Nothing Like It in 3,000 Years of Jewish Literature

The second Hebrew novelist was the first to imagine the pageantry and passion of life in ancient Israel—and thereby excited the dreams of emergent Zionists.

A tree at Masada. Karen Chan/Flickr.

A tree at Masada. Karen Chan/Flickr.

Observation
Sept. 30 2015
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), Jabotinsky: A Life (2014), and, most recently, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton). 


This essay is the second in a series of fresh looks by Hillel Halkin at East European Zionist or proto-Zionist writers and intellectuals of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first, on the Galician Hebrew writer Joseph Perl, is available here.

I.

 

Avraham Mapu (1808-1867): the first Hebrew novelist.

Actually, not. That honor, we have seen, rightfully belongs to Joseph Perl. Yet it has almost always been accorded to Mapu. This was how he was read by his early readers, many of whom had never opened a novel in any language before discovering him. Such was the Hebrew poet and literary critic Ya’akov Fichman. At the age of twelve, as a pupil in ḥeder, the Jewish schoolroom of Eastern Europe, Fichman stole into the room of his teacher’s absent son, reputed to be a reader of secular Hebrew literature, and found there a copy of Mapu’s The Love of Zion. In a memoir penned long afterward in Tel Aviv, he wrote:

I looked at the book and was caught up from the first page in its bright, visionary net. I don’t know whether I grasped everything I read intellectually or emotionally. I only remember a blissful, wondrous day. The light in the room was rose-colored, and rose was the color that lit the pages of the book—the whole world was bathed in its freshness. . . . I sat in the room holding my breath for fear someone might notice I was missing, devouring its pages one after another. I was like a man lost many days in a wilderness who suddenly comes across a pure mountain spring. My heart stopped beating; my eyes saw only the book; the sounds of the world no longer reached me. . . . I read all day from morning to night, and when I stepped out of the room the sun was setting and the people around me were all strangers, as if I had returned from a distant land.

Novels can do that to one when one is twelve. They rarely have that effect past early adulthood, even though—or rather, because—one has become a better, more sophisticated reader. Upon opening, not long ago, The Love of Zion for the first time, I too didn’t expect to have Fichman’s reaction, especially since today’s Hebrew-reading twelve-year-olds don’t have it, either. In fact, they don’t read Mapu at all. Who does? A few students in university courses and the occasional lover of literary antiques. Apart from that, he’s little more than a name.

It’s easy to understand why. Mapu’s neo-biblical diction was archaic even when The Love of Zion, the first of his two novels set in the biblical period, was published in 1853. His dialogues are stilted. His descriptions are cliché-ridden, his plots wearyingly intricate and improbable; every time one thinks one more unlikely coincidence can’t occur, it does. He isn’t like such 19th-century historical novelists as Walter Scott or James Fenimore Cooper, who remain enjoyable even though they, too, no longer have many readers.

True, he has his winning moments. There is a brief one early on in The Love of Zion, in a scene in which its hero and heroine, the prenatally destined, unhappily parted, and ultimately reunited Amnon and Tamar, meet for a second time. Tamar is the beautiful and plucky daughter of Yedidiah, a wealthy Jerusalem aristocrat and minister in the court of the Judean king Hezekiah, a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. It is the late 8th century BCE; Judah and its northern rival Israel are enemies, and the armies of the expanding Assyrian empire are threatening both. Amnon, a rustic shepherd, is, unbeknownst to himself and others, the son of Yedidiah’s best friend Yoram, who has gone missing in war and is presumed dead; encountering Tamar vacationing in the countryside near Bethlehem, he gives her a bouquet of wild flowers. The next day, wandering by a stream with flowers she has picked herself, she spies him on its other bank. “Like two fluttering doves,” Mapu writes,¹

their eyes, too shy to meet, skimmed the gladsome water, each glimpsing the other’s fair form in its faithful mirror. First to speak, Tamar held out her flowers.

“Here, dear sir,” she said. “Permit me to pay back my debt to you.”

“You can see for yourself, miss,” said the youth,” that I can’t reach across the water.”

“If you can’t reach me,” Tamar said, “I will reach you.” And she cast her flowers into the current for it to carry them to his feet.

This is charming. But then:

“Miss!” cried Amnon in a fright.

Tamar looked and recoiled in mortal dread, for a fierce lion had stalked from the reeds along the stream. Of fearful mien, it had a mane whose hairs stood up like nails; a tail as thick as a cedar tree; eyes that flashed fiery sparks; a throat like an open sepulcher; a red flame of a tongue thirsting for the blood of victims. Swiftly and surely, it bounded with powerful stride toward the flock on the bank and paused to spring on the prey it feasted its eyes on. Faster than lightning, Amnon aimed his bow and a moment later the lion let out a single, terrible roar, its vitals pierced by an arrow. Lifeless, it fell ten paces from Tamar, who lay in a deathly swoon.

Amnon hastens to revive Tamar and says:

“Be calm and have no fear, gracious maiden. The peril has passed; the danger of death is no more. The Lord gave your servant’s arm strength and my arrow struck home and felled the beast that would have felled you.” . . .

Amnon restored Tamar to her senses and calmed her agitated spirits. At last she spoke and said: “O wondrous God! What man can look upon life and death in the balance and remain resolute? Tender young maid that I am, I have just seen both. How will I still the storm within me? The lion was right before me. How dreadful were its horrid teeth, its fangs as sharp as swords! It glared as though meaning to tear my heart apart and crunch my bones . . . and your right arm, brave lad, saved me from its clutches. You have been like a brother to me in danger; a good angel hastening to my aid. Great has been your kindness; no thanks can equal it.”

“Salvation is from God,” Amnon replied. “He it is who emboldened me to vanquish the king of beasts. Rise and bless your Savior.”

This is turgid. No lion was ever more cartoonishly ferocious or dispatched with greater ease; no rescued damsel in distress more prolix in her gratitude; no young dragon-slayer more demure in disclaiming credit. Long before reaching the last page of The Love of Zion (by which point Tamar and Amnon, his true identity revealed, are about to be wed at last; Yoram has returned from long captivity; the Assyrians have been repulsed from the gates of Jerusalem, and all good deeds have been rewarded and evil ones punished), one wishes one were already there—and not to find out how it all will end. That has been obvious all along.

