Saturday, 9 April 2016

YISROEL-MEYER VOHLMAN (ISRAEL MEIR WOHLMAN)

YISROEL-MEYER VOHLMAN (ISRAEL MEIR WOHLMAN) (1821-February 1913)
            He was born in Minsk, Byelorussia, to a father who worked as an itinerant elementary school teacher, who enjoyed the pleasures of simple labor, and who gave up teaching to be a water carrier.  He studied in religious primary school and with his father.  At age seventeen he became a student at R. Yoysef Kaidenover’s yeshiva.  Thereafter, he turned to the Jewish Enlightenment, studied Russian and German, gave sermons in study chambers, and withstood persecution from pious Jews who accused him of heresy.  To honor the ascension to the throne of Russian Tsar Aleksandr II, Vohlman wrote the sermon “Language of Justice” which earned him a thank-you letter with a monetary gift from the governor of Vilna, whom he would make use of for his Enlightenment goals among Minsk Jewry.  Several of his sermons appeared in book form as a small religious text entitled Divre habrit (Words of the covenant) which included eighteen sermons on circumcision (Vilna, 1897), 32 pp.  Until the beginning of 1865 he studied in Minsk, where he earned his living by teaching Hebrew and German in wealthy homes; later (1866-1872), he turned his attention to teaching in Warsaw, Loyvitsh (Lovich), and other towns in Poland.  Later still he returned to Minsk, and lived there until his death in a nursing home in want and loneliness.  In Minsk he was active as well among the “Lovers of Zion” and took part in the conference on settling the land of Israel (Minsk, 1883).
            Vohlman was the author of a great number of treatises in Hebrew-language periodicals: Hamagid (The preacher), Haivri (The Jew), Hakol (The voice), Hamelits (The advocate), Hatsfira (The times), and his own journal Hakokhavim (The stars) in Minsk (1865), which published the most prominent Hebrew writers of that era.  Due to a fire that destroyed all the copies of the journal together with subscription money, he lost all his possessions, and he could no longer make ends meet.  He continued nonetheless with his own writing.  A man who had always lived among the poor popular masses and thus understood their lives, he was one of the few adherents of the Jewish Enlightenment at this time who, despite his extraordinary prominence among Hebrew writers as an eminent practitioner of precision in Hebrew—he was the author of the text Yesode hamishkolet (Bases of weight) (Warsaw, 1867), 42 pp., in which he explained the foundations of the Hebrew language—he also took to writing in Yiddish.  Mikhl Rabinovitsh, the custodian of Vohlman’s unpublished writings (which contain, among other things, chapters of his autobiography and memoirs, written, according to a suggestion from Shoyel Ginzburg, for the Russian anthologies Perezhitoe (One’s past), found among them a volume entitled Shpas-tekhines (Humorous Yiddish prayers for women) in verse form (written around 1843) which promises to be extremely interesting both from its contents and from its language.  One could also argue that certain of these prayers which were published anonymously, he may have written together with Naftali Hamaskil Leetan.  In the 1870s and perhaps earlier, he published in Vilna a series of short religious works in Yiddish, such as: Ḥasde avot (Benevolence of the Father), published with the text of Pirke avot (Ethics of the Fathers) (Vilna, 1885/1886), 132 pp.; and Makore minhagim (The source of customs), on various customary practices among Jews; among others.  In 1873 he translated from Hebrew into Yiddish Yiftokhs tokhter (Yiftaḥ’s daughter): “A novel set in the time of the Judges.  Written in the Hebrew by Mr. Levinzohn, / translated into Judeo-German by Mium / G. P. O. of Y. M. V., in Russian under the title—fuller name ‘Y. M. Volman’” (Vilna, 1873), 56 pp.  That year there appeared in print his comedy Di vayberishe kniplekh (The women’s pinches) (Vilna, 1873), 44 pp., which had great success with the reading public and soon came out in a second edition.  With the Vilna publication of his comedy, the author listed once more his name as Mium and with the Russian “Y. M. Volman” under the title.  Regardless, a debate later arose as to whether the comedy was really the work of Vohlman or Ludvig Levinzon under whose name and in another edition the comedy was subsequently published in Warsaw.  The Warsaw reprint was entitled Der kheyrem derebeynu gershon oder di vayberishe kniplekh (The ban of R. Gershon or the women’s pinches), “a theatrical piece in five acts written in verse / The story takes place in a small town in Lesser Poland” (Warsaw: Yoysef Levinzohn, 1882), 48 pp.  The two editions differ in many details.  Whether Levinzon reworked Vohlman’s comedy or himself wrote a similar theatrical work has not been determined, but it is plausible that he may have been the author of the first Vilna edition of “Kniplekh.”  As for the fact that the distinctive Polish Yiddish of the comedy differs, one should not forget that in the years, 1866-1872, Vohlman lived in Warsaw and other cities in Poland, and he was certainly capable of using Polish Yiddish.
            Vohlman was also the author of Sipure yeme kedem (Stories from bygone days), “four different poems, four good brothers / 1) a poem of a vineyard, 2) a poem of Egypt, 3) a poem of truth, 4) a poem of peace / translated by Yish״m Volman” (Vilna, 1877), 32 pp.; of these poems with historical content: “Shire betulat bat yehuda” (Poem of the maiden daughter of Yehuda), “Kol berama nishma” (A voice on high is heard), and a poem concerning children’s education entitled “Ḥinukh lenaar” (Education for a youngster).  Also, Sh. Viner notes in his list of Vohlman’s collection Lider far gute brider (Poems for good brothers): (a) the Jewish priest; (b) live with courage; (c) the patriot, published by Mium—Vohlman (Vilna: Hilel Dvorzets, 1879), 32 pp.  Using the pseudonym “Yisroel Bemoharim,” he also published the pamphlets: Rebe mortkhe mit dem pabst (Rebbe Mortkhe with the Pope) (Vilna, 1887), 32 pp.; and Der maharam shif (Our teacher Rabbi Shiff) (Warsaw, 1893), 32 pp.  He may, perhaps, have been the same person who wrote Toldot r׳ yehuda hanasi rabenu kodesh (History of Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, our blessed rabbi) (Vilna, 1872); and Tsen vunderlikhe zakhn (Ten wonderful things) (Vilna, 1874).  In addition, he translated several Musar works from Hebrew into Judeo-German, among them: Sea solet (A seah of fine flour) by R. Rafael of Nortsi, with a preface by Vohlman (Vilna, 1964), 108 pp., as well as (under the pen name “R. Shoyel of Minsk”)[1] Or olam im darkhe olam (The light of the world with the ways of the world) (Vilna, 1865), 130 pp.  The Minsker almanakh (Almanac of Minsk) for 1913 published Vohlman’s story “R. mandel” (Rabbi Mandel).  He died in Minsk.

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol.1 (with a bibliography); Reyzen, in Di yidishe velt (Vilna) (September 1928); Z. Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidish teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 1 (with a bibliography); Sh. L. Tsitron, Anashim veseforim (People and books) (Vilna, 1921); Dr. Y. Shatski, Arkhiv tsu der geshikhte fun yidishn teater un drame (Archive for the history of Yiddish theater and drama), vol. 1 (New York, 1930), pp. 177-79; Shatski, Geshikhte fun yidn in varshe (History of the Jews in Warsaw), vol. 3 (Vilna, 1954), p. 215; Avrom Reyzen, Epizodn fun mayn lebn (Episodes in my life), vol. 3 (Vilna, 1935), pp. 228-29; E. R. Malachi, in Hadoar (New York) (November 17, 1944); A. Almi, in Keneder odler (Montreal) (April 29, 1945); Kh. Liberman, in Kiryat sefer (Jerusalem) (Sivan [= May-June] 1958).
Khayim Leyb Fuks

[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), col. 226.]





[1] WebCat gives the pen name as “R. Yisroel of Minsk.”

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