Realism, Caricature, and Bias: The Fiction of Mendele Mocher Sefarim by David Aberbach

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Mendele Mocher Sefarim's seven novels constitute the most important and influential body of work in modern Jewish prose fiction written prior to the First World War. These novels-five of which he wrote twice, once in Yiddish and once in Hebrew-are devastating satiric portraits of Jewish life in nineteenth-century Russia. They are permeated by Mendele's passion for social change, and an often equally passionate contempt for his own people for failing to achieve it. David Aberbach, exploring these passions in terms of the psychology of prejudice and self-hate, provides the first full-length analysis of the tension between realism and caricature in Mendele's descriptions of his fellow-Jew. At the same time, his analysis conveys Mendele's fascinating social and psychological insights into the forces which led to the mass emigration of Jews from Russia before the First World War, to the rise of Zionism, and to Jewish involvement in the socialist and revolutionary movements in Russia at the turn of the century. The picture is broadened through references to contemporary Russian literature so as to portray these forces in the context of Russian society at the time.

Aberbach's skillful presentation allows the reader to gain access to Mendele's works through many tantalizing excerpts, with some of the key passages provided in Hebrew and Yiddish as well as in Aberbach's lively translation. He also makes available the considerable body of Mendele scholarship that has been published in Hebrew in recent years. From this fascinating and lucid work, scholars and general readers alike will gain a new understanding not only of the social realities of Jewish life in tsarist Russia but also of how the self-image of an ethnic minority may be affected and even determined by the character and social problems of the majority culture.

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