This Day in Jewish History

1865: The Ultimate Modern, Intellectual Doubting Jew Is Born

Micha Berdiczewski, who married at 15, began with religion, learned alternative values but would devote his writing to the Jewish story.

Micha Josef Berdiczewski, wearing glasses, moustache and goatee.
Wikimedia Commons

August 7, 1865, is the birth date of Micha Josef Berdiczewski, a Jewish writer who encompassed within his biography and his character many of the dichotomies, conflicts and turmoils that his people as a whole were undergoing in Europe in the late 19th century.

Just the fact that Berdiczewski, over the course of his career, wrote in Yiddish, German and the Hebrew that was only then beginning to be revived as a spoken language, is a startling element in a biography that is very hard for a single narrative to contain. As the writer said of himself at one point, “truly all my existence comes from opposites.”

Berdiczewskiwas born in Medzhibozh, in Russia’s Podolia province, in today’s Ukraine. Medzhibozh had a long and rich Jewish history, in particular as the birthplace of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer — the Ba’al Shem Tov, considered the founder of Hasidism.

Moshe Aaron Berdiczewski, Micha Yosef’s father, was himself a Hasidic rabbi, and the son was expected to follow in his path. His mother, Pearl Pnina Berdyczewski, died when hewas only 11.

‘Maskil torani’

Micha Yosef grew up in Dubova, a village near Uman, known today as the burial place of another Hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. After marrying, at 15, he went off to study at the prestigious Volozhin yeshiva, but soon got into trouble there when it became known that he was reading secular texts; within a year he was gone. When his young wife’s family learned about his catholic intellectual interests, they insisted that he grant her a divorce.

Not that Berdiczewskiturned his back on traditional Judaism. As the “Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe” explains, he was a maskil torani, “interested in integrating ideas from the Torah world with European cultural values.” Indeed, his earliest writings were literary sketches of life in the yeshiva, and discussions of Jewish legal issues. In 1888, he published “Beit Midrash” (Study House), a book of Hebrew essays.

In 1891, after a year in the cosmopolitan city of Odessa in anticipation of entering university, Berdiczewskienrolled in the University of Bratslav to study philosophy. That was followed by studies at the universities of Berlin and Bern, at the latter of which he earned his doctorate in 1896, with a thesis that looked at the connection between aesthetics and ethics. Berdiczewski was influenced in particular by the work of Nietzsche and Hegel.

The Berdiczewski who emerged from university went through phases, first, of rejecting Jewish tradition for Western culture, then of exchanging his belief in culture for a more primitive belief in nature, before attempting to arrive at a synthesis of all of the above.

This ultimate eclecticism may explain why Berdiczewski took on so forcefully the father of “cultural Zionism,” Ahad Ha’am, who edited Hashiloah, the Hebrew-language journal of Zionist thought.

Berdiczewski claimed that the focus of Hashiloah on Jewish matters risked splitting life into “two domains — ours and the world around us,” and that this was only “widening the rupture within the heart of our youth.” He imagined educating Jewish youth to be integrated “Hebrew human beings.”

During his years of study, Berdiczewski did little writing, but when he emerged from the university, he was like a river undammed. In 1899-1900, he published nine books — collections of short stories and of essays — all in Hebrew. That year, he also married Rachel Remberg, a dentist.

For most of the next decade, Berdiczewski wrote in Yiddish, hundreds of stories and sketches about shtetl life, which he depicted with affection but not much romance.

Collecting and retelling ancient Jewish legends (the Aggadah) was another pursuit that occupied Berdiczewski in his later years. This work he did in German, which made it accessible to a general audience.

Berdiczewski died at age 56 in Berlin, where he had moved in 1911. He was there when he got news that both his father and a brother had been murdered in a 1919 pogrom in Dubova, part of a wave of anti-Semitic attacks that accompanied the Ukrainian-Soviet War. He died of a heart attack on November 18, 1921.