaction.
“Jael and Sisera", a noble production, treats of the silent struggle, in the heart of the valiant woman extolled by Deborah, between the duty of hospitality on the one side, and love of country on the other. The latter triumphs in the end:
“With this people I dwell, and in its land I am sheltered!
Should I not desire its prosperity and its happiness?”
“Moses on Mount Abarim” is full of admiration for the great legislator. The poet says regarding his death:
“The light of the world is obscured and dun,
Of what avail the light of the sun?”
His elegy on Jehudah Halevi is instinct with the pathos of patriotic love for the Holy Land:
“That land, where every stone is an altar to the living God, and
every rock a seat for a prophet of the supreme Lord”.
Or, as he exclaims in another poem, “Land of the muses, perfection of beauty, wherein every stone is a book, every rock a graven tablet!”
Another collection of poems by Mikal, Kinnor Bat-Ziyyon (“The Harp of the Daughter of Zion"), published at Wilna, posthumously, contains, besides a number of pieces translated from the German, also lyric poems, in which the poet breathes forth his soul and his suffering. He loves life passionately, but he divines that he will not be granted the opportunity of enjoying it long, and, in an access of despair, he cries out: “Accursed be death, accursed also life!” His nature changes, his muse grows sad, and, like his father, he discerns only injustice and misfortune in the world. In a poem addressed to “The Stars", he fairly storms high heaven to wrest from it the secret of the worlds:
“Answer me, I pray, answer me, ye who are denizens on high! O,
stop the march of the eternal laws a single instant! Alas, my
heart is full of disgust over this earth. Here man is born unto
pain and misery!... Here reigns religious Hatred! On her lips
she bears the name of the God of mercy, and in her hands the
blood-dripping sword. She prays, she throws herself upon her
knees, yet without cease, and in the name of God, she slaughters
her victims. This world, when the Lord created it in a fit of
anger, He cast it far away from Him in wrath. Then Death threw
herself upon it, scattering terror everywhere. She holds this
world in her talons. Misery also precipitates herself upon it,
gnashing her teeth in beast-like rage. She clutches man like a
beast of prey, she torments him without reprieve....”
This posthumous collection of poems contains also love poems and Zionist lamentations, all bearing the impress of the deep melancholy and the sadness that characterized the last years of the poet's short life. A cruel malady carried him off at the age of twenty-four, and the friends of Hebrew poetry were left mourning in despair.
Romantic fiction in Hebrew, which the strait-laced life and the austerity of the educated had rendered impossible up to this time, now made its first appearance in the form of translations of modern romances. They were received with acclaim by a well-disposed public greedy for novelties. The creators of original romances were not long in coming. The first master in the department, the father of Hebrew romance, was Abraham Mapu (1808-1867).
Mapu was born at Slobodka, a suburb of Kowno, a sad town inhabited almost entirely by Jews. The whole of the population vegetates there amid the most deplorable conditions, economic and sanitary. The father of Mapu was a poor, melancholy Melammed, a teacher of Hebrew and the Talmud, simple in his outlook upon life, yet not without a certain degree of education. He loved and cultivated knowledge as taught by the Hebrew masters of the Middle Ages. Mapu's mother was gentle and sweet. With resignation and fortitude she endured the physical suffering that hampered her all her life. His brother Mattathias, a Rabbinical student, was a man of parts.
In brief, it was misery itself, the life he knew, but the misery once surmounted, and vain desires eliminated, it was a life that tended to bind closer the ties of family love. Being a sickly child, Mapu did not begin to study the elementary branches until he was five years old, an advanced age among people whose children were usually sent to the Heder at four, to spend years upon years there that brought no joy to the student as he sat all day long bent over the great folios of the Talmud, except the joy that comes from success in study. Rational instruction in the Bible and in Hebrew grammar, scorned by the Talmudic dialecticians as superficial studies, was banished from the Heder. Happily for the future writer, his father taught him the Bible, and awakened love in his sensitive heart for the Hebrew language and for the glorious past of his people. At the same time, his Talmudic education went on admirably. At the age of twelve, he had the reputation of being a scholar, at the age of thirteen, an 'Illui, a “phenomenon", and from that time on he was at liberty to devote himself to his studies at his own free will, without submitting himself to the discipline of a master.
