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Perez Smolenskin

(1840 or 1842 – 1885)

Perez Smolenskin was a Hebrew novelist, editor, and publicist. A leading exponent of the *Haskalah in Eastern Europe and an early advocate of Jewish nationalism, Smolenskin is best known for the important Hebrew monthly Ha-Shaḥar which he founded in 1868, and edited – 12 volumes in all – until his death.

Early Life

Born in Monastyrshchina, in the province of Mogilev, White Russia, into a life of privation, hardship, and sickness, he witnessed at the age of five the press-ganging of his eldest brother, himself a mere child, into the army of Czar Nicholas I. The lad was never heard of again, and Smolenskin included a description of the terrifying experience in the second part of his largest and best-known novel, Ha-To'eh be-Darkhei ha-Ḥayyim. His father, who had earlier been a fugitive for more than two years because of false accusations, died when Perez was barely 11. A year later Smolenskin left home to join his elder brother at the yeshivah of Shklov, where he remained for nearly five years, maintaining himself by "eating days," i.e., his material needs being provided for by a different member of the community every day – in the manner of poor yeshivah students. Introduced to the ideas of Haskalah by his brother, he began to read secular books and to learn Russian. For these practices he was so persecuted that he fled to ḥasidic centers, first to Lubavich and then to Vitebsk, where he spent the years 1858–60/1. The portrait of Ḥasidism later reflected in his novels is highly critical. After a year of wandering through southern Russia and the Crimea, supporting himself by singing in choirs and preaching in synagogues, he reached Odessa in 1862. There he remained for five years, studying music and languages, and earning his living as a Hebrew teacher.

Early Literary Career

It was in Odessa that Smolenskin also embarked upon his literary career when he published a number of articles in the Hebrew journal *Ha-Meliẓ. His first story, "Ha-Gemul," describing the ingratitude of the Poles toward the Jews who sided with them in the revolt against Russia (1861–63), appeared in Odessa in 1867. Simultaneously, he had composed his first novel Simḥat Ḥanef ("The Joy of the Godless"), which couches a series of lengthy expositions tracing the dependence of certain aspects of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Goethe's Faust on the singular Hebrew spirit informing the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes within the framework of a story depicting the shallow and frivolous attitudes of many of the ostensibly enlightened Jewish teachers in Odessa.

Founder and Manager of Ha-Shahar

Leaving Odessa in 1867, Smolenskin traveled through Romania – acquiring Turkish nationality en route – Germany, and Bohemia, before finally settling in Vienna in 1868, where he worked first as a proofreader and Hebrew teacher. Realizing that his plan to study at the university was quite impracticable, he abandoned hope of obtaining a systematic secular education and founded Ha-Shaḥar, which he henceforth published, edited, and managed, while serving simultaneously as proofreader, distributor, and one of its principal contributors. The journal became the most effective Hebrew literary platform for the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement in its later period, and for the nationalist movement in its early stages. For almost 17 years Smolenskin devoted himself, body and soul, to the production of his cherished monthly, which consumed both his energies and his financial resources. From the outset Smolenskin conceived the journal as an instrument to make the Jewish people increasingly aware of its terrible plight and strengthen its internal resources, fostering at the same time the spread of a genuine enlightenment and a broad culture. Simultaneously, the monthly was to serve as a powerful weapon against any sham or hypocritical aspects of Orthodox Judaism or Ḥasidism which Smolenskin considered inimical to the public interest. It was equally committed to waging war on the exponents of a false enlightenment, whose assimilationist tendencies were undermining the national unity and eroding the distinctive life based on adherence to Torah and the later traditional literature. Above all, the journal epitomized Smolenskin's passionate loyalty to the Hebrew language and Hebrew literature, which he regarded as the real foundations of Jewish nationalism and a substitute for national territory as long as the nation lacked a state. To despise the language, therefore, was tantamount to an act of treachery toward Judaism and the Jewish people. As the fame of his journal spread, Smolenskin's contribution to the development of modern Hebrew literature became increasingly important. In the field of Jewish research, the monthly facilitated the publication of many weighty articles and even whole books by major scholars. It also served as a forum for the propagation of ideas and the discussion of a wide range of contemporary issues. In addition, it provided a hospitable framework for the publication of belles lettres, literary criticism, and book reviews. Primarily, however, it enabled its indefatigable editor to publish his own arresting articles, stories, and novels.

