Yitzchak Fernhof

Translated by Dr. Rose Shoshana Ages (Kleiner/Neufeld)


Fernhof's literary activity had its beginning at the end of the previous century, in Buczacz, eastern Galicia, a city noted for Torah and enlightenment. Jewish Galicia in those days was in the process of awakening from a deep sleep. A select group of writers, orators and community leaders had been instrumental in this awakening. Reuven Asher Broides, Berndstater, Silberbush, Ehrenpreis, Shlomo Rubin, Yehoshua Tahon, Naimark, Nathan Birnboim, Moshe Shulboim, Bernfeld, Shlomo Schiller, Shtand and others sounded a message of awakening to Galicia with vigor and warmth, each one in his own way. This message was heard at first only occasionally, and by the few.

However, in time the numbers of listeners grew and a movement arose that led eastern Galicia to a spiritual awakening. In her deepest recesses there was a longing for some sort of change. The air was still suffused by the spirit of the R'nk (Rabbi Nachman Krochmal), Shy'r (Shlomo Yehuda Rappaport), Yosef Perl, Shimshon Bloch, Yitzchak Arter, Latris and others.

Their books were found in attics, and they were read clandestinely. In the library of the old beis medrash [house of Torah study], in Buczacz, these people's research books stood in one row, and on the same shelves, as the books written by the pious and the followers of musar [moralists].

The R'nk was not held in higher regard than the Rambam, nor were 'Duties of the Heart' and 'The Akeda' given more recognition than 'The Eternal Paths.' The crown which had been removed from the head of Galicia decades earlier, still sparkled in a remote corner and awaited the hand that would return it to its former glory. The confidence in self which had faded, began to come to light and to reveal itself.

Indeed, the revival came about through physical and spiritual labour, because decades of inaction, the conservative way of life, and the strong attachment to tradition did their damage. Opposition to everything new, and to any attempt at innovation, was very great.

A war between fathers and sons was spreading. Religion struggled with knowledge, 'light' with 'darkness,' enlightenment with conservatism.

All these events, that were common at the time in the whole Jewish world, occurring on a large, or smaller, scale in different locales, were charged with dramatic tension in Galicia as well. Yet, as a result of these struggles there arose cells of revival, and corners of renewal, and leaders of an awakening, who unleashed a torrent of innovation in the frozen life of the Galician people of Israel.

Yitzchak (Itzi) Fernhof lived in these twilight years, when the creative powers of Galicia were awakened, and the light of YL”G and Mendele and Achad HaAm began to appear from afar.

He was not a high priest in the temple of creativity, but rather a Levite. He accompanied the great ones, and carried their musical instruments. But while accompanying them he also used to play his own music. His melody was unique, and at times even pleasant to the ear. There are times when he surprises with an original theme, and with sparks of true creativity. And he also had a measure of humility.

He spreads his wings and tries to fly, and more than once we even hear the wings flutter, but he cannot stay too long in that sublime air. He is drawn to the soil, to the earthly ambiance, which he captures in a realistic manner. And his Hebrew language is fresh, with striking expressions and innovations, even if here and there traces of the florid style of the haskala language remain.

An example of his linguistic talent can be noted in his article, Two Imaginations, which appeared in the second volume of the Book of Delights, in 1896. In that article we find several expressions that demonstrate Fernhof's original, and profound linguistic perceptiveness.

Describing how moved he was by Herzl's Judenstaat, and the dreams which reading this book gave rise to, he presents us with a vision of a kind of minor utopia. In this vision the names and the language used reflect a unique prescience. The word 'Judenstaat' is translated by him several times as 'the state of Israel,' whereas all the translators to this day have called the book “The State of the Jews.”

When he imagines the state of Israel rebuilt on its original site, he says, among other things: “And my eyes will behold rabbis elected to the assembly houses, ministers of the interior, and ministers of foreign affairs, and ministers of the treasury.” Ministers in the state of Israel are called by him: 'Sarim' [just as they are currently called in Israel – translator].

Surely, this linguistic intuition is not incidental for Fernhof. He dreamt a great deal about the state of Israel, and that dream is clothed in an original, prescient, Hebrew style.


Fernhof was the type of person who disseminates culture; he was a torchbearer, who teaches Torah to the many. The major characteristic of such a person, at a moment when he formulates a certain conviction, or a certain ideal, is that he does not rest, and is not silent, until he wins supporters for his ideal. As Fernhof had a great love for the Hebrew language, took pleasure in it, and excelled in it, his fervent wish was to transmit it to others.

He gave private Hebrew lessons in Buczacz [*]. Afterwards, when he was hired as a teacher at the Baron Hirsch school, in Zlochov (thanks to the recommendation of the linguistic scholar, David Zvi Heinrich Miller), he achieved part of his goal.

However, his success was short-lived. The Baron Hirsch schools, whose aims were admirable, were not welcomed by the Jews of eastern Galicia. Only a few of 'the enlightened', were happy to welcome them. The majority looked at them with disfavor. In their eyes the teachers, the students, and the parents, were regarded as 'destroyers of the covenant,' as instigators and agitators.

