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Flying Letters

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This text by David Frischmann is one of the first mature and successful Hebrew feuilletons in the 19th century, an urbane, witty, light, and yet significant text in the tradition of the French, German, and Russian feuilletons. The text begins with a light-hearted description of the Jewish community in St. Petersburg, but it also raises issues of sociability and modernity, as well as questions about Jewish writing—in Jewish and non-Jewish languages—and the place of Jews in the history of European press (including the feuilleton) and literature.

Title (English)

Flying Letters

Title (original)

אותיות פורחות

Title (transliterated)

Otiyot Porhot

Date Issued

February 26, 1886

Place issued




Shachar Pinsker


Shachar Pinsker

Copyright status

no known copyright


modernity, non-Jews, press, antisemitism

Original Text


David [Frishman], “Flying Letters,” 1887. Translated by Shachar Pinsker

The awful ice surrounds me, and my soul dwells in roses and flowers, henna with spikenard plants, and all the delightful treasures of the spring. Pure light is sown around me like the light of the seven days of creation. The flowers of the mandrake emit their fragrance and the fruit of the tree is scrumptious; the sound of the shepherd’s flute rises from the forest and a flock of goats passes me by. The sound of music and song nears my window and a silent wind is blowing like a light, pleasant sigh of comfort. Indeed, this is the power of youth, the power of love, and the power of spring days!

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The days of spring are yet to come, and I only saw them indoors and not outside, because my legs were planted in Kananow Hall for a gala organized by the students of the St. Petersburg University; a fundraising event1 which provides stipends to poor [Jewish] students. The pure light I saw was the light of the numerous chandeliers in that great hall; the roses, flowers, and mandrakes were attached to the head of every girl and maiden walking around; the fruits of the tree were in a bowl, sold on the tables at every corner, some of them spiced and others fried; from the forest, in which there are no trees, came various sounds, including the flute, reminding me of the shepherd and the trees. All around the hall ladies and gentlemen were gliding together in a dance, and a silent wind passed between their mouths, ears, and hearts. One person (the youngest of them), whose name was Amar, stands in one corner and cries, or in another corner and laughs—indeed this is the power of the celebration, to beget spring in the middle of the winter!

Who are the people going to such an establishment in the capital city of St. Petersburg? We have a tradition among the Jews that once the face of the generation was seen in this place for the gala event, and the entire congregation was like a flock dripping milk and honey from the crust of the superlatives we are used to; Indeed, it became known that this crust changed its colors and with time nothing was left of it but the curd alone, that is itself like a harrow upon the mud2, but even this could not be sustained for a long time, for the curds were diminished year after year and nothing was left of them aside from this remainder that is akin to the residue of water dripping from the milk. But all this is said only figuratively, in the spirit of melitza:3 Jews do not have a crust above and water below, since the entire congregation is holy, decent, benevolent; they all know how to be a stronghold for the poor and a shelter for the needy4, from whom comes Torah and knowledge; they all know how to dance to the tune of the violin and the piano, all revere and adore Mr. Feldman, who is standing on the stage as the master of ceremony to reveal the thoughts inside people’s mind.

Who is Feldman? Feldman is the man who knows how to read the thoughts that lie within minds, and has a special, wondrous ability to read people as someone reads an open book that was issued in an excellent printed edition with diacritics and glosses, and with large illuminating fonts—this is what people say about Feldman. If there is a deep thought hidden in someone’s heart, a thought that even ten men won’t be able to reveal, and cannot be revealed even to itself, Feldman would come, put his hand on the head of that buck goat and would reveal the hidden thought “like picking a hair out of milk,” or as the God of Israel extracted his people from the house of bondage in Egypt—that is what people would say about this person. And that is why Feldman was invited to Kananow Hall during the gala, to show his mighty hand and his miracles in front of all of the Jews in the house.

You know the mysteries of the universe and the hidden enigmas of all that lives; If a thought would come up in the heart of a person, it is known and revealed to You. One’s bad thoughts or hidden instincts to fail his friend who is sitting assured, as is common among the rich, before you it’s all revealed and known – and who would stand before you in Judgement on this watch-night? Oh, wash yourselves and become pure for a moment5, and do not sin!

Who is this espied from the first row of the Hall? She is not beautiful as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, but only terrible as an army with banners.6 Her hair was cut by shears and nothing is left but a small remnant, her face was not washed with soap as it should be, and the garment she wears is half to the Lord and half to Azazel—all of this is presumably a sign she is one of the smart, enlightened women! Mr. Feldman passes through the hall, also passing the area where the young woman is sitting—and she covers her face and blushes, her eyes looking here and there to see if anyone could save her from this tyrant who comes to open a window to her secret inner world, and her lips seem to say: “Knower of thoughts… Someone please save me. Save me from his hand, so I would not be put to shame in front of the entire audience and congregation.”

Feldman is passing through the hall until he comes near the middle seats. There can be found a young man who issues to a girl the light of his eye, and near him sits a maiden whose redness of cheek rivals the redness of the rose between her breasts and the light of her eyes rivals the bright light in the hall, and the smell of her lips rivals the smell of the roses and mandrakes…. but why is she trembling when the magician mind-reader comes near her? Why does the man blush when he sees this psychic standing in front of him? And Mr. Feldman amazes everybody with his power of telepathy, and everywhere he turns, he is successful; he tells people what they are going to say, what is beneath the sand in which their thoughts are hidden; he finds objects and writes on the board everything that is on the mind of the audience…..- Oh, wretched man! You can see the tiny shards, but you can’t see the whole chunk of wood! Did you know what’s on the mind and in the heart of the young man and the girl opposite him? Can’t you see what’s going on between them? The youngest of the bunch stands in this corner and his face shines from happiness, brighter than oil…7

And in the place where he stands, even perfectly righteous people like us cannot stand, because we will avert our gaze to another place. What do you see, Son of Man? You can see a tall person standing in the lower chamber, an apprentice in one of the journals in the land who calls himself “Lover of his people,” reading in the Torah and keeping the commandments day and night […] and sacrificing himself—so he says— for “Israel,” for the sake of his unfortunate nation. Why does this man trembles when he sees Feldman approaching him? Who knows?! After all, Feldman has the power to read minds like an open book, and who knows what will be found in the heart and mind of this “lover of his people”? Will Feldman reveal what he does in secret? Will he announce that this “keeper of Mitzvah” actually commits in secret many abominations, and everything that is sacred and holy is a laughingstock for him?— Oh, dear God! Who will remove this Satan who stands to his right to harm him?

And I… if Mr. Feldman would read my mind and expose what I really think about “mind-readers,” who knows how I will fare?.... Quiet down! Mr. Feldman ended his telepathy feat successfully. Then all the chairs were taken outside the hall, and a voice declared: Make way! Make way! Men and women, lads and maidens came to the congregation, as noisy as a waterfall, as numerous as a swarm of bees. Then the dancing began— at this point I will request the old readers who are not happy with such foolish, childish things, to leave the space below the line [this feuilleton], so they do not see the harm done to our people…males and females dancing together!

The heat in the hall was getting worse by the minute, and my friend and I left the hall and went to a cool room, and quickly we forgot the dances and the mind-reader, because what was really on our mind was the new volume of [Heinrich von] Treitschke’s “History of Germany in the 19th Century,” which was just published. Is Treitschke mad or just devoid of knowledge? According to him, the Jews penetrated the daughter of Germany, possessed her, and begot a bastard, and the Aufklärung (German Enlightenment) stopped being Teutonic and became “Jewish” or “faceless”; Wolfgang Menzel the “eater of the French” is the hero of Treitschke’s history, and [Ludwig] Börne and [Heinrich] Heine are “the Jews” that German literature are infested with! Treitschke didn’t know and didn’t understand that Börne was actually a patriot who loved his country with all his heart, and only his anger and rage over the treatment of his people and the censorship in his country made him a man of dispute and quarrel with jests like no other, instead of being a lawmaker in Germany and stand at the top of the political system; Treitschke didn’t know that Börne was an unparalleled judge and critic, one who teaches about aesthetic laws, the rules of talent, the advantage of reason. Treitschke could not understand all of this, and therefore he said that Börne brought the “wit” from the Jewish street to the German people, and that he stood on the fence between patriotism and universalism. Treitschke completely misunderstood Heine, and because of that he could not see that Heine is the greatest German writer since Goethe. Treitschke could not understand that Heine’s outrage towards Prussia is the indignation that every German who is born by the Rhine River feels. And what shall we answer to that? This week, we mark the thirtieth anniversary of the great poet’s death, and all Germans should be happy that now—according to the [copyright] law of the land—all publishers are allowed to issue Heine’s books and nobody can stop them, and thus his books are going to be sold for a low price by the thousands and ten-thousands, and everybody would be able to afford them—What would Treitschke say about this? He will write the fourth volume of his history, and then…

“Changez les dames”!

The voice comes from the hall, and the sound of the violin and piano becomes stronger; the light of the chandeliers is sown to everyone and joy for the upright in heart;8 the dancing men and women are pacing hither and thither; the heat is becoming stronger and stronger; the needle of the clock is moving towards the daylight hours, and the spring in the hall has not been consumed yet!

“Coachman, here are thirty kopeks, and please drive to the street of the Ishmaelite!”


  1. For the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE). 
  2. “Beneath him, jagged shards, he draws a harrow over the mud“ (Job 41:22, Robert Alter Bible translation) [תַּחְתָּיו, חַדּוּדֵי חָרֶשׂ; יִרְפַּד חָרוּץ עֲלֵי-טִיט]. In this chapter God describes the leviathan, and this phrase pertains to the powerful attributes of the beast. It may serve to enhance the ironic or comical tone by comparing the Jewish youth to the powerful mythical monster. 
  3. Melitza is a flowery, poetic linguistic register that is not used in daily language. It was often used by Haskalah authors, and came to be invoked pejoratively by critics, as a linguistic abundance that attempts to mask or compensate for a lack of content. 
  4. “For Your people a stronghold for the poor one, a stronghold for the needy when in straits, a shelter from the downpour, a shade from the heat.” (Isaiah 25:4, Robert Alter Bible translation). [כִּי-הָיִיתָ מָעוֹז לַדָּל מָעוֹז לָאֶבְיוֹן, בַּצַּר-לוֹ: מַחְסֶה מִזֶּרֶם צֵל מֵחֹרֶב, כִּי רוּחַ עָרִיצִים כְּזֶרֶם קִיר.] 
  5. “Wash, become pure, Remove your evil acts from My eyes, Cease doing evil.” (Isaiah 1:16, Robert Alter Bible translation) [רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ]. 
  6. “Who is this espied like the dawn, fair as the moon, dazzling as the sun, daunting as what looms on high?” (Song of Songs 6:10, Robert Alter Bible Translation) [מִי-זֹאת הַנִּשְׁקָפָה, כְּמוֹ-שָׁחַר: יָפָה כַלְּבָנָה, בָּרָה כַּחַמָּה--אֲיֻמָּה, כַּנִּדְגָּלוֹת.] 
  7. “And wine that gladdens the heart of man to make faces shine brighter than oil” (Psalms 104: 15, Robert Alter Bible translation) [וְיַיִן יְשַׂמַּח לְבַב אֱנוֹשׁ לְהַצְהִיל פָּנִים מִשָּׁמֶן וְלֶחֶם לְבַב אֱנוֹשׁ יִסְעָד] 
  8. “Light is sown for the just, and for the upright of heart there is joy” (Psalms 97:11, Robert Alter Bible translation); (אוֹר זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק וּלְיִשְׁרֵי לֵב שִׂמְחָה). 


David [Frishman], “Flying Letters”, 1887. Commentary by Shachar Pinsker

This feuilleton was published in February 26, 1886 by the young writer David Frischmann in Ha-yom (The Day), the first daily Hebrew-language newspaper in the world. Yehuda Leib Kantor established Ha-yom in St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire, just a couple of weeks earlier in collaboration with other contributors. Their goals were to create a universal, pluralistic forum that would rise above internal differences in the Jewish public sphere, as well as to move beyond the realm of exclusively Jewish issues, adapt to European journalistic standards, and introduce Jewish readers to events in Russia and around the world. Frischmann’s feuilleton was entitled “Otiyot porḥot” (“Flying Letters”), part of a series of feuilletons with this name that appeared in Ha-yom in a recognizable, designated place on the second page below the line. He used the pen-name “David” as a distinct feuilletonist persona. “I will serve you under the line,” David announced to his readers in an intimate tone, when inaugurating the series, “and from here I will set my eyes on my surroundings to discern and describe what’s above and what’s below, what’s in front and what’s behind.”

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The text has many of the hallmarks of the European feuilleton, with its first-person narration and direct dialogue with the readers. It is also a good example of how the feuilleton developed in Hebrew in the second half of the 19th century. In a playful language that employs many biblical and other traditional Jewish texts, David describes the sights, sounds, and smells, the convivial atmosphere of a party for Jewish university students taking place in the Russian capital, organized by the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE), which provided stipends to poor students. This was an urban scene that must have been of interest not only to the relatively small Jewish community in St. Petersburg, but to modern readers who lived all over the Russian Empire and beyond in the Jewish diaspora. The feuilleton describes the gathering with music, dances, and witty chatting, focusing on the young revelers, and someone known as Mr. H. Feldman, who claimed to have special telepathic powers of hypnosis and mindreading and was performing his abilities in St. Petersburg. This event was previously announced in the news section of Ha-yom. Feldman goes from one person to the next, and scares them, presumably revealing what is really on their mind, which often goes against their outward appearance.

When Feldman ends his performance and dancing commences, the narrator cannot stand the heat in the dancing hall, and goes out with his friend to the reading-room. There they are engrossed in a lively conversation about what is really on their mind, namely Heinrich von Treitschke’s third volume of the Deutsche Geschichte im neunzehnten Jahrhundert (History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century) which had just been published and was a topic of much discussion and debate. David is furious with Treitschke, the prolific nationalist German historian, because he deemed the “overrepresentation” of Jewish journalists and writers to be a dangerous threat to Germany’s politics, press, and literature.

David takes issue with the way Treitschke’s antisemitism influenced his evaluation of the writings of Heinrich Heine. According to Treitschke, “Heine, with his feuilleton style was the first to throw down the barriers which must separate poetry from prose,” to develop the feuilleton, a superficial yet accomplished style with an easy-to-consume character, to take the “foam of this French passion-drink,” and to bring it from Paris to Germany. Treitschke wrote against Heine’s “internationalist fellows” engaged in newspaper enterprises. This judgement was soon echoed by the literary critic Adolf Bartels, who claimed that Heine stands for Jews who are the “chief representatives of a feuilletonism in Germany,” which is “at bottom corruption...that takes French literature and the French journalistic model as its ideal.” The feuilletonist writes that Treitschke was incapable of recognizing that Heine was the “greatest German writer since Goethe,” and implies that Heine’s feuilletons were a great achievement, one that became a model for his own writing.

Thus, Frischmann’s 1886 feuilleton is not only a superb example of the genre in Hebrew, but also ars-poetic in nature, a feuilleton about feuilletons. It highlights its hybrid nature between poetry and prose, journalism and literature, fact and fiction, high and low, urban scenes and criticism. It is about the possibilities of the feuilleton, its pitfalls, as well as the curious association between feuilletons and Jewishness that hovers around this playful and urbane text.

  • Adolf Bartels, Heinrich Heine: Auch ein Denkmal (Dresden: C.A. Koch, 1906).
  • Adolf Bartels, Jüdische Herkunft und Literaturwissenschaft (Leipzig: Verlag des Bartels-Bundes, 1897).
  • Heinrich von Treitschke, “Das souveräne Feuilleton,” Bilder aus der Deutschen Geschichte, vol. 2 (Leipzig: S. Hirze, 1908).
Further Reading:
  • Hildegard Kernmayer, Judentum im Wiener Feuilleton (1848-1903): Exemplarische Untersuchungen zum literarästhetischen und politischen Diskurs der Moderne (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1998).
  • Zvi Karniel, Ha-felyeton ha-ʻivri: hitpatchuto shel ha-felyeton ba-sifrut ha-ʻivrit (Tel Aviv: Alef, 1981).