Although Mapu’s novels were highly popular in his age with the small Hebrew readership for them that existed, The Love of Zion most of all, they had their critics practically from the start. Moshe Leib Lilienblum, a prominent author of the Haskalah, relates in his autobiography how he read The Love of Zion in 1863 as a twenty-year-old yeshiva student after first searching religious texts for permission to peruse a work of fiction. Two years later he read The Guilt of Samaria, its sequel, “with great enthusiasm,” concealing it in a volume of the Talmud on his study lectern. Yet in 1872, his break with religious observance behind him, Lilienblum published a respectful but outspoken attack on Mapu’s third novel, The Painted Vulture (also known in English as The Hypocrite), which had a contemporary East European setting. In his critique, which he called “Olam ha-Tohu” or “The In-Between World,” he wrote about the novel’s main protagonists, Na’aman and Elisheva, who like Amnon and Tamar are smitten with each other at first sight:

The only world in which a Na’aman and an Elisheva could fall in love after a few minutes of small talk is that of Mapu’s imagination. . . . I honestly don’t know what to say about Mapu’s conception of love. Was he given to such emotional ecstasies that he believed love of this sort was realistically possible, or did he have not the slightest experience of love, having acquired his entire knowledge of it from popular romances?

Lilienblum was thinking of such French potboilers as Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris, by which Mapu’s convoluted plots were said to have been influenced. But Mapu was an important Haskalah figure in his own right, a member of the generation between Perl’s and Lilienblum’s (much of The Painted Vulture concerns the struggle of mid-19th-century Jewish youth to free itself from the heavy hand of its tradition-bound elders), and whatever the younger author’s reservations about him, Mapu had been part of Lilienblum’s own emancipation.

Readers of a later period could no longer say this, and were less forgiving of Mapu’s weaknesses. Many would have agreed with the Lithuanian-born, French-educated scholar and critic Naḥum Slouschz, whose 1902 Renaissance de la littérature hébraique was the first history of modern Hebrew literature. After describing Mapu’s great impact, Slouschz added that “if one were inclined to apply to Mapu’s novels the standards of art criticism, a radical fault would reveal itself. He does not know how to create heroes of flesh and blood. His men and women are blurred, artificial. . . . The plot is puerile, and the succession of events tiresome.” If Mapu was so successful, Slouschz said, it was only because “these shortcomings were not noticed by his simple, uncultivated readers.”

In time, his readers noticed more. Probably the last generation to read Mapu at all came of age in the 1950s. An Israeli acquaintance who was a teenager in those years has told me that she recalls reading both The Love of Zion and The Guilt of Samaria in high school; they were on a list of recommended books handed out by a teacher, and she borrowed them from her local library. So, she recalled, did other classmates of hers, but she was quite sure her that her two younger sisters, though avid readers like herself, did not. By the 1960s, it is safe to say, no one did.

There have been attempts to revive interest in Mapu. A particularly ambitious one was made in the early 1970s by Dan Miron, not yet then the preeminent Hebrew literary critic he was to become. In a lengthy essay written to refute the myth, as he saw it, of Mapu’s artlessness, Miron argued that he was in fact a highly self-conscious author who, far from being indifferent to literary values, had rigorous ones of his own. Yet even if this is so, it only demonstrates that Mapu’s novels can still engage the mind of a critic, not that they can be read with any consistent pleasure. To praise, as does Miron, the scene of Tamar’s rescue for its intended depiction of the “awesome embodiment of nature’s essential beauty, discernible in the perfect rhythm of the marauding lion and the inner harmony of its body,” is wrongly to equate an intention with an achievement. Turgid is turgid. One can understand why a twelve-year-old might be carried away, but what at first so enthralled an older reader like Lilienblum?

 

II.

 

“The success [of The Love of Zion] was impressive,” writes Slouschz.

The novel made its way everywhere, into the academies for rabbinical students, into the very synagogues. The young were amazed and entranced by [its] poetic flights. . . . 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.

Slouschz’s “rabbinical academies” were the yeshivas of Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe, heavily concentrated in misnagdic Lithuania. They were by no means attended only by future rabbis. The Jewish high schools and colleges of their day, they were the institutions at which, having finished the ḥeder at or before bar-mitzvah age, intellectually gifted youngsters were expected by religiously traditional parents and mentors to continue their education. This education, however, was as constricted as it was demanding. Already in the ḥeder, after a few years of Hebrew and Bible studies, it moved on to concentrate almost entirely on rabbinic law. By this stage, most of the poorer and less mentally agile pupils had dropped out. The hours were long; the discipline harsh; the methods of instruction dull. Lilienblum wrote of his own ḥeder years:

When I was four years and three months old, before any of my incipient faculties had developed, I was already yoked to the Torah and my ḥeder teachers. From then on, I was imprisoned all day long in the schoolroom. I was given no chance to enjoy the pleasures of childhood; I had no free time for play or the cultivation of my abilities; I was never taught to express myself as I yearned to do; I was deprived of all knowledge of anything that wasn’t in the Talmud. . . .The reading and speaking of languages wasn’t taught me, either, and if knew the Russian and Polish alphabets, this was only because the name of every Hebrew book was printed in them on the title page.

Married off in his mid-teens, like many of his generation, to a girl his age he barely knew, Lilienblum went to live with her family. Now in a yeshiva, his formal studies began each morning at ten and ended at ten at night, after which he closeted himself with a volume of the Gemara and its commentators for two more hours. “You may laugh at me, dear reader,” he continued,

and you have reason to; but how was I to blame? What else could I have done, put in the charge of foolish pedagogues when I was all of fifteen? Today I know that while I was driving myself to exhaustion over utter nonsense, other boys my age were learning important things in Russian lyceés and commercial and vocational schools. I know now, too, that many of them turned out to be happy individuals who led good and satisfying lives—not like myself, the most miserable person on earth.

These “happy individuals,” some of whom studied enough Russian, Polish, German, or French to read, as Lilienblum could not, Lermontov, Mickiewicz, Goethe, or Victor Hugo, rarely knew enough Hebrew to read Mapu. Those who knew it were the yeshiva students—Slouschz’s “simple, uncultivated readers” who, though able to unravel the logical complexities of a talmudic text that would have baffled anyone else, could not, before The Love of Zion, have read a novel had they wanted to. Perl’s Revealer of Secrets was no longer available, the first translation of a European work of fiction into Hebrew did not take place until the late 1850s, and the earliest Yiddish novels appeared in the 1860s.

Read in defiance of their teachers’ bans on it, The Love of Zion transported these students beyond the walls of the study hall to a world familiar but strange—that of the Bible, but not of the Bible they knew, which they had studied as a text whose sole purpose was to serve as a divine basis for rabbinic jurisprudence. The Torah should have begun not with the creation of the world but with the laws of Passover, writes Rashi in his commentary on the opening verse of Genesis, explaining that these laws were “the first commandment the Israelites were given, the crux of the Torah being only its commandments.” This was the perspective from which the Bible’s narrative sections were taught in the ḥeder and quickly put behind one.

For a yeshiva student like Lilienblum, the encounter with Mapu’s novels was dramatic. Biblical law plays no part in them; God himself, though sometimes prayed to or thanked by their characters, is given no active role. The entire emphasis is on human activity: on the joys and sorrows of young lovers; on the conflicts of their elders; on loyalty and treachery, greed and self-sacrifice, marital devotion and infidelity; on the intricate ties of family and marriage amid which individuals make their way; on the aspirations of rulers and the ambitions of kingdoms; on the steadfastness and devotion that, in Mapu, always vanquish selfish scheming in the end. Such themes and situations opened new horizons; they raised the possibility of reading the Bible as a human and national epic rather than as divine history. They converted its landscape from an abstraction into a reality.

The world of nature in the Bible is peripheral. Although there are many references to it, these are almost always brief and—apart from the ecstatic evocations of the Song of Songs—divisible into two categories. They treat nature either as an illustrative metaphor, as in Isaiah’s “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; . . . surely the people is grass”; or else as a testimony to its Creator’s greatness, as in the Psalmist’s “When I behold Thy handiwork the heavens, the moon and stars that Thou hast made, what is man that Thou shouldst remember him?” In Mapu’s novels, nature exists in its own right. Sometimes pastorally delightful, sometimes awesome and wild, it is what it is, not what it stands for. The Guilt of Samaria begins:

On the fringe of the mountains of Lebanon, where they bound the northland of Naphtali and the peaks of Ḥermon conjoin, rises the crag of Omna; at its foot lies a wonderfully pleasant valley surrounded by chains of hills; from their rocky base gush springs that trickle down to a pool in the valley’s midst; there, forcing their way upward, underground currents meet to form a rushing brook, the River Jordan.

A blanket of dew still covered Mount Ḥermon, its downs and dells, its heather and heath, as dawn touched its summits and gilded with gold the splendor of Lebanon’s mighty cedars that sank their roots deep into the earth and lifted their crowns to the clouds. These ancient, lordly trees were as old as the soil they grew in; their tangled boughs and branches, which cast their shade even at noon, were home to all manner of birds that sang the mountains’ praises for God to hear. No ear tired of the dulcet majesty of their song; wild asses brayed from cliffs where lions and leopards had their lairs; the clamorous concord made the soul tremble with joy.

Into this scene—whose birds sing the praises not of God, but of nature “for God to hear”—is about to step Uziel, the crag of Omna’s reclusive inhabitant who has fled Jerusalem to escape the machinations of the impious king Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father and predecessor. (Though written after The Love of Zion, The Guilt of Samaria takes place prior to it.) As unremarkable as such a passage would have been in a European novel of its age, there is nothing like it in the 3,000 years of Hebrew literature that preceded Mapu. Even the yeshiva student who might have strolled for recreation or relaxation in the woods outside the shtetl would have been struck by this passage’s mountainous landscape, with which flat Lithuania had nothing to compare. But what mattered more was that the landscape was the land of the Bible’s. What Jew before reading Mapu even thought this land had a landscape? A sacredness, of course; a Temple that God had dwelled in—that, too; rules and regulations pertaining to the days in which this Temple had stood, naturally; but an actual terrain that one could walk through as one walked through the Lithuanian woods, picking flowers or listening to the birds, except that, unlike those woods, it was one’s own patrimony? This was something new, exciting to contemplate.

In the same memoir in which he recalls his first reading of The Love of Zion, Ya’akov Fichman connects Mapu to the advent of modern Zionism, a movement that did not begin to take palpable shape until a decade and a half after his death:

And then a friend brought me The Guilt of Samaria. In no time I was in the forests of Lebanon, misty with morning dew, its droplets falling from the branches with sweet birdsong. . . . The world shone with a different light after reading Mapu. Here was the feel of things to come, the future texture of my life. Whether strolling through a field or daydreaming in bed, I saw those ancient vistas not as relics of old but as intimations of redemption. I saw myself returning to my land and harvesting its bounty. There was my true mother lode, my ancestral home, where I would find the glory, so lacking around me, that my soul longed for when walking slowly home from the ḥeder on summer nights, my head full of poetic bits and snatches about a blessed land of mountains and valleys, date trees and springs. More and more I am conscious of what Mapu was to us, to our times, and to our national revival. How paltry Haskalah literature would be without him, how dreary our own childhoods would have been!

 

III.

 

Europe, it has been said, left the Near East in 1291, when the last Crusader sailed back from the Palestinian port of Acre, and returned in 1798 with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, march up the Palestinian coast, and unsuccessful siege of the same port city. In his wake came the British, followed by other European powers. European imperial ambitions, nourished by the weakness of an Ottoman empire that was already beginning to disintegrate; the development of new disciplines like Oriental linguistics and archaeology; the beginnings of mass tourism, greatly abetted, starting with the 1830s, by regular steamship service across the Mediterranean; inexpensive, often illustrated volumes of books describing journeys to the Holy Land and neighboring countries—all these led to a steady growth of interest in and travel to Palestine, driven by a wish to see the holy sites of Christianity and explore exotic climes. By the mid-19th century, such trips were being made by Jews as well. In The Painted Vulture, Mapu, who never undertook the voyage himself, has a character, the young Lithuanian Jew Azriel, visit Jerusalem and write home about the flood of Jews in the city for Passover. Not all were tourists. Between 1838 and 1864, Jerusalem’s Jewish population, nearly all of it religiously Orthodox, almost tripled.

Most 19th-century travelers to Palestine reacted to what they saw with mixed emotions, the thrill of walking on sacred ground and the romance of the East tempered by a sense of disappointment, sometimes shock, at the neglect and abandonment they encountered. “Of the sadness of Jerusalem in which no chimney smoke rises and no sounds are heard,” wrote the French author and traveler François-René de Chateaubriand in his 1811 Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem, one of the earliest of the new genre of travel books, “of the solitude of the mountains [around the city], where not a living soul can be seen, of the disarray of so many broken, smashed, half-open tombs, one can only be made to feel that the trumpet of the Last Judgment has already sounded and the dead are about to rise in the Valley of Jehoshaphat.” Jewish first impressions were often the same. In a letter from Jerusalem in 1838, Eliezer Halevi, an aide of the Anglo-Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore, wrote that “the road [to the city] is as waste as if no human foot had trodden it for years, so that I seemed to be approaching not an important town but a deserted one. . . . The closer I came to it, the greater the desolation grew.”

This was not just, as is often argued today, a condescendingly “Orientalist” view of a country that failed to meet European standards of scenery and decor. It was in part—a factor generally overlooked—a matter of climate. Tourism to Palestine was as a rule confined to the months of the summer dry season, when roads, often impassable in winter from the rains, were more easily traversed. Yet travelers accustomed to the lush greenery of a European June or July could not but be dismayed by the sere summer vistas of Palestine, a country in which vegetative growth begins in late autumn, reaches its acme in spring, and soon dies off. Only when irrigated from precious springs and wells was Palestine’s summer landscape verdant, too—a cheering sight some Europeans took note of.

Yet the very fact that main roads were useless in winter was testimony to the disrepair into which Palestine had fallen after centuries of inept and corrupt Ottoman rule, whose nadir was reached in the first decades of the 19th century. Even when traveled on, moreover, these roads were subject to brigandage by highwaymen and lawless Bedouin. Large tracts of countryside lay barren; undrained lowlands had turned to malarial swamps; woods were denuded by overgrazing and overcutting for firewood; cities languished commercially; a land that in ancient times had supported millions held an estimated 300,000 inhabitants, a small fraction of them Jews. The dereliction reported on by travelers was real.

Curiously, although Mapu was certainly familiar with some of this travel writing, he made (as the Israeli critic Tova Cohen has observed in her study From Dream to Reality: Palestine in Haskalah Literature) almost no use of it in his work. His physical descriptions of Palestine, so stirring to readers like Fichman, depend almost entirely on information gleaned from the Bible and from Hebrew literary sources not based on first-hand knowledge. This is perhaps understandable in his two biblical novels, which aimed to portray a flourishing ancient land of Israel that did not correspond to 19th-century reality. As a result, though, his biblical landscapes, unprecedented in Hebrew as they were, lack all specificity. The birds that sing in them are of no particular variety; their leafy trees are rarely singled out by species; their hills and dales could be anywhere. Nor is his geography always accurate. If the “crag of Omna” can be identified with a height, today occupied by the ruins of a medieval castle, that overlooks the site of Tel Dan where the tributaries of the Jordan come together, the running water into which Tamar casts her flowers is a pure figment of Mapu’s imagination; no such stream exists in the vicinity of Bethlehem. As a requirement of the Arcadian landscape he sought to portray, however, he was not prepared to make do without it.

More puzzling is Mapu’s indifference to the details of the 19th-century Palestinian landscape in The Painted Vulture. Azriel, who arrives in Palestine from Egypt, does not seem even to notice them; on his ascent from the coast to Jerusalem, he is conscious only of the imagined land of the Bible, whose “pure breeze inhaled the perfume of the flowers of Sharon and the lilies of the valleys and wafted them in its path, as my spirit imbibed the loveliness of yore from my enchanted senses.” After spending several weeks in Jerusalem, of whose current appearance or condition he writes not a word, he sets out for Tiberias—yet of this journey, too, which would have required several days and taken him either on a 4,000-foot drop through the Wilderness of Judea to Jericho and then the length of the Jordan Valley, or else through the hills of Samaria and the Valley of Jezreel, he recounts only the following:

As dawn rose on the eve of the Sabbath, we were not far [from Tiberias]. The Sea of Galilee lay on my right; dew from Mount Ḥermon wet my head; the morning star was reflected in the water in facets of diamond and sapphire; a clean mountain breeze whipped the rippling waves, whose silver runners were sliced by the morning light. A multitude of native birds sang their matins from Ḥermon’s heights, proudly warbling their heart-warming song; these pleasant sights and winged diapasons escorted us merrily to Tiberias.

A moment later Azriel spies a figure struggling in the water and leaps in to rescue a young lady with whom he predictably falls in love on the spot, causing us quickly to forget that his account, while pleasing enough, could just as well be of Lake Lucerne—let alone that Mount Ḥermon is dozens of kilometers from the Sea of Galilee, well beyond the range of dew drops and birdsong. Poetic license? Let it be granted. But why does Azriel, after leaving Jerusalem, have nothing to say about what he sees on the way? Why, when contemporary accounts of the once grand city of Tiberias portray it as little more than a collection of miserable stone hovels, does he pass over its sorry state in silence? Why does Mapu not once have him reflect that the “loveliness of yore” that was largely hidden from the 19th-century traveler might be restored by a Jewish return to a depopulated Palestine?

The oft-cited Zionist slogan of “a land without a people for a people without a land” was not, it is true, a Jewish one in Mapu’s day. It was coined in the 1850s by the British statesman Lord Shaftesbury—who, asking rhetorically whether there was anywhere “a country without a nation” and a “nation without a country,” answered: “To be sure there is, [Palestine and] the ancient and rightful lords of the soil, the Jews!” He was not the first to speak this way. As far back as the siege of Acre, the French press published reports that Napoleon was in favor of re-establishing Jewish rule in Palestine, and various European statesmen and writers, largely British (Disraeli, Lord Lindsay, and Lord Palmerston among them), expressed themselves similarly throughout the first half of the 19th century, justifying their sentiments in terms of the past glory of biblical Israel, the degraded state of Palestine, the distressed situation of Europe’s Jews, the independence struggles of other ancient peoples like the Greeks and Italians, and the imperial interests of their own countries.

