(1842–1885), maskilic writer; founder and editor of the Hebrew journal Ha-Shaḥar (The Dawn); novelist and short-story writer. Perets Smolenskin’s writings attracted a wide and enthusiastic readership and influenced the consolidation of a nationalist Haskalah movement and Zionist ideology.
Born in Monstriczena, Mogilev (now Mahilyow, Belarus), to a poor family, and orphaned from his father, Smolenskin was forced at a very young age to grapple with hardships. The kidnapping of his eldest brother who was subsequently conscripted into the army of Tsar Nicholas I was especially traumatic for him. For four years from the age of 14, he studied in the yeshiva of Shklov. Afterward, he spent a few months in the town of Lubavitch (Lyubavichi), at the court of Rabbi Menaḥem Mendel Shneerson. Disenchanted with both the yeshiva and with the Hasidic court, he spent the next few years wandering in the Pale of Settlement, supporting himself by taking temporary positions, such as assisting a famous cantor and acting as a guest preacher. His problems formed the backdrop for his literary works (especially his popular Ha-to‘eh be-darkhe ha-ḥayim (The Wanderer in the Paths of Life; 1868–1876).
The five years (1862–1867) he spent in Odessa transformed Smolenskin into a modern intellectual. He began to publish articles in the Hebrew press (Ha-Melits); wrote a book of literary criticism (Bikoret tihiyeh [Let There Be Criticism]; 1867); and composed belles lettres (Simḥat ha-nef [The Hypocrite’s Joy; not published until 1872] and Ha-Gemul [The Reward]; 1866). While still in Odessa, he began compiling the first part of Ha-to‘eh be-darkhe ha-ḥayim, an autobiographical novel whose orphaned protagonist, Joseph, copes with a cruel and difficult childhood. Smolenskin’s childhood experiences became, in the hands of the author, a literary device through which he aimed his piercing and merciless criticism of contemporary Jewish lifestyles.
Title page of Ha-Shaḥar, September/October 1876, Vienna. (YIVO)
After settling in Vienna in 1868, Smolenskin founded Ha-Shaḥar, which became a major Hebrew journal. His work as its editor became the central anchor of his life, and he continued in this role until his death. Smolenskin used Ha-Shaḥar as a platform for his ideas, for publishing his essays and serialized novels, and most importantly for acting as the focal point to attract a circle of writers who were doing their part in contributing to modern Hebrew culture. Ha-Shaḥar was aimed principally at the Hebrew-reading public of the Russian Empire, but it was also distributed in Central and Western Europe and in Jewish immigrant enclaves in America and Australia. Smolenskin traveled to collect funds for his journal, and he maintained a lively dialogue with the reading public. When he married Lenora Temkin in 1875, and publication of Ha-Shaḥar was temporarily suspended, hundreds of his readers showed their understanding by sending their congratulations.
The Smolenskin home in Vienna became a meeting place for young writers. Smolenskin’s public profile as editor of Ha-Shaḥar was given concrete expression in 1874 when he was chosen to head an Alliance Israélite Universelle mission to Romania. Its aims were to investigate the worsening situation of the local Jewish population, who were suffering from antisemitic persecutions and pogroms, and to assist in establishing schools. This mission did not accomplish its aims, and it is probably reasonable to say that like many other maskilim of his generation, Smolenskin’s true strength lay in his ability to write and to formulate ideas; he was less competent at implementing practical initiatives.
Like the overwhelming majority of maskilic literary works, Smolenskin’s stories and novels were anchored in a social reality that he had criticized and to which he sought to introduce progressive changes. His realistic stories portray an environment that in the main is dark, cruel, violent, and pessimistic. Smolenskin exposed what he had discovered underneath the masks worn by the Jewish communal leadership. He explored the figures of wealthy philanthropists, paupers, rabbis, sages, Hasidim, youngsters trying to find their ways, the assimilated, the traditional, and modern women. He believed that Jewish society also reflected fanaticism, degeneration, hypocrisy, low morals, and a mercilessness toward its weaker elements. As a liberal maskil, Smolenskin did not restrain himself from criticizing Hasidism or religious people in general, but simultaneously he would not infrequently mock the new generation that sought to shed Jewish identity and culture by finding refuge in the modern capital cities of Europe. His literary works included the four volumes of Ha-to‘eh be-darkhe ha-ḥayim; Kevurat ḥamor (A Donkey’s Burial; 1874); Ga’on ve-shever (Pride and Fall; 1874); Gemul yesharim (Recompense of the Righteous; 1874); and others. They were based substantially on his critical observations of Jewish life in an era of transition, and they comprise an invaluable primary historical source.
Kevurat ḥamor exemplifies Smolenskin’s tendency to stray from the conventional optimistic maskilic narrative. By contrast, he showed his readers that the opposite was the case and that the forces of Enlightenment had only a remote chance of success (his novel ends in death and in conversion to Christianity). Similarly in the essays he wrote for Ha-Shaḥar, he asked maskilim to rethink their ideology and create a new platform. He enunciated his revisionist stance toward the Haskalah in the introductory essay of Ha-Shaḥar (1868)—one of the most important texts in the history of the culture and ideology of the East European Haskalah movement. Smolenskin urged his fellow maskilim to pave the way for a “new battlefront” and to mobilize his journal for this purpose.
