Pioneer's pen

A biography of Yosef Haim Brenner reveals more than just a literary legacy.

Yosef Haim Brenner 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yosef Haim Brenner 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Life of Brenner By Anita Shapira Am Oved (In Hebrew) 456 pp., NIS 98 My introduction to Yosef Haim Brenner happened many years ago while attending a moshav high school in the Sharon. Our Hebrew literature teacher was a Brenner addict and only due to his initiative and dedication a few of us had the good fortune of discovering the prose of this extraordinary author. I suspect that not many of my contemporaries studying in respectable high schools in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa were exposed to a similar experience. Most of them, I suspect, were denied this revelation. The reason may have been banal. The Hebrew literature teachers at the time were most likely handicapped by a conservative legacy, not necessarily infected by ideological bias. I am not sure incidentally how much Brenner is being taught today in high schools, but would not be surprised if the new biography Life of Brenner by Anita Shapira would stimulate the young ones and the elders to seek his books and read them. Brenner was born in 1881 in a small town in northern Ukraine, inhabited by 3,000 people, of whom 10 percent were Jewish. Evident already in his youth, Brenner's perceptions of the Jewish people, of Zionism and of the role of the Hebrew literature were often dangling. But he always kept his first loyalty "to the Jewish people" and not necessarily to any particular factional color. The enlightened young Jewish authors in Russia were devouring the writings of the great Russian masters of the 19th century, but Brenner was careful not to let it overwhelm him. In one of his early novels called In the Winter, he articulated what subsequently emerged as his perennial theme, namely that "normalization means first of all a change in the economic and social structure of the Jewish people." He was concerned at witnessing how the growing Jewish intelligentsia was captivated by the yearning to join the Russian revolutionary movements, asserting repeatedly that the Jews were drifting into assimilation and extinction unless they would first sort out their own Jewish priorities. In a letter to his close friend Gnessin, a short-story writer, Brenner rejected the theory of "literature for the sake of literature." His perception of life was quite different. He stressed "the necessity to rectify" the life of Jews in order "to become normal." When the revolution comes, he was worried, the Jews would find themselves caught between "the devil and the deep blue sea." His conclusion was that normalizing Jewish life could not be attained in the Diaspora. Since normalization of Jewish life required being engaged in manual work, he believed that it could be achieved only in Eretz Yisrael. Brenner had a formative experience when he joined the Russian army at 20. Military service in Russia was compulsory, but for him it lasted only two years. He simply felt that he could not take it any more. While he was in uniform, he did not speak or write much about that experience. Later on, however, he wrote a short novel called One Year in which he tells the story of the first year in military service of a young Jew, idealistic and naïve. Serving in the army offered a superb school for Brenner, enabling him to study the "human soul." Whatever he had known about the Russians he had learned by reading Russian literature. No contact existed between Brenner and the non-Jews. Military service was perceived by the Jews as a dreadful punishment. The majority of them did not know what manual work meant. Nothing prepared them to serve in the army. On top of that, anti-Semitism was widely prevalent in the Russian army and often manifested in hatred. It was therefore not surprising that he finally deserted. At about that stage of his life, Brenner started pondering about going to Eretz Yisrael. The biographer points out that the decision to go occurred at a moment of despair caused by the financial troubles he faced in publishing a literary periodical. His friends, predominantly authors themselves, argued that literature in Hebrew or Yiddish had no future in Russia; only in Eretz Yisrael there was a chance to create and develop Jewish literature. Brenner kept thinking the same way, notwithstanding his fear of the unknown land. A disappointing love affair in London may have helped him to make the hard decision. His going to Eretz Yisrael was not considered as a commitment to stay there. He was aware that Haim Nahman Bialik, like Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Ahad Ha'am, had toured the country but then went back to Europe. The author notes that leaving Eretz Yisrael was not considered then as a stigma. Brenner hoped that lack of money would not force him to depart. He did not rush to call his friends who were still living in the Diaspora to follow him. The biographer has calculated that the number of writers in Eretz Yisrael at that time was quite high in relation to the small community. It may have helped reduce the feeling of loneliness. Brenner realized that Hebrew literature could survive and flourish only in Eretz Yisrael, but at the same time he was skeptic and often in despair. He knew how onerous it was to till the land, how painful to be unemployed and how laborious to cope with the malaria. He was familiar with the agony caused by the long summer heat, but he stayed on. There is no doubt that the overwhelming high esteem that he enjoyed and his immaculate moral reputation made it easier for him to overcome all these pitfalls. Brenner did not delude himself that it would be easy to tackle the "Arab problem." He had no illusions, and yet was not careful enough to avoid living in an Arab neighborhood bordering Tel Aviv. It was there that he was killed by Arabs on May 1, 1921. Apart from the Tel Hai incident, Brenner did not live to see how Jews could succeed in becoming both pioneers and fighters. He had his dreams but more than once yielded to skepticism. He did not have much faith that Jews he had known in Russia would display the resources to be normal. One last point worth mentioning here: Brenner rejected the delusions of the Bolshevik revolution. He lived almost four years observing the brutal messianic behavior of the Russian communist leaders coercing their country to submit to false salvation. It is also worthwhile noting that Brenner was questioning the validity and the veracity of Jabotinsky's extreme nationalistic slogans. He believed in moderation of conduct, including preference for a more modest style. He was a true Jewish patriot and that is how he and his writing should be seen.