Berdichevski’s dreams of the ‘first Hebrews’

The Yiddish realities intrude to remind us that, even after the triumph of Zionism, Jews are still Jews – both in the eyes of other Jews and in the eyes of the world.

Old map 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Old map 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
Chaim Nahman Bialik was walking on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv with a friend from Odessa on a bright, sunny day in the late 1920s, speaking in the language of the “old country.” Suddenly, a young Zionist firebrand, overhearing the conversation in Yiddish, accosted Bialik – the greatest poet of the modern Hebrew renaissance – and demanded that the two men speak Hebrew.
Bialik, a supporter of Yiddish writers such as Mendele Mocher Seforim, was outraged. He told the young man to mind his own business, and added, in Hebrew, “Lech le’azazel” – “Go to hell.”
The young man, believing the poet had slandered him, brought charges against Bialik. The judges were at a loss on how to rule on the matter.
They asked Bialik if he spoke any words in Hebrew to the arrogant man. The celebrated poet answered that he told the young Zionist to “go to hell” in Hebrew. The judges, hearing this, were satisfied that Bialik had spoken in Hebrew and did not offend the sensibilities of Zionists in the Yishuv. They let Bialik go free and the matter ended there.
The young Zionist in this story might have belonged to zealous Hebrew-speaking groups like the Battalion of the Defenders of the Language. This organization’s members would beat up Yiddish writers, prevent the selling of Yiddish newspapers, and disrupt Yiddish literary and cultural events. In their world view, Yiddish was their enemy, the language of the exile and tradition.
A major influence on pioneers in the Yishuv was the brilliant rebel Michah Yoseph Berdichevski. He broke away from traditional Judaism at a young age and came under the influence of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche called for a life-affirming “transvaluation of values” that would overthrow the old order.
Berdichevski argued that Jews must reject rabbinic Judaism and 2,000 years of exile, emerging as a human beings independent of religious dogma and a legacy of persecution. “To be or not to be!” wrote Berdichevski 100 years ago.
“To be the last Jews or the first Hebrews.”
We should not underestimate the impact of Berdichevski’s “New Jew” on Zionism. Sabra ideology called for a “negation of the exile” and a rejection of centuries of Jewish life and language in the Diaspora. In the eyes of the pioneers, Yiddish stemmed from weak, persecuted, poverty-ridden shtetls in Eastern Europe, deserving only to vanish.
THE FOUNDERS of the State of Israel envisioned the emerging state as ushering in a new epoch in the history of the Jewish people. Israel’s founders stressed a modern ideology that would unite all Jews in the Jewish state. The black hole of the exile – Jewish culture from Poland to Yemen – would be replaced by a Zionist ideology of uniformity, rooted in 19th century socialism and nationalism. Rabbinic tradition would play a minor role in the life of the new state and would atrophy and disappear. There would be no place in the Jewish state for the “old Jew.” For Berdichevsky, traditional Judaism shackled individual initiative and the Jew’s will to live a free life. Israel’s founders shared that worldview.
Today, Jews living in Israel are no longer like their ancestors who lived in the Diaspora. Israel’s Jews have proven their ability to defend themselves on the field of battle, have produced medal winners in the Olympics, and have developed a Hebrew culture that is not dependent on rabbinic texts for inspiration.
Berdichevski’s dreams of the “first Hebrews” have been realized.
Yet, the reality of Jewish history in the Diaspora has not disappeared in Israel. Judaism plays a much greater role today in Israel than it did 70 years ago. Ultra-Orthodox, Yiddishspeaking communities have grown rapidly despite the catastrophe of the Shoah. Religious Zionists are replacing kibbutz movement members as fighters in elite IDF units. It is a great irony that secular Zionism and the founding of a Jewish state have reenergized a moribund Judaism and given it new life.
Another reality of Jewish tradition that has not disappeared is the premium placed on education. While David Ben-Gurion may have believed that Israel’s destiny was based on the Jewish connection to the land and that intellectual life was a mark of the exiled luftmensch (“rootless person”), what makes Israel today a great nation is the brainpower that fuels Israel’s leadership in the world in medical and computer science technologies.
Today, the kibbutz movement has found new life – through privatization: What would the pioneers of a century ago think of that transformation? As well, the grinding poverty of the shtetl as described by Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz has not disappeared from a modern Israel in which the gap between the wealthy and the poor grows every year. That is a Yiddish reality that cannot be ignored.
Finally, there is the stark Yiddish reality of anti-Semitism. Zionist thinkers believed that a Jewish homeland would lead to the end of hatred of Jews. Tragically, that has not been the case. A century ago Russians inflicted pogroms on the Jews and murdered them. Today, Israel’s enemies delegitimize the Jewish state.
Although Israel is a nuclear power, it is the target of missile attacks from terrorists in Gaza. The reality of a nuclear Iran and its Hezbollah proxy looms large. Jews certainly are not as vulnerable to genocide as they were during the Shoah. But we should not overestimate the State of Israel’s power. Today, Israel may, in part, be a rejection of exile but it is also the culmination and inheritor of 2,000 years of Diaspora history and Diaspora Jewry. Hebrew dreams have become reality in Israel.
In the end, however, the Yiddish realities intrude to remind us that, even after the triumph of Zionism, Jews are still Jews – both in the eyes of other Jews and in the eyes of the world.
The writer is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.