"A Letter on the Subject of Education"

By Sholem-Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim), translated by Ri J. Turner

The first publication by Sholem-Yankev Abramovitsh (better known as Mendele Moykher-Sforim) was a letter, printed in the July 15, 1857 issue of the newspaper HaMagid. It expressed Maskilic ideas about pedagogical reform for the kheyder and it was written in flowery Hebrew rife with Biblical references. Abramovitsh was 21 years old.  

The “Letter on the Subject of Education” is shrouded in legend—or perhaps more accurately, Abramovitsh himself shrouded it in legend: he claimed that it was submitted to HaMagid without Abramovitsh’s knowledge by his friend M.M. Levin with the collusion of his teacher Avraham Ber Gottlober. Yet, as Yisroel Tsinberg points out,* this seems illogical: a note from Abramovitsh himself appears in HaMagid alongside the Letter, prefacing some complimentary lines written by Gottlober. 

Whatever the actual story, the Letter was translated into Yiddish by Y. Rotenberg and published in Di Naye Shul in 1927 in honor of Abramovitsh’s tenth yortsayt, and later reprinted in Dos Mendele-bukh with slight edits. The Yiddish translation omits some of the explicit Biblical references of the original letter (and effaces many of the implicit ones), modernizes the punctuation, and replaces the poetic, chanting rhythm of Abramovitsh’s Maskilic Hebrew (which consciously imitates features of Biblical Hebrew, including repetitive parallelism and extensive metonymy) with a bland, concise journalistic Yiddish style, including anachronistic terminology that Abramovitsh most certainly did not employ in his 1857 Hebrew (such as “child psychology”).  

We present the letter here in English translation for the first time.  The translation, although based on the Yiddish text as it appears in Dos Mendele-bukh, has been significantly edited and annotated to accord with the original Hebrew text as it appeared in HaMagid, as transcribed by the Historical Dictionary Project of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. The translation is accompanied by a double annotation: firstly, a listing of sources for (at least some of) the traditional allusions which pepper Abramovitsh’s rich Hebrew, and secondly, a partial comparison of the Hebrew and Yiddish versions, with an eye to the challenges that arose in translating the letter from the high Hebrew style that Abramovitsh was pioneering in 1857, into the everyday newspaper Yiddish of 1927.

*History of Jewish Literature, Vol. 9: Haskalah at its Zenith, tr. Bernard Martin, New York: KTAV, 1978, p. 94.