Financial Difficulties

In spite of all the effort required to produce Ha-Shaḥar, Smolenskin's literary activities yielded no financial reward; he was thus compelled to embark upon two long and tiring journeys – the first to Western Europe in 1870, and the second to Russia in 1881 – to seek support for his journal. To meet the additional obligations arising from his marriage in 1875, he undertook the management of a printing house, while in 1878 he launched a new magazine which, however, did not survive for more than nine months. The first eight numbers appeared fortnightly, under the title Ha-Mabbit. The remaining 18 issues appeared on alternate weeks under the titles Ha-Mabbit and Ha-Mabbit le-Yisrael. In addition to his manifold literary activities, Smolenskin also devoted much time and energy to public affairs. As one of the leading exponents of the Jewish return to Ereẓ Israel, he conducted negotiations with Laurence *Oliphant to obtain support for Jewish settlement there. Finally his health broke under the strain of so strenuous a life. Stricken with pulmonary tuberculosis in 1883, he continued writing to the end of his life, and completed his last novel, Ha-Yerushah, shortly before his death.

As Novelist

An impassioned defender of Israel's cause and a ferocious critic of its failures, Smolenskin poured his talent wholesale into articles and stories alike. The latter, indeed, frequently serve as vehicles for the conveyance of his ideas. The attempt to combine an attractive tale with the propagation of ideas and social criticism resulted in a hybrid novel, whose major elements are frequently at odds with each other, and which at best are forced to nestle uncomfortably within a single framework. The belief that it is the task of literature to perform a positive service for society is responsible for the bitter satire and didactic moralizing which permeate the stories. Of all his novels, Ha-To'eh be-Darkhei ha-Ḥayyim ("The Wanderer in the Paths of Life," 1876; first three parts originally published in Ha-Shaḥar, 1 [1868/69] and 2 [1871]), remains, perhaps, the most important. Picaresque and autobiographical in flavor, the story reflects contemporary Jewish life, mainly in Eastern but also in Western Europe, in vivid colors. In spite of the crudities and exaggerations, the tortuous plot and melodramatic villainies, the kaleidoscopic nature of the work, bolstered by the author's obvious sincerity and personal experience, exerts a considerable appeal even for the modern reader. By the end of part three, however, the story has worn itself out, so that the final part, written many years later, has little organic connection with the rest of the novel. It is important only for its penetrating analysis of, and proposed solutions for, the problems of Jewish life. Nowhere else in Smolenskin's novels is the storyteller so completely ousted by the publicist. Much the same applies to Simḥat Ḥanef ("The Joy of the Godless" in Ha-Shaḥar, 3 [1872]), the flimsy plot of which serves only to house the long philosophical and critical discussions comprising the core of the book. Linguistically the novel displays traces of a simpler and clearer mode of expression, and some of the conversations are quite lively. Many of the epithets, however, are stock-phrases, and the style is frequently stilted and artificial. At many points the author's vitality and power of thought come through the story. But the work exhibits signs of carelessness and over-hasty composition, which are offset only in part by the author's spontaneity and verve. The opening chapters of Kevurat Ḥamor ("A Donkey's Burial," in Ha-Shaḥar, 4 [1873]) are excellent; the humor is uproarious, and the plot original. While the half-mocking style is fairly consistent, the level is not maintained throughout, and the limitations of language are still painfully obvious. The novel is permeated with bitter social criticism, while fierce invective is leveled against the Jewish community leaders; but the author does produce very moving arguments in extenuation. The characters develop little and suffer from the author's fondness for exaggerated emotionalism. The hero is neither convincing nor consistent, but the principal villain is far from being merely a melodramatic scoundrel, even though his final sanctification is more effective as satire than as story. There is, however, much powerful writing, and the climate of superstition, bigotry, and persecution is outlined with considerable skill. In spite of a promising beginning, the narrative framework of Ga'on va-Shever ("Pride and Fall," in Ha-Shaḥar, 5 [1874]) is painfully naive, while the clumsily contrived "happy ending," with its deus ex machina in the shape of an inheritance of 15 million rubles, is in keeping with the general low level. The novel is not so much a continuous narrative as it is a number of short stories related by a group of ten fugitives on their way to the United States following the collapse of the Viennese stock exchange in 1873. Some of the individual stories are well related, and contain many points of similarity with Ha-To'eh be-Darkhei ha-Ḥayyim. There are also a number of interesting attempts at characterization; but many of the people are mere personifications of a single quality. The fact that some remain nameless throughout the story is indicative of their shadowy existence. The novel is loosely concluded by a brief reference to the ultimate destinies of the respective travelers. The first part of Gemul ha-Yesharim ("The Reward of the Righteous," in Ha-Shaḥar, 6 [1875]) far outstrips the previous novels in artistry, dramatic techniques, dramatic tension, and characterization; even the dialogue is more natural at times. The main didactic themes are handled skillfully, without obtruding too awkwardly into the plot. The second part (in Ha-Shaḥar, 7 [1876]) is interesting for its ideas on nationalism as well as for its severe condemnation of the Poles for their maltreatment of the Jews. The literary quality of the third part (ibid.) is much inferior. The author seems almost to have become bored with his story and to be making sporadic attempts to tie up the loose ends. Smolenskin's last great novel, Ha-Yerushah ("The Inheritance"), takes place, for the most part, in Romania, where the author had spent three months in 1874 on behalf of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, following a wave of pogroms against Romanian Jewry. Ha-Yerushah reflects the growing maturity of Smolenskin's art. While the first part (in Ha-Shaḥar, 8 [1876/77]) of the novel is even better than its predecessor in structure, artistry, characterization, and dialogue, in the middle of the second part (in Ha-Shaḥar, 10 and 11 [1880/82, 1883]) probability and cohesion are suddenly lost in a burst of melodramatic nonsense. Although the story is brought to a close, the denouement of the plot in the third and final part (in Ha-Shaḥar, 12 [1884]), hastily composed during his last illness, is premature and forced. The story clearly remains unfinished, with the main theme of "the inheritance" left hanging in mid-air. The novel illustrates Smolenskin's remarkable talent as well as his inconsistency and lack of critical awareness. There is no marked linguistic development, and the gap between his writings and the Hebrew versions of Mendele's (S.Y. *Abramovitsh) stories, which appeared within a decade of Smolenskin's death, is very great. He was, nevertheless, the leading Hebrew novelist in the 20 years following the death of Abraham *Mapu, whose influence is clearly recognizable in his novels.

