Author Re’uven Brainin in a portrait from the frontispiece of Shriften (Writings), a collection of his works (Warsaw: Ferlag Hashakhar, 1910). (YIVO)

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Brainin, Re’uven

(1862–1939), Hebrew critic, biographer, short-story writer, and feuilletonist. Born in Liady, Mohilev province, Re’uven Brainin was part of a learned Jewish family, and he first intensely followed the route of traditional text study. At age 17, however, he was profoundly influenced by Haskalah texts, including Avraham Mapu’s Ahavat Tsiyon (The Love of Zion).

Enthralled with literary descriptions of idyllic life in biblical times, Brainin worked hard—albeit unsuccessfully—to be accepted into an agronomy program. He subsequently moved to Vienna where he joined a colony of progressive students, and came under the influence of Perets Smolenskin’s journal Ha-Shaḥar. Brainin also participated in Kadimah, the Jewish nationalist student organization, and in Nathan Birnbaum’s group, Selbstemanzipation. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Brainin was a major influence and source of encouragement in Vienna for such young talents as the academician David Neumark (1866–1924), who contributed an article on Nietzsche to Brainin’s pioneering journal, Mi-Mizraḥ umi-ma‘arav. This periodical (published just four times between 1894 and 1899) reflected the breadth of Brainin’s interests in Hebrew and European literature and philosophy, as well as his early fascination with science and agronomy.

From Re’uven Brainin in Berlin, to S. R. Landau (university docent) in Kalvarija, Russian Empire (now in Lithuania), 1894. Brainin cannot send Landau the corrections to his article because the translation is not yet finished, but will do so as soon as it is complete. He is upset that Herr Ehrenpreis wrote a harsh critical review of his article, but thinks it best to ignore him. Brainin met Aron Marcus three weeks ago along with H. Mandel, and will talk soon with Dr. Schnierer about the time and place of the next delegate meeting. Rector Schwarz served as an official (Schandig [Yid., sandek]) at the circumcision of Brainin's son a week earlier. Count Leo Tolstoy has recently written to him that he will soon send an article about the situation of the Russian Jews. German. German letterhead: R. Brainin, Redacteur der liter.-wissensch. Zeitschrift Mimisrach umimaarabh. Berlin-Charlottenburg, Kaiser Friedrichstr. 75. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

Brainin moved to Berlin in 1896, where he helped a burgeoning Hebraic cultural society to coalesce. He enticed such authors as Neumark and Sha’ul Yisra’el Hurwitz to live there, and, according to Neumark, magnanimously prepared the ground for Ahad Ha-Am to publish the journal Ha-Shiloaḥ there. In its first volume (1896), Brainin wrote a harsh and influential critique (carping by today’s standards) of the Haskalah poet Yehudah Leib Gordon, and later continued his campaign to “dethrone” giants of the Haskalah with his article “Smolenskin be-tor mesaper” (Smolenskin As a Storyteller; 1898). His full-length biographies of Smolenskin (1896) and Mapu (1900) were much more balanced and quite significant for the genre. Brainin searched for greatness and exceptionality in his portraits of the Gaon of Vilna, the critic George Brandes, the sculptor Mark Antokol’skii, the writer Israel Zangwill, the physicist and physiologist Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz, and, at a later date, Albert Einstein. Brainin was also the first to recognize the talent of the poet Sha’ul Tchernichowsky for whose book Ḥezyonot u-manginot (Visions and Melodies) he wrote an introduction in 1899.

Brainin’s success in editing Luaḥ Aḥi’asaf in 1902–1903 likely marked the peak of his literary accomplishments and authority. He was praised by the young scholar Naḥum Slouschz (1871–1966) for taking a polemical stance in encouraging European-style belles lettres as opposed to Ahad Ha-Am’s Judaism-centered, academic style. Brainin continued his extraordinary productivity for a time, mostly in the Hebrew press, though occasionally in Yiddish newspapers as well (concurrently expressing guilt about his need to “betray” Hebrew for the sake of his livelihood). He wrote lengthy articles on such figures as Otto Weininger and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his short story “Reshimot oman ‘ivri” (Notes of a Hebrew Artist; 1901) was considered one of Brainin’s best, a salient departure from the naturalistic genre of Ha-Mahalakh he-Ḥadash (the New Path, a literary school of the 1890s whose agenda of social reform featured realistic depiction of the lives of ordinary Jews such as merchants and tradesmen).

