Berdyczewski (Later: Bin-Gorion), Micha Josef
BERDYCZEWSKI (Later: Bin-Gorion), MICHA JOSEF
BERDYCZEWSKI (Later: Bin-Gorion), MICHA JOSEF (1865–1921), Hebrew writer and thinker. Born in Medzibezh, Podolia, Berdyczewski was the descendant of a line of ḥasidic rabbis. His father served as the rabbi of Medzibezh during Berdyczewski's childhood. Berdyczewski began to read Haskalah writers in his adolescence and the ensuing struggle between modern ideas and the concepts and forces of traditional Judaism was to animate his writings throughout his life. His first marriage (1883–85) ended when his father-in-law would not tolerate his preoccupation with modern Hebrew books. Shortly thereafter he moved to the yeshivah of Volozhin to study for over a year. Here he began his literary career and incurred the wrath of his teachers with his writings.
His first article was "Toledot Yeshivat Eẓ Ḥayyim" (in Ha-Asif, 1887) and his first story "Heẓiẓ ve-Nifga" (in Ha-Meliẓ, 1888). Most of his publications in this period were polemical articles, some popular and some scholarly, which contain many of the ideas he developed later. He often expressed his views in lyrical outbursts rather than in connected logical statements – a style which marked much of his writing throughout his life.
Berdyczewski left Russia for Germany (1890) and stayed two years in Breslau, studying at the rabbinical seminary and the university. He met frequently with David *Frischmann who strove to expand Berdyczewski's intellectual horizons and cultivate his literary taste. In 1892 he moved to Berlin and combined both Jewish and secular studies but continued the lonely existence of the poor, foreign university student. In Germany Berdyczewski's chaotic, revolutionary ideas were given shape under the impact of his studies in philosophy. The influence of Schopenhauer can be noticed in his famous article "Reshut ha-Yaḥid Be'ad ha-Rabbim" ("The Individual and the Community," in Oẓar ha-Sifrut, 1892), in which he defended the claims of individual freedom and creativity against the stultifying demands of such abstractions as tradition, religion, public consensus and will, history, and ideology. Here and in other articles, Berdyczewski attacked the limited scope of much of Hebrew literature, the inadequacies of Haskalah, Aḥad Ha-Amism, and Ḥibbat Zion. After two years of studies in Berne, Berdyczewski returned to spend four years (1896–1900) in Berlin, one of the most productive periods in his life. Stimulated by his opposition to both *Aḥad Ha-Am and *Herzl, and encouraged by his friends and other Hebrew writers there, Berdyczewski published in many of the leading Hebrew journals, vigorously attacking all accepted ideological positions and calling for a "transvaluation" – in the Nietzschean sense – of Judaism and Jewish history, and the expansion of the canons of Hebrew literary taste. His impulsive tone won him the admiration of the young and the scorn of the older, more conservative readers, mostly the admirers of Aḥad Ha-Am. The famous Aḥad Ha-Am versus Berdyczewski debate appeared in Ha-Shilo'aḥ (1897). In 1900 Berdyczewski firmly established himself in the history of Hebrew literature with the publication of nine volumes of articles and stories.
The year 1900 was also significant in Berdyczewski's personal life; he married Rachel Romberg, a dentist. During the next 20 years she assisted him in his literary and scholarly work and together with their son Immanuel Bin-Gorion continued to edit his writings after his death. With his bride he returned home for a brief visit to the Russian Pale of Settlement for the first time in ten years. The renewed confrontation with the harsh realities of Jewish life in the Pale both modified his stridency and rekindled his interest in the narrative possibilities afforded by this rapidly disintegrating organic community.
