Israel Studies Seminar: Love, Zionism and Melancholy in the Prose of Micha Yosef Berdichevsky

Convener: Professor Yaacov Yadgar

Speaker: Dr Yoav Ronel, Bezalel Academy for Arts and Design and Ben Gurion University


My talk will deal with the representations of a melancholic national and subjective desire, in the prose of Micha Yosef Berdichevsky (1865-1921), one of the prominent figures of the revival period of modern Hebrew Literature. Berdichevsky – as critics have shown repeatedly – claimed that the national revival will come from the birth of a new, erotic, willful and vital subject: the young, in-love and “detached” (Talush) protagonist of many of his stories, who represents the fracture point of Jewish modernity and secularism at the end of the 19th century. I will suggest that erotic love and the desire for a national revival in Berdichevsky’s poetic work appear as experiences of a melancholic desire that does not exhaust itself because it has already lost its object. And that this desire is the hinge around which the new life of Berdichevsky’s work turns. The erotic and vital desire – both subjective and national – is built upon an inherent sadness and melancholy.

The revival period was characterized by a tension between the desire for the founding of sovereign Jewish nationality, and a deep doubt concerning the historical possibility of that project. Berdichevsky held a radical and anti-positivist position concerning the national-political debate: In his publicist and philosophical texts, the author repeatedly called for the need for Jewish sovereignty, and for the cultivation of a subjective and collective erotic will. Such calls stood against Berdichevsky’s disbelief in the possibility of such endeavour, and even in the survival of modern Jewish culture. I will argue that the melancholy found at the heart of his work is not opposed to the erotic and the national desire but preserves them. That is why Berdichevsky’s poetic and philosophical language does not distinguish between love and melancholy. Melancholy, I thus argue, is not a biographical or psychological sadness and loss, but a poetic-political device. It is a mechanism for the suspension of subjective and national desire, and functions as the key to a renewed understanding of the author’s work and life.


Dr Yoav Ronel has recently received his PhD degree from the Department of Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University and is a lecturer at the Department of Visual and Material Culture at Bezalel Academy for Arts and Design, where he teaches courses dealing with poetic and theoretical representations of love and desire. His dissertation dealt with matters of melancholy and nationality in the work of Micha Yosef Berdichevsky.

Currently, he is a post-doctorate fellow in Ben-Gurion University, collaborating with professor Hanna Soker-Schwager in a research dealing with questions of the excess as a poetic and hermeneutic principle. He is also working on a project concerning with question of class and labour with regard to the representations of idleness in modern Hebrew literature.

Among his latest publications ate an article about Berdichevsky’s melancholy in Mikan Hebrew and Israeli Literature journal; and an article about love in the thought of Giorgio Agamben and Roland Barthes, published in Theory Now journal.