Like all young Talmudists, he was soon sought after as a desirable son- in-law, and it was not long before his father affianced him to the daughter of a well-to-do burgher. At the age of seventeen, he was married. Marriage, however, did not change his life. As before, he pursued his studies, while his father-in-law provided for his wants. But soon his studies took a new direction. His pensive mind, stifled by Rabbinic scholasticism, turned to the Kabbalah. Mystical exaltation more and more took possession of him, and the day came when he all but declared himself a follower of Hasidism. It was his mother who saved him. He yielded to her prayers, and was held back from committing a perilous act of heresy.
These internal conflicts between feeling and reason, the perplexities with which his spirit wrestled, did not affect our author to an excessive degree. They produced no radical change in his personality. All his life Mapu remained the humble scholar of the ghetto, a successor of the Ebyonim, of the psalmists and the prophets. Timorous, melancholy, lacking all desire for the things connected with practical life, often degraded by their own material wretchedness and by the intellectual wretchedness of their surroundings, these dreamers of the ghetto, more numerous than the outsider knows, hide a moral exaltation in the depths of their hearts, a supreme idealism, always ready to do battle, never conquered. In their persons we are offered the only explanation there is for the activity and persistence of the Messianic people.
Mapu was on the point of succumbing, like so many others, the darkness of mysticism was about to drop like a pall upon his mind, when something happened, insignificant in itself, but important through its consequences, and he was snatched out of danger. A Latin psalter fell into his hands by chance; it gave a fresh turn to his studies, and his mind took its bearings anew.
Was it curiosity, or was it desire for knowledge, that impelled him to decipher the sacred text in an unknown language at what cost soever? It is certain that no difficulty affrighted him. Word by word he translated the Latin text by dint of comparing it with the Hebrew original, and he succeeded in acquiring a large number of Latin words. He is not alone in this achievement. Solomon Maimon learned the alphabet of the German, the language in which he later wrote his best philosophic essays, from the German names of the treatises of the Talmud prefixed to an edition printed in Berlin. And many other such cases among the educated Jews of Lithuania might be cited.
These mental gymnastics, the necessity of rendering account to himself as to the precise value of each word, helped Mapu to a better understanding of the Bible text and a closer identification with its spirit.
Good fortune and material well-being are not stable possessions with people like the Russian Jews, obliged to earn their livelihood in the face of rabid competition, and exposed to the caprices of a hostile legislation. One day Mapu's father-in-law found himself ruined. The young man was obliged to interrupt his studies and accept a place as tutor in the family of a well-situated Jewish farmer.
His prolonged stay in the country exerted an excellent influence upon the impressionable soul of the young man. His close communion with nature, which quickly captivated his mind, rent asunder forever the mystic veil that had enshrouded it. Still more important was his association with the enlightened Polish curate of the village, who interested himself in the young scholar and devoted much time to his instruction. Mapu threw himself with ardor into the study of the Latin classics. He is the first instance of a Hebrew poet having had the opportunity of forming his mind upon the ample models of classic antiquity. Continuing under the tuition of the curate, he studied French, the language of his preference, then German, and, only in the last instance, Russian. The Russian language was not held in high esteem by the Maskilim of Mapu's day. In Kowno, whither he returned after some time, he was compelled to hide his new acquisitions, for fear of arousing the hatred of the fanatics and suffering injury in his profession as teacher of Hebrew.
Infatuated with the works of the romanticists, especially the novels of Eugène Sue, his favorite author, he began to think out the first part of his historical romance Ahabat Ziyyon (“The Love of Zion") as early as 1830. Twenty-three years were to pass before it saw the light of day. During that interval he led a life of never-ceasing privation and toil, laboring by day, dreaming by night. The Haskalah had created humanist centres in the little towns of Lithuania. In some of these, in Zhagor and in Rossieny, “the city of the educated, of the friends of their people and of the sacred tongue", Mapu finally found the opportunity to display his talents. But his material condition, bad enough to begin with, grew worse and worse. After oft-repeated applications, he received the appointment as teacher at a Jewish government school in Kowno, in 1848. This, together with the pecuniary assistance granted him by his more fortunate brother, put an end permanently to his embarrassment. Occupying an independent position, he could devote himself to his romance. Finally, the success obtained by the Hebrew translation of “The Mysteries of Paris” emboldened him to publish his “Love of Zion", and the timid author was overwhelmed, stupefied almost, when he realized the enthusiasm with which the public had greeted his first literary product.
