Eleven Maskilim

In the Haaretz Passover supplement there is a nice introduction to the important maskilim of the end of the 19th century. In their time, they were the intellectuals who were read by everyone who wanted to sustain the Jewish community.

Some of these Russian haskole figures are the banes of the 1890- 1940 Yeshiva world and one finds many allusions and refutations to the writings of the mussar movement or the writings of the Yeshiva world. (Anyone have any favorite citations? Let see who has the best one. Bear in mind that Schulman was the translator of Graetz and that Hasidic tales are based on the model of Zweifel.)

The Mizrahi movement of Reines and his followers Zev Yaavetz and A. M. Lifshitz incorporated the changes to Jewish education advocated by these maskilim. Modern Orthodoxy does not really come from Rabbi S.R. Hirsch and Germany but from the hundreds of Russian rabbis who moved to the US and turned to the Maskilim and the Mizrahi rabbis to help create a Hebrew education system. Between the two wars most of the Mizrahi movement lived in the US and only made aliyah in the early 1950’s. Figures in US Orthodoxy like Pinchas Churgin, Moshe Seidel, Wolf Gold, Shimon Federbush, Meir Bar-Ilan are the forgotten creators of our elementary school system of Hebrew, navi, maps, charts, and “mi amar le-mi.” These Russian born Mizrahi educators are nearly forgotten in American Jewish memory. Day school curriculum is based on these Mizrahi movement figures and their use of the haskole works.
High Schools used to present many of these haskole figures as if they were all observant, some were and some were not.

Lights on in the park By Haim Cohen
Along with shady paths and playgrounds, Tel Aviv’s Haskalah Park offers a history lesson on the Jewish enlightenment

Like the names of 11 streets in the adjacent neighborhood, Bitzaron, the park commemorates the Jewish Enlightenment movement (the Haskalah). Portraits of 11 Enlightenment thinkers (maskilim) adorn the shelter in the south of the park,

The maskilim called for education, tolerance, love of mankind and morality, the spread of knowledge and the valorization of the Hebrew language. They expressed their ideas through journals, newspapers and books. Among the key maskilim were the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who is considered the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, and Isaac Eichel, its founder; Isaac Baer Levinsohn, one of the first maskilim in Russia; Samuel David Luzzatto, from Padua in Italy; philosopher and historian Reb Nachman Krochmal; the poet Y.L. Gordon and many more.

Leading lights

Each of the 11 maskilim represented in the park was given an appropriate nickname. There are The Linguist (Yehuda Leib Ben-Zeev), The Satirist (Isaac Erter), The Itinerant Maskil (Abraham Baer Gottlober), The Translator (Kalman Schulman), The Reconciler (Eliezer Zvi Hacohen Zweifel), The Scientist (Chaim Zelig Slonimski), The Scholar of Jewish Studies (Solomon Rubin), The Concordance Compiler (Salomon Mandelkern), The Bibliographer (Yitzhak Isaac Ben-Yaakov) The Teacher (Israel Haim Tavyov) and The Typical Maskil (Mordecai Aaron Guenzburg).

The Concordance Compiler

Salomon Mandelkern (1846-1902) established the impressive project of the Hebrew-Latin Bible concordance “Heikhal Hakodesh” (Leipzig, 1896), the exhausting distribution of which cost him his mental health. Mandelkern was a Hebrew poet, a Bible scholar and a philologist. He translated German and Russian masterpieces into Hebrew, served as a government rabbi in Odessa and was active in the promulgation of the Haskalah.
At the southern edge of the park is a table with his Hebrew translation of Lord Byron’s poem “So We’ll Go No More A-roving” (Leipzig, 1890).

The Scientist

Chaim Zelig Slonimski (1810-1904) wrote and published many scientific texts in Hebrew on mathematics, astronomy, optics, engineering and more, and reported to Hebrew readers on innovations in science in his newspaper Hatsfira (the first Hebrew newspaper published in Poland). Slonimski invented many things, including a calculator in 1844, and served as the head of the Zhitomir rabbinical seminary and as censor of Hebrew and Yiddish books for the Russian government.
Etched on one of the handsome tables in the park is the title page of his work on astronomy, “Sefer Kokhava Deshavita,” which was published in Vilna in 1835, along with an illustration of the solar system from the book’s appendix.

