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Feierberg, Mordekhai Ze’ev

(1874–1899), Hebrew writer; pioneer of psychological realism, neoromanticism, and symbolism. Mordekhai Feierberg was born in Novograd Volynsk (now Ukr., Novohrad Volyns’kyi) and was first taught by his father, who was a shoḥet (kosher slaughterer). Although Feierberg then studied at the Chernobil yeshiva, he grew impressed with the ideas of Jewish philosophy and the Haskalah, and subsequently led a group of maskilim. He was persecuted for his activities by traditional Jews, including his own father.

Feierberg was to have married at 18 but his arranged wedding was canceled when he contracted tuberculosis. Seeking medical treatment in Warsaw, he met Naḥum Sokolow, editor of the daily Ha-Tsefirah, who published Feierberg’s first short story, “Ya‘akov ha-shomer” (Ya‘akov the Guardian). The protagonist of this piece is a former cantonist who remains loyal to Judaism despite difficulties and temptations. In 1897, Ahad Ha-Am published Feierberg’s “Ha-‘Egel” (The Calf) and “Ha-Kame‘a” (The Amulet), stories about traumatic childhood experiences, in his prestigious Ha-Shiloaḥ. Feierberg’s correspondence with Ahad Ha-Am shows the young author’s great respect for “the Teacher” (in Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik’s words), but also his desperate attempts to protect his innovations from Ahad Ha-Am’s conservative literary views.

In his early twenties, Feierberg became acquainted with Russian contemporary literature. Writing neoromantic short stories, in 1899 he published “Lel aviv” (A Spring Night) and “Ha-Tselalim” (The Shadows) in Luaḥ Aḥi’asaf, edited by Avraham ben Avigdor. “Le-an” (Whither?), his most influential longer story, describes the crisis of contemporary Jewish values and the search for a solution, and appeared in Ha-Shiloaḥ in 1900, a short time after Feierberg’s death. In the same year, “Le-an” and “Ba-‘Erev” (In the Evening) were issued in Russian translation in the Russian Jewish monthly literary supplement of Voskhod, while “Ha-Tselalim” was published there in January 1902.

Two of Feierberg’s articles, “Mikhtav galui le-mar Berdishevski” (An Open Letter to M. Y. Berdyczewski) and “Sifrutenu ha-yafah ve-ḥovoteha” (The Duties of Our [Hebrew] Literature), were published posthumously. His “Kovets sipurav u-ketavav” (Collected Stories and Writings) appeared in 1904. Russian translations of Feierberg’s stories appeared in 1902 and in 1918, and an English edition of his stories, Whither? and Other Stories, was issued in 1973.

Feierberg’s literary legacy is small, but his achievements and cultural importance are significant. He influenced Bialik by providing dramatic and psychologically vivid descriptions of the tragic conflict of young (sometimes even very young) Jews torn between loyalty and love to their traditional familial world and an inner revolt against it. “Le-an,” for example, tells of a rabbi’s son who is considered insane by the community for extinguishing a memorial candle in a synagogue on Yom Kippur—an expression of his religious crisis. The story reveals the inner development that brought the character to this extreme state, and ends with the hero’s call, “To the East! To the East!” These words were considered to be a call for Zionist action, though they may also be understood as a warning against accepting the Western orientation of the Haskalah movement and underestimating East European Jewish culture.

Feierberg’s writings emphasize the similarity between traditional and modern Jewish temperaments, even if beliefs and values vary. Thus, in “Le-an” the Hasidic father teaches his son that to be Jewish means to be a soldier of God, and the son realizes that this readiness to bend to a higher value demands different ways of action. Feierberg’s idea, that underneath the difference and despite the battle between the old and the new generations there is a basic similarity as well as great love, was inherited by Uri Nisan Gnessin, especially in his short story “Se‘udah mafseket” (The Meal before the Fast; 1905).

Feierberg’s literary success came partly from his brilliant use of the inner monologue, a technique he learned from Dostoevsky. At a time when Hebrew was not yet a spoken language, Feierberg succeeded in writing dramatic inner monologues that created a convincing impression of authentic speech. He was also the first Hebrew writer to reflect the inner world of the Jewish child; three of his pieces—“Ba-‘Erev,” “Ha-Kame‘a,” and “Ha-‘Egel”—are subtitled “Mi-Sefer ha-zikhronot shel Ḥofni ba‘al dimyon” (From the Memory Book of Hofni, Child of Imagination).” Using irony, Feierberg depicts children in a modern, unromantic way; their world is limited, sometimes cruel, and they are often unable to understand the suffering of adults. He criticizes narrowmindedness, both in revolutionary movements and in private life. Feierberg’s tolerance—his ability to understand conflicting worlds of children, parents, and rabbis—is extraordinary even in the larger context of world literature.

Suggested Reading

Hamutal Bar-Yosef, “Ezeh min romantikan haya Fayerberg?” Bikoret u-farshanut 23 (1988): 87–116; Eliezer Steinman, ed., Kitve M. Z. Fayerberg (Tel Aviv, 1940), pp. 5–36.