(pseudonym of Mark [Mordechai] Iakovlevich Rabinovich; ca. 1854–1932), writer, publicist, and early Zionist theorist. Ben-Ami’s life is a particularly representative example of the world of the shtetl. His articles and memoirs about the Jewish question reflect the period of the birth of Zionist thought in Russia.
Ben-Ami was born in a small town near Mogilev and spent part of his childhood in Bessarabia in a Hasidic, patriarchal family. The last of five children, at the age of four Ben-Ami lost his father, who became in the writer’s inner and fictional world the symbol of an idealized “paradise lost.” The father’s death and the family’s consequent poverty led them to abandon the shtetl, a place that in Ben-Ami’s autobiographical stories appears to represent pure Jewish life, a mythical place out of time and space. His first contact with Odessa, when he was 10, was a shock to him: the town symbolized the triumph of material over spiritual life, of the spread of Russification that erased Jewish identity, religion, and language.
To acquaint his educated readers about Jewish traditions, Ben-Ami wrote in Russian. Under the pen name Reish-Geluta (which he later discarded), he published two letters from Paris in Voskhod (the prestigious organ of Russian maskilim); he lived in that city in 1881, after the first wave of the “great pogroms,” and worked as a delegate for the ‘Am ‘Olam organization. One year later he moved to Geneva with his wife, Klara; and from Switzerland he sent his first short stories and some philosophical reviews to Voskhod. Back in Odessa in 1886, Ben-Ami was active in the first “Palestinophile” organizations. In 1897, a week before the First Zionist Congress, he met with Theodor Herzl in Basel and helped him organize the event. Unlike political Zionists, Ben-Ami saw the role of the future state as strictly connected to Jewish religious and spiritual life. His image of a reborn historical fatherland was akin to his picture of his lost home in the shtetl. In his view, the “Jewish” idea contrasted with that of the “Roman”: the former stressed spiritual objectives, while the latter was based on physical supremacy.
In 1905 Ben-Ami left the Russian Empire permanently, spending two decades in Geneva and reaching Haifa presumably in 1924. There he was in contact with Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik and Ahad Ha-Am, and in 1925 he moved to Tel Aviv. Most of Ben-Ami’s works appeared in the Russian Jewish periodical press and were only recently rediscovered; some were translated into other languages. His main collection of stories, Sobranie rasskazov i ocherkov (Collection of Short Stories and Essays) was printed in Odessa in 1898. This book (intended to be the first of a never-realized set of volumes) is a typical example of Ben-Ami’s narrative strategies and topics. The three stories included—“Malenkaya drama” (A Little Drama) “Baal-Tefilo” (Prayer Leader [from Heb., ba‘al tefilah]), and “Noch’ na Goshano Rabo” (Night of Hosha‘na’ Rabah [the seventh day of Sukkot]), the first two of which had already appeared in Voskhod—offer a dramatic, empathic view of the indigent but spiritually rich Jewish life in the shtetl and in the big town. “Baal-Tefilo” (which Bialik admired and translated) is the superb and original story of a Jewish cantor discovering the temptation of secular music and the fascination of sensuality. The description of the hero’s inner conflict reflects the modern technique known in Russian formalism as ostranenie (lit., “making strange”).
Joseph Klausner, Yotsre tekufah u-mamshikhe tekufah (Tel Aviv, 1956); Laura Salmon, “Ben-Ami and His Place in Russian-Jewish Literature,” Evrei v Rossii (1995): 91–124; Laura Salmon, Una voce dal deserto: Ben-Ami, uno scrittore dimenticato (Bologna, 1995), also in Russian as Glas iz pustyni: Ben-Ami, istoriia zabytogo pisatelia, trans. Galina Denisova (Saint Petersburg, 2002; Laura Salmon, “Vechnyi emigrant: Ben-Ami, russko-evreiskii pisatel’ za rubezhom,” in Russkoe evreistvo v zarubezh’e, ed. Mikhail Parchomovsky, pp. 102–117 (Jerusalem, 1998); Laura Salmon, “Simvolika Ierusalima v tvorchestve Ben-Ami,” in Oh, Jerusalem!, ed. Wolf Moskovich, Samuil Shvartsband, and Stefano Garzonio, pp. 141–154 (Pisa, Italy, and Jerusalem, 1999).