After a short stay in Warsaw, he returned to Germany and Breslau (1901–11) and, in self-imposed isolation from colleagues and current affairs, devoted himself to intense literary work which he carried out through many periods of poverty and infirmity until his death. In Breslau, where some of his finest works were written between 1906 and 1909, he continued to write in Hebrew, but embarked upon several new ventures – he wrote articles and stories in Yiddish; systematically collected rabbinic legends; studied the origins of Judaism with particular emphasis upon the Samaritan tradition; and began a still unpublished diary in German. His collected Yiddish writings were published in 1912. After moving to Berlin in 1911, he edited anthologies of legends, reworked his previous writings for the Stybel edition (1921–25), and studied Jewish history of the biblical and Christian period. The years after 1914 were particularly difficult: his health failed; his travel was restricted since he was a Russian citizen; and after the war he was deeply shocked at the news of the pogrom in Doubovo and his father's murder. Nevertheless, Berdyczewski wrote some of his major stories after the war, notably his short novel Miryam, which he completed shortly before his death.
Though Berdyczewski's writings are commonly divided into four groups: essay, fiction, folklore anthologies, and scholarship, the borders between them are often quite arbitrary. Written over a period of 35 years and edited by the author for the Stybel edition, Berdyczewski's literary output is rich but its ambivalent attitudes are the mark of an uprooted, marginal man capable of simultaneously embracing logically contradictory positions and emotions. Many of Berdyczewski's paradoxes can be understood in terms of the dialectical stages of his development, each a reflection of fin de siècle European moods.
In his literary criticism, Berdyczewski derided exhibitionistic mannerism and the submission of a writer's artistic individuality to the demands of ideology. He showed little appreciation for the outstanding literary figures of his day, *Mendele Mokher Seforim, Aḥad Ha-Am, Ḥ.N. *Bialik, and J. *Klausner, but supported younger writers like J.H. *Brenner and M.Z. *Feuerberg and others devoted to their art. He held literature to be one of the vital forces in human experience and reacted to it impressionistically in often fragmentary critical essays, replete with intemperate outbursts and bitter irony; hence his critical point of view is far from consistent.
Berdyczewski wrote more than 150 Hebrew stories, many in Yiddish, and several in German. These stories deal with two central subjects: life in the Jewish towns of Eastern Europe in the last decades of the 19th century and the life of the Eastern European Jewish students in the cities of Central and Western Europe. Heavily autobiographical, many of his pre-1900 stories are often impressionistic, emotional monologues with essayistic digressions.
The shtetl ("Jewish town") served as the background for dramatic situations embodying Berdyczewski's philosophical outlook. He was obsessed with exceptional, individualistic types – lonely, rebellious, and ostracized, and the inevitable clash between them and the intolerant community. The archetypal topography of the town with its Jewish and gentile quarters separated by a river is symbolic of the psychological and social tensions in dozens of stories. Often there is an implied protest against pre-arranged marriages and other forms of coercion within the Jewish community which cause misery, particularly for the women. Life is often depicted as a struggle between light and darkness, beauty and ugliness, refinement and crudeness, and in this struggle the good and beautiful are vanquished. The stories after 1900 consciously strive to erect a literary monument to a fading society or to comprehend human existence in literary terms. Increasingly, the shtetl is comprehended as a society in the grip of a blind, cruel force.
In his fiction one can discern basic patterns and archetypal figures which appear in various forms: the gracious woman who is callously given to a commonplace or vulgar husband; the uprooted student; the undistinguished, almost impotent male; the virile, ruddy man. Berdyczewski attempted to discover the basic psychological features of his protagonists as they function in plausible, realistic situations and thus added a new dimension to the Hebrew short story. The recurring typology, however, and the use of key epithets and motifs organized his more successfully integrated stories and opened them to symbolic interpretation. In their structure they resemble the rabbinic legends whose concrete situations and symbolic implications had always fascinated Berdyczewski. During his most rebellious period (1896–1900) he collected ḥasidic legends which he published as a separate volume in 1900. The vitality, individuality, and aesthetic sensibility of the Ḥasidim attracted him since they were the antithesis of rabbinic Judaism. Both the Hebrew and the German editions of these anthologies substantially expanded the library of Jewish literature available to the average reader.