Into the ascetic and puritanic environment in which the world of sentiment and the life of the spirit were unknown, Mapu's romance descended like a flash of lightning, rending the cloud that enveloped all hearts. A century after Rousseau, there was still a corner in Europe in which pleasure, the joy of living, the good things of this life, and nature, were considered futilities, in which love was condemned as a crime, and the passions as the ruin of the soul. Such were the surroundings amid which “The Love of Zion", a Jewish Nouvelle Héloïse, appeared as the first plea for nature and love.
“The Love of Zion” is an historical romance. It re-tells a chapter in the life of the Jewish people at the time of the prophet Isaiah. The poet could not exercise any choice as to his subject—it was forced upon him inevitably. In order to be sure of touching a responsive chord in his people, it was necessary to carry the action twenty-five centuries back. A Jewish novel based on contemporaneous life would have been incongruous both with truth and with the spirit of the ghetto.
The time of his novel was the golden age of ancient Judea. It was the epoch of a great literary and prophetic outburst. Also it was an agitated time, presenting striking contrasts. At Jerusalem, an enlightened king was making a firm stand against the limitation of his power from within and against an almost invincible enemy from without. On the one side, society was decadent, on the other side arose the greatest moralists the world has ever seen, the prophets, the intrepid assailants of corruption. It was, finally, the period in which the noblest dreams of a better, an ideal humanity were dreamed. That is the time in which the author lets his story take place.
In the reign of King Ahaz, two friends lived at Jerusalem. The
one named Joram was an officer in the army and the owner of rich
domains; the other, Jedidiah, belonged to the royal family. Joram
had married two wives, Haggith and Naamah. The latter was his
favorite, but at the end of many years she had borne him no
children. Obliged to go forth to war against the Philistines,
Joram entrusted his family to the care of his friend Jedidiah. At
the moment of his departure, his wife Naamah, and also Tirzah,
the wife of Jedidiah, discovered, each, that she was with child.
The two friends agreed, that if the one bore a son and the other
a daughter, the two children should in time marry each other.
Things turned out according to the hopes of the fathers. The wife
of Jedidiah was the first to be confined, and she gave birth to a
daughter, who was named Tamar.
Joram was taken captive by the enemy, and did not return. At the
same time a great misfortune overtook his family. His steward
Achan permitted himself to be tempted to evil by a judge, Matthan
by name, a personal enemy of Joram. He set fire to the house of
his master, first having despoiled it of all there was in it. His
booty he carried to the house of Matthan, and Haggith and her
children perished in the flames. Achan laid the blame for the
fire upon Naamah, who, he said, desired to avenge herself upon
her rival Haggith. He substituted his own son Nabal for Azrikam,
the son of Haggith, the only one of Joram's family, he pretended,
to escape with his life. Poor Naamah, about to be delivered, was
compelled to flee and take refuge with a shepherd in the
neighborhood of Bethlehem. There she bore twins, a son named
Amnon, and a daughter, Peninnah.
Jedidiah, shocked by the calamity that had overwhelmed the house
of his friend, took the supposed Azrikam, the son of Joram, home
with him, and raised him with his own children. In order to keep
the spirit of his word to his friend, he considered Azrikam the
future husband of his daughter, seeing that Naamah had
disappeared, and was, besides, under the suspicion of being a
murderess. Achan's triumph was complete. His son was to take the
place of Azrikam, inherit the house of Joram, and marry the
In the meanwhile happened the fall of the kingdom of Samaria. The
Assyrians carried off the inhabitants captive, among them
Hananel, the father-in-law of Jedidiah. One of the captives, the
Samaritan priest Zimri, succeeded in making his escape, and he
fled to Jerusalem. The name of his fellow-prisoner Hananel, which
he used as a recommendation, opened the house and the trustful
heart of Jedidiah to him.