Philosopher of Jewish Nationalism

Smolenskin was less a publicist than a philosopher of Jewish nationalism. His understanding of the nature of Judaism and the Jewish people was unfolded and developed in copious and often loosely repetitive articles in Ha-Shaḥar, which included: Am Olam, his first major study on this subject (in Ha-Shaḥar, 3 [1872]); Et La'asot, which may be regarded as a continuation of Am Olam and which makes a number of practical suggestions for putting the theories of the earlier work into effect (in Ha-Shaḥar, 4 [1873]); and Et Lata'at (in Ha-Shaḥar, 6, 8, 9 [1875, 1876/77, 1878]). Convinced that Jewish nationalism was progressive and not reactionary, he regarded it primarily as a matter of the spirit. The Jewish people had received its Torah in the wilderness before conquering its land and founding a polity. Apart from Torah, however, Israel had always been sustained by its messianic hope and its loyalty to the Hebrew language. The nation's present plight demanded a strengthening of its spiritual forces and national awareness in order to bolster its self-respect. Hence his hostility toward the kind of Enlightenment propagated by the disciples of Moses *Mendelssohn, the so-called Berlin Haskalah, which reduced Judaism to a mere religion and advocated assimilation. Smolen-skin discerned the roots of antisemitism in the contempt felt by the nations for the inferior national status of the Jews, a situation that could be reversed only by a real affirmation of Jewish nationhood. The pogroms of 1881 convinced Smolen-skin not only that the hope of emancipation was chimerical, but that spiritual nationalism alone was not enough. Hence-forward, he became an ardent advocate of a physical return to the homeland, as expressed in 25 articles published in the last three volumes of Ha-Shaḥar (vols. 10–12, 1880/82, 1883, 1884). The time had come to establish a political, economic, and spiritual center in Ereẓ Israel in preparation for a future Jewish state. Agricultural settlement by itself would not be able to support mass immigration. Industry was essential, if the stream of refugees from antisemitism and persecution was to be directed successfully toward the homeland. But at the same time Torah and a knowledge of Hebrew literature must be disseminated throughout the people, so that Israel might become once more a free and highly cultured nation in its ancestral land. In great measure, Smolenskin laid the foundations for the Zionist movement which gradually took shape in the following two decades. At the same time he anticipated the concept of a spiritual center, which was later to be argued so forcibly by *Aḥad Ha-Am. Smolenskin's percipience may be discerned in the repeated warnings expressed, in both his articles and stories, that the pogroms in Russia and the antisemitism in Germany were no temporary aberrations, but merely the first manifestations of worse horrors to come. He foresaw danger threatening the entire people, and maintained that only Ereẓ Israel could offer a real refuge, where all the tribes of the dispersion could be gathered into a single nation. Nekam Berit (in Ha-Shaḥar, 11 [1883]), a story describing the return of an assimilated youth to his people following the Russian pogroms, remains a veritable testament to Smolenskin's nationalism.

