Religious Tradition and Secular Radicalism: David Bergelson in Berlin, 1922

By Sherman, Joseph | Midstream, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

Religious Tradition and Secular Radicalism: David Bergelson in Berlin, 1922


Sherman, Joseph, Midstream


The Yiddish prose writer David Bergelson (1884-1952) first came to the attention of discerning Yiddish readers in 1909 as a pioneer of a modernist prose style. It was meticulously crafted to chart the slow decay of the tsarist empire and of the Jewish bourgeoisie who had prospered in it.

From his home in Kiev, he led a group of talented young writers, later known as the "Kiev Group," who sought to infuse Yiddish literature with the vibrancy of modernist trends in European letters. Politicized intellectuals, who sought to build an autonomous secular culture by which modern Jews, in search of emancipation without assimilation, could define their national identity, welcomed Bergelson as a long-awaited leader, a master of prose that could hold its own with the best produced in any other of the languages of Europe.

In 1917 Bergelson welcomed the Russian Revolution, and played a formative role in the establishment of Kiev's Kultur-lige (League for Culture), a pan-Yiddishist body that strove to set up a national network of schools, publishing houses, theatres, libraries and clubs. So attractive and ambitious were its models that they were replicated and developed in scores of Ukrainian towns, and were carried to many far-flung homes of Yiddish in Europe, North and South America, Australia and South Africa.

By early 1921, however, Bergelson had grown uncomfortable with the ideological rigidity of Moscow's Yiddish activists, and had been disappointed in his hope of launching a new Yiddish literary journal in post-revolutionary Russia. He therefore left the starving Bolshevik capital for Berlin, drawn to Weimar Berlin, like many of his contemporaries, by its promise of improved living conditions, and by publishing opportunities combining low prices, high quality and lax censorship.

By 1922, the year in which the Soviet Union was officially established, its literary world was split into two mutually opposed ideological factions. The first comprised those who hoped to support the Revolution while maintaining their artistic autonomy and working in partnership with "progressive" Yiddish talents world-wide. This international objective was bitterly opposed by the second faction, the Soviet "proletarian" writers who demanded that "petty bourgeois" aesthetics be replaced by unqualified celebration of the bright future awaiting dedicated Soviet workers, (1) praise for the cleansing destructiveness of revolution, the effacement of Jewish religious traditions, and the creation of sloganeering propaganda accessible to the unsophisticated.

Not directly involved in this ideological warfare Bergelson, motivated not only by personal skepticism about the ideological aims of Bolshevism but also by the need to earn a living, published in whatever periodicals accepted his work. These included Warsaw's politically unaffiliated journal Moment and, from between 1922 and 1926, the anti-Communist New York daily, Forverts. Although Bergelson always defended modernist trends in Yiddish literature, he knew well that avant-garde literature in Yiddish reached only an acculturated, polyglot minority. Because the Revolution had wiped away those cultured middle-class Jewish readers whom he had originally addressed, Bergelson now sought a new "mass" readership, and consequently took care to publish also in Moscow's leading independent Yiddish literary journal, Shtrom: (Stream).

His most controversial--and most interesting--literary participation during 1922 was in the inaugural issue of Milgroym (Pomegranate). This was a highbrow, lavishly illustrated Yiddish periodical, with a Hebrew counterpart entitled Rimon, edited and published in Berlin that aimed to heal the breach opened by divisive Yiddish-Hebrew language politics while drawing Jews towards an appreciation of Western high culture.

Bergelson and his friend Der Nister (the pen name of Pinchas Kahanovitsh, 1884-1950) joined Milgroym's founder, the scholar Mark Wischnitzer (1882-1955), as its literary editors. …

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