Wednesday 10 February 2016


            He was born in Gavre (Gaurė), Kovno region, Lithuania.  His father, Zev-Volf, was a prominent local figure and a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment.  He studied with itinerant teachers until age ten, attended as well a Russian public school in the town of Erzvelik (Eržvilkas), and then studied Mishna and commentators with the town rabbi, while at the same time beginning to write poetry in Hebrew.  In 1873 he moved with his parents to Birz (Biržai), where he studied medieval literature, philosophy, and mathematical science with the writer and mathematician Yoysef-Leyb Zosnits.  He also mastered German and read books in four languages there.  In 1874 he published a description of the city of Biržai in Halevanon (Lebanon), thereafter a series of scholarly articles in Hatsfira (The siren), and in 1876/1877 he brought out his first text: Otsar neḥmad (Delightful treasury), a number of scholarly articles translated from Russian and German journals, in Vilna where for a short period of time he worked as a proofreader for the publishing house of Y. L. Mats (104 pp.).  In 1879 he published his text Toldot ḥakhame habotanik (History of wise men of botany), and that same year he was invited by M. L. Rodkinson to come to Königsberg to help edit Hakol (The voice), a Hebrew weekly.  He spent five months there, wrote as well for Asupat ḥakhamim (Assembly of wise men) and Kol laam (Voice to the people), the Yiddish supplement of Hakol, and then he returned to Vilna, and from there sent his articles to the Hebrew weeklies: Hatsfira, Hamagid (The preacher), Halevanon, Hamelits (The advocate), Ivri anokhi (I am Jewish), and Haohev (Beloved); he published his texts Hanosea (The traveler) of 1883 (144 pp.) and Maase ḥakhamim (Stories of wise men) of 1884/1885; and he also wrote for Mats Publishers for an honorarium of five rubles per pamphlet more than twenty Yiddish-language storybooks: Der falsher feter (The false uncle), Der tsigayner kind (The gypsy [Roma] child), Di geheyme tsavoe (The secret will), Di yerushe (The heritage), Der tiran (The tyrant), Der kosherer korbn (The kosher victim), Der fertsveyfelter (The desperate one), Don yude abarbonel (Don Yehuda Abarbanel), Tsu der tlie (To the gallows), Der harem lebn (Life in the harem), Unshuldik farmishpet (Innocently convicted), Fargiftigte libe (Poisoned love), Di briderlikhe libe (Brotherly love), and others.  From Vilna he also sent scholarly essays to Di yudishe gazetten (The Jewish gazette) in New York, and in 1885 Kasriel-Tsvi Sorosohn, editor of this serial, invited him to New York to contribute to the newspaper for a salary of ten dollars per week with room and board.  He then left for New York, but he only spent nine months there.  He described his impressions of America at that time in Hamagid under the title “Tisha ḥadashim baamerika” (Nine months in the United States).  Returning from America in 1886, that very year he left for Lick, eastern Prussia, to edit Hamagid in place of the editor, David Gordon, who had become dangerously ill.  Several months later, when Gordon’s son, after his father’s death, took over editorship of the newspaper, Hoffmann left for Warsaw, where in 1887 he brought out his treatises, Sipure hateva (Stories of nature) and Mekadme erets (From the beginning of the Earth) and where he published popular scientific articles in M. Spektor’s Hoyz-fraynd (House friend)—e.g., “Di neviim” (The prophets) and “A rayze in morgenland” (A trip to tomorrow-land), vol. 1 (Warsaw, 1888); “Di zaydn-fabrikatsye” (The manufacture of silk) and “Di toybenpost” (The pigeon-post), vol. 2 (Warsaw, 1889).
            According to information from a brother-in-law who had earlier moved to South Africa, in 1889 he left for the “country of gold, diamonds, and hope.”  He attained no treasures in Africa, however, and to the contrary he suffered for the rest of his life, tried out a number of different occupations, and turned his attention to implanting a Yiddish press in the local Jewish settlement.  He first brought Yiddish type font to South Africa, “the first lead type of the Jewish alphabet” (as he expressed it himself), opened in Johannesburg a Yiddish publishing house, and founded there the first Yiddish newspaper in Africa—the weekly Der afrikaner izraelit (The African Israelite), as noted in the Jewish Chronicle in London (1890), which was to have eight pages of news, politics, and literature—all of it filled out by Hoffmann, even typeset by him alone, as there were no Yiddish typesetters in South Africa at the time.  The Izarelit lasted in total for six months, because at the time Johannesburg “was not ready for a Yiddish newspaper.”  Over the course of the next four years, Hoffmann was a “tocher” (a peddler); he traveled about the wilderness and settlements of the Cape colony, dealing with Boers and Blacks, until around 1895 he settled in Cape Town where he opened a Yiddish publishing house and brought out a full series of Yiddish and Hebrew serials.  The first publication was the weekly newspaper Haor (The light), which according to Hoffmann himself—Der Afrikaner (The African), Cape Town (April 1914)—would have lasted for five years; according to Y. L. Yudelovitsh—South African Jewish Yearbook (1929)—it lasted from April 1, 1895 to July 5, 1897; and according to Dovid Goldblatt—in his book In kamf far der yudisher shprakh (In the struggle for the Yiddish language) (New York, 1942)—until 1898.  After Haor, the weekly Der idisher herald (The Jewish herald) appeared, and it lasted barely two years, according to Hoffmann; he published it together with the London journalist Isaac Stone.  Next came Der idisher telegraf (The Jewish telegraph) in 1898, which he published together with Eygel, Kaplanski, and Dovid Goldblatt, and which soon thereafter closed down, it appears, because of a quarrel among the partners—according to Yudelovitsh, the Telegraf lasted until 1902.  In that year, he—together with his friend Yude-Leyb Shrire and the Warsaw Yiddish journalist M. Mathuson—began to publish the weekly newspaper Di idishe folkstsaytung (The Jewish people’s newspaper), which (according to Hoffmann’s own telling of it) broke off its existence in six months—according to Yudelovitsh, it lasted from 1902 until 1905.  Later (1907, according to Hoffmann; January 1909, according to Yudelovitsh), he began publishing, all in Cape Town, the literary-scholarly monthly Der afrikaner (not to be confused with the weekly newspaper of the same name, which Sh. Fogelman later published in Johannesburg), which lasted until April 1914.  This journal also had a Hebrew supplement, entitled Kineret (Kinneret [Lake Tiberias]), final issue April 1914, and was also to have had a second supplement entitled Haohev.  In 1916 Hoffmann published his Seyfer hazikhroynes (Book of memoirs), “experiences of a Lithuanian follower of the Jewish Enlightenment in three parts of the world—Europe, America, and Africa—published and printed by N. Hoffmann, Cape Town, 1916, 225 pp., in folio.”  This was the first Yiddish book published in South Africa (Hoffmann typeset it himself).  The second, shorter portion of the book—“In amerike” (In America)—was written in Hebrew.  The third part included a description of South Africa and its population and of its Jewish settlement with Jewish communal institutions and the most important personalities in the community and religious life (with their photographs), with a bibliographic note as well on the Yiddish press in South Africa.  This book is now a rare item.  He also edited Saut-afrikanishe yorbukh (South African yearbook) (Cape Town, 1920) and published bibliographic notes on the Yiddish press in South Africa in: Der afrikaner (April 1914); Jews in South Africa, of all matters concerning Jewish and Judaism in S. Africa (Cape Town, 1916), 224 pp.; Ivri anokhi (Johannesburg, May 1925).  In manuscript there remained following his death several completed books in Hebrew.  Hoffmann died in Cape Town.

Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with a bibliography); Jewish Encyclopedia (New York), vol. 6; N. D. Hoffmann, “A bisl vegn zikh zelbst” (A little about myself), Der afrikaner (Passover issue) (Cape Town) (April 9, 1914); Y. Sh. Yudelovitsh, “Tsu der geshikhte fun der idisher prese in dorem-afrike” (Toward a history of the Yiddish press in South Africa), Dos naye vort (Johannesburg) 3 (September 1, 1916); Yudelovitsh, “The Yiddish press in South Africa,” in South African Jewish Yearbook (Johannesburg, 1929); Yudelovitsh, “Dokumentn tsu der geshikhte fun der yidisher prese in dorem-afrike” (Documents on the history of the Yiddish press in South Africa), Dorem-afrike (Johannesburg) (April and July 1950); Shammai, in Dorem-afrike (August 1928); Hadoar (New York) (October 5, 1928), obituary; Leybl Feldman, Yidn in dorem-afrike (Jews in South Africa) (Johannesburg-Vilna, 1937), pp. 66-69; Feldman, Yidn in yohanesburg (Jews in Johannesburg) (Johannesburg, 1956), pp. 173, 219; D. Goldblatt, In kamf far der yudisher shprakh (New York, 1942), pp. 210-12, 214; L. Gudman, in Dorem-afroke (August 1952)
Yitskhok Kharlash

[1] This date (given as Tevet 12, תרי״ז) is offered in Sefer zikaron (Remembrance book) (Berlin, 1888), p. 30, and in the Yevreyskaia entsiklopediya (Jewish encyclopedia), vol. 6.  Zalmen Reyzen in his Leksikon, vol. 1, gives “November 14, 1860” as the date of Hoffmann’s birth, which he apparently took from Hoffmann’s Seyfer hazikhroynes (Memoirs), which is now difficult to find; he also notes the date given in Sefer zikaron.

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