With rare exceptions, most notably Moses Hess’s 1862 Rome and Jerusalem, written by a German-Jewish intellectual and one-time colleague of Karl Marx, Jews took no part in this discourse, whether because it was outside their ken or because, as the Frenchman Ernest Laharanne surmised in his 1860 La Nouvelle Question d’Orient, “the Jews dare not think of possessing again the land of their fathers.” Not anticipating rabbinic objections to a Jewish return to Palestine, Laharanne believed that it was only fear of an anti-Semitic reaction that deterred Jews from such an endeavor. Certainly, there was no reason to expect widespread Christian, much less Muslim, support for it. And yet if Mapu was the herald of Zionism that Fichman made him out to be, why didn’t he use his descriptions of Palestine, especially those in The Painted Vulture, to express at least a measure of sympathy with what early Christian Zionists were campaigning for?

 

IV.

 

This question becomes even more pointed when one considers that, like other Haskalah writers, Mapu thought that an overconcentration in towns and cities was one of the ills of East European Jewish society, for which a return to the soil was the cure. Transposed to a biblical setting, the virtues of the agrarian life were most fully articulated by him in The Love of Zion. There, confronting the Jerusalemite Azrikam, the novel’s chief villain, who has just mocked “the peasants and shepherds who spend their time listening to the mewlings of goats and are as ignorant of the knowledge of God as they are coarse of speech and devoid of wit,” the farmer Sitri replies that, on the contrary, no one is more naturally pious than the tiller of the land who depends on God’s favors throughout the growing cycle. “Lodge in the villages,” he tells Azrikam,

and see how their inhabitants rise early in the morn, when night’s silence still reigns and the hills and mountains slowly shed their veil of mist. It is then that the men go forth to labor in the fields and their hale and hearty wives set about spinning the wool and linen that clothe their households. By and by, the sky-supporting hilltops are cleared by the halo of the sun. . . . The farmer chants his glad prayers to the God he delights in; heavenward they rise like clouds of incense. Returning home, he is greeted joyfully by his fair hearth-mate, her winsome eyes shining; waking their brood, they breakfast together on the Lord’s bounty. The day waxes as they delight in each other’s company; meanwhile, the denizen of Jerusalem turns over in bed like a cake that is turned in the oven. At long last the sloth rises and paces his room while waiting to be attended, like an idol without hands that can do nothing for itself, by the servant he has imperiously commanded to bring soap, water, and fragrant unguents.

The motif of the happy rustic content with his lot versus the anxious, sybaritic urbanite goes back to antiquity and is not lacking in Hebrew literature, either; close to Mapu’s time, one finds it in a pre-Haskalah author like Moshe Ḥayyim Luzzato. But that Mapu was not just toying with a literary trope is evident from the character of Na’aman, who leaves home in The Painted Vulture to study agronomy. Perhaps inspired by Perl’s Revealer of Secrets, whose plot revolves around a previous book written by Perl himself, Mapu even attributes Na’aman’s choice of a career to his having read The Love of Zion! “How overwhelmed I was by the words of Sitri the Carmelite, who speaks so winningly of rural life, the charms of which I long for, too,” he writes his friend Aḥituv who has sent him the book. His doctoral thesis on soil cultivation, he hopes, “will bring me enough renown to assure that, instead of my having to go and look for work, work will come looking for me.” His dream, he tells his family elsewhere, is of a well-paying job with “someone of high station on whose estate I can be a steward”—that is, with an aristocratic Lithuanian or Polish landowner of the sort who commonly employed Jews as overseers, bookkeepers, land managers, and commercial agents. Such pritsim, as they were known in Hebrew and Yiddish, often played an important role in the Jewish economy of their locality, and Na’aman’s ambition of landing a position with one of them by first obtaining an academic degree, a course rarely followed by East European Jews of his time, reflects both Haskalah values and personal initiative.

A modern young Jew with no strong attachment to religious tradition, Na’aman is nonetheless a Jewish patriot who disdains the assimilationist youth of his generation that would trade its Jewish identity for admission to Gentile society—yet the thought of one day using his acquired knowledge to help bring life to the untilled fields of Palestine never crosses his mind. Perhaps this is because his studies take place in the 1850s, before farming in Palestine has been put on the Jewish agenda. (The first three of The Painted Vulture’s five parts were published in 1861-63; the last two, after Mapu’s death.) It was only in 1862 that the German rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer sounded the first public call of its kind to found a Jewish society for the purpose of buying “as many towns, fields, and vineyards in the Holy Land as possible,” to which “Jews from all parts of the world and especially from Russia, Poland, and Germany should be brought.” Those with farming experience, proposed Kalischer, would be granted freeholds, while those without it would be instructed by “experienced teachers.” In 1866 Kalischer established a Society for the Settlement of the land of Israel, which helped lead to the establishment in 1870 of Mikveh Yisra’el, Palestine’s first agricultural school.

Na’aman, though eminently qualified for such a project, has no inkling that it is in the offing. His Jewish patriotism, rather, expresses itself in his love of Hebrew, in which he reads widely and corresponds with like-minded friends. In the same letter to Aḥituv, referring to the well-known Discourse on Style of the 18th-century French naturalist and author George-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon, he declares:

Buffon says that the most supremely knowledgeable of books will never obtain lasting fame for its author unless written with grace, grandeur, fine style, and facility; otherwise it will perish and be forgotten, and its knowledge will be credited to whoever adorns and embellishes it properly. For the style is the man, and in it we see his mind and its form. Not so is knowledge, which belongs equally to everyone of intelligence.

And yet, Na’aman muses, if this is true of “the books of other peoples,”

whose styles and tastes change ceaselessly, what shall we say of the Hebrew tongue whose style, because fixed and preserved by Holy Scripture, is immutable and will remain for as long as light remains distinct from darkness? The mountains will move from their place and the hills tumble down before it changes, being eternal. . . . And yet it may be reformulated and cast in a new light by an author’s character, temperament, time, and place. Such is The Love of Zion that you sent me.

Evidently, Na’aman is speaking as a mouthpiece for Mapu himself, a part of whose literary credo he is enunciating. But what is this credo? It certainly can’t be that ideals of Hebrew style have literally remained the same through the ages, since Mapu knew perfectly well what vast differences there were between the language of the Bible and that of the Mishnah, between the Hebrew poetry of Byzantine Palestine and that of Andalusian Spain, between a medieval Hebrew rhymed-prose narrative and his own Love of Zion. Although all are recognizably Hebrew, all vary greatly in grammar, morphology, syntax, vocabulary, idiomatic usage, and literary standards.

Yet while Hebrew did not so much evolve linearly in the course of time as repeatedly re-emerge in altered forms under the influence of different linguistic and cultural environments, none of these forms is imaginable without the Bible. English readers do not usually sense the presence of Shakespeare when reading subsequent English literature, but it is practically impossible to read a pre-19th-century Hebrew poem or work of prose without being conscious of the Bible all the time. “Fixed and preserved,” as Na’aman says, in Jewish consciousness as Holy Scripture, the Bible never ceased serving as a point of reference and model for emulation. Na’aman’s remarks concerning the permanence of Hebrew style, one assumes, have something to do with this.

 

V.

 

Hebrew was, for Mapu, the one great passion of an outwardly uneventful life, most of it lived in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, the Jewish Kovno, where he was born. Except for brief excursions to Russia and Western Europe, the only other places he resided in were Roseiniai, some fifty kilometers to Kovno’s northwest, and Vilnius, the Jewish Vilna, a hundred kilometers to the southeast. After a standard ḥeder and yeshiva education, which left him an observant but not especially devout Jew, he worked for many years as a Hebrew teacher while studying foreign languages on his own. (The first of these, Latin, was reportedly learned with the help of a church Psalter and the Hebrew Psalms he knew by heart.) Twice married, each time to a wife he seems to have lived with contentedly until her death, and the father of a single son whom he helped put through medical school, he was able, following the success of The Love of Zion, to eke out a living from his books, but just barely. Hebrew publishers made their money from religious texts and were not prepared to print his novels at their own expense, and he had to pay for their publication and market them himself, whether to dealers or individual buyers.

Many of his letters complain about this. In a typical one to a bookseller a year before his death, when already in failing health, he wrote: “Of the 1,600 copies of The Guilt of Samaria that were printed this year, I still have 500, and I would like to sell them in a single transaction for my own and the buyer’s benefit, so that I can afford the eminent physicians I need to consult about the illness I have contracted while exerting myself for my Lady of Hebrew and her place in our people’s hearts. . . .” There were, he suggested, three possibilities: he could let the dealer have small numbers of the novel on consignment, the proceeds from their sale to be split half-and-half; he could send him 50 copies at an additional 33-percent discount in return for an advance of 50 rubles; or he could ship all 500 copies for a proportionally larger advance at a discount of 50 percent,

“My Lady of Hebrew” is how I have translated Mapu’s ha-Ivriyyah, literally “the Hebrewess,” a favorite term of his. This hypostasis reached rhapsodic heights in a letter to his old friend Shneur Zaks, who had been the first to convince him to attempt a novel in Hebrew despite the difficulties involved and the limited audience he could expect to have:

It was you, my friend and mentor, it was you who gave me the courage and inspired me to seal a pact with my Lady of Hebrew. I remember the day on which I removed the veil from her face: lo, there was the daughter of Zion in all her loveliness of yore!

Bewitchment on her lips, she said: “Gaze upon me, thou champion of Zion, and tell me why the sons I raised have disdained me. Am I no longer comely in their eyes? They claim my breasts are fallen so that they may revel in foreign bosoms, but am I so diminished, and is my speech so mean, as my revilers falsely claim?” “Thou still art beauteous, my gentle one,” I answered her, taking her lovingly in my arms. “Thou art still the delight of our people—my joy and my bliss—the playmate of our young and the comforter of our old. I have seen Latin and its ancient vigor; German with all its logic; the enticing charms of French; Russian in its first bloom. All wear the laurel crown—yet whose is the voice that calls to me from their midst? Thine alone, my dove. . . .”

Mapu next recalls how he proposed to “the Lady of Hebrew” that she elope with him to the ancient land of Israel—that is, that he set a novel there. “Come away with me to Lebanon, my ravishing sister,” he told her, paraphrasing the Song of Songs, “come away with me to Mount Carmel and the mountains of Zion.”

Then my Lady of Hebrew took me and brought me to Mount Zion, to Jerusalem’s heights. Donning her finest garments, she stood before me in glorious majesty and showed me all her bounty. . . . “Write what thy Fancy has seen,” she said, “that it be a reminder to the renegades who mock my holy mount.” With that I seized a pen and wrote down some of what I saw with my mind’s eye in commemoration of the love of Zion.

This account of the genesis of The Love of Zion tells us that Mapu did not first decide to set a novel in Palestine and then choose to do so in Hebrew because it was the natural language for such a book. Rather, he first decided to write a novel in Hebrew and then chose Palestine as its venue because Hebrew would sound most natural there. Hebrew, not Palestine, came first for him; it alone held out hope for the future. Yet nowhere but in Palestine had the Jewish people ever spoken it as their mother tongue; nowhere else could the fictional use of it to represent such a tongue avoid being artificial.

For this, of course, he need not have written in a biblical manner or about biblical times. He could just as well have set his novel in the Palestine of the early rabbis, in the first centuries of the Common Era, when Hebrew, though largely displaced by Aramaic and Greek, was still spoken on a regular basis. The Mishnaic language of the early rabbinic period might in fact have been more suitable. It was less archaic, more flexible, more everyday-like; it had a vocabulary whose core biblical lexicon had been enriched by thousands of new words; and it was considerably closer to the Hebrew written by both the rabbinic and Haskalah authors of Mapu’s own day. Yet it lacked biblical Hebrew’s rhetorical power and range, and it was not what Mapu was looking for. He wanted the elevation and sublimity that made, according to Buffon, a literary work immortal. (Le style . . . s’il est élevé, noble, sublime . . . soit durable et même éternelle.) He believed that such sublimity, while attainable by any gifted author, was the essence of Hebrew alone, just as vigor was of Latin and charm was of French; the challenge was to demonstrate that it could still be achieved. If Hebrew was to remain the eternal language of the Jewish people, the glue that bound its separate parts together even as the hold of religion was weakening, it had to have a grandeur equal to the grandeur of religion. It had to be the Hebrew of the Bible.

This was not the first time in Jewish literary history that a decision to return to biblical diction had been made. Such was the choice of the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hebrew Pseudepigrapha; of the Hebrew poets of medieval Spain; of 18th-century Hebrew dramatists. All felt they were being faithful to Hebrew’s true spirit while ignoring the fact that skipping over centuries of linguistic development severely restricted their expressive possibilities. All paid a price for shackling themselves to Scripture.

Mapu paid one, too, and was no more conscious of it than were his predecessors. It would have outraged him to be told that the semi-articulate, Yiddish-inflected, grammatically barbarous Hebrew written by Joseph Perl’s satirized Ḥasidim was more creative and interesting than his own. Still, while never doubting his choice of biblical language, he was well-aware of the problems of writing in it about a contemporary setting. His letter to Zaks continued, alluding to The Painted Vulture:

Then I pleaded with my Lady of Hebrew, saying: “Thou hast kept faith with thy people from days of old; thou hast not ceased thy converse with them nor thy plaint at their breach of thy spirit; thou hast looked kindly and smiled upon me. . . . Arise, then, my gentle lady! Descend from thy mountainous peaks; forsake thy domicile and come with me; leave thine ancient Eden for the present habitations of thy people; for thy ways are as the ways of the world and thy wings have spanned it from eon to eon as the sky spans the earth.

The Lady of Hebrew replies that she will comply with Mapu’s wishes and even permit him to use a modicum of talmudic language:

See thou, my dearest! Look and know what lies before thee. Thou wouldst bring me to the people for whose sake I was banished to Babylon [where the Talmud was composed in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic]. There I was befriended by the Babylonian damsel [ha-Bavlit—i.e., Aramaic], who stayed by my side as my people did by hers. . . . Therefore, take her with thee in thy return to thine own times. Her speech has lived on through the generations; put it in the mouths of the persons thou wouldst create in thy new theater.

Mapu was referring not to Aramaic itself but to Hebrew as it changed under Aramaic’s great influence. And indeed, although the biblical element still prevails in it, the language of The Painted Vulture is freer and more eclectic than that of Mapu’s first two novels. Here is the scene, ridiculed by Moshe Leib Lilienblum in the “In-Between World,” in which Na’aman and Elisheva meet and fall in love. In some ways reminiscent of Tamar’s streamside encounter with Amnon, it takes place in a theater, during a performance of Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. As Na’aman tells it:

I was watching the performance when I heard an educated young woman say in French to the person next to her, “Move to the back! You don’t belong here, no matter how expensive or fancy your clothes are. Go sit with your friends!” I looked at the unfortunate object of these insults, who was quite beautiful, and seeing in her face that she had a noble spirit, I turned angrily to her detractor and said in no uncertain terms, “As far as I can judge, this young lady would grace any place she sat in.” The poor girl, however, had already risen from her seat, and so I got up from mine and gave it to her. She sat and thanked me.

Between acts, I asked the young lady what her name was and why she had been treated so rudely. “I’m the sole cause of it,” she said. “I’m Elisheva. My father is Eden, the son of Ovadiah of Atika,² and I won’t change my or my family’s name, because they’re precious to me. But who, sir, are you that you so graciously stood up for me and gave me your place?”

As becomes clearer in the course of this scene, it is Elisheva’s insistence on using her Hebrew name rather than its Russian counterpart of Elizaveta, by which her assimilating acquaintances have sought to call her, that brings down their scorn on her. Na’aman dislikes the young Russianizers as much as she does—and is shocked to discover that she is the granddaughter of the same wealthy Ovadiah who has unscrupulously ruined his own parents. Concealing his identity, he lets Elisheva relate a childhood memory. (Presumably, this has been triggered by the opera, adapted from Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, in which two Romeo-and-Juliet-like lovers must contend with their families’ ancient enmity.) Once, Elisheva tells him, while playing with a boy named Na’aman, she heard from him the story of his family’s downfall at her grandfather’s hands and swore to him that when she grew up she would make amends for it. “He was so struck by my magnanimity,” she concludes, unaware that she is talking to the very same Na’aman, “that he began to caper like a mountain goat and promised to give me a songbird as my reward.” And still Na’aman pretends to be someone else, thus adding a fateful twist to the plot. Is it any wonder, though, now knowing that the beautiful and noble-minded Elisheva was the child who pledged to restore his family’s plundered fortune, that he loses his heart to her? Lilienblum, one feels, has been unfair.

 

VI.

 

Na’aman and Elisheva’s falling in love is not, however, a major concern of Lilienblum’s “The In-Between World.” What preoccupies him more there is their failure, as he views it, to fight hard enough for their love against the forces that oppose it, led by the patriarchal Ovadiah, Elisheva’s grandfather and de-facto parent, whose plans to marry her off to someone of his own choosing she resists but does not openly defy. And when, Mapu being Mapu, love wins out in the end, Lilienblum only chafes more. For all her charm and esprit, he writes, Elisheva has been weak-willed for not simply walking out on her grandfather and his world at whatever risk to herself this might entail; besides, in real life as distinguished from romantic fiction, the weak do not win, they lose. Had Mapu been more courageous, he would have ended The Painted Vulture on a tragic rather than a happy note,

and this for two reasons. One is that he would have thereby fulfilled his obligation to portray ordinary reality as it is rather than as prettily dressed up by him. . . . The second is that a tragic ending would have made a deeper impression upon readers, who would have gotten their comeuppance for their foolishness [in identifying with Elisheva’s course of action]—a comeuppance that might conceivably have been beneficial to some of them.

Lilienblum’s essay is not merely an attack on The Painted Vulture. It is aimed at the entire Haskalah, whose reformist approach, he had come to feel, had proved delusory. “These dreamers,” he wrote

think that if only all Jews were to start speaking Hebrew and desist from tashlikh, kapparot, prayers for the souls of the dead, and the observance of every last detail of each commandment; if only the Haskalah and Religion could agree on a signed-and-sealed pact of collaboration between them; and if only we were to wear modern clothes, drink the national beverage, and call our children Johann, Ivan, and Gregory instead of Yoḥanan and Gershon, all our problems would be solved. If they weren’t dreaming, they would understand that an entire people, or even the greater part of it, can’t write in a language that has no place in the marketplace of daily life; that there is no such thing as religion without superstitious nonsense; that it is impossible to expect Science and Tradition to be always in agreement; and that no people can assimilate [outwardly] to another people on its own terms. Assimilation can only mean the total union of two people by the merger of one with the other in its inward life, too, in its customs, manners, and ambitions. And yet there are too many walls between peoples ever to allow such a merger to take place.

Apart from Mapu’s aversion to Jews changing their names, Lilienblum’s description of the typical maskil fits him well. He did believe that Judaism could modernize successfully; did want Jews to read novels, go to the theater, and outwardly resemble others; did think a passionate attachment to Hebrew could take the place of religious fervor. And he clearly did not think, like Lilienblum, that “whoever knows that life is more powerful than noble feelings also knows that the abandonment of Hebrew, and the Talmud’s prophecy that ‘one day the Torah will be forgotten by Israel,’ as saddening as they may be, are as inevitable as death itself as long as we do not have a country of our own to protect our national existence.”

A country of our own to protect our national existence! This is perhaps the earliest statement of what sounds like Zionism in East European Haskalah literature, even though it is far from certain that Lilienblum was thinking of Palestine and not just expressing a thought that had no geographic corollary. It wasn’t until a decade after writing this essay that he joined Ḥibat Tsiyon, a movement formed, in the wake of the unprecedented pogroms that swept southern Russia in 1881, to sponsor Jewish settlement in Palestine. In “The In-Between World,” there is hardly any mention of Mapu’s biblical novels or their Palestinian setting, which Lilienblum seems to have considered, if not outrightly escapist, of little relevance to East European Jewish reality.

And yet when Zionism eventually became the hope of many Jews, it was in Eastern Europe that it did so the most. It was the Yiddish-speaking Jewry of the Russian empire that most thrilled to Zionism’s message; that was most predisposed by culture, religion, and economic and social circumstance to understand it; that produced its most ardent supporters and the bulk of its devoted activists—and also that took the longest to start rallying to its flag. Although in the West, too, Zionism was, for most of the 19th century, a cause championed by isolated individuals, it did have its spokesmen. In the East, it had none.

No one better exemplifies this than Mapu. Everything in his novels points to Zionism. His strong Jewish national feeling; his discontent with the conservatism and backwardness of East European Jewish life; his grasp of the need for a new, post-religious basis for Jewish identity; his love of Hebrew, by which he believed such a basis could be provided; his advocacy of a Jewish return to the soil and to nature; his romantic attitude toward the biblical land of Israel, accompanied by an admiration for physical bravery, military prowess, and the pomp and power of a Judean state—these things, one would think, would have led to Zionist conclusions.

All the elements were in place—all except for Lilienblum’s realization that the merely outward assimilation by Christian society of inwardly Jewish Jews was impossible. For its early Christian supporters, Zionism was a grand idea; for the educated Jews of Europe it was also the bitter admission of defeat that Lilienblum demanded of them. The Haskalah had put its trust in Europe. For the better part of a century, it had preached integration into European society, confident that Jews could become Europeans while remaining Jews. This belief began to founder in parts of the West before it did in the East because the West was further advanced in the process of Europeanization; just as initial success occurred in it earlier, so did initial intimations of failure. Yet when, after 1881, the consciousness of failure began to spread in the East, too, it was more devastating precisely because the gains made up to that point were so much smaller and the distance remaining to a full acceptance of the Jew by his surroundings was so much greater.

In Mapu, the heroes of whose The Painted Vulture, Lililienblum wrote, were “the small-town intelligentsia and dreamers of an in-between world,” the Haskalah’s vision still lived. Eighteen-eighty-one was also the year of Ya’akov Fichman’s birth, and by the time Fichman was twelve, Zionism was a hotly debated issue in the East European Jewish street. For members of his generation, it was natural to read the excitement of Zionism’s emergence into the excitement of reading Mapu’s novels, which had indeed contributed to the pre-Zionist atmosphere of the times. Zionism’s emergence is not really in those novels, though. What is in them is Zionism’s failure to emerge, like an idea that trembles on the verge of consciousness and falls back. History was not about to be rushed. When had it ever agreed to be?

——–

¹ A more exact translation of this phrase, borrowed from the Song of Songs, would be “Like doves upon channels of water.” Apart from giving his prose an overall patina of quaintness, however, I have not tried to reproduce Mapu’s biblicizing style. (Although there is a Toby Press edition of Joseph Marymount’s 1919 English version of The Love of Zion, all translations of him in this essay are my own.) Any attempt to do so would seem far stranger to today’s English readers than Mapu seemed to the Hebrew readers of his day, who were well-versed in the Bible, familiar with other Hebrew works that leaned on it heavily, and without a spoken form of the language that might have set clear standards of contemporary usage.

² As observed in my essay on Perl, writers of Haskalah fiction frequently gave contemporary characters biblical names that would never or almost never have been encountered in Jewish Eastern Europe. This seemingly odd literary convention, which had the effect of reinforcing the already felt unnaturalness of Yiddish-speaking Jews conversing in Hebrew, may have been at least partly motivated by the fact that more common Hebrew names would have been pronounced by many readers in a Yiddish fashion, e.g., “YANkev” for Hebrew Ya’akov, Jacob, or “Rokhl” for Hebrew RoḤEYL, Rachel—something that Haskalah authors, with their Hebrew purism and anti-Yiddish bias, would have found objectionable.

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More about: Arts & Culture, East European Jewry, Hebrew literature, History & Ideas, Proto-Zionist Writers