Kovner, Abraham Uri

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KOVNER, ABRAHAM URI (1842–1909), Hebrew writer and pioneer of modern Hebrew literary criticism. Born in Vilna, Kovner studied at various yeshivot in Lithuania and was ultimately attracted to secular studies. He was married at the age of 18, but left his wife in order to pursue his studies of Russian and the sciences. He was influenced in particular by the Russian radical writers. In 1862 he began publishing articles in the Hebrew press, and two essays, "Davar el Soferei Yisrael" and "Lo Shalom ve-Lo Emet" on Hebrew literature, appeared in Ha-Meliẓ. In these he takes the Hebrew authors of his day to task for writing inconsequential poetry and calls on them to write novels and works dealing with science and history. In 1865 he published a collection of essays, Ḥeker Davar, in which he attacked the narrow, romantic confines of the Haskalah literature. Kovner contends that the Haskalah Hebrew literature is devoid of any contact with contemporary life, has no readers, and deals with irrelevancies of the ancient past or with meaningless phraseology. Translations of scientific works are made, he avers, by men who are ignorant of science or of the language in which the work was written. Belles lettres and literary criticism, which are the mainstays of other literatures, are completely lacking in Hebrew. A small number of writers are exceptions to the rule, such as I.B. *Levinsohn, I.S. *Reggio, H.S. *Slonimski, and A. *Mapu whose novel Ayit Zavu'a (1857) depicts contemporary life. Unaware that J. *Perl is the author of Megalleh Temirin (1819) and Boḥen Ẓaddik (1838), he nevertheless praises these anti-ḥasidic satires. In the final essay he attacks the Hebrew press for concentrating on antiquities and ignoring contemporary life. His sharpest criticism comes at the end of the book, where he declares that all of Hebrew and Yiddish literature is merely a transitional phase and that in Russia, as in the West, Jewish literature "will be written in the language of the country and will flourish in it."

Ḥeker Davar aroused bitter controversy, and A.B. *Gottlober, *Mendele Mokher Seforim, and others took issue with Kovner. They did not enter into a substantive debate but simply called him a "nihilist" and accused him of sacrilege. Kovner reacted with great vehemence, and denounced Ha-Meliẓ to the Russian authorities, charging that it supported the Ḥasidim and plotted to buy Palestine in order to establish a monarchy under the House of Rothschild. In subsequent articles, which he published in Ha-Meliẓ and Ha-Karmel, Kovner became increasingly extremist, predicting the imminent demise of Hebrew literature. His last Hebrew work, Ẓeror Peraḥim, appeared in 1868, and then he began writing in Russian. He published articles in the Odessa Jewish weekly Den between 1869 and 1871, in which he urged the closing down of yeshivot and replacing them with a modern rabbinical college, and repeated many of the views expressed in his Hebrew writings. He contends that the Jewish problem is essentially economic and will disappear as the general condition of society is improved. His last comment on Hebrew literature was in an article on contemporary Hebrew literature which he wrote for the yearbook Yevreyskaya Biblioteka (vol. 4, 1873) and in which, among other things, he examines P. *Smolenskin'sHa-To'eh be-Dar khei ha-Ḥayyim and J.L. *Gordon'sOlam ke-Minhago.

In 1871 Kovner moved to St. Petersburg, where he worked as a minor bank official and wrote for the Russian press. In 1875 he was arrested on charges of forging a check for a large sum of money and was sentenced to four years of hard labor in Siberia. After his release he settled in Siberia, converted to Christianity, and married a gentile woman. Later he was permitted to return to the European part of Russia and he settled in Lomza, where he worked as a government official. He continued to take an interest in Jewish affairs, carried on a correspondence with some of the leading Russian writers, including Dostoevski and Tolstoi, on the subject of the Jewish problem, and in 1908 he published anonymously a pamphlet on the self-isolation of the Jews. In 1903 he published his memoirs in the St. Petersburg journal Istoricheskiy Vestnik. An edition of his collected writings (incomplete) appeared in Tel Aviv (1947).

While Kovner's basic thesis predicting the inevitable decline of Hebrew literature proved to be entirely unfounded, through his unsparing attacks on the writers of his day he forged the first genuine literary criticism in the Hebrew language, and thus had a profound effect on the future development of modern Hebrew literature.


Klausner, Sifrut, 4 (1953), 139–75 (incl. bibl.); Breiman, in: Mezudah, 7 (1954), 416–57; Auerbach, in: Orlogin, 4 (1951), 21–32; 9 (1953), 166–87; 11 (1955), 94–122; S. Ginzburg, Meshumodim in Tsarishn Rusland (1946), 157–93; I. Zinberg, Di Geshikhte un der Literatur bay Yidn, 9 (1966), 208–38; M. Weinreich, Fun Beyde Zayten Ployt (1955); Waxman, Literature, 3 (19602), 319–22, 338, 341.

[Yehuda Slutsky]

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