Chaim Tchmrnowitz, perhaps better known among Hebrew readers under the pen name Rav Tzair (“The Young Rabbi”), is one of the leading figures in Jewish scholarship and Hebrew literature. In these reminiscences of Mendele Mocher Sforim (1836-1917), Dr. Tchemowitz recaptures the quality of that Jewish renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which produced Sholom Aleichem, J. L. Peretz, Hayim Bialik, and other larger-than-life figures of the culture of Eastern Europe. Mendele (Shalom Jacob Abramowitsch) is commonly regarded as the father of modem Yiddish literature; in his greatest works—notably Dos Kleine Menshele (“The Little Man”) and Die Klyatshe (“The Dobbin”)—he satirized the ruling powers in the Jewish community, and brought into the Jewish literature of Eastern Europe, for the first time since the Middle Ages, a concern with secular experience: nature, love, personality. A translation of his story “The Red Calf” appeared in the November 1946 COMMENTARY. This study of Mendele is part of the book Misechet Zichronot—Chachmei Odessa (“Memoirs—Sages of Odessa”) published in Hebrew in 1945. It has been translated by Maurice T. Galpert.
When you entered “Grandfather” Mendele’s house you passed through several long, dark, almost empty corridors and rooms without meeting a soul until a tall, lean woman emerged from the haze. She would scowl, mutter to herself, and motion with her hand. At last you saw him, sitting hunched over a long table, only his forehead visible, engrossed in writing. He let you stand for a little while. Then he would slide his spectacles over his brow and peer at you sharply as though not recognizing you. Presently he would rise, the full tall height of him, and greet you with a warm, cheerful “aha,” and the conversation began.
Now his “aha’s” weren’t the same for all callers—he had a special tune for people he was particularly close to, and another for people he disliked. His “aha” was a barometer of his spirits on that particular day. Distinguished people, whom he dubbed “my men,” were immediately read to from something he had just penned. He read from ridiculously long sheets of paper—no one seemed to know where he managed to procure them—that from a distance appeared covered with myriads of dots and dashes. He never permitted his caller, who had to sit quietly in rapt attention, to hold the manuscript, or even look on with him. Intermittently Mendele cast sidelong glances at his guest to determine whether he was grasping adequately the various meanings and nuances of his writing, and woe to the man who didn’t appear properly impressed and understanding. For Grandfather Mendele never merely prattled as ordinary mortals do; his conversation was always saturated with hidden meanings. And when he became lost in his exuberance he broke into a childish laughter, poked his thumb into his listener’s abdomen by way of emphasizing that his speech was teeming with mysteries and secrets. Similarly, his writing demanded the utmost in concentration from readers.
Once the reading was done with, Mendele would stand up and embark on a long discourse while pacing up and down the room. From time to time he stopped, raised his finger, reared back and shot a glance at the caller to see whether he was comprehending fully. And to comprehend him wasn’t easy. Conversation for Mendele was a matter of three or four hours. The subject had to be covered and treated from every conceivable angle, and books were consulted when necessary. And it was never mere chitchat. Redolent was it of the lofty discourses of the Talmudical sages on the Torah. At first it was difficult to grasp what he was driving at—so disjointed were his words. But slowly his talk would grow lucid and take on meaning, like sun rays breaking through the clouds. The edifice of his discourse, which was begun with loose, stray words, took shape slowly and surely.
Mendele loved to employ allusions and images in his speech. He was deft at caricaturing a person, particularly an opponent. He would twist his nose, which was unusually agile, contort his body, gesticulate with his hands, and straightway a man loomed up before you all but clothed in flesh and bones. He was very adroit at annihilating an adversary with apt verse from the Bible. For his aversions, the “Lovers of Zion,” whom he labelled collectively “the red Jews,” he had individual sobriquets. These he appropriated from the names of musical tropes appearing over the names of leading figures in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ussishkin, for example, he called “Kadma V’Azla,” and this he trilled in the manner of an officer issuing commands to his troops. Frankfeld, another member of the group, he nicknamed “Telisha Gedola.”
Mendele himself was an amalgam of all the characters and personalities that graced Jewish life. One could detect in him the rabbi, preacher, teacher, philosopher, and sceptic. Sometimes he was veritably a tanna, sometimes the dean of a yeshiva, at other times a kind of Maimonides, or Emanuel of Rome, or Ibn Ezra, or Leon de Modena. But he wasn’t a real synthesis of these personalities—each one was preserved in Mendele in his entirety, as though a separate compartment were reserved for each. One day you would be speaking to Mendele the scholar, another day to Mendele the rabbi, and then suddenly to Mendele the atheist. Once I recall bringing to him my grandfather, Reb Solomon Drozd, of blessed memory, a rabbi in a small town, but a noted scholar nonetheless. My grandfather was sitting with his streiml on his head, while Mendele, bareheaded, sat across from him. At first they glared at each other, but it wasn’t long before the two were clutching at each other’s coats, debating and arguing, hurling biblical verses and Talmudical quotations at one another, as was the custom. Indeed they looked like two sages of yore, down to the last detail.
“There are in me two Mendeles,” he used to say—the wise, pious Jew of the Beth Hamidrash, and the modern sceptic. He loved Jews and Judaism, but he also criticized trenchantly the pettiness he found in Jewish life of the Diaspora. He used to say: There are two in the world who hate Israel, the Lord in heaven above, and I on the earth below; but he always said this in jest. Only a man who loved his people dearly could have spoken in this wise about them. When he discussed Judaism he talked with great fervor about its grandeur, like the prophets of old. And again like the prophets he cast dire imprecations on his people when he chastised them.
Mendele was as proficient in the art of living as he was in literature. From his artistic promontory he could be both serious and sportive. He was humble and proud, irascible and sweet-tempered, depending upon the person he was with. In the company of earnest men he was serious, and with frivolous men jocose. Directly a man approached, Mendele surveyed him from head to toe, peered into the deepest recesses of his soul, and treated him accordingly. And woe to the “small people” when they were lashed by his tongue. His chief hates were the pretentious pillars of the community who were always engaged in saving Jews and Judaism for their own benefit and aggrandizement; they were quickly deflated in his presence.
When Mendele came to Odessa to become principal of the community Hebrew school, the noted Dr. Schwabacher who hailed from Germany was rabbi of the first liberal congregation in that city, the Broder congregation. A remarkable orator he was who insisted on preaching in German, albeit his younger listeners understood not a word of what he said.
Now it was said of Schwabacher that he wrote out all his sermons and committed them to memory word for word. Since he never ventured to speak without meticulous preparation, rumor had it that he had eulogies prepared in advance for every notable in the city. Thus he would never be caught unprepared. One day it occurred that as the celebrated Cantor Blumenthal lay ill, approaching death, the rabbi paid him a visit. Lying on his cot Blumenthal asked the rabbi that his last wish be fulfilled. Rabbi Schwabacher gave him his solemn oath that whatsoever the request it would be fulfilled. Whereupon the cantor made his strange request. It was bruited, he said, that the rabbi had eulogies prepared for all the prominent citizens of the community, and since he was the cantor he surmised that possibly for him a eulogy was also in readiness. Therefore he besought the rabbi that his last wish be honored, that he be permitted to hear the eulogy while he was still alive. The rabbi, compelled to honor the request by his previous oath, procured a copy of the eulogy, which in truth had long since been ready and waiting, and with appropriate funereal voice and gestures read it to the dying man.
Schwabacher was overbearing and contemptuously proud. In greeting someone he suited his handshake to the person’s station. A few received his whole hand, others three or four fingers, and still others only one finger. When Mendele came to town to superintend the Hebrew school, propriety demanded that he call on Rabbi Schwabacher. But upon learning about the rabbi’s pretentiousness, Mendele refused to meet him, even after the latter had dispatched several emissaries to invite him. Some time later, however, when they did meet through chance at an inn, the rabbi greeted him cheerfully and stretched out his entire hand—an honor which he reserved for the very few. Whereupon Mendele solemnly slipped him one finger. Never again did Schwabacher mete out his handshakes according to the person’s rank.
Another incident concerns an official in Odessa who was notorious for his vile habits, and was a kleptomaniac besides. Once while dining at the home of a distinguished lady, he “happened” to thrust a sterling silver spoon into his pocket. Word of this got around, and the man became the laughingstock of the entire region. Several days later he came to Mendele to complain of his being slandered in public. “Why are you so incensed?” countered Mendele. “After all, you were sitting at the table, and there were silver spoons on it, and you are a thief—why then should you not be suspected of something that you really are?” Never did Mendele indulge in flattery and blandishments.
Mendele did not have a systematic, orderly philosophy of Judaism. It was all yiddishkeit to him. Everything, whether old or new, the Bible, the Talmud, philosophy, haskalah, the rabbinate, the yeshiva, the Beth Hamidrash—everything he termed yiddishkeit. In general, he disdained the new, whether in language, literature, or life; hence, modern writers, with their involved metaphors and inventions, irked him. He believed the style of the Mishna and Midrash to be a model of lucidity and brevity. Looking back, I can truthfully say that Mendele really taught me how to write. When first I began writing he liked to peruse my manuscripts, and would even come to me to read and correct my work. A novice in writing, I was under the erroneous impression that the longer a manuscript the more creditable it was; accordingly, I was forever amplifying and expanding. He, however, would exclaim: “Let me wring it out for you!” and he would proceed to condense an entire page into several sentences.
The Zionists regarded him as an anti-Zionist. He simply couldn’t stomach those who professed allegiance to Zionism for the honor and prestige it would bring them, those who made it the be-all and end-all of Judaism. He was too steeped in the world of the old Jew to comprehend the din and clamor of these hopefuls. He simply could not understand them and their aims. To him Judaism meant a synagogue, a Beth Hamidrash, a yeshiva, the Sabbath, the holidays. But what did they want, these fledglings? He didn’t know. Palestine? Why not? Who disagrees with them? Certainly it’s part and parcel of Judaism—the Temple was in Palestine, the sacrifices, the Wailing Wall, the cave of Machpelah, Rachel’s grave. What is this fuss over offices, charity boxes, collection plates? Grandfather Mendele disliked anything that smelled of office and position. He was forever wrangling with Ussishkin, leader of the Lovers of Zion in Odessa, and was furious when the latter labelled him an anti-Zionist.
To refute this accusation he would relate the following parable: Once in Zhitomir he and his colleague, Chaim Zelig Slonimsky, were walking from the rabbinical academy where they both were teaching. It was a fine summer day, and Slonimsky asked Mendele to step into his house. There being no one at home, they took off their coats and shoes, stretched out on the beds in the bedroom and chatted. Suddenly a woman walked in, stationed herself near the door and gazed at them in amused astonishment. “What do you wish here?” they asked her. Whereupon she replied: “Fine thing! Two prominent Jews like yourselves are sprawled on my beds, and you’re asking me what I want here.” Then they realized that being engrossed in conversation they had unconsciously entered the wrong house. . . . Similarly, Mendele would continue, Ussishkin is asking me, Mendele, what I want with Palestine. Why isn’t it my Palestine? I lived there all my life, purchased with Abraham the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite, wandered with Jacob to Paddanaram and quarrelled with Laban, fought with Esau, came with Jacob and his sons into Egypt, wandered in the desert for forty years, warred together with Joshua against the thirty-one kings, conquered Canaan, built the Temple and destroyed it. And now being of a sudden interested in my Palestine, stretched out on my bed, as it were, Ussishkin has the effrontery to ask me what I want here!
Once he came to me blind with rage. He had heard that in one of the Lovers of Zion’s homes the Sabbath was being publicly desecrated. “Is that proper?” he fumed. “Where is their yiddishkeit?” Since that time Bialik has told me that in his last years Mendele became very observant and devout, and walked about all day wearing a skullcap. I never did see him then, but it did not amaze me at all that he should have wanted in his final days to express his deep love for traditional Judaism by performing the ancient precepts and commandments of the Torah.
I first met Mendele in Odessa in 1896, having come directly from the Kovno yeshiva after the death of my teacher, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan, of blessed memory. Mendele, Menashe Margolies, and other maskilim (“enlighteners”) had been contemplating for years the founding in Odessa of a modem rabbinical seminary where secular subjects would also be taught, so that the Jewish community would no longer be dependent upon the offensive crown rabbis appointed by the government to head the Jewish community. But this meant violating Russian law, which forbade the teaching of secular subjects in Jewish schools. Mendele, however, was an old hand at outwitting and baffling the Russian officers. He was not a revolutionary—his better sense counselled him against the use of force—but he was always devising techniques and schemes to get around oppressive czarist “law.” In this he was aided and abetted considerably by his friend Menashe Margolies, a noted attorney.
Shortly thereafter Mendele and Margolies dug up an old law dating from the reign of Nicholas I, which declared that a yeshiva is comparable to a higher school of Jewish knowledge, and could therefore prepare men for the rabbinate. Now there was an old yeshiva in Odessa which had been certified years before in the days of Czar Nicholas. Mendele and Margolies therefore went to work, interpreted “Jewish knowledge” as meaning history, philosophy, and Hebrew literature, and decided to convert the old yeshiva into a modem rabbinical seminary, teaching secular subjects as well as Jewish studies. But a suitable dean was lacking for the new school, whereupon Mendele decided that I would be just the man for the position. He himself was appointed by the government as chairman of a committee to set up the new modem yeshiva.
One whole summer I spent with Mendele formulating the curriculum. I shan’t dwell here on the difficulties, both internal and external, which we had to overcome before the school was finally established. Even with so-called government approval, uncommon ingenuity was necessary to include certain secular subjects in the curriculum. That our plans were well formulated was proven later. That entire summer I worked so closely and intimately with Grandfather Mendele that for all practical purposes he had become my grandfather and counsellor, in life as well as in literature.
It was difficult for me at first to become accustomed to his singular way of thinking. I had to utilize every ounce of gray matter before I could grasp what he was saying, so that it took me quite a while to train myself to work smoothly with him on the curriculum. Having just been graduated from the yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan which insisted rigidly on a rabbi’s mastering the entire Torah and Talmud, I found it impossible at first to accept Mendele’s lenient Talmudical requirements for graduation. For example, he asked me: How many pages and topics of, say, tractate Baba Kama should a prospective rabbi study in order to master it? My reply was that he obviously had to study and know thoroughly the entire tractate from beginning to end. He, however, convinced me that the Talmud is an inexhaustible treasury, and that one must perforce differentiate between essential and unessential portions of any tractate. He showed me that it was possible to omit many pages of a tractate without impairing one’s knowledge of the basic ideas. This notion that the Talmud contained incidental and ancillary matter was, indeed, a revolutionary concept.
From then on I began studying Talmud anew. Mendele was not a lamdan or scholar in the usual sense, but he was perspicacious and keen, and could apprehend instantly the cardinal ideas of any Talmudical topic, however involved. By way of illustration he began teaching me the first few pages in Baba Kama line by line. “If I were to delete this sentence,” he asked, “would the underlying theme of the subject matter still be clear and intelligible?” If I replied in the affirmative, he would strike it out with a pencil. If I replied in the negative, he would let it go. When we finished I realized that two-thirds of the text had been removed without distorting or impairing the fundamental concepts. In this fashion Mendele and I traversed other tiactates, Maimonides, and even the poskim or codifiers. What a different Talmud we would have today, I thought, had Mendele, with his extraordinary talent for lucidity and conciseness, been one of its early commentators! It was then I hit on the idea of publishing an abridged version of the Talmud—a project which I was to accomplish years later.
Besides Talmud, Mendele taught me the Simple elements of good behavior. As a yeshiva student I had no conception of time and punctuality; no yeshiva student has. You recited the evening prayer at any time from sunset until dawn. You studied constantly—there is certainly no prescribed time for studying the Torah, for it is written: “Thou shalt meditate on it day and night.” You walked in on a person at all hours of the day or night. But with Mendele it was different. When he set a definite time for me to call on him, I had to be punctual. If I came late, he would on occasion send me home, and then ask for me again after chiding me soundly for my tardiness.
Mendele liked to tell about his student days in the yeshiva, when he slept on a bench in the Beth Hamidrash, and ate each day’s meals with a different sympathetic householder, if he was fortunate. But he avoided talking about any other facts and incidents of his past, about his family or his wanderings. And if he did happen to mention some past experience parenthetically, he dismissed it promptly as an unpleasant intrusion. Not even to his grandchildren, with whom he was very intimate, did he reveal de, although he always urged them to confide in him.
It is common belief that Mendele in his youth went about with a band of beggars, Fishke the Lame, the subject of one of his books, among them. I recall his once having mentioned this fact amusedly, and though he intimated that it was a fabrication by some of his opponents, he never really denied it.
Mendele liked to speak of his achievements in literature and life, and yet one could detect no braggadocio in his speech. In fact, he spoke with humility, as if implying that almost anyone could attain that status if he only did such and such and wrote such and such. Didn’t many succeed before him?
Mendele did physical exercise each day, and would boast that he could bend his finger all the way back. He was an excellent swimmer, and when we went bathing together, he loved to perform manifold antics in the water.
Grandfather Mendele was a man of singular wisdom and great prudence, possibly a greater sage than a writer. He was not given to theoretical and metaphysical speculation. It was the vital, real problems of Jews that concerned him, not the abstract issues of Judaism. His conception of Judaism was grounded in the day-by-day life and affairs of his people. Apparently, the metaphysical problems which had interested him during his younger days had no lure for him in his old age. He never speculated on the survival of Judaism; for him this was axiomatic, requiring no discussion. It was something he believed in deeply. He was, for the most part, optimistic about the destiny of his people. Persecutions of the Jews never drove him to despair. He accepted them as a matter of course, as though they were the necessary concomitants of being a Jew.
He tended towards Dubnow’s theory, but without extensive philosophizing, that the Jews would survive wherever they dwelt. It wasn’t the Diaspora that he feared, but rather the danger of assimilation and apostasy. Thus, for instance, he writes in The Dobbin of the poor animal who has been craving for years to upset the wagon and escape from her master, but who cannot do so because she is sunk and trapped in mire.
I recall that several of us, Dubnow, Bialik, Ravnitzki, and a few other intellectuals, were once standing around discussing the miserable plight of the Jews, We were concerned with their shabby, straitened existence in the Pale Settlement and wondered how they could possibly make ends meet. Whereupon Mendele broke in: “Aren’t we all here making a living through other Jews?”
Perhaps that is why the question of Palestine never really concerned him. He was a Jew of the Diaspora, every inch of him, and never felt the need or the urgency to quit it. It was for him the natural condition of the Jew, closely and inextricably bound up with his people’s venerable history. His deep love for his coreligionists and their life in the immediate present never permitted him to aspire to some other higher and better world for them.
Mendele was a wonderful combination of man and Jew. It was impossible to discern where Mendele the Jew ended and where Mendele the man of the world, the creator and critic, began. Sometimes it seemed that he was actually standing at a distance and peering into the Jew and the man within him with scrutinizing eye. Everything lived in him, Judaism of the past as well as the present. The prophets, sages, the debating Tannaim, even the “ox that gored the cow” and “the egg that was laid on the holiday”—all seemed to dwell in him and spring into life at a word or gesture. He was very sensitive to the pain of all animate beings, animal as well as human.
For him writing was an integral part of living, feeling, and observing—a kind of conversation. When you were in his house, you never felt that you were interfering with his work; in fact, he was fond of taking off a few hours to converse. Writing was pleasant for him, not a drudgery. Occasionally he would boast of having written The Dobbin in three consecutive days and nights, as though impelled by the Holy Spirit. He was forever speaking of his early works, and, accordingly, devoted much of his time during his later years to revising them. These revisions were actually complete rewritings, although they were penned above the words on the original manuscripts.
Mendele was a wondrous phenomenon in our literary history—he appeared on the scene late in life, for he really didn’t find himself until he was sixty. He began his career by writing popular essays on nature and haskala, after the fashion of the day. Even his early fiction, The Dobbin and The Little Man, was permeated with moralizing and didacticism. It is only in his later work, such as Fishke the Lame and The Vale of Tears, that the artist in him finally triumphs over the moralist, and the real stylist and craftsman emerges. Undoubtedly the Mendele I knew—I made his acquaintance in the last years of his life when he was already at his zenith—differed radically from the young Shalom Jacob Abramowitsch. But he was forever denying that any changes had occurred in him; perhaps that is why he liked to speak with such pride of his early creations. Occasionally, however, the young Abramowitsch peeped out, and then I was glad that I hadn’t known him when he was young.
Mendele earned his livelihood as principal of the Odessa Hebrew School. The structure itself was large, attractive, and modem, and Mendele resided there in several spacious, comfortable rooms. When classes were dismissed, he used to stroll up and down the classrooms, by himself or with his guests. When I came to Odessa he was already serving as principal emeritus, although he didn’t know it. It seems that the trustees and teachers of the school, not wanting to hurt his feelings, had, without telling him, appointed a younger man in his stead. Frequently he burst into a classroom, shoved the teacher or even the principal aside, and proceeded to lecture to the students for hours without regard for the bell. He even rebuked the teachers on occasion and issued instructions which they carried out only in his presence.
Mendele never really derived much pleasure from his children. His one son, who had a talent for poetry, dabbled in Christianity and married out of the faith. Mendele ignored the entire matter. His non-Jewish daughter-in-law was in certain respects more devoted to Judaism than her husband. She cherished Jewish rites and customs and preferred the company of Jewish maskilim and authors. Once she asked her father-in-law on an ordinary weekday to recite the kiddush for her. This he did ardently. On another occasion while I was at Mendele’s house he introduced me to his son, who had just arrived from his home in Petersburg, as “our rabbi.” Whereupon the young man flushed and disappeared at once. Mendele had two daughters, unattractive spinsters, who for some reason never spoke and were never spoken to. His wife, Pesales, was a parsimonious, overbearing creature who kept her hands on the purse strings and made Mendele plead and supplicate whenever he was in need of a few coins. But withal she was a devoted wife who tended him like a mother. For some reason she disliked us intensely and whenever he was about to go out with us she exhorted him “not to go too far.” She considered us a gang of garrulous idlers; all we got from her was a reluctant grunt. And when guests arrived and Mendele bade her serve something, she would slink in with an allotted number of sugar lumps and portions of tea and vanish noiselessly out of the room.
Grandfather Mendele looked upon us as his grandchildren. We had to divulge all our innermost anxieties and aches, and he would listen to us attentively, patiently, and offer counsel and advice. Sometimes he would call us back after we had already left, sit us down and consider our problem further from a different angle. For a while I used to see him about two or three times a week, and usually accompanied by Bialik and Ravnitzki. We were closest to him and he loved especially to talk to us and hear our tales. If any great length of time elapsed without my seeing him. I longed for him terribly. Frequently I came to him laden with congregational problems and cares, and after a short chat found my problems solved and my cares dispelled, as though a heavy stone had been rolled off my chest.
Mendele was a man of vast erudition, particularly in the Bible, Talmud, and Jewish philosophy. He was at home in practically every branch of learning, and always had his own unique penetrating viewpoint. Experts in various fields marvelled at his perspicacious and original insights, and yet he was seldom seen reading a book except an old worn copy of the Bible and a volume of the Midrash that never left his desk. Whenever someone engaged him in discourse he spoke as if he had just come from a fresh perusal of the Talmud, Maimonides, Halevi’s Kuzari, or other philosophical tracts. He had an uncanny aptitude for going directly to the heart of any issue. He was that rare combination—a thinker and man of action, both in Jewish and secular matters.
Whenever I try to form a mental image of our sages of yore, especially the rabbis of the Midrash, I invariably think of Mendele. Wasn’t he, too, like Ben Sira, an author and sage, a mentor and moralist on both Jewish and worldly things? And when Mendele began speaking I used to think of that stately Midrashic expression, “Rabbi Oshia opened his lecture with the text.” “Rabbi Mendele opened his lecture with the text” would have suited him precisely.
Had Mendele lived in the days of the Talmud doubtless his wise and perceptive utterances would have been recorded together with that of the other sages. It is indeed regrettable that his countless observations and sayings were not inscribed and preserved when he uttered them, and that only a scattered few repose in the aging memories of his pupils and friends.