Smolenskin, Perez (Peretz)

(1840 or 1842–85)
   Hebrew writer. Smolenskin was one of the foremost figures in the revival of Hebrew letters and an early Jewish nationalist. As a child he saw his brother press-ganged into the army under the notorious decree of Czar NICHOLAS I which forced thousands of Jews into military service, often as young children, for up to twenty-five years. Smolenskin’s family never heard of their son again. Later, while in his teens, Perez was forced to leave the town where he was a yeshivah student by the treatment he received at the hands of the Orthodox Jews when they learned that he was studying Russian and reading secular books. After an unsettled period he spent five years in Odessa, whose Jewish community was the most enlightened in Russia. It was there that he began his literary career, publishing articles and stories and starting his major novel, ‘The Wanderer in Life’s Paths’, which was to become the most widely-read Hebrew book of the 1870s. In 1868 Smolenskin went to Vienna, where he lived for the rest of his life. He founded the monthly Ha-Shachar (‘The Dawn’), which soon became one of the most prominent Hebrew periodicals of its time, until it ceased publication with its founder’s death. Smolenskin wrote much of its contents himself and produced it single- handed; even so he had to take a job in a printing-house during the day to keep himself and his family. The strain eventually became too great and he died of pulmonary tuberculosis.
   Smolenskin was strongly opposed to the ideas of the Reform movement, which was gathering strength among the Jews of Western Europe, objecting especially to the claim that the Jews were only a religious, not a national, community. He believed that Jewish nationality should be expressed in a distinctive cultural tradition based on the Hebrew language. Since this tradition must be based on the Torah, Smolenskin was opposed to religious reform on the grounds that it would weaken national feeling. After the pogroms of 1881, he abandoned his hopes for a Jewish national revival in the Diaspora and advocated the complete evacuation of Eastern Europe in favour of settlement in Palestine.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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