The Teacher

Israel Haim Tavyov (1858-1920) ran an “improved heder” (traditional primary school), wrote textbooks in Hebrew and briefly (1908-10) published a vowel-pointed daily newspaper for children, Hehaver. He was also a playwright, author, translator and researcher of language and folklore who earned his living as an accountant and teacher.

The Satirist

Isaac Erter (1791-1851) was one of the key figures in the Hebrew literature of the 19th century (as well as a teacher and physician). In his works, he criticized the ways of the Hasidim, describing Jewish life in Galicia in a sarcastic and amusing way.

The Reconciler

Eliezer Zvi Hacohen Zweifel (1815-1888) criticized the way in which the Haskalah’s bitter enemy, Hasidism, had developed, but in his work “Peace on Israel” (1868-73, in four volumes), he described the early days of Hasidism in a positive light. His moderate and tolerant approach was a source of tension with his fellow maskilim. He was also a historian and wrote essays and fictional works, but earned his living as a preacher and teacher of young children, and as a teacher of Talmud at the Zhitomir rabbinical seminary. On a table in the park there is a quotation from his “Peace on Israel” about the exhausting work of a maskil:

For nigh 30 years I’ve been writing this and I’m fatigued.
For whom? And why? It’s a mystery even to me.
For my sake? For heaven’s sake? No! On different grounds
On grounds embracing all the wheels of reality and life
Grounds that keep species, persons and health alive
Grounds obvious to some and to others unfound.

(from “Peace on Israel,” by E.Z. Zweifel, Volume III, Vilna, 1873).

The Linguist
Yehuda Leib Ben-Zeev (1764-1811) published pioneering, widely distributed books of grammar and syntax, textbooks and dictionaries, such as “Talmud Lashon Ivri” (1796) and “Otzar Hashorashim” (1807-1808).

The Typical Maskil

Mordecai Aaron Guenzburg (1795-1846) was one of the earliest maskilim, and an outstanding figure in the Jewish Enlightenment in Lithuania in the first half of the 19th century. He translated many books into Hebrew and Yiddish, aiming to expand the horizons of the Jewish public, and wrote books on Russian history and the Napoleonic wars. His autobiographical work “Aviezer” was published posthumously. This is a rare book for its time, written in the 1840s, in which he frankly described his life and childhood and touched upon fundamental problems of the traditional society.

The Translator
Kalman Schulman (1819-1899) translated modern literature into Hebrew, as well as books on history and geography that were published in many editions. The most outstanding of his translations is that of the French writer Eugene Sue’s “The Mysteries of Paris” which is considered the first modern novel to have been translated into Hebrew. He taught Hebrew literature at the rabbinical and teachers seminary in Vilna, and was active in the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia.

The Scholar of Jewish Studies

Solomon Rubin (1823-1910?) was one of the most prolific of the Haskalah writers. His research covered many areas of Jewish studies, including history, Hebrew literature and folklore, linguistics, Jewish philosophy religions of the ancient East. He also translated books and plays into Hebrew. He wrote a doctorate at Goettingen University in Germany (1868) and earned his living, inter alia, as an accountant and teacher.
The Itinerant Maskil

Abraham Baer Gottlober (1811-1899) is known mainly for his autobiographical memoirs of his wanderings, in which he described Jewish life in Eastern Europe, Hasidism and the Haskalah. Gottlober was a writer and poet in Hebrew and Yiddish, a translator, a teacher of Talmud and a historian. In the last years of his life, he was a member of Hovevei Zion, an organization that promoted Jewish settlement in the land of Israel.

The Bibliographer

Yitzhak Isaac Ben-Yaakov (1801-1863) was a publisher of ancient Hebrew manuscripts and a book trader. His greatest bibliographic project, “Otzar Haseforim” (1877-80), listed about 17,000 Hebrew books in print and manuscript. He published a special edition of the Hebrew Bible in 17 volumes with Rashi’s commentary, new notes and a translation into German in Hebrew letters from Mendelssohn’s commentary (the Biur) on the Pentateuch.

Full Version
Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

One response to “Eleven Maskilim

  1. Great piece. Now that we’ve selected honored 11 maskilim, can we agree on which 4 minim to honor on Sukkos?

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