Berkowitz, Yitzḥak Dov

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BERKOWITZ, YITZḤAK DOV (1885–1967), Hebrew and Yiddish novelist, editor, and translator of *Shalom Aleichem. Born in Slutsk, Belorussia, Berkowitz studied in ḥeder and educated himself in secular subjects. In 1903 he made his way to Lodz. He became friendly with Itzhak *Katzenelson. One of his first stories, "Moshkele Ḥazir," was printed in Ha-Ẓofeh in 1903 and won a literary prize. In 1905 he became literary editor of Ha-Zeman, and his articles and stories appeared in most of the Hebrew and Yiddish journals of the day. In 1906 Berkowitz married Shalom Aleichem's daughter, Ernestina, spent 18 months in Switzerland, and visited the U.S. in 1908. While there, he contributed to the local Yiddish and Hebrew press. In 1909 he moved to Warsaw, where he edited the literary page of the Yiddish journal, Di Naye Velt. Several volumes of his collected stories were published in Hebrew and Yiddish from 1910 onwards.

In 1913 he went to the United States where he edited the weekly Ha-Toren as well as Miklat (1920–21). He settled in Palestine in 1928, and became one of the first editors of the weekly, Moznayim. Berkowitz published his translation of the collected works of Shalom Aleichem and his masterfully written reminiscences of the great Yiddish writer and his generation, under the title Ha-Rishonim ki-Venei Adam (1933–48).

While his contemporaries, G. *Schoffman, J.Ḥ *Brenner, and U.N. *Gnessin revolted against the style of *Mendele Mokher Seforim and Ḥ.N. *Bialik, Berkowitz remained true to the older prose writing tradition, displaying his individuality in the choice of subject, methods of characterization, and structure of the story. Although his less conformist contemporaries were not always accepted by the literary establishment, he himself was praised by Bialik. Berkowitz's stories, novels, plays, and memoirs appeared in Yiddish and Hebrew. The bulk of his work was written in Hebrew.

Berkowitz is important as a writer of short stories. In his early years he wrote realistic stories under the influence of Mendele, Bialik, and Chekhov but soon was captivated by the technique and style of Shalom Aleichem. The influence of the greater writer tended to weaken Berkowitz's originality. Berkowitz's stories were written out of the context of the social crisis which shook Eastern European Jewry in his day. Among his central themes are (1) the weakening of parental authority: "Lifnei ha-Shulḥan" ("Before the Table"); "Pere Adam" ("The Ill-Mannered One"); "Malkot" ("Lashings"); "Ba'al Simḥah" ("The Feted"); "Maftir"; "Moshkele Ḥazir"; (2) the problems resulting from changes in the protagonists' social status and from their cultural isolation: "Viddui" ("Confession"); "Talush" ("Severed", in Israel Argosy, 1936); "Kelei Zekhukhit" ("Glass," in Reflex, 1927); (3) problems resulting from emigration: "Karet" ("The Outcast," in The Jewish Standard, 1936); "El ha-Dod ba-Amerikah" ("To Uncle in America," in B'nai Brith Magazine, 1930); "Yarok" ("The Greenhorn," in The American Jewish Chronicle, 1917); "Mi-Merḥakim" ("From Afar"); (4) problems from the social pressure of a strange world: "Pelitim" ("Refugees"); "Ruḥot Ra'ot" ("Evil Spirits"). The characters, generally unable to face up to the crisis, are "anti-heroes" who collapse under pressure, victims of social and psychological situations beyond their control. It is not the plot, but the social and psychological situation expressed through the plot, which is the main point of Berkowitz's stories. His characterization is not introspective (as is the case with J.Ḥ. Brenner and U.N. Gnessin), but external. The inner world of the protagonists is revealed through mannerism, habits, and dialogue. In many cases wider basic situations are implied through the specific case by the symbolic expansion of landscapes or verbal hints, extending the significance of the dialogue or characters. The background of most of Berkowitz's stories is Russia at the turn of the century, and the effect of the social and general crisis of the time on the country's Jews. Some of the stories deal with the place of immigrants of the old generation in the U.S., others with the impact of Ereẓ Israel on new immigrants: "Amerikah Olah le-Ereẓ Yisrael" ("America Comes to Ereẓ Israel," 1946); "Ha-Nehag" ("The Heart of a Chauffeur," in Commentary, 1953).