Tamar and Azrikam grew up side by side in the house of Jedidiah.
They differed from each other radically. Beautiful as Tamar
was, and good and generous, so ugly and perverse was Azrikam. The
maiden despised him with all her heart. One day Tamar, while
walking in the country near Bethlehem, was attacked by a lion. A
shepherd hastened to her rescue and saved her life. This shepherd
was none but Amnon, the son of the unfortunate Naamah.
Teman, the brother of Tamar, by chance happened upon Peninnah,
the sister of Amnon, who pretended she was an alien, and he was
seized with violent love for her. Thus the son and the daughter
of Jedidiah were infatuated, the one with the daughter of Naamah,
the other with her son, without suspecting who they were.
Amnon, who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of
Tabernacles, was received with joy, by Jedidiah and his wife, as
the savior of their daughter. He was made at home in their house,
and won general favor by reason of his excellent character. The
young shepherd felt attracted to the study of sacred subjects. He
frequented the school of the prophets, and he was particularly
entranced with the eloquence of the great Isaiah.
The pretended Azrikam did not view the friendship established
between Tamar and Amnon with a favorable eye. He took the priest
Zimri into his confidence, and made him his accomplice and aid in
disposing of his rival. Jedidiah, meanwhile, remained faithful to
his promise, and persisted in his intention of giving his
daughter in marriage to Azrikam, in spite of her own wishes in
the matter. When the tender feeling between Tamar and Amnon
became evident, Jedidiah dismissed the latter from his house.
The period treated of is the most turbulent in the history of
Judea. The conflict of passions and intrigues is going on that
preceded the downfall of the kingdom of Judah and the great
Assyrian invasion. Moral disorder reigns everywhere, iniquity and
lies rule in place of justice. The upright tremble and hope,
encouraged by the prophets. The wicked are defiant, and give
themselves up shamelessly to their debauches.
“Let us drink, let us sing!” exclaimed the crowd of the impious.
“Who knows whether to-morrow finds us alive!”
Zimri meditates a master stroke. Every evening Amnon betook
himself to a little hut on the outskirts of the town, where his
mother and his sister lived. Zimri surprises him. He takes Tamar
and Teman there, and they watch Amnon embrace his sister. Now all
is over. A dreadful blow is dealt the love of brother and sister,
who are ignorant of the bonds of kinship uniting Amnon and
Peninnah. Repulsed by Tamar, for he knows not what reason, Amnon
leaves Jerusalem, despair in his heart.
All is not lost yet. Maltreated by his own son and plagued by
remorse, Achan confesses his misdeeds to the alleged Azrikam, and
reveals his real origin to him. Furious, Azrikam thinks of
nothing but to get rid of his father. He sets his father's house
afire, but, before his death, Achan makes a confession to the
court. Everything is disclosed, and everything is cleared up.
Tamar, now made aware of the error she has committed, is
inconsolable at having separated from Amnon.
Meantime the political events take their course. The brave king
Hezekiah carries on the struggle against his minister Shebnah,
who desires to surrender the capital to the Assyrians. The
miraculous defeat of the enemy at the gates of Jerusalem assures
the triumph of Hezekiah. Peace and justice are established once
During this time, Amnon, taken prisoner in war and sold as slave
to a master living on one of the Ionian isles, has found his
father Jorara there. Both together succeed in making good their
escape, and they return to Jerusalem.
The joy of the Holy City delivered from the invader coincides
with the joy of the two reunited families, whose cherished wishes
are realized. The loves of Tamar and Amnon, and Teman and
This is the frame of the novel, which recalls the wonder-tales of the eighteenth century. From the point of view of romantic intrigue, study of character, and development of plot, it is a puerile work. The interest does not reside in the romantic story. Borrowed from modern works, the fiction rather injures Mapu's novel, which is primarily a poem and an historical reconstruction. “The Love of Zion” is more than an historical romance, more than a narrative invented by an imaginative romancer—it is ancient Judea herself, the Judea of the prophets and the kings, brought to life again in the dreams of the poet. The reconstruction of Jewish society of long ago, the appreciation of the prophetic life, the local color, the majesty of the descriptions of nature, the vivid and striking figures of speech, the elevated and vigorous style, everything is so instinct with the spirit of the Bible that, without the romantic story, one would believe himself to be perusing a long-lost and now recovered book of poetry of ancient Judea.
