T HE J EWISH Q UARTERLY R EVIEW , Vol. 95, No. 1 (Winter 2005) 16–59
Jewish Autobiography:
The Elusive Subject
T HE STUDY OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY, a relatively recent field, has been
bedeviled from the outset by the definitional problem. 1 While the last
thirty years or so have seen a remarkable upsurge in the study of the
genre, the question of what exactly constitutes autobiography has not
only not been resolved but, if anything, has become exacerbated. 2 On the
one hand, such unlikely works as Eliot’s ‘‘Four Quartets’’ 3 and Haw-
thorne’s The Scarlet Letter 4 are now discussed as ‘‘autobiographies.’’ On
the other, critics seem to take a perverse delight in revealing the inelucta-
ble ‘‘fictionality’’ of such ostensibly straightforward self-referential texts
as Newman’s Apologia 5
hood . 6
The confusion has, in the post–World War II period, become com-
pounded by representative autobiographers of the twentieth century,
This essay is an adaptation of the first chapter of my book , Being for Myself
Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography (Stanford, Calif., forthcoming, 2005).
1. ‘‘Hardly any form is alien to it. Historical record of achievement, imaginary
forensic addresses or rhetorical declamations, systematic or epigrammatic de-
scription of character, lyrical poetry, prayer, soliloquy, confessions, letters, liter-
ary portraiture, family chronicles, and court memoirs, narrative whether purely
factual or with a purpose, explanatory or fictional, novel and biography in their
various styles, epic, and even drama.’’ See Georg Misch, A History of Autobiography
in Antiquity , trans. E. W. Dickes (Westport, Conn., 1973), 1:4.
2. See William Spengemann, The Forms of Autobiography (New Haven, Conn.,
1980), xiff.
3. See James Olney, Metaphors of Self (Princeton, N.J., 1972), 260–99.
4. Spengemann, Forms of Autobiography , 132–65.
5. See Susanna Egan, Patterns of Experience in Autobiography (Chapel Hill, N.C.,
1984), 40–67.
6. See Paul John Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography (Princeton, N.J., 1985),
3–56; Darrel Mansell, ‘‘Unsettling the Colonel’s Hash: Fact in Autobiography,’’
The American Autobiography , ed. A. Stone (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1981), 61–80.
The Jewish Quarterly Review (Winter 2005)
Copyright 2005 Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. All rights reserved.
and Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girl-
such as Sartre, Nabokov, Roland Barthes, and Michel Leiris, who, play-
ing elaborate literary games of hide-and-seek, call attention to the prob-
lematic generic status of their own works. 7 Autobiography, as a literary
category, was further destabilized, interrogated, and complicated by
being sucked into the vortex of structuralist and later deconstructionist
discourse. The latter discourse, whose most important literary progenitor
is probably Mallarm ´ , has, in fact, evinced a certain grim fascination with
‘‘decentering,’’ ‘‘displacing,’’ ‘‘de-facing’’ the sovereign bourgeois ‘‘sub-
ject.’’ 8 Postmodernist discourse on this topic actually provides a sort of
photographic negative to the more traditional Whiggish narrative, as pur-
sued by Dilthey, Georg Misch, Georges Gusdorf, and Karl Weintraub,
according to which the emergence of autobiography is coextensive with
the emergence of historical consciousness, discovery of self, validation of
the individual, and so on. The rhetoric adopted in this debate can be
shrill; canonical autobiography is often viewed with barely disguised hos-
tility, even paranoia, as ‘‘the locus of monumental Western selfhood,’’ an
‘‘imperialist,’’ ‘‘privileged, phallocentric discourse,’’ a ‘‘First World genre
of the dominant culture,’’ a genre that ‘‘has been ‘policed’ ’’ to exclude
non-normative works and so forth. 9 The autobiographical self with his/
her attendant epistemological paradigms, has, however, proven rather re-
silient. 10 Laura Marcus, in a recent survey of critical responses to autobi-
ography, notes a contemporary tendency for the critics of autobiography
themselves to yield to the autobiographical impulse in their discussions of
the texts at hand. She relates this to a wider phenomenon of the ‘‘return
of the subject.’’ 11 A parallel phenomenon in other disciplines of the hu-
manities—anthropology in particular—certainly substantiates her thesis,
as does, beyond academe, the sheer quantity of autobiographical/confes-
sional literature produced in the last decade. Within the narrower con-
7. See Spengemann, Forms of Autobiography , 189.
8. See Laura Marcus’s chapter ‘‘Saving the Subject’’ in her Auto/biographical
Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice (Manchester and New York, 1994), 179–228;
and on Jacques Derrida’s obsession with autobiography, both as practitioner
and theoretician, see Joseph G. Kronick, ‘‘Philosophy as Autobiography: The
Confessions of Jacques Derrida,’’ Modern Language Notes 115 (2000): 997–1018.
9. See Julia Watson, ‘‘Towards an Anti-Metaphysics of Autobiography,’’ The
Culture of Autobiography: Constructions of Self-Representation , ed. R. Folkenflik (Stan-
ford, Calif., 1993), 60, 61, 66, 71.
10. That the prime target of Watson’s essay is Georges Gusdorf’s ‘‘Conditions
and Limits of Autobiography,’’ an essay written some quarter century prior, is in
itself testimony to this resilience (in J. Olney, ed., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical
and Critical [Princeton, N.J., 1980]).
11. Marcus, Auto/biographical Discourses , 211.
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fines of literary criticism, as Marcus points out, the revelation concerning
Paul de Man’s pro-fascist articles written from 1940 to 1942 had wide-
ranging implications. These biographical data raised the issue of the auto-
biographical aspect of, as Marcus puts it, de Man’s ‘‘very substantial
reflections on the modes of autobiography, confession and apologia—
reflections which assert their generic ‘impossibility’ or the bad faith they
manifest.’’ 12 Alain Robbe-Grillet’s (forever the enfant terrible) comments
apropos of the disappearance and reappearance of the self in twentieth-
century intellectual discourse are pertinently impertinent in the present
context. ‘‘Ideology,’’ he writes:
Always masked, changes its face with ease. It is a hydra-mirror whose
severed head quickly reappears, presenting the adversary who thought
himself victorious the image of his own face. 13
In surveying the criticism of autobiography of the last several decades,
it is hard to escape the conclusion that this branch of literary discourse
has reached something of an impasse. Analogically to the impossible quest
for self-knowledge, which is autobiography itself, the criticism of the
genre appears to be chasing its own tail. This is in no small part due to
the sheer weightiness and intractability of the literary, existential, psycho-
logical, and metaphysical issues that the criticism of autobiography
addresses: the ontology of the self; the dialectics of truth and fiction—
Dichtung und Wahrheit ; the problem of memory, considered philosophi-
cally, psychologically, and neurologically; the absence of presence/
presence of absence in scriptural representations. More recently, autobi-
ography has also become a significant site for feminist, ethnic, class, and
postcolonial debates. 14 From being a relatively neglected branch of litera-
ture, then, autobiography has, if anything, become overdetermined, over-
interpreted, and overpoliticized.
12. Marcus, Auto/biographical Discourses , 211–12.
13. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Ghosts in the Mirror , trans. J. Levy (London, 1988), 6.
14. See Marcus, Auto/biographical Discourses, passim, and esp. chap. 7, ‘‘Auto/
biographical Spaces,’’ 273–96. This drift is evident from James Olney’s anthol-
ogy Studies in Autobiography (New York/Oxford, 1988), in which two four-essay
sections are devoted to ‘‘Ethnic and Minority Autobiography’’ and ‘‘Women’s
Autobiography.’’ For a combination of ethnic and feminist approaches, see Ken-
neth Mostern, Autobiography and Black Identity Politics: Racialization in Twentieth-
Century America (Cambridge, 1999); for the integration of neuroscientific research
within the study of autobiography, see Olney, Memory and Narrative: The Weave of
Life-Writing (Chicago, 1998), 339–404, passim.
One consequence of the oceanic nature of the discourse surrounding
autobiography has been that this discourse has slowly but surely lost its
moorings in any generically recognizable category of writing. There has
been a noticeable tendency to include within the rubric ‘‘autobiography’’
any text that reflects upon, and reflects upon itself reflecting upon, the
vicissitudes of the self in relation to time, memory, narration, and/or gen-
der, race, class. The intellectual trajectory of James Olney, the founding
father of autobiographical studies in America, is representative in this
respect. In a recent book , Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writ-
ing —the title itself is telling—Olney writes as follows:
Although I have in the past written frequently about autobiography as
a literary genre, I have never been very comfortable doing it . . . and I
have never met a definition of autobiography that I could really like
. . . In the course of Memory and Narrative I call the kind of writing I
am looking at by various names—confessions, autobiography, mem-
oirs, periautography . . . autography . . . and—the most frequently
employed term—life-writing . . . What I like about the term ‘‘periautog-
raphy,’’ which would mean ‘‘writing about or around the self,’’ is pre-
cisely its indefinition and lack of generic rigor, its comfortably loose fit
and generous adaptability, and the same for ‘‘life-writing.’’ 15
In this tinkering with the very term ‘‘autobiography’’ in order to broaden
the horizon of the word’s possible applications, Olney is by no means
alone. The terrifying-sounding ‘‘autobiothanatography,’’ ‘‘autogynogra-
phy’’—the clinical overtones of these latter terms, bearing Foucault in
mind, are ominous and odd—and, less frightening, ‘‘auto/biography’’ (the
forward slash marking the innovation), ‘‘otobiography,’’ are among the
neologisms that have been coined for this species of writing. 16 The prob-
lem with all this, however, is that it becomes increasingly unclear what
exactly is being talked about. Take, for example, Olney’s preferred terms:
true, they are ‘‘indefinite,’’ indefinite to such an extent, however, that it is
difficult to determine what types of literary discourse these terms for
‘‘writing about or around the self’’ would actually exclude. 17
It is also
15. Olney, Memory , xv.
16. See Marcus, Auto/biographical Discourses , index under ‘‘Autobiography—
17. This indefiniteness actually licenses Olney to go beyond ‘‘graphe’’ alto-
gether, in his wonderful discussion of self-reflective aspects of the sculptures,
paintings/drawings, and installations of Giacometti, one of which is reproduced
(on p. 269). See Olney, Memory , index under ‘‘Giacometti.’’
JQR 95:1 (2005)
worthy of note that both critics of autobiography on the more radical
deconstructionist wing, and critics closer to Olney in their firm commit-
ment to the existence of the self, are at one in eroding the generic bound-
aries of autobiography. To put it in broad strokes: one school of thought
sees autobiography along a continuum of a multitude of forms of literary
discourse that reveal the specularity/defacement/displacement of the self
in writing; the other school of thought views autobiography along a con-
tinuum of literary modes that depict, reflect upon, and substantiate a self
in writing. Given all of this, there is some sort of perverse logic to the
phenomenon of some critics of autobiography effectively jettisoning auto-
biography, with or without quotation marks, altogether. Thus Laura
Attempting to open up the modes of autobiographical representation,
recent critics have coined neologisms intended to redefine, extension-
ally and intensionally, ‘‘autobiography’’ away from the limits of its com-
ponent parts, self-life-writing . . . Other critics have bypassed
‘‘autobiography’’ altogether, overtaking it on the left, and focus instead
on related ‘‘outlaw genres’’—including testimonial literature, oral nar-
ratives and ethnographies. It could be argued that ‘‘autobiography’’ . . .
is kept in play through this shift to its transgressive homologues. 18
We are thus left in very much the same situation, though considerably
exacerbated, as that described by William Spengemann, writing in 1980:
‘‘The only arguable definition of autobiography would be a full account
of all the ways in which the word has been used.’’ 19 Sarah Pratt, writing
in 1996, essentially reiterates Spengemann’s observation:
In addressing the basic problem of definition, the easiest argument
would be that almost anything counts as autobiography these days, for
we live in the midst of a critical free-for-all about the nature of the self,
the nature of reality, and hence the nature of autobiography. 20
Pratt goes on to provide a lucid and concise thumbnail sketch of the
contemporary critical state of affairs:
18. Marcus, Auto/biographical Discourses , 294, 296, n. 59.
19. Spengemann, Forms of Autobiography , 185.
20. Sarah Pratt, ‘‘Angels in the Stalinist House: Nadezhda Mandelstamm,
Lidia Chukovskaia, Lidiia Ginzburg, and Russian Women’s Autobiography,’’
Auto/biography Studies : 11.2 (1996): 69.
Yet there are still scholars who are most aptly termed traditionalists,
those who define autobiography as an individual’s presumably truthful,
rational exposition of her or his own life story written by her or himself
. . . And there are those who might be called ‘‘literary liberals,’’ who
see autobiography as a more flexible, capacious genre ranging from
works of fiction, through traditional autobiography, to various forms
of diaries, journals and even scholarly writing . . . And there are ‘‘radi-
cals.’’ These are primarily more extreme feminists, deconstructionists,
and materialists of various ideological persuasions. Radical feminists
typically perceive the genre of traditional autobiography as an embodi-
ment of patriarchal values and hence invalid in relation to women. De-
constructionists deny the very concept of the self. 21
My own work on Jewish autobiography falls, for the most part, within
the ‘‘traditionalist’’ spectrum, as understood by Pratt. My approach is
‘‘traditionalist’’ also in that generic considerations are given a central posi-
tion in the present analysis; nor do I attempt, to refer back to Marcus, to
‘‘redefine’’ autobiography ‘‘away from the limits of its component parts’’:
‘‘Self-life-writing,’’ taken separately or as a composite entity, hardly, in
my view, constitutes an overcircumscribed topic. My decision to steer
away from the wilder shores of autobiographical discourse was also prag-
matic; since there existed, to my knowledge, no synthetic study of Jewish
autobiography on the scale I attempted, my intention was to provide a
preliminary study—a first word, rather than dernier cri . I found myself
most indebted to the voluminous work devoted to this topic by Philippe
Lejeune over the past thirty-five years. In his ongoing project Lejeune
effects the most extraordinary combination of restless, adventurous intel-
lectual enquiry, often laced with a strong measure of autocriticism, with
an unwavering commitment to a generic approach to autobiography, un-
paralleled in the field. 22 It is Lejeune’s early and pioneering work, L’autob-
iographie en France , that provided the model for my study. In this
constitutive, introductory book, Lejeune poses ‘‘elementary, but funda-
mental questions: what is an autobiography, in what does it differ from
the novel, from the personal diary, from memoirs? How long has it ex-
isted?’’ 23
21. Pratt, ‘‘Angels,’’ 69.
22. See Paul John Eakin, ‘‘Foreword’’ to Philippe Lejeune, On Autobiography ,
ed. and with a foreword, P. J. Eakin, trans. K. Leary (Minneapolis, Minn., 1989),
23. Lejeune in his 1998 foreword to the second edition of L’Autobiographie en
France (Paris, 1998), 5.
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Lejeune here posits that ‘‘autobiography,’’ both as a mode of reading
and of writing, is a strictly post-Rousseauian phenomenon. Rousseau’s
Confessions , Lejeune argues in this work, not only gave rise to the concep-
tion and the term ‘‘autobiography,’’ 24 but also presages every major devel-
opment of the genre, including works that seem, at first blush, to deviate
most markedly from the Rousseauian model. 25 The paradigm of Rous-
seau’s Confessions , Lejeune further argues, also gave rise to a mode of
reading , and it is this mode of reading which informs all histories of auto-
biography that seek to establish a pre-Rousseauian autobiographical
tradition. 26 Elsewhere, Lejeune terms such reading as ‘‘an illusion of per-
spective’’: ‘‘This illusion is very natural: it corresponds to the most sponta-
neous historical operation, which makes us constantly redistribute the
elements of the past dependent upon our present categories.’’ 27
It is this ‘‘retrospective illusion,’’ in its back-projection of Rousseauian
categories of confession to texts of classical and mediaeval provenance,
that enables the contemporary critic to read works like the Confessions of
Augustine and Abelard’s Histoire de mes malheurs as ‘‘autobiography.’’
Such reading, Lejeune argues, runs quite contrary to the hermeneutic
codes prevailing at the time of the initial production and consumption of
these texts. 28
The claim that Rousseau is the founding father of modern autobiogra-
phy has, of course, been made repeatedly. 29 It is Lejeune, however, to my
mind, who makes, in L’autobiographie en France , the most compelling and
24. The term was first coined, it appears, in 1797, by a reviewer of Isaac
d’Israeli’s Miscellanies , but rejected by the same writer as ‘‘pedantic.’’ See Marcus,
Auto/biographical Discourses, 12. It was first positively employed as a generic indica-
tor in 1809 by Robert Southey. See Jerome Hamilton Buckley, The Turning Key
(Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 18–19. Herder and Goethe had a clear conception
of autobiography as a discrete literary form before Southey’s neologism became
current; Herder referring to Selbstbiographien and Goethe to the ‘‘so called Confes-
sions of all ages.’’ See Misch, History of Autobiography, 1:2, 5.
25. See Philippe Lejeune, L’Autobiographie en France (Paris, 1971), 65–66.
26. Lejeune, L’Autobiographie , 42ff.
27. Lejeune, ‘‘Autobiography and Literary History’’ in his On Autobiography ,
28. Nor are Augustine scholars, after Rousseau, unanimous in reading the
work as an autobiography. Edward B. Pusey, for example, in the preface to his
translation of the Confessions , argues in some detail against categorizing the work
as an autobiography. See Augustine of Hippo, Confessions , trans., E. B. Pusey
(London, 1907), xvii-xxi. For a survey of the debate, see Spengemann, Forms of
Autobiography, 213–18.
29. See, for example, Irving Howe, ‘‘The Self in Literature,’’ in his A Critic’s
Notebook (New York, 1994), 264–94; Olney, Memory , 203–09, 405–22.
systematic argument for the primacy of Rousseau in the history of the
genre. 30 He thus corroborates Rousseau’s own claim, as trumpeted in the
opening lines of the Confessions , to have ‘‘resolved on an enterprise which
has no precedent.’’ 31 Following Lejeune and drawing upon the works of
other scholars in order to corroborate and illustrate his thesis, I present
a summary of the principal innovations of the Confessions that exercised a
formative influence upon subsequent autobiographical writing. Each of
these elements may assume a greater or lesser degree of prominence
within a given work. The manner in which these elements express them-
selves is not uniform, the modalities that they assume being dependent
upon the system of literary discourse within which they occur.
Of primary significance, as has frequently been noted, is Rousseau’s
desacralization of the religious confessional. While availing himself of the
model—he cannot have been unaware of the coincidence of the title of his
work with that of Augustine’s—he effects a fundamental and far-reaching
alteration in the discourse of the religious confessional. Augustine, for
whom ‘‘confession’’ means primarily confessio laudis and not confessio pec-
cati 32 addresses himself throughout his Confessions to God. Man is not the
interlocutor in the Confessions but rather the indirect beneficiary of the
laudatory effusion that issues from Augustine and is directed toward the
Divine. Rousseau, it is true, evokes the ‘‘Sovereign Judge’’ in the opening
paragraph of his Confessions , but this is little more than rhetoric. Rous-
seau’s apostrophes and invocations are directed throughout the Confes-
sions not to God, but to his fellow man. The veracity of Augustine’s
narrative is guaranteed by the omniscience of his addressee. Here, as
Jean Starobinski notes, ‘‘is a content guaranteed by the highest bail.’’ 33
For Rousseau, the ultimate criterion of sincerity is not that he be true to
the ‘‘Eternal Being,’’ but rather to ‘‘the succession of feelings which have
30. Thus the title of the periodical published by ‘‘L’Association pour l’autobio-
graphie,’’ founded by Lejeune in 1991—‘‘La Faute ` Rousseau.’’ See the preface
to the collection of Lejeune’s articles published in this journal, in idem, Pour
l’autobiographie: Chroniques (Paris, 1998), 7–8.
31. J. J. Rousseau, The Confessions , trans. J. J. Cohen (Harmondsworth,
1953), 3. See also the earlier ‘‘Neuchatel’’ preamble in which Rousseau cites two
possible precedents for his enterprise: Cardano’s Vita and Montaigne’s Essays .He
gives short shrift to both; Cardano is too crazy, Montaigne the epitome of the
‘‘pseudo-sincere.’’ See Lejeune, L’Autobiographie , 153.
32. See the psalmodic opening paragraphs of Augustine, Confessions , 1–4; Karl
J. Weintraub, The Value of the Individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobiography
(Chicago, 1978), 22–23.
33. Jean Starobinski, ‘‘The Style of Autobiography,’’ Autobiography , ed.
Olney, 8.
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marked the development of my being,’’ this being the one ‘‘faithful guide
upon which I can count.’’ 34 For Rousseau and for autobiographers who
follow him, even Christian, 35 it is the ‘‘self’’ that assumes many of the
functions traditionally assigned to God in Christian confessional litera-
Rousseau was the first to incorporate techniques of verisimilitude and
psychological penetration deriving from the eighteenth-century novel
within the nonfictional, extrareferential context of autobiography. In par-
ticular, he was indebted to what Lejeune refers to as a ‘‘new biographical
model’’ of eighteenth-century provenance—the novel that purports to be
an authentic first-person account of the life of the protagonist. 36 The ac-
knowledged pioneer of this genre is Daniel Defoe, whose Robinson Crusoe
(1719), a book of which he was particularly fond, 37 and Moll Flanders
(1721) each purports to be the genuine autobiography of the respective
hero and heroine. 38 ‘‘Autobiography,’’ Lejeune writes,
could not come into its own without imitating people imitating people
who were imagining what it was like to be an autobiographer. A singu-
lar game of mirrors that demonstrates that sincerity is learned, original-
ity imitative. 39
Rousseau himself was, both as reader and as writer, well versed in the
discourse of the burgeoning novel. His La Nouvelle H´lo¨se (1761), an epis-
tolary novel modeled on Richardson’s Clarissa 40
(1741), contains strong
34. J. J. Rousseau, Confessions , 262.
35. Cardinal Newman being a case in point. See Buckley, The Turning Key, 13.
36. Lejeune, L’Autobiographie , 45–46.
37. See Rousseau, Rousseau Judge of Jean Jacques: Dialogues , ed. R. D. Masters
and C. Kelly, trans. J. R. Bush, C. Kelly, and R. D. Masters (Hanover and
London, 1990), 117–18, 264–65, n. 49. So taken was Rousseau with the book
that in his treatise on education, ´ mile , he selects Robinson Crusoe as the ‘‘first
book that ´ mile will read,’’ forming ‘‘for a long time . . . his whole library. . . . It
will be the text to which all our talks about natural science are but the commen-
tary.’’ See Rousseau, ´ mile , trans. B. Foxley (London, 1974), 147.
38. See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley, Calif., 1967), 90–91, 115–16.
39. Lejeune, L’Autobiographie , 47. See also Brian Finney, The Inner I: British
Literary Autobiography of the Twentieth Century (London, 1985), 66–67.
40. For a detailed comparison of Clarissa and La Nouvelle H´loise , see Joseph
Texte, Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Cosmopolitan Spirit in Literature (New York,
1929), 227–54; for Rousseau’s own comparison of his La Nouvelle H´loise with
Richardson’s novels, see The Confessions , 502–6.
autobiographical elements, as does his seminovelistic ‘‘educational trea-
tise’’ ´ mile 41 (1762).
Autobiography, in distinction from biography and the memoir, func-
tions primarily as an introspective, self-reflective mode of literary dis-
course. Perceptions and emotional responses of the self assume, in
autobiography, the roles assigned for deeds and events in the life of the
other in the biography and the memoir. For these latter genres, the sig-
nificance of this other is independent of personal consideration, arising
rather from social consensus. Autobiography operates upon an entirely
different set of criteria. For the autobiographer, the significance of the
other is determined solely by the role that he or she plays in the formation
of the self, regardless of social standing. Thus Rousseau, in the ‘‘Neucha-
tel’’ variant of the preamble to the Confessions :
The relationships I have had with several people compel me to speak
as freely of them as of myself. I can only succeed in making myself
known by making them known also. 42
Many of the more decisive encounters with the other in the shaping of
the autobiographer’s self occur in the years of childhood and adolescence.
Parents, teachers, schoolmates, and domestic staff may thus achieve a
prominence in the autobiography that would, in the memoir, be reserved
for generals and prime ministers, renowned men of letters, and so on.
This is not to say that the formative encounters with the other in an
autobiography are restricted to the historically obscure. But when the
great do drift in and out of the pages of an autobiography, it is often not
on account of the qualities that granted them this status that they are
recalled. Thus the most powerful and lasting impression left upon Amos
Oz of the Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernikhovsky, the memory of which
eclipses Oz’s subsequent acquaintance with his poems, derives from an
infantile memory of the man’s mane of hair, his ‘‘felt [as in the material]
cheek,’’ the feel of his moustache on Oz’s cheek, his laughing eyes, furry
hands, but above all the man’s smell , and the mysteries this smell evoked:
‘‘I summon this smell and the smell returns to me, a somewhat coarse
smell, a dusty smell, but strong and pleasant, a smell that reminds me of
41. See Peter D. Jimack in his introduction to Rousseau, ´ mile , x–xiii; Olney,
Memory , 414ff.; for Rousseau’s account of the experiences that gave rise to ´ mile ,
see The Confessions , 400–1, 406ff.
42. As cited by Lejeune, L’autobiographie , 155
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thick sack-cloth . . . his compassionate, comforting smell.’’ 43 The great
poet—all but deified in the Revisionist Zionist family circle in which Oz
grew up—is thus leveled in the eyes of the child to a bundle of visual,
tactile, and, above all olfactory sensations, experienced, Oz writes, ‘‘two
to three years before I succeeded in pronouncing the name ‘Tchernik-
hovsky’.’’ 44
Autobiography is contingent upon a degree of historical awareness.
The autobiographer does not portray a predetermined self or being, but
rather tracks an open-ended process of becoming. It is under the sign of
historicism that the crucial distinction between autobiography and the
self-portrait—in particular the Renaissance self-portrait, on the model of
Montaigne’s Essays or Cardano’s Vita —manifests itself: 45 Autobiography,
in distinction to the self-portrait whose focus is upon the adult self in
stasis, albeit from a variety of angles and in a variety of postures, directs
attention to the dynamic process of the crystallization of self through all
the stages of life, and most particularly to the period of origins, childhood,
as recalled and reflected upon from the retrospective vantage point of the
adult. ‘‘There is a certain sequence of impressions,’’ writes Rousseau,
which modify those that follow them and it is necessary to know the
original set before passing any judgments. I endeavor in all cases to
explain the prime causes, in order to convey the interrelation of re-
sults. 46
There is thus an implicit assignation of meaning to temporal passage and
a hermeneutic investment in chronological narrative. Wilhelm Dilthey
indeed, turning the tables, views autobiography as the paradigm par ex-
cellence for historical enquiry.
43. Amos Oz, Sippur ‘al ahavah ve- . oshekh (Jerusalem, 2002), 44ff.
44. Oz, Sippur ‘al ahavah , 45–46.
45. See Weintraub, Value of the Individual , xi–xii, 162–65, 191–95, 261–63. Cel-
lini’s Vita is atypical of Renaissance depictions of the self in this respect, present-
ing his life history in some sort of chronological sequence. But he gives only the
most desultory account of the years of childhood and adolescence that precede
his first apprenticeship as a goldsmith at the age of fifteen. Michel Beaujour in
his Poetics of the Literary Self-Portrait , trans. Y. Milos (New York, 1977), privileges
the self-portraitist’s liberation from the arbitrary shackles of chronological narra-
tive. See Moseley, ‘‘Between Memory and Forgetfulness: The Janus Face of Mi-
chah Yosef Berdichevsky,’’ Studies in Contemporary Jewry 12, ed. E. Mendelson,
(New York, 1996), in which I apply Beaujour’s insights.