By about 1905, however, when he participated with Hurwitz in the cultural venture Sinai, Brainin’s literary stature had diminished, and his views (published in Hurwitz’s journal He-‘Atid in 1908) were regarded as wistful and unfocused. Nonetheless, he was still acclaimed for his translations of the plays Das neue Ghetto (The New Ghetto) by Theodor Herzl, Der Prophet Jeremias by Moritz Lazarus, and the social critique Paradoxes by Max Nordau. Brainin was praised for the clear and palatable Hebrew style with which he graced hundreds of feuilletons and stories, as well as for his personal charisma, engaging conversational ability, and selfless efforts at attracting other talents to his vision of an aesthetically refined and Europe-oriented Hebraic renaissance.

Brainin arrived in America in 1910, still regarded as a crusader for Hebrew. He published Senunit (Swallow), a collection of poetry, in 1911, and edited the Hebrew weekly Ha-Deror. Though he produced a collection of Yiddish articles and stories in 1911, he continued to reveal his ambivalence about writing in this language, and even after leaving New York for Montreal to edit Yiddish newspapers for four years, Brainin clung to his primary status as a Hebraist, returning to New York in 1916 and editing the journal Ha-Toren with mixed success until 1926. He was also among the founders in New York of the Histadrut ha-‘Ivrit ba-Amerika (Hebrew Organization of America). Brainin’s biography of Herzl (1919), published in New York along with a collection of Hebrew articles in three volumes (1922, 1933, 1936), received negative reviews (in particular for the second and third volumes) from a Hebrew press that may have suspected his loyalty to the Zionist cause.

In 1926, Brainin traveled to South Africa as a representative of the campaign to settle Jews in Birobidzhan. His support of this highly controversial plan, touted by the Soviet Union and its predominantly anti-Zionist Jewish activists, led to Brainin’s total break with the Hebraist–Zionist literary world, a falling out that was capped by his libel suit against Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik before the court of the Zionist Congress in Berlin in 1929. Brainin charged that Bialik had falsely accused him of treason against the Zionist cause; the court vindicated Bialik. Partially as a result of this isolation, Brainin became increasingly involved with Yiddish intellectual culture. His Yiddish works include Umshterblekhe reyd (Immortal Discourse; 1940) on the Birobidzhan project and his fascinating Yoman moskva (Moscow Diary; written in 1926 but not published until 1975).

Brainin’s admirers in Montreal credited him not only for his editing of the Keneder odler and Veg newspapers, but also for inspiring the creation of the Canadian Jewish Congress and for establishing, with Yehudah Kaufman, Montreal’s Jewish Public Library. As editor of the Keneder odler, Brainin demonstrated his social concerns, intervening on behalf of striking tailors in 1914 and assisting in war relief efforts for refugees after World War I.

Brainin died in New York at age 77 after a lengthy debilitating illness, and was buried in Montreal. His archive is preserved at the Jewish Public Library there, and more than 500 pages of his handwritten diaries are at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem.

Suggested Reading

Yeruḥam Fishel Lachower, “Re’uven Brainin,” in Shirah u-maḥashavah, pp. 200–226 (Tel Aviv, 1953).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 108, Manuscripts, Collection, ; RG 1247, Paul (Pesakh) Novick, Papers, 1900-1988; RG 205, Kalman Marmor, Papers, 1880s-1950s; RG 357, Mark Schweid, Papers, ca. 1920s-1969; RG 431, Morris Rosenfeld, Papers, 1894-1923; RG 439, Chaim Gutman, Papers, 1913-1960; RG 701, I.L. Peretz Yiddish Writers’ Union, Records, 1903-1970s.