By Micha Josef Berdyczewski, translated by James Adam Redfield
In his short life (1865–1921), Micha Josef Berdyczewski (aka, from 1911, Bin-Gorion) was a versatile and influential man of letters: an innovative Hebrew prose stylist; a collector of Jewish folklore; a scholar of Jewish literature and the New Testament; an essayist and autobiographer in German; a publicist and leader, with Y. H. Brener, of the literary circle the Young Ones; a doctor of philosophy inspired by Nietzsche and German Romanticism; and a vivid ethnographer of traditional shtetl life for both Jewish and non-Jewish (German) readers.
As a Yiddish writer, however, he was neither influential nor celebrated. His Yiddish work—written mostly in Breslau (1902–06) and first collected in full in the six-volume Yidishe ksovim fun a vaytn korev (Yiddish Writings by a Distant Relation; Shtiebl, 1924)—seemed, on the heels of his famous polemic on modern Jewish identity with Ahad ha‘am, an odd detour from his new career as a Hebrew intellectual. Y. L. Peretz set the tone in his response to Berdyczewski’s first Yiddish story, “Der kovel” (“The Blacksmith,” 1902), by praising Berdyczewski as “the Jewish Nietzsche,” only to mock this true-crime tale of one man’s devastating passion as both cheap and overpriced. With the notable exception of Sholem Aleichem, critics agreed: a decade later, bal-Makhshoves (Isidor Eliashev) compared Berdyczewski’s ideal of a pure Yiddish folk literature, or “style without style,” to a man “just come from the ritual bath with his ‘corkscrews,’ as the Germans call them, still dripping.”
This criticism exposes both the challenge of Berdyczewski’s Yiddish turn and its distinctive quality. Unlike Hebrew and German, he envisioned the language as a vehicle for the spirit of the people, casting himself as mute stenographer or (to echo the critic Shmuel Niger) a “lyric ethnographer.” By echoing the voices of his native shtetl (Dubova in Ukraine, where his father was the Hasidic rov), in the thin guise of a narrator whom they knew as “Yosele the rebbe’s son,” Berdyczewski hoped to salvage the essence of traditional Jewish life from its modern historical vicissitudes. Naturally, this stirred the anxieties of his more sophisticated, forward-facing literary readers. Yet, however much he used romantic ideals of the pure and primal people, he did not succumb: his characters speak in a thickly textured world where the everyday pressures of poverty, desire, faith, and morality help to develop realist snapshots of shtetl life in all its tragedy and comedy. Berdyczewski’s Yiddish prose may have been out of step with the literary taste of his time, but in ours—saturated by rosy, satirical, or fantastic images of the shtetl—it is a fresh genre, at the borders of modern ethnography and literature, with a gritty underbelly and deceptive naïveté.