There is a change in direction as regards technique and theme in Berkowitz's novels. In the first of these, Menaḥem Mendel be-Ereẓ Yisrael ("Menahem Mendel in Ereẓ Israel," 1936) he attempted to transfer one of Shalom Aleichem's characters to the new environment of Ereẓ Israel, continuing the epistolary technique. The correspondence is one-sided; Menahem Mendel writes to his wife, Sheine Sheindel; she does not reply. The theme is the ideological struggle between fathers, who still belong to the Diaspora in their way of thinking and try to make easy money out of the building boom in the Tel Aviv of the 1930s, and the sons, who are committed to the ideal of pioneer labor. The mode is satirical rather than humoristic. Yemot ha-Mashi'aḥ ("Messianic Days," 1938) is a description of the emigration of Dr. Menuḥin, a Zionist intellectual, from the United States to Ereẓ Israel. At times it reads like a roman à clef, in which the writer hints at real characters and at the struggle between the *Revisionist (right-wing Zionist) and the Labor movement. His hero, Menuḥin, is searching for a new truth and a new way of life, and he eventually finds a wife (Yehudit), after overcoming various prejudices, and discovers the attractions of "labor Palestine." The ideology of the labor movement is one of the important aspects of the novel and events are judged by its light.

Berkowitz also wrote several plays of different types, some of which appeared in a separate volume in 1928. The fourth, Mirah, was published in 1934. His play, Ba-Araẓot ha-Reḥokot ("In the Distant Lands," 1928), is a comedy on the life of immigrants to the United States. The appearance of Anton, a Russian farmer, in the midst of a Jewish family, causes various romantic complications and errors. Oto ve-Et Beno ("He and His Son," 1928), a realistic "somber drama," is a continuation of the story "Moshkele Ḥazir" – Moshke, a convert to Christianity who had a son, Jacob, by a non-Jewish wife, is nevertheless still tied to his Jewish origins. During a pogrom in the midst of the Russian Revolution, Moshke hides Jews in his home and this act brings about a clash between him and his son, in which Moshke murders Jacob and commits suicide. The play is written in realistic, Ibsenesque style and is well made; it was produced by the Habimah Theater in 1934. Mirah was influenced by Ibsen's A Doll's House, and deals with the status of women in the United States immigrant society, contrasting the heroine's moral qualities, despite her sin, with her husband's imperfections. In old age, Berkowitz published reminiscences, both of his childhood in Russia, Pirkei Yaldut ("Childhood Episodes," 1966), and of Ereẓ Israel in the 1930s, Yom Etmol Ki Avar ("Yesterday," 1966). He also translated Tolstoi's Childhood (1912) and Chekhov's Youth (1922).

Berkowitz was received with enthusiasm by the critics of his time. Bialik praised him warmly while Brenner regarded him with mixed feelings, praising his clarity and freshness but noting his limitations. A later generation dealt with the relationship between naturalism and realism in his work (Y. Keshet), emphasized the central psychological dilemma in his work, which confronts the little man with a situation beyond his control (D. Sadan), and described the alienation of his intellectual heroes (S. Halkin). The young Israeli critics have not devoted much attention to his work. Some have stressed the sociological aspect in his work (i.e., the breakup of the home – G. Katznelson) and others have studied in detail his technique in story and playwriting (G. Shaked). He has had little influence on the writers of his own and the subsequent generation or on the young Israeli writers. A list of his works translated into English appears in Goell, Bibliography.


I. Holt, Isaac Dov Berkowitz, Voice of the Uprooted (1972); Ḥ.N. Bialik, Iggerot, 1 (1938), 263; idem, Devarim she-be-al-Peh (1935), 188–90; Kol Kitvei J. H. Brenner, 2 (1960), 380; D.A. Friedman, Iyyunei Perozah (1966), 143–60; S. Halkin, Arai va-Keva (1942), 95–112; D. Sadan, Bein Din le-Ḥeshbon (1963), 163–8; J. Fichmann, Benei Dor (1952), 226–53; Y. Koplewitz (Keshet), Be-Dor Oleh (1950), 13–24; G. Katznelson, in: Gilyonot, 30 (1954), 239–43; G. Shaked, Al Arba'ah Sippurim (1964), 11–33; idem, 'Oto ve-Et Beno' ve-ha-Maḥazeh ha-Re'alisti: Al Sheloshah Maḥazot (1968), 9–38; A. Komem-Kominkovsky, in: Me'assef le-Divrei Sifrut, 4 (1964), 243–53; R. Wallenrod, Literature of Modern Israel (1956), 162–6, 169. add. bibliography: G. Shaked, Ha-Sipporet ha-Ivrit, 1 (1977), 327–41.

[Gershon Shaked]