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Gnessin, Uri Nisan

(1879–1913), Hebrew and Yiddish writer and translator. Born in Starodub, Ukraine, Uri Gnessin belonged to a generation of Hebrew writers who disagreed with the criticism of traditional Judaism by Haskalah writers. When Gnessin was nine years old, his family moved to Pochep, where his father served as the town’s rabbi (both Gnessin’s father and grandfather were Hasidic rabbis). Gnessin was a brilliant student, teaching himself Russian, French, German, and Latin as well as philosophy, history, and other nonreligious disciplines. At the Pochep yeshiva, he formed a friendship with Yosef Ḥayim Brenner, and together they edited a journal in which Gnessin published his first poems and feuilletons. At the age of 14, he was already writing reports from Pochep for the Hebrew daily Ha-Melits.

In 1900, Naḥum Sokolow invited Gnessin to Warsaw to join the editorial board of Ha-Tsefirah. The next year, he went to work at the Tushiyah publishing house, where he translated a selection of Mordkhe Spektor’s short stories from Yiddish to Hebrew. He also translated several of Hersh Dovid Nomberg’s stories, which were published in Ha-Dor in 1901. While in Warsaw, he anonymously published poems, articles, and translations in Ha-Tsefirah, Ha-Shavu‘a, Ha-Dor, and Sefer ha-shanah.

In 1900–1901, Gnessin wrote three short stories, “Zhenyah,” “Ma‘aseh be-Otelo” (The Othello Case), and “Shemu’el ben Shemu’el” (Samuel Son of Samuel), which were published by Tushiyah in 1904 in Tsilele ha-ḥayim (The Shadows of Life). Each deals with erotic relationships between Jewish men and women who have left traditional lifestyles to experience new freedoms. The women are braver and more sincere than the men; they are ready for serious or frivolous sex affairs without shame, while the men cannot do so as easily. Young Gnessin’s interest in the subconscious sex drive and the human tendency toward self-deception followed a path set in the stories of Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski. Gnessin’s open treatment of such issues was perhaps also inspired by Guy de Maupassant, whose story “Before the Judge” he translated into Hebrew. Such treatment was common in contemporary “decadent” Russian writers (for example Leonid Andreev, whose stories were translated into Yiddish and whose plays were popular in the Yiddish theater).

By 1903, Gnessin was living intermittently in Kiev and Pochep, supporting himself by giving private lessons. His attempts to found a publishing house for inexpensive Hebrew and translated books failed, and he had difficulty earning a living. That year, he wrote two stories whose protagonists are teenagers. “Ba-Vet saba’” (At Grandfather’s, a long story that Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik refused to publish in Ha-Shiloaḥ and which remained unpublished) is an autobiographical story about the inner crisis of a boy whose grandfather is an esteemed Hasidic rebbe. “Se‘udah mafseket” (The Meal before the Fast; published in 1906 in Sefer ha-shanah) describes the relationships between a traditional father and his vegetarian and revolutionary daughter.

Between 1905 and 1907, Gnessin lived in Kiev, Warsaw, Ekaterinoslav, and Vilna. In the latter city, he worked for a few months at the periodical Ha-Zeman. In 1906, he helped Brenner, who was living in London at the time, to found the publishing house Nisyonot. This press published Gnessin’s story “Benotayim” (In the Middle; 1906) as well as translations of Chekhov’s stories. In 1907, he went to London again and helped Brenner publish the periodical Ha-Me‘orer. Ultimately, the two writers quarreled, and Gnessin went to Palestine. From Petaḥ Tikvah, he wrote to his father in February 1907: “Erets Israel is not a goal for its own sake . . . The Jewish soul is in the Diaspora, not here. Here there are Jews who wear long black coats and grow long beards and Jews who wear short clothes and raze their beards. Their common denominator is that they are all not worth a penny.” In 1908, Gnessin returned to Pochep, where he lived until 1912. He died in Warsaw the next year.

Between 1905 and 1913, Gnessin wrote four long stories—“Ha-Tsidah” (Sideways), “Benotayim,” “Be-Terem” (Before), and “Etsel” (At)—as well as two short stories, “Ba-Ganim” (In the Gardens) and “Ketatah” (A Quarrel). The former were based on autobiographical materials, and portray the inner world of a young Jew who dreams of leaving his past behind to create a more beautiful and refined world for himself by becoming a writer. However, the protagonist’s weak character and erotic seductions cause him to postpone his work so that he remains mired in the environment that he hates. Again, women are more active and vital in sexual relationships than the hero. Inner monologues and impressionistic descriptions of nature characterize the main character’s half-asleep inner world, as well as his neurotic, extremely sensitive reactions to sensual stimuli. The hero is constantly in a passive state of daydreams, removing himself from direct contact with reality, focusing his Hamlet-like reflections on the value of life and redemption, suffering from the depressing, ugly provinciality of his life, while around him secondary characters (parents, friends, young women, old Jews), who for him are no more than shadows, behave bravely.

In his final stories, Gnessin turned to simple people, describing them primarily in nonromantic ways. Nature appears as a place of demonic evil and corruption. The hero of “Ba-Ganim” presents a Jewish man as a father who rapes his mentally retarded daughter. Gnessin wrote this story in both Hebrew and Yiddish. In “Ketatah” (A Quarrel), a coachman who is a caricature of a romantic yearns to fly from ugly reality to a faraway world of beauty and art. Stylistically, both stories present a mixture of impressionism, symbolism, and expressionism.

Gnessin’s style influenced David Vogel, Leah Goldberg, Samekh Yizhar, Amalia Kahana-Karmon, and Aharon Appelfeld. Gnessin’s complete works were published in Warsaw in 1914, and in Tel Aviv 1946 (3 vols.) in 1946 and in 1982 (2 vols.). Translations include “Ma‘aseh be-Otelo” into Yiddish (1922), “Ha-Tsidah” into English (in Eight Great Hebrew Short Novels; 1983) and Spanish (in Ocho Obras Maestras de la Narrativa Hebrea; 1989), “Etsel” into French (1989, 1991), and “Ba-Ganim” into Russian (1999).

Suggested Reading

Dan Miron, Kivun orot: Taḥanot ba-siporet ha-‘Ivrit ha-modernit (Tel Aviv, 1979), pp. 109–356; Dan Miron and Dan Laor, eds., Uri Nisan Genesin: Meḥkarim u-te‘udot (Jerusalem, 1986); Lily Rattok, ed., Uri Nisan Genesin: Mivḥar ma’amre bikoret ‘al yetsirato (Tel Aviv, 1977).