CHAPTER XII. CONTEMPORANEOUS LITERATURE
The years 1881-1882 mark off a distinct era in the history of the Jewish people. The revival of anti-Semitism in Germany, the unexpected renewal of persecutions and massacres in Russia and Roumania, the outlawing of millions of human beings, whose situation grew less tenable from day to day in those two countries—such were the occurrences that disconcerted the most optimistic.
In the face of the precipitate exodus of crazed masses of the people and the urgency of decisive action, the old disputes between humanists and nationalists were laid aside. There could be but one choice between impossible assimilation with the Slav people on the one hand, and the idea, on the other hand, of a national emancipation divested of its mystical envelope and supplied with a territory as a practicable basis. All the Hebrew-writing authors were agreed that the time had passed for wrangling over a divergence of opinions. It was imperative that all forces should range themselves on the side of action. Even a skeptic like Gordon issued at that time, among many things like it, his thrilling poem: “We were a people, and we will a people be—with our young and with our old will we go!”
But whither? Some decided for America with the Western philanthropists, others, with Smolenskin, declared absolutely in favor of Palestine, the country of the Jew's perennial dreams.
Academic discussions of such questions are futile. It may safely be left to time and experience to decide between the two currents of opinion. As early as 1880, the young dreamer Ben-Jehudah, inspired with the idea of reviving the Hebrew as a national language, left Paris and established himself at Jerusalem. And from Lithuania came the romantic conservative Pines, forsaking the distinguished position he occupied there, in order to give his aid in the elevation of the Jews of Palestine. The tracks made by these two pioneers issuing from opposite camps were soon trodden by the followers of important movements.
A select circle of four hundred university students, indignant at the humiliating position into which they had been forced, thundered forth an appeal that resounded throughout the length and breadth of Jewish Russia: Bet Ya'akob, leku we-nelekah (“O House of Jacob, come ye and let us walk"). The practical result was the organization of the group BILU, the first to leave for Palestine and establish a colony there. [Footnote: Is. II, 5. BILU are the initials of the four words of the Hebrew sentence quoted above.] This nucleus was enlarged by the accession of hundreds of middle class burghers and of the educated, and thus Jewish colonization was a permanently assured fact in the Holy Land.
The surprising return of the younger generation, who had wholly broken with Judaism, this first step toward the actual realization of the Zionist dream, has had most important consequences for the renascence of Hebrew literature. As for the educated element that had never, at least in spirit, left the ghetto, men like Lilienblum, Braudes, and others, whose later activity, a propaganda for economic reforms and instruction in manual trades, had almost ceased to have a reason for continuing,—as for them, their adhesion to Zionism could not be long delayed. And even outside of the ghetto a voice was heard, the authoritative voice of Dr. Leon Pinsker, announcing his support of the philo-Palestinian movement, as it was then called. In his brochure “Auto-Emancipation", the learned physician of Odessa, one of the old guard of staunch humanists, declares that the disease of anti-Semitism is a chronic affection, incurable as long as the Jews are in exile. There is but one solution for the Jewish question, the national regeneration of the Jews upon their ancient soil.
A new dawn began to break upon the horizon of the Jewish people. Hebrew literature was stimulated as never before, and the enthusiasm of the writers incorporated itself in the spirited proposals of Moses Eismann, Professor Schapira, and a number of others. In this sudden blossoming of patriotic ideas, excesses were inevitable. A chauvinistic reaction was not long in setting in. The religious reformers were attacked, they were accused of hindering a fusion of diverse parties in Judaism whose cordial agreement was indispensable to the success of the new movement.
Smolenskin alone was irreproachable. He who had never acknowledged the benefits of assimilation, had no need now to go to extremes. He remained faithful to his patriotic ideal, without renouncing any of his humanitarian and cultural aspirations. The activity he displayed was feverish. Now that he no longer stood alone in the defense of his ideas, he redoubled his efforts with admirable energy—encouraging here, exhorting there. But he was coming to the end of his strength, exhausted by a life of struggle and wretchedness, by long overtaxing of his physical and mental powers. He died in 1885, in the vigor of his years, cut off by disease. The whole of Jewry mourned at his grave. And Ha- Shahar soon ceased to exist.
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With the extinction of Ha-Shahar we arrive at the end of the task we have set ourselves, of following up a phase of literary evolution. Modern Hebrew literature, for a century the handmaiden of one preponderating idea, the humanist idea in all its various applications, henceforth enters upon a new phase of its development. Led back by Smolenskin to its national source, stripped of every religious element, and imposed by the force of circumstances upon the masses and the educated alike, as the link uniting them thenceforth for the furtherance of the same patriotic end, it has again taken its place as the language of the Jewish people. It has ceased to serve as the mere mediator between Rabbinism and modern life. It is become an end in itself, an important factor in the life of the Jews. It is no longer a parasite flourishing at the expense of orthodoxy, from which it has for a century been luring away successive generations of the best of the young men, who, however, once emancipated, hastened to abandon that to which they owed their enlightenment. It has become the receptacle of the national literature of the Jewish people.
In 1885, when the distinguished editor of Ha-Zefirah, Nahum Sokolow, undertook the publication of the great literary annual, He-Asif (“The Collector"), the success he achieved went beyond the wildest expectations. The edition ran up to seven thousand copies. It was followed by other enterprises of a similar character, notably Keneset Yisraël (“The Assembly of Israel"), published by Saul Phinehas Rabbinowitz, the learned historian.
In 1886, the journalist, Jehudah Löb Kantor, encouraged by the vogue acquired by the Hebrew language, founded the first daily paper in it, Ha-Yom (“The Day"), at St. Petersburg. The success of this organ induced Ha-Meliz and Ha-Zefirah to change into dailies. A Hebrew political press thus came into being, and it has contributed tremendously to the spread of Zionism and culture. Even the Hasidim, who had until then remained contumacious toward modern ideas, were reached by its influence. It was, however, the Hebrew language that profited most by the development of journalism in it. The demands of daily life enriched its vocabulary and its resources, completing the work of modernization.
In Palestine, the need felt for an academic language common to the children of immigrants from all countries was a great factor in the practical rehabilitation of Hebrew as the vernacular. Ben-Jehudah was the first to use it in his home, in intercourse with the members of his family and his household, and a number of educated Jews followed his example, not permitting any other to be spoken within their four walls. In the schools at Jerusalem and in the newly-established colonies, it has become the official language. A recoil from the Palestinian movement was felt in Europe and in America, and a limited number of circles were formed everywhere in which only Hebrew was spoken. The journal Ha- Zebi (“The Deer"), published by Ben-Jehudah, became the organ of Hebrew as a spoken language, which differs from the literary language only in the greater freedom granted it of borrowing modern words and expressions from the Arabic and even from the European languages, and by its tendency to create new words from old Hebrew roots, in compliance with forms occurring in the Bible and the Mishnah. Here are a couple of examples of this tendency: The Hebrew word Sha'ah means “time", “hour”. To this word the modern Hebrew adds the termination on, making it Sha'on, with the meaning “watch", or “clock”. The verb darak, in Biblical Hebrew “to walk", gives rise in the modern language to Midrakah, “pavement.”
The spread of the language and the increase in the number of readers together produced a change in the material condition of the writers. Their compensation became ampler in proportion, the consequence of which was that they could devote themselves to work requiring more sustained effort, and what they produced was more finished in detail. With the founding of the publishing society Ahiasaf, and more particularly the one called Tushiyah, due to the energy of Abraham L. Ben- Avigdor, a sympathetic writer, Hebrew was afforded the possibility of developing naturally, in the manner of a modern language.
There was a short interval of non-production, caused by the brutality and sadness of unexpected events, but literary creativeness recovered quickly, and manifested itself, with growing force, in varied and widespread activity worthy of a literature that had grown out of the needs of a national group. On the field of poetry, there is, first of all, Constantin Shapiro, the virile lyricist, who knew how to put into fitting words the indignation and revolt of the people against the injustice levelled against them. His “Poems of Jeshurun” published in He-Asif for 1888, alive with emotion and patriotic ardor, as well as his Haggadic legends, must be put in the first rank. After him comes Menahem M. Dolitzki, the elegiac poet of Zionism, the singer of sweet “Zionides.” [Footnote: Poems published in New York, in 1896.] Then a young writer, snatched away all too early, Mordecai Zebi Manne, who was distinguished for his tender lyrics and deep feeling for nature and art. [Footnote: His works appeared in Warsaw in 1897.] And, finally, there is Naphtali Herz Imber, the song-writer of the Palestinian colonies, the poet of the reborn Holy Land and the Zionist hope. [Footnote: Poems published at Jerusalem in 1886.]
