Feierberg, Mordecai Ze'ev

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FEIERBERG, MORDECAI ZE'EV (1874–1899), Hebrew writer. Born in Novograd-Volynsk (Volhynia, Russia) into a family of devout Ḥasidim, Feierberg spent his childhood in a village, where he was tutored by his father, a shoḥet. The family returned to the city when Feierberg was about ten. His studies, while concentrating mainly on Gemara and posekim, since he was expected to become a shoḥet, also included medieval religious philosophy (*Maimonides, *Judah Halevi), Kabbalah, and ḥasidic works. Subsequently, he came under the influence of the Haskalah and began reading the Bible and modern Hebrew literature. His secular studies led to a serious conflict between him and his strict father who beat him mercilessly and repeatedly drove him out of the house. Feierberg, however, was not deterred. In a final attempt to bring him back to the traditional fold, his father betrothed him to the daughter of the shoḥet of an adjoining town and set him up as a grocer. The store however, became a center for the maskilim and Ḥovevei Zion of Novograd-Volynsk and the engagement was broken because Feierberg, always sickly, contracted tuberculosis. Feierberg's literary career began in 1896 when he went to Warsaw, then a center of the Hebrew press and modern Hebrew literature, and submitted a collection of poems and stories to Nahum *Sokolow, the editor of *Ha-Ẓefirah. Sokolow advised the novice writer to give up poetry and concentrate on fiction. His first story, "Ya'akov ha-Shomer" ("Jacob the Watchman," in: Ha-Ẓefirah, 1897), appeared a year later. His other five short stories were published in 1897 and 1898; three of them – "Ha-Egel" ("The Calf," 1899), "Ha-Kame'a" ("The Amulet," 1897), and "Ba-Erev" ("In the Evening," 1898) – in the prestigious monthly Ha-Shilo'aḥ, founded by *Aḥad Ha-Am; and the other two – "Ha-Ẓelalim" ("The Shadows") and "Leil Aviv" ("A Spring Night") – in Lu'aḥ Aḥi'asaf (1898). Turning to journalism for a short period, Feierberg also wrote feature articles on Jewish life in Novograd-Volynsk for the daily Ha-Meliẓ. Aḥad Ha-Am, who had befriended and thought highly of him, obtained a stipend for him from the well-known tea merchant K. *Wissotzky. Free from economic dependence on his hostile father, Feierberg, at long last, could give vent to his creative powers. They found expression in his major work "Le'an?" ("Whither?"). While it was being prepared for press in Ha-Shilo'aḥ (Aḥad Ha-Am made substantial alterations with the author's assent), Feierberg was planning to compose an extensive historical narrative on Israel Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Ḥasidism. The work, as well as other of his literary projects, was never written. He died of tuberculosis in the spring of 1899, before "Le'an?" appeared in print. Two polemical articles on Hebrew literature and on the contemporaneous Jewish intelligentsia were printed posthumously. The first edition of his collected works appeared in 1904. Further editions have appeared since; the most extensive one was edited by E. Steinman (Tel Aviv, 1941).

Feierberg's stories, articles, journalistic reports, and letters barely comprise a single thin volume and while most of his works lack artistic maturity, his contemporaries and modern critics have recognized in him an original literary mind. His stories, among the most important landmarks in modern Hebrew fiction, express the spiritual-cultural conflict between adherence to traditional Jewish life and the aspiration toward a secular, modern, "European" cultural existence. The theme, expressed earlier by Haskalah authors who considered it their duty to inculcate secular-humanistic values into Jewish life in the 1890s, with such writers as Feierberg, Ḥ.N. *Bialik, and M.J. *Berdyczewski, was exposed in all its tragic depth.

Feierberg's greatness as a writer can be attributed not only to his sensitive aesthetic intuitiveness but, in spite of his youth and inexperience, to an original literary ideology whose basic principles he crystallized. Feierberg thought that the function of Hebrew literature was to describe authentically "the image of our (Jewish) innermost world"; that is, to express the particular outlook of the contemporary East European Jew as conditioned by his education, traditions, and environment. He also believed in a particular Jewish "view of the world," stating that "The air a Jew breathes, the sky he sees, the earth he treads, and all the external sights revealed to him acquire a different form and shape in his soul from what they really are or how they are perceived by other people." Though he conceded that this special "form and shape" stemmed from a distortion of the national Jewish life by the "poison" that had tainted the national existence of the Jewish people for generations, he demanded that the Hebrew author (and he for one fulfilled this demand) express it. Only in this way could Hebrew literature make a valuable contribution to world literature. "Indeed the Hebrew tragedy can drown out the tumult of Rome." Feierberg felt that Hebrew literature should have remained rooted within the East European Jewish ghetto; it should not have tried to detach its themes and physical, as well as mental landscapes, from their environment; and should not have turned toward the "wide world" of Europe, as was the cry of many contemporaneous influential Hebrew authors. It should not depict the Jewish world from the outside, nor criticize its defects in the light of foreign values, nor emphasize the physical-external aspects of Jewish life specifying its economic and cultural structure; but through the artistic and aesthetic power of the narrative as such, Hebrew literature should directly express the "Jewish situation" from within. To develop this literary art, the young Feierberg had to break with the tradition of the Hebrew fiction, especially the literature of the Haskalah and the trend followed by most of the contemporaneous Hebrew writers of his day. He had to evolve the genre of the lyrical story which focuses on personal situations, usually of a distressing nature, that are symbolic of the "Jewish condition" as a whole. Feierberg thus introduced into Hebrew fiction the genre of the confessional lyrical short story in which the deep personal distress of an individual becomes a symbol. The genre also greatly influenced Berdyczewski, Brenner, and Gnessin and became a basic literary form of 20th-century Hebrew fiction.

