Tuesday, January 2, 2018

More Than A Book Seller

Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, born on January 2, 1836, to a poor family near Minsk, had a traditional religious Jewish childhood. After his father passed away when he was 13,  Abramovitsh lived as a yeshiva teg-essen (literally day eater) student who received free meals from different charitable families on alternating days.

In 1854, Abramovitsh settled in Kamionets-Podilsky, where he was introduced to the Haskala Movement that sought to promote secular education as a means of improving the lives of the Jewish people. He began learning Russian and other languages and  reading secular literature and philosophy. He also met Avram Ber Gotlober, a writer and poet who took Abramovitsh under his wing and even submitted Abramovitsh’s first work, an essay on education, to the Hebrew newspaper, Hamagid.

Abramovitsh’s first stories were written in Hebrew. However, after a few years, he switched to Yiddish, enabling him to address a much larger audience. In 1869, Abramovitsh’s Yiddish novel Fishke der Krumer (Fishke the Lame) included a character whose name became the nom de plume by which Abramovitsh is still remembered: “Mendele Mocher Sfarim” (Mendele the Book Seller).

In the 1870s, Abramovitsh moved away from the Haskala Movement and became an advocate of social reform. Much of his work in this era explored the challenges of the lives of the poor and sought answers for societal improvement.

In 1869, finding it difficult to support himself and his family, Abramovitsh moved from Berdechev to Zhytomer, where he trained at a government sponsored rabbinic school. In 1881, he was hired as the head of a new Talmud Torah in Odessa, where he remained for the rest of his life.

The Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem dubbed Abramovitsh the “Grandfather of Yiddish Literature.” His work was tremendously influential on the development of both Hebrew and Yiddish literature. Mendele Mocher Sfarim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh) passed away on December 8, 1917.

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