ABRAMOWITSCH, SOLOMON (SHALOM) JACOB, "The Jewish Cervantes," known also by the name of his work, "Mendele Mocher Seforim" (Mendele the Bookseller):
By: S. M. Dubnow
A Hebrew and Judæo-German writer; born at Kopyl, Lithuania, in 1836. He studied Talmud at the ḥeder and bet ha-midrash until the death of his father, which occurred in 1849. As a youth he wandered from town to town, visiting Slutsk and Wilna, and learning Hebrew literature in the rabbinic colleges of those towns. Early in life the poetic side of his nature asserted itself, and he wrote several Hebrew lyrics, but without much success. Through family circumstances he was compelled to remove from Lithuania and to go to Volhynia and thence to Podolia. During his wanderings he became thoroughly acquainted with the conditions of Jewish life in Russia. At the age of eighteen he settled in the city of Kamenetz-Podolsk, where he made the acquaintance of the Hebrew poet Abraham Gottlober, and began the study of modern Russian and German literature, under the guidance of Gottlober's elder daughter.
In 1856 he became a teacher in the Jewish Boys' College of the government in Kamenetz, and in the same year he published his first essay, under the title "On Education," in the periodical "Ha-Maggid." At this time a strong progressive movement took possession of the cultured Jews in Russia in consequence of the reforms of Alexander II. (see Haskalah). Abramowitsch entered into the fight, and wrote political articles for the periodicals and likewise published many essays in Hebrew on natural science. Two volumes, made up of collected articles on politics, were published by him under the titles "Mishpaṭ Shalom" (Peaceful Judgment), 1860, and "'En Mishpaṭ" (Critical Eye), 1866. In 1862 Abramowitsch began the publication of his work "Toledot ha-Ṭeba'" (Natural History), adapted from the "Naturgeschichte" of H. O. Lenz. Three volumes of this work were finished before 1872. They aroused great interest in the study of natural science among the younger generation.Novels.
But it was not in this line of literature that the talent of Abramowitsch reached its fullest development. He was by nature an artist, a novelist who penetrated the depths of the great mass of the people and their customs. In 1868 he published a novel under the title "Ha-Abot we-ha-Banim" (Fathers and Sons), a descriptive tale of life among the Russian Jews of his generation, in which he pictured the struggles between the orthodox parents and their progressive sons. This work has been translated into Russian. Abramowitsch's talent manifested itself especially in his tales of the life of the common people, written in the Judæo-German dialect. His first novel in this line, entitled "Das Kleine Menschel," was written in 1865 and published under the pseudonym "Mendele Mocher Seforim" (Mendele the Bookseller). It was a biting satire on an unworthy Jewish favorite of the governor of his province. Not content with attacking such an influential person, he published in 1869 "Die Taxe oder die Bande Stadt-Baale-Tobot" (The Gang of City Benefactors), translated into Russian by Joseph Petrikovski (Byelaya Tzerkov, 1884), a very sharp satire on the Russian parnasim who managed the affairs of the congregation in their own interest. This work provoked the wrath of the zealots at the head of the congregation of Berditchev, where Abramowitsch lived, and he was forced to move to Jitomir, which was then the center of the Maskilim (Progressists). In 1873 he published "Die Kliatsche," partly translated by Wiener under the title "Dobbin" ("Yiddish Literature" pp. 277-281), an allegory which describes the life of the Jews in their exile, both in the past and present, with a remarkable psychological thoroughness. This book was later translated into Russian, but the censor interdicted its circulation after the publication of the first few chapters. A few years later the novel "Kiẓẓur Mas'ot Binyamin ha-Shelishi" (An Abridged Account of the Travels of Benjamin III.), of which a specimen is translated by Wiener, pp. 285-295, gave a satirical picture of the life in the small towns of Volhynia. Both "Kliatsche" and "Mas'ot" were translated into Polish by the Christian author, Clemens Junosza of Warsaw. The translation of the second book bears the title "The Jewish Don Quixote." From 1888 to 1890 he published two remarkable novels: "Fischke der Krummer," describing the life of wandering Jewish beggars and soothsayers with considerable psychological skill and subtlety, and "Wünschfingerl," of a more historical cast, dealing with the times of Nicholas I. and Alexander II. In 1881 Abramowitsch removed to Odessa, where he became principal of the Talmud Torah School. In 1884 the twenty-fifth anniversary of his literary activity was celebrated.
In later years Abramowitsch was again inclined to write in the classical Hebrew, to which, through his literary talent, he gave a new shape and which he enriched by new terms. In this language he published his books, "Shem we-Yaphet ba-'Agalah" (Shem and Japhet in the Chariot), 1890; "Bi-Yeme ha-Ra'ash" (In the Days of Storm), 1894; "Bi-Ye-shibah shel Ma'alah" (In Celestial Councils), published in Sokolow's "Aḥiasaf," 1895; and "Be-'Emeḳ ha-Baka" (In the Vale of Tears"), in "Ha-Shiloaḥ," 1897-98. The last novel was the author's own Hebrew translation of his book, "Wünschfingerl," but with many additions and corrections. In recent years Abramowitsch has become a contributor to the Judæo-German paper, "Der Jud," which is edited in Russia and published at Cracow, Austria. In this paper he published a novel with an autobiographic notice under the title "Shelomoh Rabbi Ḥayyim's." The influence of such a literary talent as that of Abramowitsch on his contemporaries has been very great, and he has more than any other helped to shape the style adopted in Yiddish literature,to which he added many expressions borrowed from his native Lithuanian dialect.
- L. Binstock, in Vos. 1884, No. 12;
- Sokolow, Sefer Zikkaron, Warsaw, 1889 (Abramowitsch, Autobiographical Sketch);
- Alle Kessowim von Mendele Mocher-Seforim, i. ii., Odessa, 1888-90;
- Wiener, Yiddish Literature, pp. 150-160, 362, 363 (list of works).