January 2, 1836, is the date of birth of the writer known as Mendele Mokher Sfarim, who is widely seen as the founder of both Hebrew and Yiddish modern literature.
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His name was actually Sholem Yankev Abramovich: Mendele Mokher Sfarim was the name of the character who narrated several of his stories, which audiences assumed to be a stand-in for the author. He was born in the town of Kapyl, in the Odessa governate, in what is today Belarus.
Abramovich came from a line of rabbis on his father’s side, but when his own father, Chaim Moyshe Broyde, died when Sholem Yankev was only 15, he was left fending for himself. He then headed in the direction of Ukraine, accompanying itinerant beggars, who turned up later in his stories.
In 1853, Abramovich arrived in Kamianetz-Podoloyi, where he did some teaching, got married, and began writing about education. In 1857, the writer Avrom Ber Gotlober, submitted an essay Abramovich had written, “Letter on Education,” to the Hebrew journal Hamagid; it became his first published work.
Can't write fluff in Hebrew
When his first marriage ended in divorce, Abramovich remarried, in 1858, and moved to the home of his new in-laws, in Berdichev. There he began writing fiction in Hebrew, before coming to the conclusion that the sacred language was archaic and stiff, and thus not accessible to the common man, who spoke Yiddish.
Yet Yiddish was not deemed appropriate for literature among Enlightenment Jews – at least, until Abramovich began writing in it. Nervous about its impact on his reputation, he published his first story in the vernacular language, a short novel called “The Little Man and the Pupil” [of the eye], under a pseudonym, in 1864.
Both that and a play called “The Tax” (on kosher meat) were narrated by the sacred-bookseller Mendele, which is how people began referring to the author.
At other times, he relied on a persona he called Yisrulik the Meshuggene to narrate his tales.
He learns it's tough to get by
Abramovich’s early Yiddish works were rational and anti-mystical, and they preached the benefits of secular education as the way to improve one’s lot. But as the author’s identification with the impoverished classes, and his indignation with the Jewish middle class and communal elite, and with Russian officialdom, grew, he became less certain that it was possible to better one’s lot. In biting satire, he skewered those who exploited the Jewish poor, and criticized anti-Semitism.
All the while, Abramovich was struggling to make a living. He studied for rabbinical ordination, but didn’t find a job as a rabbi. Finally, after 1881, when he moved to Odessa, he was appointed head of a Jewish school. This was the same year his oldest son converted to Christianity and married a non-Jewish woman, and that a wave of pogroms broke out in Russia.
Odessa is where Abramovich spent the last 36 years of his life. It was during this period that he began writing again in Hebrew, and also translating his Yiddish work into a new, modern version of Hebrew. This work was rich with Biblical, Talmudic and midrashic allusions.
He died on December 8, 1917.