This kind of school was regarded as tantamount to a nest of heretics, a schoolhouse for the 'sinners of Israel.' Fernhof, who worked so hard to be accepted as a teacher at that school, where he hoped to broaden his activity and influence, was bitterly disappointed. He did, however, enter into the town's enlightened society, the society of maskilim, but he remained a pariah in the eyes of the pious, the zealous, and their followers. His plans became less ambitious. His dream evaporated.

A better fate was reserved for his second love, Hebrew literature. He loved the Hebrew writers, those from far and near, and cultivated an ambition in his heart to summon them all to one gathering place. He wanted with all his being to establish a place of honor for Galicia in the Hebrew literature that was undergoing a revival. He knew that the center of literary creativity was not in Galicia, but he wished to transform Galicia into an auxiliary center of literary creativity.

With this plan in mind he did two things: He himself wrote as much as was possible, and published his writing in different publications. In this way he acquired fame for himself and for his region. However, because he possessed a large measure of self criticism, he understood that his contribution, and that of others, were not sufficient to achieve his goal. He therefore established a journal in Buczacz by the name, 'The Books of Delights.'

This was supposed to attract the writers from other major Jewish centers and to publicize the special character of Galicia, since the stars of Galicia would shine alongside the bright lights of Russia… Indeed, this was a minor platform that resembles somewhat the 'penny books' of Ben-Avigdor. But despite everything it was an independent platform.

This minor platform succeeded so well that its few issues featured a concentration of famous writers, and those who were to become famous. Tchernichovksy published there one of his first poems, 'Let us go out, let us dwell in serenity;' Berdichevsky published a piece about the four leaders of the world of the chasidim, which enraged Galicia for a short time; Breinin contributed his sketch, 'My Grandfather;' Klausner offered an article on 'Original Literature' and on the quality of translations.

Even Sh. Ben Zion figured among the contributors. Needless to say the writers of Galicia brought their own spirit to this forum. With all the flaws that plagued these thin journals, they also represented the promise of a new era.

The new generation was influenced by them, and their simplicity was in a sense a novelty for the yeshiva students. However, these little journals ceased publication, and then re-emerged in Zlochov. But even there only two issues appeared. At this juncture Fernhof experimented with his friends by establishing new (literary) forums like 'The Jordan,' and 'The Young Hebrew.' He had a great desire to create, edit, and to include himself, as well as the writers of Galicia, in the new Hebrew literary life.


As previously noted, Fernhof continued to write and publish much in almost all the [Hebrew – translator] periodicals of his day. He wrote poems and stories, sketches and epigrams, critiques and articles on contemporary questions. He did translations and adaptations, editing and publishing. He tested his strength in many fields, because he never attained a state of complete self knowledge. He did not have a clear understanding of where his strength lay, and which literary path to follow.

All his life he reflected on his abilities and his talent. He experienced doubt, meditated and then wrote. It is especially these struggles, this self-searching, that touch the heart and make him an interesting subject. Today, about 30 or so years after his death, we know that there was a good and healthy kernel (of talent) in him, but it was wrapped in many shells. He was a writer with a soul and with insight, who used to tell it straight and simple. Of course, not all his stories are good, and the good ones are not all of equal value.

His first published book, 'From the Legends of Life,' was not well received by the critics. Brenner, Berdichevsky and others subjected him to severe criticism. Perhaps they were right, for in this work the lines were blurred between adaptation, translation and the original source. His style here showed negligence, and his ultimate purpose was unclear.

However, there is no doubt that the harsh critique was also influenced by the traditional bias toward the writers of Galicia, that was a type of convention in those days. This criticism hurt him very much, for it came from writers whom he admired a great deal, and whom he held in such high esteem. But this criticism also had a positive impact, and led him toward greater creative efforts, and toward better results.

Henceforth we see him in another light. In the series of stories that he wished to publish in a special volume, titled 'Mitnagdim' [**], we sense a greater self assurance and a more mature power of expression. Here his soul as a writer found some comfort, and he was able to appropriate for himself an honorable and original place in our literature.

Chasidism and the chasidim were fortunate in having writers who depicted them either in their poems and prose, or in a serious, or amusing, story. There were many important figures who honored the chasidim with songs and praises, and there were others who poured their anger and their mockery on them. They were a worthy target for all.

This was not true for the mitnagdim, the brothers and opponents of the chasidim. The mitnagdim remained in the shadows. They were neither studied nor investigated. They were usually described as being of secondary importance, as dull, as obscure, as adversaries, whose purpose was to serve as a foil for the chasidim. They were incidental types, fleeting images, who do not live and exist in the story in their own right.

Then Fernhof came along and wrote a whole book by the name 'Mitnagdim.' Only two or three stories from this book were published in his lifetime. Most of them were found among his papers and are being published here for the first time. And here is what constitutes the book's innovation. In this book the mitnagdim and their movement are the focus of the stories. Here the chasidim serve only as background props. And this is not surprising.

