Yiddish literature can be seen as a three-legged stool: hard, homey and supported by its three “grandfathers.” There is the corrosive anticlerical satirist who called himself Mendele Mokher Sforim (Mendele the Book Seller); the self-invented, deceptively artless and universally beloved folk author Sholem Aleichem; and the Warsaw writer of Hasidic allegories I.L. Peretz. But there was once a fourth, or rather the promise of a fourth: Dovid Bergelson (1884-1952).
Unlike the grandfathers, Bergelson did not write for a popular audience so much as a cultivated Yiddish-speaking elite–at least at first. And, no less than his readers, Bergelson was a complex amalgam of the provincial and the cosmopolitan. Born to a prosperous Hasidic family in a Ukrainian shtetl, he attended a traditional religious school but received a secular European education from a tutor. His parents died when he was a boy. From the age of 14 he was raised in the households of elder brothers who had left their small town for the booming, increasingly Jewish cities of Kiev, Odessa and Warsaw.
Bergelson emerged as an artist in the aftermath of the failed 1905 revolution in Russia, and although his early work is not overtly political, it is characterized by a crepuscular melancholy. Like more than one Jewish author of his generation, he wrote first in Hebrew and Russian before switching to Yiddish, his native tongue, to address the twilight of the Yiddish world. Readers accustomed to Sholem Aleichem’s sturdy village archetypes or Isaac Bashevis Singer’s studied supernaturalism may be surprised by Bergelson’s decomposing milieu. His setting was the shtetl, well into its decline by the early twentieth century; his characters are largely secular, frustrated young people who struggle with their sense of futility and dream of escape.
Yiddish literature has naturally had a strong Russian component. Sholem Aleichem learned from Gogol. Jacob Gordin, the first serious Yiddish dramatist, was devoted to Tolstoy. Bergelson, for his part, studied Chekhov. He was the first Yiddish author concerned with individual psychology, and his impressionist prose was no less modern. An exacting and self-conscious stylist, Bergelson was a poet of subtle emotional atmospheres and a master of musical repetitions. Although his moods range from wistful to hopeless, he anticipates Saul Bellow in his irony, his predilection for ineffectual intellectuals and his fondness for Talmud-schooled internal dialogues.
Published in 1909, “At the Depot”–which concerns the business and other failures of an overeducated and “superfluous” young man–was instantly acclaimed by Yiddish critics. The 1913 novella Departing is the tale of a young man’s suicide, and of its ripple effect on the shtetl. Bergelson’s masterpiece, Nokh Alemen, a novel featuring a doomed, dreamy young woman as its antiheroine, was published on the eve of World War I. It was translated in 1977 as When All Is Said and Done, but its title might just as well be rendered as The End of Everything.
Like one of his characters, Bergelson succumbed to depression and wrote little during the war; in 1917, however, he became something of an organizer, founding the Yiddish Culture League in Kiev to encourage Modernist Yiddish literature and avant-garde Jewish art. In the spring of 1921, he joined the émigré exodus to Berlin–which included the cream of Russia’s Yiddish writers, among them Peretz Markish, Der Nister and Leib Kvitko. Although the city was Bergelson’s base for a dozen years, he traveled widely, sometimes for months at a time, in Denmark, Romania, the Soviet Union, the United States and Poland.