The Novelist of Jewish Unity

Did Jews recognizably still exist as a people in the late 19th century? Many questioned it. In his packed and vibrant fiction, the great Peretz Smolenskin proved them wrong.

A 1909 auction of the first lots of what would become Tel Aviv. Avraham Soskin/Wikipedia.

A 1909 auction of the first lots of what would become Tel Aviv. Avraham Soskin/Wikipedia.

Observation
Dec. 28 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 third in a series of fresh looks by Hillel Halkin at seminal Hebrew writers and thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first two essays, on the proto-Zionist novelists Joseph Perl and Abraham Mapu, are available here and here.

In Peretz Smolenskin’s first Hebrew novel, Simḥat Ḥanef, a title taken from the book of Job and translatable as “The Humbug’s Happiness,” there is an account, set in the 1850s or 60s, of a stagecoach journey from Berdichev, a heavily Jewish town in central Ukraine, to the Black Sea port of Odessa. (Like other East European writers of Hebrew fiction, Smolenskin gave his Russian or Polish towns and cities imaginary and sometimes comic Hebrew names, generally formed by inverting or rearranging their letters. Thus, the Berdichev of The Humbug’s Happiness is Toshavey-Ba’ar—roughly, “Inhabitants of Ignorance”—while Odessa is Ashadot, “Waterfalls.”) The passage starts with an introductory reflection of the kind that Smolenskin (ca. 1840-1885), a prolific essayist as well as a writer of fiction, was fond of: in this case, a brief discourse on the spread of Russian railroads, the consequent demise of stagecoach travel, and the author’s obligation to memorialize the old means of transportation “so that posterity may recall the cumbersome ways of its ancestors.” Once the technologically transformative 19th century will have succeeded in changing everything, the narrator of The Humbug’s Happiness asks, who will believe that stagecoaches ever existed? “It’s all a figment of your imagination,” future historians who unearth such relics from the darkness of the past will be told.

The Odessa coach is about to depart. Despite having promised his passengers a comfortable trip with plenty of leg room, the coachman has packed as many of them into his vehicle as can fit. In addition to a father and daughter returning from a trip to Berdichev, they are:

Four or five Ḥasidim on their way to see their rebbe; several Lithuanian Misnagdim in pursuit of the livelihood that has eluded them; a merchant; an itinerant bookseller; a midwife; an abandoned wife roaming from town to town with her children in search of the cavalier who deserted her; a Polish Jew disguised by a red head cloth as a mendicant from Jerusalem collecting alms for its inhabitants, which he will put to good use far from Zion, the proceeds being insufficient to keep the wolf from all of the doors there; a matchmaker; and a Hebrew author cradling his books as a beggar cradles her (or someone else’s) sick child to stir the compassion of our merciful Children of Israel.

The sarcastic humor of this description is typical of Smolenskin. So is its motley assortment of Jews. The third of 19th-century Hebrew literature’s major novelists, Smolenskin was born a generation after Abraham Mapu, whom he considered his predecessor, and two generations after Joseph Perl, whom there is no evidence of his having read. Yet whereas a sedentary life limited Mapu’s exposure to East European Jewish society and his portrayal of it in The Painted Vulture, Smolenskin, a semi-vagabond in his youth, knew it from top to bottom. He had eridden many a stagecoach himself and rubbed shoulders with all of the types he depicts setting out for Odessa, and then some.

He was born in or about 1840, during the reign of Tsar Nikolai I, in a Belorussian village not far from the town of Smolensk that gave his family its name. A geographical and cultural extension of Lithuania, Belarus or “White Russia” was a flat land of numerous rivers feeding into the southward-flowing Dnieper, a predominantly misnagdic region with a large minority of Ḥabad Ḥasidim. Smolenskin’s father, a Misnaged, kept a tavern that was gutted by fire when Peretz, the youngest of six children, was eight, forcing the father to flee when accused of stealing church artifacts found in the ruins that were in fact a surety for a loan to a local priest. Two years later, he died.

Without a breadwinner, the family lived in penury, and misfortune struck again when the eldest of its three boys was abducted and impressed into military service. Until abolished by the newly crowned Alexander II in 1856, such forced conscription, whose victims rarely returned from its 25-year term, was a scourge of 19th-century Russian Jewish life; every Jewish community had its quota to meet, and the conscripts, some not yet even into their teens, were commonly seized from the ranks of the poor and defenseless by bounty hunters working hand in glove with communal leaders. If Smolenskin, a bright, mischievous boy with a sharp tongue, was sent by his mother at an unusually young age to the well-known yeshiva of Shklov, a center of misnagdic learning on the northern reaches of the Dnieper, this was not just to keep him out of trouble or to have one fewer mouth to feed. It was also because yeshiva students, no matter how poor, were safe from impressment.

He spent four years in Shklov, studying Talmud, learning Russian, a language most Russian Jews could not speak, and secretly reading Haskalah literature. He was not alone in this. It was via the yeshivas of Eastern Europe that the Haskalah and its ideas were disseminated most thoroughly. Nowhere else was a good knowledge of Hebrew possessed by young minds eager to transcend the narrow confines of a traditional education, and by mid-century most yeshivas had their clandestine cells of budding Maskilim. They also, however, had their proctors tasked with spotting such deviants, and in the end, Smolenskin was caught and expelled. For a while, he found shelter in a local study house, occupying himself with religious texts by day and secular books read by candlelight when alone at night before falling asleep on a bench. Soon, though, accused of stealing and selling the missing candles, he had to leave this refuge.

Homeless, the seventeen-year-old outcast wandered through villages along the Dnieper, staying in synagogues or with charitable families until he decided to try his luck at the Ḥabad court at Lubavitch. At first, his native intelligence and learning betokened a bright future in the service of the dynasty’s third rebbe, Menachem Mendl Shneurson, better known as the Tsemaḥ Tsedek; careless about concealing his misnagdic opinions, however, he fell out with the rebbe’s followers and had to take to the road again. In Vitebsk, he found work with a Ḥabad businessman, the Tsemaḥ Tsedek’s uncle, who was looking for a Russian-speaking assistant, and spent three years in his employ until a miscalculated embroilment in a matter of ḥasidic intrigue led to being dismissed.

Smolenskin now set out down the Dnieper for the Ukraine. At one point, he fell in with a traveling cantor and sang in his choir; at another, he earned a living as an itinerant stump preacher. Only upon arriving in 1861 in Odessa, in Russia’s far south, did he settle down. Founded in the late 18th century as the tsarist empire’s maritime gateway to the world, Odessa was the sole city in Russia proper without restrictions on Jewish residence; its Jewish population, the fastest-growing in the country, was also the freest and least traditional, and though its golden age as a hub of Jewish culture lay ahead of it, it was already a haven for young Maskilim seeking to escape the backward provinces. Progressive-minded tutors able to give the children of its Jewish nouveaux riches a not too onerous Hebrew education were in demand, and Smolenskin stayed in the city until 1867, teaching the sons and daughters of the well-to-do, pursuing his autodidactic studies, and writing his first fiction.

