Mendele Moïkher Sforim

«Mendele le colporteur de livres»

Mendele Moykher Sforim is the pen name of the Jewish writer Sholem Yacov Abramovich and which means, in Yiddish, "Mendele the book peddler." He is recognized as the founder, the "grandfather" of modern literature in Hebrew and Yiddish.

Mendele Moykher Sforim was born January 2, 1836 at Kapuly, near Minsk in Russia (now Belarus). He receives from his father - Chaim Moyshe Broyde, an enlightened man - a traditional Jewish education. Mendele Moykher Sforim is a precocious child, with rare intelligence. He studied from an early age twelve hours a day. He left the heder (traditional Jewish schools) at the age of eleven to begin studying in a study house (Beit ha-Midrash). Two years later, the Talmud has no secrets for the teenager. He feels, in parallel, a special affinity for nature. It will, for the future author, a great source of literary inspiration. He also writes, educational purposes, a popular science book of Zoology.

Following the death of his father - who leaves behind a wife and children in extreme poverty - Mendele Moykher Sforim is forced to leave his native village. A wandering life begins for the young man of fourteen. He goes from synagogue to synagogue, living on charity of hosts more or less benevolent. He returns for a short period to his village, where his mother has since remarried and, meeting the requirements of his stepfather, he becomes responsible for the education of his stepbrothers. He take advantage of this short visit to study the medieval Jewish thought through the work of Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed) and writes his first poems in a very flowery Hebrew but still lacking of maturity. 

During this period he becomes acquainted with Avreml the lame, a shady and colorful character who tells him, with a talent as a narrator, the wonders in the lives of Jews in the villages of southern Russia. He finally convinces Mendele Moykher Sforim to accompany him in new wanderings. He forces him in his vagabondage through Lithuania and Volhynia and exploits him for one year. This life of wandering and of miserable orphan is a pivotal experience that drives his fate as writer. Indeed, it is crossing the small Jewish towns or Shtetleh, that he is enriched with an intimate knowledge of all segments of the population of the "area of residence". In all cases, much more than frequenting enlightened circles later as Mendele Moykher Sforim writes about: "My merchandise, it's the clothes, the rags [...]. Those to whom I deal with, are the destitute, the beggars, the rogues, the charlatans, the waste of life, the dregs of humanity. "

Freed from the yoke of Avreml the lame, Mendele Moykher Sforim settle in Kamenets, where he meets one of the most important figures from the world of Haskalah(1), Avrom Ber Gottlober, writer, poet and teacher at a Jewish public school of Kamenets. Avrom Ber Gottlober and his daughter guide him in the learning secular subjects such as literature or mathematics. He also learns the Russian language. He passes the examinations and obtaines the title of professor and a post in the same school Avrom Ber Gottlober. He gets married but this alliance is a failure and he quickly separates from his wife. He then goes to Berdishev where he begins his literary life and publishes his first works. His novels of picaresque adventures serve as its instrument to broadcast a scathing critique of Jewish society and of the world in general. He incurs the fury from the representatives of the community and is forced to leave Berdishev. His steps lead him up to Zhitomir and in 1881, appointed director of the Talmud Torah, he moves to Odessa where he spends the rest of his life to gather the material needed - cruising the streets and watching the conversations - for his next novel. He dies in 1917.

According to Steven J. Zipperstein - a leading expert in the history of the Jews of Odessa - Mendele Moykher Sforim is considered, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, within the Jewish community of Eastern Europe, as "the greatest writer of Hebrew language and the most prominent Yiddish novelist". He did write in both languages. Another of his peculiarities is that he was the defender of the Jew of the ghetto, as Shalom Aleichem, who lived, too, in Odessa. One senses in him an inclination, a special affection for this Jew of unshakable faith, courage and exemplary simplicity. He is neither indifferent to his humor that he transcribes in his writing with great fidelity. His work consists mostly of stories and plays. Among his novels, "Fiske the lame" (Fiske der kroumer, 1869) and "The Travels of Benjamin III" (Masa'ot Binyamin ha-chelichi) are considered masterpieces.

The pseudonym Mendele Moykher Sforim that S. Y. Abramovich chooses as pen name is also that of one of his central characters who plays as narrator. He is found in "Fiske the lame", wretched bookseller that crosses the various Jewish towns to earn a pittance. These travels give him the opportunity to meet with his fellow creatures and to report, to the reader, of Jewish life in the discriminating and violent area of residence. But "Fiske the lame", is also wonderful pages on Odessa - the ultimate place of residence of Mendele-Moykher Sforim - with no shortage of criticism and ridicule, but always with humor and tenderness. When he arrived in Odessa, the hero's initial thoughts were: "Everything seemed new and strange. I could not find asylum here, as in other Jewish towns, nor houses to visit. At home, in our villages, there are houses, which are called houses. Low, without malice, with doors facing the street ... But here in Odessa, houses are ridiculously high. We must first enter a courtyard, then climb the stage and find a door. When you finally find one, it is locked ... What are these houses? Where are the beggars and their bags?"(2).

It is possible to divide the literary career of Mendele Moykher Sforim into three periods:


The first, where Mendele Moykher Sforim, in good maskil(3)., writes in Hebrew. He writes his first article "A Letter on Education" which appears in HaMagid - the Jewish newspaper of the Haskalah -, literary studies and a popular science book of Zoology. His ideal is, then, to enlighten and educate the Jewish masses.


The second, where Mendele Moykher Sforim turns to Yiddish because the young writer under thirty is revolted by the impoverishment of the Jewish population of the area of residence. S. Y. Abramovich becomes Mendele Moykher Sforim to be closer to his people. Only the enlightened circles know Hebrew and Mendele thinks he will be more useful to his fellows by providing his assistance in Yiddish, the laguage of the majority of Jews in Eastern Europe. He writes, among others, "Dos kleine mentchele" (The little man), published in Odessa in 1864 and "Fiske der kroumer" (Fiske the lame), published in 1869 in Zhitomir.


The third, where Mendele - after a break of twenty years – goes back to Hebrew. Undoubtedly, the environment of the odessite enlightened circles that practice Hebrew, influenced this choice. In addition, there are a number of increasingly important speakers in that language as a result of the Haskalah movement. But the real reason for Mendele, is that Hebrew - a new Hebrew which is based as much in the Pentateuch, the Mishna, the Talmud, the prayers as in the spoken language - remains the only language capable of giving a right literary dimension to his work and faithfully transcribing his observations of the Jewish people in the diaspora.



1) Haskalah (Hebrew word) is an Enlightenment movement that originates between the Jews of Germany in the eighteenth century under the leadership of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) and spreads to Eastern Europe in the first third of the nineteenth century. 
2) See Mendele Moykher Sforim, Fiske the lame, in Royaumes juifs, Trésors de la litterature yiddish, Paris, Robert Laffont 2008, p. 103. 
3) The maskil (word of Hebrew origin) is the sponsor of the Haskalah.



- ERTEL Rachel, Royaumes juifs, Trésors de la litterature yiddish, Paris, Robert Laffont 2008, 840 p. 
- MENDELE-MOYKHER-SFORIM, Les voyages de Benjamin III, Paris, Fasquelle Editeurs, 1960, 176 p. 
- MENDELE-MOYKHER-SFORIM, Fichke le boiteux, p. 7 to 123 in Rachel Ertel, Royaumes juifs, Trésors de la litterature yiddish, Paris, Robert Laffont, 2008, 840 p. 

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