Dreamy, guileless, ignorant of the actual and complicated phenomena of modern life, Mapu was able to identify himself with the times of the prophets so well that he confounded them with modern times. He committed the anachronism of transporting the humanist ideas of the Lithuanian Maskil to the period of Isaiah. But by reason of wishing to show himself modern, he became ancient. He was not even aware of the fact that he was restoring the past with its peculiar civilization, its manners, and ideas.
None the less his aim as a reformer was attained. Guided by prophetic intuition, Mapu accomplished a task making for morality and culture. To men given over to a degenerate asceticism, or to a mystic attitude hostile to the present, he revealed a glorious past as it really had been, not as their brains, weighed down by misery and befogged by ignorance, pictured it to have been. He showed them, not the Judea of the Rabbis, of the pious, and the ascetics, but the land blessed by nature, the land where men took joy in living, the land of life, flowing with gaiety and love, the land of the Song of Songs and of Ruth. He drew Isaiah for them, not as a saintly Rabbi or a teller of mystical dreams, but a poetic Isaiah, patriot, sublime moralist, the prophet of a free Judea, the preacher of earthly prosperity, of goodness, and justice, opposing the narrow doctrines and minute and senseless ceremonialism inculcated by the priests, who were the predecessors of the Rabbis.
The lesson of the novel is an exhortation to return to a natural life. It presents a world of pleasure, of feeling, of joyous living, justified and idealized in the name of the past. It sets forth the charms of rural life in a succession of poetic pictures. Judea, the pastoral land, passes under the eyes of the reader. The blithe humor of the vine- dressers, the light-heartedness of the shepherds, the popular festivals with their outbursts of joy and high spirits, are reproduced with masterly skill. The moral grandeur of Judea appears in the magnificent description of a whole people assembled to celebrate the Feast in the Holy City, and in the impassioned discourses of the prophets, who openly criticise the great and the priests in the name of justice and truth. But especially it is love that pervades the work, love, chaste and ingenuous, apotheosized in the relation of Amnon and Tamar.
The impression that was made by the book is inconceivable. It can be compared with nothing less than the effect produced by the publication of the Nouvelle Héloïse.
At last the Hebrew language had found the master who could make the appeal to popular taste, who understood the art of speaking to the multitude and touching them deeply. The success of the book was impressive. In spite of the fanatical intriguers, who looked with horror upon this profanation of the holy language, the novel made its way everywhere, into the academies for Rabbinical students, into the very synagogues. The young were amazed and entranced by the poetic flights and by the sentimentalism of the book. A whole people seemed to be reborn unto life, to emerge from its millennial lethargy. Upon all minds the comparison between ancient grandeur and actually existing misery obtruded itself.
The Lithuanian woods witnessed a startling spectacle. Rabbinical students, playing truant, resorted thither to read Mapu's novel in secret. Luxuriously they lived the ancient days over again. The elevated love celebrated in the book touched all hearts, and many an artless romance was sketched in outline.
But the greatest beneficiary of the new movement ushered into being by the appearance of “The Love of Zion” was the Hebrew language, revived in all its splendor.
“I have searched out the ancient Latin in its majestic vigor, the
German with its depth of meaning, the French full of charm and
ravishing expressions, the Russian in the flower of its youth.
Each has qualities of its own, each is crowned with beauty. But
in the face of all of them, whose voice appeals unto me? Is it
not thy voice, my dove? How pellucid is thy word, though its
music issues from the land of destruction!... The melody of thy
words sings in my ear like a heavenly harp.” [Footnote: See
Brainin, “Abraham Mapu", p. 107.]
