The Most Tragic Jewish Writer of Modern Times

Why did the great Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, who called on Jews to take personal responsibility for Zionism, never settle in or even visit Palestine?

Micha Yosef Berdichevsky.

Micha Yosef Berdichevsky.

Feb. 1 2017
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), Jabotinsky: A Life (2014), and, most recently, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton). 

This essay is the sixth in a series by Hillel Halkin on seminal Hebrew writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first five dealt with the novelists Joseph Perl, Avraham Mapu, and Peretz Smolenskin, the poet Yehudah Leib Gordon, and the essayist and Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am

A man sits writing in his diary in the German city of Breslau—today, Polish Wrocław—in the summer of 1903. His name is Micha Yosef Berdichevsky.  Although he is writing in German, he is one of the best-known, and certainly the most controversial, of the Hebrew authors of his day. It is the end of July and he is summarizing the month’s events in the kind of personal shorthand, fully understandable only to themselves, that diarists use. He writes:

A grave and difficult question: should the baby be made to join the Covenant of Israel? It should never have happened but it did. There are historic forces to which individuals are subject. And still it shouldn’t have happened.

Various matters come next:

Our family physician, Dr. Cohn. “The Burden of Nemirov.” Inquiries at the Russian consulate. . . . “Between the Hammer and the Anvil” is finished. Malter was here. He hasn’t changed much, he’s just happy no longer to be poor. We talked a lot and with little understanding between us. He’s a shrewd fellow in correspondence but overly tactful in conversation. And yet one is glad to have him.

And still other things:

The clinic has begun to operate. The competition: Hurwitz. The registry office. Rabbis regarding Emanuel. . . . My father-in-law arrived for a surprise visit. The same conversation for three days. On his way to the Congress in Basel, where he expects to find a redeeming word.

The month’s final entry is:

Ewa, who has been a true mother to the child and is able to calm its bawling with her love and devotion, is leaving. It’s been a hard day.

A hard month! Its full drama is barely hinted at even when the diary is decoded. It is only revealed by a letter from Berdichevsky’s friend Tsvi Malter, discovered in Berdichevsky’s archives by his biographer, the Israeli literary critic and historian Avner Holtzman.

Tsvi (Heinrich/Henry) Malter was a Galician-born scholar of medieval Jewish philosophy with a doctorate from the University of Heidelberg and a rabbinic degree from the Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, where he and Berdichevsky met during 1893-94, the latter’s student years in the German capital; a fellow companion, also a graduate of the Lehranstalt, was David Neumark, later to become a prominent Reform rabbi. In 1900 Malter would move to the United States to take a teaching position at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and in 1903, shortly after the birth on June 18 of Berdichevsky’s first and only child Emanuel, he visited him in Breslau while on a trip to see his ill mother. In early July, Malter wrote a Hebrew reply to a non-surviving letter from Berdichevsky. It reads in full:

Saatz [Czech Żatec], July 5, 1903

Greetings, my dear friend! I’m sorry to tell you that I am not sorry that I can’t do anything in regard to the matter you write about, because I wouldn’t have done it even if I could have. While I knew your views on Judaism, so little did I think you would have the “courage” to do such a thing that I had to read your letter twice to grasp the gist of it—namely (although you recoil from saying so in plain language), that you did not circumcise your son. I don’t fear being suspected by you of false piety, because you know perfectly well what a freethinker I am, but I still must say that all this is far from me and completely alien. You don’t need anyone’s agreement or approval, and most of all, you don’t need anyone’s criticism. The very fact that you’ve found the strength to break with the thousands [sic] of generations of your forefathers gives you the license to do it. But this strength leaves you standing alone in our orb and you mustn’t expect that I or Neumark will be as brave as you or be your partners in your uncharted path. I’ve forwarded your letter to Neumark without stating my opinion. Let him do what he can. My mother died this week and I’m on my way home, and then to Berlin. With best wishes to your family from my wife and myself,

Your friend Tsvi

Malter’s letter, with its combination of shock and qualified sympathy, spells out the “grave and difficult question” referred to by Berdichevsky in his diary. Even today the Hebrew reader feels something of the same shock at the thought of one of the great figures of modern Hebrew literature refusing to bestow on his own son the most basic distinguishing mark of Jewishness.

Just what Berdichevsky wanted from Malter and Neumark is unclear. (Their support, obviously. But in what form?) And yet, as his diary tells us, his refusal did not last long. Emanuel, it is true, was not circumcised when he should have been, on June 25, the eighth day from his birth; so we learn from Tsvi Malter, who visited Berdichevsky before then and may have discussed the question of circumcision with him without realizing his intentions. Sometime in the course of July, however, Berdichevsky changed his mind and agreed to have the circumcision performed, not by a mohel, a ritual circumciser, but by the family doctor—after which he castigated himself twice in the same paragraph for letting it happen, as if once were not enough to express his regret.

That same month, we also learn, Berdichevsky read in manuscript (it had not yet been published), or heard about, “The Burden of Nemirov,” Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik’s electrifying Hebrew poem, later renamed “In the City of Slaughter,” about the April 1903 pogrom in Kishinev. As a Russian citizen, born in the small town of Dubova in the Ukraine in 1865, he visited the Russian consulate in Breslau, presumably to clarify Emanuel’s status. He finished writing his short story “Between the Hammer and the Anvil,” which appeared in print in 1904. His wife Rahel, a native of Warsaw who had studied dentistry, opened a clinic that would vie with the nearby practice of a dentist named Hurwitz.

Berdichevsky registered Emanuel’s birth with the German authorities. He consulted rabbis, or rabbinic literature, about Emanuel, perhaps to ascertain the validity of a non-ritually performed circumcision. Rahel’s father, Yakov Ramberg, passed through Breslau with his younger daughter Ewa on his way to the sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, at which Theodor Herzl was to broach his fiercely debated “Uganda Plan”; for three days, apparently, Berdichevsky had to listen to Ramberg talk about Zionist politics. When he left, Ewa stayed on to help take care of Emanuel, who was a cranky baby. Indeed, it was more likely the joint pleas of Berdichevsky’s wife and sister-in-law rather than “historic forces” that broke down his resistance to circumcising his son.

So it would seem, at any rate, from the only conversation I ever had with Emanuel Berdichevsky. Recounting with a rueful smile the scandal of his near non-circumcision, he told me that “family pressure” had caused his father to relent.




“Between the Hammer and the Anvil,” the story Berdichevsky finished writing in July 1903, contains clear autobiographical elements. Its narrator, Shimon Ben-Moshe, is at the time of writing an assistant librarian in a city somewhere in Central Europe. (Moshe was the name of Berdichevsky’s father, a small-town rabbi.) His account begins with a description of his early education in the Russian shtetl he grew up in, that of a ḥeder child whose imagination weaves vivid fantasies from the biblical texts he studies in the schoolroom. “I knew our father Abraham and Sarah as I knew my father’s neighbors,” he tells us. “When Miriam stood on the bank of the Nile to see what would happen to baby Moses, I stood by her side while she stroked my hair and asked me about my family. I crossed the Jordan with Joshua, carrying my own little stone [like the twelve stones carried into Canaan by representatives of the twelve tribes].”

When he is ten, Shimon’s mother dies. (Berdichevsky lost his mother at the same age.) “Although all I felt,” Shimon relates, “was a kind of bafflement, my soul lived in shadow from then on.” In the ḥeder, the enthralling stories of the Bible make way for the rigorous logic of the Talmud: “I was torn from my heroic Samson, from the kings of Judah and Israel whose wars I fought and bore arms in, and went to study with Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva.” The first stirrings of rebellion take the form of partly conscious anger at the strict world of paternal authority, untempered by a mother’s love, that condemns Shimon to long days on a school bench when his young body and boyish spirits crave activity:

Once, I imagined that my father had died, too. Freed from the yoke of the ḥeder, I learned to wield a hammer at the forge from the village blacksmith, whom I had always liked stealing away from my studies to watch. The whole town pitied me for being an orphan, but I—I had the terrible thought of starting a fire in its streets and watching it rise to the sky.

The first stirrings of sexuality also. Once, Shimon recollects, when he was bar-mitzvah age,

my father sent me to borrow ten rubles for the purchase of Sabbath provisions from a wealthy, attractive woman who lived by herself. There was no one else in her grand house, and she gave me a hug and a kiss. I felt a strange fire. I went about stunned all that day. I wanted to shout and caper in the streets. . . . Today this is just a memory, but I will say this of the soul’s mysteries: a man is the sum of all the sin and fire in his bones.

The adolescent boy begins, surreptitiously, to read Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) literature and gradually loses his religious faith while continuing to practice it in public:

The Haskalah told me, “Be strong, be a man, and acknowledge that you and your ancestors have lived foolishly.” It taught me to study the sciences and give up my belief in God. At first I felt afraid and stripped of my most precious belonging. Soon, though, I made bold to think that I alone saw the truth and other Jews were blind. . . . My friends advised me to leave town for a city where I could pursue my studies. My father kept berating me. . . . I hated the Jews who prayed all the time, hated their long clothes, hated the Sabbath. . . . But though inwardly I, the enlightened Shimon Ben-Moshe, lived in a world apart, I still put on my t’fillin, prayed in the synagogue, and washed my hands ritually before eating.

