Jewish writers and intellectuals, Vilna, 1905. (From left to right) Yesha‘yahu Bershadsky, M. Kabak (seated), Yitsḥak Dov Berkowitz (standing), Berta Tshernovits, Ernestina Rabinovitz (daughter of the writer Sholem Aleichem and Berkowitz’s wife), playwright Perets Hirshbeyn, and Shemu’el[?] Tshernovits. (YIVO)

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Bershadsky, Yesha‘yahu

(1871–1908), Hebrew writer. Born in the village of Zimoshti in the Grodno region, Yesha‘yahu Bershadsky (originally surnamed Domashevitski) received a private education in Hebrew and Russian. From 1887 he worked as a teacher in Białystok. In 1889, he started publishing articles in Ha-Melits, and in the early 1890s, his stories appeared in Ha-Tsefirah. He moved to Baku in 1896, and from there to Ekaterinoslav, where he taught and compiled his principal works.

After a decade of experimenting with Hebrew literature, Bershadsky found sudden fame in the years 1899–1902. He published two novels, Be-En matarah (Without a Goal; 1899) and Neged ha-zerem (Against the Current; 1901), and a two-part collection of short stories, Tipusim u-tselalim (Types and Shadows; 1899, 1902). Against the backdrop of social realistic fictional writing that was gradually evolving in Hebrew literature in the last decade of the nineteenth century, Bershadsky’s short stories were noted for their technical, stylistic, and thematic innovations, though they were dwarfed by his two novels, which made a tremendous impression on the reading public. Thanks to the reputation these books earned him, he was invited to become the literary editor of Ha-Zeman, the journal published first in Saint Petersburg and then in Vilna. He held this position until tuberculosis forced him to resign in 1905.

As an editor, Bershadsky offered guidance and advice to young writers, including Zalman Shneour, Yitsḥak Dov Berkowitz, and Yitsḥak Katzenelson. At the same time that they were finding their niche in Hebrew literature, however, Bershadsky himself experienced writer’s block. He tried to turn his efforts to other forms of literary work, publishing short stories in Yiddish and in Russian, but was still unable to recreate the brilliant but short period of fame he had experienced at the turn of the century. He died in Warsaw, lonely and ignored. After his death, his uncollected short stories were published in two volumes, Ketavim aḥaronim (The Last Writings; 1910).

Bershadsky’s finest achievement was his Be-En matarah, regarded as the first modern (post-Haskalah) Hebrew novel. Its appearance in 1899 was hailed as a literary milestone. Beyond the daring literary interpretation of Russian Jewish urban society at the end of the nineteenth century, the main innovation of this novel is found in the presentation of its protagonist, the young and mysterious intellectual Adamowitz. This character possesses sinister erotic powers and a weltanschauung saturated with Nietzschean sexual urges. The portrayal is clearly inspired by the nineteenth-century Russian psychological prose epitomized by Ivan Goncharov, Mikhail Lermontov, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose principal characters were spiritually complex young men immersed in intense introspection.

Bershadsky’s crowning achievement was his ability to divert his focus from the social and ideological perspective to the individual soul that then becomes the battlefield for playing out a struggle between cool rationalism and emotional and licentious perversity, even if his psychological tools of expression are somewhat crude and schematic. Adamowitz is regarded as the precursor for the “uprooted,” more complex characters that appear in Hebrew fiction at the beginning of the twentieth century. Be-En matarah also marked a new era in literary style, with Bershadsky’s rejection of flowery maskilic phraseology for a more modern, functional, concise, and precise language that incorporated foreign words. The style enabled him to enumerate and to detail corporeal and spiritual reality.

Bershadsky’s second novel, Neged ha-zerem, is similarly set in the period 1890–1891. It is in effect a realist reworking of the maskilic ideological novel, examining the various options that Russian Jews faced, with a special emphasis on tensions between Zionists and assimilationists. The novel revolves around the personality of Yitsḥak Israelsohn, the head of an enlightened traditional household who witnesses his sons’ estrangement from their Jewish education and who must therefore fight a lonely battle to realize his Zionist dreams. In this novel, too, innovations in a psychological approach, worldview, and literary style exemplify the transitional role of Bershadsky’s work, as he integrates poetic norms from maskilic literature with the schematic naturalism of the 1890s, and the psychological modernism of the beginning of the twentieth century.

Suggested Reading

William Cutter, “Bershadski’s Be-En matarah (Without a Goal): A Study in Late Nineteenth Century Characterization,” Hebrew Union College Annual 44 (1973): 227–257; Joseph Even, “Yesha‘yahu Bershadski vi-yetsirato,” in Be-En matarah, by Isaiah (Yesha‘yahu) Bershadski, pp. 7–26 (Jerusalem, 1967); Avner Holtzman, “Neged ha-zerem li-Yesha‘yahu Bershadski: Tsomet be-toldot ha-roman ha-‘ivri,” Dapim le-meḥkar be-sifrut 7 (1991): 111–124; Shmuel Raphael, “Yesha‘yahu Bershadski: Sofer ha-nihilizm ha-‘ivri” (Ph.D. diss., Yeshiva University, 1969); Gershon Shaked, “Yesha‘yahu Bershadski,” in Ha-Siporet ha-‘ivrit, 1880–1980, vol. 1, pp. 262–268 (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1977).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler