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Contemporaneous Literature

( Originally Published 1909 )

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 Srnolenskin, 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 him-self 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 Pales-tine. 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 wenelekah (" O House of Jacob, come ye and let us walk "). The practical result was the organization of the group BILU,1 the first to leave for Palestine and establish a colony there. 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 renaissance 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, incur-able 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 pro-posais 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 be 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.

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-Asi f (" 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 YisraŽl (" The Assembly of Israel "), published by Saul Phinehas Rabbinowitz, the learned historian.

In 1886, the journalist, Jehudah Lob 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 re-habilitation 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 expres-signs 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 He-brew 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." 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.' 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.`

Among the latest to claim the attention of the public, the name of Hayyim N. Bialik5 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. 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. The second one is Isaac Lob Perez, the symbolist painter of love and misery, a charming teller of tales and a distinguished artist'

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,9 the first editor of the review Ha-Shiloah, a critic who often drops into paradoxes, but is always original and bold. 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: 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. 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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