AJS Review

Research Article

“Their Eyes Shall Behold Strange Things”: Abraham Ben Elijah of Vilna encounters the Spirit of Mr. Buffon

Iris Idelson-Shein 

Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel

The turn of the nineteenth century saw the publication of an abundance of travel narratives and texts in natural history written by maskilic Jews in Hebrew, Yiddish, and German in Hebrew characters. Several of these were maskilic translations of German children's books such as Georg Christian Raff's Naturgeschichte für Kinder or Joachim Heinrich Campe's travel stories for children. Others were fragmentary translations of German science books such as Anton Friedrich Büsching's Neue Erdbeschreibung. These translations were inspired by the maskilim's desire to acculturate their fellow Jews according to the standards of the European “high culture” of their time. The scientific, geographical, and philosophical knowledge offered by the source texts, combined with the rhetoric of voyage and discovery, as well as the stories of domesticating and acculturating “savage” peoples and wild animals, provided the maskilim with a compelling platform for disseminating maskilic knowledge, ideology, and goals.




  I would like to thank Shulamit Volkov, David Assaf, Roni Hirsh-Ratzkovsky, Hanan Harif, and the anonymous AJS Review reader for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I am also grateful to Arthur Kiron and Judith Leifer of the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies Library and Aviad Stollman of the National Library of Israel for their kind assistance. Research for this article was made possible by the generous fellowships I received from the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania; and the Franz Rosenzweig-Minerva Research Center, the Hebrew University. I am deeply indebted to the directors, fellows, and staff of both centers for their extended support and encouragement.