Skip To Content
The Schmooze

Salmon Maimon: 18th Century Thinker

In George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” the eponymous hero purchases “that wonderful bit of autobiography, the life of the Polish Jew, Salomon Maimon.” The British author Israel Zangwill concurred, paraphrasing passages from Maimon’s life story in chapters of his 1898 “Dreamers of the Ghetto.” Maimon’s 1793 classic also impressed Franz Kafka, who described it in one letter as the “harsh self-presentation of a man running to and fro like a ghost between Eastern and Western Jewry.”

Shlomo ben Yehoshua (1753–1800), who adopted the name Maimon out of admiration for Maimonides, was born in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, now belonging to Belarus. Though his life was undoubtedly harsh, his “Lebensgeschichte” (Life Story) is a delight, albeit one only available in English in an abridged 1947 translation by Moses Hadas from Schocken and a more complete 19th century translation reprinted by University of Illinois Press. Which makes a new edition in French, edited and translated by the philosopher and historian Maurice-Ruben Hayoun, published by Presses Pocket, all the more welcome. In a preface, Hayoun terms Maimon’s book the “eighteenth century’s most captivating Jewish autobiography.”

The picaresque tale of a brilliantly bumptious youth who becomes a Talmudic scholar and marries by age eleven, only to abandon his Eastern European family for Berlin’s Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement, makes for lively reading indeed. Parts suggest Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions” rewritten as slapstick comedy. Cheerfully admitting to being a greedy, callous glutton, Maimon studies Kabbalah in order to learn how to become invisible “to better dominate my wicked mother-in-law” and is disappointed when this proves impossible. Instead, Maimon breaks a pot of milk over his relative’s head and relishes the results: “What a sight! My mother-in-law dripped milk from all quarters.”

On the road and freed from domestic entanglements, Maimon instantly embraces the identity of homeless schnorrer, choosing as his traveling companion an aggressive professional beggar. Studying the latter’s methods, the always-rational Maimon admits perplexity:

“I couldn’t see why it was necessary to insult those people who refused to give me charity.”

Philosophers such as Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant were personally impressed by Maimon because of his genuine intellectual distinction. Maimon translated Mendelssohn’s “Morning Hours: Lectures on God’s Existence” into Hebrew, and wrote Hebrew textbooks on mathematics and Newtonian physics. The last-mentioned he entitled “Ta’alumoth Hochma” (Mysteries of Wisdom). A lasting mystery is why no complete modern translation into English exists of his landmark “Life Story.”

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.