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The Realists - The Emancipation Movement

( Originally Published 1909 )

The accession of Alexander II to the throne marks a decisive moment in the history of the Russian empire. The fresh impetus that proceeded from the generous and liberal ideas encouraged by the Czar himself reached the ghetto. Substantial improvements in the political situation of the Jews Śtheir enlarged rights of residence in all parts of the empire and the easier access to the liberal professions granted them, the abolition of the old order of military service and the suppression of the Kahal these, joined to the expectation of an early civil emancipation, stirred the Jewish humanists profoundly. Startled out of their age-long dreams, the Jews with a modern education found themselves suddenly face to face with reality, and engaged in a struggle with the exigencies of modern life. In justice to them it must be said that they realized at once where their duty lay, and they were not found wanting.

They ranged themselves on the side of the re-form government, and with all their strength they tried to neutralize the resistance with which the conservative Jews met the reforms, projected or achieved. They were particularly active in the regions remote from the large cities, which had hardly been touched by the new currents. Early in the struggle, the creation of a Hebrew press placed an effective instrument in the hands of the defenders of the new order.

The interest aroused among the Jews by the Crimean War suggested the idea of a political and literary journal in Hebrew to Eliezer Lipman Silberman. It was called Ha-Maggid (" The Herald "), and the first issue appeared in 1856, in the little Prussian town of Lyck, situated on the Russo-Polish frontier. It was successful beyond expectation. The enthusiasm of the readers at sight of the periodical published in the holy language expressed itself in dithyrambic eulogies and a vast number of odes that filled its columns. The influence it exercised was great. It formed a meeting-place for the educated Jews of all countries and all shades of opinion. Besides news bearing on politics and literature, and philological essays, and poems more or less bombastic, Ha-Maggid published a number of original articles of great value. Its issues formed the link between the old masters, Rapoport and Luzzatto, and young Russian writers like Gordon and Lilienblum.

The learned French Orientalist Joseph HalÚvy, later the author of an interesting collection of Hebrew poems, used Ha-Maggid for the promulgation of his bold ideas on the revival of Hebrew, and its practical adjustment to modern notions and needs by means of the invention of new terms. In part, his propositions have been realized in our own days. To Rabbi Hirsch Kalisher and the editor, David Gordon, as the first promoters of the Zionist idea, Ha-Maggid gave the opportunity, as early as 1860, of urging its practical realization, and due to their propaganda the first society was formed for the colonization of Palestine.

This pioneer venture in the field of Hebrew journalism stimulated many others. Hebrew newspapers sprang up in all countries, varying in their tendencies according to their surroundings and the opinions of their editors. In Galicia especially, where there was no absurd censorship to manacle thought, Hebrew journals were published in abundance. In Palestine, in Austria, at one time in Paris even, periodicals were founded, and they created a public opinion as well as readers. But it was above all in Russia, in the measure in which the censorship was relaxed, that the Hebrew press became eventually a popular tribunal in the true sense of the word, with a steady army of readers at its back.

Samuel Joseph Finn, an historian and a philologist of merit, published a review at Wilna, called Ha-Karmel (1860-1880), which was devoted to the Science of Judaism in particular.

Hayyim Selig Slonimski, the renowned mathematician, founded his journal Ha-Zefirah (" The Morningstar ") in 1872. It was issued first in Berlin and later in Warsaw. He himself wrote a large number of articles in it, in his chosen field as popularizer of the natural sciences.

In Galicia, Joseph Kohen-Zedek published Ha-Mebasser (" The Messenger ") and Ha-Nesher (" The Eagle "), and Baruch Werber, Ha-'Ibri (" The Hebrew ").

By far outstripping all these in importance was the first Hebrew journal that appeared in Russia, Ha-Meliz (" The Interpreter "), founded at Odessa in 1860, by Alexander Zederbaum, one of the most faithful champions of humanism. Ha-Meliz became the principal organ of the movement for emancipation, and the spokesman of the Jewish reformers.