46. Rousseau, Confessions , 169.
The power and breadth of our own life, and the energy and reflection
upon it is the foundation of historical vision. It alone enables us to give
a second life to the bloodless shades of the past. 47
And it is in particular to the resurrection and reliving of childhood that
autobiography devotes especial ‘‘energy and reflection.’’ Of all the ‘‘ages
of man,’’ childhood holds the privileged place in the autobiography; the
implicit ideology of the genre even bestows upon the childhood an onto-
logically privileged status in the lifecycle; the childhood/Garden of Eden
analogy, so common as to constitute a trope of subsequent autobiographi-
cal writing, has its origins in the first book of the Confessions . In quantita-
tive terms alone, no writer prior to Rousseau would have dreamt of
devoting so many pages to the depiction of his childhood as does Rous-
seau in the early books of the Confessions ; that Rousseau himself was
aware of this lack of precedence, and somewhat anxiously so, is attested
to by the numerous asides that punctuate this account, apologizing to the
reader and justifying his close scrutiny of these years. In the subsequent
development of the genre, it is, indeed, not at all rare for an autobiogra-
pher to devote him/herself predominantly, or even exclusively, to an ex-
ploration of the childhood years; while an autobiographer may well
exclude from his/her narrative an account of the years of maturity, it is
hard to imagine an autobiography that would exclude the years of child-
hood. Rousseau, as autobiographer, writes ‘‘less the history of . . . events
in themselves than of the effect of their occurrence upon the state of my
soul.’’ 48 By virtue of this, he is given a free hand in the depiction of the
trivial and paltry episodes that have so disproportionate an impact upon
the mind of the child. In fact, in giving an account of the history of feel-
ings, childhood experience may, and frequently does, assume greater sig-
nificance for the autobiographer than do the deeds and events of the adult
years: the system of relations that obtains in biography, not to say the
memoir, is thus reversed. Edwin Muir, who as an autobiographer stands
firmly in the Rousseauian line of tradition, contrasts the unsullied, ‘‘origi-
nal vision’’ of the child, ‘‘in which there is a more complete harmony of
all things with each other than he will ever know again,’’ 49 with the ‘‘adult
world’’ which ‘‘is a dry legend consisting of names and figures,’’ made up
47. As cited by Herbert A. Hodges, The Philosophy of Willhelm Dilthey (London,
1952), 275. See also John Paul Eakin, ‘‘Narrative and Chronology as Structures
of Reference and the New Model Autobiographer,’’ in Olney, Studies .
48. Rousseau, ‘‘Neuchatel’’ preamble, as cited by Lejeune, L’Autobiographie ,
49. Edwin Muir, An Autobiography (New York, 1954), 33.
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in collusion with mankind and known only ‘‘in an external and deceptive
way.’’ 50 Anthony Cockshut writes of the ‘‘commonplace that the early
chapters of autobiography which describe childhood are the best.’’ 51 Roy
Pascal goes so far as to define those autobiographies which confine them-
selves to the years of childhood as the ‘‘purest form’’ of the genre. 52
For Rousseau, and autobiographers after him (and psychiatrists),
childhood is viewed along an ontological continuum with adult identity,
and not, as in Rousseau’s own ´ mile , a self-contained and autonomous
period of life. Thus Rousseau, in the lengthy ‘‘apology’’ he supplies to the
reader for the account of his youthful experiences which he is in the
course of narrating in Book IV of the Confessions:
These long details of my early youth may well seem extremely childish,
and I am sorry for it. Although in certain respects I have been a man
since birth, I was for a long time and still am, a child in many others. I
never promised to present the public with a great personage. I prom-
ised to depict myself as I am; and to know me in my later years it is
necessary to have known me well in my youth. As objects generally
make less impression on me than does the memory of them, and as all
my ideas take pictorial form, the first features to engrave themselves
on my mind have remained there, and such as have subsequently im-
printed themselves have combined with these rather than obliterated
them . . . I endeavor in all cases to explain the prime causes, in order
to convey the interrelation of results. I should like in some way to make
my soul transparent to the reader’s eye. 53
This aside may fairly be called a manifesto for all future autobiographers.
The coexistence of the child self with adult, adult self with child, gives
rise to a Janus-faced view of personality; the autobiographer, as he gives
an account of his childhood years, both is and is not the subject of his
enunciation. 54 This paradoxical situation of, in Lejeune’s phrase, ‘‘dis-
tance and relation’’ 55 between the two planes of temporal existence elicits
an autobiographical fascination with memory as the locus of the encoun-
50. Muir, An Autobiography, 67, 49. See also Brian Finney, The Inner I , 201ff.
51. Anthony. O. J. Cockshut, The Art of Autobiography in Nineteenth and Early
Twentieth Century England (London, 1984), 36.
52. Roy Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (London, 1960), 85.
53. Rousseau, Confessions , 169.
54. See Richard N. Coe, When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Expe-
rience of Childhood (New Haven, Conn., 1984), 27–30.
55. See Lejeune, L’Autobiographie , 74ff.
ter between child and adult self. Since memory reaches back toward the
self as child, but the act of memory occurs within the self as adult, an
irresoluble temporal dilemma lies at the heart of the autobiographical en-
terprise. In face of this dilemma, autobiographical discourse evinces a
marked tendency to collapse into the present. This collapse into the pres-
ent moment of recall and narration, as is well illustrated in the above
citation from the Confessions , lends a metadiscursive aspect to autobiogra-
phy, which becomes a hallmark of the genre. 56 Thus Rousseau’s formula-
tion of the problem, as found in the ‘‘Neuchatel’’ variant of the preamble
to the Confessions , is astonishing in its prescience and sophistication; espe-
cially in view of the fact that neither autobiography as a genre nor the
criticism of the same had, at the time these lines were written (1764),
become established:
In giving myself over both to my remembrance of the past impression
and to my present feeling, I will depict doubly ( je peindrai doublement )
the state of my mind, that is both at the moment the event happened
to me and at the moment I describe it; my style, which is uneven yet
natural—now energetic and now leisurely, now subdued and now ex-
travagant, now grave and now gay—will itself form a part of the
story. 57
In high modernist autobiographical experimentation, this aspect of Rous-
seau’s project is subject to hypertrophy to the extent of varying degrees
of dissolution of autobiographical narrative. Thus Nabokov’s autobiogra-
phy is, as the title Speak Memory suggests, a book about remembering,
and Roland Barthes, writing Roland Barthes , writes about writing about
Roland Barthes etc. as a continuous process of self-creation. 58 It is Sam-
uel Beckett, as James Olney has so richly demonstrated, who takes this
56. There is, of course, precedent for this metadiscursive collapse into the
moment of recall and narration in Augustine’s meditations on memory and time
in the tenth and eleventh books of the Confessions . James Olney has made a bril-
liant and persuasive comparison between Augustine, in this respect, and Samuel
Beckett. He makes an important caveat to this comparison, however: ‘‘Rousseau
is the true centre of it all: without his achievement as the middle, Augustine’s
would not be the beginning, Beckett’s would not be the end.’’ Olney, Memory , xii.
57. Rousseau, ‘‘Neuchatel preamble,’’ as translated by Olney, Memory, 168.
For the original of this passage see Lejeune, L’Autobiographie , 154–55.
58. See especially the foreword and first chapter of Nabokov’s Speak Memory
(New York, 1966); Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes , trans. R. Howard (London,
1977); Finney, The Inner I , 118.
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autobiographical metavertiginousness as far as, or perhaps even further
than, it can be taken. 59
Over and above all this, Rousseau’s significance lies no less in his expo-
sure of the sheer hubris and ultimate impossibility of the autobiographical
quest (‘‘to make myself transparent to the reader’s eye’’) than in his con-
stitution of autobiography as a historical genre. Rousseau, Lejeune
writes, ‘‘elaborated a problematic of autobiography at the same time as
he was establishing its practice . . . He scarcely left a stone unturned
for his successors.’’ 60 In a more recent profound study of the totality of
Rousseau’s autobiographical writings—the Confessions , Rousseau juge de
Jean Jacques: Dialogues , and Les r ´ veries du promeneur solitaire —James Olney
argues that Rousseau actually prefigured the modernist and postmodern-
ist fragmentation of self. Olney’s observation is corroborated by the para-
digmatic postmodern autobiographer Michel Leiris, who saw Rousseau’s
Confessions ‘‘as exemplary of the heterogeneous writing needed to ‘grasp
the human,’ which he himself espoused in his ethnopoetic combination of
anthropology and autobiography.’’ 61 Rousseau then, the harbinger of the
romantic self, modern individualism, was also he who sowed the seeds of
dissolution into these constructs. ‘‘In how many ways,’’ asks Olney,
was Jean-Jacques not the crucial, pivotal, transitional figure between
the antiquity of St. Augustine and what we have come to call the mod-
ernism and postmodernism of Samuel Beckett? . . . Rousseau it was
. . . who fragmented the I and dispersed it among various hes . . . He
cut the self loose, leaving it without ties, anchor, or direction, and to
modern descendants he left as starting-point what for him was the end-
point: a free-floating self, uncentered except in itself, and quite un-
real. 62
Olney’s thesis, admirably documented with a wealth of examples from
Rousseau’s entire oeuvre, demonstrates, I believe, that to adopt a para-
digm based upon Rousseau for a literary/historical study of a particular
autobiographical tradition is not to adopt an overly rigid, prescriptive and
restrictive heuristic model.
To speak of ‘‘autobiography’’ before Rousseau, without conceding that
59. See Olney, Memory, index under Beckett.
60. Lejeune, L’Autobiographie ,66
61. See Felicity Baker, ‘‘The Object of Love in Rousseau’s Confessions ,’’ Repre-
sentations of the Self from the Renaissance to Romanticism , ed. P. Coleman, J. Lewis,
J. Kowalik (Cambridge, 2000), 174.
62. Olney, Memory, 207–8.
this term is used as a heuristic device, is to fall prey to what Lejeune
terms the ‘‘retrospective illusion,’’ or ‘‘the illusion of eternity,’’ an illusion,
writes Lejeune, that ‘‘corresponds to the most spontaneous historical op-
eration, which makes us constantly redistribute the elements of the past
depending upon our present categories.’’ 63 By equivalence, to speak of
autobiography after Rousseau without acknowledging his fundamental
role in shaping the genre—change as the modes of autobiographical dis-
course may—is to run the risk of losing sight of the subject altogether;
and I believe that there is indeed a ‘‘subject,’’ in both senses of the term,
to be lost sight of.
We, who were related by spiritual consanguinity with Brenner-Berdi-
chevsky, recognized almost exclusively only one type of sincerity, that
extending in world literature from Rousseau and the Young Werther:
that of revelation of the self and confession of the self. 64
In modern Jewish literary history, Eastern Europe provided the soil from
which an autonomous modern Jewish autobiographical discourse written
in Jewish languages arose. Eastern European Jews, writing autobio-
graphically in Hebrew and Yiddish, would, at first blush, appear way-
ward and exotic ‘‘children of Jean Jacques’’ indeed. Yet one cardinal
aspect of Rousseau’s intellectual and autobiographical legacy is its omni-
presence. 65 Rousseauian thought, however variously mediated, exercised
a pervasive influence upon the Hebrew Enlightenment (Haskalah) in
Eastern Europe, 66 the intellectual matrix of modern Hebrew and Yiddish
literature: an influence evinced in Hebrew literature in particular by the
radical conjoining of the validation of the individual and an acutely
heightened sensitivity to the wonders of nature, notwithstanding the fact
that such neopantheism is often expressed with the hyperbole and artifi-
ciality of Schiller’s ‘‘sentimental’’ poet. 67
63. Lejeune, On Autobiography , 143; and see idem, L’Autobiographie , 42ff.
64. Rabbi Binyamin (Yehoshua Radler-Feldman) in Kitve R’ Binyamin: Mishpa-
hat sofrim (Jerusalem, 1960), 147.
65. See Olney, Memory , 207–8.
66. See Abraham Sha’anan, ‘ Iyyunim be-sifrut ha-haskalah (Mer . avia, 1952),
especially 7–13, 57–102; Israel Zinberg, Di geshikhte fun der literature bay Yidn ,10
vols. (Vilna, 1929–66), 7:150–51, 155ff.
67. These twin ‘‘id ´ es maitresses’’—individualism/nature worship—provide
much of the intellectual backbone of Simon Halkin’s study of the emergence of
Moreover, one of the earliest
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autobiographies in any language clearly fashioned after the example of
Rousseau’s Confessions , Solomon Maimon’s Lebensgeschichte (2 vols., Ber-
lin, 1792–93), was written by a Polish Jew. Maimon’s autobiography
provided the cornerstone for the Hebrew and Yiddish development of
the genre. Eastern European Jewish autobiography, I would argue, fol-
lowing Lejeune, is a specifically modern, specifically post-Rousseauian
phenomenon, essentially analogous to the history of the genre in eigh-
teenth- and nineteenth-century Western Europe. Rousseauian autobiog-
raphy left its mark on Jewish literary and intellectual history not only as
a mode of writing but also, again pace Lejeune, as one of reading. As
with wider European autobiography, so with Jewish, the notion of a pre-
Rousseauian, indigenous autobiographical tradition is itself a post facto ,
post-Rousseauian intellectual construct arising from a modern mode of
reading which projects autobiographical categories onto premodern texts.
The origins and history of this mode of reading the textual deposits of the
past through autobiographical lens thus constitute an essential aspect of
the history of the origins and emergence of Jewish autobiographical con-
sciousness. Lejeune puts this in a nutshell: ‘‘This transformation of read-
ing must become the object of a historical study, but it could not be its
foundation.’’ 68
The transformation of thinking, reading, and writing in Jewish Eastern
Europe, of which autobiography is both cause and symptom, was not
effected smoothly; the phenomenon, with its attendant aesthetic, sociolog-
ical, and intellectual ramifications, is of central import to the seculariza-
tion of Jewish life and letters in Eastern Europe, and its reverberations
are to be felt to this day. This history is part and parcel of the painful
transition, spearheaded by a numerically meager modernizing avant-
garde of Eastern European Jews, to employ the keen antithesis of Ahad
Ha‘am (Asher Ginzberg), from ‘‘people of the book’’ ( ‘am ha-sefer ) to ‘‘lit-
erary nation’’ ( ‘am sifruti ). 69 The problematic nature of the reception/ab-
sorption of the autobiographical into Eastern European Jewish literary
and intellectual discourse is attested to by the literary-historical data. On
the one hand, Jewish autobiography takes its cue, as does every other
major European branch of the genre, from Rousseau, and that, as noted,
hot on the heels of the publication of Rousseau’s Confessions . On the other,
modern Hebrew literature, a masterpiece of synthetic analysis that bears reading
and rereading to this day, Modern Hebrew Literature from the Enlightenment to the
Birth of the State of Israel: Trends and Values (New York, 1970).
68. Lejeune, On Autobiography , 143
69. Ahad Ha‘am (Asher Ginzberg), Torah sheba-lev (1894), in Kol kitve Ahad
Ha‘am (Tel Aviv, 1953), 51.
at least one hundred years were to elapse before autobiography, under-
stood both as a mode of reading and as one of writing, showed any signs
of becoming established within a Jewish sphere of literary discourse in
Eastern Europe. Why should Jewish autobiography have entered into so
lengthy a period of latency at precisely the time in which the ‘‘classic’’
autobiographies of France, Germany, England, and Russia were writ-
ten? 70 This belatedness, characteristic of the Eastern European Jewish
Enlightenment movement in general, presents less of an anomaly when
viewed within the context of the almost total absence of the most basic
conditions for any form of secular literary discourse in Hebrew or Yid-
dish in Jewish Eastern Europe before the last decades of the nineteenth
century. 71 In Western Europe, the ground had been laid for the appear-
ance of autobiography by the prior existence of a system of literary rela-
tions centering upon the eighteenth-century novel. 72 In England, for
example, the eighteenth century saw the appearance of the first literary
periodicals— The Tatler in 1709 and The Spectator in 1811—the establish-
ment of the first nonproprietary libraries, and the emergence of the pro-
fessional bookseller as the vital middleman between author and printer. 73
These innovations in England were catalytic of analogous developments
in eighteenth-century France and Germany. 74 Only a handful of Hebrew
novels had, by contrast, appeared in Eastern Europe by 1880, and the
circulation of the Hebrew periodicals that did exist at the time was piti-
fully low. 75 Thus, and this is a quite anomalous phenomenon in the history
of post-Rousseauian autobiography, the first Hebrew autobiography,
70. France (other than the Confessions ): Chateaubriand, M´moires d’outre tombe ,
first published in toto in 1849–1859; Renan, Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse (first
ed., Paris, 1883). Germany: Moritz, Anton Reiser (1785–90); Goethe, Dichtung und
Wahrheit , books 1–20 (1811–32). England: Wordsworth, ‘‘The Prelude,’’ fourteen
books, (1798–1805); Ruskin, Praeterita (1885–89). Russia: Tolstoy, Childhood
(1852), Aksakov, Years of Childhood (1858).
71. See M. Viner, Tsu der geshikhte fun der Yidisher literatur in 19tn yorhundert
(New York, 1945), 1:9–22.
72. See Michael Masuch, Origins of the Individualist Self: Autobiography and Self-
Identity in England, 1591–1791 (Stanford, Calif., 1996), passim.
73. See Watt, Rise of the Novel , 35–39.
74. See Joseph Texte, Rousseau and the Cosmopolitan Spirit, 118–24. For the
impact of Addison’s Spectator upon the young Rousseau, see the Confessions , 110.
75. See Dan Miron, ‘‘Le fesher ha-mevukhah ba-sifrut ha-‘Ivrit bi-tekufat ha-
‘te . iyyah shelah,’ ’’ in his Bodedim be-mo‘adam: li-deyoknah shel ha-republikah ha-si-
frutit ha-‘Ivrit bi-te . ilat ha-me’ah ha-’esrim (Tel Aviv, 1987), 23–111. For a survey
of the Hebrew novels that had appeared from c. 1867 to 1887, see David Patter-
son, The Hebrew Novel in Czarist Russia (Edinburgh, 1964), 1–34.
JQR 95:1 (2005)
M. A. Guenzberg’s Avi‘ezer (Vilna, 1863), was completed, 76 although not
published, some ten years before the appearance of what is generally
considered the first Hebrew novel, Abraham Mapu’s Ahavat Tsion
(1853). 77 Nor, in the nineteenth century, was the outlook any more auspi-
cious for the emergence of Jewish autobiography in Yiddish. The attitude
toward Yiddish was at this stage, and later, extremely ambivalent, the
consensus being that this was a language only fit for patently didactic
works, or the type of shund (‘‘trash’’) served up in abundance by writers
such as N. M. Shaykevitsch (‘‘Shoymer’’) and Y. Dinesohn. 78
Notwithstanding the centrality here accorded Rousseau, in the course
of writing my study I became increasingly aware that the Yiddish auto-
biographical voice, as it emerged from a synthetic appraisal of a number
of representative texts (inevitable exceptions notwithstanding), differed
markedly from that of Hebrew. It became clear to me that treatment of
the topic thus necessitated a conceptual and literary-historical framework
other than the one employed in tracing the origins of Hebrew autobio-
graphical writing and thinking—a much less Rousseau-centric frame-
work. Chronologically speaking, Yiddish autobiographical writing
considerably postdates that in Hebrew, the origins of the latter traceable
to the mid-nineteenth century. This is absolutely consistent with the more
general Yiddish literary belatedness, by comparison with Hebrew, in the
assimilation of modern European literary genres: most notably the novel.
Thus the great majority of nineteenth-century Yiddish writers—including
the three Klassikers, Abramovitsh (Mendele), Peretz, and Sholem
Aleichem—made their literary debuts in Hebrew. Abramovitsh had writ-
ten an autobiographical sketch in Hebrew ten years before embarking
on his major autobiographical work, Shloyme reb khayims , in Yiddish. 79
Moreover, the two most prolific Yiddish writers of the nineteenth cen-
tury, Ayzik Meir Dik and Shaykevitsh, elected Hebrew as their language
76. See below for a discussion of the precise dating of the writing of Guenz-
berg’s autobiography.
77. See David Patterson, Abraham Mapu (London, 1964), esp. 96–107.
78. See Miron, A Traveler Disguised : A Study in the Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction
in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1973), 34–66. Aizik Meir Dik (Isaac Meir
Dick) summed up his own career as a prolific Yiddish novelist in the preface to
his autobiography, written in Hebrew: ‘‘I debased the honour of my pen by writ-
ing various tales in the language currently spoken, to our shame and disgrace, by
the Jews of Lithuania, Poland and Russia.’’ Dik, Ma . azeh mul ma . azeh (Warsaw,
1861), 2.
79. Abramovitsh, Reshimot le-toldotay ,in Sefer zikkaron , ed. N. Sokolov (War-
saw, 1889), 117–26.
of autobiographical expression. 80 Some members of the Russian-Jewish
intelligentsia, notably Shimon Frug, had reverted to Yiddish after the
1881 pogroms, 81 but Yiddish did not become an accepted linguistic me-
dium for serious modern literary discourse—‘‘modern’’ and ‘‘literary dis-
course’’ being pretty much interchangeable terms—until the first decade
of the twentieth century. 82 ‘‘We have no tradition,’’ we read in the dissi-
dent modernist Yiddish New York journal In zikh (of March 1923): ‘‘We
have found very little that could serve as tradition for us. The tradition
begins precisely with us, strange as it may sound.’’ 83
This relative chronological belatedness of Yiddish autobiography also
entails, though it does not fully account for, some marked phenomenolog-
ical and stylistic distinctions between Hebrew and Yiddish autobiograph-
ical writing. The emergence of an autonomous literature in Yiddish was
coterminous with a change in the intellectual guard in Eastern European
Jewish intellectual and literary history, by which indigenous, specifically
Russian, paradigms of discourse steadily usurped the Western and Cen-
tral European paradigms. Yet Western and Central European models, in
and through the mediation of the German language, were predominant
in shaping Hebrew literary and intellectual discourse. 84
The effects of this paradigm-shift are clearly discernable in Yiddish
autobiographical discourse. Many Yiddish autobiographical works thus
make much more sense when viewed within the specifically Russian vari-
ant of Rousseauian autobiography. Russian autobiography is, in general,
markedly less introspective than its Western European counterpart. Less
solipsistic and solitary in orientation, the natural, familial, and wider soci-
ohistorical environment is accorded a far greater role in accounts of the
becoming and being of the self; compare, for example, Tolstoy’s account
80. Dik, Ma . azeh mul ma . azeh ; Nokhem Meir Shaykevitsh, Shire shomer ve-
zikhronotav (Jerusalem, 1952).
81. See Dan Miron, Bodedim , 75–76.
82. Miron, A Traveler Disguised , 1–34; Viner, Tsu der geshikhte , 1:9–22, passim.
83. As cited by Benjamin Harshav, in his The Meaning of Yiddish: (Berkeley,
Calif., 1990), 148.
84. For the impact of this shift of literary allegiances on the development of
the Haskalah in Russia, see Shmuel Finer, Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a
Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness , trans. Ch. Naor and S. Silverston (Oxford/
Portland, Ore., 2002), 274–95; Khone Shmeruk, Sifrut Yidish: Perakim le-toldoteha
(Tel Aviv, 1978), 261–93. For memoiristic accounts of the same process, see Pau-
line Wengeroff, Rememberings: The World of a Russian Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth
Century , trans. H. Wenkart, ed. B. D. Cooperman (Potomac, Md., 2000), 217–26;
Avrom Kotik, Dos lebn fun a Idishn inteligent (New York, 1925)
JQR 95:1 (2005)
of his childhood—pointedly entitled Childhood , not My Childhood —with
that of his spiritual mentor, Rousseau. 85 Like the Russian novel, Russian
autobiographical writings are characterized by their exceptional generic
fluidity and amorphousness, and by their frequently composite status as
memoir, novel, and autobiography. 86 There is an essential correspondence
between this very general differentiation between Russian autobiography
and Western European, and that between Yiddish autobiographical writ-
ing and Hebrew. This allocentric, other-directed tendency, here contextu-
alized within the Russian literary environment, dovetails with specifically
Yiddish literary dynamics according to which this language was con-
strued as the archetypal language of the other, the non-self, or even anti-
self. Two of the chapter headings of Dan Miron’s classic study of the rise
of Yiddish literature in the nineteenth century speak for themselves in
this respect: ‘‘A Language as Caliban’’; ‘‘The Mimic Writer and his ‘little
Jew’.’’ 87
The Yiddish autobiographical self is, by contrast with that of the He-
brew, markedly more contextualized in specific place, sociohistorical set-
ting, family (I speak here of prose texts whose dominant tone is
recognizably autobiographical rather than memoiristic or ethnographic
though they may include aspects of each or both of these latter modal-
ities). Thus the autobiographies of two of the ‘‘classic’’ writers of Yiddish
literature, S. Y. Abramovitsh and Sholem Aleichem, are written in the
third person. That the familial environment is to a significant extent con-
stitutive of the self is accentuated by the naming of the protagonists of
these autobiographies, respectively, Shloyme the son of Khaim, and Sho-
lem the son of Nokhem the son of Vevik. In what is probably the most
widely acclaimed Yiddish autobiography, Daniel Charney’s Barg aruf , 88
Charney entitles the first section ‘‘Family Chronicle’’ (previously pub-
lished as a separate book). The contrast here with the solitary, foundling-
like child of Bialik’s autobiographical Safia . , a text that achieved canoni-
cal status in the annals of Hebrew autobiography and left long shadows
indeed, is telling. Again, there are clear Russian literary parallels here.
Thus Andrew Baruch Wachtel:
85. Andrew Baruch Wachtel, The Battle for Childhood: Creation of a Russian Myth
(Stanford, Calif., 1990), 7–58, esp. 7–15, 36–44.
86. See Lydia Ginzberg, ‘‘Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts and Historical Iden-
tity,’’ in her On Psychological Prose , trans. and ed. J. Rosengrant (Princeton, N.J.,
1991); Jane Gary Harris, Autobiographical Statements in Twentieth-Century Russian
Literature (Princeton, N.J., 1990).
87. See Miron, A Traveler Disguised , contents page.
88. Daniel Charney, Barg aruf: Bleter fun a lebn (Warsaw, 1935).
Rather than beginning their autobiographies with their own memories
. . . Russian autobiographers usually started with a discussion of their
entire family history. In the course of the nineteenth century, there
were at least five autobiographies that bore the subtitle ‘‘A Family
Chronicle’’ and many more in which the phrase was used in the text. 89
This ‘‘being for/with the other’’ rather than ‘‘for myself alone,’’ a self-
conception further fostered by the strong socialist dimension of a signifi-
cant number of Yiddish autobiographies, clearly swerves from the care-
fully constructed paradigm based upon Rousseau’s Confessions that
informed my own study of the origins of Jewish autobiography. If, in-
deed, some of representative Yiddish autobiographers are ‘‘children of
Rousseau,’’ which I would argue they are, it would be more of the frag-
mented, doubled-up ‘‘Rousseau’’ of the Rousseau juge de Jean Jacques: Dia-
logues than of the Rousseau of the Confessions. In grappling with this shift
in perspective, I have been much informed by recent studies of Russian
autobiography, which until very recently, perhaps precisely because of
its departure from the classic models, has been the least studied of the
European national autobiographical traditions. 90
Just as autobiography itself made a belated appearance in Jewish East-
ern Europe, so the critical discourse surrounding autobiography. This is
not to say, though, that there does not exist a sizeable amount of material
tangentially related to the topic. There is, first of all, the material that
may be termed incidental: that is, critical responses to discrete autobio-
graphical writings from the time of their appearance to the present day.
The agglomerate of such critical responses, for example, to M. L. Lilien-
blum’s . att’ot ne‘urim , Mendele/Abramovitsh’s Shloyme reb . ayims , and
other noted examples of the genre would constitute a sizeable bibliogra-
phy. This ‘‘incidental’’ material is not confined to responses to self-
declared autobiographical works but extends to critical discussions of
89. Wachtel, Battle for Childhood , 63.
90. Lejeune, providing a selective bibliographic summary in 1971 of synthetic
treatments of British, American, German, French, and Italian autobiography,
notes that there appears to be no such treatment of Russian autobiography. See
L’Autobiographie , 146. My impression is that the critical discourse surrounding
Russian autobiography remains, by and large, the province of Slavicists and is
yet to be integrated into the general study of the genre. Critical works that seek
to provide pan-European synthetic surveys of autobiographical writing rarely
engage Russian examples, even Tolstoy.
JQR 95:1 (2005)
works clearly infused with autobiographical elements without declaring
themselves as autobiography. This is especially true of Hebrew literature
of the ‘‘Renaissance’’ period, a period unprecedented and without parallel
in autobiographical self-scrutiny in all branches of literature. 91 Such was
the heightened autobiographical sensibility of Hebrew literature of this
period, and later, that much of the contemporaneous critical discourse
devoted to discrete works amounts, in effect, to a theoretical discourse of
autobiography. In the poetic sphere, this is nowhere more manifest than
in expositions upon and explications of Bialik’s writings. Bialik himself
invited speculation concerning the autobiographical elements in the work,
by the constant and on occasion coquettish games of autobiographical
hide-and-seek he played with his readers, both in his prose and his
poetry. That he did play these games is sure indication in and of itself
that some confusion of codes was endemic to the rules of the literary
master-game in which these discrete works find their provenance. 92 Thus
Ya‘akov Fichman, one of the most prolific and significant literary critics
of the ‘‘Renaissance’’ period, writes that the key to Bialik’s poetry lies in
the commingling of autobiography and ‘‘hints of ancient Jewish legend,’’
themselves transformed through the prism of autobiography. 93 In a sepa-
rate piece Fichman mused upon the topic of autobiography in general. 94
Fichman’s formulations, born of profound and engaged reflection on
what is arguably the most ideationally hermetic and aesthetically chaotic
of Bialik’s works, Megillat ha-’esh , and the intuitive intelligence with which
he applies them, are clearly of wider application to the autobiographical
genre. The same is true of the work of subsequent Hebrew literary critics
who address themselves to the autobiographical problematic in Bialik’s
work, foremost among them Dov Sadan, Gershon Shaked, and Dan
Miron. The latter in particular, taking his cue from Sadan, has devoted a
91. See Miron, Bodedim be-mo‘adam , 283–84; Dov Sadan, Ben din le- . eshbon:
Massot ‘al sofrim u-sefarim (Tel Aviv, 1963), 215.
92. See in particular his poem ‘‘ Gam be-hit‘oruto le-‘enekhem ’’ in which Bialik
claims—in a manner that is to my mind unintentionally comical—that even
though he may ‘‘flash,’’ so to speak, and stand naked before his readers, this is a
deliberate strategy of deception, a seeming self-exposure the better to conceal the
true nature of his self. The game is developed when Bialik configures himself in
this poem as a ‘‘lion in hiding’’ behind the lines of his verse: the word used for
‘‘lion’’ comprises the first four letters of his last name. See H. N. Bialik, Kol kitve
(Tel Aviv, 1938), 54–55.
93. Ya‘akov Fichman, Shirat Bialik (Jerusalem, 1946), 209.
94. Ya‘akov Fichman, ‘‘Mashehu’ ‘al ha-’otobiografiah,’’ in his Mussag ha-shi-
rah ha-modernit (Tel Aviv, 1982).
book-length survey to Bialik’s poetry whose central theme is the poet’s
overcoming of psychological and cultural resistances to the autobiograph-
ical compulsion that was the fons et origo of his creativity. 95
Likewise, with respect to the criticism of Hebrew prose, there is the
vast critical discourse devoted to the overridingly autobiographical ele-
ment in the writings of Yosef Hayyim Brenner, which, however com-
plexly refracted, is rarely absent. Brenner’s work has proved fertile
ground for the exploration of autobiographical theory, and continues to
be so to this day. 96 Brenner was a fine literary critic himself, and his
own explorations of the autobiographical lode in the works of Gnessin,
Berdichevsky, Nomberg, inter alios were extraordinarily prescient in their
anticipation of later theoretical developments in the study of the genre. 97
The high degree of attunement of Hebrew literary criticism to the auto-
biographical as manifested in works not declaredly or unequivocally auto-
biographical may in no small part be accredited to the extraordinary level
of intimacy by which the practitioners and consumers—a disproportion-
ate number of whom were also practitioners—of this literature were
bound together in the early decades of the twentieth century. A good
illustration of this intimacy is the widespread usage of the first-person
plural in Hebrew literary criticism: the term ‘‘our literature’’ ( sifrutenu )
becomes a standard substitution for ‘‘Hebrew literature’’ in this discourse;
‘‘our poet’’ ( meshorerenu ) Bialik, that is, who himself referred to his mentor
Ahad Ha‘am as ‘‘Daddy’’; ‘‘our poetry’’ ( shiratenu ), et cetera. 98 It is this
intimacy in the midst of dispersion that forms the leitmotif of Dan Mir-
on’s collective biography of Hebrew literature in the early twentieth cen-
tury; hence the title, Bodedim be-mo‘adam ( When Loners Come Together ;a
play on Is 14.31). A literary environment of what Miron calls ‘‘intimate
loneliness’’ was most conducive to the writing and mutual exchange of
autobiographical texts within the coterie. Thus Gershom Shofman, writ-
ing apropos of his first encounter with Uri Nisan Gnessin, as cited by
95. D. Miron, Ha-peridah min ha-’ani he-‘oni: Mahalakh be-hitpathut shirato ha-
mukdemet shel Hayyim Nahman Bialik 1891–1901 (Tel Aviv, 1986).
96. See Dov Sadan, Midrash psikho’analiti: Perakim ba-psikhologyah shel Y. H.
Brener (Jerusalem, 1996); Ada Zemach, Tenu‘ah ba-nekudah: Brener ve-sipurav (Tel
Aviv, 1984); Menahem Brinker, ‘ Ad hasimtah ha-Teveryanit: Ma’amar ‘al-sippur u-
mahashavah bi-yetsirat Brener (Tel Aviv, 1990).
97. See Sadan, Midrash , 25–71.
98. See Avner Holtzman’s essay ‘‘ Be-yom kayits, yom . om’’ in his Temunah le-
neged enay (Tel Aviv, 2002), esp. 75, where Holtzman notes that Brenner refers in
his correspondence to the Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha‘am as ‘‘our father.’’ For
Ahad Ha‘am as ‘‘Daddy’’ to Bialik, see Bialik, Iggerot .
ayyim Na . man Bialik , ed.
Fishel Lahover, 5 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1937–1939), 1:120.
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Miron in this context: ‘‘This whole business of writing in general is when
it really comes down to it no more than a kind of exchange of letters
between a few fellow-brethren, dispersed and scattered over the surface
of the globe, most of whom do not know each other.’’ 99 In a striking
analogue to the above passage, Shlomoh Grodzensky writes, in an essay
included in his book Otobiografiah shel kore’ ( Autobiography of a Reader ;a
title highly germane in the present context), of awaiting each new story
of Devorah Baron as if it were ‘‘a letter from a distant friend, for further
knowledge of his changing life in faraway lands, with curiosity, good
wishes and pride.’’ 100 Y. H. Brenner, while declaring that he was ‘‘not a
’‘‘genreist,’’ viewed the totality of his writings in various fields as above
all letters :
In all that I write from time to time, be it newspaper articles or in
story-form . . . I do not intend . . . to describe life as it is, as it appears
to an objective and lucid observer. What then? I shall make no bones
about it: letters , that’s all, I write to my close friends about the life of a
man such as myself at that time and about his emotions . . . I only
write letters, in which I relate essentially to whoever is interested, the
impressions that I receive and how I spend my hours and days. 101
Dov Sadan’s evocation of his first encounter with the writings of Brenner
is equally illustrative of Shofman’s above observation: ‘‘I was a young
man when I first discovered Brenner, and I did not so much swallow his
stories, as I was swallowed up by them, to the extent that I imagined, that
they were crying aloud before me: ‘it is of you that the text speaks.’ ’’ 102
The reception of a self-revelatory, autobiographical text may constitute
a self-revelatory moment to the reader/critic, whose written response to
the text may assume a highly autobiographical hue, thus bearing witness
to a transmission of the autobiographical impulse from writer to reader/
critic. Thus the centrality of the autobiographical impulse in the range of
Sadan’s critical writings, to the extent that the literary-critical discourse
often appears subsidiary to the autobiographical. 103
And thus Shlomoh
99. Miron, Bodedim , 106ff.
100. See Shlomo Grodzensky, Otobiografiyah shel kore’ (Tel Aviv, 1975), 94.
101. Yosef Hayyim Brenner, Ketavim , 4 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1978–85), 3:573ff.
102. Sadan, Ben din , 144.
103. The autobiographical element is predominant in many of the essays in-
cluded in Sadan, Ora . ot u-shevilim: Massah, ‘iyyun, . eker (Tel Aviv, 1977). This
book is actually more autobiographical than Shlomoh Grodzensky’s Autobiography
of a Reader .
Grodzensky on the impact made upon him by Sadan’s own autobiograph-
ical volumes devoted to his childhood and youth: 104
The relationship between the reader and the writer is posited within a
context of connections not of our own choosing—the historical period
that fell to our lot, the shared mental horizon of a given generation.
Therefore, a Hebrew reader whose childhood fell in the shadow of
World War I, in characterizing his relationship with Dov Sadan, will
declare—he is my writer, in this intimate sense. For those years, 1914–
1918, were seen by those who were born at the end of the nineteenth
century as sunrise, or as sunset, but for those who were born at the
beginning of the century, this was morning, morning of terror, that
stood under the sign of the impending destruction of the Jews in East-
ern Europe. For whomever this memory is buried in the hidden most
regions of his consciousness, it is inevitable that a special relationship
of fraternity will bind him to those who share this memory. Hebrew
writers whose childhood fell within the arena of World War I consti-
tute a unique body in our literature. It is odd that its literary historians
and critics have still not acknowledged this aspect that unites them. In
several respects they were the last of their kind: the last witnesses of
Jewish life to which World War I dealt the first fatal blow; the last
generation of Hebrew writers to graduate from the traditional Beys-
medresh , when it still stood on a firm basis; and above all, the last gener-
ation of Hebrew literature on European soil ...Inhistwofirst won-
derful volumes of memoirs, the memoirs of his childhood and youth,
Sadan seeks traces of the world as it was in his birthplace, the world
before 1914, and of the shattered, tormented world after that. 105
Such transference of the autobiographical impulse is well illustrated in
Brenner’s depiction, in the novella Mehathalah , of his female protagonist’s
reception of the writings of Feierberg and Berdichevsky:
She searches around for books to read on her desk: the writings of
Feierberg, Mibayit umihuts , Mehe‘avar haqerov 106 —she had already read
all these several times, and had even copied down in her notebook all
of the poetic sections that especially touched her, sometimes also with
104. Dov Sadan, Mi-ma‘agal ha-ne‘urim (Tel Aviv, 1981); idem, Mi-me . oz ha-
yaldut (Tel Aviv, 1981).
105. Grodzensky, Autobiography of a Reader , 181.
106. These two latter titles are of Michah Yosef Berdichevsky’s collections of
strongly autobiographically tinged writings.
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some alteration from masculine to female voice, in order to make the
words her own. 107
Shofman’s epistolary metaphor is also borne out by the intensely self-
revelatory character of much of the vast correspondence generated by
the Hebrew writers of this period, suggestive of a secular substitution for
the rabbinic responsa literature ( she’elot u-tshuvot ). Sometimes, as with
Bialik, Brenner, and Berdichevsky, personal letters effectively consti-
tuted the first draft of published autobiographical texts. 108 Thus the first
letter to be included in Fishel Lachover’s edition of Bialik’s letters consti-
tutes, in effect, an extraordinarily revealing and self-lacerating autobiog-
raphy, in which the influence of the autobiographical texts of Guenzberg
and Lilienblum is clearly discernable. This gigantic epistle—it runs to
twenty-two printed pages—was penned in 1890 when Bialik was at the
Volozhin yeshivah, and it is addressed to a collective audience of the
friends he has left behind in Zhitomir. The letter, one section of which is
entitled with a chapter-heading, ‘‘Retrospective,’’ disrupting the informal
epistolary flow, actually bases itself on a ‘‘book of memoirs’’ that Bialik
has before him at the time of writing and is in the process of editing:
Now I am running my hand over several pages and I have skipped
over many remembrances, whose letters are blurred and many of them
even erased entirely, now my hand is holding one page at the end of
the second chapter, that is the end of ‘‘The Chapter of the Days of
Boyhood’’ and I read: ‘‘The days of youth are close at hand and how
have I prepared myself spiritually for these days?’’ 109
In fact, Shofman’s dictum could be altered to read: ‘‘This whole business
of writing letters is . . . no more than a kind of exchange of autobiographi-
cal literature.’’ Within this literary environment, I would argue, the original
107. Brenner, Ketavim , 2:1782–83.
108. See Bialik, Pirke . ayyim be-’arba‘ girsa’ot , ed. F. Lachover (Jerusalem,
1944); Zivah Shamir, ‘‘ Safi . , shorshav u-sef . av ,’’ in ‘Al ‘‘Safi . ’’ li-Vialik: ha-sippur
‘‘Safi . ’’ u-massot ‘iyyun , ed. Z. Luz and Z. Shamir (Tel Aviv, 2001), 138–43; A.
Zemach, Tenu‘ah ba-nekudah, 96ff.; A. Holtzman, El ha-kera‘ sheba-lev: Mikhah Yosef
Berdichevksky; shenot ha-tsemi . ah (1887–1902) (Jerusalem, 1995), 215–30. And see
Shmuel Werses’s comments on the letter as a means of autobiographical expres-
sion for Sh. D. Luzzato (Shadal), in his essay ‘‘ Shmuel David Lutsato be-‘eyne ‘atsmo:
‘Iyyun be-’iggrotav ha-‘ivriyot,’’ in Werses, Megamot ve-tsurot be-sifrut ha-haskalah
(Jerusalem, 1990), 267–68.
109. Bialik, Iggerot , 1:18–19.
literary texts, the critical response to them, and the actual correspondence
surrounding each may be placed upon a continuum whose dominant fea-
ture is the autobiographical.
This preoccupation with the autobiographical is evinced in twentieth-
century Hebrew and Yiddish literary criticism by the predominance of
biographical considerations in the explication of literary texts. The cen-
trality of the biographical in this literary-critical discourse is attested to
by the central place it held, and holds, in the works of critics of very
different ideological and aesthetic persuasion. For Joseph Klausner, for
example, who himself wrote a two-volume autobiography, 110 biography
serves as the essential structuring principle of his six-volume History of
Modern Hebrew Literature , a work constructed on solidly positivistic foun-
dations ` la Taine and Sainte Beuve. 111 For Klausner’s counterpart in
Yiddish literary criticism, Bal Makhshoves (Eliashev), basing himself on
similarly positivistic foundations, biography constitutes an essential com-
ponent of critical discourse. Biography, likewise, is of equal centrality in
the critical works of Dov Sadan, one of the most outspoken opponents of
Klausner’s literary schema; whereas for Klausner biography provides ac-
cess to facts, for the wildly speculative Sadan biography provides a key
to the cellar of the Freudian subconscious and the Jungian Collective
Unconscious. 112 Shmuel Niger, whose Yiddishist, secularist, and Dias-
pora-centered schema of Yiddish literature provides the ideological coun-
terpoint to that of Sadan, immerses himself in the biography of his
subjects as much as does Sadan and, like Sadan, his explorations are
strongly informed by psychoanalytic technique. Indeed, his most endur-
ing book-length work is his biography of Y. L. Peretz, throughout which
literary-critical and biographical considerations go hand in hand. The
auto/biographical fascination is shared—especially as concerns Bia-
lik—by two of the leading critics of the early decades of the twentieth
century, Ya‘akov Fichman and Fishl Lachover, critics of a very different
stripe: Fichman is one of the foremost representatives of ‘‘impressionist’’
criticism, Lachover of the more analytic, empiricist school. 113 No small
part of the appeal of the exclusively text-centered ‘‘New Criticism’’ in the
Israeli literary-critical field from the 1950s onwards lay in its rejection of
110. Yosef Klausner, Darki li-kerat ha-te . iyyah veha-ge‘ulah , 2 vols. (Tel Aviv,
111. See Klausner, Historiyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit . a- . adashah , 6 vols. (Jeru-
salem 1930–1949), 1:v–vii.
112. See especially the essays on Bialik and Tchernikhovsky in Sadan, Ben din .
113. See Miron, Bodedim , 280.
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the institutionalized biographical paradigm. 114 But, as demonstrated by
Dan Miron, a critic of the New Critical generation, the biographical im-
perative of the literary-critical founding fathers continued to resonate.
Indeed, more than any other single Hebrew and Yiddish literary critic, it
is Miron who has relegitimized the simultaneous reading of literary texts
as aesthetic/linguistic entities in their own right and as autobiographical/
biographical documents; his project thus forms a dialectical continuum
with that of Sadan. 115 Then there are the massive biographical excursions
of Nurit Govrin, and Yitshak Bakon’s biography of the young Brenner,
both of whom draw extensively from the ‘‘fictional’’ constructions/repre-
sentations of their biographees’ writings for the reconstruction of the
life. 116 Of the younger generation of Hebrew literary critics, Avner Holtz-
man’s biographically grounded studies of M. Y. Berdichevsky are of spe-
cial relevance in the present context. 117 Then there is Amia Lieblich’s
feminist, somewhat New Age, ‘‘experimental biography’’ of Deborah
Baron, cast in the form of imaginary conversations between the biogra-
pher and her subject. 118 It is my impression that contemporary Israeli
criticism of Hebrew and Yiddish literature is more biographically ori-
ented than that stemming from America, where Jewish biography has of
late been largely the preserve of historians. 119 This contemporary reorien-
tation to the auto/biographical is further attested by the translation and
republication of Jewish autobiographical/memoiristic documents: David
114. See Miron, Bodedim , 12–13.
115. See Miron’s memoir/literary-critical manifesto, ‘‘ Perek zikhronot min ha-
reublikah ha-sifrutit ,’’ in Bodedim , 9–19.
116. See Nurith Govrin, Me-’ofek el ofek: G. Shofman, . ayyav vi-yetsirato , 2 vols.
(Tel Aviv, 1982); Govrin, Ha-ma . atsit ha-rishonah: Devorah Baron— . ayeha vi-yetsir-
atah (Jerusalem, 1988); Y. Bakon, Brener ha-tsa‘ir , 2 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1975); Hay-
yim Be’er, Gam ahavatam, gam sin’atam: Bialik, Brener, Agnon: ma‘arakhot-ya . asim
(Tel Aviv, 1992).
117. On this literary critic’s fascination with the biographical, see the intro-
duction to his wonderful series of essentially biographical vignettes, Temunah .
Two lengthy essays in this book—they constitute about a half of the entire vol-
ume—are, since they treat of the experiences of the author’s parents, intimately
autobiographical documents.
118. Amia Lieblich, Conversations with Dvora: An Experimental Biography of the
First Modern Hebrew Woman Writer , trans. N. Seidman, ed. Ch. Kronfeld and N.
Seidman (Berkeley, Calif., 1977).
119. Instructive in this respect is that the biographies of both Yehudah Leib
Gordon and Ahad Ha‘am should have been written by historians. See Michael
Stanislawski, For Whom Do I Toil? Judah Leib Gordon and the Crisis of Russian Jewry
(New York, 1968); Steven J. Zipperstein, Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha‘am and the
Origins of Zionism (Berkeley, Calif., 1993).
Assaf’s superbly annotated editions, with extensive introductions, of part
of Yehezkel Kotik’s Mayne zikhroynes 120 and Reb Mordkele’s (Tshemerin-
sky) ‘Ayarati motele ; 121 a projected reissue of Mordechai Aaron Guenz-
berg’s Avi‘ezer based upon manuscript variants of the work by Shmuel
Werses; 122 the publication for the first time of the draft of an autobiogra-
phy of the childhood years by Tchernikhovsky, 123 to list just a few.
Notwithstanding this considerable body of work in and around the
autobiographical and the evident literary/critical fascination with the
topic, very few works have appeared to date that attempt a synthetic
overview of Jewish autobiography, in particular within the context of
Jewish Eastern Europe in whose literary ambience the autobiographical
voice in Hebrew and Yiddish came to the fore. Prolegomena to such a
study appeared at a relatively early stage. The first essay to treat of Jew-
ish autobiography in a comparative context, albeit in a primitive manner
and largely derived from Heinrich Heine’s musing on this topic, was writ-
ten by Meir Halevi Letteris and appeared in 1869. 124 Since then, a num-
ber of essays which move beyond the monographic toward a synthetic
overview of the genre have appeared with some regularity: Berdichev-
sky’s Devarim ‘a . adim ‘al devar ha-toladah veha-’outobiografiah (1889), 125 Bal-
Makhshoves’s Undzer memuarn literatur (1910), 126 Y. Shatzky’s Yidishe
Memuarn Literatur (1925), 127 Sh. Werses’ Darkhe ha-’otobiografiah bi-tekufat
ha-Haskalah (1945). 128 As a complement to this essay, and at a remove of
over a half-century, Werses arrived at a different type of synthesis. In a
120. The English version is reviewed in this issue: Journey to a Nineteenth-Cen-
tury Shtetl: The Memoirs of Yekhezkel Kotik , ed. D. Assaf; trans. M. Birstein, and ed.
S. Makover-Assaf (Detroit, Mich./Tel Aviv, 2002). And see note 121 below.
121. Mah she-ra’iti: Zikhronotav shel Ye . ezkel Kotik , ed., annotated, trans. and
with an introduction by David Assaf (Tel Aviv, 1998); Hayyim Chemerinsky,
‘Ayarati motele , ed., annotated, and with an introduction by Assaf (Jerusalem,
122. See Werses, Hakitsah ‘ami: Sifrut ha-Haskalah be-‘idan ha-modernizatsyah
(Jerusaem, 2000), 430.
123. Shaul Tchernikhovsky, Me’en otobiografiah ,in Sha’ul Tcherni . ovsky: Me . k-
arim u-te‘udot , ed. Boaz Arpaly (Jerusalem, 1994).
124. M. L. Letteris, Zikkaron ba-sefer (Vienna, 1869), 1–8.
125. M. Y. Berdichevsky, ‘‘Devarim a . adim ‘al devar ha-toladah veha-’otobio-
graphiah,’’ Ha‘Ivri 13.27 (December 1889).
126. See Baal-Makhshoves (Isidore Eliashev), Geklibene shriften , 5 vols. (War-
saw, 1929), 3:58–70.
127. Yankev Shatsky, ‘‘ Yidishe memuarn literatur ,’’ Di tsukunft 30 (August
128. Sh. Werses, ‘‘ Darkhe ha-’otobiografiah bi-tekufat ha-Haskalah ,’’ Gilyonot 4
JQR 95:1 (2005)
monograph-length essay entitled ‘‘The Jewish Maskil as a Young Man,’’
he draws a magnificent composite portrait of this ‘‘young man,’’ extrapo-
lated from an array of autobiographical material from the period so vast
that he alone could muster and master it. 129 It should be noted that Werses
himself, when in his late teens, submitted his autobiography to the 1934
competition for youth autobiographies hosted by the YIVO institute in
Vilna. 130 To these I would add David Assaf’s superb introductions to his
translation to Hebrew from the Yiddish of Kotik and to his edition of
Reb Mordkhele, as cited above. Each of these introductions, especially
that to the Kotik volume, place these works within the wider literary/
historical context of Eastern European Jewish autobiography.
To the best of my knowledge, only one book-length literary-critical
study of Jewish autobiography exists to date: Alan Mintz’s ‘‘Banished from
Their Father’s Table’’: Loss of Faith and Hebrew Autobiography . 131 The body of
Mintz’s book is devoted to highly intelligent, close, and provocative read-
ings of five texts: Geunzberg’s Avi‘ezer ; Lilienblum’s . att’ot ne‘urim ;M.Z.
Feierberg’s Le’an ; Berdichevsky’s ‘Orva’ para . ; Y. H. Brenner’s Ba- . oref
(In Winter). It is not these individual readings I shall address in the
present context, but the methodological and literary/historical framework
of Mintz’s treatment. Since Mintz’s is the most recent and the most com-
prehensive attempt at a synthetic overview of the phenomenon of Jewish
autobiography in Eastern Europe, I shall dwell on it in some detail.
As is apparent from the title, Mintz is concerned with Hebrew autobi-
ography insofar as this reflects, and reflects upon, the paradigmatic expe-
rience of post-Haskalah Hebrew writers: the loss of religious faith, a loss
rendered all the more devastating by a corresponding disaffection with
the ideological tenets of the Haskalah itself. Not only do the texts that
Mintz studies give account of this crisis of faith, but their very creation
is contingent upon this crisis, the loss of faith being the matrix, according
to Mintz, from which Hebrew autobiography derives:
The attempt in Hebrew literature to represent and explore the shape
of experience in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of faith is the
129. Sh. Werses, ‘‘Ha-maskil ha-yehudi ke-’ish tsa‘ir,’’ in idem, Hakitsah ‘ami ,
130. On these autobiography competitions, see the anthology, with an intro-
duction, Jeffrey Shandler, ed., Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in
Poland before the Holocaust (New Haven, Conn., 2002); Marcus Moseley, ‘‘Life,
Literature: Autobiographies of Jewish Youths in Interwar Poland,’’ Jewish Social
Studies 7.3 (2001).
131. Alan Mintz, ‘‘Banished from Their Father’s Table’’: Loss of Faith and Hebrew
Autobiography (Bloomington, Ind., 1989).
subject of the present study. I shall argue that the need to tell this story
resulted in the creation of a new mode of writing in Hebrew prose
narrative—the autobiography, both inside and outside of fiction. 132
Mintz views the turn to the autobiography as expressive of a perceived
dissonance between the sentimental and melodramatic conventions of the
novelistic genre in Hebrew, as these had developed into the final decades
of the nineteenth century, and the urgent compulsion to render accounts
with the existential dead-end in which this post-Haskalah generation of
writers found themselves. Thus the belated incorporation of the Rous-
seauian confessional into Hebrew literary discourse, as mediated through
the example of Solomon Maimon, responds to the need for ‘‘an alternative
tradition of narrative prose writing which could take on life closer to
the bone.’’ 133 Mintz argues, very much as I have done above, that the
Rousseauian turn is as unprecedented in Hebrew literary history as it is
in that of major European literatures; hence the cardinal significance of
Solomon Maimon’s Lebensgeschichte as a precursor for the recasting of
Eastern European Jewish life through the eyes of the modern autobiog-
rapher. The majority of Haskalah autobiographies, as surveyed in
Werses’s programmatic essay, Mintz excludes from consideration as
being overly dry, and more of interest for the biographical information
these shed upon their authors than as literary autobiography. Mintz’s
dismissal of these texts is somewhat breezy: Sh. D. Luzzatto, after all, did
introduce that ‘‘dangerous supplement,’’ masturbation/nocturnal emis-
sion—the distinction is subtle—to Hebrew autobiographical discourse, 134
and the autobiographies of S. J. Fuenn and A. Gottlober are not, I think,
devoid of interest even to those uninterested in their authors. But he is
surely correct in singling out Guenzberg’s Avi‘ezer and Lilienblum’s . att’ot
ne‘urim as marking the high points of Haskalah autobiography and indeed
the ones that most closely approximate the Rousseauian paradigm. 135 And
these two texts were of immeasurably greater influence in shaping He-
brew autobiographical discourse than were any others of the period. Li-
lienblum, Guenzberg, and other Haskalah figures wrote what Mintz
defines as ‘‘ ‘straight’ autobiographies.’’ 136 That is:
132. Mintz, Banished, 5.
133. Mintz, Banished ,6
134. See Yehudah Ha’ezrahi, ‘‘ Toldot shadal ,’’ Melilah 5 (Manchester, 1955),
135. Mintz, Banished , 14–15.
136. Mintz, Banished, 130–31.
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In the Haskalah autobiography, the author of the work and the retro-
spective narrator of the story are presumably the same person. The
Lilienblum who tells the story of his life in Sins of Youth presents himself
as the same Lilienblum who lived the life and now exists as a real
public person. 137
In Mintz’s scheme of things, the ‘‘Renaissance’’ ( Te . iyyah ) period of
Hebrew literature was accompanied by a crucial transformation in He-
brew autobiographical discourse: autobiography now ‘‘crossed over into
fiction.’’ 138 He appears to view this chiasma as a positive development in
the history of the genre. Now that the writer—I hesitate to say ‘‘autobiog-
rapher’’—is not to be identified with the retrospective narrator of his life-
story, he is given
the opportunity to ironize the distance between himself and the narra-
tor, who can then be tinged by various degrees of unreliability. This is
a freedom, we shall see, of which both Berdichevsky and Brenner take
full advantage . . . Fiction writers such as Brenner . . . violated the
autobiographical compact for the sake of higher autobiographical
truth. 139
Thus the majority of Mintz’s study is devoted to what he himself terms
‘‘fictional texts,’’ ‘‘novels and novellas.’’ In order to build a bridge between
these ‘‘fictions’’ and ‘‘ ‘straight’ autobiography,’’ and thus justify their
treatment under one rubric—‘‘the Hebrew autobiographical tradition’’—
Mintz points to literary/historical, formal, and thematic commonalities
that bind the texts under consideration together. First he points to an
implicit or explicit intertextual ‘‘interdependence’’ between the Hebrew
texts he focuses upon, with the weight of his evidence inhering in the last
of the series of texts he analyzes, Brenner’s Ba- . oref : ‘‘The true sign that
these works comprise an identifiable and self-consciously organized tradi-
tion is indicated by the intertextual nature of Brenner’s autobiographical
first novel In Winter .’’ 140
Second, there is a shared ‘‘formal axis’’ to the works he examines: ‘‘the
autobiographical premise of self-portraiture and retrospective narrative.’’
This ‘‘formal axis,’’ it should be noted, does not preclude a third-person
137. Mintz, Banished, 16.
138. Mintz, Banished, 16.
139. Mintz, Banished, 16, 22.
140. Mintz, Banished, 17.
narrative, such as that of Feierberg’s Le’an . Last, there is a ‘‘thematic axis’’
that unites these disparate texts into a discernible Hebrew ‘‘confessional
tradition’’: ‘‘What we have called in a kind of shorthand the apostasy
narrative . . ., which describes a young man’s break with religion, family,
and community, and his attempts to live in a world empty of those beliefs
and institutions.’’ 141 A further thematic axis in Mintz’s treatment is consti-
tuted by the account of the adolescent/young man’s psychological and
existential crises engendered by sexual/erotic complexes. Whether this
‘‘axis’’ or ‘‘code’’ falls squarely within the ‘‘apostasy narrative’’ or is an
additional axis/narrative, related but independent in its own right, is not
entirely clear. 142
Thus defined, or better perhaps, qualified, Hebrew autobiography is of
an essentially transient character: ‘‘a brief but significant moment in
which the crisis of Judaism in the modern age was given a very specific
literary expression.’’ 143 According to this model, the crisis of faith ceases
to constitute the catalyst in the individual life of Jewish writers/autobiog-
raphers of later generations; autobiography is no longer quickened by the
‘‘narrative of apostasy’’ with its attendant erotic correlates. The genre
thus becomes impoverished, evincing ‘‘a clear withdrawal from a commit-
ment to individualized introspection and introspectiveness.’’ Now, autobi-
ographies that seek to recreate the Eastern European Jewish childhood,
sans crisis of faith, tend to retreat from the ‘‘existential’’ to the ‘‘ethno-
graphic.’’ 144 Jewish autobiographers who recount their coming-of-age in
the midst of cataclysmic historical events—World War I and all that fol-
lowed it—tend to become reduced as individuals by the sheer magnitude
of the events to which they bear witness. Those who emerged from this
historical maelstrom to positions of leadership tend to dwell on the public
persona rather than the individual self. 145 In sum, with one or two excep-
tions that prove the rule, the stream of modern Jewish autobiography
effectively flows into the memoir.
Mintz provides a bold and far-reaching explanatory model for the phe-
nomenon of Eastern European Jewish autobiography, especially in its
Hebrew manifestation. My major equivocations arise from the texts
Mintz chooses to include, and exclude, from the highroad of Hebrew
autobiographical expression as he defines it. Of the five texts he selects
141. Mintz, Banished, 18.
142. Mintz, Banished, 117–18.
143. Mintz, Banished, 203.
144. Mintz, Banished, 203.
145. Mintz, Banished, 204.
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for close scrutiny, only two—those of Lilienblum and Guenzberg—are
actual autobiographies, and these are dealt with in a single chapter that
constitutes, approximately, but a quarter of the book. Mintz himself
draws attention to this distinction pointedly by entitling the section of his
work that discusses Feierberg and Berdichevsky ‘‘Into Fiction.’’ And in
discussing the relationship between Lilienblum’s . att’ot ne‘urim and Bren-
ner’s Ba- . oref , he writes:
At bottom the two works are separated by a fundamental fact of genre:
one is an autobiography and the other is a novel. One purports to be a
true story, no matter how artfully crafted, told by the person about
himself in his own words; the other, though written in the first person
and based on personal history, is a fiction about a protagonist who is
not identical with the author. 146
To be sure, the precise lines of demarcation between autobiography and
‘‘fiction’’ are highly unstable and blurred—employment of novelistic tech-
nique in the recounting of the life-history, is, as argued above, endemic
to the genre 147 —all the more so at this particular juncture of Hebrew and
Yiddish literary discourse; it is a far less complicated matter, for example,
to establish the essentially fictional status of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe ,
Dickens’s David Copperfield , Bronte’s Jane Eyre , and later Thomas Mann’s
Felix Krull (even though these all declare themselves as autobiographies
and are written in this format) than it is to establish where autobiography
ends and fiction begins, and vice versa, in the first-person narratives of
Berdichevsky, Brenner, and others. In fact, the autobiographical element
in Brenner’s writing, for one, is so all-engulfing that it could be argued,
and has been, that the fictional status of his fiction is a fiction: the name
of the protagonist and narrator of Ba- . oref , Fayerman (‘‘Fireman’’), is,
after all, a transparent allusion to Brenner (‘‘incendiary’’). 148 More
broadly, it could be argued that Brenner here is paradigmatic of a larger
generic shift in the Hebrew literature of his day marked by the subsump-
tion of the fictional to the autobiographical, rather than vice versa. Thus
146. Mintz, Banished, 130.
147. Mintz himself actually pioneered in his analysis of the literary rhetorics
of so seemingly an objective, heavily documented reconstruction of the life as
Lilienblum’s . att’ot ne‘urim . See Mintz, Banished, 29–54. Ben Ami Feingold, fol-
lowing Mintz’s lead, further reveals the novelistic undergirdings of this text. See
his Ha-’otobiografiah ke-sifrut in Me . kere yerushalayim be-sifrut ‘ivrit (Jerusalem,
1983), 4:86–111.
148. See Sadan, Midrash , 25–31.
Dov Sadan on this generation of writers for whom Michah Yosef Berdi-
chevsky was the founding father and Brenner the paradigmatic represen-
tative (in contradistinction to Mendele before them, and Agnon and
Hazaz after them), a generation lacking the art that these latter writers
were endowed with and enjoyed/employed: ‘‘creative transformations’’
( gilgule yetsirah ):
A generation of writers that did not see and did not show anything
other than themselves, the Jewish individual in his orphanhood and
tribulations . . . A generation that is capable of metamorphosing the
self and the experiences of the self by artistic transformations and
transpositions of character by means of the liberation of autobiographi-
cal materials is not the same as a generations that is incapable of this,
even though both draw the source of their creation from within. 149
This line of approach is not, however, adopted by Mintz, so it is strange
that over a third of a book whose subject is autobiography should be
devoted to a text separated from autobiography ‘‘by a fundamental fact
of genre.’’ This generic/definitional confusion is compounded by the fact
that Mintz understands autobiography by and large as formally deter-
mined: a first-person retrospective text that tells of the life of the narrator,
regardless of historical/biographical identity or nonidentity between the
narrator and author. (Thus Sholem Aleichem’s first-person monologue
Motel peyse dem khazans yingl may be construed as autobiography). 150 But
Feierberg’s Le’an , ‘‘whose place in the autobiographical enterprise is as-
sured by the fact that in his work the central moment of apostasy receives
its fullest articulation,’’ 151 is actually a third-person narrative relating the
crisis of faith of a protagonist, ‘‘Nahman the madman,’’ who dies at the
end of the tale, which means that if this is an autobiography it constitutes
literally ‘‘ m´moires d’outre-tombe ,’’ as Chateaubriand, deliberately employ-
ing a fictional conceit, entitled his autobiography. As with Brenner, it
is clear that Feierberg’s autobiographical investment in this account is
immense. But Nahman the madman’s life differs in some key respects
with what we know of that of Feierberg—most notably in the relatively
positive, or at least nuanced, depiction of the father-figure in the tale by
contrast to the fanatical sadist of a father that emerges from the memoirs
149. See Sadan, Ora . ot u-shevilim (Tel Aviv, 1978), 130
150. Mintz, Banished , 203
151. Mintz, Banished, 59
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of Feierberg’s contemporaries. 152 If one were to insist upon the primarily
autobiographical kernel of Le’an , one might take recourse to Freudian
psychology and explain this discrepancy as overcompensation for Oedi-
pal rage or some such. This is actually what Dov Sadan does in account-
ing for the polarized coexistence in Brenner’s writings, whose primarily
autobiographical nature he insists upon, of the excoriated and idealized
father-figure. 153 Mintz, however, does not seem concerned with mooring
Feierberg’s narrative to autobiographical reality; concerning the discrep-
ancy between the represented and real-life father in Le’an , Mintz writes:
Is not the sort of confessional act distinguished by its psychological
realism; and Nahman is not the kind of autobiographical hero who is
driven to understand how his identity emerged out of conflict with his
parents and to settle scores for the price he was made to pay. The
figure of the father lies much closer to myth than gritty reality. 154
This is confusing: a ‘‘confessional act’’ lacking of ‘‘psychological real-
ism’’ and without biographical grounding is surely compromised one way
or the other. All the more so, an autobiographical confessional act that in
the account of the formative years of childhood eschews the ‘‘gritty real-
ity’’ of bios in favor of ‘‘myth.’’ Are, for example, Tolstoy’s A Confession
and his Kreutzer Sonata , both of whose forms are confessional, to be read
at the same autobiographical frequency? Here, as elsewhere in his study,
Mintz actually seems to operate according to essentially New Critical
criteria according to which the novel is somehow on a higher plane than
the autobiography. 155 The teleological trajectory of his study traces the
quasi-Hegelian ‘‘sublation’’ of autobiography by the novel, of the docu-
mentary and nonfictional by the fictional. He thus appears to be in essen-
tial agreement with the hypostasized ‘‘novelist,’’ who, he writes (apropos
of Brenner’s achievement),
may well argue that the truth he reaches for is deeper and even more
autobiographically authentic than the literal-minded adherences of bio-
graphical writing, and indeed the canons of the novel genre leave him
152. See Sh. Werses, ‘‘ . averim mesapperim ‘al Feierberg,’’ in idem, Mi-Men-
dele ‘ad Hazaz: sugiyot be-hitpat . ut ha-sipporet ha-‘ivrit (Jerusalem 1987), 119–36.
153. Sadan, Perakim , 80–99.
154. Mintz, Banished, 83–84.
155. For general discussions of the dilemmas posed by autobiography to New
Criticism and vice versa, see Marcus, Auto/biographical Discourses, index under
‘‘New Criticism’’; Lejeune, Pour l’autobiographie , 11–40.
free to work unencumbered in the space between biographical facts
and fictional representations. 156
It is the ‘‘study of how life is transformed into art, the quality of the
alteration, not the quantity’’ 157 that impels Mintz’s study—and note that
this is the polar opposite of Sadan’s assessment of Brenner and his con-
freres. Consistent with this, Mintz finds fault with Brenner’s Ba- . oref
when the existential howls of anguish of the narrator shatter the aesthetic
harmony of the artistic construct:
Sentences either end abruptly with exclamation marks or trail off un-
finished . . . This is writing as existential howl. Ejaculations abound;
‘‘oh’s’’ and ‘‘woe’s’’ stud the page . . . In sum, the canons of craft and
discipline set up by Brenner throughout the novel would urge us to
judge chapter 33 not as an excrescence of insight but simply as bad
writing. Its badness derives from its giving way to feeling. It is not as
if the wretchedness of spirit is not real—it is. 158
From the point of view of the novel, the well-wrought literary artifact,
Mintz may well be right; Montaigne entertained similar reservations con-
cerning the laying of the self bare in writing: ‘‘Is it . . . reasonable?,’’ he
That I should expose to a world in which grooming has such credit
and artifice such authority the crude and simple effects of Nature—and
of such a weakling nature too? Is writing a book without knowledge
or art not like building a wall without stones and so on? 159
From the point of view of autobiography, the shattering of aesthetic
norms upon impact with the expressive/confessional imperative may con-
stitute a high point of Ba- . oref. Indeed, it is a marker of many of Brenner’s
other writings whose singularity lies precisely in this recurring, and often
rude, intrusion of the ‘‘gritty reality’’ of the ‘‘I’’ of the author at the time
of writing. Chapter 33 (chapter 34, in my edition) may or may not be bad
writing. Yet to my mind one of the most unforgettable and disturbing
156. Lejeune, Pour l’autobiographie , 130.
157. Lejeune, Pour l’autobiographie , 130.
158. Lejeune, Pour l’autobiographie , 201.
159. Michel de Montaigne, ‘‘On Repenting,’’ in idem, The Complete Essays ,
trans., ed., and with an introduction by M. A. Screech (Harmondsworth, 1991),
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images in the book occurs in this chapter: the sack and its insect-filled
interior, partially smeared with honey, that the narrator imagines tied
over his head. 160 Either way, bad writing may make good autobiography,
and vice versa. Hence Bialik, whose standards for aesthetic harmony and
Hebrew linguistic integrity were highly exacting, made allowances for
Brenner’s excesses. While critical of the ‘‘stylistic sloppiness’’ and ‘‘archi-
tectural flaws’’ of Brenner’s Misaviv ha-nekudah, Bialik writes, 161 ‘‘But
what do I care about ‘literary theory,’ if I see before me a living soul,
ardent emotion and fiery intellect penetrating each line and writhing in
each and every letter.’’ 162
Indeed, it could be argued that overattention to autobiography as aes-
thetic artifice, while making for ‘‘good’’ literature, may even detract from
the autobiographical value of a work that lies in presence/immediacy of
the self of the writer to the self of the reader. Thus, for example, I find
Bialik’s autobiographical letter to Joseph Klausner, and his earlier auto-
biographical letters from Volozhin, which formed the blueprint for his
Safi . , more compelling than the latter work as autobiography, even
though Safi . , in terms of style, tropology, symbolic motifs, and so forth,
is infinitely richer. As autobiography, Safi . is, to my mind, overblown,
on occasion rhetorically, emotionally, and referentially excessive to the
point of inducing vertigo or even nausea; its very literariness ‘‘conceals’’
where the letters ‘‘reveal,’’ to adopt Bialik’s terminology in his Gilui ve-
khissui be-lashon , whose central problematic is the function of language as
‘‘defence’’ or barrier to transparency of the self to self/self to other. 163
That literary sophistication may lie, though does not do so of necessity,
in inverse proportion to autobiographical expression is also demonstrated
by the YIVO youth autobiographies, many of whose authors are quite
candid in drawing attention to their lack of literary finesse, even of full
command of the language in which they write:
I am sure that you will find my work very useful, although the language
is perhaps not very good. But this isn’t my fault, as I never attended a
160. See Brenner, Ba- . oref , in his Ketavim , 4:262–63.
161. Brenner had submitted the piece to Ha-shiloa . , where Bialik was then
literary editor.
