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Brenner, Yosef Ḥayim

(1881–1921), Hebrew writer. Yosef Ḥayim Brenner was born in Novy Mlini, a shtetl in the district of Chernigov, Ukraine, and murdered near Tel Aviv on 2 May 1921. From 1894 to 1897 Brenner studied at the Pochep yeshiva. Brenner then spent time in Białystok, returned to Pochep, and eventually went to Gomel to prepare for a gymnasium education, a goal he soon abandoned. Instead, he continued to study Hebrew literature and earned his income by teaching Hebrew. This period of his life is reflected in his first novel, Ba-Ḥoref (In Winter; 1904).

Rejecting the Zionism advocated by Ahad Ha-Am, Brenner affiliated with the Bund. He was inspired by Russian literature and for some time followed Tolstoy’s principles; these influences are seen in his novel Mi-Saviv la-nekudah (Around the Point; 1904). In 1900 his stories appeared in Hebrew and Yiddish simultaneously, and his first book, Me-‘Emek ‘akhor (From the Murky Depths), a collection of stories, was published in Warsaw. That same year he traveled frequently to Warsaw, where he became friendly with Avrom Reyzen; was imprisoned for three months for carrying out illegal activities for the Bund; and was appointed to the editorial board of the Białystok Yiddish newspaper, Folksbildung.

From 1901 to 1904 Brenner served in the Russian army, stationed in the city of Oryol (Orel), where despite hardships he broadened his knowledge of Russian literature, social science, and philosophy, and published several stories in 1903. His “Shanah aḥat” (One Year; 1908) recalls his four-month period of basic training. In 1903 he left the Bund to join up with the Social Revolutionaries, and in January 1904 he deserted the army, illegally crossed the border, and made his way to London, where he lived until 1908. There he published Yiddish articles (often anonymously), essays, journalistic and critical pieces, and his book Mi-Saviv la-nekudah. His achievements in London were crowned with the success of the journal he founded and edited called Ha-Me‘orer (January 1906–September 1907), a prominent sounding board for young writers. In 1908 he moved to Lwów, where he stayed with Gershom Shofman and edited two of the Revivim anthologies, collections of new Hebrew literature.

Brenner settled in Palestine in 1909, living alternately in Haifa, Ḥaderah, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ben Shemen. He served on the editorial board of the weeklies Ha-Po‘el ha-tsa‘ir and Ha-Aḥdut, and published two additional anthologies in the Revivim series. His stories profoundly articulated the realities of pre-state Israel, and his critical analyses and journalistic pieces faithfully reflected the condition of literature both there and in the Diaspora; of particular note are his critical reviews of Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Yehudah Leib Gordon, and Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski.

In Palestine, Brenner was respected as a leading authority for the community of Zionist intellectuals. He taught at the Herzliya gymnasium and was forced north in 1917 when the school relocated after the Turks deported the residents of Tel Aviv. After World War I he returned to Tel Aviv where he edited the magazine Ha-Adamah, taught, and played a central role in public affairs. In 1920 he was a Hebrew instructor at the Gedud ha-‘Avodah (labor corps) in Migdal near the Sea of Galilee. In March 1921 he moved to the Abu Kabir neighborhood near Tel Aviv, planning to devote his time to writing. However, together with three members of his host family and two young writers, he was murdered by an Arab mob on 2 May 1921. As he had refused to be rescued without the others, his tragic death only reinforced the “Brenner myth” that had made him so admired during his lifetime. Collections of his writings were issued in eight volumes by the Stybel Press (1924–1930), in three volumes (1956–1967) including his letters, and in four volumes (1985). Several collections of his writings have been issued.

Brenner was one of the most influential and admired of modern Hebrew writers. Those who knew him were spellbound by his creativity as an artist and his sense of morality that led him to feel personally responsible for the fate of his people. Yet his life and labors were characterized by a personal, existential, and literary paradox. Though skeptical about the idea of a Jewish renaissance in the Land of Israel, he nonetheless lived in the Land, devoting his whole being to the establishment of a cultural center and invoking the policy of “nevertheless” and “despite everything,” an approach that was to be regarded as his last will and testament. His poetics, variously described as “nonfabricated” or “nonfictional art” (Gershon Shaked) and as exhibiting “the rhetoric of sincerity” (Menaḥem Brinker), articulate the relationship between an actual shattered reality and the described reality. His style, which Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik once termed “reckless,” has in the last decades been considered sensitive and self-conscious, aimed at avoiding flowery language and at restraining pathos. His stories, which amalgamate autobiographical material with characters and events copied from reality, convey the distress of humanity in general, and of the Diaspora and (pre-state) Israeli Jew in particular.

Suggested Reading

Yitzhak Bacon, ed., Yosef Ḥayim Brener: Mivḥar ma’amre bikoret ‘al yetsirato ha-sipurit (Tel Aviv, 1972); Menaḥem Brinker, ‘Ad ha-Simtah ha-Teveryanit: Ma’amar ‘al sipur u-maḥshavah bi-yetsirat Brener (Tel Aviv, 1990); Nurit Govrin, Brener: “Oved ‘Etsot” u-moreh derekh (Tel Aviv, 1991); Avner Holtzman, “Poetics, Ideology, Biography, Myth: The Scholarship on J. H. Brenner, 1971–1996,” Prooftexts 18.1 (January 1998): 82–94; Alan Mintz, “Brenner’s In Winter and the Autobiographical Tradition: The Play of Codes,” in Banished from Their Father’s Table: Loss of Faith and Hebrew Autobiography, pp. 121–202 (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1989); Gershon Shaked, “Omanut bilti beduyah,” in Le-Lo motsa, pp. 66–78 (Tel Aviv, 1973).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler