Journalist and scholar
1. He was born Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, August 1865, in the Ukraine and into a family of Chasidic rabbis. His father was the rabbi in a town of impoverished Jews. He was to grow up to speak for a generation that was trying to navigate the rocky straits between traditionalism and modernism.
2. An early prodigy in Talmud, he began reading mystical writings and other materials that brought him into conflict with his teachers. He was married while still in his teens to the daughter of a wealthy, pious merchant. But when his father-in-law discovered that he’d been reading works of the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment), Berdichevsky was forced to divorce his wife.
3. He ran away to Volozhin, to the yeshiva there, but again ran into difficulty because of his unorthodox reading. He was nineteen. A few years later, he published an article about these difficulties in the Hebrew language newspaper Hamelitz. The impassioned language he used – expressive of the conflict within him between tradition and assimilation – was to become a hallmark of his writing.
4. In 1890 he went to study in Germany and Switzerland, studying philosophy, notably the works of German philosophers, and earning a doctoral degree. His thought was deeply influenced by the works of Nietzsche and, to a lesser extent, Hegel. These were years of enormous productivity: between 1890 and 1900, Berdichevsky published ten books as well as articles and stories in Hebrew journals.
5. In 1900 he married and returned to his home in the Ukraine, where he was struck by the deterioration of traditional ways of life under the harsh conditions there. He returned to Germany in 1911 and lived there the rest of his life. The outpouring of stories, essays and novels continued, expressing always the ambivalence he felt between the wish to preserve Jewish tradition and the wish to live according to secular European culture. His aim, he said, was to repair the rent in the heart of the Jewish nation, making it possible to be both a Jew and a man in the modern world.
6. Berdichevsky’s essays included literary criticism and polemics against what he considered the dead weight of Jewish tradition, which he thought emphasized history over life. He spoke for a “rebellion of historically suppressed individualism.” Jews, he thought, had been detached from nature and physicality, their culture ossifying in exile. He hearkened back to ancient Israel – a time of political sovereignty and physical heroism – as a model; and he argued for a Hebrew literature that would become a means for Jews to retain their cultural and spiritual coherence while embracing the phenomena of modern life.
7. His fiction portrayed the difficulty of navigating a break from the immediate past while still continuing Jewish tradition. The characters in nearly all of his stories are either attempting to escape the weight of tradition or to survive within it, both with equally futile results.
8. In 1914, he began using the name Micha Yosef Bin-Gurion and continued to do so until his death in Berlin in 1921. In these later years, he devoted himself to collecting Jewish legends, myths and folktales, which he rewrote in a modern idiom, using a sparse, lyrical Hebrew, a kind of old-new tongue. This remarkable collection is perhaps, in the long run, his greatest contribution to Jewish literature.
“It is upon us to choose in ourselves that which is good and beautiful, that which is righteous and lasting. Free men are turned into slaves if they close the path before themselves, if we open our windows – freedom arrives from the distance.”
In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Berdischevsky Street running eastward off the northern end of Rothschild Blvd., between Marmorek and Cremieux.
The moshav Sdot Micha, founded in 1955, was named for him, as well. It is located in central Israel near Beit Shemesh.