This idealization of a language of the past, and of that past itself, produced an enormous effect upon all minds, and it prepared the soil for an abundant harvest. The success won by “The Love of Zion" encouraged Mapu to publish his other historical romance, the action of which is placed in the same period as the first work. Ashmat Shomeron (“The Transgression of Samaria"), also published at Wilna, is an epic in the true sense. It reproduces the conflicts set afoot by the rivalry between Jerusalem and Samaria. The underlying idea in this novel is not unlike that of “The Love of Zion”. But the author allows himself to run riot in the use of antitheses and contrasts. He arraigns the poor inhabitants of Samaria with pitiless severity. Whatever is good, just, beautiful, lofty, and chaste in love, proceeds from Jerusalem; whatever savors of hypocrisy, crookedness, dogmatism, absurdity, sensuality, proceeds from Samaria. The author is particularly implacable toward the hypocrites, and toward the blind fanatics with their narrow-mindedness. The personification of certain types of ghetto fanatics is a transparent ruse. The book excited the anger of the obscurantists, and, in their wrath, they persecuted all who read the works of Mapu.
“The Transgression of Samaria” shares a number of faults of technique with the first novel, but also it is equally with the other a product of rich imaginativeness and epic vigor. In reproducing local color and the Biblical life, the author's touch is even surer than in “The Love of Zion”.
If one were inclined to apply to Mapu's novels the standards of art criticism, a radical fault would reveal itself. Mapu is not a psychologist. He does not know how to create heroes of flesh and blood. His men and women are blurred, artificial. The moral aim dominates. The plot is puerile, and the succession of events tiresome. But these shortcomings were not noticed by his simple, uncultivated readers, for the reason that they shared the artless naïveté of the author.
Besides these two, we have some poetic fragments of a third historical romance by Mapu, which was destroyed by the Russian censor. There is also an excellent manual of the Hebrew language, Amon Padgug (“The Master Pedagogue"), very much valued by teachers of Hebrew, and, finally, a method of the French language In Hebrew.
We shall revert elsewhere to his last novel, 'Ayit Zabua' (“The Hypocrite"), which is very different in style and character from his first two romances.
In his last years he was afflicted with a severe disease. Unable to work, he was supported by his brother, who had settled in Paris, and who invited Mapu to join him there. On the way, death overtook him, and he never saw the capital of the country for which he had expressed the greatest admiration all his life.
In southern Russia, especially at Odessa, literary activity continued to be carried on with success. Abraham Bär Gottlober (1811-1900), writing under the pseudonym Mahalalel, was the most productive of the poets, if not the best endowed of the whole school.
A disciple of Isaac Bär Levinsohn, and visibly affected by the influence of Wessely and Abraham Bär Lebensohn, he devoted himself to poetry. The first volume of his poems appeared at Wilna in 1851. Toward the end of his days, he published his complete works in three volumes, Kol Shire Mahalalel (“Collected Poems", Warsaw, 1890). His earliest productions go back to the middle of the last century. He is a remarkable stylist, and, in some of his works, his language is both simple and polished. “Cain", or the Vagabond, is a marvel in style and thought.
In the poem entitled “The Bird in the Cage", he writes as a Zionist, and he weeps over the trials of his people in exile. In another poem, Nezah Yisraël (“The Eternity of Israel"), perhaps the best that issued from his pen, he puts forward a dignified claim to his title as Jew, of which he is proud.
“Judah has neither bow nor warring hosts, nor avenging dart, nor
sharpened sword. But he has a suit in the name of justice with
the nations that contend with him....
“I take good heed not to recount to you our glory. Why should I
extol the eternal people, for you detest its virtues, you desire
not to hear of them.... But remember, ye peoples, if I commit a
transgression, not in me lies the wrong—through your sin I have
“I ask not for pity, I ask but for justice.”
On the whole, Gottlober lacks poetic warmth. In the majority of his poems, his style errs on the side of prolixity and wordiness. He has made a number of translations into Hebrew, and his prose is excellent. His satires frequently display wit. His versified history of Hebrew poetry, contained in the third volume of his works, is inferior to the Melizat Yeshurun by Solomon Levinsohn referred to above. Later he published a monthly review in Hebrew, under the title Ha-Boker Or (“The Clear Morning"). His reminiscences of the Hasidim, whom he opposed all his life, are the best of his prose writings, and put him in a class with the realists. He also wrote a history of the Kabbalah and Hasidism (Toledot ha-Kabbalah weha-Hasidut). [Footnote: In the monthly Ha-Boker Or, and Orot me-Ofel (“Gleams in the Darkness"), Warsaw, 1881.]