162. As cited by Werses in his Bikoret ha-bikoret: ha-‘arakhot ve-gilgulehem (Tel
Aviv, 1982), 126. And compare A. D. Friedman: ‘‘Surely one cannot demand of
the man standing up and confessing before you, that he pay heed to the external
form of his confession!’’ as cited by Sadan, Midrash , 31.
163. See Zamir, ‘‘Safi . ,’’ as cited above. And on Gilui ve-khissui , see Nathan
Rotenstreich, ‘‘ ‘Al Gilui ve-khissui be-lashon’’ in his Sugiyot be-filosofiyah (Tel Aviv,
1961), 398–408.
Yiddish school, and therefore my writing is full of mistakes—please
take this into account. If you can, please send me some material that
will teach me how to write Yiddish well. 164
That autobiographical imperative and literary/aesthetic considerations
may clash may also be evinced in autobiographical texts of highly sophis-
ticated litterateurs ; thus the paranoid Rousseau of the later books of the
Confessions , who confesses, ‘‘Now, the disturbances of my later life have
become too unpleasant to be capable of straightforward narration . . . my
story can only proceed at haphazard, according as the ideas come back
into my mind.’’ 165 And in his introduction to Rousseau Judge of Jean Jacques:
Dialogues , ‘‘On the Subject and Form of this Writing’’:
What I had to say was so clear and I felt it so deeply that I am amazed
by the tediousness, repetitiousness, verbiage and disorder of this writ-
ing . . . Seeing the excessive length of these dialogues, I tried several
times to prune them, eliminate the frequent repetitions and introduce
some order and continuity . . . It is impossible for me to retain anything,
collate two sentences, and compare two ideas . . . I am even forced to
abandon multitudes of ideas that are better or better expressed than
those which are here, ideas I had scribbled on scraps of paper hoping
I could easily incorporate them . . . After all I have said just about
everything I had to say. It is drowned in a chaos of disorder and repeti-
tions, but it is there. 166
Within the context of Jewish autobiography, a similar phenomenon may
be observed in what, to my mind, is one of the most significant and pow-
erfully affecting contemporary Jewish autobiographies: Amos Oz’s Sippur
‘al ahavah ve- . oshekh (Tale of love and darkness), a work that in terms of
literary structure is diffuse, rambling, frequently repetitive, on occasion
even jejune. Oz himself, in a metareflective passage quite similar to that
of Rousseau, notes this:
An uncompleted chapter of this book awaits me on my table in a heap
of scribbled drafts, crumpled slips and half pages full of erasures: this
is the chapter on Teacher Isabella Nahalieli from the ‘‘Homeland of the
Child’’ school and about her whole army of cats. I will have to make a
164. See Jeffrey Shandler, ed., Awakening Lives , 296, and compare ‘‘Forget Me
Not’’ in Awakening Lives, 123.
165. Rousseau, Confessions , 574.
166. Rousseau Judge of Jean Jacques: Dialogues: Dialogues ,5–6.
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few omissions and to erase from the chapter several cat-incidents and
several episodes about Getsel Nahalieli, the clerk; to be sure, these
were entertaining incidents, but they contribute nothing to the progres-
sion of the narrative. Contribute? Progression? As if I even knew at
this point what would contribute to the progression of the story, as if I
had the faintest idea whither this story wants to go, and why, in fact,
there is any need for contributions? Or progression? 167
I think that Mintz’s implicit preference for literary over autobiographi-
cal achievement leads him to considerably underestimate the scale and
significance of the autobiographical phenomenon in Hebrew and Yiddish
literary discourse. He treads the highways of Hebrew literature; but a
short detour in the byways reveals a very considerable group of Hebrew
and Yiddish autobiographers who barely figure, if at all, on today’s ca-
nonical literary map: Kotik, as mentioned above, A. A. Friedman, Buki
Ben Yogli (Katznelson), R. Brainin, Rabbi Binyamin (Radler-Feldman),
P. Hirshbein, M. Ravich (Bergner), A. Almi (Sheps), and the list could
well continue. Some of these, moreover, do in fact reflect upon the crisis
of faith, as do many of the YIVO autobiographers, writing well after
Brenner in the 1930s. Of course, it would be virtually impossible to in-
clude discussions of every single one of these autobiographies in a syn-
thetic analysis of the topic; were such a study to be undertaken, it would
result in a multivolume work on the scale of that of Misch. And the gener-
alization certainly does hold, both in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, that
the drift in the first half of the twentieth century is from the autobio-
graphical to the memoiristic end of the life-writing spectrum. Yet to claim
that, with several exceptions that prove the rule, the history of Hebrew
and Yiddish autobiography is essentially exhausted by the five autobio-
graphical texts that Mintz discusses at length, after which the individual
autobiographical voice is reabsorbed by and into the ‘‘normative,’’ ‘‘unre-
mittingly collective’’ ‘‘mode of Jewish literature,’’ 168
is surely a misread-
ing, albeit, pace Harold Bloom, a strong one.
This restriction of purview is further restricted by Mintz’s thematic
insistence upon the crisis of faith/erotic complex as necessary components
of Jewish autobiography. First of all, it is extremely problematic to define
autobiography, or the novel come to that, by its content. While it is true
that with the protracted waning of the nineteenth century, the crisis of
faith recedes from a central position in the lives, experienced and written,
167. See Amos Oz, Sippur ‘al ahavah ve- . oshekh , 351.
168. See Mintz, Banished , 206.
of many Hebrew/Yiddish autobiographers 169 —and, more generally in
those of Jews and non-Jews writing in other languages—this does not
mean that Hebrew/Yiddish autobiography effectively ceased to exist after
Brenner’s Ba- . oref , a work, Mintz writes, ‘‘whose authority seems to ex-
haust the possibilities of a genre and discourage further attempts at devel-
opment.’’ 170 Within the wider context of literary/historical dynamics, it
would be strange indeed if such were the case: surely the pinnacles of
literary achievement provide fecund models for emulation that do not
stultify. Otherwise, the English sonnet, not to mention the historical
drama, may well have disappeared from the literary landscape after
Shakespeare; the Russian novel, after Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoyev-
sky. In Hebrew literature, for example, Bialik’s autobiographical account
of his childhood in a Ukrainian village, Safi . , provided the ‘‘model par
excellence,’’ not only for the childhood accounts of those of his own gen-
eration, who preserved memories of similar Eastern European childhood
landscapes, but also ‘‘anomalously,’’ as Ziva Shamir and Tsvi Luz point
For the childhood narratives of the members of the generation of the
struggle for independence (Hanokh Bartov, Binyamin Tammuz, and
latterly even S. Yizhar), for those of the generation of statehood (Am-
alia Kahana Karmon, Yitshaq Orpaz, Yehoshua Kenaz, Ruth Almog
and others) and up to the childhood narratives of Hayim Be’er and
those younger than him. 171
Amos Oz, whose above-mentioned autobiography is especially redolent
of the Bialik childhood of Safi . , may now be added to their number.
And yet, notwithstanding the extraordinarily long duration of Safi . in
Hebrew autobiographical discourse, Bialik is banished from the table of
Mintz’s autobiographers:
169. In the post–World War II center for Hebrew literature, Israel, the con-
version from Orthodox Judaism to secular belles-lettres as characterized by the
Eastern European period has until today been rare, thus altering the entire com-
plexion of all forms of Hebrew prose and poetry. The ‘‘secularizing of the sacral
and sacralizing of the secular,’’ in Bialik’s formulation, was a defining characteris-
tic of Hebrew and Yiddish literature in the Eastern European period. See Bialik,
in ‘‘ Gillui ve-khissui be-lashon,’’ in Kitve H. N. Byalik (Tel Aviv, 1935), 2:229. And
see Sadan, ‘‘ Ben kodesh le- . ol,’’ in Ora . ot , 132–40.
170. Mintz, Banished , 205
171. Luz and Shamir, eds., ‘Al ‘‘Safi . ,’’ 9.
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Even the one gem of Bialik’s prose that is genuinely autobiographical,
‘‘Aftergrowth’’ ( Safi . ) falls outside the bounds of the present study
because it is attached to a wholly different tradition which is concerned
with the birth of the imagination in the child rather than the loss of
faith and its consequences in later life. 172
This exclusion from within the canon on thematic grounds of so central a
work surely undercuts Mintz’s more global claims for the indispensability
of the ‘‘apostasy narrative’’ in his epistemological framework for the un-
derstanding of the Jewish autobiographical phenomenon. Furthermore,
one cannot help but wonder at the lack of mention of another writer of
canonical status whose works would seem to fall very squarely within the
autobiography/apostasy/eros rubric—Isaac Bashevis Singer, the son of a
rabbi, and his obsessively autobiographical quest to ravel and unravel the
weave of loss of faith/erotic cravings/mortality sans afterlife. 173
All of the above leads me to question to what extent Mintz’s book really
is about autobiography. That is, of the threefold cord—autobiography/
apostasy/eros—it seems to me that autobiography is of subsidiary interest
and significance here. Mintz’s book finds an interesting analogue in the
essays of Barukh Kurzweil, for whom the defining and definitive crisis of
modern Hebrew literature is the loss of faith, both in God and in any
secular/humanist ideological substitutions for this loss. In tracing this the-
matic trajectory Kurzweil actually highlights the same texts as does
Mintz: Lilienblum’s despair with both religion and Haskalah as docu-
mented in . att’ot ne‘urim paved the way for Feierberg’s quintessential
encapsulation of the personal/national dimensions of this ‘‘double trag-
edy’’ in Le’an ; Berdichevsky in ‘Orva’ para . and Brenner in Ba- . oref , ad-
vancing further along the path to nihilism with Nietzsche as guide or will-
o’-the-wisp, probe the erotic complications arising in the wake of apos-
tasy. Kurzweil claims that the religious/existential ‘‘double tragedy’’ as
experienced by these writers—Brenner is a particular favorite and adver-
sary of his—served as the matrix for the high points of modern Hebrew
literary creativity, and that subsequently, with the loss of the loss of faith
element, this literature became much impoverished. This is essentially
what Mintz writes with respect to Hebrew autobiography. And finally,
Kurzweil, while noting on frequent occasions the confessional nature of
the texts he elucidates, is less concerned with their generic status as indi-
172. Mintz, Banished , 18.
173. See Khone Shmeruk, ‘‘Yitshok Bashevis: Af di shpurn fun zayn oytobio-
grafie,’’ Di goldene keyt 115 (Tel Aviv, 1985), 14–27.
vidual documents vecus than with the perspective these writings afford
on collective, generational, and national crisis. 174
The above critical engagement with Alan Mintz’s book has provided
me with an occasion for dialogue with myself, as much as anything else. I
have no doubt that subjection of my own work to such systematic analysis
would, and will, reveal no fewer self-contradictions in my own choice of
texts, modes of explication, criteria. But that is perhaps proper to the
ultimate aporia of the subject, ‘‘subject’’ in the sense both of ‘‘self’’ and
‘‘topic’’: the unknowability that is both the catalyst for the autobiographi-
cal project and the defining outer limit of its attainability. An ‘‘aporia’’ no
better put, nor unput, than by Beckett:
Where now? Who now? When now? Unbelieving. Questions. Hypothe-
ses, call them that . . . I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not
about me. These general remarks to begin with. What am I to do, what
shall I do, what should I do in my situation, how proceed? By aporia
pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as ut-
tered, or sooner, or later? Generally speaking. There must be other
shifts. Otherwise it would be quite hopeless. But it is quite hopeless. I
should mention before going any further, any further on, that I say
aporia without knowing what it means. 175
Georges Gusdorf has written that the ‘‘original sin of autobiography is
first one of logical coherence and rationalization.’’ 176 Looking back at it, I
believe that this is precisely the ‘‘original sin’’ of my own work, and per-
haps of all studies that seek to scrutinize, define, or, in Bob Dylan’s
words, ‘‘analyze,’’ ‘‘categorize,’’ or ‘‘finalize’’ 177 this protean form of litera-
ture that, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, continues to as-
sume so increasing a predominance in Jewish literature in all languages.
174. See Baruch Kurzweil, ‘‘Be’ayot yesod shel sifrutenu ha- . adashah’’ and
‘‘Ha-hashpa’ah shel filosifiyat ha- . ayyim ‘al ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit bit . ilat ha-me’ah
ha-20,’’ in his Sifrutenu ha- . adashah: hemshekh o mahpekhah? (Tel Aviv, 1959),
175. Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (New York, 1958), 3–4.
176. See Georges Gusdorf, ‘‘Conditions and Limits of Autobiography’’ in
Olney, ed., Autobiography , 41.
177. Taken from the song ‘‘All I Really Want to Do.’’ The pertinent verse
runs: ‘‘I ain’t looking to block you up, / Shock or knock or lock you up, / Analyze
you, categorize you, / Finalize you or advertise you.’’ See Bob Dylan, Lyrics 1962–
1985 (New York, 1985), 129.