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Braudes, Re’uven Asher

(1850–1902), Hebrew author. Active in various East European cities, including Vilna (his place of birth), Lvov, Kraków, Bucharest, and Odessa, and ultimately (after 1896) in Vienna, Re’uven Braudes edited Hebrew and Yiddish periodicals and wrote essays and articles, but is best known as the author of short stories and novels that earned him a reputation as one of the outstanding maskilic Hebrew writers of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. He also published three stories in Yiddish, although his work in that language must be considered marginal to his overall literary output.

Between 1868 and 1902, Braudes published articles (mainly in Hebrew, but also in Yiddish and German) on issues of the day, topics that he also brought to the fore in his fiction. He called for religious reform, assuming a liberal but traditional position that acknowledged the Talmud as the authoritative source of Jewish law while advocating adaptations in keeping with the times. Thus he rejected both the approach of the rabbinic establishment, as well as the features of the Reform movement that he regarded as superficial modernizations leading to extreme assimilation. He understood Judaism to be a combination of religion and nationhood, tradition and innovation. Literature was more than a source of aesthetic satisfaction: during this critical period, in which the future of the Jewish people would be determined, literature was above all a superb didactic means of conveying a social and national message. It was also a reliable way to document the present reality and offer readers an exact description of the times. Moreover, through literature the modern Hebrew language of the Haskalah could be developed. Here, too, Braudes took a moderate position; he sought to integrate biblical Hebrew—that is, the linguistic structures and conventions of the past—with the foundations of a new, living language that would not only serve a literary purpose, but could also be spoken in everyday conversation.

Braudes’s principal contribution as a writer was his two novels, Ha-Dat veha-ḥayim (Religion and Life; 1876–1878) and Shete ha-ketsavot (The Two Extremes; 1888). Ha-Dat veha-ḥayim, published in installments, was never completed. The story’s background concerned the stormy debate over religious reform stimulated by a series of controversial articles that Mosheh Leib Lilienblum published in Ha-Melits between 1868 and 1871. Shmuel, the protagonist, is a yeshiva student undergoing the process of enlightenment. He strives to combine religion and life in the spirit of the Talmud, believing that the sages of the Rabbinic period were able to adapt Jewish law to changing circumstances, unlike the hidebound legalists of his own time, who rely on codifications such as the Shulḥan ‘arukh. The novel presents the debate and the tension between the two camps. Its various characters embody aspects of the position of “Religion” or of “Life”—or an attempt to integrate the two, as Braudes himself advocates, through the persona of the modernizer who seeks God. Both Orthodox conservatism, a system under which religion controls all aspects of living, and German Reform are rejected. The book faithfully records the strident social protest against the poverty and distress suffered by the Jews at the time, a situation that protestors felt was being disregarded by communal and religious leaders. Braudes attacks practices surrounding matchmaking and betrothal, which were dictated by status and family history. He also assumes a relatively feminist position (in the context of the time) in his attempt to portray a new kind of woman.

Although Shete ha-ketsavot, written a decade later, is set in a different time and place, it presents the same message. It is the story of the encounter between a reactionary, religiously extreme shtetl and a permissive modern city, the embodiment of the social emancipation that results in assimilation. In the novel, the protagonist leaves the small town of Sukot for Odessa. Here he is confronted with a world that stands in contrast to the traditional, Jewish way of life from which he came. Odessa epitomizes a modern, secular lifestyle, with its music, theater, and different outlook on family and love. In this way, Sukot and Odessa are depicted as two opposing extremes. According to the enlightened message of the novel, the ideal solution lies only in a synthesis of the two.

Despite differences in tone, style, and backdrop, Ha-Dat veha-ḥayim and Shete ha-ketsavot epitomize Braudes’s approach to Haskalah and his desire to achieve the ideal balance between two extremes. He believed that in the past, Judaism had been preserved by this moderating force, but in his time it could only save the people from two dangers: self-confinement in a spiritual and social ghetto, and emancipation leading to utter assimilation.

In the 1880s and 1890s Braudes sought, somewhat unconvincingly, to confront the transformations engulfing the Jewish world. Two unfinished novels, Toḥelet nikhzavah (Disappointed Hope; 1885) and Me-Ayin ule-an (Whence and Whither; 1891), show him taking a more sober approach to the Haskalah utopia, against the background of the pogroms of the early 1880s and the transition from Enlightenment to assimilation or, alternatively, Zionism. Another novel, Shirim ‘atikim (Old Songs; 1890–1891) raises a different dilemma: Palestine or America? The book’s heroes, Naftali and Shim‘on, have opposing answers to this question. Naftali, a maskil of the old school, fears that “religion” will control “life” in the Holy Land and prefers America, which he considers the symbol of freedom and tolerance. However, the American Dream fails him; in the end he chooses to live in Palestine, but it is too late. Although this work does not manifest the sophisticated treatment of subject matter and character development found in Ha-Dat veha-ḥayim and Shete ha-ketsavot, it nonetheless testifies that Braudes remained keenly attuned to the changes in East European Jewry and was well aware of the transition from one era to another toward the end of the Haskalah.

Braudes epitomized the literary achievement of the Haskalah, and his oeuvre may constitute the most authentic, complete, and reliable exposition of the quandaries of modern Jewish society. As creative works and as ideological tracts, his two great novels represent nineteenth-century Hebrew literature at its best.

Suggested Reading

Re’uven Asher Braudes, Zekenim ‘im ne‘arim: Asefat sipurim, maḥazot u-temunot me-ḥaye ha-yehudim be-erets Russya (Vienna, 1886); Re’uven Asher Braudes, Ha-Dat veha-ḥayim, 2 vols., intro. by Gershon Shaked (Jerusalem, 1974); Re’uven Asher Braudes, Shete ha-ketsavot: Roman me-ḥaye ha-yehudim be-‘et ha-hoveh, intro. by Ben-Ami Feingold (Jerusalem, 1989); Ben-Ami Feingold, “The Work of R. A. Braudes and the European Novel,” Bikoret u-farshanut 16 (1981): 103–133; Joseph Klausner, Historia shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, 5 vols. (Jerusalem, 1956), pp. 345–402; Fischel Lachower, Toldot ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah (Tel Aviv, 1928–1931), vol. 2, pp. 239–246, vol. 3, pt. 1, pp. 70–77, pt. 2, pp. 38–39; David Patterson, The Hebrew Novel in Czarist Russia (Edinburgh, 1964); Abraham Solomon Waldstein, The Evolution of Modern Hebrew Literature: 1850–1912 (New York, 1916), pp. 34–38; Meyer Waxman, A History of Jewish Literature (New York, 1960), vol. 3, pp. 301–308.



Translated from Hebrew by Anna Barber