Gottlober was the Mehabber personified, the type of the vagabond author, who is obliged to go about in person and force his works upon patrons in easy circumstances.
The number of writers belonging to the romantic school, by reason of the form of their works, or by reason of their content, is too large for us to give them all by name. Only a few can be mentioned and characterized briefly.
Elias Mordecai Werbel (1805-1880) was the official poet of the literary circle at Odessa. A collection of his poems, which appeared at Odessa, is distinguished by its polished execution. Besides odes and occasional poems, they contain several historical pieces, the most remarkable of them “Huldah and Bor", Wilna, 1848, based on a Talmudic legend. [Footnote: In Keneset Yisraël, Warsaw, 1888.]
He was excelled by Israel Roll (1830-1893), a Galician by birth, but living in Odessa. His Shire Romi (“Roman Poems"), all translated from the works of the great Latin poets, give evidence of considerable poetic endowment. His style is classic, copious, and precise, and his volume of poems will always maintain a place in a library of Hebrew literature by the side of Mikal's version of Ovid and the admirable translation of the Sibylline books made by the eminent philologist Joshua Steinberg.
In prose, first place belongs to Benjamin Mandelstamm (died 1886). Among his works is a history of Russia, but his most important production, Hazon la-Mo'ed, is a narrative of his travels and the impressions he received in the “Jewish zone", chiefly Lithuania. In certain respects, he must be classified with Mordecai A. Ginzburg, with whom he shares clarity of thought and wit. But his sentimentality, and his excessive indulgence in certain affectations of style, range him with the romantic poets.
The distinguished poet Judah Leon Gordon in his beginnings also belonged to the romantic school. His earliest poems, especially “David and Michal", treat of Bible times. But Gordon did not remain long in sympathy with the endeavors of the romanticists, and the mature stage of his literary activity belongs to a later epoch.
The characteristic trait of Hebrew romanticism, which distinguishes it from most analogous movements in Europe, is that it remained in the path of orderly progress and emancipation. It showed no sign of turning aside toward reactionary measures in religion or in other concerns. Neither the retrograde policy adopted by the government against the Jews, nor the uncompromising fanaticism of certain parties among the Jews themselves, could arrest the development of the humanitarian ideas disseminated by the Austrian and the Italian school.
Since the origin of the German Meassefim movement, the evolution of Hebrew literature has not been stopped for a single instant in its striving for knowledge and light. The romantic movement is one of its most characteristic stages, and at the same time one most productive of good results. The sombre present held out no promises for the future, and the dark clouds on the political horizon eclipsed every hope of better fortunes. At such a time the champions of the Haskalah opposed ignorance and prejudice in the name of the past, and in the name of morality and idealism they sought to win the hearts of the populace for the “Divine Haskalah”.
The influence of Hebrew romanticism was many-sided. The blending of the rationalism of the first humanists with the patriotic sentiments of Luzzatto fortified the bonds that united the writers to the mass of the faithful believers. A sentimentalism that was called forth by a poetic revival of the times of the prophets did more for the diffusion of sane and natural ideas than exhortations and arguments without end, and the declaration, repeated again and again by the school of Wilna, that science and faith stand in no sort of opposition to each other, was an equally powerful means of bringing together the educated with the moderate among the religious.
Soon the times were to become more favorable to a renewal of the combat with the obscurants, and then the antagonism between the educated classes and the orthodox would be resumed with fresh vigor. When that time arrived, a whole school of ardent realistic writers set themselves the task of counteracting the misery of Jewish life, and they executed it without sparing the susceptibilities and the self-love of the religious masses. They rose up in judgment against orthodox and traditional Judaism; they chastised it and traduced it. With acerbity they promulgated the gospel of modern humanism and the surrender of outward beliefs. By their side, however, we shall see a more moderate school claim its own, and one not less efficient. It will proclaim words of charity, faith, and hope. To the negations and destructive aphorisms of the realistic school it will oppose firm confidence in the early regeneration of the Jewish people, called to fulfil its destiny upon its national soil. The Zionist appeal will unite the orthodox masses and the emancipated youth in a single transport of action and hope.
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