The Hebrew press with all its shortcomings, and in spite of its meagre resources,' which prevented it from securing regular, paid contributors, and left it at the mercy of an irresponsible set of amateurs, yet exercised considerable influence upon the Jews of Russia. Unremittingly it busied itself with the spread of civilization, knowledge, and Hebrew literature.

In the large centres, especially in the more recently established communities in the south of Russia, the intellectual emancipation of the Jews was an accomplished fact at an early day. The young people streamed to the schools, and applied them-selves voluntarily to manual trades. The professional schools and the Rabbinical seminaries established by the government robbed the Hedarim and the Yeshibot of thousands of students. The Russian language, hitherto neglected, began to dispute the first place with the jargon and even the Hebrew. Wherever the breath of economic and political reforms had penetrated, emancipation made its way, and without encountering serious opposition on the part of traditional Judaism.

Wilna, the capital of Lithuania, sorely tried by the Polish insurrection of 1863, and intentionally excluded by the government from the benefits of all administrative and political reforms, did not continue to be the centre of the new life of the Russian Jews, as it had been of their old life. The " Lithuanian Jerusalem " had put aside its sceptre, and it lay down for a long sleep, with dreams of the Haskalah, " twin-sister of faith ". As Wilna has since that time witnessed no excesses of fanaticism, so also it has not known an intense life, the acrid opposition between Haskalah and religion. It remained the capital of the moderate, traditional attitude and religious opportunism.

By way of compensation, the small country towns and the Talmudic centres in Lithuania put up a stubborn resistance to the new reforms. The poor literary folk stranded in out-of-the-way corners far removed from civilization were treated as pernicious heretics. Nothing could stop the fanatics in their persecution, and they had recourse to the extremest expedients. Made t0 believe that the reformers harbored designs against the fundamental principles of Judaism, the people, deluded and erring, thought the obscurantists right and applauded them, while they rose up against the modernizers as one man.

The opposition between humanism and the religious fanatics degenerated into a remorseless struggle. The early Haskalah, the gentle, celestial daughter of dreamers, was a thing of the past. The educated classes, conscious of the support of the authorities and of the public opinion prevailing in the centres of enlightenment, became aggressive, and made a bold attack upon the course and ways of the traditionalists. They displayed openly, with bluntest realism, all the evils that were corroding the system of their antagonists. They followed the example of the Russian realistic literature of their day, in exposing, branding, scourging, and chastising whatever is old and antiquated, what-ever mutinies against the modern spirit. Such is the character of the realistic literature succeeding the epoch of the romanticists.

The signal was again given by Abraham Mapu, in his novel descriptive of the manners of the small town, 'Ayit Zabud (" The Hypocrite "), of which the early volumes appeared about the year 1860, at Wilna. In view of the growing insolence of the fanatics, and the urgency of the re-forms projected by the government, the master of Hebrew romance decided to abandon the poetic heights to which his dreams had been soaring. He threw himself into the scrimmage, adding the weight of his authority to the efforts of those who were carrying on the combat with the obscurantists. Even in his historical romances, especially in the second of them, he had permitted his hatred against the hypocrites of the ghetto, disguised in the skin of the false prophet Zimri and his emulators, to make itself plainly visible. Now he unmasked them in full view of all, and without regard for the feelings of the other party.

" The Hypocrite " is an ambitious novel in five parts. All the types of ghetto fanatics are portrayed with the crudest realism. The most prominent figure is Rabbi Zadok, canting, unmannerly, lewd, an unscrupulous criminal, covering his malpractices with the mantle of piety. He is the prototype of all the Tartufes of the ghetto, who play upon the ignorance and credulity 0f the people. His chief follower, Gadiel, is a blind fanatic, an implacable persecutor of all who do not share his opinions, the enemy of Hebrew literature, embittering the life of any who venture to read a modern publication. Devoted adherent of the Haskalah as he was, Mapu was not sparing of paint in blackening these enemies of culture.