 

Set in Odessa, The Humbug’s Happiness has as its main characters two Maskilim, Shimon and David, the former a cultivated, honorable young man, the latter a pretender to intellectual and moral qualities he does not possess. Much of the novel consists of their long conversations. They talk about the purpose of life; about the nature of happiness; about Shakespeare, Goethe, and the Bible; about Jewish and non-Jewish views of romance and marriage—about everything but their rivalry for Shifra, the daughter of a religiously conservative businessman whom David has been actively wooing and Shimon, her former tutor, is secretly in love with. Convinced that she loves David back, Shimon encourages him to court her while keeping his true feelings to himself.

Enter the stagecoach. Returning from Berdichev with her father, Shifra strikes up an acquaintance with the abandoned woman in search of her husband, who is robbed of her money by one of the Ḥasidim at an inn they stop at for the night. When discovered, the thief turns out to be not a Ḥasid but a wanted murderer playing the part of one; a more fateful dissemblance, however, is disclosed only toward the novel’s end, when we learn that the abandoning husband is none other than David, who has meanwhile proposed to Shifra and been accepted. He is about to take his place with her under the wedding canopy when his undivorced wife, invited by Shifra to the ceremony, arrives and sees him. The wife screams, David takes to his heels, Shifra faints, and she and Shimon, following some further complications, are happily wed.

As for the coach’s aspiring author who is forced to peddle his own books, he is heard of no more once it reaches Odessa. Perhaps, continuing to view events from a hidden vantage point, he will write The Humbug’s Happiness.

 

———

 

Much fault can be found with The Humbug’s Happiness. Though not lengthy, it is wordy. Its dialogues often lapse into tiresome monologues. Its plot depends on too many unlikely events. Its dramas are melodramas. These are weaknesses that Smolenskin inherited from Mapu, whom he esteemed more than he should have.

But The Humbug’s Happiness is alive as Mapu’s work rarely is. Shimon and David are well-rounded. Their long arguments about life and literature, while appearing naïve and digressive at first, are integral to the tale and psychologically revealing, since neither man realizes what the author knows all along and the reader grows gradually aware of, namely, that they are really arguing about Shifra and their claims on her. Being Hebrew tutors rather than Christian gentlemen, they duel with ideas, not pistols, but their lives are no less at stake.

Smolenskin’s second novel, also written in Odessa , was more ambitious. A long, sprawling, first-person narrative in four parts (the last added at a later date), to which he gave the name Ha-To’eh b’Darkey he-Ḥayim, “Lost on Life’s Way,” it tells the story of Yosef, a boy born in the White Russian shtetl of Azuva. Yosef’s father has vanished, presumed a suicide, after being defrauded of his wealth by his brother; soon afterward, Yosef’s mother dies, too. At first, the orphan lives with the defrauding uncle and his wife, by whom he is mistreated; then, with the small amount of money given him by his mother on her deathbed, all that is left of the family fortune, he runs away. He joins a band of professional beggars masquerading as paupers and invalids, parts company with them, and falls in with a balshem, a seemingly pious purveyor of amulets, charms, fortunes, and magical cures who takes him to Odessa, trains him to be his shill, and appropriates his money for, so he claims, safekeeping.

Although not unkind to the boy, the man is, as Yosef quickly discovers, a rascal and mountebank. This makes Yosef decide to retrieve the money, which is kept under lock and key in their lodgings. Only if and when they move out can hands be laid on it—and Yosef, already schooled in the ways of deceit, soon finds a way of seeing that they do:

In our neighborhood lived an attractive but unwell woman in her mid-twenties who came to my master for help. . . . When she returned again the next evening, he sent me to an acquaintance of his at the far end of town and told me to lock the front door when I left. Had this happened several weeks earlier, I wouldn’t have disobeyed him, but now my observations had made me a different person, and so I said, “I’m on my way,” hid under my bed, and crawled out and peeked through the keyhole into his room as soon as he shut the door to it.

Yosef sees the balshem give the woman a glass of brandy and embrace her. When she protests, he tries talking her into yielding. “I glanced at her face,” Yosef relates, “and saw his words had an effect. Although she kept murmuring objections, she didn’t raise her voice when he hugged her again and kissed her on the mouth. Was it for love or for money? Let the reader ask her. She knows and I don’t, never having been a woman myself. I only know that I thought: here’s my chance!”

Yosef runs outside, bangs on the front door, and blurts out when the balshem opens it: “Her husband! The woman’s husband!” The balshem exclaims:

“What are you talking about, boy? What woman? What husband? Explain yourself!”

“The woman who was just here,” I gasped as haltingly as I could. “Her husband . . .”

“What did he do? Tell me, quick!”

“Confound him, he. . . .” I spoke as though befuddled while inwardly enjoying his distress. “The skunk!”

“Speak to the point!” the balshem said worriedly. “What did he do? Where did you see him?”

“He looked in the window, and when I came to the door he tried forcing his way into the house. I blocked him and wouldn’t let him in. We wrestled, and when he saw he couldn’t get past me, he ran off and said he was going to the police.”

The ruse works flawlessly. The balshem tells Yosef to harness his carriage and runs to pack his bags. Years later, Yosef, who makes off with the money at their first rest stop, reflects:

At the time, I was amazed how such a trickster failed to see the trick I played on him. The same man who had fooled so many people, virtuous women too, had fallen like a fool into the trap set for him by a thirteen-year-old. . . . Today, though, that doesn’t surprise me, because I’ve learned how easy it is to outwit the clever wits who think everyone but themselves can be duped.

Although many of the episodes in Lost on Life’s Way are autobiographical, such as Yosef’s yeshiva years in the town of Shkhula and his experiences at the ḥasidic court of Tsvu’el, others are not. Contemporary readers saw in some of them the influence of Dickens, and particularly of Oliver Twist, which Smolenskin could have read in a Russian translation. Yet Yosef and Oliver are two different cases. Oliver’s experience of human depravity never causes him to lose his innocence; his resistance to infection by the vice that surrounds him is his distinguishing, almost saint-like mark. Yosef is infected quickly; from the moment he sets out into the world, he learns to lie, cheat, swindle, and justify doing so. Though like Oliver he meets kind people who help him to survive, including his yeshiva friend Gidon, a hidden Maskil who is like an older brother to him, he is never able to reciprocate their trust fully; sooner or later he lets them down or betrays them, not because he is conscienceless, but because he has learned that the world is a place in which a conscience is not always an advantage. His life is a fight against the cynicism that is the natural conclusion of what he sees, and while it is not a fight that he entirely loses, neither is it one that he can win, because at least part of the damage is irreparable. This theme is sounded from the opening paragraph:

I have been lost: not for a month or a year or a few years, but for my whole life on this planet—lost like a lamb from the flock. “But why have you been lost?” the reader may ask. . . . “Why, if you saw you were on the wrong path, did you stay on it?” To which I reply: I have been lost because I have kept telling myself that I have been lost. Had I been wise enough to say “I am lost,” I might have corrected my mistakes in time, but I’ve always realized them too late, and each time I’ve tried to make amends I’ve only made it worse, because I could never bring myself to acknowledge that there are things that can never be made good again.

Above all, it is through his love for a girl, again named Shifra, that Yosef seeks to redeem himself. He first meets her during his yeshiva years in Shkhula, when he takes his meals with her family. He is sixteen or seventeen, she several years younger. They are mutually attracted; yet, too shy to exchange more than a few words over the dinner table, they live in an adolescent turmoil of unexpressed emotion until Yosef is made to leave the school and the town. Regretful that he never mustered the courage to confess his feelings, he thinks and dreams of Shifra throughout his subsequent wanderings until four years later, now a grown man, he returns to Shkhula in hope and trepidation, afraid to discover she is wed.

She is not—perhaps because she, too, has pined for him—and Yosef, after being taken on as a junior partner in her father’s business, passionately declares his love for her. The closeness between them grows greater when he is asked to escort her to a spa in Heligoland with her ailing mother. Passing through St. Petersburg, they see a chain gang of convicts, and Shifra, to her horror, recognizes her long-lost, ne’er-do-well brother among them. Although she keeps this from her mother, she reveals it to Yosef and relates her family history—and now it is his turn to be horrified, for her disclosure that her father is actually her stepfather, married by her widowed mother whose first husband died in Azuva, leads to the realization that, unbeknownst to her, she is his cousin, the daughter of the uncle who robbed his own father and the woman who abused him as a child.

Yosef is thunderstruck. He never wants to see Shifra’s mother again. But how can he leave Shifra? And yet, he tells himself, “She’s the daughter of a murderess! How can I love a woman stained with blood?” His parents would pursue him from the grave like Furies if he married her.

Overcoming his revulsion, he returns to their hotel, and they sail for Malmö. At sea, their ship is caught in a sudden squall. Trapped on the wildly pitching deck, Yosef ties himself to Shifra with his belt while her mother clings to a railing and prays. Consumed by the rage that has been building up in him, he shouts, “Pray to the Devil you’ve made a pact with, not to God . . . I hope you sink to the bottom of the sea for your crime!” “Is the Devil you, then?” cries Shifra’s mother, suddenly recognizing him. “Or are you Yosef, who has come back to haunt me from the dead?”

“I’m Yosef!” I screamed at the top of my voice.

She clapped her hands and cried, “Ah, me,” and as she took them from the railing, a wave swept her overboard and she was gone forever, not a sailor having the pluck to come to her aid.

The ship reaches port safely. Shifra, however, badly traumatized, has a severe breakdown. The doctors in Malmö tell Yosef that she is suffering from an untreatable psychosis. And he tells us:

In vain, I tried talking to her and comforting her. She wouldn’t look at me and didn’t know who I was. My heart broke; I felt sick for what I had done. I knew her pitiable state was my handiwork. It was maddening to think I couldn’t take any of it back. In a moment of fury, I had wreaked vengeance on an enemy and destroyed the innocent woman I loved.

 

———

 

Yosef’s story doesn’t end in Malmö, which from a literary point of view is unfortunate. The rest of the novel—the last third of Part III and all of Part IV—still has a long way to go. It takes him to Hamburg, to London, to Paris, to Brussels, to Berlin, to Bucharest, and back to Odessa, and it has him fall in love again, this time with a beautiful Anglo-Jewish heiress who, just as she is about to fall into his arms, is revealed to be a half-sister of whose existence he was unaware. In the last of many letters tormented by unfulfillable incestuous longing, Yosef, self-exiled and dying in Russia, writes to her that he wants the inscription on his tombstone to read: “Here lies one lost on life’s way.”

Highly popular with Smolenskin’s readers, Lost on Life’s Way could have used an editor. Still, it is a gripping book, the story of a young man of great promise who is his own nemesis. Even its outrageous improbabilities are no worse than those of other, superior European novels of its times, Oliver Twist being one of them. Ever since Sophocles’ Oedipus, far-fetched incestuous coincidence has served Western literature as a symbol of the interconnectedness of all things.

But the interconnectedness in Lost on Life’s Way is of a more specific kind. Nowhere previously in the Jewish literature of the 19th century, in Hebrew or any other language, does one encounter so broad a social canvas with such a panoply of types. More than any other of Smolenskin’s novels, it was of Lost on Life’s Way that his early-20th-century biographer, the Hebrew literary critic Re’uven Brainin, was thinking when he wrote:

If a future author should wish to describe the first Hebrew Maskilim, their lives, battles, and ideals; the ḥeder teachers and the yeshiva students; the Ḥasidim and their rebbes; the amulet writers and snake doctors; the jobbers and parasites; the misnagdic community leaders and powers-that-be; the rabbis, the cantors, the intellectuals, the informers—in a word, should such an author come to describe the life of our people in the Russian Pale of Settlement in the first decades of the seventh century of the sixth millennium [i.e., the epoch after the Hebrew year 5600, or 1840], he will have to find much of his material in Smolenskin.

On the basis of Lost On Life’s Way alone, Brainin’s list could be expanded considerably to include Jewish lawyers, doctors, businessmen, coachmen, tradesmen, rustic villagers, wealthy contractors, kleyzmer musicians, criminals, fallen women, kidnapped conscripts, cabaret singers, apostates, missionaries, philanthropists, authors, Hebrew poets, concert pianists, university professors, feminists, nihilists, assimilationists, London socialites, French Bonapartists, German Reform temple-goers, Rumanian pogrom victims, Russian revolutionaries—and it would still be far from complete. There are Jews in the novel for every occasion, and yet never, despite all the differences and antagonisms among them, does Yosef fail to feel a kinship with them all or to doubt that all are Jews; nor do even those who would prefer not to be Jews doubt it themselves.

What do they have in common, apart from figuring, to a greater or lesser degree, in Yosef’s life? Some have more, some less. Smolenskin’s Ḥasidim and Misnagdim, for all their mutual disdain, share a great deal: a habitat, Eastern Europe; a language, Yiddish; a religious tradition which, despite their different understandings of it, shapes their daily lives in similar ways. Much less evident is what either shares with a Reform Jew in Berlin, a Jewish French patriot in Paris, or a well-bred London Jewess.

But here, perhaps, the role of coincidence in Lost on Life’s Way takes on a greater significance than that of a mere plot device. When Yosef discovers that Shifra is his cousin; or learns that his father, far from having killed himself, has fled to America, recouped his fortune there, moved to London, married a Jewish woman, and raised, by the best standards of the English upper class, a daughter he has fallen in love with; or reads in this daughter’s letters to him, while traveling to get away from her, that she has become engaged to his old yeshiva friend Gidon, long given up by him for dead but now a renowned professor in Switzerland; or stumbles in his adventures on other strange nexuses of fate, we are being told something about Jewry as surely as we are told something about England when the ex-waif Oliver turns out to be a wealthy heir, the nephew of the finely mannered but illegitimately born Rose Maylie and the half-brother of the criminal Monks. In both cases we are dealing with a self-enclosed realm in which, despite its great internal variety, such coincidences are possible because everyone bound by its circumference is potentially linked to everyone else, as he or she is not linked to those outside it, by strands of circumstance capable of bringing together persons of vastly different social and economic backgrounds and geographical locations.

