Micha Yosef Berdichevsky (1865-1921) wrote the bulk of his short stories and novels in Hebrew. Yet between 1902 and 1906, he composed a series of short stories in Yiddish, set, like most of his work from this period, in a fictionalized shtetl. Seeking neither to satirize nor to romanticize, Berdichevsky—“the most tragic Jewish writer of modern times,” as Hillel Halkin has called him in Mosaic—instead portrayed “outward harmony . . . fraught with inner conflicts.” James Adam Redfield has rendered three such stories, perhaps better described as character sketches, into English. Here is how the first, “Yankev-Nosn,” begins:
Yankev-Nosn was a clever fellow: one of those brainy, traditionally learned Jews who also dabble in other areas. He seemed to know it all; he had an angle on pretty much everything: a page of Talmud or an interpretation by the Tosafists, a verse with Ibn Ezra’s commentary, a tricky math problem, even a discourse on astronomy. He was never so concerned with any one subject in and of itself—what he loved was knowledge as such; he loved being a connoisseur, a scion of our intelligentsia. Nor was he especially pious: he knew there was a God, but that sort of knowledge never moved him, never really took root. He never transgressed a commandment: he was simply too lazy to resist praying or doing whatever you’re supposed to.
Jewishness was just something he did, like pulling on his long coat or his socks and shoes. Desire, now there was a subject he knew nothing about—whether for eating, making money, or other things. What mattered to him, above all, was the intellect—understanding something forward and backward. He didn’t wrap up what he started; having a grasp of it was enough.