Fascinating tales by a scoffer

 

“Miriam & Other Stories,”[1] is a splendid collection of stories by Ukrainian-born Micha Josef Berdichevsky (1865-1921). [2] He was a journalist, a scholar with a PhD, a writer of fiction, and a collector of Jewish legends which he published in a book called “Mimekor Yisrael,” From an Israel Source.[3] He wrote in Hebrew, Yiddish, and German.

While he was a descendant of a prominent rabbinic family, raised as a religious hasid, and studied in the famed Voloshin Yeshiva in Lithuania, he tried with his writings to free fellow Jews from what he considered unreasonable religious dogma that had seized control of Judaism. He was torn between Jewish tradition and modern European values, what he called a “torn, divided heart.” Many of his writings are therefore polemic. He adopted the name Bin Gorion.

This book contains a 16-page introduction describing Berdichevsky and his writings. We are told that Berdichevsky (Bin-Gorion) made a huge impression upon other Jewish writers who followed him, including some modern Hebrew writers in Israel, especially those who wrote in Hebrew who were atheists. We are also told that the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), wrote to Berdichevsky’s son after his death, and told him that his dad made a huge impression upon him. He agreed with much that he wrote, but not all. David Ben-Gurion also changed his name to Ben-Gurion. It was originally David Grun. The introduction does not reveal whether David Ben-Gurion chose this name because Berdichevsky did so, although the possibility exists. This introduction is followed by three short stories of about ten pages each, a fourth almost 57 pages, a fifth that is 85 pages long, and the novel Miriam that comprises 186 pages. The following tells something about four of these tales and shows Berdichevsky’s repugnant view of much of Judaism and his pessimistic view of life generally.

The Summer and the Winter, the seven-page first story in the collection, published in 1904, is unique for Hebrew literature of the time. It was not about Jews but about a Christian village in which religion seemed to play no real part, for the people were enchanted and driven by sex, especially attracted to the very beautiful Marta. One man rejected by her, commits suicide. Like the title of the tale, the town runs by the forces of nature, not intelligence. It is earthy. While others just stare at Marta, the bell-ringer of the small town found himself moving toward her apparently against his will, he rapes and impregnates her, but has no other relation with her.

The short nine-page tale The Red Heifer, first published in 1906, is a blatant attack upon Jewish practices. Its obvious criticism is heightened by the title which ironically refers to the biblical law of the Red Heifer, a significant temple ritual when the temple existed, which in the Bible cleanses people who are sprinkled with its ashes but contaminates those who kill the animal and do the sprinkling. Berdichevsky tells us in the tales first paragraph, “The story is definitely unsettling, and at times I thought it best to cover it up. But when all is said and done, I decided to write it up for others to read…. [People should know about the Jewish diaspora life] its lights as well as its shadows. Let us know that while we were Jews, we were also just ‘flesh and blood,’ with all that the term suggests.”

The short story tells us that because of the kosher requirements and prohibitions, and the taxes imposed by the government on kosher meat, the cost of kosher meat was twice that of non-kosher meats (a situation still existing today). The Jewish butchers felt that they did not make enough profit, so they mixed non-kosher meat with the kosher meats that they sold. Then they decided to steal and cut up the prize red heifer owned and loved by a citizen of the town and his family, which even when divided among the butcher will bring them a good profit.

Eleven-page In the Valley appeared in 1909. It is a tale about several families of naïve but very religious and kind people which did not satisfy a very lovely young girl, Hulda, the youngest daughter of one of them, who was so beautiful that people stood in awe when they saw her beauty, and about her discontent with her life. God does not remove or even lessen the sadness because “Your prayers are in vain!” When she is married to a man who lacked even a tenth of her beauty and she foresaw the rest of her life, her despair increased to the breaking point.

The novel Miriam was published in 1921, the year Berdichevsky died. He uses the short life of the exceptionally beautiful uneducated non-practicing Jewish girl, from her birth until age 15, very briefly, as a string to hold together more than a dozen descriptions of a host of different people who lived in a couple of towns. The descriptions and tales of each is fascinating and sometimes bizarre, but also brilliant, like sparkling diamonds on a black cotton mat.

Berdichevsky has an interesting writing style. He frequently tells us much and then says he will tell no more, as in The Red Heifer story where he writes “And as for what happened to the butchers who took part in the murder of the animal, the various quarrels and court trials and their punishments – both by man and God – if I would tell all these in detail, they would take up much space. In brief, however, everyone who had a hand in doing in that red heifer experienced bad things in his family life, as if a curse had been cast on him and his house, without leaving any remnant.” Of course, Berdichevsky could have given us additional information, but he has given us more than he could write by leaving much to our imagination. Frequently, Berdichevsky accomplishes this without the kind of statement contained above, by simply ending the narrative or idea with three dots. As in a seduction scene in Miriam, “She [a Jewish woman] invited the priest to sit down. He leaned on his elbows staring at her. Their eyes met…”

In addition to seductions, the Miriam tale is filled murders, suicides, and clever negative statements like: “He who dwells on high is merciful; He is compassionate; but His light does not shine through to the homes of the poor and downtrodden. Such has been His way since time began…” Also, “But for the daughters of Israel. All the activity of this [religious] life is like a closed book. They are denied those echoes of the past and they have no spiritual soil in which to be nourished. Sabbaths and festivals are the only crumbs of learning they have. They are free from the obligations of study, from the bulk of the commandments, and from prayer. The little vouchsafed to them is like wine that has lost its flavor.” This description fits Miriam in the tale carrying her name as well as Hulda, the beautiful but sad girl in In the Valley.

I enjoyed reading Berdichevsky’s stories. His writing is very good, and the detailed descriptions are fascinating, but I agree with Israel’s late prime minister, I can accept some of what he writes, some of his criticisms of the superstitions that entered and marred Judaism and became firm practices, but not all his views, certainly not the endings of the Miriam and Hulda tales. They are fine, even very interesting as literature, but terrible, even morbid as theology.

 

[1] The Toby Press, 2004.

[2] His name is also transliterated as Berdyczewski. He used the name Bin-Gorion, also spelt Ben-Guryon, which appears on his tomb stone. His only child, his son Emanuel (1903-1987) spelt his last name as Bin Gorion.

[3] The poet Haim Nachman Bialik also collected and published legends in 1910 in “Book of legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Legends from the Talmud and Midrash,” which he edited with Y. H. Rawnitzky, Schocken, 1992, 920 pages.

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