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Jewish Social Studies 6.3 (2000) 160-204

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The Buber and Berdyczewski Correspondence

William Cutter

Communication between famous people is always intriguing. We seem, from a distance, to glimpse their processes and experience the dialectic between them in matters of love, public policy, or culture. Yet, of course, letters represent only a selection from the lives of their protagonists, and one must examine the context in which the correspondents worked in order to understand the importance of what they said to each other. In the case of correspondents like Martin Buber and Micha Josef Berdyczewski, a great deal is known about the separate worlds each inhabited, and some things are known about what business brought them together, but the significance of their relationship bears more examination. This article is a prelude to that examination. For nearly two decades they wrote letters to each other, Berdyczewski kept a personal diary in which Buber is mentioned frequently, and we have suggestive testimony from some friends and from Berdyczewski's son, Emanuel Bin Gorion. They inhabited a Germany crackling with scholarly, cultural, and intellectual life, and they individually influenced the progress of modern Jewish thought in important ways.

My article is about that 20-year-long association, illuminated by the conjunction of these qualities and materials. Although a few of their letters to each other have been published in now-canonical collections, 1 Bin Gorion's trenchant reminiscence in Reshut ha-yahid 2 is the only clear summary of their friendship. Berdyczewski's letters to many other figures remain to be studied, and hundreds of letters to him are collected in his archives, known as Ginzei Micha Yosef. Periodically the energetic scholars attached to the archive in Holon produce a summary [End Page 160] of the correspondence between Berdyczewski and early-twentieth-century figures like David Neumark, Shmuel Finn, Eliezer ben Yehudah, and Tsvi Malter; work remains to be done on Berdyczewski's communication with figures like Shmuel Abba Horodetsky, Fischel Lachower, Alter Druyanov, and others. (There are over 1,100 letters, for example, between Berdyczewski and Horodetsky and Lachower written over an 18-year period.) 3 Berdyczewski's correspondence with Ahad Ha-am and Josef Hayim Brenner is already part of the epistolary canon. 4

The correspondence between Berdyczewski and Buber remained formal and seems to have been restricted largely to business matters. But when read against the background of Berdyczewski's personal diaries, there are indications that a strange intimacy hovered in the spaces between their matter-of-fact messages about academic and cultural projects. They had separate close relationships with mutual friends, and many of the letters refer to the role of one or another of those friends in three-way conversations and shared projects. The formality in their address cannot be explained as a consequence of social style, as each man had more passionate communication with many other people. Nor is it possible to say that they did not know each other well.

Before the new century, Berdyczewski corresponded with Buber's grandfather, Solomon, who looked after Martin during the early years of his parents' separation. 5 Avner Holtzman notes that the correspondence between Solomon Buber and Berdyczewski began in 1888 and continued until the grandfather's death in 1906. 6 Nine letters from the elder Buber remain in the Holon archive, and none mentions Martin's name. After Solomon's death, Berdyczewski's name figures prominently as an informal adviser about the literary estate of the business-man-scholar whose library seemed to hold duplicates that interested Berdyczewski for research purposes. This primarily instrumental character of the relationship between Martin Buber and Berdyczewski was congruent with the general tone of their wide-ranging work together--devoted to practical concerns rather than more rarified intellectual discourse. But the potential for a rich narrative is signaled in one critical paragraph from Bin Gorion's biography of his father's last 20 years:

Among those helping him and paving the way for him one must single out especially Martin Buber, even though in the same breath one must note that their relationship took on a...


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