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Mihail Sebastian

SEBASTIAN, MIHAIL (originally Josef Hechter; 1907–1945), Romanian novelist, playwright, and critic. Sebastian, who was born in Brăila, practiced as a lawyer in Bucharest, but from the age of 20 devoted himself mainly to writing. He came to be widely recognized as the most versatile and significant Jewish figure in Romanian literature. Between 1927 and 1940 Sebastian contributed to, among others, Cuvîntul, Urmia, Rampa, Viaţa Româneasă, and Revista Fundaţiilor Regale, on which he also worked as an editor; and from 1927 to 1929 he also wrote for the official Romanian Zionist paper, Ştiri din lumea evreească. Sebastian's humanity and courage as a critic won him great respect. At his death much of his work remained scattered in the archives of the journals in which it originally appeared.

Sebastian was greatly interested in Marcel *Proust, on whom he published an important study in Correspondenţa lui Marcel Proust (1939). He first achieved success with Femei ("Women", 1933), stories analyzing the psychology of seven different women. His sensitive descriptions of physical passion again appeared in his "novel of adolescence," Oraşul cu salcîmi ("The Town with Acacia Trees," 1935), and Accidentul ("The Accident," 1940).

The most representative of Sebastian's novels was De două mii de ani ("For the Past 2,000 Years," 1934) which dealt with the problem of the Jew in an alien community. Written in the form of a diary, it portrays the spiritual torment of a Jewish intellectual unable to find a solution to his doubts in either Communism or Zionism. The novel contains a preface by Nae Ionescu who, under the influence of current antisemitism, suggested that the Jews were fated to suffer because they had not accepted Jesus, the Christian messiah. Attacked both by Romanian nationalists and by Zionists, Sebastian replied in a mordant and ironic book, Cum am devenit huligan ("How I Became a Hooligan," 1935), which accused Ionescu of moral and intellectual dishonesty, denouncing the preface as a monstrous act of injustice.

It was as a dramatist that Sebastian won fame even beyond Romania. Three of his best plays have for their theme the intellectual's flight from a reality to which he is unable to adjust himself. Jocul de-a vacanţa ("Let's Play Holiday," 1936, staged 1938); Steaua fǎrǎ nume ("The Nameless Star," 1943, and produced in 1944 under a fictitious name because of Nazi anti-Jewish laws); and Ultima Orǎ ("Last Hour," 1943–44, staged 1946) all show the hand of a master. Sebastian's plays have been translated and performed in many languages, including English, Hebrew, and Chinese. He was killed in a road accident after the liberation of Romania from the Nazis.


G. Cálinescu, Istoria Literaturii Române… (1941), 876–8; idem, Ulysse (1967), 290; C. Petrescu, Opinii si Atitudini (1962), 206–14, 250; B. Elvin, Teatrul lui M. Sebastian (1955); D. Littman, in: Studii si Cercetări de Istorie Literară şi Folclor, 5 no. 1–2 (1956), 213–42; P. Georgescu, in: Viaţa Romîneasca, no. 7 (1962).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.