One such realm is a people. That there was, in the 19th century, an English people would not have been contested by anyone. That there was still a Jewish people was questioned by many—and Smolenskin, who was to make this people’s existence the grand cause of his life and battle programmatically for it in his essays, needed fiction to command an imaginative view of it. This he achieved in Lost on Life’s Way.

 

———

 

In 1868, Smolenskin moved to Vienna, where he made his home until his death in 1884. He arrived there, so legend has it, with seven Russian kopecks in his pocket and the ambition to found and edit a monthly Hebrew review. The ambition, in any case, was real, and Vienna was a logical place for it. It had a large Jewish population, much of it East European in origin, that was comparable in size and rate of growth to Odessa’s (40,000 when Smolenskin came to Vienna, it doubled during his years there); a lively Jewish intellectual life; and the advantage of a relatively free press unencumbered by an intrusive censorship like Russia’s. With the help of a job he landed in a Hebrew print shop, whose owner agreed to set the type for it, the review, called Ha-Shaḥar, “The Dawn,” made its first appearance the following year.

Ha-Shaḥar continued to come out for the rest of Smolenskin’s life, sometimes sticking to its monthly schedule, sometimes falling behind, sometimes temporarily ceasing publication and renewing it. The struggle to keep it solvent while recruiting talent and material for its pages was never-ending; yet though estimated to have had barely a thousand subscribers at its height, its readership was far larger, and it quickly became an influential Hebrew periodical alongside such older rivals as the Warsaw Ha-Ts’firah, the St. Petersburg Ha-Melitz, and the Berlin Ha-Maggid.

Ha-Shaḥar ran essays and informative articles on a wide range of subjects, published poetry and fiction, and serialized Smolenskin’s novels, starting with The Humbug’s Happiness and Lost on Life’s Way. An issue taken at random from a library shelf, Number One for 1878, came off the press in April rather than in January as it should have. In it were an editorial by Smolenskin on German rabbinical schools; part two of  a survey of obscure terms in the Bible by the maskilic author Adam Ha-Kohen Lebensohn; a report on Jewish education in southern Russia by the bibliographer and historian Ephraim Deinard; an article on recent developments in the field of molecular chemistry, with accompanying diagrams; a short story signed “Bar Drora” (“Son of Freedom”), a pen name used by Aharon Shmuel Lieberman, who a year earlier had started the world’s first Hebrew socialist periodical in Vienna and been briefly jailed for revolutionary activity; a contribution by Yehuda Leib Gordon, the most celebrated Hebrew poet of the age; and a travel journal from Palestine by Shlomo Mandelkern, the future compiler of a widely used biblical concordance. Annual subscriptions, as noted on the masthead, cost 6 florins in Austria, 4 thalers in Germany, 22 francs in France, 5 rubles in Russia, and 4 gold dollars in the United States.

During the 1870s, Smolenskin published in Ha-Shaḥar a series of essays that were collected as three books: Am Olam, “An Eternal People”; Et La’asot, “A Time To Act”; and Et Lata’at, “A Time To Plant.” All three dealt with “the Jewish question,” a term introduced into European discourse by the German historian Bruno Bauer in his 1843 book Die Judenfrage.

The existence of such a question was increasingly acknowledged by Jews and Gentiles alike in the course of the 19th century. In Western Europe, Jewish legal and political emancipation, completed everywhere by the century’s end, had led to widespread embourgeoisement and assimilation, on the one hand, and to an upsurge of anti-Semitism, on the other. In the East, where emancipation lagged and anti-Semitism was fiercer to begin with, a soaring Jewish population, economically displaced as industrialization and government policies drove it out of traditional trades and niches, and severely restricted in its geographic mobility and educational opportunities, was progressively pauperized and reduced to desperation. The Haskalah’s vision of the successful integration of Jews in a European society to which they would adapt their ways and manners while having the legitimacy of their religious beliefs recognized and their collective existence assured, axiomatic in Perl’s generation and still an article of faith in Mapu’s, had foundered by Smolenskin’s.

Smolenskin was a product of the Haskalah. It had opened new vistas for him, given him the tools and mental freedom to explore European thought and culture, and led him, like Yosef in Lost on Life’s Way, to abandon the ritual trappings of Jewish tradition. In his essays in Ha-Shaḥar, however, he now came to this tradition’s defense. The Haskalah, he argued, had undermined it thoughtlessly without taking the consequences into account. It had made a double mistake: first, by promising Europe’s Jews that they could blend into European society as Frenchmen or Germans of “the Mosaic faith,” and second, by diluting that faith to the point that surrendering it meant losing little apart from their only reason for identifying as Jews.

And yet, Smolenskin wrote, the Jews were not a religious confession like Protestants or Catholics; they were, by virtue of the ties that connected them, a people. Many of them who were not religious felt these ties, too, which was why the French would never accept them as fellow Frenchmen any more than they would accept a German or a Russian. Worse, the French would revile them as they did not revile Germans or Russians because Germans and Russians did not pose as French. The Jews were thus fated to remain a people whether they wanted to be one or not. The problem was that, having lost their land and political independence in antiquity, they had come to express their peoplehood solely by their religion; take that away from them and they were, though still a people, a demoralized one not knowing who it was. This, the situation of much of West European Jewry, would become East European Jewry’s as well if it blindly discarded everything in Judaism that failed to conform to contemporary European standards.

To be sure, the religiously conservative wing of the Haskalah, as represented by an author like Lebensohn, had also warned against pruning Judaism excessively of its particularisms, as benighted as some of them might be. But although Smolenskin encouraged Lebensohn and others like him to write for Ha-Shaḥar, he did not share their sense of belonging to a misnagdic brahmin class that was the custodian of Judaism’s eternal verities and high achievements. For all his biting descriptions of the degradation and chicanery of the Jewish street, he had a novelist’s empathy with it. In his Ha-Shaḥar essays, apart from frequent but vague references to an ethical monotheism that he called “the spirit of Torah,” he did not dwell overly on Judaism’s values or merits; nor was he a ba’al-t’shuva, a Jew who returns to the faith of his fathers, having never, whatever his diminished level of observance, ceased to be attached to it. That attachment, however, was less to Judaism itself, let alone to its God, than to the people whose religion Judaism was. This people, of course, had always been a central pillar of Judaism. Yet in thinking of it as theoretically separable from Judaism, as demonstrated both by its earliest history and its contemporary condition, Smolenskin paradoxically laid the ground for a secular Jewish nationalism.

And yet, even allowing for paradoxes, his argument lacked rigor. In blaming the Haskalah for weakening Jewish national feeling, he was putting the effect before the cause. Rather than being an outcome of the Haskalah, assimilation was a reaction to the same social and political forces that had produced the Haskalah, such as the spread of science and religious skepticism and the rise of the 19th-century European state that extended equal rights and duties to all of its citizens. Moreover, Smolenskin had no real solution for the problem he had identified. If the glue of religion was failing, attacking the Haskalah would not strengthen it. The fact that Jews had once felt they were one people because they had all practiced Judaism did not mean they would now practice Judaism in order to feel they all were one people. Yet what other unifying factor was there?

Ultimately, Smolenskin fell back on the same thing that had sustained Mapu and other Haskalah writers: a belief in the power of Hebrew. Although Jews did not have their own land, they had their own tongue. It may not have been spoken by them, but it remained the principal language of reading and writing for many and a vital medium of literature, scholarship, and correspondence. If a passionate dedication to it was needed to maintain its primacy alongside the languages of Europe that were making rapid inroads on its territory, such an attitude, acquired from a veneration for the Bible, the prayer book, and the great texts of Judaism, and from a loyalty going back to the earliest years of one’s schooling, was still common. “A single language unites us,” Smolenskin wrote in A Time to Plant:

It puts words in our mouths with which to speak to one another to the farthest isles and ends of the earth. . . . Hebrew has been the cord that binds us. We must strengthen and empower it for our own power to grow.

Empowering Hebrew meant addressing Hebrew’s audience in the forms it most craved to be addressed in—and in an age of Dickens, Thackeray, Balzac, Stendahl, Turgenev, and Dostoyevsky, no form was more popular than the novel. It was through the novel that Smolenskin best grasped Jewish unity. It was in the name of Jewish unity that he wrote novels.

 

———

 

The novel, it has been said, probably inaccurately, was called that because it brings the news. It tells us, better than do newspapers, what is happening. But how bring the news in a language so old that it hasn’t been spoken for thousands of years, so that no one even knows what a key word in a crucial fictional scene means?

The scene in question is in Smolenskin’s novel K’vurat Ḥamor, A Donkey’s Burial, serialized in Ha-Shaḥar in 1874. It takes place early in the story, in the White Russian town of Kshula, which is none other than Shkhula or Shklov. The time is the week before Hanukkah—the 19th of Kislev, to be exact, which many of Smolenskin’s readers would have recognized as a Ḥabad holiday commemorating the release from tsarist imprisonment of the movement’s first rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liady. The local Ḥevra Kadisha or burial society, the most powerful of the town’s fraternal lodges, is holding its annual banquet. A grand event brimming with food and drink that is eagerly awaited all year long, its crowning glory is its last course of luscious, pan-fried tufinim that are the pride of all Kshula.

The moment for them has arrived. A waiter sets a large frying pan on a table, removes the bowl covering it—and runs in a fright to tell Reb Getsl-Shmaryeh, the head of the Ḥevra Kadisha, that the pan is empty.

“That’s a good one!” said Getsl-Shmaryeh to the waiter, who was standing at attention. “That’s a good one! You’d better look again. I can see you’re blind drunk.”

“But Reb Getsl, I swear by all that’s holy that I looked in the pan and nothing was in it. By my wife and children, I swear! There was nothing under the bowl. The tufins have been stolen for sure.”

“Who would have stolen them? Me? One of the Ḥevra Kadisha?”

“How would I know?” asked the waiter.

“There hasn’t been a scandal like this since the day our lodge was founded!”

“There are thieves among us!”

“The tufins have been filched from under our noses!”

“A banquet without tufins!”

“We’ll have tufins or someone will swing for it!”

“This will go down in history!”

Everyone had his own opinion.

How did Smolenskin, decades before the revival of spoken Hebrew in Palestine, manage to write such racy dialogue? One might answer that he didn’t. “You’re blind drunk” in the original is “You’ve drunk to satiety and your eyes have deceived you.” “Have been stolen for sure” is ganov nign’vu, literally, “stealing they were stolen,” an emphatic biblical construction rarely used in post-biblical Hebrew. “Or someone will swing for it” is “if mountains must be uprooted with fingernails,” a talmudic idiom meaning “whatever lengths must be gone to.” Smolenskin’s characters speak a Hebrew far more erudite and elevated than the East European Yiddish he was attempting to imitate.

My translation has taken liberties with it. But the very fact that a translator feels entitled to take them testifies to the Hebrew’s smooth flow. Though it is, when read today, archaic, its clever phrasing and rapid pacing make it sound natural. Without resorting to gross Yiddishisms as Perl did, Smolenskin creates the illusion that we are listening to Hebrew speech that is spontaneous, not a labored literary artifice like Mapu’s. For the Hebrew novel, this was a great step forward.

But what is a tufin? The word occurs once in the Bible, in the book of Leviticus, where the high priest Aaron and his sons are enjoined to bring an offering of “tufinim made with oil in a pan.” Apart from its method of preparation, however, neither the ancient rabbis nor the Bible’s medieval commentators had any idea what manner of dish this was, and Smolenskin’s readers would have had to guess, too. Were the Ḥevra Kadisha members looking forward to a dessert of pre-Hanukkah latkes? Jam-filled blini? Russian pirogi or Ukrainian varenyki? After a lengthy discussion of tufin‘s etymology in his ground-breaking 16-volume Hebrew dictionary that appeared in the early 1900s, the linguist and lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the cornerstone of the spoken Hebrew revival, could only conclude that it was “of uncertain meaning.”

Smolenskin could, of course, have written latkes, blini, pirogi, or varenyki, using the Yiddish, Russian, or Ukrainian word. Perl’s Ḥasidim would not have hesitated to do so. But when it came to Hebrew, Smolenskin, like Mapu and other Haskalah writers, was determined to prove that it had the resources to do everything on its own. When, for instance, he made mention in his fiction of that 19th-century invention, the photograph, he didn’t borrow French photographie or Russian fotografiya; rather, he wrote tsel tselem ish, “the shadow of a man’s image.” For a railroad train, he could have used Yiddish ban or tsug; instead, he chose merkevet esh, “chariot of fire.” If 19th-century Hebrew was a hobbled tongue lacking the vocabulary for innumerable features of modern life, a vernacular to write dialogue in, and standards of usage to establish what was obsolete and what wasn’t, such purism was like the lame man who insists on going everywhere without crutches. No one knew what a tufin was? That was better than leaning on a foreign word.

For all his ardor for Hebrew, however, Smolenskin could no more rationally explain how it could survive than he could explain how Jewish tradition might prosper in a secular age. This point was made by the then twenty-one-year-old Ben-Yehuda, who remarked in an article published in Ha-Shaḥar in 1878, the year he was won to the new idea of Zionism by the success of the Bulgarian struggle for independence from Turkey, that missing from Smolenskin’s analysis was a call for a territorial base where Jews could use Hebrew as their regular means of communication—and such a base could only be Palestine. “Let the Land of Israel be our center,” Ben-Yehuda wrote, “and the world’s Jews will know that they have their own land and their own language.” Only in such a land could reading, writing, and even speaking Hebrew be the normal activity of many rather than the devotional occupation of a few.

Smolenskin answered with an open letter to Ben-Yehuda in which he wrote that Jewish normality had never been his goal. “I’ve never said,” he stated, “that the Jews are a people like all others. Quite the contrary: ever since first discussing the subject, I’ve held that they are not like others.” The Jews were a “people of the spirit,” and Hebrew would survive among them as that spirit’s written expression, not as a spoken language of daily life. He was not interested in Palestine for its own sake. “Suppose,” he asked,

we were told: “Palestine is yours. Take it and do as you wish with it . . . but on the condition that you exchange your beliefs for different ones.” What would you say to that, Ben-Yehuda, my friend? Should we accept this great gift with the strings attached to it? By your lights, it would be an act of treason to turn it down. What need have we for our beliefs and the Torah and the spirit of Israel if we have our own land? But I tell you that the traitor is he who would agree.

