MICHA JOSEF BERDYCZEWSKI (August 7, 1865-November 18, 1921)
He was born in Mezhybozhe (Medzhybizh, Międzyboż), Podolia, the oldest son of R. Moyshe-Arn. At age eleven his mother died, and he suffered great hardship. He spent his youth in the town of Dubovka, Kiev region, where his father had moved. He married for the first time at age fifteen, and after the wedding he left to study in the Volozhin yeshiva where he became acquainted with early Zionist ideas—Ḥibbat tsiyon—and where he also took his first step as a Hebrew writer. Several years later he left Volozhin, returning home and unable to live in peace—neither with his relatives, nor with his wife. He wandered around for a lengthy period of time, until in 1890 he arrived in Odessa where he was active in early Zionist circles. From there he sent his wife a document of divorce, left for Germany, over the course of five years studied in Breslau and Berlin, and graduated from the University of Bern (Switzerland). From 1902 to 1911, he lived in Breslau and the last ten years of his life in Berlin. He wrote in Hebrew, Yiddish, and German, as a columnist, critic, novelist, and storyteller. He began publishing Hebrew articles in 1884/1885; he wrote for Haasif (The harvest), Hakerem (The vineyard), and Hamelits (The advocate) between 1886/1887 and 1891/1892. He published his Torah novelae in the journal Hamisdron (The typesetting room) in Jerusalem and in the collection Bet hamidrash (The study chamber), which he himself published. A man with a fiery temperament and searching spirit, he raged in his writings against traditional Judaism in the name of a new humanism. He came out publicly against Aḥad Haam and his conception of “spiritual Judaism” with his own idea of a “Judaism of life.” Influenced by Nietzsche, he was the first of a new generation of individualist Hebrew writers. When his first book of stories—entitled Miḥuts lateḥum (Out of bounds)—appeared in print, he published an article, entitled “Reshut hayaḥid be’ad harabim” (The authority of the individual for the sake of the many), in Otsar hasifrut (Treasury of literature) against a prejudicial Jewishness, which led to a storm. His call to re-evaluate all values, to return to nature and to the pleasure of beauty, his protest against the idea of the “people of the book” and his glorification of the sword and physical prowess literally portended a revolution in Jewish society. Berdyczewski then founded a publishing house “Tseirim” (Young ones) and published his writings in chapbooks (later brought together in the anthology Baderekh [On the road]).
From the time of his stay in Dubovka (1901), he more often—under the influence of the living Yiddish word and living Yiddish environment—wrote in Yiddish; he began wroting in Yiddish in the 1880s or 1890s and the first published piece was “A mayse mit a flig” (A story with a fly). He published a series of short books, entitled for example: A mayse fun eynem vos hot farsamt zayn vayb (A story about one who poisoned his wife) (Warsaw, 1902), 16 pp.; Shmuesn, kurtse mayselekh tsum leynen (Conversations, short stories to read); Hagdomes tsu sforim (Prefaces to books) (Warsaw, 1902). He later published fictional writings and current events articles in: Yud (Jew), Yudishe folks-tsaytung (Jewish people’s newspaper), the anthology Hilf (Help) (1903), Fraynd (Friend), Tog (Day) in St. Petersburg, Dos lebn (Life), Lemberger tageblat (Lemberg daily newspaper), Nyu yorker yidishes folksblat (New York Jewish newspaper), A. Reyzen’s Dos yudishe vort (The Jewish word), Yudishe velt (Jewish world) (1913), and articles on Jewish writers in Dos lebn (1914). His Yudishe ksovim fun a vaytn korev (Yiddish writings from a distant relative)—“delivered to the publisher by Micha Josef Bin-Gorion”—appeared in six volumes, written in the years 1902-1906; two volumes of which were published in Warsaw in 1911 (vol. 1, 192 pp.; vol. 1, 166 pp.), republished in 1948 in New York; and six small volumes were brought out by the publisher Y. Shitbl in Berlin (1924); and published in Jerusalem in 1981, 225 pp. of Yiddish and 57 pp. of English. Also: Pirke volozhin: Olam haatsilut, tsror mikhtavim meet bar-be-rav (Writings on Volozhin: The world of nobility, a bundle of letters from a student) (Ḥolon, 1984), 81 pp. Characteristic of Berdyczewski’s Yiddish writings was simplicity and sincerity. In his Yiddish writings, he excelled at telling Hassidic stories which he wrote in a highly popular tone. In the history of Yiddish style, Berdyczewski’s Yiddish works will earn an honored place.
Among his Hebrew writings, we need note the following: Meiri haketana (From my town); Maḥanayim (Two armies); and Urva paraḥ (Nonsense). When he was living in Breslau, he adapted sources from Jewish homiletics and did thorough Talmudic research to do so. In Berlin he published a number of books in German, mainly Talmudic tales. His writings have been published in Hebrew in twenty volumes. In 1921 when the first news arrived in Berlin of the pogroms against Jews in Ukraine, he learned of the tragic death of his father. He became ill and died of a heart attack. In 1947 there opened in Israel a “Micha Josef Berdyczewski House,” and in 1955 they celebrated there the ninetieth anniversary of his birth with articles and treatises about his life and works in the Hebrew press.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with a bibliography); Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (New York, 1948); Z. Shazar, Or ishim (Light of personalities) (Tel Aviv, 1955), see index; Aharon Ben-Or, Toldot hasifrut haivrit haḥadasha (History of modern Hebrew literature) (Tel Aviv, 1954), vol. 2, see index; Dr. Sh. Bernshteyn, Ḥazon hadorot (Vision of the generations) (New York, 1928), 28 pp.; Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (January 1922); D. A., in Yivo-bleter 36, p. 348 (Peretz’s review of Berdyczewski’s writings); M. Yafa, in Dorem afrike (Johannesburg) (August 1955); Dan Almagor and Sh. Fishman, Naḥalat my”b, mafteaḥ bibliyografi leyetsirut mikha yosef berdichevski velaḥiburim al odotav (The heritage of M[icha] Y[osef] B[erdyczewski], bibliographic index to the creative works of Micha Yosef Berdyczewski and essays regarding him) (Tel Aviv, 1982), 140 pp.
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), cols. 106-7.]