Title page of Maḥanayim (The Two Camps), by Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski (Warsaw: Tushiyah, 1900). (Ginze Mikhah Yosef, Holon, Israel)

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Berdyczewski, Mikhah Yosef

(1865–1921), writer and thinker. Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski (or Berdichevsky) was born in Międzyboż (Medzhibizh), Ukraine, in the cradle of Hasidism, to a family descended from generations of rabbis. He received a traditional Hasidic education, and as the firstborn son was destined to inherit his father’s rabbinical title. Berdyczewski spent his childhood and youth in the town of Dubova near Uman, in a deeply religious and conservative environment. During his adolescence, however, the harmony between his beliefs and his ancestral traditions was undermined by his fascination with the Haskalah and his enthusiastic delving into its literature. As a result, he was forced to comply with his extremely religious father-in-law’s demand that he divorce his first wife.

At the age of 20, Berdyczewski went to study at the Volozhin yeshiva in Lithuania, and during the period of his studies (1885–1886) he wrote his first literary compositions. His earliest writings—descriptions of yeshiva life, and brief Halakhic discussions—were published at the end of 1886, and for the next four years he frequently wrote for the Hebrew press, contributing opinion articles, literary reviews, historical surveys, and reports of events in the towns in which he lived. At that time he was considered a “religious maskil(maskil torani) interested in integrating ideas from the Torah world with European cultural values. In this spirit, he released a literary anthology titled Bet ha-midrash (House of Learning; 1888). In 1890, he left for Odessa, where he stayed for a year while preparing himself for university education in Western Europe.

In 1891, Berdyczewski began studying at the University of Breslau. He later attended the universities of Berlin and Bern, where in 1896 he received his doctorate. Although during his years of study he rarely published, this period proved to be decisive in determining his weltanschauung and in contributing to his formation as an artist. At first Berdyczewski tended to deny the values of the sheltered Jewish world completely and was enchanted by Western philosophy and European belles lettres. Later he rejected culture itself in favor of the sanctification of primal urges and instincts, perhaps under the influence of Nietzsche. Around 1896, however, he again accepted his Jewish background, and tried to find a synthesis between Judaism and modern European cultural values (stressing an unmediated connection with nature, love, art for its own sake, belles lettres, and the plastic arts).

At the end of 1896, Berdyczewski reappeared on the Hebrew literary scene with a series of polemical articles attacking the ideas of the much admired thinker Ahad Ha-Am, who had founded the monthly Ha-Shiloaḥ. Berdyczewski (and his colleagues) severely criticized the limited space that Ahad Ha-Am had allotted to belles lettres in his vision of Hebrew culture, and particularly his suggestion that Hebrew readers could find aesthetic contentment in the more advanced and richer literature of other languages. Ahad Ha-Am’s intention to confine his monthly publication to Judaic subjects would lead, according to Berdyczewski, to splitting life into “two domains—ours, and the world around us,” and thus “we are indeed widening the rupture within the heart of our youth, who even without these problems have had to contend with unending internal battles that pit the beauty of Japheth against the tents of Shem.” Berdyczewski called for a healing of this “rent in the heart”—a central theme in his thought—in order to enable Jewish youth to “become integrated ‘Hebrew human beings,’ nourished from one common source.” This polemic soon developed into a multilayered debate that lasted for two years, regarded by many as one of the most important in the history of modern Hebrew literature.

During the course of this polemic, Berdyczewski became the leader of the younger generation of Hebrew writers. His position was further strengthened during the one-year period (1899–1900) when he published nine books—four of short stories, and the remaining five, collections of essays. Some of the stories, including the important novellas Maḥanayim (The Two Camps), and ‘Urva Paraḥ (The Raven Has Flown; an Aramaic expression meaning “nonsense; groundless”) reflect the tension experienced by the individual between a wish to satisfy erotic desires and intellectual cravings in the modern world, and the immensely powerful pull of the ancestors’ traditional world, which binds like knots that cannot be untied. Other stories are portraits and sketches culled from experiences of small-town life in Russia, based in large measure on Berdyczewski’s memories of the Ukrainian shtetl of his childhood, but also reflecting the author’s ambivalent attitude toward Jewish reality, oscillating between empathy and satirical criticism. Nonetheless, the center of gravity of these stories is located elsewhere, for beneath the surface of the wretched and atrophied shtetl described in these stories are raw human urges, sins, and transgressions against social and sexual prohibitions.

Berdyczewski’s inclination to expose hidden life forces beneath the cloak of tradition and spirituality of Jewish life deepened progressively in his writings until, in the final years of his life, it acquired a mythical nature, leading him to depict characters as reincarnations of primordial forces or of immensely powerful biblical figures. These figures fight against the finite restrictions of human existence, struggling against forces of nature, and thereby sinning and receiving punishment. The distinctiveness of these stories is to be found not only in their remarkable themes, and the exceptional worldview they reflect, but also in their refreshingly unconventional style. He used dense metaphorical language, distinctive and individualistic symbolism, fragmented syntactic configurations, and nuanced and concise designs of plot and characters.

Most interpreters of Berdyczewski’s weltanschauung highlight his demand for the right of every individual Jew to freedom from the yoke of rabbinical Judaism’s laws and traditions, in order to satisfy freely one’s instinctive desires and intellectual cravings. Berdyczewski called on his contemporaries to cease being the “last Jews,” to prefer the sword over the book, and to become the “first Hebrews.” He formulated other mottos, expressing his demand for a change of values. These mottos also became popular sayings, making him one of the founders of secular Jewish nationalism. Among these was his elevation of “actual Jews” over “abstract Judaism,” his declaration that “the living man had an advantage over his ancestors’ heritage,” and his radical pronouncement that “We are Hebrews and we worship our hearts.”

In the same spirit, he branched out into other areas of literary activity, compiling Jewish legends and undertaking biblical studies that strived to prove that there was an antinormative, earthy, and natural trend that had been suppressed and distorted by the canonical chroniclers of Judaism. This explains why his stories reflect an attraction to characters who sin, transgress, and follow their natural impulses, and why he tries to expose any spark of life and power in the moribund Jewish town.

In 1902, Berdyczewski settled in Breslau, where he turned to a variety of new fields in his literary work, including writing stories and articles in Yiddish. Most of these works were created between 1902 and 1907, amounting to about 180 altogether, which were collected in 1924 in six volumes. His Yiddish writings deal primarily with everyday realities of the shtetl, reflected in monologues by simple folk characters. Grouped together, these numerous trivial episodes portray a colorful panorama of simple life, small businesses, passions, and sins. Berdyczewski preferred to have his characters speak for themselves. He therefore created a written, “nonliterary” style, supposedly equivalent to the authentic spoken Ukrainian dialect of Yiddish without any apparent stylistic polishing. The narrator in most of these stories serves merely as an uncritical listening ear, whose manner of speaking reveals him as a naive folk-character himself, lamenting the harmonious nature of traditional Jewish life destroyed and lost forever in modern times.

Yiddish, for Berdyczewski, was the only appropriate medium to describe shtetl life from within by allowing its simple, unintellectual figures to express themselves directly. His Yiddish corpus envisions the shtetl as a low, primitive and vulgar yet naive, authentic and vital living environment, where even the tragic dimensions of life are viewed through a softening comic prism. Needless to say, this seemingly authentic, nonideological perspective reflects in its own way a clearly patronizing attitude. Berdyczewski did not believe in the power of Yiddish to become a real modern literary language. Therefore, he did not see it fit for depicting modern reality or a complex intellectual consciousness.

A completely different concept emerges from Berdyczewski’s German corpus. These works were written for the German reader, Jewish and non-Jewish, assuming the reader’s complete ignorance of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. From the very outset of his writing in German, Berdyczewski appointed himself as mediator, ambassador, or messenger, sent from the heart of traditional Jewry to the Western public. At first, between 1897 and 1899, he concentrated on narrative fiction, investing his creative energy in the composition of a comprehensive autobiographical novel. This novel was never completed, and was eventually lost, but its opening chapters and some other fragments have survived and were published as independent stories. The shtetl community is presented in them as strange and enigmatic. Berdyczewski seems to have adopted there an alienated Western point of view, from which he examines the shtetl as an anthropologist observing exotic tribes from a considerable mental distance. The same so-called anthropological view manifests itself even further in his German essays. Empathic but detached, the observer describes the main paradox characterizing shtetl life, namely the contradiction between physical misery and spiritual wealth. Berdyczewski’s German stories and essays were collected in 1918 in two volumes, Zwei Generationen (Two Generations) and Vom östlichen Judentum (From Eastern Jewry).

During World War I, because Berdyczewski was a citizen of an enemy state (Russia), the German government imposed certain administrative restrictions upon him. In 1918, the publisher Avraham Yosef Stybel offered to publish all of Berdyczewski’s writings on condition that he return to writing in Hebrew. Berdyczewski spent the last three years of his life adapting and sifting through his earlier works for this comprehensive edition, in addition to composing original texts, the most famous of which were three novellas, Bayit tivneh (You Shall Build a House), Gare reḥov (Street Residents), Be-Seter ra‘am (From a Place of Thunder) and the novel Miryam.

The change that had been gradually taking place in Berdyczewski’s poetics since the beginning of the century reached its climax during this period—that is, he succeeded in inserting mythic and aggadic (Jewish legend) elements into the reality described in the stories. This included creating characters whose strength far surpassed those of other mortals but who were dependent on unseen forces of fate; a multiplicity of references to ancient episodes, biblical and otherwise; a cyclical-circular notion of time; depicting a world that is the scene of an eternal struggle between God and Satan; highlighting the capacity of sin to act as a legitimate channel to satisfy one’s desires by breaching social norms; and elevating linguistic and stylistic elements to intensify portrayals of his fictional world.

In 1920, Berdyczewski learned that his father and brother had been murdered in pogroms that had accompanied the civil war in Ukraine, and that the shtetl of his childhood and youth had been destroyed in the same violence. This information reinforced in him the tragic sense, clearly observed in his last works, that his mission was to erect a gravestone for the disappearing Jewish world.

The disasters also severely affected his health, and Berdyczewski died in Berlin on 18 November 1921. The comprehensive edition of his stories and articles in Hebrew and in Yiddish had appeared by 1924 in 26 volumes, and studies in history that were culled from his estate began to be issued a year later. His rich archives are in Ḥolon, Israel, and a complete version of all his writings began to be published in 1996, with the first six volumes appearing by 2004.

Suggested Reading

Dan Ben-Amos, “Introduction,” in Mimekor Yisrael: Selected Classical Jewish Folktales, by Micah Joseph Berdichevsky, abr. and annot. ed., pp. xxiii–xlvi (Bloomington, Ind., 1990); Micah Joseph Berdichevsky, Miriam and Other Stories, ed. Avner Holtzman (New Milford, Conn., 2004); Nurith Govrin, ed., Mikhah Yosef Berdits´evski (Ben-Goryon): Mivḥar ma’amre bikoret ‘al yetsirato ha-sipurit (Tel Aviv, 1973); Avner Holtzman, ed., Mikhah Yosef Berdits´evski: Meḥkarim u-te‘udot (Jerusalem, 2002); Marcus Moseley, “Between Memory and Forgetfulness: The Janus Face of Michah Yosef Berdichevsky,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry 12 (1996): 78–117.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler