Jewish writers and intellectuals, Vilna, 1905. (From left to right) Yesha‘yahu Bershadsky, M. Kabak (seated), Yitsḥak Dov Berkowitz (standing), Berta Tshernovits, Ernestina Rabinovitz (daughter of the writer Sholem Aleichem and Berkowitz’s wife), playwright Perets Hirshbeyn, and Shemu’el[?] Tshernovits. (YIVO)

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Berkowitz, Yitsḥak Dov

(1885–1967), Hebrew and Yiddish writer. Born to a working-class family in Slutsk, in the Minsk region, Yitsḥak Dov Berkowitz was an avid reader of Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish literature. When he was about 15 years old, he began to write stories and recorded impressions for a private newspaper that he produced with his friends. His real literary career, however, began in 1903 when he was appointed to a teaching position in Łódź, and befriended the young poet, Yitsḥak Katzenelson. With Katzenelson’s encouragement, Berkowitz published his first Hebrew stories in the daily Ha-Tsofeh, and at the end of 1903 he won first place in a story competition held by that newspaper—an award that brought him overnight fame.

Over the next two years, Berkowitz published some 20 stories culled from the experiences of Lithuanian towns, impressing readers with gritty realism, a mature and wise point of view, and a consummate Hebrew style. An especially enthusiastic Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, then literary editor of Ha-Shiloaḥ, urged Berkowitz to contribute stories to that periodical. At the end of 1904, when Berkowitz was 19, he was invited to edit the literary section of Vilna’s Ha-Zeman newspaper.

In 1905, while still in Vilna, Berkowitz became acquainted with his childhood hero, Sholem Aleichem, and in the same year married the Yiddish writer’s eldest daughter, Ernestina. From then on he became an inseparable member of the writer’s family and became the right-hand man of his father-in-law in all his literary affairs. Being near Sholem Aleichem was a reason for Berkowitz’s decision in 1906 to add Yiddish to his literary repertoire. From then on, he wrote in both languages, with each enhancing his work in the other. In contrast to his contemporaries, who at early stages of their careers chose one language or the other, Berkowitz remained a dedicated bilingual writer until the end of his life. However, critics have regarded him as a more effective writer in Hebrew. This, it appears, was the result of his loyalty to Hebrew, to Zionism, and to the resettlement of Palestine.

Alter Druyanow (left) with (left to right) writers Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Yehoshu‘a Ḥana Ravnitski, Mendele Moykher-Sforim, and Yitsḥak Dov Berkowitz, Odessa (?), ca. 1910. (Asher Barash Gnazim Institute, Tel Aviv)

In 1910, Berkowitz compiled his Hebrew and Yiddish stories into two parallel volumes. He also embarked upon his lifetime project of translating Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish works into Hebrew, which over the next few decades expanded into a multivolume work that attracted a large and enthusiastic readership spanning several generations. Between 1910 and 1913, Berkowitz served as the literary editor of Ha-‘Olam, a Zionist weekly, and when it relocated from Vilna to Odessa, he moved as well. In 1913, he left Russia, and after a short stay in Berlin, immigrated to the United States with his father-in-law’s family.

After Sholem Aleichem died in 1916, Berkowitz became his literary executor, editing a comprehensive edition of all his writings (1917–1925), and publishing Dos Sholem-Aleykhem-bukh (in Yiddish; 1926), which included a large selection of letters and major documents. Berkowitz also played a central role on the American Hebrew literary stage as editor of the journals Ha-Toren and Miklat, and as manager of the American branch of the Stybel publishing company.

