Themes of Haskalah in Of Bygone Days

The fictional autobiography of Sholom Jacob Abramovitch, under his pseudonym Mendele Mocher Sforim, conveys many criticisms, fears, and hopes of the Russian Haskalah movement. Through satire and sympathy, Of Bygone Days provokes Jewish introspection and advocates for modern progress. Abramovitch imbues his detailed depiction of the shtetl with scorn for the Jews’ unchanging ignorance and whimsical delusion. Criticizing legality, bookishness, and unenlightenment, the story ironizes traditional life in an effort to promote change. Of Bygone Days locates Russian Jewry within a specific historical context and condemns the Jewish inability to respond appropriately to contemporary developments. With glimpses of hope and potential improvements, Abramovitch’s novella warns the Jews of approaching destruction if progress is not embraced.

Ridiculing the characters’ nonsensical thoughts and actions, Of Bygone Days exposes the ignorance, stasis, and delusion of shtetl Jews. The narrator often mocks this ignorance by ironically depicting the characters’ irrational thoughts as totally obvious and reasonable. An example of this phenomenon appears when the community seeks medical advice from Reb Chayim. The story reads, “[Reb Chayim] had been so sick so often in his lifetime that he felt himself to be an expert on disease, an opinion shared by other people of his town. And when you think about it, why should medicine be different from law?” (292) The narrator’s rhetorical question is ironic—an expert in rabbinic law is, of course, not inherently an expert in medicine. Another element of ignorance criticized in Of Bygone Days is the abundance of suspicion in shtetl culture. Characters repeatedly engage in suspicious actions, expressing worry over the ‘evil eye,” lighting candles of the dead and the living, and performing or discussing man-made miracles and witchcraft. Abramovitch emphasizes the shtetl’s communal ignorance of science and reason, which stems from insufficient education, a lack of enlightenment, and the irrational application of Jewish law to all areas of life.

As a method to pressure Jews toward progressive change, Abramovitch stresses the shtetl’s total stasis. The narrator ascribes unchanging immobility to the very disposition of the shtetl, as he describes, “The lives and manners of the people of small towns are all the same, and even the construction of their houses scarcely varies from one to the next…” (281) Stuck in the unchanging world of the shtetl, Jews are incapable of joining the progressive, outside world of Russian culture. With this sentiment, the Russian Haskalah movement encourages change and reform in shtetl life—a goal that, as Of Bygone Days argues, exists in total opposition to the traditional Jewish life of stasis.

Throughout the autobiography, the narrator continually describes a Jewish state of delusion, an unawareness of reality. This delusional ignorance exalts the past and disregards the present world. It thrives from an obsession over holiness and joy that resides in other worldliness, which implicitly infuses a sense of bitterness and struggle into the Jews’ participation in the real world. The narrator defines the Jewish experience by this permeation of illusion. Abramovitch writes:

“Among Jews it is quite common for a child to spend his life in one place but with no idea of what goes on around him, with no conception of how to enjoy a normal human existence; instead, such a child transports himself and his thoughts to another world, another age. There it is possible for a man to grant the past a priority of the present, to overlook things that are in front of his nose, and to occupy himself with things that existed long ago, and that are accessible only memory and imagination” (303).

This state of delusion permeates Abramovitch’s critique of traditional Jewry. Of Bygone Days illustrates that Jewish ignorance of the surrounding world stems from the irrationality of rabbinic tradition and ultimately prevents the Jewish community from reacting appropriately to persecution. By persistently alluding to this blinding delusion, obsession with the past, and impotence in taking action, Abramovitch underlines the severe necessity for Jews to wake up from their fantasy.

Of Bygone Days ironizes the strict rabbinic tradition that pervades all realms of shtetl life. With such irony, Abramovitch criticizes the irrationality and bookishness of the rabbinic tradition, which prevents Jews from embracing modernity or cultivating spiritual freedom and creativity. An incident of this critique is found in the narration about marriage. In the shtetl, marriage is a matter of Jewish law and custom, not romance. The image of young children under the wedding canopy is repeated throughout the story, illustrating the old-fashioned lifestyle that Maskilim condemn. “Marry and bring children into the world—that, according to Jewish belief, is God’s command,” the narrator explains (324). Strict tradition prohibits any true spark of emotion. Abramovitch ironizes this uncompromising legality with his words, “Love is not the kind of thing the Jewish mind can grasp… it wouldn’t occur to anyone that love might afflict a child. Kids are kids—boys, girls, what’s the difference?” The shtetl understanding of love as an affliction, a sin against Jewish law, and altogether impossible for a good Jew to experience, is ridiculed in order to demonstrate the irrational legality of traditional Jewry.

Abramovitch contrasts passion with strict rabbinic learning. Within the realm of uncompromising Jewish law and study, Jews are oblivious to the beauty of nature and the energetic spirit of creativity. “[Shloymele] had a poetic spark,” the author writes, “which the Evil Impulse shrewdly fanned into a flame, arousing his love for the beauties of nature—a clever device for alienating him from that rigid, dusty world of learning” (321). Of Bygone Days positions rabbinic learning as the antithesis to poetry, art, freedom, and spiritual beauty. The rigid legality and bookishness of the shtetl squanders the joys of childhood. Readers feel sympathy for the narrator’s description of the typical Jewish child, “who is expected to act like a full-fledged Jew before he has learned to walk, who childhood flits by like a dream, leaving him a gloomy old man before his time” (330).

Not only does rabbinic Judaism suppress the joys and grandeur of the world, but this tradition also removes spirituality from Judaism itself. Instead of loving God or cultivating a religious spirituality, Shloymele is always afraid of punishment, both from the community leaders and from God. Shloymele feels guilty for loving Fradl, for exploring nature, and for enjoying the present reality around him. In a community where studying Jewish law was the only appropriate activity, creativity, awareness, and spirituality were condemned. In response to his guilt, “[Shloymele] prayed and begged God for mercy, promising to abandon his evil ways and become a proper Jew, devoted only to Torah and utterly oblivious to the world” (323). By ironizing and ridiculing Jewish irrationality and strict legality in the shtetl, Abramovitch asserts that oversaturation of rabbinic tradition leads to ignorance, uninspired rigidity, and worldly apathy in the Jews.

The Jews’ delusion, inability to adapt, and rigid legal tradition impede their ability to respond productively to a changing world. Abramovitch mocks the Jewish community for its irrationality when faced with contemporary developments. When the Jews of the shtetl hear that their children need to attend Russian modern Jewish schools, they fear for Jewish survival. Jews worry that the new education system, which includes secular and worldly studies in addition to Jewish topics, is another government missionizing and assimilating device, like the Cantonist system. The narrator ridicules the Jewish response, explaining, “The Jews fasted and rent the heavens with prayer and supplication, but at the same time they didn’t stand by idly waiting for a miracle; they also employed the trusty old device of marrying off their children” (313). Abramovitch demonstrates the “old” Jewish methods for dealing with reality are not only ineffective, but also completely irrational.

As a member of the Russian Haskalah movement, which encouraged modern, secular education and cultural reform to join the majority society in Russia, Abramovitch mocks the shtetl Jews for opposing modernization and acculturation. The narrator ironizes the Jewish reaction to a new policy: “A decree is enacted prohibiting the wearing of kerchiefs—no one would deny its disastrous consequences. But Jews can adapt to anything. They pull in their belts a big, go hungry a bit, eat their hearts out a bit, and make do with a little less” (345). The author ironically demonstrates that these Jews can actually adapt to nothing. His satire reveals the critique that Jews are irrational for thinking acculturation is so disastrous and for avoiding any real, constructive action or progress.

Throughout Of Bygone Days, the author inserts subtle hints of hope, layered between his suggestions for modern progress and his criticisms of Jewish traditional life. The character Shimon embraces Russian culture, joining a new colony and working the land. Reb Chayim, the exemplar of shtetl values and rabbinic learning, told Shimon, “’We need more like you, people with love of the soil, with courage, and independence—many more!’” (349-350). Despite the fact that the rest of the Jewish community was incompetent in organizing or committing to this modern project, Reb Chayim recognizes Shimon’s important qualities. While the story emphasizes that Jews do not have enough love of nature, courage, or independence, the author highlights the hopeful potential for Jews to gain these necessary traits.

This hope is humbled by the autobiography’s sudden and sobering conclusion. The death of Shloymele’s father finally awoke Shloymele from his disillusionment and fallacious perception of reality, but it was too late. With this somber ending, Of Bygone Days warns the Jews of an approaching destruction if they do not embrace contemporary culture, modern education, spiritual creativity, and reason. In his literary work, Abramovitch manifests many of the Haskalah movement’s criticisms, anxieties, and proposed solutions for the future of the Jewish people.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for Modern Jewish History with Professor David Fishman at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Works Cited

Abramovitch, Sholom Jacob. “Of Bygone Days.” A Shtetl and Other Yiddish Novellas.     Ed. Ruth R. Wisse. New York: Behrman House, 1973. 251-358. Print.

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About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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