Ultimately, the narrator takes his friends’ advice and leaves both his native town and his native land:

And so I went from Kiev to Brody, and from Brody to Königsberg, and from there to Leipzig, and on to Basel. I wandered from country to country. I sat in the lecture halls of a university without knowing a thing about life or the world. I struggled not to starve while never planning for tomorrow. I had friends and knew nothing about people. I sought the secrets of the soul in the books of the poets and its laws in those of the philosophers.

Berdichevsky himself did not leave Russia so quickly. First came a year at the Lithuanian yeshiva of Volozhin, a vaunted center of talmudic learning that was also a notorious breeding grounds for the heresies of Haskalah thought; a return to the Ukraine, where he began his literary career as a journalist in the Hebrew press; two youthful marriages, both ending in divorce against the background of his religiously suspect views and behavior; and a stay in Odessa in 1889-90, where he worked as a Hebrew teacher while learning German. Only then did he set out for studies in the West, at first at the University of Breslau, and then at the Universities of Berlin and Bern, earning his doctoral degree from the latter in 1896 with a dissertation on the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.

Shimon Ben-Moshe does not get as far as a doctorate. His studies founder and he sinks into self-doubt and a sense of purposelessness. The student life he envisioned as a liberating adventure turns out to be a drab, lonely existence in rented lodgings and reading rooms. “I had thought I would be a valiant campaigner in the intellectual wars,” he writes, “but all I did was fall by the wayside. . . . My despair grew greater all the time. My soul yearned for a ‘Yea’ and could only say ‘Nay.’ I was in need of love and friendship and had nothing but my own doubts.” Although he has ceased to practice Judaism and sought to put it behind him, it refuses to stay there. “Each time I tried pressing on, I saw the wreckage of Sinai before me. It was wherever I went. Wherever I lay down to rest, the bad dreams of my people lay down with me.” He is at a mental impasse. “I had heard it said that man does not live by bread alone, but I say unto you: the life of the spirit torments man, too. I had heard it said, ‘Work and ye shall live,’ but I worked and no life came.”

If the last two sentences remind one of the vatic prose of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, this is probably because Shimon has been reading it. Although there is no mention in “Between the Hammer and the Anvil” of Nietzsche, his work, little known before then, became popular in Europe in the 1890s. The drastic if short-lived reversal of mood that Shimon now undergoes, as if he had been granted a sudden epiphany, is more suggestive of a literary than a real-life experience and hints at the influence of Zarathustra‘s dithyrambs:

One clear morning all was alive. Resurrection! Let the sun shine! A thousand years count for nothing beside the light and purity of the morning! . . . Wrong is he who complains of the tedium of life. Listen to the day’s song, seize the world with both hands, let us pray to the God of the thunderclouds!

It was storming outside. The wind was howling. I thought, “I can’t get out of bed.” Yet lo, I did and I had something to live for.

But this euphoria passes quickly. Nietzsche is no match for the burden of Jewishness that Shimon can no more cast off than can the Jewish people. If there is indeed a God, he reflects bitterly, “He has chosen us among all peoples to torture us. . . . We want to repair the world and cannot even repair ourselves.” His depression returns until one day he learns of a new movement, his ignorance of which reflects how isolated he has been from Jewish life.

Walking with a friend in the city park one day, I opened my heart to him. He had only one thing to say: We must return to the land of our fathers and make it our own!

I looked at him in amazement. All my torment melted away. . . .

From then on, I, too, was one of the dreamers. Every time I saw a flag, I wished it were the flag of Zion. Every rally I attended made my heart rally for its people. What no single one of us could do by himself, we could all do together.

Berdichevsky’s own “Nietzschean” and Zionist phases remain to be discussed. In Shimon’s case, the second of these fades as quickly as the first. Zionism, he concludes once his initial enthusiasm for it has waned, is all empty talk. Waving flags and attending rallies in Europe is easier than settling in Palestine, and all Herzl’s advent has done is to replace the synagogue and prayer book with Zionist congresses and their speeches. “I dreamed one night,” he says sarcastically, “that the Jews were still scattered over the face of the earth, and that they and their wives and children were chanting [in the words of the Shmoneh Esreh prayer], ‘And may our eyes see Thee return to Zion in Thy mercy.’” What has been is what will be.

Shimon marries: if the Jews cannot build a home in Palestine, he will at least build one for himself. This, too, however, is a mistake: his marriage, like Berdichevsky’s first two, soon falls apart. (Berdichevsky’s third marriage to Rahel Ramberg in 1902, on the other hand, was a happy one.) God’s words to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman,” should have been addressed, Shimon muses, to Adam. The whole episode, he tells the reader, “fills me with such shame that I can’t say any more about it. You’ll have to understand on your own.”

We do and we don’t understand. Although Shimon is only in his forties,

I’ve grown old before my time. Life has stranded me in the job of an assistant in a library. I work every day from nine a.m. to two p.m. Then I return to my room on the outskirts of town. My bed is there, my books are there, my world is there.

When I think of my old dreams and aspirations, I can’t believe any of it. What is the past to me? What is the present? They’re all the same graveyard, on their tombstones a language I don’t even understand.

His life is for all purposes over. There is no fire left in his bones.




The loss of religious faith resulting from its encounter with modern critical thought, most often in the form of the writings of the Haskalah, is a major theme in the Hebrew literature of the late 19th century. Its subjects are young Jews, often in their teens and frequently yeshiva students, who are “banished from their father’s table” (the rabbinic phrase is the title of a book on the subject by Alan Mintz), and from the strict but warm world of tradition that has nurtured them since childhood, by their own inquiring minds. Some sense in advance that the meaning and coherence they are about to give up is as great as the freedom they will gain. One thinks of the adolescent Yirmiyah Feiermann, the narrator of the Hebrew novelist Yosef Ḥayyim Brenner’s Winter, one leg still in the study house and the other already outside it, fighting a rear-guard action “from the depths of the struggle for my spiritual existence,” as he puts it, to retain the beliefs he has grown up with; or of the same study house revisited by the twenty-one-year-old Bialik after leaving it:

On your threshold I stand one last time,
Beggared and like you forlorn.
Do I weep for your ruin or mine?
Or is it for both that I mourn?

Or of Mordecai Ze’ev Feierberg’s short novel Whither?, published in installments in Ahad Ha’am’s Hashilo’aḥ in 1899, the year of its twenty-four-year-old author’s death from tuberculosis. In a climactic scene, Naḥman, the novel’s protagonist, stands with the congregation in the synagogue of his father, its rabbi, on Tisha b’Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple. The destruction he himself is grieving for, however, has been wreaked on him by the books of philosophy he has been secretly reading. He prays to be able to pray like the Jews around him:

Give me back my God, the God of the Jews! The God of Aristotle can do nothing for me. He is a figurehead, a king without a kingdom, not a God who lives. . . . Give me back the God who is near to me and I to Him! The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses and the prophets, the God of all this holy congregation that is melting in its tears for the destruction of Jerusalem while its heart trusts and hopes that God will rebuild Zion! . . . Take what you want from me—heaven and hell, my share in the world to come—but give me back my light, my heart, my soul, my people, my God!

One may ask why such spiritual anguish is rarely found in Haskalah writers like Avraham Mapu and Yehudah Leib Gordon, though they, too, were perfectly conscious of having intellectually outgrown the faith of their fathers. Even Peretz Smolenskin, who systematically blamed the Haskalah for the damage done by it to the Jewish psyche, never spoke of it from a place of personal bereftness. A rare exception was Moshe Leib Lilienblum (1843-1910), who wrote in his autobiography of the year that witnessed, at the age of twenty-seven, the final collapse of the religious beliefs he had struggled for years to prop up:

My entire mental treasury, all the property I had accumulated in a lifetime, had been plundered all at once. . . . I was like a philosopher who has lost his system, a business whose account books have been burned. . . . The God who had always been my shepherd was now the God of Spinoza. I felt alone and abandoned in life. I had taken the final intellectual step and my heart sank. My mind was a blank. I was terrified.

But Lilienblum, too, quickly got over his crisis. Within a few months he had taken the job of editor of the Odessa Yiddish weekly Kol Mevaser and thrown himself back into the hurly-burly of the Russian Jewish life he had never left.

It is only starting with Berdichevsky, born two decades after Smolenskin and Lilienblum and one before Bialik and Feierberg, that we find characters like Shimon Ben-Moshe in Hebrew literature. And this is because it was only in the period of Berdichevsky’s coming of age in the 1880s that East European Jewish life began to change dramatically. Until then its institutions, despite the Haskalah’s unrelenting critique of them, had remained fundamentally intact, and the great majority of Jews, Ḥasidim and Misnagdim, Maskilim and anti-Maskilim, had continued to live within their framework as before. It was not until the ’80s that worsening anti-Semitism, mass emigration, growing assimilation, and the incipient movements of Zionism and Jewish socialism began seriously to affect the world of Russian Jewry, threatening to tear and even shred its very fabric.

As adversarial toward this world as the Haskalah had been, it had hoped for its improvement, not its destruction; the prospect of its disappearance never occurred to men like Mapu or (at least until the end of his life) Gordon—and because it didn’t, their own place in it seemed secure to them, too. Although fiercely opposed by its conservative wing, they remained snugly within the confines of the Jewish community, participating in its life, remaining—if only for appearance’s sake—at least partly observant of its religious rituals, and never contemplating leaving it; nor, short of the unthinkable act of religious conversion, was there anywhere they might have left it for. Precisely this is the tragic situation of the rebel Yakov-Ḥayyim in Smolenskin’s “A Donkey’s Burial”: cast out by Jewish society with nowhere to go, he is forced to live in a lonely shack outside of town with his child and wife, who consents to being baptized after his death.

Such was no longer the case when Berdichevsky was reaching adulthood. Jews were now leaving Russia in droves; many more had begun to move from the small towns of the Pale of Settlement to its cities, where Russification was rapid and Jewish communal structures were weaker; for the first time, the possibility of living outside of these structures existed for a religiously disaffected young Jew. Yet choosing to do so, which often meant cutting one’s ties with uncomprehending and unforgiving parents and with everything that once had been home, could well sweep one away, not only from the synagogue and study house but from Jewish life entirely. Without the synagogue and study house, indeed, what remained of this life? Although secular or semi-secular Jewish coteries existed in the 1880s in East European cities like Odessa and Warsaw, and even in some smaller towns, a fully functioning secular Jewish society did not. The very concept of it was nebulous. How could a people without a territory that had always defined itself by its religion turn its back on it while remaining itself?

Shimon Ben-Moshe’s short-lived enthusiasm for Zionism is great because he suddenly glimpses how such a thing might be conceivable; once he concludes that the Zionist movement is going nowhere, his last hopes perish. Not only is there no answer to why he should go on being a Jew, there is none to how he can be one even if he wants to. And at the same time, he cannot help being one. As Berdichevsky relates of a similar but more fictionally developed character, Mikha’el, the protagonist of his story “Two Camps”: “Nothing was left in him of his people—but he was still his people’s son.” Shimon’s Jewishness cannot be rooted out. He cannot kill it by an act of will. He can only try starving it to death by living apart from his fellow Jews, which is what we see him doing at the story’s end. Psychologically, however, this means starving himself to death, too.




When Berdichevsky left Russia in 1890 to study, first in Germany and then in Switzerland, he was part of a growing trend. Unlike Russian universities, which admitted few Jews, German and Swiss ones accepted them on an equal basis and even allowed them to matriculate without a high-school diploma. By 1900, an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 young Russian Jews were enrolled in German and Swiss higher institutions of learning with another several hundred in France. (Germany and Switzerland were preferred destinations because of the closeness to German of Yiddish, making the former a relatively easy language for East European Jews to master.) University cities like Zurich, Bern, Breslau, and Berlin had lively Jewish student colonies. A group of Berdichevsky’s early stories, written in the late 1890s when he first turned to Hebrew fiction, consists of character sketches drawn from this milieu.

But the Mikha’el of “Two Camps” wants no part of it. A student of philosophy and history at the University of Breslau, he is lonely but wants friends who are German. Looking down from a bridge one winter day on a crowd of ice skaters below, one a dark-haired and complexioned girl he cannot take his eyes off, he laments that

Not one of the skaters knew him. Though he now spoke their language and was studying their thought, he was a stranger in their midst, an outlier. . . . And yet he felt that this thought was his own. The root of his soul was drawn to it; he sought their company, wanted to be one of them.

Mikha’el is an internationalist: he believes in “complete equality among all people and nations,” and feels that in leaving his White Russian shtetl he has gone “from darkness to light.” He prefers working mornings in a bookbindery to the better-paying job of giving Hebrew lessons to the children of Breslau’s Jewish bourgeoisie because he thinks Hebrew has no future. He has even managed to lose the t’fillin and prayer book that he brought with him from Russia, “so as to be rid of the baggage of Judaism.” When a Jewish professor who knows his background hands him a generous sum of money with the request that he study a daily chapter of the Mishnah in memory of a dead relative, he is hurt to the quick: “He was in Germany, the land of freedom; he had sacrificed everything for his religious liberty—and here he was being asked to mutter words in some dark corner like a superstitious kabbalist!” And yet something of his Orthodox upbringing remains with him. So great is his scorn for the Reform Jews of Breslau that he draws the curtain on his window on Saturday mornings to avoid having to see them on their way to their temple.

Mikha’el lives in a rented room. One evening he finds himself locked out of the apartment by its owner, who has gone off somewhere, and is invited in by the upstairs neighbors, a German tailor, Markus, and his Polish wife, Maria-Jozefa—who, born to a family of déclassé nobility, looks down on her husband. Though the two quarrel in front of him, he feels comfortable with them because they respect him as a student and have nothing against Jews. As they are talking, their daughter Hedwig walks in: she is the same seventeen- or eighteen-year-old he had watched skating from the bridge. Mikha’el stares bashfully at the floor and hurries to take his leave as soon as he hears his landlord return. Yet from then on, he begins to drop in on Hedwig and her parents, and he and she fall shyly in love.

Hedwig is not, Mikha’el learns, Maria-Jozefa’s biological daughter: she was adopted as a child when her real mother, a washerwoman who bore her out of wedlock, could not take care of her. Yet her illegitimacy, and the Catholic faith she has been raised in, only stoke Mikha’el’s ardor for her. They feed into an old fantasy:

In his fights with the [Jewish] religious fanatics back in Russia, he had imagined marrying a Christian woman just to spite them. Now, scornful, too, of the moral conventions of Europe, he was entranced by the thought of linking his future to this child of foreign gods born in sin. He would cast off the bonds that still held him and be totally free! His was the last generation of its kind; let theirs be the first. . . . He and she would go far away. He would write no more to his parents and old friends. He would never read another Hebrew book or take any interest in Jewish life. He would live with her in an unfettered paradise, liberated from patriarchal legacies and their punishments.

Winter passes. Then spring. Mikha’el’s relationship with Hedwig grows stronger: they plan a civil marriage so that he need not convert. Meanwhile, however, his sexual energies have no release. A near-seduction by an older woman, a friend of Maria-Jozefa’s, ends awkwardly. It is summer, a Friday night, a time when Mikha’el still feels, despite himself, “something of the poetry of religious emotion.” Walking the streets of the city, he encounters a woman sitting alone on a bench. He sits beside her; their hands touch; she asks him to come home with her, and they have sex. When it is over,

Mikha’el sat, embarrassed, on a stool, staring desolately ahead of him.

He didn’t understand what he was doing in this place.

He didn’t know what to do next and looked about in confusion. He rose to go.

Softly, she asked him to stay for a while and have tea. She had never known anyone like him before, she said, lighting the hob.

They talk. Mikha’el asks the woman about herself. She tells him she was an orphan raised by relatives until they threw her into the street. The dialogue proceeds with the inexorability of a Greek tragedy:

“How old were you then?”

“Fourteen. For two years, I worked for a laundress. She worked me to the bone, so I began taking in wash on my own.”

“And then?”

“But why should a young gentleman like you care?”

“Don’t mind me. I mean well.”

“I gave birth. I was ill much of the time.”

“Where was your husband?”

“I didn’t have one. . . . It was just some damned Jew.”

“What happened to him?”

“He ditched me.”

“And the child died?”


“Where is it?”

“But why do you ask?”

“Trust me.”

“I gave her away. I was weak and poor. I couldn’t bring her up properly.”

“Do you ever see her?”

“Rarely. From a distance.”

`”Where does she live?”

“Here. In Breslau.”

“And you don’t visit her?”

“I’m not allowed to. She doesn’t know who I am.”

“That must be hard on you.”

“What can I do? She comes from another people. . . . It’s God’s punishment.”

“And her parents, the ones she has now . . . are they well-off??”

“No. They’re tailors. ”


“He is. She comes from nobility.”

“And . . . her name . . . it’s . . .”

“Maria-Jozefa. But what’s wrong? You’re shaking all over!”

It is hard to say at what point Mikha’el begins to suspect the worst; perhaps only upon hearing the word “tailors.” A few seconds later, he rushes into the street with a cry of pain. He has fouled himself! He has fouled Hedwig, fouled her purity! He should throw himself into the river, be swallowed by the earth! He should poke his eyes out so that he can never see her again! He is a scoundrel. All his ideals are a façade. He is a damned Jew. “Yes, that’s what she called him . . . her mother . . . her mother. . . . ”

For three days, Mikha’el shuts himself up in his room. Then he packs his things, goes to the railroad station, and buys a ticket for “somewhere far away.” Wherever it is, it cannot be far enough.

His horror is understandable. He has not, like Oedipus, unwittingly had sex with his mother, but by having it with the mother of his fiancée, he has done something symbolically equivalent. The Hebrew Bible that he knows well considers this incest: “And the man who possesses a woman and her mother, this is lewdness. He shall be burned in the fire.” Although Mikha’el only thinks of blinding himself, this is, as Alan Mintz points out in writing about “Two Camps,” what Oedipus actually does.

And yet on second thought, is not Mikha’el overreacting? The Bible aside, he has committed no crime; a symbolic mother is not a real one, nor is it against the law to be picked up and taken to bed by a lonely woman. The chances of Hedwig’s finding out about it are next to nothing: she and her mother, whom she would not recognize, have no contact, and she and Mikha’el are planning to leave Breslau once married. Why do something so devastating as disappearing forever without even telling her? By any reasonable yardstick, this is far worse than anything that has happened with her mother.

Mikha’el is in fact acting hysterically. Moreover, his hysteria is Jewish. It is not just the reaction of someone whose instinctive frame of reference is the punitive “patriarchal legacy” that he prides himself on having rejected. It is that of someone who takes Hedwig’s mother’s not necessarily anti-Semitic remark of “it was just some damned Jew” to apply to himself. (Ironically, of course, Hedwig, the “Christian woman” of Mikha’el’s fantasies, now turns out to be half-Jewish, as has been foreshadowed by his noticing her dark looks from the bridge.) And by running out on Hedwig just as her biological father ran out on her mother, Mikha’el has earned the adjective. He is a damned Jew and will forever be one.

Most telling is the penance he imagines:

Flog yourself! Lie on the ground where everyone can trample on you! Stretch out on the synagogue floor and be stepped on by the whole congregation! Submit to the synagogue. . . . Back to God, man!

Mikha’el, a student of history, must know that this was the fate of Uriel da Costa, the 17th-century son of Spanish conversos who returned to Judaism in Amsterdam, grew disillusioned with it, was excommunicated for expressing anti-rabbinic views, recanted because he could not endure his social isolation, and was readmitted to the Jewish community after being publicly flogged and trod on by its members. He must know, too, that da Costa, unable to live with his humiliation, shot and killed himself.

At the end of “Two Camps,” what was said of Mikha’el at its beginning—“Nothing was left in him of his people—but he was still his people’s son”—proves only half-true. Yes, he is still his people’s son—and everything of his people is still in him. The only way for him to cease being a Jew would be, as it was for Uriel da Costa, to cease being entirely.




“Two Camps” was printed separately as a slim book in 1899, one of several volumes of Berdichevsky’s fiction to come out that year. There were only a few periodicals at the time that might have accommodated the story’s nearly 15,000 words, most prominently Ahad Ha’am’s Berlin-based monthly Hashiloaḥ, at which Berdichevsky had served for a while as an editorial assistant, and the annual Warsaw Lu’aḥ Aḥiasaf, and both would have been likely to reject it for its sexual frankness, uncommon for the Hebrew fiction of its day. What was truly bold about it, however, was not the sex between Mikha’el and Hedwig’s mother, no details of which are provided, but its sympathetic portrayal of a woman hungry for companionship and physical love who gives herself to a stranger. Ahad Ha’am would no doubt have objected to this on moral grounds, just as he would have objected to Mikha’el’s Jewish negativity, which he would not have found compensated for by the story’s ending. He had made Hashiloaḥ‘s policy toward literature clear in a statement of purpose that appeared in its first issue in 1896.

There were, this statement asserted, four areas in which Hashiloaḥ proposed to concentrate. The first three were Jewish historical scholarship, journalism about the contemporary Jewish world, and reviews of books with Jewish content. The fourth was Hebrew belles-lettres—specifically, works of prose and poetry that “faithfully depict our [Jewish] situation in different times and places.” Works of purely artistic merit that did not “enhance our national consciousness,” Ahad Ha’am wrote, would not be considered for publication. This would have ruled out a Hebrew story like “Two Camps,” which was hardly Jewishly “enhancing” by Ahad Ha’am’s lights, and it triggered a public exchange between him and Berdichevsky that grew into a broader controversy.

It was Berdichevsky, then working at Hashiloaḥ, who fired the opening shot. Ahad Ha’am’s statement of purpose, not seen by him in advance, surprised and dismayed him. Although he was aware of Ahad Ha’am’s objection to Hebrew fiction that failed to serve “positive” Jewish goals, he hadn’t expected it to be made an editorial policy, and he wrote a letter of protest that he asked Ahad Ha’am to run in Hashiloaḥ‘s second issue—which, to his credit, Ahad Ha’am did.

Berdichevsky’s “Open Letter to Ahad Ha’am” was a call for a Hebrew literature that would deal with all aspects of human life rather than be limited to subjects of “Jewish” interest, and that would be free of demands that it serve this or that concept of the good of the Jewish people. “My dear Ahad Ha’am!” he wrote:

The minute we limit our scope to what is “Jewish,” we acknowledge that everything else is not “Jewish.” . . . We divide life into two realms, what is ours and what lies beyond it, and we widen the fissure in the minds and hearts of young Jews.

This “fissure” or conflict between one’s Jewish identity and the pull of the outside world could only be resolved, Berdichevsky argued, by expanding the frontiers of Jewishness until they were congruent with the world’s, a role best played by imaginative literature. “You are an intellectual,” he wrote,

and so you make light of imaginative writing and fail to see its value for individual and national life. . . . We want the Jew and the human being in us to be nourished by a single source. We want the fissure to be healed.

Hebrew literature, Berdichevsky was in effect proposing, should replace Y.L. Gordon’s Haskalah adage of “Be a Jew at home and a citizen abroad” with “Be a Jew in all life has to offer.”

Ahad Ha’am responded to this in the third issue of Hashiloaḥ, in an essay entitled “Need and Capability.” In theory, he stated, he had no quarrel with Berdichevsky; he, too, was for a Hebrew literature that explored the entire human condition. At present, however, Hebrew had neither the linguistic resources nor the literary talents required for such a task. “We want! We need! But can we?” Ahad Ha’am asked. “This is a question the younger generation doesn’t pose and can’t be expected to, since no one is posing it in regard to our national goals, either.” Drawing a parallel between his positions on Hebrew literature and on Zionism, he wrote:

We keep veering precipitately from the slow but steady path. We either expect too much or too little of ourselves, and in the end all comes to nothing because the distance between high-minded ends and meager means is too much for us.

Until Hebrew writers could produce great poetry and fiction of universal value, Hebrew readers would have to seek these elsewhere. Meanwhile, let Hebrew specialize in what it did best and deal with themes rooted in Jewish experience, of which it was an unparalleled repository.

Berdichevsky replied to this in turn. Now, however, taking up Ahad Ha’am’s gauntlet of “national goals,” he went further. He had been reading Nietzsche, and in a series of brief, aphoristic essays that he published during the next several years he began to call for a Nietzschean “transvaluation of values” in Jewish life that would not wait for literature to blaze the trail for it. What was needed, he proclaimed, was not, as the Haskalah had argued, a thorough reform of Judaism, but a radical break with it.

When it came to Judaism, indeed, the Berdichevsky of the late 1890s went a step beyond Nietzsche. The latter, in blaming Christianity for making war on all the healthy, natural instincts of pre-Christian man in the name of a “slave morality” driven by guilt and a sense of sin, had included in his indictment the Judaism that Christianity grew out of; yet he had distinguished, basing himself on the 19th-century Higher Criticism’s judgment that the “priestly code” in Leviticus was a late addition to the Bible, between the life-affirming religion of the early biblical period, which he professed to admire, and a life-denying sacerdotal phase that followed. Berdichevsky made no such distinction. The problem with Judaism, he argued, was not that it had taken a wrong turn at some point in the past, not even one so distant as the rise to power of a cultic priesthood in the mid-1st millennium BCE. The problem went back to Mount Sinai itself. It was already there that the heavy hand of the Law had come to rest on all vital spontaneity.

God was buried beneath the Torah, the world beneath a book. Man stifled his senses and became a guardian of parchment. . . . An entire people rebelled against nature. An ancient tribe went looking for a country and found a tome of commandments. Day turned to night; thunder and lightning boomed and flashed; signs and omens cowed the best in us. . . . When Moses descended the mountain, no prophet arose to snatch away the tablets of the Law and cry to the people in the wilderness: “Back to nature, back to your mother!”

One can easily see in a passage like this Berdichevsky’s own resentment, writ large, of his early loss of a mother and subjection by a father to long years of dull study. Consciously or not, he was projecting his childhood experience onto a vast historical screen. But he was also projecting the experience of a generation. Such rhetoric appealed to many young Hebrew readers of the age because they, too, felt they had been snatched from the maternal warmth of the home when barely out of infancy and delivered to a harsh male regime of study and ritual observance that robbed them of childhood’s spontaneous joys. This made Berdichevsky’s invocation of an ancient, idyllic, religiously matriarchal past that was the lost childhood of the nation both startling in its strangeness and subliminally recognizable:

In the time when we worshiped many gods, burning our incense to them on the hills and mountains and building our altars to the Queen of Heaven [the prophet Jeremiah’s term for the Canaanite goddess Astarte]; when we pranced like young rams and reveled in light and in the votaries of light; then came the one God from the desert to give us an eternal scripture into whose occult sinkholes we sank and never stopped sinking.

There had never been such a frontal attack on Judaism in Hebrew before, not even in Gordon’s poem “Zedekiah in Prison” or in the militant secularism of Eliezer Ben-Yehudah (1856-1922). Overnight, Berdichevsky became a cause célèbre. His polemical exchange with Ahad Ha’am was closely followed. The talk in Hebrew-reading circles in Eastern Europe, the Hebrew writer Ḥayyim Dov Horowitz wrote from there, was “Berdichevsky, Berdichevsky, Berdichevsky!'”And just as Nietzsche idealized the pre-Christian past to hail the coming of a post-Christian future, so Berdichevsky now spoke of a future that would be post-Jewish. With Judaism no longer an intellectually viable faith among the young, the Jewish people would perish if it did not reinvent itself:

The period we are now in has no parallel in anything previous. The fundamental conditions, internal and external, that have enabled us to survive for so many centuries have collapsed. . . . Not for nothing do we fear that we have left familiar territory and are faced with the collision of “to be” with “not to be.” We will either be the last Jews or the first Hebrews.

Stirring language though this was, though, what did it mean? If a Jew and a Hebrew were two manifestations of a single identity, one born at Sinai and the other buried beneath it and reborn upon its ruins that were now about to entomb the first, what did such an identity consist of? And if the contrary was true—if Hebrews and Jews were two entirely different peoples—why should Jews care if they were followed by Hebrews or not? Peoples, like individuals, strive to survive as themselves. “Survival” as another is extinction.

This point was made by Ahad Ha’am in Hashiloaḥ, from which Berdichevsky had by now resigned. Although, Ahad Ha’am wrote, there were elements in Nietzsche’s philosophy that were compatible with Judaism or Jewishness (like other Hebrew writers, Ahad Ha’am indiscriminatingly used the term yahadut for both), such as the parallel between the Nietzschean Übermensch and the Jewish concept of the Chosen People, Nietzsche’s belief that “the physical life needs to be liberated from the restraining power of the spirit” was not one of them. It was no wonder that Hebrew literature’s self-proclaimed Nietzscheans

feel an “inner fissure” when they exclaim: the transvaluation of values! New values for old! The sword in place of the book—instead of the Prophets, [Nietzsche’s] “blond beast!” This past year, especially, we have heard on a daily basis about the need to tear everything down from top to bottom and rebuild. What we don’t hear is how you can simultaneously smash the national foundations of an ancient people and construct a new life for it after having denied its essential nature and killed its historical soul.

The question was a good one, even if Ahad Ha’am’s understanding of Nietzsche was not. (The Übermench-Chosen People equation was far-fetched, and Nietzsche certainly never believed that the mental life mattered less than the physical.) But Berdichevsky was in any case not quite the Nietzschean he was made out to be. Nietzsche’s thought had given him a framework in which to push his critique of Judaism to the limit; beyond that, it was not central to his own. If it had any relevance to the question of Jewish continuity posed by Ahad Ha’am, this was only insofar as Nietzsche considered thinking in terms of essences a lazily generalizing habit of mind.

This was precisely how Berdichevsky now answered Ahad Ha’am. Jewish life, he declared, did not have an “essential nature” and never had had one. It was simply the sum total of all the Jewish lives that had been lived and of the innumerable contrasts and inconsistencies between them:

Ahad Ha’am’s Judaism is an abstraction, a conventional notion of what Jews are. But we are Jews pure and simple, with all the different thoughts and opinions that Jews have.

You warn us that our views are incompatible with being Jewish. But the question is: what is Jewish? What is this eternal Jewishness in which we share?

Giving examples of how Jewish tradition was never unitary and often contradicted itself, Berdichevsky went on:

We are told: observe Judaism! We reply: we are Jews and that’s enough. You have chosen for yourselves a suitably high-minded Judaism by virtue of which we exist and alone have the right to exist. But we are not interested in an existence that is predicated on living tradition-bound lives. The Jewish people is an ongoing process, not a cosmically predetermined formula. We are a people that has thought this, that, and the other thing, but it is not thinking any of them that has made us a people

No abstract Judaism of any kind can be our guide. We are Hebrews and we will serve our own hearts.

Ivrim anaḥnu ve’et libeynu na’avod! Berdichevsky’s readers would not have missed the defiant allusion to Moses’ declaration to Pharaoh, “Thus saith the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: ‘Set my people free that it might serve me.’” It was not Jewishness that produced Jews. It was Jews who produced Jewishness, and every Jew would help produce it in his own way.




Roughly at the time of his marriage to Rahel Ramberg in 1902, the subject matter of Berdichevsky’s fiction changed. It ceased to be the uprooted lives of young Jews who had left the Russian shtetl for the cities and universities of Europe, and instead became the shtetl itself. This no doubt owed something to his marriage and settling-down: he was now a husband and father and no longer a student and wanderer. It also, however, reflected a desire to record a world that was, by the turn of the century, under severe stress and doomed, so Berdichevsky believed, to vanish or be fundamentally altered. Despite his physical and mental removal from the shtetl, his emotional ties to it had never been cut, and a successful visit to Dubova with his wife soon after their marriage, his first since leaving Russia a decade earlier, helped reconcile him to his memories of it.

The shtetl Berdichevsky wrote about was that of his childhood in which traditional ways, relatively unaffected by modernity, still prevailed. Neither described satirically in the manner of the Haskalah, nor romanticized as it was by the Yiddish author I.L. Peretz (1852-1915) and the Hebrew author S.Y. Agnon (1888-1970), its outward harmony is fraught with inner conflicts. Perhaps the most common motif in Berdichevsky’s shtetl stories, with their wide variety of characters and situations, is that of disruption—of a person, action, or event that shatters an accepted mold of behavior and sends shock waves through a community that must struggle to contain it, often at a high price to those directly involved.

A good example of this is his “A Generation Passes,” set in a town called Lodozino. The town is undergoing a slow social transformation: its old class of wealthy Jews is on the decline and a new group of nouveaux riches has accumulated savings, opened shops and businesses, and become economically dominant. And yet while everyone in town is aware of the change, the old social relationships continue. By a kind of undeclared compact, Lodozino’s down-at-the-heels gentility goes on controlling the town’s communal institutions, is accorded the show of respect it has always received, and refrains from mixing with those it considers its inferiors—until one day a parvenu horse trader named Ayzik-Hirsh, the crude and violent son of a blacksmith, persuades the once wealthy Menasheh-Shlomo, now fallen on hard times, to marry off his well-bred daughter to his own, Ayzik-Hirsh’s, doltish son in return for rescue from financial ruin.

It is the town’s first “intermarriage”—and Lodozino, to its surprise, accepts it with equanimity and even celebrates with relief the passing of a fictitious social order. Menasheh-Shlomo alone, mortified for himself and his daughter, cannot come to terms with it. He withdraws into a world of unreality, convincing himself up to the day of the wedding that his daughter’s betrothal is a bad dream.

The day arrived. All day long Menasheh went about unbelievingly. He only awoke when the musicians began to play. Yes, it was real . . . it really was. It was the first day of the Jewish month, on which the Hallel prayer is said, and he thought of its verse, “Dear unto the Lord is the death of His pious ones.” Opening his tallis-and-t’fillin bag, he took out his sash and his prayer book, in which he found the deathbed confession. Then he went up to the roof. Put your house in order, man!

It isn’t clear if Menasheh hangs himself with his sash, the Hasidic gartl worn in prayer, or jumps from the roof, just as it isn’t clear if the story’s last words are addressed to him by himself or by the narrator. Such ambiguity is common in Berdichevsky’s fiction, in which the author slips in and out of the minds of his characters as if he were both their chronicler and alter ego, leaving us guessing whether a thought is his or theirs. In either case, Menasheh-Shlomoh has put his house in order as best he could. His daughter, whose wedding he will be spared from witnessing, will be unhappily married but well-provided for.

In some of the best-known of Berdichevsky’s stories, the disruption takes the form of flagrantly non-normative behavior that bears on his debate with Ahad Ha’am. One of these, “The Red Cow,” takes place in the town of Dashya. At first its narrator wonders whether he should even relate its upsetting incident at all, but he decides to go ahead. “The fact of the matter is,” he says,

that our generation is dying out and the next one won’t know who its ancestors were or how they lived in our world of Jewish exile. If it reads and is curious about them, let it at least know what their bright and dark sides were. Let it know that we were Jews, but also flesh-and-blood, with all that that implies.

In Dashya, many of whose inhabitants keep cows, lives a Jew named Ruvn who owns the handsomest and best milk-giver in town, a rare red Holstein. One year in which meat is scarce, Dashya’s Jewish butchers plot to steal and slaughter Ruvn’s cow and divide it among them. In the middle of the night, they lead it from its barn, drag it to a cellar, wrestle it to the ground, and slit its throat.

The cow let out a frightful, earth-rending bellow. Its blood spurted in a wide, fountain-like arc, glittering in the light of the lantern that hung from the ceiling. It spattered over the ceiling and the walls and the floor and the men’s pants and faces and hands, and still the cow went on struggling with its last strength. The ground around it was a sea of blood. Its killers heaved it onto its side, and after a while the red Holstein gave up the ghost. Man conquers beast!

One of the butchers took a sharp knife and plunged it into the dying cow’s belly. As its guts spilled out, the others were already skinning it, all but tearing the hide from its flesh. They did it with a hidden strength and a hard passion they never knew they possessed.

The cow was skinned. The butchers divided it up, cutting away the head and legs. One impatiently seized the fatty liver and threw it on some coals that had been lit in a corner. The men wolfed it down, blood and all, and licked their fingers hungrily, drinking as they ate from a large bottle of vodka that stood on the floor. They were like priests of the Ba’al ripping apart a sacrificial victim. And this wasn’t at Beth-El or Dan. It was in the Jewish town of Dashya. It didn’t happen in the ancient kingdom of Israel before the exile of the ten tribes. The year was five-thousand-six-hundred-and-forty-five.

The Jewish year 5645 was 1885, when Berdichevsky was a young man in the Ukraine, and it is possible that “The Red Cow” was based on an incident he knew of. The butchers’ wild bacchanal, however, is entirely the work of his imagination. They themselves are surprised by it: it comes from a place deep within them that they have had no inkling of. The narrator, whether a simple Jew or an Ahad Ha’amist intellectual, is embarrassed by the whole thing. Jews should not act this way. It is foreign to the essence of Judaism to indulge in orgiastic rites that evoke the worship of the forgotten gods of Canaan, the bitter foes of the biblical God who forbids blood-lusts and the eating of blood. Yet the butchers of Dashya, who have their own synagogue and are every bit as “Jewish” as the town’s respectable householders, don’t give a fig for essences. They are who they are. In “The Red Cow,” something ancient and anarchic that seems to break into the life of the shtetl has in fact always been there; it dwells in the Jewish psyche even if its presence there is denied; it is as old as the monotheistically suppressed cult of the Ba’al itself.

In others of Berdichevsky’s stories, the intrusion of archaic forces into small-town Russian-Jewish life is more benign but also more tragic. This is so in “In the Valley,” which tells of the fate of Hulda, a Jewish girl from a Ukrainian hamlet whose beauty has about it “something of a folktale.” Hulda is a strange, enchanted creature. Wherever she goes—and she likes, in an unheard-of fashion, to wander alone in the fields and hills, or by the river near her home—she is accompanied by “an echo of Eden before man sinned.” When she is sixteen, she is betrothed by her father, the miller Shmaryahu-Avigdor, to a presentable young man from a good family in a nearby town. Here, too, the climax of the story is a wedding. Hulda’s is held out-of-doors:

Twilight! The setting sun, reflected with the fields in the river, reddened the sky. A grand wedding canopy had been erected. Men and women held torches; dark clothes gleamed in their glow; trumpets blared. . . . Wrapped in a long shawl, the bride stood in the middle of it all like a Hindu goddess. The groom circled her the prescribed seven times. It was everything a wedding should be. The rabbi read the marriage contract and broke the glass. There were cries of “mazel tov!” Drums beat, cymbals clashed. A blaze flared up in the distance. Shmaryahu-Avigdor’s peasant friends, seeking to please him, had lit a bonfire of dry branches. Its flames colored the night like the flames in which, in olden times, human beings were offered to the gods.

Awaking the next morning, the bride and groom’s families cannot find Hulda. She turns up that afternoon in the river, not a human being sacrificed to the gods but a goddess sacrificed to human beings, drowned, perhaps of her own volition, for the violation of her sanctity. “And on the following day,” the narrator relates, “Shmaryahu-Avigdor and his wife harnessed two cows to a cart and put the drowned body on it and set out for town to bury it . . . and the cows lowed all the way.” The language at this point is close to that of the book of Samuel’s account of the return of the captured Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines, who have been punished for keeping it. (“And they took two milk cows and they tied them to a cart. . . . And they laid the Ark of the Lord upon the cart. . . . And the cows took the straight way and they lowed as they went.”) Hulda, like the Ark, is a numinous presence, a manifestation of divinity in a world that fails, with grim consequences, to recognize it.

Playing off a scene against a biblical text is a time-honored Hebrew literary technique that Berdichevsky resorts to often, as does his contemporary, the great Yiddish and Hebrew story writer and novelist Mendele Mokher Sforim. But while Mendele’s work is set in the shtetl, too, his use of the technique is different. His biblical allusions are comic; they clash with his neo-rabbinic prose and serve to emphasize, by their dissonance with the reality they refer to, how pathetically far Jewish life has fallen from its ancient grandeur. In Berdichevsky, echoes of the Bible are meant to be taken seriously. Its ancient myths erupt in his characters—who, because they are not conscious of acting them out, are defenseless before them. It is tempting to draw an analogy with the psychology of Jung, though Berdichevsky wrote nearly all of his shtetl stories before Jung’s appearance as a psychoanalytic thinker and could not have been influenced by him.

And yet a few of Berdichevsky’s shtetl characters are only too conscious of the past’s survival in them. One is Avram-Moshe in the story “The Lonely Ones.” A young Talmud student in the town of Polna who dreams of a life of heroic action, Avram-Moshe is the opposite of his fellow townsman, a young man his own age with the symbolically reverse name of Moshe-Avram. The latter is all action and no thought. The town brawler, admired for his courage and feared for his strength, he has no idea what to do with either of them. As the narrator observes drily:

He was not one of the biblical judges. No one was asking him to assume the kingship or lead his countrymen against the enemy. He was a tailor and a tailor’s son. He who could have done great things for his tribe sat sewing pants from fabric costing twenty kopecks a yard. The melancholy of a hero without a stage!

Meanwhile, the physically puny Avram-Moshe, under the influence of the Haskalah, has become a religious freethinker while continuing to feel born for the greatness that Moshe-Avram has no inkling of. But what greatness is possible in a town like Polna, whose Jews cannot think beyond “the several square feet of a store in the marketplace”? Avram-Moshe’s high ambitions weigh him down. “What had he been put on earth for? Why had he come into a fortune that he couldn’t spend a penny of?”

Moshe-Avram, chafing at his confinement to a tailor’s shop, quits his job, falls in with bad company, and becomes a petty criminal whom no one in Polna dares challenge. “Who was going to tell him what to do? One might as well go bind Samson!” For his part, Avram-Moshe takes to airing his heretical views and is driven from the study house and ostracized. And so:

When shadows fell and the sky grew dark in the east, Moshe-Avram sat listlessly by his window. What was he going to do tonight? Steal someone’s chicken or duck? He needed to hunt bigger game, make multitudes quake with his fists.

At the same time of day, Avram-Moshe languished in his room. . . . With whom was he going to do battle? Whom could he teach? Notion-store owners, sellers of buttons and threads? How was he to rally the tribes from Dan to Beersheba and deliver his message, his great message, to them?

“The Lonely Ones,” with its overly pat symmetries, is more of an allegory than a story. Great spiritual and physical powers, the powers of the people of the prophets and judges, live on in the Jews of the shtetl. Who, what, will unchain them?




Shimon Ben-Moshe, the protagonist of “Between the Hammer and the Anvil,” goes through a Zionist phase that does not last. This, too, is one of the story’s autobiographical elements, although it is, as it were, a prophetic one, because at the time the story was written, Berdichevsky’s Zionist period was not over. It was in fact at its apogee, 1903 marking the height of his written involvement with Zionism. This was a year in which he contributed weekly columns of commentary on Jewish affairs to the Warsaw Hebrew daily Hatsefirah, nearly half of which touched on Zionist issues.

It would be hard to think of another Hebrew writer of the age for whom Zionism was a more obvious cause to embrace. Everything in Berdichevsky’s work pointed to it as the one possible solution for the dilemmas of Jewish existence. His belief that Judaism had repressed the natural man and woman in the Jew, who must reconnect to them; that its traditional religious structure in the Diaspora was collapsing; that this forced Jews to live in two worlds, an increasingly attenuated one of their own and an increasingly dominant one that was not, and tore them psychologically in two; that growing assimilation would be the inevitable outcome; that the Jewish people, to survive, needed to remake itself by means of a post-religious, culturally self-sufficient revolution in its life; and that such a revolution, to be authentic and tap into the energies of the Jewish past, had to be a Hebrew one—who but Jews living in their own land could be capable of this?

Yet when one reads Berdichevsky’s writings on Zionism, one is struck by their note of reserve. As an idea, he was for it; as a movement, he had little faith in it. Although 1903 climaxed the clash in Zionist ranks between Westerners and Easterners, supporters of Herzl and supporters of Ahad Ha’am, and pro- and anti-Ugandists, he was equally dismissive of both camps. Like Ahad Ha’am, he thought Herzl out of touch with reality, a man under the delusion that grand assemblies and gestures could accomplish for a people what it was unprepared to do for itself. Herzl, wrote Berdichevsky, acted like a philanthropist wishing to give Palestine to the Jews as an unearned gift. Had he been a profit-oriented entrepreneur instead—had he settled in Palestine himself as did, say, Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, and like Rhodes developed farms, mines, and businesses that provided work and served as economic models—he could have achieved far more. While Jews leaving Eastern Europe might applaud other Jews for going to Palestine in the name of a national ideal, they knew ideals could not feed their families. “First give us the stones on which to lay our heads,” Berdichevsky wrote of Palestine in Hatsefirah, alluding to Jacob’s vision in the book of Genesis, “and then we can dream.”