Ben-Yehuda, an unabashed secularist, responded with a letter of his own that diplomatically dodged Smolenskin’s question. “We can never save Hebrew,” he reiterated, “without a country with a Jewish majority.” He was a more consistent Smolenskian than Smolenskin, he protested, because he was drawing the logical conclusions from Smolenskin’s writings that Smolenskin had failed to draw:

This is why I say, sir, that we have strayed from the path [you set out on]. It is useless to proclaim: We must cling to Hebrew or die! Only if we give our people life by returning it to the soil of its homeland will Hebrew live, too. . . . In all that I am saying, sir, it is your spirit that speaks in me. You were the first of our intellectuals to raise the banner of national redemption and to have the courage to speak without fear of being called a zealot or a madman.

You have not labored in vain, sir.

 

 

———

 

But let us return to the tufinim. They have been pilfered—and the culprit is Yakov-Ḥayim, the protagonist of A Donkey’s Burial and, along with Yosef in Lost on Life’s Way, the most memorable of Smolenskin’s characters. He and Yosef have much in common. Both excel as students at the same Shkhula-Kshula-Shklov yeshiva; both are intelligent, self-confident, impulsive, and quick to take and give offense. The adolescent Yakov-Ḥayim, though, is also a prankster. High-spirited and scornful of authority, he steals the pièce de résistance of the Ḥevra Kadisha’s banquet as a practical joke, for which he is sentenced by the irate banqueters, who do not yet know his identity, to the punishment when he dies of a “donkey’s burial,” an unmarked grave outside the Jewish cemetery.

As opposed, too, to Yosef, who parts from Shifra without baring his heart to her, Yakov-Ḥayim is married in an arranged match while still a yeshiva student; his bride, the fetching Esther, is Getsl-Shmaryeh’s orphaned granddaughter. Yet discovering the day after the wedding that his new grandson-in-law is the tufin thief, Getsl-Shmaryeh insists on an immediate divorce and offers to pay Yakov-Ḥayim to consent to it. Yakov-Ḥayim agrees because he intends to use the money to run away with Esther and start a new life with her elsewhere. As the writ of divorce is about to be penned by the town rabbi, however, a quarrel breaks out over the size of the promised sum, and Yakov-Ḥayim balks.

“Speak up!” exclaimed Reb Getsl in a fury. “Are you going to grant a divorce this very minute or not?”

“You’ll get your divorce when I get my money,” the young husband answered coolly.

“You’ll see the back of your ears before you see the money!”

“And you’ll see the top of your head before you see me again. Your granddaughter will never be able to remarry.”

“My granddaughter a grass widow?” cried Esther’s grandmother. “Lord have mercy! You murderer! How can you be so godless as to leave a poor orphan high and dry? You wicked, scurvy, bloody thief!”

“I’m neither wicked nor a thief. I love my wife and don’t want to leave her.”

“Thief! You’re a thief! Where do you get the gall to say you aren’t? Did you hear him, brothers?” the old woman appealed to the onlookers. “Did you hear what this shameless fellow said? He said he loves the wife he married yesterday. They haven’t been married a day and he’s already telling the whole world he loves her! What Jew ever loved his wife the day after their wedding?”

Perhaps only the Jew for whom the sexual consummation of the wedding night, an awkward mortification for most young shtetl couples, was a joyous experience. Soon, though, the novel’s semi-comical beginnings turn somber. To the chagrin of Zvadia, Kshula’s wealthiest Jew who covets a divorced Esther for himself, she and Yakov-Ḥayim remain together. Befriended by the provincial governor for his winning personality and perfect Russian, Yakov-Ḥayim finds lucrative work as a fixer with the authorities for the town’s Jews, many of them smugglers needing protection from the law. Then, though, his indiscreetly revealed contempt for his clients leads to his rejection by them. In retaliation, he becomes a paid police spy until, his activities uncovered, he is excommunicated by the Kshula community. Esther, who loves him but has a strong sense of Jewish loyalty, persuades him to give up his informer’s life; yet with a small child and no means of support, they sink into dire poverty.

The only solution, Esther now convinces Yakov-Ḥayim, is to beg the leaders of the community for forgiveness and ask to rejoin it. He swallows his pride and does so; his overtures are rejected; enraged and despairing of a normal existence, he throws in his lot with a gang of criminals; on his way to a midnight rendezvous with it, he is murdered by an assassin hired by Zvadia. Cast in a river and washed ashore, his body is buried outside the cemetery. The governor takes Esther under his protective wing and is enchanted by her. Thoroughly alienated by now from Kshula’s Jews, she agrees to marry him and is baptized. The wedding is held to the peals of church bells; Zvadia, whose role in Yakov-Ḥayim’s death has meanwhile come to light, uses his wealth and influence to escape punishment; and A Donkey’s Burial ends on that note.

Although a synopsis can make any book sound silly, A Donkey’s Burial, despite some clumsy plotting, is Smolenskin’s most accomplished work. There is something genuinely tragic about Yakov-Ḥayim’s fate, for many of the qualities that are his undoing—his imaginativeness, his enthusiasm, his courage, his capacity for love and sacrifice—could have made him an asset to Kshula. Yet Kshula, so hidebound that it is scandalized by the thought of a young married couple being in love, has no use for such traits and drives their possessor to a life of crime. This is its tragedy.

And yet A Donkey’s Burial is not just an indictment of East European Jewry as represented by the inhabitants of Kshula. Not only is Yakov-Ḥayim, like Yosef, at fault for what happens to him, but apart from the villainous Zvadia, Smolenskin’s depiction of Kshula’s Jews is not unsympathetic. His most outspoken defense of them is put in the mouth of a well-off Jew at a meeting of the town’s prominent citizens, held to decide whether to raise money to bribe officials for the release of smugglers arrested on a tip to the police from Yakov-Ḥayim:

Fifteen-thousand Jews live in this town with no other way of earning a living, and we’re supposed to tell them, “Go home, obey the law, and die of hunger with your families”? We rich Jews are told we should help the less fortunate. We do and we will. No other town in this country gives more to charity. Just look at our yeshivas, our Talmud Torahs, our orphanages, our aid societies, our poor funds and sick funds, our dowry donations for brides, and all the rest. But how much good can any of this do so large a population? . . . The 50 rich Jews of Kshula can’t support 15,000 others. How will they manage if they don’t deal in contraband? You say they should learn a trade? Where will they find work? Every last tailor, shoemaker, woodcutter, and smith in this town is a Jew, and they’re all glad if there’s food on the table at the end of the day. . . . The first, sacred duty of us all is to keep ourselves and our families alive. If we can’t do it honestly, we’ll have to do it by bribery.

Kshula is narrow-minded but not cold-hearted. There just is no way for a Yakov-Ḥayim to fit into its structure. Like Lost on Life’s Way, A Donkey’s Burial deals with social and national boundaries. Whom do they and whom don’t they include? Ironically, they can embrace a people’s farthest-flung progeny while having no room for its homegrown sons and daughters. No one could be more Jewish than Esther, whose apostasy could never have been imagined before the circumstances that bring it about.

But not even apostasy need breach the circumference of Jewish connectedness. There is another case of it in Smolenskin’s novel G’mul Yesharim, “Virtue’s Reward,” published in Ha-Shaḥar in 1875-76. This one, too, involves a young woman from a traditional home, located in the Polish shtetl of Shtika; made pregnant by a Pole, she is cast into the street by her parents and finds asylum in a convent, where she gives birth and goes to the baptismal font. In the novel’s final pages, a single mother eking out a miserable living for herself and her small son as a washerwoman in Warsaw, she is recognized by a brilliant young Jewish lawyer as the daughter of a family he knew in Shtika; he represents her in court, wins her case, and hires her to be his housekeeper. Although she is terrified at having her Jewishness exposed and begs him to reveal it to no one, we are left with the strong hint that she and her son will be restored to the Jewish fold.

Another outrageous coincidence? No doubt. But it is to a big city like Warsaw that such a woman must repair if she wishes to conceal a past both Jewish and sinful; the lawyer is yet another of Smolenskin’s ex-yeshiva students, inclined by his talmudic training to a profession in which only the most outstanding Jews are accepted; the place to study and practice it is Warsaw; and who but a Jewish lawyer with an outsider’s experience and hatred of injustice would defend, pro bono, a poor washerwoman beaten by her employer?

Moreover, changes of religion are a two-way street. Another character in Virtue’s Reward is Emil, born Immanuel. The son of a wealthy Maskil, he drifts away when young from a Jewish world he feels stifled by; spends his days and nights in the company of Shtika’s young Polish nobility; and joins the anti-Russian Polish rebellion of 1863, fighting heroically as an officer in its ranks. From a Jewish point of view, Emil seems lost. And yet in the end, no longer able to overlook the Poles’ ingrained anti-Semitism or to suppress his own Jewish feelings, he returns to his people—and when he does, he brings with him the brave and charming Polish aristocrat Elżbieta, who converts to marry him. Borders with exits also have entry points.

 

———

 

Between the early spring of 1881 and 1884, Russia was swept by an unprecedented wave of anti-Jewish pogroms, centered in the Ukraine, that inflicted widespread physical injury and property damage, though little loss of life. Triggered by the assassination of Alexander II, for which Jewish conspirators were widely blamed (in fact, only one Jew was involved), the riots had been preceded by decades of anti-Semitic agitation. Revolutionary activity, economic exploitation of the masses, pro-Polish sympathies, religious fanaticism, supremacist doctrines, political subversion, draft-dodging, ritual murder, avaricious greed, criminality, plots against Christianity, control of international finance, a drive for world domination: there was nothing Jews weren’t accused of.

The response of the new regime of Alexander III was anything but reassuring. In many places, the police and army did little or nothing to stop the rioters. Much of the press and public opinion held Russian Jewry responsible for its own plight, and the government, in the name of reducing friction between it and the general population, enacted new anti-Jewish legislation, tightening Jewish residency restrictions and educational quotas. The liberalization policies of Alexander II, already rolled back during his lifetime, were officially abandoned.

Increasingly, it seemed that the only alternatives for the Jews of Russia were to accept a long, slow death under tsardom, to hope for a revolution, or to opt for mass flight. Even before they could take organized action, they reacted spontaneously by quickening the pace of an emigration that had been a trickle until then. In the 1860s and 70s, a few thousand Jews had left Russia every year; in the first months after the pogroms began, an estimated 10,000 departed for the United States alone. In October 1881, Yehuda Leib Gordon, a spokesman for the Haskalah’s more radical, anti-religious wing and always a believer in the Jewish future in Russia, published a pro-emigration poem that he could not conceivably have written a half-year previously. The first of its seven stanzas, each ending with the refrain of Moses’ defiant words to Pharaoh, reads:

One people we were, one people we are,
Hewn as one from the same mother lode.
Our joys and our sorrows have been ours to share
In the two-thousand years we have been on the road
From nation to nation, tossed to and fro.
With our young and our old, let us go!

A few weeks after the publication of Gordon’s poem, Ben-Yehuda, then living in Paris, sailed for Palestine with the intention of settling there. Although this was a course few Russian Jews had chosen up to that point, it was one under discussion by many. Before setting out, Ben-Yehuda traveled to Vienna to see Smolenskin, who had just returned from a trip to Russia. His memoirs relate:

He [Smolenskin] invited me to lunch at his home and received me with a cordiality that signaled that the man was in the highest of spirits. Bringing me to his study, he spent the time before being called to the table telling me about his trip, about the dramatic growth in Russia of Jewish national feeling, and about the honors accorded him there. . . .

“By the way,” he said genially, “do you know that your ‘Letter From Ben-Yehuda’ was published in the last issue of Ha-Shaḥar before I left on my trip?”

“Many thanks for that, sir. I’m quite pleased by it.”

“Don’t rush to be pleased. I answered you and rebutted all of your arguments.”

“On that score, I’m not pleased at all. But let’s wait and see. Perhaps I’ll be able to defend myself and prove. . . . ”

“There’s no need for that,” Smolenskin interrupted me. “You needn’t bother, because your work has already been done for you by others . . . namely, by me. Yes, I’ve replied to my rebuttal of your views by adopting them and even stating them more strongly. You’re wondering how I could come out against my own self? It’s simple. . . . I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve changed my mind. When your letter [to Ha-Shaḥar] arrived, the world was still the same world and I was still of the opinion that we Jews could live as a people even in the Diaspora as long as we told ourselves that we were a people . . . but the terrible events in Russia have shaken me and my thinking to the core. They’ve made me feel that our national existence needs something more tangible, a ground beneath our feet—yes, our own land and [spoken] tongue. . . . After spending two months in Russia and seeing the nationalist fervor kindled in its Jews and the desire of many to settle in Palestine, I now believe with all my heart that the land of Israel is the hope of the Jewish people. I believe it’s possible, if only our people backs it to the full. . . .”

Smolenskin now put Ha-Shaḥar solidly behind Zionism—or rather, “Zionism” being a term coined only in 1890, behind the Ḥibat Tsiyon or “Love of Zion” movement, as early Palestinian colonization efforts were called. Many of the editorials run by him in Ha-Shaḥar‘s remaining years dealt with its activities, which included the founding in the early 1880s of Palestine’s first Jewish agricultural settlements. He also lent his name as a sponsor to Kadimah, a Viennese student association established in 1882 that became a Zionist focal point. In this he was joined by the Odessa physician Leo Pinsker, whose influential essay Autoemancipation was published that same year. Inasmuch as the hatred of Jews manifested in “the terror of the [recent] bloody atrocities,” Pinsker wrote there, was not a mere prejudice that could be overcome by education and progressive politics, but the natural reaction of any people to a foreign body in its midst, a “psychic aberration” that was “hereditary and, as a disease transmitted for 2,000 years, incurable,” the only solution to the Jewish question was a land Jews could call their own.

As usual, Smolenskin turned to fiction to give imaginative expression to what he was writing about discursively. The result, more a novella than a novel, was Brit Nakam, “A Pact of Vengeance.” Its tripartite division similar to a play’s three acts, it begins with its young hero, Ephraim Hahagri, taking part in a meeting convened by his fellow Jewish university students in St. Petersburg to debate attending a talk by a nationalist Hebrew author visiting from Vienna. Hahagri, though much admired for having defended Jewish honor by slapping a Russian confrere for an anti-Semitic remark, voices the liberal, assimilationist views that he has been brought up to believe in by his parents but raises no objection to hearing the author out, and the group votes to honor the visitor with its presence.

In part two of the novel, Hahagri returns to his rented room to find two letters. One, from his father, is an anguished account of a bloody pogrom that has hit their provincial town; the family home was looted and Hahagri’s sister, her gold locket torn from her throat, nearly raped; even worse than the physical damage was the shattering of the father’s dreams of Christian-Jewish brotherhood, now realized by him to have been a chimera. The second letter, from Hahagri’s mother, takes an opposite tack. Begging him not to be influenced by his father’s depression, which, she is sure, will prove temporary, she insists that the pogrom was the work of unrepresentative riffraff, a mere blip on the 19th century’s upward curve of progress. “Be strong, my son,” she writes. “Don’t be swayed by reactionary thoughts. Crabs go backwards, not human beings.” Shocked and disturbed by his father’s letter, Hahagri is heartened by his mother’s and decides to boycott the Hebrew author’s talk.

The novella’s last part takes place several weeks later in Hahagri’s native town, to which he has gone for his summer vacation. Visiting a genteel Russian family he has been friendly with since childhood, he spends time with its only daughter, a girl his age, and revels in their warm feelings for each other; yet just as her older brothers come home with a friend, he notices to his consternation that she is wearing his sister’s locket. He pleads with her to remove it, telling her it was stolen from its Jewish owner; she sees no reason to. “What do I care about some Yi— . . . some Jewish girl?” she asks. “This was given me by a person of honor.” “It was given you by a thief!” retorts Hahagri—and is slapped by the brothers’ friend, the same “person of honor,” it turns out, who was his sister’s attacker. A moment later he is thrown down the stairs and out of the house to general laughter. “If that’s not enough payment for the locket, Yid, you can have more!” comes a shout from the window

Hahagri is tempted to take vengeance with the revolver he habitually carries in his pocket, but doesn’t. Greatly agitated, he wanders through the streets of the town; finds himself outside a synagogue that he enters, and sees the congregation sitting on the floor in observance of the fast of the Ninth of Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple; joins it; and announces at the service’s end that he is leaving Russia for Palestine. “Our flag of vengeance is Jerusalem!” he proclaims. “We’ll even the score by standing together as brothers, not with blood. Hurrah for our people and the land of our fathers!”

Like Emil in Virtue’s Reward, to whom he bears a resemblance, Hahagri is forced back on his own Jewishness by a combination of outer and inner forces. The novella concludes:

There was only one person still in mourning at the day’s end: Ephraim’s mother. Gone, gone was the 19th century, and there was no one to bring it back.

These well-wrought lines are not enough to save A Pact of Vengeance from being an overly schematic work. But the Hebrew author from Vienna wrote it while dying of tuberculosis and can be excused for having been in a hurry.

 

———

 

Although Smolenskin is remembered today as an early Zionist, he would be thought of differently had he died a few years earlier, or had the pogroms of 1881 broken out, say, in 1885. His reputation would then be that of a Diaspora nationalist with little or no interest in Palestine.

And yet in the last years of his life, nothing fundamental changed in his thinking. What changed was the situation he was required to think about. Something that had not been worth considering because it did not appear to be remotely possible was now conceivable. In the ongoing interplay of ideas and events that moves history forward, events had taken the lead. The Jewish people was on the move. Why let it be stampeded to America, one more Diaspora country in which, for better or for worse, one more Diaspora fate awaited it? Why not steer it to Palestine, whose small native population and uncultivated spaces would enable it to become, within a reasonable time, a majority in control of its own destiny?

As was the case with Mapu, only more so, everything Smolenskin wrote had pointed to Zionism all along. Ben-Yehuda had understood this about him before he understood it about himself. But because his conversion to Zionism came at such an early stage in its development, it is difficult to say what sort of Zionist he would have been.

Not a Labor Zionist, certainly. He took a dim view of revolutions and left-wing politics, as expressed by the narrator of Virtue’s Reward in aphoristically observing of the Polish revolt against the tsar: “harsh is the government placed in the hands of one man; harsher that seized from such hands by force; harshest of all that fallen into the hands of the many.” The project of returning Jews to the soil left him equally skeptical. “Just because our ancestors were farmers 3,000 years ago,” he asked in A Time to Plant, “does that mean we have to be farmers today?” The Jews were an entrepreneurial, not an agrarian, people. There was no turning back the clock on what they had become.

Neither would he have been a sholel ha-golah or “negator of the Exile,” a Zionist in favor of concentrating as many Jews as possible in a Jewish state and writing off all the rest.  Appreciated by him for its energy and diversity, life in the Diaspora had never struck him as a misfortune or a pathology that needed to be eliminated. Yet his concern with the “spirit” rather than the letter of the Torah would have distanced him from religious Zionism, too. “It is not the laws of our religion that unite us,” he wrote. “They will not live forever, but our people will. Jews who do not observe them or never possessed them, like those of India or China, are our brothers, too.”

Perhaps he is best thought of as a forerunner of the “spiritual Zionism” of Aḥad Ha’am, with its goal of creating a Palestinian center for a dispersed Jewish people that would serve as a model for the transformation of Jewish tradition into a modernly viable way of life through its secularization within a national framework. Yet Aḥad Ha’am’s Zionism might have seemed stodgily high-brow to him and too reminiscent of the misnagdic elitism of the Haskalah.

In the end, Smolenskin’s novels, with their human arena that is the site of numerous contending wills, some far-seeing and some blind, some mutually reconcilable and some not, may give us a better idea of how he might have envisioned a Jewish state. A tolerator of difference whose pluralism was less an ideology than an intuitive sense of the incalculable complexity of things, he had a conservative’s belief that life cannot be planned or engineered and must be left alone to work itself out—that, left alone or not, it will work itself out—in its own unpredictable ways.

At the heart of much of what he wrote is the conflict between legitimate self-interest and a necessary concern for others that all societies, as all individuals, must learn to navigate. Both Yosef and Yakov-Ḥayim are made to realize from the start that whoever does not aggressively stand up for himself goes down to defeat. Smolenskin, with his disdain for the liberalism that leaves one ashamed to put one’s own interests first, thought the same of national issues. It is harder, however, for both men to understand that they are not the only ones who must be accommodated, and that taking into account someone else’s point of view need not indicate weakness of principle or character. Smolenskin would not, one suspects, have found life in Israel either surprising or uncongenial.

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More about: Arts & Culture, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Proto-Zionist Writers