Disseminating Education in Mid-19th c. Lemberg: A. M. M. Mohr and His Peers

Abraham Menachem Mendel Mohr was born in Lemberg in 1815. Raised in a traditional household, he encountered Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) and “forbidden” secular knowledge in the same way as many other young men of his time and read maskilic works in secret as the household slept. His marriage to the daughter of a wealthy merchant (whom he loved and respected) enabled him to devote much of his time to writing, and by the time of his death in 1868 he had been involved in the printing of well over twenty Hebrew and Yiddish works: he composed some, translated others from various sources, and in a number of cases printed new editions of earlier works. He collaborated with various other writers and maskilim, in particular in writing a polemical pamphlet, Haro’e umevaker sifrei umeabrei zemanenu (Lemberg, 1837), among them Yaakov Bodek, N.J. Fischmann, and Yaakov Mentsh. He dabbled briefly in publishing a Hebrew journal early in his career (Yerushalayim,184445, together with Bodek; three volumes were published, one in Zolkiew, one in Lemberg, and the final in Prague), and later published a weekly Yiddish newspaper (Tsaytung) in the years 18481849. The only Yiddish newspaper in the world at the time, it offered the readers news which Mohr selected and translated from the European press. He later published another Yiddish newspaper in Lemberg in the 1860s. In addition, he published in German. William Zeitlin provides a list of his Hebrew publications in Bibliotheca hebraica post-Mendelssohniana (Leipzig, 1890). Likewise, the Leksikon fun nayer yidisher literatur notes the titles of his Yiddish works (which are not mentioned in more modern summaries of his career), as well as mentioning his positive attitude towards Yiddish and involvement in the disagreement which erupted between Mendel Lefin and Tuvia Feder over the former’s translation of Proverbs into Yiddish.

שבילי עולם

According to Getsel Kressel (Leksikon hasifrut ha’Ivrit badorot ha’aḥaronim), whilst at the outset of his career Mohr was amongst the radical maskilim in Galicia, he later worked mainly at disseminating general knowledge in Hebrew. His works include many general histories—for example biographies of Napoleon, Erzherzog Karl and the Rothschilds—and geographies—of the holy Land, European countries and India. One of his best-known works is Shvilei ʽolam, a continuation Sh. Blokh’s geographical work of the same name covering the European continent (Blokh’s described Asia and Africa). Three editions were published during Mohr’s lifetime. Of particular interest, in the third volume Mohr included lengthy descriptions of Galicia, his hometown of Lemberg, and an autobiographical account. From this we learn not only about the course of his life, his struggles (financial, familial), and his goals, but also about the society in which he lived, its characteristics and some of its most prominent personalities.

Mohr sought to spread general knowledge among Jewish society on the backdrop of a tumultuous period in Jewish and general European history. He began publishing his Yiddish newspaper at the height of the 1848 Revolutions and the weekly editions of the paper provided updates on the events occurring in Europe as they unfolded. His Hebrew works were clearly influenced by the writings of other maskilim, as his adaptation of Joachim Heinrich Campe’s Die Entdeckung von Amerika demonstrates (indeed, it draws heavily on an earlier Hebrew adaptation by Mordechai Aharon Ginzburg), and possibly by the struggle between maskilim and Hasidim which waged in Galicia.

Despite his prolific writing career, Mohr has largely been neglected by scholars of the Haskalah as well as students of Hebrew and Yiddish literature. Scholars have overlooked his writings in terms of their contribution to the development of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, as well as the window they offer onto Jewish society in Galicia in general, and Lemberg in particular, during the mid-nineteenth century: how the 1848 Revolutions affected the Jews; questions of religion; educational programs; language; identity; the struggle between the maskilim and Hasidim and many other aspects.