August 19, 1856
Born in Ukraine, Michah Joseph Berdichevski (1856-1921) was a scholar and writer who descended from a long line of Hasidic rabbis. He received a traditional Hasidic education, but became intrigued by the secular world of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment. His fascination with the secular and non-Jewish world disturbed his father in law, who demanded that Berdichevski divorce his daughter. Berdichevski continued to study religious texts in yeshiva, but attempted to integrate the religious Jewish and secular worlds in his writing. He wrote and published fictional stories and novels and non-fiction articles and essays. His fiction often featured protagonists caught between the appeal of the modern European world and traditional religious obligation, paralyzed by the tension between desire and responsibility. He ultimately went to Germany and Switzerland, where he obtained a doctorate in philosophy and was profoundly influenced by Nietzche. This split – between the old world and the new, between shtetl provincialism and worldly sophistication – is reflected in the languages in which he wrote. His Yiddish writings are intended for a naïve, familiar audience, while his German writings are dense and scholarly and assume no knowledge of Jewish life.
Berdichevski is perhaps best known for his Hebrew writings, which include his lengthy debate with Ahad Ha’am about the nature of Hebrew literature and his extensive recording of Jewish folklore. Berdichevski vehemently disagreed with Ahad Ha’am’s assertion that Hebrew writing did not require a secular literature, and that enlightened Jews could turn to Europe for cultural satisfaction. Their written debate spanned two years and Berdichevski’s refusal to compromise inspired numerous younger Hebrew writers. Insistent on the cultural richness of Jewish life and narrative, it is only fitting that Berdichevski spent the last years of his writing life compiling Jewish folklore.
In 1920, Berdichevski learned that his father and brother had been murdered in pogroms in Ukraine, and that the shtetl where he grew up had been destroyed. He died one year later, in 1921, in Berlin. His writings have been archived and are available today in Holon, Israel.