But while agreeing with Ahad Ha’am that Palestine as it was lacked the economic capacity for large-scale Jewish immigration, and that Herzl was wrong in thinking that anti-Semitism rather than the inner crisis of Judaism was the main Jewish problem, Berdichevsky regarded Ahad Ha’am’s “spiritual center” as no less of a fantasy than Herzl’s Jewish state. The spiritual life of a people, he argued in his 1903 columns, could not be engineered or pre-planned. It grew out of material circumstances. Cultural and intellectual elites rested on broad social and economic bases; they needed a working society with all of its occupations and activities to nourish them and could create nothing of value unless interacting with it. “The upper realms need to rest upon the lower ones,” he wrote. Ahad Ha’am wished to construct a roof without a building.

Zionism was riven by internal dissent. Herzl had failed to obtain his charter from the Turks. The Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine, was demographically stagnant, departures nearly equaling arrivals. “Every ship full of Jews that sails from Palestinian shores,” Berdichevsky wrote in Hatsefirah, “gives the lie to utopian visions of all the shiploads yet to dock.” The “Gordian knot” would not be cut by resolutions passed at Zionist congresses. Only when Jews staked their futures on a life in Palestine forged with their own hands, with no expectation of outside aid, would anything change:

However we think of our people’s redemption, it will start with individuals and only with them. They may seem pitifully few in terms of the collective, but they will be the basis of anything real that the collective builds. . . . We have committees and organizations. We have projects for the great national future we dream of. We lack only one thing—the main thing: a nation’s work as performed by actual men and women for themselves, for their families, for their own needs. . . . Every culmination has its beginning. Show us each coin and we will tell you what we are worth.   

Hebrew readers were not used to such language. Zionism had promised its supporters much and demanded little. Berdichevsky was telling it to promise nothing and demand everything. For the Jewish youth of Eastern Europe, this had great resonance; while adults may suffer from too many demands, the young, especially those in rebellion against adult authority, are more likely to suffer from too few. Berdichevsky’s call for what soon became known in Zionist circles as hagshamah atsmit, “self-actualization,” spoke to them and helped shape the ideal of the ḥaluts, the Zionist pioneer committed unconditionally to a life of hard work in Palestine. Many of the young ḥalutsim who injected new energy into the Yishuv when they arrived in it in the years after the failed Russian revolution of 1905 were motivated by reading Berdichevsky, though his economic opinions were far from the utopian socialism they sought to practice. One of them, by his own testimony, was David Ben-Gurion.

And here lies a puzzle. For the writer who called on Jews to take personal responsibility for Zionism and scolded Herzl for not settling in Palestine made no attempt to settle there himself. Nor, after his 1903 columns in Hatsefirah, did he encourage others to do so; when his friend Yosef Ḥayyim Brenner (1881–1921) consulted him about such a step in 1909, he advised Brenner to choose Germany instead. More than that: he never until his own death in 1921 even visited Palestine, although this was not a difficult thing to do in the early years of the 20th century. More even than that: in a particularly vituperative article, he mocked a visit there by someone else.

This was in 1913. The visitor was the Hebrew literary critic and historian Yosef Klausner, who had replaced Ahad Ha’am as editor of Hashiloaḥ a decade previously. Klausner spent time in Palestine in 1912 and found a Jewish community markedly more upbeat than the one Berdichevsky wrote about in Hatsefirah. Its Jewish population was growing and had passed 80,000. Tel-Aviv, founded in 1909 as “the first Hebrew city,” already had 2,000 inhabitants. The old Rothschild farming colonies were beginning to prosper and had been joined by the first kibbutzim. Armed Jewish guards were patrolling and defending Jewish fields. Hebrew had won its battle to become the dominant language of everyday life.

In a three-part series in Hashiloaḥ entitled “A World in Emergence,” Klausner reported glowingly, although not uncritically, on what he saw. Among the things that impressed him most was the dedication of the young ḥalutsim. “Their attitude toward physical labor,” he wrote, “is as to something sacred. They engage in it an ecstasy of purity and awe the ways Jews once engaged in study and prayer.”

Berdichevsky had never liked Klausner. He thought him shallow and pompous, and he had stopped contributing to Hashiloaḥ because of him. Now, he published an attack on his Hashiloaḥ series that was, for sheer venom, unmatched by anything he had ever written. Appearing in the Warsaw review N’tivot, it was not a substantively weighty piece; for the most part, it made do with deriding Klausner’s self-importance and penchant for overstatement, as when he compared the intersection of the newly laid out Ahad Ha’am and Herzl Streets in Tel Aviv to the rapprochement of Peter and Paul in early Christianity. In his final paragraphs, however, Berdichevsky turned his guns on Tel Aviv itself. Of Klausner’s description of a festive reception held for him at the city’s new Herzliyah High School, accompanied by singing and dancing, he wrote:

Klausner is dancing! He spins in a circle and hundreds of adorable boys and girls who speak only Hebrew and obey the Hebrew directions of their dance master sing and circle him merrily; their mood is infectious and he enters into it and sings along. Indeed, he feels “a complete Hebrew,” just like them. Yes, the Israelite hero Klausner . . . is dancing on historic ground with his own two historic feet while the whole Yishuv—the offspring of a supposed new generation, the bearers of our hopes—dances with him! Their forefathers placed an idol in the Temple and the Tel Avivians are dancing around it—and behold, the idol can speak, although it only speaks of itself. . . .

Peter and Paul, Ahad Ha’am and Herzl! We cringe in shame for your doings, we cringe in shame for your Tel Aviv!

One reads and cringes for Berdichevsky. What possessed him? What made him compare (oddly, it would seem, considering his former enthusiasm for Canaanite polytheism) the inhabitants of Tel Aviv, innocently welcoming a distinguished guest from Europe with an evening of Hebrew entertainment, with the ancient Israelites who danced around the Golden Calf and worshiped, according to a rabbinic legend, an idol in Solomon’s Temple? What made him write “your doings” (ma’aseykhem) and “your Tel Aviv” (Tel Avivkhem) with the Hebrew plural possessive pronoun, making it clear that he was expressing his opinion not just of Klausner but of Zionist Palestine? What?




Arguably, the anger in Berdichevsky’s tirade was also anger at and for himself. He, not Klausner, should have been the visitor to Palestine. It was he who should have been feted in Tel Aviv with Hebrew songs and dances. The alutsim in their tents and fields were responding to his call, not Klausner’s.

And yet what kept him from visiting Palestine? Why wasn’t he heartened by developments there? Why had he no interest in seeing them?

He didn’t. When the Hebrew author Ya’akov Cahan requested of him in 1909 that he contribute to a Zionist anthology named The New Hebrew, he wrote back: “I’m sorry, but you’ve come too late. I feel nothing but despair [of Zionism] and have no desire to write about it, knowing as I do that we’re only sowing weeds.” He not only overlooked the good news from Palestine, he exaggerated the bad. Reports of a sex scandal in Jerusalem in 1911 caused him to note in his diary: “Although I never had much hope for the new Palestine, I didn’t think it would turn out so disastrously.” A minor scandal was a Zionist disaster.

Various reasons have been given for Berdichevsky’s loss of hope for Zionism, which was, for him, loss of hope for the Jewish future: his doubts whether the Jewish people had the will to implement it; his contempt for its politics and politicians; his fear, like Yehudah Leib Gordon’s, of its being captured by the rabbis. (“The Jewish religion,” he wrote in his diary in May 1905, “has sapped our people’s political strength and rendered it impotent by depriving it of the qualities needed for a national existence; we cannot return to our land as [its] propagators and hope to recover our health with its poison still in our veins.”)

Yet none of this explains why his pessimism grew greater just as the secular Zionist project in Palestine was taking off. There had to be a deeper reason.

Was it that, on an unconscious level, he did not want Zionism to succeed?

“We will either be the last Jews or the first Hebrews,” he had declared in 1898-99. But to Ya’akov Cahan, who took his anthology’s name from that declaration, he wrote ten years later: “I may as well tell you that the name The New Hebrew does not appeal to me. I never liked rhetorical titles.”

Of course, his declaration had been phrased rhetorically, too. Had its wording been, “We will be the last Jews unless we are also the first Hebrews,” it would have been less dramatic but more logical. It would also have been more in the spirit of secular Zionism.

Had he changed his mind about that? Did he resort to religious imagery in mocking secular Tel Aviv because, like Mikha’el drawing the curtain on his window in “Two Camps,” he had come to be as repelled by the shallowness of post-tradition as he was by the narrowness of tradition? Tradition would not let go of him. He couldn’t stop wrestling with it. In a sequence of meditations published in 1910 as Ḥorev, a biblical synonym for Sinai, he had sought to extract from biblical and rabbinic texts a universal religion based on the power of direct moral and spiritual experience, unmediated by the dos and don’ts of Jewish law. Ḥorev never attracted much attention. Perhaps by then Berdichevsky’s readers, wearied by all his twists and turns, had trouble following him—and indeed, Ḥorev, if followed, led away, via its Jewish texts, from Judaism entirely.

Everything of his people was still in him. Brenner, who wrote a long essay on Berdichevsky in 1912, stated that his sense of Jewishness was so great that he felt that “he and the Jewish people were one”—that he contained in himself, that is, every contradiction and conflict of Jewish history; there was no period, figure, or tendency which he did not feel was part of himself.

His identification with the Jewish people was total. But this meant that if, Jewishly, he had reached the end of the road, so had it. And he had—like Mikha’el, like Shimon Ben-Moshe—reached it. “Each time I tried pressing on,” Shimon says, “I saw the wreckage of Sinai before me.” Berdichevsky saw it, too. There was no going forward and no going back.

Such a man could not be the first Hebrew. He could only be the last Jew.

Which was what he wanted to be. He had already wanted to be it in 1903 when he had fought not to circumcise his son. This may have seemed to him at the time a matter of standing up to religion. But circumcision was not necessarily a religious act. It could be a badge of secular Jewishness, too. His friend Tsvi Malter considered it that. So did many Jews. Why couldn’t he?

He would be the last Jew. The Jewish people mustn’t outlive him, not even in his own son. Not even in a Hebrew-speaking Palestine.




The last ten years of Berdichevsky’s life, lived in Berlin, were devoted to scholarship. A man of immense Jewish erudition, he collected Jewish legends from a wide variety of sources and translated them into German in two anthologies, the six-volume Der Born Judas (“The Wellspring of Judah”) and the five-volume Die Sagen der Juden (“The Legends of the Jews”). He also wrote several German works, all published posthumously, in which he made the case for some quirky historical theses. In one of them, “Sinai and Gerizim,” he argued that there had been two different biblical traditions of divine revelation, one associated with Moses and one with Joshua, and that the Bible’s editors had concealed the rivalry between them. In others, he looked for the Jewish roots of ancient Christianity. He was still pursuing his anti-essentialist polemic against Ahad Ha’am. And yet, ironically, he who once had attacked Jewish life for putting the demands of the past before the needs of the present was now immersed entirely in the past himself.

The 19th-century bibliographer Moritz Steinschneider had famously remarked of Jewish historians that their task was to provide the remains of Judaism with a decent burial. Berdichevsky was now one of the pallbearers. To Brenner he wrote in 1912, explaining his refusal to meet with the young Agnon, then newly arrived in Germany and eager to be introduced to him, that he had not only stopped writing in Hebrew, he had given up reading what was being written in it:

I am in a state of absolute despair. . . . I know nothing at all about our younger Hebrew authors and feel at times that I don’t want to know. I am like a man who has been buried alive. What am I supposed to say to those who still think they are alive and want to live? Any honest conversation would only be an obstacle in their way, and I have no wish to be one.

Only at the end of his life, as part of a contract for the issuing of his collected works by the Hebrew publisher Abraham Stybel, did he return to Hebrew fiction. The outcome was several long stories and a short novel, Miriam. All were again set in the shtetl, the historical passing of which took on a frightful personal dimension when the Jewish community of Dubova was annihilated in 1919 during the widespread massacres of Jews by anti-Bolshevik forces in the Ukraine. Of its 800 members, 50 survived the slaughter. Among the dead were Berdichevsky’s father and brother.

Finished two days before he died of a worsening heart condition, Miriam can be read as a last will and testament. The heroine for whom it is named is a type we have met before in Berdichevsky’s fiction. Like Hulda in “In the Valley,” she is a dreamy, uncannily beautiful being, simple yet mysterious, as though coming from a realm that has not given her the words or even the thoughts to cope with the world she has been thrust into. Throughout much of the story, which follows her from childhood through late adolescence while often meandering away from her, she is not physically present; even then, however, her magical effect on whoever comes into contact with her, or even sees her from afar, is lasting. Although men, especially as she grows older, are powerfully drawn to her, they are also confounded. Even as they desire her, their desire is nullified by a feeling of awe.

Miriam is a mystery also to herself, puzzled by her sense of unconnectedness to her surroundings. Orphaned at a young age and taken in by a kind uncle, she has been given, like most girls in the shtetl, no religious education, and she feels closer to the Russian literature she reads than to the Judaism practiced around her. Turgenev and Dostoyevsky open worlds for her that the shtetl has no idea of. She is not in rebellion against it like some of her friends; she is not by nature a rebel. She is a quiet, self-contained observer, yearning for something without knowing what it is.

Much in Miriam is familiar from Berdichevsky’s earlier fiction: the interweaving of the narrator’s consciousness with that of his characters, who at times seem to be thinking the thoughts of a single, endlessly cogitating mind given to strange reveries and gnomic utterances; the sudden eruptions in their lives of mythic forces coming from no one knows where; the broad canvas of types ranging from wealthy merchants to poor laborers, pillars of the community to reprobates and outcasts, stern traditionalists to freethinking Maskilim—about one of whom, the tubercular Naḥum Sharoni, the narrator says, “I must confess that I owe many of my thoughts to him.” Naḥum, shortly before dying, shares these thoughts with his friend Yeruḥam. “There’s a reason,” he says,

that everyone hates us. The eternal hatred for an eternal people! It comes from our religion. Our prophets drew a line between nation and nation, tribe and bribe. All their preaching was destructive. It fostered hate. It will go down in infamy.

Yeruḥam protests. “But the prophets are sublime! There’s no one like them. They’re our pride among the nations.”

Naḥum said nothing. He looked at his friend in despair and shook his head.

Despair, we have seen, is an emotion that Berdichevsky associated with himself. Let us put aside literary-critical caveats about not identifying authors with their characters. Naḥum Sharoni is Berdichevsky’s dying voice—and it is a frightening one. The celebrated Hebrew author whose family had recently been murdered by anti-Semites was blaming the Jews for their murderers. Their guilt went back to the Hebrew prophets who, by distinguishing between Israel, God’s chosen, and the rest of the world even as they castigated Israel for its sins, set the stage for all the hatred of Jews to come.

Miriam’s uncle dies suddenly. She does not know what to do or where to go. She has been reading the Christian ethical works of Tolstoy. Their words run through her mind—or through the narrator’s—or through a universal consciousness:

The day of God comes to pass through His son. Open wide the windows to the Kingdom of Heaven, cast off the idols you have made. Let each man know the next man’s sorrow. Let him share his bread with the distant and lowly and put away all ties of blood and carnal pleasure. Every rich man is poor.

Miriam thinks of Dr. Koch, an elderly, unmarried physician who lives in town. Although a Jew by birth, he is an ex-“cantonist,” a Jewish boy impressed into long years of military service in the days of Tsar Nicholas, and he has long forgotten everything he once knew about Judaism. His only religion is now his medical calling: he works long hours in his clinic, charges his patients, Jews and Christians alike, no more than they can afford, and often does not charge them at all. Miriam makes up her mind. “It happened toward evening,” we are told.

Miriam left her lodgings with a small bundle under her arm. She went to Dr. Koch’s front yard, waited for the last patient to leave, and slipped into the waiting room, leaving her bundle in the vestibule. The old man rose from his long day’s work and held out a compassionate hand. She lowered her eyes and said, “I’ll be your servant. I’ll help you with your patients and do all you ask.” He kissed her on her forehead and said, “You’ll be my daughter. Your kindness to me is great.”

The novel ends with this scene. But what, exactly, has it ended with? Not with Christianity, despite its New Testament allusions. Koch has never become a Christian. But neither is he any longer a Jew. He is beyond all religions, beyond all differences among men.

Has Miriam found what she is looking for? The answer, to the extent that the endings of novels ever have answers, would seem to be yes. At the very least, she has been redeemed, as Berdichevsky sought to be redeemed in Ḥorev, from the burden of Jewishness.

The Hebrew poet and critic Simon Halkin wrote of Berdichevsky that he was the most tragic Jewish writer of modern times. But not even my uncle, a great lover of Berdichevsky, dared notice—but how could he not have noticed? dared say—how far the tragedy in Miriam goes.

There are historical forces to which individuals are subject. Emanuel Berdichevsky was given a good Jewish education by his father. He worked for many years as an editor at a Jewish encyclopedia that was terminated by the Nazis before its completion and settled in Palestine, with his mother, in 1935. There he changed his family name to Bin-Gorion: the name, that of a leader of the rebellion against Rome that ended with the destruction of the Temple, under which Berdichevsky had published his German books. Emanuel translated several of these books into Hebrew and wrote several of his own, worshipful accounts of his father and his work. He died in 1987, a few years after our conversation.

More about: Arts & Culture, Berdichevsky, East European Jewry, Hebrew literature, History & Ideas, Proto-Zionist Writers