Among the latest to claim the attention of the public, the name of Hayyim N. Bialik  ought to be mentioned, a vigorous lyricist and an incomparable stylist, and of S. Tchernichovski,  an erotic poet, the singer of love and beauty, a Hebrew with an Hellenic soul. [Footnote 1: Poems published at Warsaw In 1902.] [Footnote 2: Poems published at Warsaw in 1900-2.] These two, both of them at the beginning of their career, are the most brilliant in a group of poets more or less well known.
Again, there are two story-writers that are particularly prominent, Abramowitsch, the old favorite, who, having abandoned Hebrew for a brief period in favor of jargon, returned to enrich Hebrew literature with a series of tales, poetic and humorous, of incomparable originality and in a style all his own. [Footnote: Collected Tales and Novels, Odessa, 1900.] The second one is Isaac Löb Perez, the symbolist painter of love and misery, a charming teller of tales and a distinguished artist. [Footnote: Works, in ten volumes, Hebrew Library of Tushiyah, 1899-1901.]
Of novelists and romancers, in prose and in verse, Samuely may be mentioned, and Goldin, Berschadsky, Feierberg, J. Kahn, Berditchevsky, S. L. Gordon, N. Pines, Rabinovitz, Steinberg, and Loubochitzky, to name only a few among many. Ben-Avigdor is the creator of the young realist movement, through his psychologic tales of ghetto life, particularly his Menahem ha-Sofer (“Menahem the Scribe"), wherein he opposes the new chauvinism.
Among the masters of the feuilleton are the subtle critic David Frischmann, translator of numerous scientific books; the writer of charming causeries, A. L. Levinski, author of a Zionist Utopia, “Journey to Palestine in the Year 5800", published in Ha-Pardes (“Paradise"), in Odessa; and J. H. Taviow, the witty writer.
On the field of thought and criticism, the most prominent place belongs to Ahad ha-'Am, the first editor of the review Ha-Shiloah, a critic who often drops into paradoxes, but is always original and bold. [Footnote: Collected Essays, published at Odessa in 1885, and at Warsaw in 1901.] He is the promoter of “spiritual Zionism", the counterstroke dealt to the practical, political movement by Messianic mysticism clothed in a somewhat more rational garb than its traditional form. He has a fine critical mind and is an acute observer, as well as a remarkable stylist.
To Ahad ha-'Am we may oppose Wolf Jawitz, the philosopher of religious romanticism, the defender of tradition, and one of the regenerators of Hebrew style. [Footnote: Ha-Arez, published at Jerusalem in 1893- 96; “History of the Jews", published at Wilna, 1898-1902, etc.] Between these two extremes, there is a moderate party, the foremost representative of which is Nahum Sokolow, the popular and prolific editor of Ha-Zefirah, prominent at once as a writer and a man of action. Dr. S. Bernfeld also deserves mention, as the admirable popularizer of the Science of Judaism, and an excellent historian, the author of a history of Jewish theology recently published at Warsaw.
Among the latest claimants of public attention is M. J. Berditchevsky, author of numerous tales bordering upon the decadent, but not wholly bare of the spirit of poetry. David Neumark takes rank as a thinker. Philology is worthily represented by Joshua Steinberg, author of a scientific grammar on original lines, not yet known to the scholars of Europe, and translator of the Sibylline books. [Footnote: Ma'arke Leshon Eber (“The Principles of the Hebrew Language"), Wilna, 1884, etc.] Fabius Mises has published a history of modern philosophy in Europe, and J. L. Katzenelenson is the author of a treatise on anatomy and of a number of literary works acceptable to the public. Then there are Leon Rabinovich, editor of Ha-Meliz, David Yellin, Lerner, A. Kahana, and others.
The history of modern literature has found a worthy representative in the person of Reuben Brainin, a master of style, himself the author of popular tales. His remarkable studies of Mapu, Smolenskin, and other writers, are conceived and executed according to the approved methods of modern critics. They have done good work in refining the taste and aesthetic feeling of the Hebrew-reading public.
All these, and a number of others, have given the Hebrew language an assured place. To their original works must be added numberless translations, text books, and editions of all sorts, and then we can form a fair idea of the actual significance of Hebrew in its modern development. In the number of publications, it ranks as the third literature in Russia, the Russian and the Polish being the only ones ahead of it, and no estimate of the influence it wields can afford to leave out of account its vogue in Palestine, Austria, and America.
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A glance at modern Hebrew literature as a whole reveals a striking tendency in its development, at once unexpected and inevitable. The humanist ideal, which stood sponsor at its rebirth, bore within itself a germ of dissolution. For national and religious aims it desired to substitute the idea of liberty and equality. Sooner or later it would have had to end in assimilation. During the course of a whole century, from the appearance of the first issue of Ha-Meassef, in 1784-5, until the cessation of Ha-Shahar, in 1885, Hebrew literature offers the spectacle of a constant conflict between the humanist ideals and Judaism. In spite of obstacles of every kind, and in spite of the dangerous rivalry of the European languages, the rivalry of the Jewish-German itself, the Hebrew language has given proof of persistent vitality, and displayed surprising power of adaptation to all sorts of circumstances and all departments of literature, and widely separated countries have been the scene of its development. So far as the earliest humanists had planned, the Hebrew language was to serve only as an instrument of propaganda and emancipation. Thanks to the efforts of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, Mendes, and Wessely, it rose for a brief moment to the rank of a truly literary medium, very soon, however, to make way for the languages of the various countries, while it receded to the narrow confines provided by the Maskilim. Its final destiny was to be decided in Slav lands. In Galicia, it gave birth, in the domain of philosophy, to the ideal of the “mission of the Jewish people", and to the “science of Judaism.” But for the great mass of the Jews remaining faithful to the Messianic ideal, what was of greatest significance was the national and religious romanticism expounded by Samuel David Luzzatto.
Lithuania, with its inexhaustible resources, moral and intellectual, became the stronghold of Hebrew. In its double aspect as a humanistic and a romantic force, Hebrew literature bounded forward on new paths with the lustiness of youth. Before long, under the impetus of social and economic reforms, the Hebrew writers declared war upon a Rabbinical authority that rejected every innovation, and was opposed to all progress. To meet the issue, the realistic literature came forward, polemic and destructive in character. A pitiless combat ensued between the humanists and Rabbinism, and the consequences were fateful for the one party as well as the other. Rabbinism felt that its very essence had been shaken, and that it was destined to disappear, at least in its traditional form. Humanism, on the other side, startled out of its dreams of justice and equality, lost ground, inch by inch, by reason of having broken with the national hope of the people. The attempt made by some writers to bring about the harmonization of religion and life turned out a lamentable miscarriage. The antagonism between the literary folk and the mass of believers ended in the breaking up of the whole literature created by the humanists. At that moment the progressive national movement made its appearance with Smolenskin, and supplied Hebrew literature with a purpose and its civilizing mission.
The predominant note of contemporary Hebrew literature is the Zionist ideal stripped of its mystical envelopes. It may be asserted that the Messianic hope in this new form is in the act of producing a transformation in Polish Hasidic surroundings, identical with that achieved by humanism in Lithuania. The rabid opposition offered to Hebrew literature by the Hasidim suffices to confirm this prognostication of a dreaded result.
Also beyond the boundaries of the Slav countries, in the distant Orient, the Hebrew lion is gaining territory, from Palestine to Morocco, and wherever his foot treads, culture springs up and national regeneration.
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Deep down in the sorely tried soul of the Jewish masses, there reposes a fund of idealism, and ardent faith in a better future unshaken by time or disappointments. Defraud them of the millennial ideal which sustains their courage, which is the very cornerstone of their existence, and you surrender them into the power of a dangerous despair, you push them into the arms of the demoralization that lies in wait everywhere, and in some countries has already come out in the open.
Hebrew literature, faithful to its Biblical mission, has within it the power of replenishing the moral resources of the masses and making their hearts thrill with enthusiasm for justice and the ideal. It is the focus of the rays vivifying all that breathes, that struggles, that creates, that hopes within the Jewish soul.
To misunderstand this moral bearing of the renascence of the Hebrew language is to fail to know the very life of the better part of Judaism and the Jew.
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Literary creation is now at its full blossom, and the ferment of ideas instilled from all sides is so powerful that an abundant harvest may be expected.
And that Bible language which has given humanity so many glorious pages, which has but now, thanks to the humanists, added a new page, is it destined in very truth to be born anew, and become once more the language of the national culture of the whole of the Jewish people? It would be rash to reply with a categorical affirmative.
What has been proved in the foregoing pages is, we believe, that it exists, and is developing both as a literary and a spoken language; that it has shown itself to be the equal of the modern languages; that it is capable of giving expression to all thoughts and all forms of human activity; and, finally, that it is accomplishing a work of culture and emancipation. The expansion of the language of the prophets taking place under our eyes is a fact that cannot but fascinate every mind interested in the mysterious evolution of the destinies of mankind in the direction of the ideal.