In Buczacz, where the fundamental impressions of Fernhof's life were carved out, chasidism did not strike deep roots. In Buczacz he observed the mitnagdim on the street, in the study hall, during their conversations, during their Talmud study, during their quarrels, and during their peace making.

He grasped their world vision and understood their spirit and temperament. By delving into their soul, and analyzing their speech, he revealed a wonderful secret: Nothing separates the mitnagdim and the chasidim except their belief in the 'tzadik' [righteous leader, or rabbi, head of the chasidim – translator].

In essence, they resemble each other in their nature, and in the depths of their souls. The mitnagdim are opposed to the chasidim with a passion that is chasidic. They negate the teachings of the chasidic rebbe with the same fanaticism with which the chasidim absorb these teachings. Moreover, they are ready to punish the members of the 'cult', in the same manner that the 'cult' members are ready to punish their opponents.

In his description of these opposing images Fernhof rises many a time to the level of an artist, who sees into the hearts of his heroes and paints them with a skillful brush. For this purpose he has at his disposal various talents and abilities: A sharp vision, a fine style, mockery, humor, caricature, restraint and involvement in the lives of his heroes. These, and similar, means make the description simple, straightforward and exciting.

We feel that the mitnagdim also need 'tikkun' ['spiritual improvement' – translator], and Fernhof provided them with it. These characters are carved from the reality that existed in his day, and are not figments of his imagination. In the margins of the manuscript are listed names of people, residents of Buczacz, who served as prototypes for the characters in the stories.

It is evident that he did not invent 'acting figures' from his imagination, but took them from his own surroundings. First he studied the people whom he encountered, followed their movements and learned their traits, and only after he learned to know them very well, did he begin to shape and create them in the framework of his stories.

However, for all their realism, Fernhof was able to pour into these characters his own spirit, and to create them according to his own vision. Rabbi Moshe Baruch Hindes, the pedantic Rabbi Shlomo Zeev, Kalman Berish, and many others, are interesting types, whom Fernhof captured in both a realistic manner and through allusive references.

For him the subject of the mitnagdim became a type of citadel, the central focus of his creative ambition. After a period of struggling with writing, creating and publishing, it was as if he finally had found his literary path.

He wrote these stories with a passionate soul, for he saw his destiny in them. This was not another capricious undertaking, or a light diversion, but a mission.

In one of the drafts there is a short preface to this book. The preface is signed: 'Fernhof, Stanislav, winter of 5671' [1911 – translator] and here is what it says: 'Many have written, even in the last years, about the chasidim and the tsadikim, and have forgotten the typical mitnagdim who are fast becoming extinct. In the future our writers will be held accountable for the neglect and abandon of these figures.

The author of this book on the mitnagdim was raised at the feet of the mitnagdim and knows their nature, character, inner world, obstinacy, persistence in defending their existence and their disdain and scorn toward the tsadikim and chasidim… and that which he knows, he will attempt to convey.'

Here we see that it is not by chance that he wrote the stories about the mitnagdim, for he felt a need, and the ability, to write about those, whom Hebrew literature had disenfranchised and left to their solitude. He wished to remove the slander which had been attached to the mitnagdim, the allegation that they were dry, and limited to the study of Talmud and the performance of mitzvot.

In Fernhof's stories the mitnagdim are revealed as persons of understanding, who have a lyric vitality about them. Their exterior may be dry, but their inner self is the opposite. Try to deepen your contact with them, he wrote, and at once you will encounter vital Jews, with a rich spiritual life, marked by contradictions and an abundance of energy.

The mitnagdim are, as he noted in the margins of his draft, chasidim who do not believe in 'tsadikim.' Only this one point divides them.

Fernhof identified with them. His spirit clung to theirs, and it shaped their images from the inside, with a measure of loving kindness and grandeur.

Fernhof was not the founding father, but he was one of the builders (of the new) Hebrew literature. In several periods of our literary creativity, and in several chapters of its history his contributions are firmly established, as an editor, an intermediary, or narrator.

He left his imprint on the process of renewal of literary Hebrew creativity in Galicia and elsewhere. He included in his journals Hebrew writers from other countries. Among them were those from Galicia, who became later the support columns of Hebrew literature - Agnon, Barash, Rabbi Binyamin, Lifshitz and others.

Even if they belong to a higher sphere, and to another generation, they had, in their early years, basically absorbed the literary atmosphere created by Fernhof, Gershon Bader, Graber and others like them.

They took leave of him and moved on to greater depth and greater height, but they read Fernhof's work, collaborated with him, and absorbed the good that he transmitted to them as an intermediary and writer.

Israel Cohen

* S. Y. Agnon recalled for me a witty, and fitting, expression that he heard from Fernhof, in which there is a word play on opposites. When guests came to visit him, and he was in the midst of a private lesson, he would say to them [in Yiddish – translator]: Wait a minute, I just have to give a (one hour) lesson… Return
** This book was published in 5712 (1952) by the Writers Association at 'Dvir.' Return