Page 73 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 24

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ABRAHAM MAPU AND THE FIRST
HEBREW NOVEL
B
y
D
avid
P
atterson
A
brah am
M
apu
(1808-1867) was born in a poor suburb of the
important Lithuanian city, Kovno. His father was a teacher
of Hebrew, and although remaining wretchedly poor throughout
his life, he was able to provide his gifted son with the normal
Jewish education of the time. After some early interest in
Hasid­
ism
and
Kabbala,
the young Abraham not only acquired a con­
siderable knowledge of French, German and Russian, an unusual
accomplishment in his environment, but also taught himself
Latin, apparently by comparing a Latin translation of the Psalms
with the Hebrew original. He soon made the acquaintance of
modern Hebrew literature, and under the influence of Senior
Sachs began to concentrate on Hebrew and the ancient history
of Israel, a study which was to bear rich fruit. Varied only by
one short visit to St. Petersburg in 1861, he lived his life in
Kovno and the surrounding cities, eking out a meager livelihood
as a teacher of Hebrew, constantly oppressed by poverty and
privation. Yet the narrow confines of his physical environment
were swept aside by the richness and fertility of his imagination.
He wrote two main novels depicting life in ancient Israel, a
third describing the life of his own times, and a fourth—of which
only a fragment is extant—set in the period of the false Messiah,
Shabbethai Zebi. It is, however, on his first novel,
Ahabat Ziyyon
(“The Love of Zion” ), that his fame primarily rests.
Ahabat Ziyyon
was published in Vilna in 1853. Although a
short novel, its author worked on its composition for more than
twenty years, even delaying publication for several years lest its
reception might prove unfavorable. The originality of the work
is two-fold, for not only was it the first novel to be written in
Hebrew, but it was the first novel in any language to be set in
ancient Israel in Biblical times. It is hardly surprising, therefore,
that the author feared unfavorable reaction to such a daring
departure from the beaten track of Hebrew literature.
The plot, which owes much to the lyrical dramas of M. H. Luz-
zatto and to the romantic novels of Dumas-Pere and Eugene Sue,
is simple enough. It is centered on the love of Amnon and
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