Feierberg was but a trailblazer in a genre whose development demanded rigid literary and mental discipline. His tendency toward the use of affected language, hyperboles, and sentimental clichés was one of a number of his shortcomings. Another was his failure at times to achieve a viable synthesis between form and content and the idea to be expressed, i.e., direct lyrical expression of his turbulent world and the literary-descriptive frameworks in which he wanted to cast it. The artistic quality of his works is in direct relation to the successwith which he achieved this synthesis.

" Ya'akov ha-Shomer," a weak groping toward this aesthetic synthesis, has for protagonist a Jewish soldier of the days of Czar Nicholas II who had been impressed into the Russian Army. Taken from his parents' home at a tender age he returns to the margins of Jewish society after years in a distant gentile environment. The life of such a Jew (then extensively described in Hebrew and Yiddish literature) symbolized for Feierberg the theme that was to form the core of all his works: the relationship ("the border-state") between life in the traditional Jewish community and life outside of it, between loyalty to the spiritual ascetic tradition and the yearning for nature and the life of the senses. He saw himself and his generation torn between these opposing polarities. In "Ya'akov ha-Shomer" the tension in Feierberg the man in giving personal expression to his innermost belief prevented the writer from portraying the protagonist convincingly. A certain discrepancy also exists between the significance with which Feierberg invested the hero's experience and the experience as such. Estrangement from Judaism was forced on Ya'akov the watchman externally and his experience is therefore not a valid representation of the spiritual state of the Jew wavering between two worlds. The Jewish czarist soldier, too weak a vehicle to carry the symbol, only partly answers the author's needs of emotional and mental expression and the synthesis between content and self-expression is therefore not realized.

In two of his later stories, "Ha-Ẓelalim" and "Leil Aviv," Feierberg broke almost completely with the traditional concepts of plot and character and composed poetic-prose fragments through which he gave direct, bare, and discursivelyrical expression to the "border-state." Despite the literary sincerity and passages of great beauty and power (especially in "Leil Aviv "), the desired synthesis is only partially achieved. In the absence of the rigors of a narrative framework, the stories became infused with sentimentalism expressed in undisciplined language.

The three short stories, "Ba-Erev," "Ha-Kame'a," and "Ha-Egel," were written as childhood reminiscences of Ḥofni Ba'al-Dimyon ("Hophni the Imaginative"), the hero-narrator. As Feierberg had written to Aḥad Ha-Am, in the Ḥofni stories he intended to create a "complete world of the Jew" who would be a kind of "hero of the times." He wanted to develop the idea and proceed from Ḥofni's childhood to later periods in his life. He died, however, before he had time to complete the project. In the tales of Ḥofni's childhood, Feierberg used a narrative-reminiscing expository style which, while restraining his language and his sentimental temperament, fully expressed his personality. Artistically, "Ba-Erev" is considered his best work. The story is divided into two parts: in the first, Hofni reminisces about his ḥeder studies during the long winter nights; in the second, he reconstructs a legend told by his mother on coming home from the ḥeder. A seemingly popular ḥasidic tale, the legend serves Feierberg as a symbol through which he could clearly and most effectively express the spiritual "border state" in which Ḥofni would have found himself as a young man. Both parts form a single "world" of oppression and gloom conveying a struggle between loyalty to an ancient and ascetic culture, absolute in its demands of adherence, and a powerful yearning toward a different world. Life in this world of great tension is an endless "trial"; failure lurks everywhere and the burden of responsibility oppresses to the breaking point.

In "Ha-Kame'a," in which Ḥofni recalls his childhood nightmares, this view is sharply expressed, though in a more discursive and less narrative symbolic manner. During these nights of terror he senses the distress and tension that lay in store for him. The talisman, a "weapon" with which Ḥofni's father and the old kabbalist from the Klaus equipped him, is from the start seen as insufficient protection and too light an arm for the fierce battle ahead of him. In "Ha-Egel" Feierberg deviates from his regular themes. Hofni reminisces on his love for a calf. The description of the child's terrible shock at his parents' indifference toward the young calf they intended for slaughter portends the depression and isolation of a man whose moral sensitivity would make him lose his sense of identity with his environment. It presages the "border state" of suspension between being within and without, belonging and revolt.

In "Le'an?" Feierberg dwells in minute detail on the sensitive, thinking individual who detaches himself and is cut off from the historical Jewish community. The hero, Naḥman, is the leader prototype, but he has lost contact with his community. His character and education makes him an "aristocrat", an "elected" Jew. The scion of a rabbinical dynasty, his father educates him to be a "soldier" (the same idea also appears in "Ha-Kame'a ") and to assume a life of responsibility in the un-ceasing battle to protect Judaism from secular inroads. His detachment from the community begins at a very early age when he was taught to regard the "normal" Jewish existence around him as a frivolity which he himself morally could not afford to lead. At this stage one type of alienation is apparent –a detachment between the community and its representative, between the public and the individual who is able to personify ideally the values in which all believe. Naḥman, the ideal, wants to perform great deeds: he wants to heal the historical schism in the fate of the Jewish people by hastening the coming of the Messiah. In his search for a way, he steeps himself in the holy books; years pass and he despairs of messianic redemption. He then becomes interested in the Haskalah, thus alienating himself completely. Naḥman's loss of faith in Divine Providence is sudden and swift and his position in the Jewish community becomes a "border state" of unbearable tension which finds concrete expression in the synagogue on the Ninth of *Av: "The whole congregation is praying, it has one heart now, and he – the other heart – is lonely and separated from the community, cut off from his people … And how he would have liked to rejoin his people! He would have given his life for the bond. But how could he? No, he had undone the knot of his own free will and could not tie it again …." This sense of separation is like a hidden disease within Naḥman, but at last the rift between him and his father and the community breaks out in the open with his symbolic act of extinguishing the candle in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement. Nahman now lapses into a mental state which the community interprets as madness. Toward the end of the story he makes a final attempt at rejoining his people. In a speech at a Ḥibbat Zion gathering, he propounds the idea of national renaissance and a return to the East. This speech is Nahman's last call and outcry, he then fades away and dies.

Structurally weak, because Feierberg tried to incorporate the Nahman story into a narrative of reminiscences (as a continuation of the Ḥofni stories), "Le'an?" is nevertheless one of the great literary achievements in Hebrew fiction. The tragic proportions of its hero have been attained by few figures in Hebrew literature. The story gives full expression to the torment of the Jew who is torn between the temporal historical moment and his sense of responsibility toward the Jewish heritage of the ages and toward Jewish history. By grappling sincerely and honestly with the tragic problem of the Diaspora Jew in a modern world, Feierberg left an indelible imprint on modern Hebrew literature.

An English translation of Whither and Other Stories appeared in 1973 and "The Calf" was included in G. Abramson (ed.), The Oxford Book of Hebrew Short Stories (1996). For other works which have been translated into English see Goell, Bibliography.


M.J. Berdyczewski, Ma'amarim (1922), 266f.; J.H. Brenner, Ketavim, 2 (19532), 241–3; J. Fichmann, Ruḥot Menaggenot (1953), 277–83; S. Ẓemaḥ, Massah u-Vikkoret (1954), 9–26; B. Kurzweil, Sifrutenu ha-Ḥadashah-Hemshekh o Mahpekhah? (1965), 149–71; J. Klausner, YoẒerim u-Vonim, 2 (1929), 165–82; S. Rawidowitz, in: Ha-Tekufah, 11 (1921), 399–419; E. Steinman, Be-Ma'gal ha-Dorot (1944), 87–112; A. Sha'anan, Ha-Sifrut ha-Ivrit ha-Ḥadashah li-Zeramehah. 2 (1962), 249–66; Waxman, Literature, 4 (1960), 54–62. add. bibliography: E. Avisar, "Samkhut ha-Av u-Ze'akat ha-Ben be-'Le'an,'" in: Hadoar, 53 (1974), 372–74; A.L. Mintz, "Mordecai Zev Feierberg and the Reveries of Redemption," in: ajsr, 2 (1977), 171–99; S. Werses, in: Moznayim, 48:5–6 (1979), 280–91; M. Bosak, "Rabbi Naḥman mi-Braslav ke-Model le-Gibboro shel ' Le'an, '" in: Mabu'a, 15 (1980); D. Steinhart, "Figures of Thought; Psycho-Narration in the Fiction of Berdichewsky, Bershadsky and Feierberg," in: Prooftexts, 8:2 (1988), 197–217; H. Bar Yosef, "Eyzeh min Romantikan Haya Feierberg?" in: Bikoret u-Farshanut, 23 (1988) 87–116; G. Shaked, Ha-Sipporet ha-Ivrit, 1 (1997), 206–13; Aberbach, "David, Mordecai Ze'ev Feierberg," in: Jewish Quarterly, 46:2 (1999), 51–52.

[Dan Miron]