Chapter 1
Early Childhood, Family & Education

Chapter 2
Religious Life

Chapter 3

Chapter 4


Secular education

Chapter 5
Kretinga & Neighborhood

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8
Emigration & Journey


Chapter 4 : Enlightment

Subsections :  Haskalah  | Secular education


Haskalah   [back to top]

Whilst observance was important and Talmudical and other Hebrew studies were not neglected, young men were also keen to acquire a wider knowledge. Whilst my cousin Chaim stayed at home, he devoted several hours daily to his religious studies. At the same time he also took an interest in secular studies, notably in the german language, which he thoroughly mastered, without the aid of a teacher. Through his knowledge of German he became familiar with much of its literature, both of original German works and translations of English, French and Russian classics. He also read many modern Hebrew and Yiddish books and some weekly newspapers to which he subscribed.

All of this was in conformity with enlightened young men of those days. This was a general practice by bachurim who were eager to acquire some secular education in addition to the sacred studies. Although my two brothers, Bere Arye and Hirshe, did not make a special study of German, in all other respects they could have been classed as belonging to the Haskalah (enlightened ) movement. For besides being well advanced in their Talmudic studies, they possessed a thorough knowledge of the Bible and its principal commentaries. They were also familiar with general Hebrew literature and had a perfect understanding of Hebrew grammar

There were many intellectual Yeshiva-bachurim who, though being very orthodox, also indulged in reading Hebrew books of fiction, as well as some philosophical works translated into Hebrew. The most popular writer of books of fiction in Russia about the middle of the last century was Abraham Mapu (1808-1867). He was born in Slabodka, near Kovno and died in Koenigsberg. His father, Yekuthiel, was a melammed, a primary Hebrew teacher and like most melamdim at the time, had been in straightened circumstances all his life. Abraham, though undernourished and weakly, was endowed with great intellectual power. At the age of 12 or 13 he was so well advanced in his Hebrew education that he could learn without a teacher. He gained the title of illui, child prodigy. Mapu, by his own efforts, soon raised himself to the level of a modern Hebrew scholar. His first Hebrew novel "Ahavat Zion", the Love of Zion was set in the time of the prophet Isaiah and the kings Acaz and Hezekiah. He began writing this in 1830 but his creative powers as a novelist were not discovered until it was published in 1853.

This book was an instantaneous success and it became very popular in Lithuania and other parts of Eastern Europe. A second book by Mapu was "Ayit Zavua (the painted hawk or hypocrite). Here Mapu, a great exponent of Haskal plunged into the conflict between maskilim and those who opposed the march of progress, the pietists. In this, his largest work of five volumes, the author pictured the life of an obscure Lithuanian townlet, the Kahal bosses, who hid their misdeeds beneath the cloak of piety, the fanatical rabbis and many others who persecute the champions of enlightenment. The "Ayit Zavua" was published in separate parts between 1858 and 1864. A second edition appeared posthumously in Warsaw in 1869. Financial difficulties due to censorship delayed publication, causing Mapu much worry. Each part when published was highly praised. A third novel by Mapu was "Ashmat Shomron" (The guilt of Samaria). These three novels were his most popular works and were widely read.

Some of the European classics, translated into Hebrew, were likewise popular amongst the intellectual Yeshiva-bachurim, such as "The Wandering Jew" and "The Mysteries of Paris" by the French author, Eugene Sue. They were often read secretly, especially by the Yeshiva bachur who had a "tog" at an ultra orthodox house, where he could run the risk of having his day forfeited if by chance he happened to be caught in the act of indulging in such profane literature!

There were also Yiddish writers who enjoyed popularity among these young men, such as Mendele Mochur Sforim, pseudonym of Shalom Abramovitch (1835-1917). Sholom Aleichem, pen name of Sholom Rabinowitch (1859-1915), IL Peretz (1852-1915) and many others. They were all distinguished writers, chiefly of short stories of Jewish ghetto life.


Secular education   [back to top]

Apart from three or four professional men in town, a doctor, and advocate and a chemist, none of the Krottingen Jews received any secular education. The watchmaker must also have had a technical training before engaging in his profession. The first two of those mentioned, were reputed to have been highly cultured and intelligent men, apart from their professions. The advocate, who was a pupil of my father, was also a Hebrew scholar of note, besides enjoying a very high reputation as a lawyer in the Kovno province.

There was hardly any facilities at all for secular education in the small towns of Lithuania. yet this did not stop some young men acquiring secular knowledge in addition to their Hebrew and sacred studies, either for its own sake or with the view of taking up some profession, mainly that of medicine. I have known of some young men who, whilst being engaged in Talmudical and cognate studies, have concurrently with these taken a correspondence course of an academic nature; and after attending a medical college or university eventually qualified as medical practitioners.

I remain surprised at the absence of any musical instrument amongst the Jewish people of Krottingen during my boyhood there. Despite the fact that most Jews were very fond of violin music, no one ever acquired a fiddle and learn to play it. There was only one instrument in town, about which I often heard people talking. That was Pianoforte, owned by the Graf; but I have never seen it nor ever heard it being played. A piano was evidently considered a luxury, and was too costly, even to the better off Jews in town, since no one possessed it. Art and science were also things I never heard being discussed.

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