Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (1835–1917) created Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Mendele the Book Peddler), a name that has often been understood as a pseudonym rather than a character in his works. Writing in both Hebrew and Yiddish, and translating his works from one to the other, he is considered to be the first modern novelist in both languages and the most important proponent of the haskole—the Jewish Enlightenment. Sholem Aleichem called him “the grandfather” of Yiddish literature.
In 1878, Abramovitsh published the mock epic Kitser masoes Binyomin hashlishi (The Brief Travels of Benjamin III) which was to be the first part of a longer work that was never written. His re-working of the novella appeared in Hebrew in 1896. It was famously adapted for the Moscow State Yiddish Theater in 1927. Many readers have compared The Brief Travels of Benjamin III to Don Quixote. Both contain protagonists who engage in a mock-heroic quest; both have sidekicks who travel with them; both are deluded. Abramovitsh’s work, however, is focused on the politics of the world in which these Jewish characters find themselves, the intractable political, social, and economic obstacles they face, and their inability to succeed under those conditions. Written during the period of European imperialist expansions, the novella compares the situation of Eastern European Jews with the mobility, political structures, and colonial ambitions of Western Europe and particularly of England. Thus, Benjamin III’s proto-Zionist desire to restore Jewish political independence in the Holy Land invokes the powerful political leader Benjamin Disraeli who, just before this book was written, had acquired the Suez Canal for the British and had named Queen Victoria Empress of India. (Born a Jew, Disraeli was converted at the age of thirteen.) Despite his epic quest, Benjamin III never gets far from home.
Most difficult to render into English, the multilingualism of Eastern European Jewish life is alluded to in Benjamin III. Russian is used for place names. Some sections begin with an elevated Hebrew taken from the Bible or Talmud that is immediately translated into vernacular Yiddish. Translators usually render this in the interplay of different registers of English: elevated, sometimes stultified English on the one hand, and plain speech on the other.
Cover image: Portrait of Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh