Spotlighting the 'Great Events'

Among the Hebrew journals that appeared in the Russian empire in the late 1800s, Hazefirah - on which Soffer's book focuses - was a brand name.

"There Is No Place for Pilpul! Hazefirah Journal and the Modernization of Sociopolitical Discourse," by Oren Soffer (in Hebrew), Mossad Bialik Publications with the Center for the Study of Polish Jewry at the Hebrew University, 240 pages, NIS 96

At the beginning of the 21st century, the newspaper is but one of a number of media from which we get our information, while the electronic media (and especially the Internet) continue to bite into its circulation constantly. However, in the second half of the 19th century, the press was the main communications medium and, together with the steam train and the telegraph, it changed the face of European society.

The press played an important role in this fast-paced revolutionary process inasmuch as it publicized and distributed ideas and reports from all over the world; indeed, the newspaper, as the French sociologist Gabriel de Tarde (1843-1904) was among the first to identify, formulated the national and political awareness of the nations of Europe.

It is against the backdrop of this dynamic period in the late 19th century that Oren Soffer turns our attention to the Hebrew press that appeared at this time in Eastern Europe, and which was aimed mainly at a readership of Jews of the Pale of Settlement. Paradoxically, the Hebrew press flourished where Yiddish was the language used by the majority of Russian-Polish Jewry. The Yiddish-language papers had their heyday only later, at the last decades of the 19th century, when the Yiddish lexicon left the precincts of the home and shop, and began adapting itself to modern mass communications and to political propaganda (which was socialist in nature).

At the time when the first Yiddish dailies (Yiddish Dageblat and Forverts), appeared in the 1880s and '90s, the Hebrew periodicals had already been around for 25 years, and by 1886 no less than three Hebrew dailies were appearing in the Russian empire. It is true that Yiddish, contrary to Hebrew, was a "living" and spoken language, but at no time did the intellectual elite among the Jews stop writing in Hebrew: The rabbis wrote their responses to questions of Halakha (Jewish law) in Hebrew, books about Jewish thought and Jewish law were published in Hebrew, and various official documents for the community's internal use were also published in the Hebrew language. When the educated Jews of Eastern Europe were faced with the question of which of the two Jewish languages to use for the journals they published, their choice of Hebrew symbolized the continuation of the tradition of intellectual writing and, at the same time, their view of Yiddish as the less prestigious "jargon" of the secluded ghetto Jews.

Hebrew journals appeared in Berlin as early as the middle of the 18th century (Moses Mendelssohn's Kohelet musar) and a few decades later also in Prussia (Hame'asef, published by Yitzhak Eichel and others). However, the innovation in the Hebrew journals published in the Russian empire during the second half of the 19th century was that for the first time, some of them succeeded to become modern, to have journalistic content and value, and to appear on a regular basis over a number of years. Hazefirah, on which Soffer's book focuses, became a journalistic brand name and survived all its competitors. It appeared in 1862 and was published, with periodical breaks, until 1931. From the year 1886 onward, to a large extent because of the competition it faced from other publications, it also adopted the format of a daily.

'Extra-textual' discourse

The Polish capital of Warsaw, where Hazefirah was born, had been under the rule of the Russian czars since the end of the 18th century, but continued to function as an important national cultural center. Following three failed Polish uprisings (the last of these in 1863), it became clear that the Poles did not have the strength to regain their national independence. Thus the Polish intelligentsia adopted a "positivistic" ideology, aimed at nurturing a national culture as a substitute for their lost independence. Special emphasis was put on education - in particular in the exact sciences - which, they hoped, would lead to the creation of an educated Polish middle class that would constitute the backbone of their future modernized society of the future. In its early stages, Hazefirah had similar objectives thanks to the approach of its founder and first editor.

Chaim Zelig Slonimski (known by the Hebrew acronym Hazas, 1810-1904) was a Lithuanian Jew, a graduate of the traditional Beit Medrash (religious "study hall"), a self-taught scientist and a gifted inventor. The Hebrew books he published in his youth on astronomy, mathematics and algebra made him a much-venerated figure among Russian and Polish Jews. Slonimski took advantage of his fame in order to create a journal that would offer practical scientific knowledge in clear and simple Hebrew. The discussion of "popular science" that was characteristic of Hazefirah in its early stages, according to Soffer, spurred a Hebrew discourse of a new kind - one that was "extra-textual" and brought about a change in the traditional and argumentative "intra-textual" discourse that was confined within the boundaries of religion and religious thinking - in order to find answers to various questions. In this way, the foundations were laid for modern secular Hebrew discourse, which facilitated the vital switch in mentality to a national and political discourse.

Warsaw, which in the 1870s became the world's largest center for Hebrew publications, was the natural location for publishing a journal in that language. In 1886, when Hazefirah decided to go over to the format of a daily, with the encouragement of Hazas' chief assistant, the staff believed they could anticipate some 40,000 subscribers in the first year - a dramatic increase from their usual 2,500.

That chief assistant, who later became the newspaper's editor, was Nahum Sokolow (1859-1936), who began writing in the Hebrew press at the age of 16. Sokolow was a journalist who wrote feuilletons, and in effect invented the modern journalistic style of writing in Hebrew. It is therefore no coincidence that the building that houses the Association of Israeli Journalists, and the Israel Prize for Journalism, are named after him. His impressive mastery of many languages enabled him to translate into Hebrew reports from Russian, German, English and French newspapers; thus the Jews of the Pale of Settlement were exposed to European politics and to what was happening in the world outside the walls of Jewish religious study and thought.

Since Hazas neither understood nor took an interest in politics, it was Sokolow who dictated Hazefirah's attitude toward the young Jewish national movement, which was characterized by polite caution that completely contrasted with the enthusiastic nationalism of the competing Hebrew papers. Only after he was invited to the first Zionist Congress in Basel (1897), where he met with Theodor Herzl, did Sokolow become "converted" to the idea of Zionism. From then on, Hazefirah was the official bulletin of that young nationalist movement.

Importance of the written word

Hazefirah was published during a stormy and volatile period in the history of Eastern Europe, ending at the beginning of the 20th century, and including: the Polish uprising of 1863, the Russo-Turkish war (1877-1878), the Russian Revolution of 1905, World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and Poland's reappearance as an independent state in 1918.

At the same time, it was a period of seminal events in the history of the Jews of Eastern Europe: traumatic waves of pogroms (1881-2; 1903-6); large waves of migration to the West; the founding of the Jewish national movements (Zionism and the yiddishist 'Bund'); the beginning and the establishment of the settlement enterprise in the Land of Israel; and the "White Terror" of the post-World War I years in Ukraine, which included a series of pogroms that were surpassed only by the Holocaust.

During all those years, Hazefirah dealt with "the great events" and the internal Jewish discourse that related to them, while at the same time holding an ongoing debate with the other Jewish newspapers - in Hebrew and in the "languages of the state," which existed both inside and outside the czarist empire: Hamelitz in Hebrew, the Russian-language Voskhod and Rassvet in Saint Petersburg, the Polish-language Izraelita in Warsaw, the Hebrew-language Hamegid in Prussia and Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums in Germany.

In addition, Hazefirah was part of a network of important Hebrew periodicals: monthlies and almanacs (such as Hashahar, edited by Peretz Smolenskin; He'asif, edited by Sokolow; and Hashiloah, edited by Asher Ginsberg), which served as a repository for the works of writers and publicists, including the greatest names of early modern Hebrew literature. There wasn't an important Hebrew writer who did not publish in Hazefirah at some point. Among the best-known names, from the 19th century, one can find Mendle Mokher Seforim, Y.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleikhem.

In the early part of the 20th century, Devora Baron, Uri Nissan Gnessin, Shalom Asch and Jacob Fichman all published works there, and before World War I, young writers such as S.Y. Agnon and Uri Zvi Greenberg were the paper's rising stars.

Readers of the Hebrew press in those days still held a traditional view of the sanctity of the printed word - especially if the word was written in Hebrew. And so it was, in total contrast to the popular saying that "yesterday's newspaper is good for nothing but wrapping up fish," that all the Hebrew papers were collected at the end of the year and bound into heavy volumes, which were considered prestigous items in any library.

In this way, the readers were able to delight once again in reading them, many years later, while young readers discovered the world of journalism and immersed themselves in it as if in forbidden literature.

One of the most famous of those young readers was Haim Nahman Bialik, who described in his memoirs how he had ensconced himself in the attic so as to read old copies of Hamelitz and Hazefirah: "The periodicals are not read in the attic but rather licked, sucked and drunk up thirstily so that one becomes intoxicated with them ... and it made no difference if the periodical was of bygone years. All the better - old wine. My wine was of an excellent vintage, from 1880 as I recall, and in it I discovered the different flavors of the world."

The Hebrew press of the time, of which Hazefirah was an important part, constituted a wide and comprehensive panel that was the most introspective and multivoiced ever created by the Jews of the czarist empire. More than any history book written, or that could be written, about those days, these newspapers reflect the lives of the Jews in a varied spectrum and with great vitality.

The wonders of the Internet now make it possible to read Hazefirah as well as other Hebrew papers of its generation on the screen of a computer at a special site devoted to historical Hebrew newspapers at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem ( It is to be hoped that Oren Soffer's book indicates a renewed interest in this grand old journalistic enterprise.

Dror Segev is working on his doctoral thesis at Tel Aviv University dealing with the social history of Russian-Polish Jewry at the end of the 19th century.