One of the most seminal figures in both modern Hebrew literature and Jewish thought, Berdyczewski exerted a subtle yet crucial influence upon many readers after the turn of the century because he embodied, both in his personality and in his writing, the painfully ambivalent attitudes toward both traditional Judaism and European culture shared by many Jewish intellectuals. Characteristically, Berdyczewski rebelled against his religious background, but could never completely reject it.
Berdyczewski's collected works are Kol Kitvei, Stybel edition (20 vols. (1921–25) and various other later editions; collected Yiddish works Yidishe Ksurim (1924); rabbinic legends; Me-Oẓar ha-Aggadah (2 vols., 1913; Mi-Mekor Yisrael (5 vols., 1930–45). A list of his works translated into English appears in Goell, Bibliography, 63, 94. An English translation of Miriam appeared in 1983. Among recent collections in Hebrew are A. Holtzman, Y. Kafkafi (eds.), Kitvei M.J. Berdyczewski (1996) and A. Holtzman (ed.), Meḥkarim u-T'eudot (2002)
His son immanuel bin-gorion (1903–1987), writer and translator, was born in Breslau. In 1936 he settled in Tel Aviv where he served as director of Bet Mikhah Yosef (a municipal library based on his father's collection). His writings in Hebrew and German include essays, literary criticism, and studies of folklore. He edited and published his father's writings. His Hebrew books include Shevilei ha-Aggadah (1950) and Ḥidot ha-Sheloshah, ancient Indian legends.
Waxman, Literature, 4 (1960), 113–24, 382–93; Kressel, Leksikon, 1 (1965), 322–5; S. Spiegel, Hebrew Reborn (1930), 331–74; Y.A. Klausner, Major Trends in Modern Hebrew Fiction (1957), 124–43; Kol Kitvei J.Ḥ. Brenner, 3 (1967), 34–54; Fishmann, in: Kol Sippurei Bin-Gorion (Berdyczewski) (1951), 13–28; Y. Kaufmann, Golah ve-Nekhar, 2 (1954), 386–404; Y. Keshet, M.J. Berdyczewski (Heb., 1958); Lachower, Sifrut, 3 (1963), 71–139, bibliography 217–9; Meron, in: Moznayim, 19 (1954), 248–58; I. Rabinovitz, Major Trends in Modern Hebrew Fiction (1968), 124–44. add. bibliography: N. Govrin (ed.), M.J. Berdyczewski: Mivḥar Ma'amrei Bikoret al Yeẓirato ha-Sippurit (1973); G. Shaked, Ha-Sipporet ha-Ivrit, 1 (1977), 163–205; Z. Kagan, Me-Aggadah le-Sipporet Modernit bi-Yetzirat Berdyczewski (1983); Y. Oren, Aḥad Ha-Am, M.Y.Berdyczewski ve-Ḥavurat "Ẓe'irim" (1985); E. Bin-Gorion, Olam ve-Olamot bo: M.J. Berdyczewski, Mored u-Meshorer (1986); Y. Ben Mordechai, Shivḥei ha-Eyvah: Iyyunim bi-Yeẓirato shel M.J. Berdyczewski (1987); D. Miron, Boah Laylah: Iyyunim be-Yeẓirot Bialik u-M.J. Berdyczewski (1987); A. Holtzman, Hakarat Panim: Masot al M.J. Berdyczewsi (1993); idem, El ha-Kera she-ba-Lev (1995); H. Bar-Yosef, Magga'im shel Dekadans: Bialik, Berdyczewski, Brenner (1997); N. Govrin (ed.), Boded be-Ma'aravo: M.J. Berdyczewski be-Zukhronot benei Zemano (1997); W. Cutter, Relations between the Greats of Modern Jewish Literature: M.Y. Berdyczewski's Complicated Friendship with Martin Buber (2000); A. Holtzman, "Ha-Sefer ve-ha-Ḥayyim" (2003); M. Bergman, in: D. Stern (ed.), The Anthology in Jewish Literature (2004).
[Dan Almagor /
Arnold J. Band]
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