The man who wrote the first ever Hebrew novel, Avraham Mapu, had never even been to the Land of Israel. Despite this, almost all of his works extol the Holy Land with awe and reverence, except for a single cryptic children’s story. So, what exactly is this puzzling kid’s story really trying to tell us?
“There are two rich men who live in the town of Zafron. One is called Chanan, the other Nahbi. Chanan is a generous man, granting every wish to the people around him: old clothes to some, money and bread to others.
Nahbi is a miser, unwilling to give. When his parents ask him why he turned away from the beggar in the streets, he tells them: I did not see him. He does not see anyone, he even ignores his friends and relatives.
In his [Chanan’s] house, he expresses pity for the poor, and sympathy for those close to him. The hungry knock on Chanan’s door and leave satisfied. Chanan is successful in all his undertakings, for the Lord has mercy on him and the inhabitants of Zafron praise Chanan, for he is a cherished member of the community, a man with no envy or hatred in his heart. Nahbi hates him, yet he does not hate Nahbi. Nahbi chases the poor away; Chanan takes them in.
Zafron is a small town, but it contains many poor people. However, they are not worried about the Passover holiday, for they are certain of Chanan’s charity: he buys flour and his assistants bake matzot for the poor. Once the chametz are removed from the town, Chanan sends food to the poor: matzot, meat, wine, oil and sweets for the holiday, and those who receive assistance eat and drink merrily and bless the home of the righteous man.”
Chanan and Nahbi – the tale of the good and the evil, are the main characters of a children’s story written by Avraham Mapu, but this little tale does not actually describe men at all. Chanan and Nahbi are but a metaphor. However, to understand what Chanan and Nahbi really represent, we first need to take a look into the life of their esteemed author: Avraham Mapu.
Abraham was born on January 10, 1808, in a poor suburb of Kovno, Lithuania, called Salvodka. His family had very little money but they were happy, and content with a religious, small-town life. His father, Rabbi Yekutiel was a teacher and a wise Jewish man who studied Torah and prayed with fervor. A strong believer, he tried to pass this love of studying down to his son by sending him to cheder from a young age, and telling him wonderful stories about the Land of Israel, a marvelous dream land of liberation and Jewish freedom. Little Avraham took to Jewish studies well and was known for being especially bright, but having to find work at a young age to help his struggling family, he never had much of a formal education.
By the time he was 17, Mapu had found a way to make a living on his own by following in the footsteps of his father and becoming a teacher. He was wed before his 18th birthday, and suddenly found himself in a life which exactly mirrored that of his parents – a struggling teacher, trying to build a livelihood for himself and his small Jewish family. But Avraham dreamed of more. Like his father before him, he was also a fantasist, and he knew deep in his heart that life had more in store for him. He longed to visit the Land of Israel and see for himself whether it really was the paradise described to him, a land of Jewish intellectual curiosity, where milk and honey flowed through the valleys in great rivers.
To his disappointment, he couldn’t save enough money to quench this curiosity and cross the continents, but in search of a brighter future closer to home, Mapu found himself travelling around the Russian Empire with his wife, who by this point had given birth to two children. But despite his searching, all his travels succeeded in doing was exhaust his poor wife! Well, that’s not entirely true. His travels, despite them not bringing him the prosperity or satisfaction he so wished for, did serve to broaden his mind. Along the way, he met groups of new and revolutionary Zionist maskilim. The maskilim were ‘enlightened’ Jews and saw themselves as the pioneers of intellectual Judaism and a modern concept of Jewish self-determination. Their focus was on how to bring Judaism into the modern age and integrate a high level of rationalism into the religion while rebuilding a Jewish homeland based on the French ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Meeting the prominent Haskalah pioneer Shneur Sachs in Rossyieny, Lithuania, Mapu was encouraged to act on this new-found belief system, and the preeminent writer and scholar Sachs encouraged Mapu to follow in his footsteps and write some of his own Haskalah works. Avraham considered this idea, and with caution, he carefully tiptoed into the waters of Hebrew literature.
Literature in the early 19th century, even enlightened Jewish literature, was usually written in the author’s mother-tongue. But seeking a more romantic and authentic style of writing, Mapu broke new territory and started to compose his first book in Hebrew. An ardent Zionist, Mapu knew that this was the only language for his art. Modern Hebrew as we know it did not yet exist, but Mapu had been taught how to read Gemara by his father years earlier and remembered his biblical Hebrew training. Most people think of Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda as the father of modern Hebrew, and this is certainly true to an extent. That being said, Ben Yehuda was born 50 years after Mapu, by which point Mapu had already published multiple books in a mixture of biblical and adapted Hebrew prose. Mapu should really be credited as one of the first pioneers of the modern Israeli language, adjusting the old Hebrew lexicon to suit his contemporary literary needs.
Avraham began composing a book in Hebrew named “Shulamit” which was set in the Land of Israel. It documented the great beauty of the land and contrasted this sharply with dire and dreary descriptions of life in Eastern Europe. But before long, Mapu grew discontent with the challenge of writing Hebrew prose, and as he worked long days and tried to take care of his growing family, he lost his motivation for writing. He had never even been to the Holy Land and seen it for himself, and his faith in his ability to write authentically dwindled until he simply stopped writing altogether. But he always kept hold of the incomplete “Shulamit” manuscript, which would one day become Ahavat Tzion (“The Love of Zion”), one of his most well-known and beloved Hebrew books.
Ahavat Tzion, his first published work, was completed while Mapu lived in Yurburg. In 1832, Mapu was hired by a wealthy local who was seeking a tutor for his children. Mapu accepted this offer, lured in by its substantial financial reward, but he found far more than just wealth in this new role. Finally having a welcoming and friendly home in which to live, a job in which he was treated with respect and reverence, and a beautiful town to raise his family in, Mapu thrived. Close to the German border, Yurburg was a wealthy western town brimming with intellectuals who accepted Avraham as one of their own. He was able to find a community of other maskilim, who would meet to read literature and discuss the possibilities of reviving a Jewish state. But most importantly, this new community of academics encouraged Mapu to write, and write he did, finishing Ahavat Tzion and even starting on his next novel, The Guilt of Samaria.
Ahavat Tzion is considered the first modern Hebrew book, and tells winding tales of life in the Land of Israel. Despite never having seen the place, Mapu describes a paradise complete with sprawling nature, groups of curious Jews eager to build and share their knowledge, and a land full of passion and love. He continuously contrasts this with a grey and bleak description of life in Europe: the crumbling buildings, lack of purpose, cold weather and unfriendly people. Perhaps these descriptions were slightly hyperbolic, but they did truly reflect Mapu’s desire to leave behind his birthplace and move to Israel. For him, this far-off dream was enough to keep him going, whether it was based in reality or not.
His neighbors were his kindest critics, reading his works approvingly and encouraging him to continue telling his stories. But Mapu did not have that same faith in himself: “I built and destroyed, built and destroyed” he wrote in a letter to a friend, expressing how he never felt entirely content with his own writing. But arguably the most interesting thing he wrote was not in fact for his adoring friends, but for his students.
The custom for tutors in 19th century Europe was to gift a book of literature to one’s students as a reward for learning how to read. However, Mapu couldn’t find a book that he was content to pass on, and decided to take matters into his own hands instead, by composing his own book! As opposed to the children’s stories usually gifted to students, Mapu wrote a short manuscript which he named “Pedagogic Training”, a book of general knowledge, as well as grammar, Hebrew language and even some moral philosophy.
It is in this copy that we find the story of Chanan and Nahbi. Seemingly out of place in his book of languid teachings, later critics took a deeper look at this story, trying to figure out what was going through Mapu’s mind when he decided to include this fanciful tale. Some have suggested that Nahbi represents Mapu’s own miserly village of Salvodka while Chanan is a representation of Yurburg. Others think that Nahbi embodies the old, traditional shtetl Jews, while Chanan is a personification of the Haskalah movement and its liberation of the modern Jew. All agree, however, that this story, told with such moving and emotive prose, represents far more than a fairytale told for its own sake.
But perhaps the most convincing interpretation is that this story is teaching us an important message about Mapu’s Zionism. Avraham Mapu saw Europe as a place of poverty, where people avert their eyes to the suffering of others, abandon their own families, and live a life of hopelessness. We can easily see how this is symbolized by the character of Nahbi. The Land of Israel, on the other hand, was a place that Mapu believed to be full of companionship, celebrations of Jewish festivals, friends eagerly offering helping hands and allowing each other to explore their culture and religion. All of this was personified by Chanan, whose character provided hope for a sorely needed escape from the realities of the world that Mapu actually occupied.
As Mapu’s list of published works grew, he went on teaching, eventually working for a state school and raising his children to become intellectuals like himself. In 1860, still quite young, his health took a turn however, and he began to lose much of his strength. His wife passed away and Avraham became frail, needing help to walk and complete even basic tasks. Despite this, he continued publishing books right up until a few months before his eventual death in 1867.
Avraham Mapu left behind a legacy of great Hebrew literature and novels. Many are familiar with his name because of the roads and streets in Israel named after him, and of course his status as author of the first modern Hebrew novel. Yet, Mapu’s story of Chanan and Nahbi remains both his least understood, and arguably most interesting work, to this very day.