Around his central figure a large number of characters are grouped, each personifying a type peculiar to the Lithuanian province. The darkest portrait is that of Gaal, the ignorant upstart who rules the whole community, and makes common cause with Rabbi Zadok and his followers. The venality of the officials gives the heartless parvenu free scope for his arbitrary misdeeds, and without let or hindrance he persecutes all who are suspected of modernizing tendencies. He is enveloped in an atmosphere of crime and terror. Mapu was guilty of overdrawing his characters; he exceeded the limits of truth. On the other hand, he grows more indulgent and more veracious when he describes the life of the humbler denizens of the ghetto.

Jerahmeel, the Batlan, is a finished product. The Batlan is a species unknown outside of the ghetto. In a sense, he is the bohemian in Jewry. His distinguishing traits are his oddity and farcical ways. Not that he is an ignoramus far from that. In many instances he is an erudite Talmudist, but his simplicity, his absent-mindedness, his lack of all practical sense, incapacitate him from undertaking anything, of whatever nature it may be. He is a parasite, and by reason of mere inertia he becomes attached to the enemies of progress.

The Shadhan, the influential matrimonial agent lacking in no Jewish community, is painted true to life. Spiteful, cunning, witty, even learned, he excels in the art of bringing together the eligibles of the two sexes and unravelling intricate situations.

The most sympathetic figure in the whole novel is the honest burgher. Mapu has given us the idealization of the large class of humble tradesmen who have been well grounded in the Talmud, who are endowed with an open heart for every generous feeling, and whose good common sense and profoundly moral character the congested condition of the ghetto has not succeeded in perverting.

All these figures represent real individuals, living and acting. Mapu has without a doubt exaggerated reality, and frequently to the detriment of truth. Nevertheless they remain veracious types.

On the other hand, he has not succeeded so well in the creation of the Maskilim type. The new generation, the enlightened friends of culture, are puppets without life, without personality, who speak and move only for the purpose of glorifying the " Divine Haskalah ".

Mapu's conception of Jewish life can be summed up in two phrases: enlightened, hence good, just, generous; fanatic, hence wicked, hypocritical,lewd, cowardly.

If the novel on account of its treatment of the subject has some claims upon the description realistic, it has none by reason of its form. " The Hypocrite " suffers from all the defects of Mapu's historical romances, which, in the work under consideration, take on a graver aspect. The style of Isaiah and poetic flights do not comport well with a modern subject and a modern environment. Herein, again, Mapu's example became pernicious for his successors.

When the novel is in full swing, there occurs a series of letters written by one of the heroes from Palestine. The enthusiasm of the author for the Holy Land cannot deny itself, and this unexpected Zionist note, in a purely modern work, reveals his soul as it really is, the soul of a great dreamer.

It was after the appearance of Mapu's " Hypocrite ", in the year 1867, that Abraham Bar Lebensohn published, at Wilna, his drama " Truth and Faith ", written twenty years before, in which, also, the Tartufe of the ghetto plays a great part.

At about the same time a young writer, Solomon Jacob Abramowitsch, issued his realistic novel Ha-Abot weha-Banim (" Fathers and Sons ", Zhitomir, 1868). Abramowitsch had already acquired some fame by a natural history ( Toledot ha-Tebd ) in four volumes, in which he taxed his ingenuity to create a complete nomenclature for zoology in He-brew. His novel is a failure. The subject is the antagonism between religious fathers and emancipated sons, and the action takes place in Hasidic surroundings. There is nothing to betray the future master, the delicate satirist, the admirable painter of manners. Abramowitsch then turned away from Hebrew for a while, and made the literary fortune of the Jewish-German jargon by writing his tales of Jewish life in it, but about ten years ago he re-entered the ranks of the writers of Hebrew, and became one of the most original authors handling the sacred language. What distinguishes Abramowitsch from his contemporaries is his style. He was among the first to introduce the diction of the Talmud and the Midrash into modern Hebrew. The result is a picturesque idiom, to which the Talmudic expressions give its peculiar charm. Though it continues essentially Biblical, the new element in it puts it into perfect accord with the spirit and the environment it is called upon to depict. It lends itself marvellously well to the description of the life and manners of the Jews of Wolhynia, the province which forms the background of his novels.

All these creators of a Hebrew realism were outstripped by the poet Gordon, who expresses the whole of his agitated epoch in his own person alone.

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