In addition to the long struggle against the guardians of tradition who opposed modernization, particularly the Hasidim, what was now required was a supreme effort to contest Jews who advocated assimilation, and who, in his opinion, threatened the unity of the Jewish people and endangered Jewish culture. The broad European approach that Smolenskin had adopted during his nomadic and crusading life, his eventual settlement in Vienna (the heart of the multinational empire), and his deep alarm at the modernization processes that had threatened to hasten the deterioration of Western and Central European Jewry (religious reform, aspirations to be emancipated, social integration, a dramatic upsurge in the standard of living, acculturation, abandonment of the Hebrew language, removal of the hope for salvation, etc.) brought him to the conclusion that maskilim had to reorder their priorities. It was most urgent to uproot antinational tendencies and to foster modern consciousness. His shock after hearing reports of the Odessa anti-Jewish riots of spring 1871 reinforced his pessimistic evaluation of the failure of the Enlightenment to introduce humanistic values into society, and thus emboldened him to work toward strengthening Jewish nationalism.
The long essays that Smolenskin wrote during the 1870s, ‘Am ‘olam (An Eternal People; 1872), and ‘Et lata‘at (A Time to Plant; 1875–1877), reflected his emerging maskilic and nationalist worldview. His weltanschauung inclined toward a cultural nationalism that was made up of the following factors: the Hebrew language; the spiritual qualities (rather than the practical rituals) of the Torah and of the commandments; and the hope for an ultimate redemption (in the national secular sense of this word, and not its religious–messianic meaning) to make up for the lack of the classical elements of nationalism, such as a commonly held territory, a political regime, and a uniform language. Addressing his fellow Jews in Eastern and Central Europe, Smolenskin averred that those who betray the Hebrew tongue betray their own people. He regarded the Jewish religion in nationalist terms (defining Jews as a covenantal people), so that even those who were not observant could identify as bona fide Jews.
Smolenskin was particularly opposed to the notion that Jews formed merely a religious community and not an independent nation. To his mind, the root of all evil was embedded within the Haskalah movement itself, especially in its eighteenth-century German incarnation. He viewed it as an absolute necessity to critically analyze and rebuild the foundations upon which the Berlin Haskalah was built, and he did not shy away from portraying a very negative image of the mythological founder of the Haskalah movement, Moses Mendelssohn. Smolenskin attributed to Mendelssohn the sins of universalism and of minimizing Jewish identity. This radically new approach was regarded by many in the Haskalah as an intolerable dissent from normative maskilic principles. The storm created in the wake of this new slant was reflected in the pages of Jewish journals, and it was also responsible for the establishment of a new Hebrew journal, Ha-Boker or (Morning Light), founded by Smolenskin’s chief rival Avraham Ber Gottlober as an alternative to Ha-Shaḥar. This new journal’s stated aim was to preserve the values and heritage of the “moderate Haskalah movement.”
During the 1880s and most conspicuously after the pogroms in southern Russia, Jewish public opinion began to change, and the ideas and programs of the nationalist movement and of Zionism began to be major topics of public discussion. When Smolenskin visited Russia in 1881, special receptions were arranged in his honor in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, confirming his status as a leading nationalist thinker with a very broad following. After his return to Vienna, while pogroms in Russia were continuing unabated, his nationalist ideology took a radical turn. For the next few years (1881–1884), most of the articles in Ha-Shaḥar placed Palestine at the forefront of the nationalist program. Smolenskin became a prominent member of Ḥoveve Tsiyon, continued to angrily attack the assimilationist trends of the Berlin Haskalah and of Reform Judaism, sharply criticized those immigrating to America, and demanded that the Alliance Israélite Universelle utilize resources to promote immigration to Palestine. His last novel, Nekam berit (Revenge of the Covenant; 1884) was one of the first Zionist novels, telling the story of an assimilated child who after witnessing the debasement of his national honor returns to his people, identifies with them, and becomes a Zionist.
Smolenskin was only alive long enough to witness Zionism’s very first steps. In 1883 he contracted a serious form of tuberculosis, left Vienna to seek medical help in southern Tyrol, and died there in a convalescent home in Miran at the beginning of 1885. As a tribute to the fact that he was one of the founding fathers of the modern Jewish national idea, Smolenskin’s remains were reburied in Israel in 1952.
Isaac Barzilay, “Smolenskin’s Polemic Against Mendelssohn in Historical Perspective,” PAAJR 53 (1986): 11–48; Reuven Brainen, Perets ben Mosheh Smolenskin: Ḥayav u-sefarav (Warsaw, 1896); Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 5, pp. 14–231 (Jerusalem, 1955); George Mandel, “Smolenskin, Ben Yehuda and the Jewish Education of the Future,” in Jewish Education and Learning, ed. Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt, pp. 273–285 (Chur, Switz., 1994); Tudor Parfitt, “Smolenskin and the Revival of Hebrew Education,” in Jewish Education and Learning, ed. Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt, pp. 1–8 (Chur, Switz., 1994).
Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler