Mark Nemzer (1833-1912)


Title Page of Nemzer’s ‘History of the Jewish People’ (1880).

Mark Osipovich Nemzer was a graduate and instructor of the Vilna (Vilnius) Rabbinical seminary, government rabbi of Vilna, and teacher at the women’s gymnasium in Vilna.

In 1880, Nemzer published a textbook on Jewish history in Russian, called ‘History of the Jewish People (from the Jews’ migration to Babylon to the destruction of the Second Temple) for those studying the Law of Jewish faith in gymnasia and government-sponsored Jewish schools’. Nemzer’s textbook linked two catastrophic events – the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BCE and the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century CE – with a narrative, a story of the consolidation of the Jewish people by way of preparation for their historical ordeal, galuth, an indefinite exile from their homeland and life among other peoples.

Nemzer’s textbook criticized the disastrous historical role of the Jewish monarchy bent on the preservation of its political sovereignty at any price and contrasted it to the constructive, historical role of Jewish institutions and values, such as spirituality, justice, and civic consciousness, which cemented the people’s unity and ensured their national future. Thus, Nemzer’s short (one paragraph long) account of Josephus portrays the actions of those Jewish kings and their generals who compromised the Jewish future by putting their personal ambitions before a ‘commitment to the people’s cause and earnest love of their fatherland’. It was this that led to the loss of the Jews’ political independence along with ‘the loss of their national and religious centre’ (Nemzer 1880: 136).

Kings and military leaders, including Josephus, are also conspicuously absent in the textbook’s appendix, a biographical index of the most prominent Jewish historical figures featured in Nemzer’s narrative. The index does, on the other hand, include the rabbis Shammai and Hillel, Rabban Gamaliel, and other pillars of rabbinic Judaism.

Nemzer, Mark, Istoriia evreiskogo naroda (ot pereseleniia evreev v Vavilon do razrusheniia vtorogo khrama) dlia obuchaiushchikhsia Zakonu evreiskoi very v gimnaziiakh i evreiskikh kazennykh uchilishchakh. Vilna: A.G. Syrkin, 1880.

Schedrin, V., ‘Story Within a Story: The First Russian-language Jewish History Textbooks, 1880s-1890s’, forthcoming – Polin 30 (2016).

JRA entry contributed by Vassili Schedrin