Mendele Mocher Sforim

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Portrait of Mendele Mocher Sefarim (before 1917)

Mendele Mocher Sforim (Yiddish: מענדעלע מוכר ספֿרים‎, Hebrew: מנדלי מוכר ספרים‎, also known as Moykher, Sfarim; lit. "Mendele the book peddler"; January 2, 1836, Kapyl – December 8, 1917 [N.S.], Odessa), born Sholem Yankev Abramovich (Yiddish: שלום יעקבֿ אַבראַמאָװיטש‎, Russian: Соломон Моисеевич АбрамовичSolomon Moiseyevich Abramovich) or S. J. Abramowitch, was a Jewish author and one of the founders of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature.


Mendele was born to a poor family in Kapyl in Minsk Governorate. His father, Chaim Moyshe Broyde, died shortly after Mendele became Bar Mitzvah. He studied in yeshiva in Slutsk and Vilna until he was 17; during this time he was a day-boarder under the system of Teg-Essen, barely scraping by, and often hungry.

Mendele next traveled extensively around Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania at the mercy of an abusive beggar named Avreml Khromoy (Russian for "Avreml the Lame"); Avreml would later become the source for the title character of Fishke der Krumer (Fishke the Lame). In 1854, Mendele settled in Kamianets-Podilskyi, where he got to know writer and poet Avrom Ber Gotlober, who helped him to understand secular culture, philosophy, literature, history, Russian and other languages.

Early work[edit]

Mendele's first article, "Letter on Education", appeared in 1857, in the first Hebrew newspaper, Hamagid; his mentor Gotlober submitted Mendele's school paper without Mendele's prior knowledge. At Berdychiv in the Ukraine, where he lived from 1858 to 1869, he began to publish fiction both in Hebrew and Yiddish. Having offended the local powers with his satire, he left Berdichev to train as a rabbi at the relatively theologically liberal, government-sponsored rabbinical school in Zhytomyr, where he lived from 1869 to 1881, and became the head of the traditional school (Talmud Torah) in Odessa in 1881. He lived in Odessa until his death in 1917, except for two years in Geneva, where he fled the government-inspired pogroms following the failed revolution of 1905.[1]

Grandfather of Yiddish literature[edit]

Mendele initially wrote in Hebrew, coining many words in that language, but ultimately switched to Yiddish in order to expand his audience. Like Sholem Aleichem, he used a pseudonym because of the perception at the time that as a ghetto vernacular, Yiddish was not suited to serious literary work — an idea he did much to dispel. His writing strongly bore the mark of the Haskalah. He is considered by many to be the "grandfather of Yiddish literature", an epithet first accorded to him by Sholem Aleichem, in the dedication to his novel Stempenyu.[2] Mendele's style in both Hebrew and Yiddish has strongly influenced several generations of later writers.

While the tradition of journalism in Yiddish had a bit more of a history than in Hebrew, Kol Mevasser, which he supported from the outset and where he published his first Yiddish story, "Dos kleyne Mentshele" (The Little Man), in 1863, is generally seen as the first stable and important Yiddish newspaper.[3]

Ideology and later work[edit]

The Odessa literary group in 1916; from left to right: Yehoshua Ravnitzki (1859-1944), Shloyme Ansky, Mendele M. Sforim, Hayim N. Bialik, Simon Frug.

Sol Liptzin writes that in his early Yiddish narratives, Mendele "wanted to be useful to his people rather than gain literary laurels".[4] Two of his early works, the story "Dos kleyne mentshele" (דאס קליינע מענטשעלע), and the unstaged 1869 drama Di Takse (The Tax), condemned the corruption by which religious taxes (in the latter case, specifically the tax on kosher meat) were diverted to benefit community leaders rather than the poor. This satiric tendency continued in Di Klatshe (The Nag; 1873) about a prince, a stand-in for the Jewish people, who is bewitched and becomes a much put-upon beast of burden, but maintains his moral superiority throughout his sufferings (a theme evidently influenced by Apuleius's classical picaresque novel The Golden Ass).

His later work became more humane and less satiric, starting with Fishke der Krumer (פישקע דער קרומער; written 1868-1888) – which was adapted as a film of the same title in 1939 (known in English as The Light Ahead) – and continuing with the unfinished Masoes Benyomin Hashlishi (מסעות בנימין השלישי; The Travels of Benjamin III; 1878), something of a Jewish Don Quixote. (The title is a reference to the well-known travel book of the Medieval Spanish-Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela.) In 1938, this work was adapted by Hermann Sinsheimer [de] as a play for the Jüdischer Kulturbund in Germany, and performed there shortly after Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), in November of that year.[citation needed]

As with Fishke, Mendele worked on and off for decades on his long novel Dos Vinshfingeril (The Wishing Ring; 1865–1889), with at least two versions preceding the final one. It is the story of a maskil — that is, a supporter of the Haskalah, like Mendele himself — who escapes a poor town, survives misery to obtain a secular education much like Mendele's own, but is driven by the pogroms of the 1880s from his dreams of universal brotherhood to one of Jewish nationalism. The first English translation, by Michael Wex (author of Born to Kvetch), was published in 2003.


  1. ^ Stillman, Gerald (1991). "Introduction: A Summary of Mendele's Life, Work, and Times", in: Selected Works of Mendele Moykher-Sforim, edited by Marvin S. Zuckerman, Stillman, and Marion Herbst. Vol. 1 of the series "The Three Great Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature". Joseph Simon/Pangloss Press.
  2. ^ Seidman, Naomi (1997). A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish. University of California Press. p. 146. ISBN 9780520201934.
  3. ^ Liptzin, Sol (1963). The Flowering of Yiddish Literature. New York: Thomas Yoseloff. p. 23.
  4. ^ Liptzin, Sol (1972). A History of Yiddish Literature. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers. p. 42.

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