From Yeshiva Student to Rebellious Writer

Avner Holtzman's bird's-eye view of Micha Josef Berdiczewski reveals the layers of biographical 'moments' that enrich our understanding of one of Hebrew literature's most fascinating pioneers

Micha Josef Berdiczewski by Avner Holtzman. The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History (Hebrew), 271 pages, 84 NIS

In the novel "Around the Point," by Y.H. Brenner (1904 ), the protagonist, Abramson, carries five books by Micha Josef Berdiczewski in his satchel as he walks. The books burrow painfully into his back. But the painful books, says Brenner, caused Abramson "a kind of pleasure," since the pain made him feel his body, and thus that he was alive.

Micha Josef Berdiczewski
Micha Josef Berdiczewski

This is a concise, ingenious description of a literary relationship in one sentence. For Brenner's protagonist, Berdiczewski becomes a burden, yet one that is also strangely pleasing. He almost penetrates the body, performing a kind of massage. Brenner understood that before him was an author who released a tense muscle in Hebrew literature, and in himself. Avner Holtzman, a professor of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University, has written a biography of Berdiczewski. Holtzman, like Brenner's protagonist, also carries around the full weight of this author's writings. The biography is at once fascinating and strange, pleasing and painful.

It is strange since the protagonist of this biographical story, Micha Josef Berdiczewski (1865-1921 ), did almost none of the things that generate interesting biographies: He did not lead armies into battle against an empire; he did not even participate in a minor workers' demonstration or in a local fistfight. Basically, the plot of Berdiczewski's life is made up of two constant activities: writing, and moving house. He wrote a great deal (mostly in two languages that were not his mother tongues, Hebrew and German ) and he wandered. Now, go make a good story out of that.

Holtzman succeeds in the task by building his account of Berdiczewski not as a narrative of development (although the chapters are ordered chronologically ), but as a collage of identities that seeks to be seen not as a path with a beginning, middle and end, but rather as a city, which from a bird's-eye view exists in its entirety, lacking a clear beginning or sense of direction.

For further reading:

Biography / The founding father
Biography / Heroic ambivalence
‘The courage to be an absolute nobody’

Berdiczewski's character as it is portrayed in the book can be summed up in two quotations. The first is a quip of Bialik's, who said of Berdiczewski that "none is like him for freedom of spirit, absolute freedom"; the second is by Berdiczewski himself, who said that "truly all my existence comes from opposites." The freedom of spirit that Bialik identified stems precisely from the "opposites" of which his existence is composed. A person who cannot say of himself anything definite without its opposite immediately stealing in to undermine the definition, is truly a free man. He is free not to be bound by his own rebellion against whatever it may be, and free to rebel against his rebellion (in this case, against religious Judaism ).

This does not necessarily mean that he is a happy man. But he is alive in the full sense of the word, even when to make a living at the age of 40 he is obliged to document 6,000 Jewish tombstones in the town of Breslau. The most erotic author in Hebrew letters of the early 20th century, surrounded by thousands of tombstones: what a grotesque, unforgettable picture. This is why Holtzman's biographical portrait is so successful. Because the interest in Berdiczewski's life lies not in how he turned, say, from being a young yeshiva student into a rebellious writer at the age of 35, but in how, at almost every point in his life, different and opposing elements existed within him side by side.

Writer as a city

Developing the metaphor of a writer as a city, one might say that this city contains archaeological and prehistoric layers alongside buildings that are freshly minted. The older Berdiczewski is very far from the young one - but he is also close to his previous, younger self: He returns to his past, to literary writing in Hebrew, something he thought he was done with, following a financial incentive offered by Abraham Joseph Steibel, who made his fortune dealing in leather (Berdiczewski's "Miriam" is the product of profits made by selling boots to soldiers of the Russian army ); he rewrites his early works to be anthologized in a sumptuous new edition (also published by Steibel ); he turns his gaze toward the world of the Russian-Jewish shtetl, which he left a lifetime ago, and to the Jewish world, in "parallels with previous narratives or in diversions to stories from the lives of secondary characters." In short, the end point of the protagonist's life journey contains, with variations, his entire previous life. With Berdiczewski, it sometimes seems as if his life's narrative is enfolded in "each moment" of the present, as if his life does not advance like a train, but (is built up in Holtzman's book ) like a skyscraper.

One of the poignant moments in the book is contained in one word - the nickname "Yosl," by which the inhabitants of Berdiczewski's home town call him when he arrives for a late visit, after having written a number of venomous stories about the town and its residents. With this tiny transition, from "Micha Josef" to "Yosl," Holtzman captures the soft, buried layer, the layer of distant childhood, of the "town" that is Berdiczewski, as if the protagonist had found, buried deep in his pocket, a sock of his from when he was 4 years old.

Berdiczewski was an isolated writer. Many of his readers did not know what he looked like, not even from a photograph. This is why I liked those moments in the book where links are drawn between the isolated protagonist and other figures in Hebrew and European literature, as for a time the book becomes a portrait of an era, a network rather than a single thread. Thus, Berdiczewski's research on aggadic texts dealing with the Book of Genesis finds its way to Thomas Mann, who employs it while writing his novel "Joseph and His Brothers"; elsewhere, we hear of Berdiczewski's influence on David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson (in other words, on Jewish politics ); we read of close ties of affection with an author of a completely different temperament, Sholem Aleichem, although we learn that the two writers never met (for me there is something hair-raising in the very mention of the names of these two writers in one breath. Why? ); we meet Brenner, shabbily dressed, stopping by Berdiczewski's house, and later see Berdiczewski receiving the news of Brenner's murder, half a year before his own death.

But the most thrilling moment described by Holtzman in this book is that in which we see Rabbi Moshe Aharon, Berdiczewski's father, holding out his hand to his son's wife, Rachel, despite never having shaken a woman's hand before. That is a gesture I'll never forget. It encases a whole story of personal, familial and cultural change, a change of values that Berdiczewski advocated as a public figure, and that here, as Avner Holtzman shows us, was realized in his own family, in his father's body.

Dror Burstein's novel "Netanya" (Hebrew ) was published last year by Keter.