General Evaluation

Admittedly, many of Smolenskin's ideas concerning nationalism and the particular qualities of Judaism may be discovered in the writings of S.D. *Luzzatto, Nachman *Krochmal, S.J. *Rapoport, Leopold *Zunz, Abraham *Geiger, and Moses *Hess, although Smolenskin denied any indebtedness to Hess. But Smolenskin endowed their concepts with new life and vigor, refashioning them and adding to them until they became his own. Moreover, through his journal he was able to give them wider currency than had previously been possible. It was not without reason that Smolenskin claimed that he had implanted a love of nation and a new spirit in many a heart and mind. Not merely a thinker, but somewhat of a visionary, Smolenskin's strength lay in his imagination, intuitive foresight, and breadth of perspective. In retrospect, much of what he wrote seems tinged with prophecy. There is something prophetic, too, about his determination and his fire. One of the great fighters of all time in Hebrew literature, he argued his beliefs passionately and with conviction. As an observer of contemporary Jewish life, he remains an important source of information, while his place in the history of Hebrew literature and the growth of Jewish nationalism is equally secure. Of the numerous collections of Smolenskin's writings, the most laudable are Kol Sifrei Pereẓ Smolenskin (6 vols., 1905–10, the first of which includes a biography of Smolenskin by R. *Brainin) and Ma'amarim (4 vols., 1925–26; 1975). A new edition of the works appeared in 1975.


C.H. Freundlich, Peretz Smolenskin (Eng., 1965); D. Patterson, The Hebrew Novel in Czarist Russia (1964); Waxman, Literature, index: D. Weinfeld, in: P. Smolenskin, Kevurat Ḥamor (1968, incl. bibl.); Z. Fishman, in: Hadoar, 2 (1922), nos. 215–9; Lachower, Sifrut, 4 (1948), index; Klausher, Sifrut, passim (bibl. in: 5 (19552), 177–231); Kressel, Leksikon, 2 (1967), 515–21 (incl. bibl.); S. Breiman, in: Shivat Ẓiyyon, 314 (1953), 138–63. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Ungerfeld, "Li-Dmuto shel P. Smolenskin," in: Moznayim, 21 (1966), 535–38; D. Weinfeld, "Ha-Mesapper bi-Yẓirato shel P. Smolenskin," in: Halkin (1975), 503–32; Y. Barzilai, "Bein P. Smolenskin u-Moshe Hess," in: Biẓaron, 49–51 (1992), 57–79; G. Shaked, "Hitbadut ha-Ẓippiyyah: Smolenksin ve-Mendele ve-ha-Narativ shel Tekufat ha-Haskalah," in: Mi-Vilnah li-Yerushalayim (2002), 327–40.

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