Rediscovering Hebrew Literature in the Shtetl

The first time she read ‘Miriam,’ Ruth Almog discovered a Jewish world that was at once insane and passionate. Now, six decades later, it reads like a modernist literary work that heralds the death of both realism and the old world described in its pages.

Ruth Almog
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Ruth Almog


(A Novel about Life in Two Towns), by Micha Josef Berdiczewski, with notes and epilogue by Avner Holtzman. Hasifria Haktana / Kibbutz Hameuchad / Siman Kria Books/ Kinneret Zmora-Bitan (Hebrew), 253 pages, NIS 88

I first encountered Micha Josef Berdiczewski’s novel “Miriam” when I was 14. I read it in a single breath, and it left me dumbfounded. I discovered an uncharted Jewish world, one that was passionate and insane, whose existence I might never have guessed at. The next time I read “Miriam,” I was in my 20s. It was a reading assignment, part of my Hebrew literature studies at Tel Aviv University, together with several short stories also written by Berdiczewski. On that occasion, it was the short stories that left the strongest impression on me. Now I have read “Miriam” a third time, together with essential explanatory notes. This followed a recent abortive attempt to reread one of Berdiczewski’s short stories.
The first question that troubled me after I finished reading was how I had read this novel without any difficulty 60 years ago; now, however, I had most certainly needed the annotated commentary. My first conclusion about the book was that my own prediction of a split of Hebrew into two languages spoken and literary, just as with Arabic actually happened a long time ago. Six decades ago, there were words whose meaning I did not know, but it did not negatively affect my reading. Nor did the writing style, which is now so very alien, perturb me then.

My second, saddening conclusion was that we have lost our traditions and heritage, and the loss of a culture that the Jewish people preserved for hundreds of years in the Diaspora raises serious questions about our future.

My third conclusion after my renewed reading of “Miriam” was that Berdiczewski is a modernist author in nearly every way, but one who is nevertheless still linked to the romance genre of literature. This contradiction is what makes the book so fascinating, and imparts it a unique touch.

Scholars, literary critics and authors have all written about “Miriam,” which Berdiczewski finished in 1921, the year before his death. All were as astounded as me by this far from routine novel. It has sparked disagreements due to its unusual and seemingly defective structure: a fractured plot that is woven without consistency around an unclear character; a plot replete with tangents and short stories about the meandering fates of women and men. It is divided into anecdotes about minor characters, in which the inscrutable heroine appears and disappears throughout the book without any apparent development of her character.

Dark side of Jewish life

“Miriam” exposes the dark side of Jewish life in a town. The image of a moral, upstanding society, one that aspires toward purity, modesty and the like, is revealed to be naive and specious. In the novel, Berdiczewski describes a society rife with passion and sin, in which Eros and Thanatos constantly rustle beneath the surface of what seems like normative life. As a girl, I understood with the help of “Miriam” that the truth is not what is visible to the naked eye, and that the (religious) society in which I lived was no different than that described by the author. The hypocrisy exposed by this novel eased my way out.

Now, having read it again, I see “Miriam” as the first modern novel written in Hebrew, a novel that heralds the death of realism, but one that seeks to commemorate the dying world of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, an aspiration that is in fact committed to the realistic tradition. Inherent in the defectiveness and ambiguity of the heroine’s character is the modern conception that the individual can never be completely understood. The question of the meaning of life is asked in vain, and literature does not profess to answer it. “Miriam” is, in the genre sense, the last romantic novel in Hebrew literature; in this respect, it contains an internal contradiction, which is another indication of modernism.

Critical disagreements on the problematic nature of “Miriam,” and justifications for the charges, have to do first and foremost with the viewpoint that was unjustly ascribed to the book. It was expected to be a novel of development. According to the outline for the novel, which has been appended to this edition by Avner Holtzman, a devoted Berdiczewski scholar who deserves wide praise, Berdiczewski himself expected to write a Bildungsroman or an Entwicklungsroman (development novel). But, knowing that his days were numbered, he scrapped the original outline in order to erect a monument, through his heroine Miriam, to the entirety of Judaism, which he saw as headed toward extinction. A society that included traditions, customs, laws, classes, population subgroups, diverse professions and so forth was on the brink of demise. So he painted a portrait that is exhilarating in its richness and vitality, even as its death rattle was already discernible.

Through the novel, Berdiczewski shows himself to be one of the first feminists in Hebrew literature, and in this sense is a successor to the poet Judah Leib Gordon: “A Hebrew woman, who will know your life, in darkness you came and in darkness you will leave.” In chapter 15 of Book II, the author deviates from the plot and teaches the reader a lesson about the learning tradition of the Hebrew child. “A Hebrew youngster comes to the heder and learns to read, and begins to understand the words of the blessings and the priestly service. After this, he is led to the entry gate to Genesis.” The entire process is described in laborious detail, but at the end of this short chapter which the author feels was needed but the reader will not easily understand comes this short paragraph: “But for the Jewish girls, this mass of life, in book and in deed, is inscrutable to them ... they are exempt from study of the Torah, most of the commandments and from the prayer services; and the little that is given to them is as a wine that no longer has any taste.”

After this lengthy and detailed digression, the author returns to Miriam, whose father has, in fact, taught her a little Hebrew and a little Bible. A girl of 10 whose “beauty had a pleasant softness,” one day she hears the story of a young man who subscribed to the Enlightenment movement, and who “committed suicide when all hope was lost; and the community in Ladina did not understand the meaning of this.” Miriam seeks an explanation for the suicide (one of many suicides in the novel), but there is no one for her to ask.

As opposed to those who believe that Miriam is an undeveloped literary character, I feel that she is a full and well-rounded tragic figure, and that Berdiczewski consciously constructed her from slight hints and strands and fragments, in the same way that he constructed the entire novel. Miriam is tragic because she is unable to realize her potential, and is unable to find in her surroundings any possibility of love. Although she is loved, she herself does not experience love, and thus a void is left in her soul. Miriam does not find her place in the world into which she has been thrust, and she decides on her fate from a place of painful concession. She is torn between worlds: the old, traditional world that is realized in the form of her father who is God-fearing but preoccupied by his ledgers and is slowly fading; and that of her mother, the passionate woman who has been cheated by life and who is in engaged solely with herself and her external beauty. Neither shows much interest in their only daughter, who is lost between two worlds that embody contradicting values.

The novel veers between two seemingly imaginary towns that Berdiczewski in fact knew well, from his own life experience, with the background featuring Hasidim and Enlightenment Jews, Zionists and anti-Zionists. Everything is served up in frenetic confusion, which is driven by the force of erotic energy that propels everything.
Much has been written and many arguments have been waged over “Miriam” and Berdiczewski’s other literary works. Numerous interpretations and opinions have been voiced. I do not profess to say anything new. I only wish to draw attention to this wondrous novel, and to tell readers that after 60 years of reading, “Miriam” has not lost any of its charm. It moved me emotionally once again, and this time has caused me to declare loud and clear: Berdiczewski was a genius.

As always, Avner Holtzman is masterful, both in the explanatory notes and the lucid epilogue he furnishes, which make it possible for the contemporary reader to fully appreciate this momentous novel.

Novelist Ruth Almog is the recipient of the Bialik Prize and many other awards. Her reviews appear regularly in the Culture and Literature section of Haaretz.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man writes some of the last words in a Torah scroll in Jerusalem, last March.Credit: AP