Berkowitz moved to Palestine in 1928, where he grew actively involved in the literary scene and served as a founding editor of the Moznayim weekly (1929). His writings of the 1930s, including the novels Yemot ha-mashiaḥ (The Days of the Messiah; 1937), and Menaḥem Mendel be-Erets Yisra’el (Menaḥem Mendel in the Land of Israel; 1936) reflected their ardently Zionist author’s encounters with the Land of Israel, but by far his most important work was his wide-ranging memoir. The work began as an effort by Berkowitz to perpetuate the memory of Sholem Aleichem, based on personal reminiscences, but evolved into a panoramic portrait of Jewish literary life in its European centers at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was first serialized in Yiddish as Undzere rishoynim (Our Forebears; 1931–1933), and was later rendered into Hebrew as Ha-Rishonim ki-vene adam (Our Forebears as Human Beings; 1938).

During his later years, Berkowitz rearranged and collected his Hebrew writings, dedicated himself to projects perpetuating the memory of East European Jewry (he edited the memorial volume of his hometown, Slutsk, and established the Sholem Aleichem House in Tel Aviv), and composed his final work, which appeared in Yiddish and in Hebrew: Pirke yaldut (Chapters on Childhood; 1965–1966), memoirs written from a very young child’s perspective.

Yiddish writers (left to right) Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh), Alter Druyanow, Yehoshu‘a Ḥana Ravnitski, Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, and Yitsḥak Dov Berkowitz, Odessa, ca. 1910. (Beit Bialik, Tel Aviv)

Berkowitz’s most important works are the stories he wrote in Europe early in his career. He played a unique role in his literary generation. While his stories articulated the formative experience of his generation—young Jews’ alienation and suspension between the traditional and modern worlds—he also embellished and expanded upon this theme by producing a diverse gallery of personalities who experienced orphanhood, loneliness, estrangement, shame, and degradation. In this respect, not only was his writing similar to that of Yosef Ḥayim Brenner, Uri Nisan Gnessin, and Gershom Shofman, but it was also epitomized in the title of his story “Talush” (Uprooted; 1904), which gave this literary phenomenon its Hebrew name.

On the other hand, Berkowitz tended to present his characters from the perspective of an impartial narrator, employing a balanced style and a richly rhythmic and layered prose, while depicting the private fate of tormented individuals as part of a broad sociohistorical process. For this reason, his style has traditionally been regarded as straddling, and as borrowing equally from two conflicting narrative styles that characterized Hebrew fiction—the epic panoramic style of Mendele Moykher-Sforim as well as the expressive dramatic style of Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski.

Berkowitz’s amalgamation of individualistic psychology and panoramic portrayal of society and its landscapes signify how his stories were a key link in developing realism in Hebrew literature. This trend was inspired by the classical Russian prose of the nineteenth century, which Berkowitz himself admitted was the primary source for his education in literature (he even translated Tolstoy and Chekhov). Over the course of time, his stories’ types of descriptions and formulations (and his translations of Sholem Aleichem) served as an influential model for the young writers of Israel’s generation of 1948.

Suggested Reading

Yona Altschuler, “Y. D. Berkowitz, the Bilingual Writer,” in Yidishe dertseylungen, 1906–1924, by Yitzḥak Dov Berkowitz, pp. v–lxi (Jerusalem, 2003), article also in Hebrew, pp. 11–56 (Hebrew pagination); Abraham Holz (Holtz), Isaac Dov Berkowitz: Voice of the Uprooted (London, 1973); Abraham Holz (Holtz), ed., Yitsḥak Dov Berkovits: Mivḥar ma’amre bikoret ‘al yetsirato (Tel Aviv, 1976); Gershon Shaked, “Yitsḥak Dov Berkovits” in Ha-Siporet ha-‘ivrit, 1880–1980, vol. 1, Ba-Golah, pp. 327–341 (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 1977).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 108, Manuscripts, Collection, ; RG 1171, Bertha Kling, Papers, 1907-1978; RG 205, Kalman Marmor, Papers, 1880s-1950s; RG 208, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Papers, 1882-1953; RG 211, Samuel Rosenfeld, Papers, ca. 1900-1942; RG 357, Mark Schweid, Papers, ca. 1920s-1969; RG 567, Samuel Wiener, Collection, 1925-1965; RG 610, Leib Olitzky, Papers, 1940s-1960s.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler