May 22, 2023
Berdichevsky, Mikhah Yosef. From a Distant Relation, edited and translated by James Adam Redfield (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 2021), 448 pages, $34.95.
Raised in yeshiva and fluent in Yiddish, Hebrew, and German, Mikhah Yosef Berdichevsky 1 1 Or sometimes transliterated Berdyczewski – later in life (1914) he adopted the surname Bin-Gorion (1865-1921) saw himself as a modern Josephus, the early historian of the Jews, a man knowledgeable about tradition yet committed to embracing change. He was recognized as a major figure in Hebrew letters and literature, and the collection of Yiddish stories in James Adam Redfield’s English translation of From a Distant Relation is long overdue and very welcome.
Berdichevsky was born in Ukraine to a Hasidic family and raised in his father’s rabbinic tradition. Like many of his generation, he became intrigued and intellectually challenged by the Haskalah, to the point that his conservative father-in-law demanded that he divorce his wife of five years when he was twenty years old. He proceeded to yeshiva and became a writer in multiple genres, exploring the potential to integrate Torah learning with secular culture and values. By the end of the century, he had earned a doctor of philosophy degree in Germany and published ten books of literary criticism, essays, sketches, and journalism. He earned and maintained an impressive reputation for his works in Hebrew.
Reflecting his decades of struggle and exploration of the relationship of his Jewish identity to contemporary European philosophy and opportunities, Berdichevsky embraced the enlightenment and the secular wisdom, yet still cherished ethnography, folk tales, and midrash. In fact, while he respected the aims of the Zionists, he challenged Ahad Ha-Am and others, who championed a more rigid divide between religious and secular. Berdichevsky felt that they failed to understand the concerns of “the folk,” who were immersed in the work of survival: eking a living out of the land or commerce, raising children, understanding their relationship to community and God in a practical, embodied sense. At the same time, Berdichevsky’s family was victimized by pogroms culminating in the murder of his father and brother in 1920, long after he had relocated to Germany. Berdichevsky’s Yiddish writing focused on the world he had left behind, and frankly struggled with his ambivalence about these communities. He argued that the soul of Yiddish was linked with the dying culture he had fled, and was the only language in which to capture the voice and lives of its residents. Hebrew, on the other hand, was the language of secular and contemporary themes. He himself described writing in Yiddish as “unbearable,” and his Yiddish work was not greeted warmly; the urban secular Jewish community found the stories repugnant, and the communities he described may have enjoyed the stories but were not engaged in the literary debates of the day.
James Adam Redfield brings this work into translation together with a critical introduction and footnotes that are excellent and welcome. They illuminate translation decisions on occasion, and frequently cite text (Hebrew bible, Mishnah, Gemara) that a Yiddish reader may have been likely to know and that is helpful to the English reader.
Redfield observes that these stories occupy a unique and fictional “space-time,” quite loosely pegged to reality. We don’t know the precise year they take place, nor the prevailing political situation, and this further emphasizes the shtetl’s isolation from secular realities. This seems to inform one editorial decision that may invite debate: Redfield elected to group the stories according to themes that emerged from his reading, and did not include the dates when they were first written or published; however, he does observe that they are almost all composed from 1902-1906.
This collection includes about half of Berdichevsky’s published Yiddish work, and Redfield has carefully culled a coherent assortment of fiction: some fully developed stories and many brief sketches. As translator, Redfield reflects on what he calls the “second-personal poetics” of the prose. The narrator addresses the readers directly with unique “staged orality” which happens to have been conveniently written down for those who aren’t present to hear his tale. Redfield’s introduction includes some helpful examples of translation decisions he made to convey the tone effectively.
For instance, the narrator begins the first story, “Gadi: A Story With a Moral”:
Don’t think for one moment that a Jew who has always sat in the last row of the study house, no different than his ancestors before him, matters any less than you do; you, who have always sat along the eastern wall, and have grown quite accustomed to being on top of the world. The same God who created you created him; the Lord is just as much his father as yours. And now I would like to tell you a story. Lend me your ears, if you would be so kind.
Although Berdichevsky presented himself as a worldly figure, both the tone and content of his Yiddish stories are rooted in a folk sensibility and show little influence of the larger cosmopolitan world upon the shtetl dwellers who are their subjects. Berdichevsky approaches the shtetl with what editor and translator James Adam Redfield calls “ambivalent enchantment.” There is an ethnographic, external, detached, and even mocking narrative voice, a view of this world as anachronistic, and yet tenderness and insight into the people’s struggles. (Berdichevsky admired Sholem Aleichem’s work, and Sholem Aleichem championed his work in turn.) This collection represents the shtetl as firmly rooted in the old world. The distinctive narrator whose voice is featured in many of the stories, speaking directly to us in conversational style, brings perspective to the lives he describes, but he is not a European, not a man of the Haskalah; he comes from within this community and knows its foibles, passions, legends, and fears. He is the “Distant Relation” who is dropping in to observe, comment, and tell us in a conversational style what he sees.
Redfield briefly illuminates the controversy about Berdichevsky’s Yiddish style, observing that in many cases it was the critics who were unable to hear the authentic speech of the people and recognize how Berdichevsky’s choices of style and vocabulary reflected it effectively. Going directly to the text, Redfield finds the authentic voices of the shtetl refracted through Berdichevsky’s work, and shares his approach to translation which seeks to bring these voices vividly to the English page. He acknowledges that in some cases his choices advance what he believes to have been Berdichevsky’s intent even better than the original did. The translation uses phrases that are effective in communicating a slightly elevated yet still folksy narrative style: “lend me your ears,” “I would never have believed it had I not heard it from his own lips,” “I have put this down in writing as a lesson,” “Yes, that’s how it was, once upon a time!”
The value systems Berdichevsky evokes in these stories are unsophisticated: cities generally contain bad people with limited moral awareness. Boundaries are important for protection and are often associated with danger — for instance, the goy’s field next door is hazardous. Secularization is an ongoing threat and danger — one’s children can be lured away. Daily survival is a paramount concern. Individual effort is necessary but, pragmatically, we have to acknowledge that it might not yield results. God is around somewhere (“The riboyne shel oylem helps some people and not others. End of story. Even with God, you’ve got to have some luck” (“Luck”)) but don’t count on God to rescue you from trouble, or to keep trouble from your door.
As the stories come to the page in English, more than a few of them invite our condemnation of the community norms and values depicted in them. The narrator seems to speak more in sorrow than in anger or horror, but the treatment of women and the vulnerable is often quite appalling. This is not necessarily attributed as endemic to the culture but rather associated with individual men’s characters and decisions; and there are few women’s voices in the stories. Women are blamed for childlessness, die young, are abandoned; one is poisoned by her husband because he lusts for his brother’s wife; one hides her illiteracy in a brash claim of business cunning. Ugliness dooms a future, and old age is a curse of dependency and resentment. There is cheating, unpaid debt, schemes and lying to get by. Many marriages are awful, dooming both partners to misery.
On the other hand, Berdichevsky depicts the challenges, poverty, and limited choices that these people have. Through his narrator, Reb Yosl, Berdichevsky seems to question whether we can hold the Jews he depicts responsible for all their choices, given the constrained range of feasible choice and action. We can deplore their choices, yes – and yet we must hear them out with compassion as they rail at fate, or God.
Redfield describes Berdichevsky as absorbed by the notion of Two Cities, a schema that contrasts the new and old, money and poverty, crass capitalism and traditional virtue, the ugly and the beautiful. Secularization is potentially tragic and tradition is gauzily romanticized; yet there is an edge of condescension, mockery, and regret as the distant relation describes his erstwhile extended family members and the actual pain, misery and unfulfilled lives that ensue from that tradition and the exigencies of shtetl life.
Berdichevsky has been called “the father of individuality” in Yiddish literature: the individual matters, people have agency, and the emergence and fulfillment of individual potential is important in the world, echoing the superhero idea in Nietzsche, of whom Berdichevsky was a follower. But in these stories, while the individual suffers, the narrative voice is merely calmly sympathetic. There is a powerful theme of cultural rhythm and continuity that transcends individuality. This wife is abandoned, that one is murdered, another is assaulted. One man is cheated of his fortune, another dies in the Czar’s army, one wanders for a decade in atonement for a youthful sin. But the community goes on and God may or may not take note of any of it.
The shtetl is a place where community matters and cultural customs rule. People are expected to live up to type: the attractive bride, the pale scholar, the robust successful businessman, the stout businesswoman. But there is ambivalence in these stories to the strong man; in the section labeled “New Men,” a big strong man is viewed as the opposite of a true Jew: always suspect, even called “a real Cossack.” And when individual men seek to fulfill their desires, those around them (especially women) are likely to be victims (how is it that poisoning one’s wife is a solution to the husband’s lust for his brother’s wife?).
In fact, in one of the concluding stories in the volume, Berdichevsky seems to ask the question overtly: What matters more, the fulfillment of the individual’s potential (the western, European ideal) or the thriving of the community even if it suffocates one person? In “The Test,” a “country Jew,” who has been isolated and lonely away from other Jews his entire life, is finally preparing to move to town “with joy in his heart.” He’s tired of living among goyim, his days punctuated by church bells. Nearing sixty, he feels imprisoned by the Christian community. Upon his wife’s death, he came across her secret nest egg and realizes he can now rejoin the other Jews:
A stone had been lifted from Ben-Tsiyen’s heart. The very next day, he would move to town. He pictured himself going to the ritual bath and praying with the earliest minyen in the study house….he would go over to the prayerhouse where he could learn some Mishnah or hear a word of wisdom from one of his fellow Jews….There in town… every Jew was was intimately intertwined with every other. Fully alive.
But, that very evening, another country Jew comes to Ben-Tsiyen bewailing his daughter’s elopement with a local clerk, a non-Jew. After agonizing, Ben-Tsiyen hands the nest egg to the grieving father to bribe the local church leaders to send the girl back. “And so did Ben-Tsiyen pass the test… [the girl] returned to Jewish life and married a Jewish carpenter. Ben-Tsiyen never realized his dream. He died a country Jew.” What is the test that Ben-Tsiyen passes? The calculus of the value of an elderly man versus a young girl? The test of future generations of Jews lost to conversion? The test of generosity to preserve the community versus selfish personal desire?
Berdichevsky prohibited the translation of his Yiddish works into Hebrew, but permitted their translation into German. We can hope that he would similarly countenance Redfield’s wonderful new translation into English. What Avner Holtzman calls “this unique, bizarre yet enchanting little body of work” is now accessible to those who don’t have Yiddish facility and who may not otherwise encounter Berdichevsky. The volume is a treat, and the voices linger long after reading.
Holtzman, Avner. https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Berdyczewski_Mikhah_Yosef
Berdichevsky, Mikhah Yosef. From a Distant Relation, edited and translated by James Adam Redfield (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 2021)
- Foreword by Avner Holtzman
Introduction by James Adam Redfield